Education & Science Reflections Seeking Knowledge

Craving “Middleness” Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commute between both my workplaces: a modern religious school, and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with and the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted—at least ostensibly—in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post-Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise that of relative morality and of individual liberty as the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. While the tendency is generally positive, its universal and indiscriminate application may in fact be reminiscent of the cold, rock-hard post-Enlightenment Rationalism that Post-Modernist thought struggles to throw overboard for some of the infamous disasters attributed to it.

It strikes me each time in my Religious Studies class I raise a point from within the Islamic tradition that requires acceptance through faithful submission. While the classes are delightfully interactive and invigorating with questions, debates and discussions, the same may also afford a glimpse into a stark, gaping abyss lurking at the heart of this kind of education that carries the baggage of post-Enlightenment thought.

I happened to mention in the course of a class discussion, the fact that wearing gold for men is strongly discouraged in the mainstream Islamic tradition, and was showered with skeptical comments on the rationale of the ruling that bordered on impertinence. ‘But guys look so cool with all those accessories, and what about those gorgeous wedding rings? What’s so wrong with this? I mean I don’t see the point,’ said a particularly spirited young lady. I am also very often asked to suggest quick and easy ways to help students get regular with the daily prayers. And I always find myself unable to provide short and easy solutions, because the will to express adoration, submission and reverence to God in the daily prayer is engendered by a deep humbling sentiment from within—‘God-consciousness’ (taqwa)—it is not attainable through the Logos alone.

The Western logocentric worldview ruthlessly drilled into these minds—it privileges objective, empirical knowledge and rationalist thought over the intuitive ‘mythos’; it does not help create the sentiment that can make the daily prayer an act of loving labour. Judged and perceived by the logocentric yardstick, worship rituals ‘lose the magic’ and are reduced to an arduous, necessary undertaking that doesn’t quite help in the business of life. Moreover, the prioritization of individual liberty as the core value makes the demands placed by religious belief on personal behaviour and conduct confining and restricting. The ascendancy of Logos over Mythos interprets existential questions as objectively knowable, reducible to ‘facts’ and explainable by ‘empirical evidence.’ Religion with its core principle of a Transcendent Unknowable Absolute Truth intuitively experienced through the exercise of the mythos therefore is unappealing to the highly intellectualized mindset produced in modern urban schools. This also explains the rising incidence of Atheism in Pakistan’s institutions for the ‘privileged elite’—high schools, colleges, universities. Encouraging a culture of questioning, critical thinking and non-conformism to convention, this kind of a ‘privileged’ education makes Atheism an exciting alternative that many like to consider with some seriousness and express with an audacity that becomes admirable in that educational context.

William Eggington writes in ‘How Religions Became Fundamentalist’:

“One of the functions of religions was to teach people that the transcendent nature of ultimate reality was such that no human could ever, in principle, come to know the ultimate truth. What is crucial to grasp is that this core principle simultaneously sustains the existence of mythos and logos as two separate but equal domains of knowledge; for if the ultimate, all-encompassing questions are by nature infinite, if human knowledge in principle cannot grasp everything, then practical, objectifying logos is simply not relevant to such discussions, and the holistic, metaphoric standards of mythos have their place. Likewise, to the extent that modernity has allowed mythos to be pushed aside by the practical successes of the scientific method, the axial principle of the transcendence of ultimate knowledge has been weakened. But it is this principle that more than any other works to defend humanity from the dangers of its own certainty.”

By ignoring and excluding the ‘mythos’ and ignoring the need for religious narrative and myth, our educationists have made young minds incapable of developing an appreciation for aspects of religion inaccessible through pure Logos. Iqbal had said, ‘Reason is the lamp that shows the road, but does not mark the destination’—for the destination lies beyond the abyss that is intractable to reason, and requires the ‘leap of faith’ above and beyond that abyss. Pascal famously said, ‘Above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart; and the heart has reasons of its own that the head cannot understand […]

On the other side, there is a conspicuous absence of religious discourse in our part of the world that can respond to or even grapple with this heightened propensity for questioning and demanding rational explanations. The rising numbers of young atheists across Pakistan’s higher education colleges and universities therefore is no surprise.

And then there is that other world. At Pakistan’s traditional religious schools (madrassahs), the Dars e Nizami, a religious studies curriculum that dates from Deobandi seminaries in 18th century India, is taught. Although it is inaccurate to say that this curriculum is stuck in the medieval past that it originated in, the fact remains that new course content deals largely with the refutation of the concepts of other religious schools of thought and sects. There are many madrassahs that also include in the course a heavily lopsided critique and refutation of Western ideas. This threatens to develop exclusivist tendencies as well as what Sociologists would call a ‘world-rejecting’ orientation that pits the religious graduate against a monolithic and ‘other-ized’ world full of false, evil and deviant ideas. According to Dr. Tariq Rahman,

“Thus, while on the surface the madrassa curriculum is medieval and unchanging, in reality it changes to refute whatever seems to threaten it. This threat might be from alien religions or philosophies but the fact is that the madrassas do counter it. The madrassas, then, are not static institutions. They are not buried in the past; they are active and dynamic institutions which have seen themselves as being besieged since British days and which are still fighting against the external world.” (The Education of ‘Maulvis’: the Dars e Nizami debate)

The other half of my day is spent at a religious school that struggles in its attempt to protect values sanctified by religion in the midst of what it sees as an amoral morass in the wider society. However, lacking a comprehensive curriculum for a modern Islamic school competing with the urban private school and yet promising something unique in terms of faith, educators at the school face an uphill task. Without the necessary educational basis consisting of traditional aqeedah (the Islamic creed/belief/doctrine/theology) and tazkiyah (ethics, spirituality) that can help students internalize the values the school aims to impart, these well-intentioned educators’ attempts to mould Muslim personalities in what is seen as an increasingly valueless society become reduced to a superficial imposition. This external emphasis without the internal grounding triggers off among students a variety of responses. Taking for example the issue of the Islamic dress code, the responses range from zealous espousal of it by a small minority, to reaction against the perceived imposition by asserting rejectionist behaviour on the contrary. There are many more that docilely accept the dress code, not understanding or appreciating its symbolism and significance, hence taking it as a matter of course. At best, many of these schools mushrooming now in urban centres present an alternative environment for students to study much the same that they do in the regular schools, with desperate attempts to include religious jargon, uphold religious form and ritual. The advantages of the ‘Islamic environment’ promised by these schools are debateable, given its insular nature in a diverse, jostling external environment that the students of such schools eventually have to find space in the midst of.

However, all said, these kind of modern Islamic schools cannot and should not be so easily dismissed. This kind of school is a response by sincere, educated, religiously-inclined novices to the world-rejecting outlook of traditional madrassahs, the obscurantist tendencies of religious clergy and the exclusivist teaching of fiqh (juristic) schools of thought adhered to by respective madrassah administrations. The modern Islamic school is an attempt to bridge gaps, and hence tries to fulfill an important need. However, these schools are in a nascent state, often employ amateurish methods and need to evolve towards maturation.

The madrassah-educated Deobandi muqallid (exclusive follower of a school of thought) whose speech is laced with religious jargon and references to religious authority, and the English-speaking Social Sciences/Humanities student quoting Dawkins and Hitchens represent two ‘worlds’ rubbing shoulders in this society. These two cultures created by two widely differentiated education systems are all set upon a head-on collision course. It is frightening because these ‘cultures’ overlap the stratification of the society along the lines of social class. This means that the university graduate possesses the cultural capital that eventually makes him monopolize resources, sit at the helm of affairs and control policy, even when his value-system is at the fringes of an otherwise deeply conventional religious society. He is poised for control over the generation of ideas and opinion-making, and constructs inroads into the media and the academia. On the other hand is the culturally deprived religious seminary graduate whose fewer career prospects and constant fear of poverty complicates his situation as he perceives himself as disempowered and reduced to a social underclass. The resentment this breeds means that he may not always react to this predicament in ways that may be measured and moderated. It means the existence—far from peaceful—of two clashing cultures and ideologies pitted against each other in one society. Often the clash is intellectually played out as the discourse and rhetoric emanating from both sides hardens against each other and becomes increasingly intolerant and damning towards the other side—be it from the religious or the secular-liberal fanatic.

I crave middleness in a society pulled taut at the seams. The poise of ‘middleness’ can be reached through the understanding that concepts considered ‘secular’ and ‘Western’ and hence diametrically opposed to Islam may not actually be so. Reason and rational thought, democratic values, pluralism and humanism may in fact be as characteristic of Islamic tradition as they are understood to be of modern ‘Western’ secular society, though both traditions have unique ways of understanding them. In the broadest terms, the two may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Most of these values are shared and universal. However, given our cultural-religious context, these must be interpreted and understood as distinctly envisaged by the Islamic tradition. This is where the need and role of the ‘ulema (Islamic scholars) comes in.

Nor is it wise in the least to think—as the secular-liberals tend to—that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion, or that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did—lock, stock and barrel. This narrow and superficial approach is a recipe for disaster that will understandably provoke backlash from the religious sections of the society. The panacea seems to lie in a rediscovery and reassertion of the values of Islam that address contemporary issues—values that may not necessarily be averse to and against what many in the West may also have discovered and advocated: the values of social justice and human rights, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, rationalism and egalitarianism. Religious scholars must engage in the colossal task of reinstating this rather eclipsed Islamic discourse and narrative, evidence for which is voluminous in the Qur’an and the sunnah (life and example of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him). This must be presented in the language and method that can reach out to and address the modern mind. Central and most vital to a solution is the understanding that answers have to be sought (and are amply present) within the religious tradition of this society, and not outside of it. Trying to seek them outside of it is a self-defeating, mislaid endeavour.


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  • Definitely, there is a need for both Islamic values and for logic.

    And I always find myself unable to provide short and easy solutions, because the will to express adoration, submission and reverence to God in the daily prayer is engendered by a deep humbling sentiment from within—‘God-consciousness’ (taqwa)—it is not attainable through the Logos alone.

    It’s clear that the nature of God cannot be fully (or even closely) understood by logic nor can why God (swt) created humans the way they are (and other such “why” questions).

    And yes, “a deep humbling sentiment from within … is not attainable through the Logos alone.” Yet, it begins with logos.

    That is, Islamic principles of behavior (our relationship with God (swt) and with other human beings) are based upon principles of psychology. God (swt) gave rules and guidelines to perfect our character and to bring us closer to Him, rules and guidelines that best understand our psychological and physiological make-up and thus are based upon psychological principles that can be understood through logic. And although there may not be “short and easy” answers to all questions of behavior, they exist.

    On the role of the ‘ulema,’ if they don’t have a firm grounding in psychology, then they shouldn’t issue opinions with respect to behavior. For an analogy, a doctor doesn’t prescribe medicine according to symptoms alone as different diseases can exhibit similar, even the same, symptoms. To be effective, medicine must be prescribed according to the underlying disease. Similarly, scholarly opinions on behavior must be issued according to the underlying psychological principle.

  • Thank you for taking the time and sincerity to share this piece…however in doing so; perhaps a nice approach would be to also present your arguments in “layman’s terms” for the very reason(s) you note in your last paragraph concerning your points.

    When you say the message should be laid out in a language and method that can reach out to and address the “modern mind”…that should not translate to utilizing “big words” as you’ve done in your piece. What constitutes a “modern mind” is debatable; however to me a modern mind doesn’t receive well to overconceptualizing topics in an abstract way.

    If you’re bringing the example of the Sunnah (actions/mannerisms of the Prophet) up in your discussion…keep in mind a sunnah of the Prophet was to convey the message in the manner the receipients to the message would understand. In my humble opinion; your sentiments (which are very valid points that bear credence) will go over the heads of many people; leaving only a few benefiting from your message…mainly because of the words you’ve chosen to construct your points and message.

    Take care.

    • I agree with the Yaqub brother the words you have chosen are difficult to understand for me and those whose first language is not english even maybe for English speakers. However, I bookmarked this page just in case I use this article and words in my work. Jazakhallah the issue you discussed above is the most difficult challenge which religion in general and Islam in particular faces. How to solve this clash between rationalism and Islam? I dunno, What I know is to just implement the same logic to my daily life my religion.

      • “ethenm”, English is my first language. I was born and raised in the U.S. I state that fact because the need for clarity in communication via using straight forward verbiage isn’t only limited to persons whose first language isn’t English.

        The message brought up in this “middleness” article is pertinent; and the author deserves a lot of credit for taking the time and effort to share the article with us. However I feel the message is lost for the MAJORITY of people; simply on the lines of the verbiage used. If only a more mainstream English verbiage was used to share the great points…so many more would benefit (rather than a few).

  • ASA,
    A very well written article, Mashallah! She mentions a dichotomy that has kept the ummah in a bind for a long time now. How do we find the balance? That’s a question I don’t have the qualifications to answer.

  • JazakAllah Khair for this very eloquent article which I truly enjoyed reading. As a student in an American university, I wholeheartedly agree with the main message here. In fact, I have come to view educational institutions as “Godless” unless they are specifically religious such as madrassahs or catholic schools. There definitely needs to be more focus on religion and establishing this middle ground. Sadly it seems as though secular notions are dominating for the time being.
    May Allah help us all to hold onto our faith in these trying times and spread its beautiful message as much and best as we can.

  • However, as the brothers above said, if you’re trying to engage those not educated in elite institutions, your use of language and terms will be lost on them. Perhaps this highlights the gap between not just ideas but how these two groups express themselves and the language used. I often find many academics speak almost speak in code understood only by those who participate in the intellectual river. Which is why unfortunatley sometimes they are really out of touch with ‘reality’.

  • In fairness this piece does read more like a policy paper than a mainstream (“middle”?) article but I think there is nothing wrong in stretching onself occasinoally!

    “This means that the university graduate possesses the cultural capital that eventually makes him monopolize resources, sit at the helm of affairs and control policy, even when his value-system is at the fringes of an otherwise deeply conventional religious society. He is poised for control over the generation of ideas and opinion-making, and constructs inroads into the media and the academia. ”

    This – I thought – was the most significant paragraph of the piece. It is specific to the part of the country from which the author originiates and I think emphasises why it is vital that why should – in a measured way – moor ourselves to our religious understanding and dip into this “intellectual river” and engage with academics lest we all be swept away by the underlying currents.

  • This is a brilliant article. Given that you are in Pakistan, I would strongly recommend that you meet the scholars at Zaynab Academy as they have been very successful in bridging precisely the gap that you are talking about. Shaykh Kamaluddin is at once a traditional Islamic scholar and university professor of humanities. The gap you are trying to bridge is the need of the day and a concerted effort is what is required.

  • Fantastic article. Well-said, Alhumdulillah. I think we need to make more of an effort to appreciate what this author has said than to critique her for her choice of words. If you understand it but don’t think your community will, then you be the one to relay it using simple words. You be the translator and the relayer, Inshallah. Secondly, as per the verbiage, sometimes the beauty of a message is known through the words that are used. If Iqbal used simple words for the “laymen” to understand, we wouldn’t have the gems of literature he left behind with us today. Appreciate the art, brothers and sisters.

    Often, what strikes people, even when they don’t understand the language of the Qur’an, is the sheer beauty of it. The rhythm, the rhyme, the sounds of the words. So if you don’t understand the message of this article, brothers and sisters, at least appreciate the beauty of it. Mashallah, la hawla wa la quwata illa billa.

  • Pakistan was just another “divide and conquer” strategy of the modern world. It has been a problem since 1947. The muslims in India have been left alone. The ideology behind Pakistan was so secularist that is quite ironic that, on the complete opposite, that today Pakistan is on the brink of a “religious fundamentalist collapse”

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