Extracts from Dr. Amjad Hussein’s discourse on  Tarbiya to the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies 21.09.13 (35B • Islamic History 3 • Early Madina • Lecture 04 )

(These sections are prepared for Jigsaw Puzzle as an alternative to the video, see blog.)



Perhaps the best way to define the general term ‘education’ is to demonstrate the relationship between the three indispensable foundations that make up the basic education of any civilization, i.e. the teacher, the student and the aim or philosophy of the education provided. The term ‘Islamic education’ is sometimes misinterpreted when looked at from a Western point of view, for it is often misunderstood to be a complete interconnected system run by a religious establishment. In addition, the misunderstanding of the term ‘Islamic education’ is further exacerbated by the false impression that this kind of education only provides for instruction in ‘religious’ sciences and does not cater for the sciences that are not revealed. Arguably, this is not the case with education in the Islamic civilization.

In all examples of education during the early Islamic period, as in other civilizations, there was self-evidently, a relationship between the student, the teacher and the philosophy of education. However, learning ethics, morals and the acquisition of knowledge (whether religious or not) were private and un-systematic activities. Hence, no single educational authority granted qualifications, even if they existed.  Moreover, education was not under state control.  It is astonishing that, in comparison with our contemporary period, classical Islamic Caliphal government, allowed unprecedented and consequently, unequalled freedom to the populace, as illustrated by the following text describing the Muslim society during the classical era.

Other than collecting taxes, the government did not interfere in the daily affairs of society. People were born, educated, married; they made their living and bequeathed their wealth; they engaged in trade and other kinds of business – all without interference from the central government. Virtually all of daily life was under the purview of Islamic law, articulated and administered by legal scholars who operated for the most part independent of the central government.

It is important to recognize that the Islamic Education system has developed over fourteen centuries whereby educational institutions changed over time and evolved into other institutions with different curricula and administrations.  In other words, Islamic education is the product of a fourteen hundred year old Islamic civilization that spanned Arabia, Spain, India and Indonesia.  The existence of this civilization has meant that its teachings have been widely imparted.  Islamic education has always been both unified in its worldview and at the same time diverse, due to variations in culture, geography and history.

Islamic education is singular in its Qur’anic worldview, yet, it still cannot be understood as a single concept but as a phenomenon with many aspects, all influenced by intellectual, social and political forces of its geography and time.

My recently published book entitled, ‘A Social History of Education in the Muslim World: From the Prophetic Era to Ottoman Times’, has in fact concentrated mainly on institutions such as, the masjid, al-jāmi’, madrasa, kuttāb, maktab, bimaristan, the library and the chancery school (diwan), where knowledge of the various sciences, both transmitted and rational, was taught.  This means that the book focuses primarily on the development of all the sciences found within the Muslim world, the imparting of this knowledge and the educational culture existing within the Islamic civilization.  The book demonstrates that in less than four centuries after the first Islamic conquest, jurists, scholars of the Qur’an and hadith, philosophers, mathematicians, botanists, physicians, geographers, alchemists and their peers in other scientific disciplines, had accomplished the remarkable feat of unwrapping the vast intellectual legacy from the past civilizations to create an Islamic universe which appeared orderly, functional and workable.[10]  .


It needs to be acknowledged is that while the concepts of imparting knowledge i.e.  ta`lim and the learning of literature and social mannerism i.e. ta’dib have been dealt with in detail within the growing literature of education, the concept of tarbiya needs to be looked at in more depth since it has not received proper attention yet.   It is very much true that the Prophet a was a model in respect of ta‘lim and ta’dib as he was in every other area of life.  What marks out the first community is the fact that the city and its people were molded, nurtured, given understanding and character by being in the presence of the Prophet Muhammad a. This i​s known as the tarbiya of the Prophet a. I would like to investigate at this juncture, the concept of tarbiya and how it impacted the first community rather than the emphasis on imparting knowledge, and the development of the various Islamic sciences, which was historically the second stage of Muslim Education.

Let us now have a closer look at the three main terms for education in the Arabic language.  The majority of the scholars agree that three Arabic terms express the meaning of education in the Islamic sense. Two of these terms are taken from the Qur’an and the third is derived from the ḥadīth literature.[11] The first term ‘tarbiya’, which means ‘fostering growth’, derives from the Qur’an and its root is ‘rabbā’, which means to ‘increase and grow’.[12] In the Qur’an Allah u says:

وَاخْفِضْ لَهُمَا جَنَاحَ الذُّلِّ مِنَ الرَّحْمَةِ وَقُل رَّبِّ ارْحَمْهُمَا كَمَا رَبَّيَانِي صَغِيرًا

“Take them under your wing, out of mercy, with due humility and say: ‘Lord, show mercy to them as they did in looking after me when I was small’.”[13]

Imam Baydawi (d.685 AH) described tarbiya as the nurturing of a person step by step until it is completed, akin to the way that the Lord of the universe nurtures His creation.  The first term therefore indicates that Islamic education is there to nurture a person not only in in their youth but throughout their lives.

The second term for education used in the Qur’an is ‘ta‘līm’ and it comes from the root word ‘ilm, which means ‘knowledge’. It has been used within the Qur’an as:

عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ  الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ

“He who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know.”[14]

This term specifically means the imparting of knowledge. The last term, ‘ta’dīb’, derives from the ḥadīth reporting that Prophet Muhammad a said:

أَدَّبَنِي رَبِّي فَأَحْسَنَ تَأْدِبِي

My Lord educated me and then made my education most excellent.”[15]

The root of ta`dīb is adab, which in a wider sense implies good manners and ethics. In addition to ‘good manners and ethics’, it means ‘literature’ or the ‘literary and philological sciences’.  In the Arabic language the term Adab was originally used in reference to an invitation to a meal; it then developed on to mean an invitation to people to adopt the best of manners.  During the period of the Umayyads and the Abbasids it became a term used for imparting knowledge of literature and displaying the correct mannerisms within the social sphere.  In a wider sense this is how it implies good manners and ethics.  During the 9th century the scholar Al-Jahiz (d. 868) defined adab as an action which is carried out thoroughly with the knowledge of a wide range of sciences related to it.  During the 14th century, the scholar Ibn Khaldun went on to define adab as knowledge of literature and skills in poetry and oratory.

We know that these three specific educational terms were not in common use amongst people at the time of the Prophet a; they were later coined from the Qur’an and Sunnah by historians and educators who looked back to the sources and the earliest era of Islam for inspiration. This is also true for many terms that we use today for Islamic sciences such as the science of tasawwuf and fiqh.


Ta‘līm, ta`dīb and tarbiya were embodied in action and practice in Madīna during the Prophet’s   time but were not articulated as a written educational theory.  The traditions of the Prophet Muḥammad  (...) specifically mention education in relation to ethics and manners, for example, ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Amr k mentioned that the Messenger of Allah a neither spoke in an insulting manner nor did he ever deliberately utter evil. He narrated that the prophet used to say, “The most beloved to me amongst you is the one who has the best character and manners.”

Numerous examples of the importance given to the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of life can be found in the societal norms that Prophet Muhammad a imparted to the society of Madina.  The importance of acquiring etiquette and manners is demonstrated in numerous books written by Muslim scholars throughout Islamic history, dealing with topics such as, the correct courtesy due to Allah, the Messengers, oneself, parents, children, siblings,  and the community; these scholars highlight the correct manners of cleanliness, eating, attending a gathering, travelling and even sleeping etc.  The Prophet a taught his Companions to eat together when he said, as narrated by Waḥshī ibn Ḥarb g, “If you gather together at your food and mention Allah’s name, you will be blessed in it,”

The majority of these reports were recorded under the title Kitāb al-‘ilm [‘The Book of Knowledge’] or under the title Kitāb al-adab (The Book of Manners) in a variety of ḥadīth collections, thus reflecting the intimate and important connection between character, good behavior, courtesy and knowledge. The Prophet a did not focus on ta‘līm’ and ta’dīb in a systematic and specific way, but rather it could be said that knowledge of these sciences was imparted in general under the wider term of ‘dīn’ (religion).  These uncategorized sciences at that time covered a wide variety of topics such as Qur’an,  ḥadīth, jurisprudence, worship, spirituality; indeed these were the basis for the entire Muslim civilization.  These were formally taught within the semi-circle, referred to as a ‘ḥalaqah’.   It was named thus because the teacher sat against a wall or a pillar and the students would make a semi-circle around him/her. The semi-circle was formed according to rank, thus the most advanced students sat closer to the teacher.[23] This unique educational experience was a constant phenomenon throughout the history of Islamic education, be it in the mosque, kuttāb, maktab, or madrasa.

(...describing...) the effects of tarbiya with an example from the life of the great Madani scholar Imam Malik, who was born and lived his whole life in Madina.  (...)  When Imam Malik wanted to acquire knowledge of his religion and asked his mother’s permission to  allow him to go and learn, she accepted his wish but pointed out,"Go to Rabī'a, sit in his company but learn first adab (manners and ethics) from him before learning the knowledge from him."

This highlights a very important aspect of tarbiya in early Madina which is that before learning the knowledge of the dīn it is important to learn how to behave correctly with proper manners and etiquette within society.   This is achieved through being in the company of good and knowledgeable people and learning the best of manners from them.  (...) The only way that Imam Malik’s mother could have had this understanding was because she was brought up and nurtured amongst the people of Madina.  This demonstrates that Imam Malik’s mother represented the habits and customs of the Prophet’s city as he had left it.  


The role of Muhammad as a teacher  throughout his prophethood demonstrates that tarbiya cannot be reduced to a mechanical process of training or indoctrinating, which would be a one-way transmission.  On the contrary, it is a dynamic dialogic process whereby the process produces a qualitative change, such as that which can be seen in the early community of Madina.  The Prophet’s role amongst his people was that of a gardener who nurtured and cultivated his society in Madina;

he nurtured a young sapling into a strong tree.  Tarbiya as an Arabic word is often used in the context of nourishing the earth and the soil in order to grow and rear plants and trees.  What we have inherited from the Prophet a is a dynamic process whereby we need to recognize that tarbiya is the embodiment of theory and practice.  In other words, it is the informal learning of the Sunnah of the Prophet a whereby it is recognized as not merely putting emphasis on the theoretical aspect of learning but rather the importance of the spirit of the Sunnah.  Tarbiya is the informal teaching, learning and practicing of the Sunnah which has been passed down through the various ages of Muslim history.  It is not something that is merely taught in an institution nor is it something that is confined to a classroom or limited to the space between the covers of a book.  It must be recognized as an organic living entity that originated within the city of Madina and has been passed down throughout the ages.

 Tarbiya means to have the correct manners (dhu Khuluq) in every sphere of life but it cannot be simply understood as adab or ‘ilm [which may be translated as knowledge of a specific worldly or religious science]. It seems, from all the examples narrated about the Prophet’s actions and teachings that tarbiya is the instilling in people, through informal teaching, such deep values as ḥilm, which means to be mild, lenient, clement, gentle, manage one's temper and to exhibit moderation.  Other principles that were taught through his examples to this first community were raḥma meaning mercy, ḥaya meaning modesty and shyness, sabar meaning patience, tawāḍa’ meaning humility, mazāḥ meaning happiness,   karam meaning generosity and shukkar meaning thankfulness.[26]  For example the Prophet a  is reported to have said,

قال رَسُولُ اللَّهِ – صلي اللَّهُ عليه وسلم " مَنْ لَا يَشْكُرُ الناسَ لَايَشْكُرُ اللَّهَ

"The one who does not give thanks to people does not give thanks to Allah”.[27]

Tarbiya can therefore not be restricted to an age group or an elite group.  From the understanding of the tarbiya of the first community of Madina, we must recognize that we all need to be reminded, nurtured and cultivated irrespective of age and the society we live in.  From the example of the city of Madina we can learn that it is incumbent on us to develop our characters as individuals and as communities.  However, learning that makes us static and not dynamic cannot be known as tarbiya since it leads to loss of reflection and understanding.  As it has been stated again and again within the Qur’an, do you not think? do you not reflect? do you not ponder? All of these reminders point towards the approach that the Prophet a cultivated within the first community, who never felt that their education was complete simply because they had reached a certain age or level, nor did they only understand education as simply literacy, knowledge, manners but they understood tarbiya to be a constant quest of improvement for as long as there is life.

If ta’lim and ta’dib is for the mind and the body then tarbiya is for the spirit; All are essential for the acquirement of our ultimate goal as human beings i.e. to know and draw closer to our Creator.