Arshad Madrassi interviews Shaykh Hamza Karamali on the genesis, structure, importance, and aims of the Steps Curriculum.
AM: Tell us the context in which the Steps Curriculum was introduced?
SHK: In pre-modern Islamic societies, the only institutional learning was the religious seminary. They would sometimes call this a Madrasa in certain parts of the world. There was no other institutional learning. The students would go to the Madrasa to learn basic literacy, how to read the Qur’an, logic, critical thinking, language skills, and then they would learn the traditional Islamic Sciences which included Fiqh (Sacred law), Kalam (Islamic theology), Aqidah (Theology), Hadith, Tafsir (Exegesis), Authentication of Hadith and the whole spectrum of other Islamic Sciences. They would then graduate from this institution and they would be employed normally in prominent positions in society.
So you would find that all of the government employees were graduates of the Madrasa, the judge of the supreme court would be a graduate of the Madrasa, the Head of the Army would be a graduate of the Madrasa, the local judges and legal advisors would be graduates of the Madrasa, the Imams of the masjid would be graduates of the Madrasa – all of the influential positions in society were occupied by graduates of this Madrasa.
With the onset of modernity and the political decline of the Ottoman Empire, we have a new form of education that began to come to the Muslim world. These were initially military and medical colleges, but they slowly grew and became universities. When these new institutions arrived on the scene, they weren’t integrated to the Madrasa. And because of the political decline in the Muslim world, there was an increasing emphasis placed on engineering, science and technology.
There was a need to modernize Muslim society, so that you could have a population that is literate enough to make the country economically competitive in the world and to have a modernized army and a strong government. So there was a split in the education system, and for a while the two systems existed side-by-side until the middle of the previous century, when the religious education system was completely eclipsed by modern schooling and universities.
This brought both positives and negatives. The positives are that you can now go anywhere in the Muslim world and you’ll have traffic lights, cars, planes, computers. Here in Amman you have special economic zones, business parks, technology hubs and modern hospitals. So you have a society that is well-educated from the perspective of being a society that fully participates in the economic and technological developments of the 20th and 21st centuries.
We no longer live a village or an agrarian society. But there is a problem, a negative. The negative is that as Muslims we don’t just live for this world: we live for the next world and every single action we do is directed towards our eternal life after death. The Prophet of God taught us how to live our lives in a way that would bring us happiness and prosperity in this world and also give us eternal felicity in the next life. But we have Muslim societies now where people are no longer educated in their religion.
We go to school, we take classes from Kindergarten until Grade 12. There is a well-thought-out curriculum of education in science and mathematics because these are socially important. But for religious education, we relegate it to after school a few times a week if you come from a conservative family or to a Sunday school which happens only once a week. In less conservative families, there is no religious education at all, just the Muslim identity of showing up at the mosque once in a while on special occasions such as Eid.
This is a religious negative and also a worldly negative because modernity has brought many harms along with its benefits. You see families have been broken up, the divorce rates are rising, there is pollution, there are wars being fought, humans are being killed, there is crime, there is homelessness, there is corruption – these problems cannot be solved by studying science or math. These are human problems.
The value of religion is that it teaches you how to be a human being. Muslims need a thorough religious education so that they can live as good human beings in societies that can be part of the 21st century but our model is the Sunna of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him. We have stable families, well-raised children, low crime rates, a compassionate society that cares for the poor, the elderly, and the environment. To do that we need a thorough religious education. Just like we have a thorough education in the other sciences. This is why the Steps Curriculum is important and we need to understand it in this context.
AM: How does the Steps Program relate to the traditional Madrasa system, and why is it online?
SHK: We live busy lives, we have family obligations, we need to earn a living but we also have to learn the religious sciences as they were studied in the past at the same level and with the same rigor. In previous times, you could go to a Madrasa and study all of the traditional Islamic Sciences in one place by spending five years there. And you’d be done. Because of the circumstances in Muslim lands, because of post-colonial legacies and the development needs of society, Muslims have not prioritized their Islamic education. A religious education does not have the same economic value as an education in engineering or medicine.
The effect of that has been that a hodgepodge of institutions are now competing to offer Master and PhD programs in Islamic studies, and there are scattered pockets of traditional Islamic learning in various parts of the Muslim world. But none of these offer the complete curriculum of the classical Islamic sciences whose graduates were great scholars like Ghazali, Nawawi, and Suyuti.
So there is no one institution where you can study everything now. al-Azhar has been reformed and modernized, the Darul Ulooms in the subcontinent no longer emphasize mastery in all of the Islamic sciences as they used to in the past. In the Arab world, the Madrasa has been completely replaced by modern university education. We now have individual scholars scattered across the Muslim world who went through this traditional curriculum. Some of them caught the last batch of the old Azhari curriculum before its modernization and others studied individually in private settings. The only way now to acquire a complete and thorough education in all of the traditional Islamic sciences is to find these individual scholars, who are often scattered across large geographical distances, and to privately study with them, moving from scholar to scholar in order to gather all of these traditional sciences.
The idea behind the Steps Curriculum is to have one place where all of the Islamic Sciences are taught. Gradually progressing from absolute zero to where you would have ended up 200 years ago in an institution like the old Azhar of Cairo or the elite Ottoman Madrasas in Istanbul or the Farangi Mahal school in Lucknow. The idea is to have an online repository of all of these courses being offered where everything can be stored using modern methods of education and pedagogy and to have assessments to ensure that students meet well thought out learning goals. And access to all of this is provided online.
Ideally, the best way to do this is to have a blended learning approach. Students today often seek the traditional Islamic sciences in places like Egypt, Turkey, India, or Yemen, but you will find that there is no complete curriculum anywhere. Teachers and institutions of particular areas have particular strengths in particular subjects but they lack experience in others. They might teach some of the sciences to a very high level, but they might not have real-world experience in the other sciences that they teach. Learning the Islamic Sciences is not just about reading books. It’s also about having the experience in using those sciences to solve real-world problems. Someone might go to a place that is not urban–a village or a desert–where we have great scholars, you learn how to answer certain questions but you won’t understand how to apply what you have learned in real life. Students can go various places in the Muslim world to study, but they will almost always find that their education is not complete and that they have to complement their studies in order to complete their education.
So the idea is to enable these students so that they can travel to learn privately in the pockets of scholarship in the Muslim world and then supplement their private studies with a complete curriculum that we provide online. They can study privately in-person wherever possible and they can fill in their curricular gaps with the Steps online curriculum.
The Steps online curriculum also helps students by providing milestones, learning goals, and assessment. As students progress in their private studies, supplementing their education with the Steps curriculum, they can benefit from mentorship, direction, and assessment through the Steps curriculum to make sure they are going in the right direction, to identify gaps in their learning, and to avoid making common mistakes and wasting valuable time. They can make sure that they are progressing through their studies towards a goal.
Everything that I’ve just explained is for students who have decided to dedicate themselves to full-time studies by traveling to the pockets of scholarship in the Muslim world. Most students, however, have other responsibilities, obligations with work, family, and community. These students can simply complete the entire curriculum online at a pace that fits their schedules.
So that’s the idea behind the curriculum and its deployment online.
AM: Will the certificates be recognized by anybody? Will the graduates of the Steps Curriculum eventually be able to become Muftis and Imams?
SHK: If you go back two hundred years to the seminaries in the capital of the Ottoman Empire—Istanbul, or even at Azhar—you had institutions but when the students graduated where did the recognition come from? The teaching license was not actually granted by the institution; the teaching license was granted by the teacher. So if a student went to Azhar, they would go to a pillar and study with a particular teacher. After years of study with that teacher (supplemented by studies with other teachers), the teacher would personally issue them a license to teach. So the value of the student’s teaching qualifications came from the individual teacher, not from the institution. Students understood this, teachers understood this, all Muslims used to understand this. This used to be common knowledge. This is how our religion was preserved and transmitted.
The hallmark of modernity is the institutionalization and the modernization of the Madrasa. When it becomes a university, now the degree is granted by the institution. The individuals fade away into the background and the institution now sets the priorities. It makes the educational and pedagogical decisions. And most of these institutions are governed by the Ministry of Education of the nation-state that they are a part of, and their employees are all graduates of the institution of the modern university. The university degree acquires its value by the value that modern society gives to these modern institutions, which have displaced and pushed the person of the traditional scholar into the background because modern society no longer gives that person the value that traditional religious societies used to.
So the challenge that a traditional institution—an institution that wants to retain the teacher-focused method of learning that goes back to the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him—faces is this social recognition. Because most of us have a different perspective on education than traditional societies did two hundred years ago, traditional teachers no longer have social value, and, as a result, traditional institutions no longer have social value. So that’s the position that we find ourselves in.
So, in light of that, let’s ask your question: Are the Steps Curriculum and its certificates recognized by any educational body? I think it’s important to rephrase the question. There are two reasons why someone might ask this question. The first reason why someone would want to know if this is recognized by an educational body is to know if this is a solid, rigorous program. That’s a good question. And the other reason is to find out that if I take this program, what social value will I have?
Now you have to step back and understand that the social priorities of Muslim societies all over the world are no longer shaped by religious concerns. This affects institutions and the employability of their graduates. Because our social priorities are no longer shaped by religious concerns, anyone who takes out time to get a religious education is making a sacrifice. He is spending time doing something that does not have social value when he could have spent that time doing something that does have social value. He is spending time doing something knowing that employability will be a challenge.
Can you be an Imam after completing the Steps Curriculum? Well, it depends on the people who are employing you to be an Imam. Are these people valuing the traditional model of Islamic education? If they are, then yes, you will be employed. If they don’t, then you might struggle.
You also have to understand that in pre-modern times, the graduates of these traditional madrasas were not always Imams; they occupied important positions in their societies—they were judges, they had social and political influence. How, then, did the graduates of the Madrasa in recent times came to be known only for being Imams? They were confined into becoming only Imams because with the modernization of Muslim society, all of the prominent influential positions in the society were occupied by graduates of competing secular institutions. And the only religious space that was left was the mosque. So we have a challenge before us. We don’t want our scholars to be confined only to the mosque, we need to bring them to the mainstream. In order to take them to the mainstream, you also need them to have a mainstream education.
If someone wants to be a counselor, he needs to go to a university and get a degree in counseling and also spend time getting a traditional religious education. Then they can use this degree and their religious education to counsel people. If someone wants to get into public policy and participate in government, then they need to have a degree in government and policy-making and also spend time getting a traditional religious education. Only then will they be able to use their religious education in the mainstream because the world which we find ourselves often looks down on people with a religious outlook and only allows people into the mainstream through a university education.
It’s also important to remember that everyone doesn’t have to have a role of public service. You can also be a computer programmer—I used to be a computer programmer! You can be a computer programmer and also learn about your religion. You can be a carpenter and also learn about your religion. You can be a secretary and also learn about your religion. Religious change begins with ourselves and our families, our households, our children. It is only when there is a large number of individuals and families who set their priorities through a religious lens that someone with a traditional religious education will be able to perform a role of public service. Otherwise he will have no one to serve! It’s a long cycle. But you have to start somewhere and religious education is where everyone has to start.
Shaykh Hamza Karamali earned his BASc. and MASc. in Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, after which he moved abroad to study the Islamic sciences full-time in private settings with distinguished traditional scholars in Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE, reading and memorizing traditional works in all of the Islamic sciences.
He taught the Islamic sciences online at SunniPath.com, then at Qibla.com, then taught advanced Arabic grammar and rhetoric at Qasid Institute, and then joined Kalam Research & Media, where he worked for three years, designing, managing, and participating in research and education projects around the integration of modern analytic philosophy and science with traditional Islamic theology and logic. He is the author of The Madrasa Curriculum in Context, as well as a forthcoming work that presents traditional Islamic logic in the idiom of contemporary logic and philosophy.
Hamza joined SeekersHub in 2016, where he has taught courses on logic, legal theory, and Islamic theology. He also has a regular podcast and video series called Why Islam is True, in which he applies logic and traditional Islamic theology to answer contemporary questions about belief in God, the genuine messengerhood of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, and the truth of resurrection and the afterlife.