A real educator must have several virtues, among them the following:
First: To give due importance to all aspects of a person’s mind, spirit, and self, and to raise each to its proper perfection. The Qur’an mentions the evil-commanding self that drags people, like beasts with ropes around their necks, wherever it wants to go, and goads them to obey their bodily desires. In effect, the evil-commanding self wants people to ignore their God-given ability to elevate their feelings, thoughts, and spirits.
The Qur’an quotes the Prophet Joseph (Yusuf) as saying [Surely the self commands evil, unless my Master has mercy] (Yusuf 12:53). Commanding evil is inherent in the self’s nature. However, through worship and discipline, the self can be raised to higher ranks, to a position where it accuses itself for its evils and shortcomings (Al-Qiyamah 75:2), and then still higher where God addresses it: [O self at peace! Return unto your Master, well-pleased, well-pleasing] (Al-Fajr 89:27-28).
Higher than the self at peace (at rest and contented) is the self perfectly purified. Those who rise to this degree of attainment are the nearest to God. When you look at them you remember God, for they are like polished mirrors in which all of His attributes are reflected. The Companions’ desire to follow the training provided by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) enabled almost all of them to reach this degree of moral and spiritual perfection; millions of people have followed—and continue to follow—their example.
Second: An education system is judged by its universality, comprehensiveness, and quality of its students. The Prophet’s students were ready to convey his message throughout the world. The message they conveyed, being universal in nature and valid for all times and places, found a ready acceptance among people of different races, religious backgrounds, intellectual levels, and age differences from modern-day Morocco and Spain to the Philippines, from the Russian steppes to the heart of Africa. Its principles remain valid. Despite numerous upheavals and changes, as well as social, economic, intellectual, scientific, and technological revolutions, his system remains the most unique and original, so much so that it is the hope of the future of humanity.
Third: An education system is judged by its ability to change its students. Look at how Islam and the Prophet’s spread of it transformed the tribes of Arabia into their exact opposite within the space of just two or three decades. To those who deny or question his prophethood, we challenge them to go anywhere in the world and accomplish, over the course of 100 years, even one-hundredth of what he accomplished in the deserts of Arabia 1,400 years ago. Let them take all of the experts they can gather, and then we will wait to see their results.
When Prophet Muhammad was conveying the message, Arabia was isolated from its neighbors by vast deserts and rightfully could be considered one of the most backward areas of the world in terms of its cultural, intellectual, and moral life. The Hijaz, where the Prophet was born, had experienced no social evolution and had attained no intellectual development worthy of mention. Dominated by superstitions, barbarous and violent customs, and degraded moral standards, Arabia lived in savagery. People drank wine, gambled, and indulged in what even average societies consider immoral sexual activities. Prostitutes advertised their services by hanging a flag on the doors of their houses.
It was a land without law and a government. Might was right, as in many parts of the world today, and looting, arson, and murder were commonplace. Any trivial incident could provoke intertribal feuding, which sometimes developed into peninsula-wide wars.
These were the people Prophet Muhammad appeared among. With the message he relayed from God and his way of preaching it, he eradicated barbarism and savagery, adorned Arabia’s wild and unyielding peoples with all praiseworthy virtues, and made them teachers of the world. His domination was not simply physical or military; rather, he conquered and subjugated them by becoming the beloved of their hearts, the teacher of their minds, the trainer of their souls, and the ruler of their spirits. He eradicated their evil qualities and implanted and inculcated in his followers’ hearts exalted qualities in such a way that they became second nature to all of his followers.
But this transformation was not limited only to the people of his own time and place, for this process continues even today wherever his message spreads. It was not only quickly accepted in Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Egypt, Northern Africa, and Spain at its first outburst, but, with the exception of the now-vanished brilliant civilization of Islamic Spain, it has never lost its vantage ground. Since it first appeared, it has never stopped spreading.
Many world-renowned individuals have been raised in the school of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Certainly, we come across numerous great historical figures in other schools of education as well. God has honored humanity with great heroes, eminent statesmen, invincible commanders, inspired saints, and great scientists. However, most of them have not made a deep impression on more than one or two aspects of human life, for they confine themselves to those fields. But since Islam is a divine way for all fields of life, a divine system encompassing all aspects of life “like a perfect work of architecture all of whose parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other, nothing lacking, with the result of an absolute balance and solid composure,” according the Muhammad Asad, a Jewish convert. Its students usually combine within themselves the spiritual and the rational, the intellectual and the material, the worldly with the other-worldly, the ideal with the real, and the scientific and the revealed (by God).
At its very outset, Islam abolished tribal conflicts and condemned racial and ethnic discrimination. The Prophet put the Quraishi chiefs under Zaid’s command (an emancipated slave), and innumerable scholars and scientists, commanders, and saints appeared among conquered peoples. Among them was Tariq ibn Ziyad, an emancipated Berber slave who conquered Spain with 90,000 valiant warriors and laid the foundations of one of the most splendid civilizations of world history. After this victory, he went to the palace where the defeated king’s treasury was kept. He said to himself, “Be careful, Tariq. Yesterday you were a slave. God emancipated you, and today you are a victorious commander. However, you will change tomorrow into flesh rotting under earth. Finally, a day will come when you will stand in the presence of God.”
The world and its pomp could not attract him, and he continued to live a very simple life. What kind of education could transform a slave into such a dignified and honorable person?
However, his conquest of Spain was not his real victory. This came when he stood before the treasury of the Spanish king and reminded himself that one day he would die and face God. As a result of this self-advice, he took none of the treasure for himself.
`Uqbah ibn Nafi’ was another great commander who conquered northern Africa and reached the Atlantic coast. There he stood and said, “O God, if this sea of darkness did not appear before me, I would convey Your name, the source of light, to the remotest corners of the world.”
Before his conversion, `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud took care of `Uqbah ibn Abi Mu`ayt’s sheep. He was a weak, little man whom everyone ignored. After becoming a Muslim, however, he was one of the most senior Companions. During his caliphate, `Umar sent `Abdullah to Kufah as a teacher. In the scholarly climate he established there, the greatest figures of Islamic jurisprudence grew up, among them `Alqamah, Ibrahim An-Nakha`i, Hammad ibn Abi Sulaiman, Sufyan Ath-Thawri, and especially Imam Abu Hanifah, the founder of the largest Islamic legal school of thought.
`Ikrimah was the son of Abu Jahl, the harsh and inflexible leader of the Quraishi unbelievers. Finally, after the Conquest of Makkah, he converted to Islam. This event so changed him that he welcomed martyrdom 3 years later at the Battle of Yarmuk. His son, `Amir, was martyred with him.
Khansa’ was one of the finest poetesses before Islam. Becoming a Muslim, she abandoned poetry because “While we have the Qur’an, I cannot write poems.” She lost her four sons at the Battle of Qadisiyyah. This great woman, who had lamented her brother’s death before the appearance of Islam with a great poem, did not lament this loss. Instead, she deepened her submission to God and said only, “O God, all praise be to You. You have bestowed on me while alive the possibility of offering you as martyrs my four sons that You gave me.”
The school of Prophet Muhammad also produced the most just rulers in history. Besides Abu Bakr, `Uthman, `Ali and many others who succeeded them, `Umar has been recognized in almost every age as one of the world’s most just and greatest statesmen. He used to say, “If a sheep falls from a bridge even on the river Tigris and dies, God will call me to account for it on the Day of Judgment.” When you compare the pagan `Umar to the Muslim `Umar, you easily see the sharp contrast between the two and understand how radically Islam changes people.