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The Qur’an and Education: Transcending How We Understand Difference
Jan 1, 2016

“If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people,” the Qur’an states (5:48). However, after having created all of humanity from a single male and female, God made us into different “nations and tribes” (49:13). The purpose of having created us in distinct ways, is that we “come to know each other” through respect and love and so we can “race each other in all virtues” and compete for the good (5:48).

The Qur’anic “come to know each other” can serve as an instructive interpretation of the deeper meaning of education. The main ambition of this essay is to show the beautiful synergy between this verse and the concept of education by referencing further, largely Qur’anic-inspired interpretations. Understanding education as “coming to know each other” is important because, although it is a noble goal, it is also an elusive one, as evidenced by the continuous strife and violence between different groups of people. Reflecting upon the deeper meaning of education may serve as a small, but crucial step towards a new understanding of difference that fosters peace and avoids strife.

This essay will proceed by describing the deeper meaning of ‘education’. Then, in the sections “Divine Differences” and “Human Manifestations,” I submit that many of our differences are God-given, yet we misappropriate them too often towards conflict. The section “Our Minds and Our Souls” describes how our own mind or soul can condition us towards this conflict. In “Jihad and Transcendence,” I show how the often misunderstood Islamic concept of jihad is to overcome these inclinations and transcend human differences.


Most of us understand education the way a Merriam Webster dictionary does: as “the knowledge, skill, and understanding that you get from attending a school, college, or university.” This accepted definition demonstrates a collective mentality of instrumentalism and goal orientations; at the same time, it perpetuates instrumental (and superficial) mentalities. The result is an increased alienation from our ideational and spiritual mentalities – and from each other.

True education is about something much different. The origin of the word ‘education’ is Latin, composed of the prefix ‘ex’ (in words like ‘exit’, meaning ‘out’) and the verb ‘ducrere’ (in words like ‘conducting’, meaning to lead). Put together, ‘ex-ducere’ translates into “leading oneself out of oneself.” While for many this journey of leading oneself out of oneself may suffice as an aspiration in itself, as it enables perspective-taking, others may ask: “Where shall one lead oneself to?” There can be various answers, but one worthwhile one is: To Aime Cesaire’s “rendezvous of victory” which the Martinique writer describes in his Notebook of a Return to My Native Land:

[T]he work of Man is only just beginning, and it remains to man to conquer all the violence entrenched in the recesses of his passion. And no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.

Cesaire was writing about colonialism and limited himself to referencing “race,” but we may feel at liberty to agree that also no nation, ethnicity, tribe, nor any other grouping has “a monopoly of beauty, intelligence and force,” and that there is “a place for all humans at the rendezvous of victory,” regardless of their particular identity.

Cesaire’s poetry is simple, yet shattering. With one stroke he defeats our want for being better and more deserving than others. With the same stroke he introduces us to a new humanity and dismisses our instincts to indulge in the false boundaries that have given a sense of belonging, but pitted humans against each other throughout history. The rendezvous of victory is not a locale of limited resources for which a particular race, nation, or tribe ‘wins’ at the expense of others. It is a place for all.

True education is not about something instrumental, but about something ideational and spiritual. It is about a journey in which, as the Qur’an says, we shall “come to know each other” with the purpose of transcending how we understand differences. It is this new understanding that will help us reach Cesaire’s rendezvous of victory. Yet, education can be still more. The purpose may also be a journey towards the Islamic realization of al-Tahwid, which beyond its meaning of the oneness of God, also induces the consciousness of a spiritual kinship among all of humanity.

Divine diversity

The destinations of ex-ducere are good, but the paths are arduous. Transcending our understandings of difference is not easy, as the world is host to a plethora of differences among people – and many of them have divine purpose. The Qur’an states, “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your language and your colors” (30:22). It states further, “and so amongst men … are they of various colors,” which contributes to the different nations and tribes (35: 28). And as humanity came to inhabit different areas across the globe, it developed different customs, traditions, and cultures. In a religious reading of the world, these differences are divinely sanctioned.

In interpretations of the Qur’an, we read about God’s intentions in creating a world with differences: It is our distinctiveness that gives vitality to society, making us interesting and attractive to each other. It makes our interactions mutually enriching, and thereby compels compassionate competition towards the (divine) good. Yet, although the Islamic faith rejects all national, racial, ethnic, tribal, and other segregations, these seem to be the reality we live every day. Too often, people of difference do not come to know each other through respect and love. Instead of racing each other for the good, they are committed to ugliness or violence against each other. The noble destinations of ex-ducere are too often too far away.

Human manifestations

How can one understand the divinity in the creation of differences and their apparently associated conflicts? One answer lies in what various social sciences teach: While there is divinity in the origins of many of our differences, their manifestations are often void of divinity. God has created distinct nations, races, and tribes, but nationalism, racism, and tribalism are man-made. The same applies to many other exclusionary “isms” and ideas. We are socialized into these.

Socialization is a necessary experience, but it also bears aspects of indoctrination. Our families and friends, the schools we attend, the media we consume: all socialize us into particular beliefs and perspectives. We find ourselves embedded in a certain cultural environment, a certain socio-economic environment: an environment that emphasizes certain truths and dogmas and ignores others. Socialization is often about categorizing and particularism, and not about universalizing and holism. Here we can see hurdles to the Qur’anic mandate of “coming to know each other” and obstacles to the aspirations of ex-ducere.

Our minds and our souls

Yet, the socializing of human association lies at the foundation of the Qur’an’s positive vision of human diversity. Moreover, our particularism is cognitively conditioned and its workings are also divinely sanctioned. The cognitive sciences teach us that the process of particularizing is fundamental to cognition. It serves a basic function – the organizing and the structuring of our knowledge about the world. Humans have a need for cognitive parsimony, and without a process of categorization, the world and its vast array of people, objects, and events would present itself too complex and cognitively overwhelming.

Our particularized world becomes meaningful through our practice of labeling and the connotations that labels bring. To assume readily retrievable meaning, categorizations need to be labeled and these create content and value-laden identities for whoever is categorized. It is through the process of labelling that we come to “grasp” others. Categorizing and labeling are cognitive necessities. Categories order the environment, labels make it meaningful. These traits are imbued in us by God because of His infinite wisdom. They have many functional benefits, including the facilitation of our general orientations, as well as our daily decision-making.

Yet, our particularism is also the fertile ground for aforementioned isms and exclusionary ideas, and for the human desire to be better than the other. As individuals we want to be better than other individuals; as groups, we want our group to be better than other groups, whether we understand these to be tribes, races, nations, or other associations. In Islamic theology, the first instance of arrogance was committed by Iblis. He refused to grant his respect to Adam, reasoning that he was better than him. As the Qur’an accounts the scene, after God finished his human creation, He “bade the angels bow down to Adam, and they bowed down; not so Iblis; He refused to be of those who bowed down.” God asked, “What prevented thee from bowing down when I commanded thee?” He said, “I am better than he: Thou didst create me from fire and him from clay” (7:11-12).

The traits of envy and arrogance did not remain reserved for the devil only. Subsumed by the Arabic term kibir, they became a human temptation and they are anchored in our inner self: our soul, our nafs as it is referred to in the Qur’an. After God condemned Iblis, the latter pleaded, “Give me respite till the day they are raised up” (7: 14). God responded, “You are of those allowed respite,” and since this day Iblis is engaged in tempting the lower wants in our nafs.

To be sure, the nafs has a fundamental duality to it: it can incline towards the good and towards the bad. “And [by] the soul and the One who proportioned it; then He inspired it [to discern between] its iniquity and its righteousness” (91: 7-10).

It is our experiences of socialization, and the necessary but also compromising functioning of our minds, that condition us away from the ideal of ex-ducere and dispose us to exclusionary thinking. However, the ultimate culprit is the intangible nafs and its defilements. It is these that dispose us towards envy and arrogance. The outcome is, all too often, not only exclusionist thinking, but also the establishment of apparently irreconcilable racial, cultural, ethnic, political, ideological, or other barriers.

Jihad and human transcendence

Yet, given the ongoing strife in the world it remains a divine duty to educate ourselves; to lead ourselves out of ourselves so as “to come to know each other” as the Qur’an prescribes. This journey of ex-ducere is enabled through a purification of the nafs and, for Muslims, this is the challenge of jihad, the highest form of which is the struggle to cleanse oneself from the vices of the soul. This particular jihad is known as jihad-al-nafs. Accordingly, the Qur’an states, “By the Soul, and the proportion and order given to it; and its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right – Truly he succeeds [who] purifies it” (91: 7).

Conventionally understood, jihad-al-nafs is concerned with the suppression of the ‘bad’ in one’s self. What is not recognized as often about jihad-al-nafs is that it is also a cultivation of the ‘good’ in one’s self. While we have been imbued with a temptation for envy and arrogance, we have also been imbued with the capacities for self-reflection and deliberate intention, which, in turn, lend us a unique capacity for freedom of action. Through these capacities we are able to control, we call upon the good in ourselves while suppressing the bad.

In Islamic exegesis there are many reasons why those who purify their souls will succeed. One reason becomes evident when equating the process of purification with a process of emancipation, which is essentially a process of ex-ducere. In this process of leading ourselves out of ourselves, we are emancipated from the boundaries that we’ve been socialized into; they start to crumble and are eventually erased. Hurdles to “coming to know each other” are being overcome and the fertile grounds for the temptations of the nafs are withdrawn.

As true education leads us out of ourselves and as we come to know each other, we are venturing towards Cesaire’s rendezvous of victory, which is a state of mind more than a locale. We start to understand difference in a more nuanced, rich way than we are intuitively inclined to. As the famous Persian poet of the 14th century, Shabistari, put it: Zuhur-i jumla-yi shya bi diddast – “The manifestation of all things is through their opposite.” Whatever our identities are, they become meaningful only through the existence of otherness. Otherness is not something to be feared or shunned; it is something to be embraced. Whether these realizations can be attained through mere intellectual understanding or whether it requires something more, like love, is a question that must be answered.

Yet, the journey of ex-ducere can go further. It can lead us towards the Islamic realization of al-tahwid. Although al-tahwid in its ordinary sense refers to the theological conviction that there is only one God, it is its metaphysical or ontological meaning that is of relevance here. In these understandings the term denotes meanings such as “the act of making one or integration,” or “union”; it helps us to understand God’s creation as emanating from a single source—from the Divine. The Qur’an states, “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women” (4:1).

It is with such verses that the Qur’an engages in a narrative of an inherently interconnected humanity. Implicit is that every single human being has a shared spiritual origin and existence. The acclaimed Muslim mystic Rumi takes this realization to a beautiful conclusion in the following poem:

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.

This realization seemingly does require love. It is grounded in a further realization, namely that all of us originate from the same Source. While each person remains an autonomous and accountable individual, we nevertheless realize our spiritual oneness. And this is what love is – the disappearance of boundaries that distinguish “self” from “other.”

Towards peace

The task of education, when we understand it as leading ourselves out of ourselves and “coming to know each other” as the Qur’an dictates, is to embark on a journey of emancipation where we transcend how difference is understood, reach the rendezvous of victory – and perhaps journey further, towards seeing our inherent kinship with other humans. These new understandings of each other will enable us to compete not against each other, but compassionately with each other for the good, as the Qur’an asks us to do. This is the path towards peace.