Shia islam, eastern Christianity, Liberal arts education, and Iraq (Part 2) – by Sel Harris



I have heard Imam Ali say……acquisition of knowledge is mire incumbent on you than the acquisition of wealth and money, since wealth and money already stand distributed and guaranteed (by Allah) Al-Kafi, v. I, pt. i.

Shaykk al-Kulayni reminds all of us that “knowledge and education” are of utmost importance. Last week, we saw the close connection between Shia Islam, Eastern Christianity, and the land of Iraq.

In his book, SHIISM: RELIGION OF PROTEST, Columbia University Professor ( and Iranian born) Dr Hamid Dabashi argues that “education” has been at the heart of who a Shia Muslim is. In the above statement, Imam Ali has reminded us that “wealth is easy to obtain.but, knowledge is not…..” The acquisition of knowledge takes work. The 19th century German Philosopher Hegel wrote that “no one is totally free until EVERYONE is totally free….” Education is a “means to that end.” For centuries, the Ayatollahs in the Sacred Hawzas of Najaf and Karbala have reminded the Shia Faithful of this noble truth.

Which brings me to my appreciation to the Hawzas in Iraq for preserving Liberal Arts Education. As far as languages are concerned, I am fluent in classical Greek, Latin, and Syriac. (I have a working knowledge of Arabic) I am glad that many of the ageless curricula of the Shia Hawzas have been translated into English. I have read and studied the vast majority of them and for me, these Shia curriculum have informed the Liberal Arts Education that I received in the United States.

There is one, major difference. In my judgment, many American Liberal Arts Colleges (including my own) have lost the true intention of Liberal Arts Education. In the USA, the “goal” of such ecucation is to “make as much money as is possible….” This is wrong! No one needs “mountains of money.” That is wasteful. In fact, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Sadr wasted NOTHING! It is said that if he fid not finish a glass of water, he would leave the glass gor days — until it was finished! The true goal of liberal arts education is to “liberate and free” any one who is not free. Education is a “liberator” according to the Shia Tradition. It is tge equalizer. In the Shia Tradition, not only Muslims, but also Christians took part. In Baghdad, the great al Farabi (the second Aristotle) taught Yahya ibn Adi, a Syriac Christian. He wrote a very fanous piece called “THE REFORMATION OF MORALS” in which he encouraged all residents of Baghdad to be the “ethical example” to all of the world.

There are wonderful examples in which students in the Hawzas of Najaf would appoach their teachers in the marketplace and pose a philosophical question. Socratic dialogue ensued which reminds us of earlier centuries in which students approached the great Roman Orator Cicero in the Roman Forum and did exactly the same!! For a historian such as me, this is a slice of Paradise!!
To be an educated Muslim is the essence of what Shia Islam is all about! For that, I am grateful and thankful to tge many Shiaa who have preserved the education that I hold so dear and near to my hear.

NEXT WEEK: In Part III, i raise the question as to how the USA would benefit with Shia Liberal Arts Education here.I come from a family of educators. My maternal grandmother graduated from Longwood College ( in Virginia) in 1906. Longwood is historically a College where teachers are trained. It is one of the best in the United States. Upon graduation, she went to rural Sussex County in Virginia to teach. In that day, there were no public schools in Virginia.

She went from farm to farm teaching children all of the way. It has been told to me that she also taught African American children which would have been unheard of in the “Jim Crow South!” But, I am not surprised!

In my judgment, her example best reflects the freedom and liberation that Shia Liberal Arts Education seeks to promote — for all.


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