This is an excerpt from a letter written by Imam Muhammad ‘Abdu to the leaders of the Ottoman Empire when he learned of their plans to enact educational reforms. His letter begins with the importance of education, particularly for the development of a strong Islamic nation. He then recommends approaching religious education at three levels, based on the educational level and aspirations of people. For each level, he prescribes a curriculum outlining the minimum requirements for religious literacy. He notes that the combination of required legal knowledge, purification of the soul, strong belief, and knowledge of history will allow people to constantly apply their knowledge and activate belief in their lives.
I’ve only translated his prescriptions for the first two levels because these seemed to be the most relevant. These guidelines can serve as a practical outline for students to follow in their religious studies—even today.
Note: The translation is not word for word, but it does reflect the essence of his message.
First: They should read a concise text on those aspects of Islamic theology upon which there is no disagreement amongst Ahl al-Sunnah. The content should be supported by convincing, clear arguments, verses from the Qur’an, and authentic traditions of the Prophet ﷺ. It should also introduce the basics of Christian theology so that people can effectively respond to Christian missionaries spreading throughout the land.
Second: A concise text outlining lawful and prohibited actions, distasteful conduct, and pure character. The text should point out some of the innovations that have no basis in the Qur’an and Sunnah, and are harmful to people. It should be supported by proofs from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and the actions of the early generations of Muslims. It is essential that the text emphasize that human beings have been created to worship Allah, and that obedience to Allah and His Messenger takes precedence over everything else.
Third: A concise text in history describing the life of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions, focusing on that which is related to noble character, noteworthy actions, and the sacrifice of one’s self and wealth. It should also discuss the reasons for the spread of Islam amongst the nations in a short period of time, even though the Muslims were small in number and their enemies were many. It should establish that the secret of this success was sincerity in battle and unity in struggle.
All of this should be written in an easy and accessible style. The texts, including explanations of references from the Qur’an and Sunnah, should be in the native languages of people.
First: They should study an introductory text on the important aspects of logic, the foundations of critical analysis, and the etiquettes of debate.
Second: A book on theology, supported by intellectual proofs and definitive evidence that maintains moderation and clarity. It should avoid differences of opinion amongst the various schools of Islamic theology and expand upon the differences between Islam and Christianity, clarifying in detail the implications of their beliefs. It should also include some of the benefits of Islamic beliefs in strengthening civic life, as well as in achieving happiness in the Hereafter.
Third: A book explaining lawful, prohibited, praiseworthy and disliked conduct. This should be in more detail than the text in the first level. It should also contain a discussion of the sources, causes, and effects of behavior, and be phrased with a style that convinces the intellect and puts the heart at ease. It should also allude to the wisdom behind some religious rulings and their benefits to human life, drawing support from both religious texts and the lives of the early generations. The theme of these texts should ignite the flame of belief in the hearts and raise peoples’ souls to a level at which they seek nothing but the highest of objectives.
Fourth: A book on the history of Islam. This book should contain a detailed explanation of the life of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions, and should chart the spread of Islam throughout the centuries from a purely religious perspective. Politics, if mentioned, should be used merely to draw religious lessons. It should also discuss the prosperity that accompanied the spread of Islam, encouraging people to long for that which has passed and protect what still remains. Finally, it should expound the reasons for the advancement of Islam in greater detail than in the previous level.
Students at this level of learning, as in the previous level, should study these books in their native languages. References from the Qur’an and the Sunna can also be translated into their languages. It is not incumbent that they learn Arabic, except for that which has been mandated by acts of worship. However, these must be explained in detail so that they understand what they are saying, thereby allowing for their remembrance (dhikr) to effect their thought (fikr)—which is one of the objectives of the Law-Giver.