Thursday, May 24, 2012

Muslim Education and Another Parable of Light

A righteous man built a beautiful and tranquil estate for his family. Then, as he neared death, he gathered his children around him and told them that the secret of his success, and theirs after him, is in his sacred book.

Part of the magic of the sacred book, he told them, was that each of his children, and their offspring to the end of time, will get their own identical copies. The difficulty, he said, is that they need to read this book at night, away from all distractions and temptations.

Within one generation, the righteous man's offspring ran out of the oil that he had used for light.
The following generations followed different paths.

Some concluded that the best way to read in the dark is imply to memorize the words during the day. Generation after generation, the meaning of these memorized words was lost and some decided instead of memorizing just to move their fingers over the words without reading or recitation. They fell into poverty, laying to waste what was left of their portion of the estate.

Others traveled far and near,  importing all types of oil from Greece and Persia and every new civilization that generated new light. But the words seemed no different at night than they were by day, so they concluded that obeying the righteous forefather's commands was paramount, even if his special oil was not to be found. So, they collected every fragment of the story of their forefather, relevant or irrelevant: how he lit the oil, how many words he recited, and in what order, where he put his sandals when he did so, and so on. They kept competing in the collection and perfection of every detail until they forgot the primary command to read the sacred book away from distractions and temptations. They had imported so many lighting materials, spent all night and day pouring over the book and the traditions, and produced so little, that those who sold them the light on credit confiscated their portion of the estate.

A third group reasoned that the forefather's oil emanated from within him. As his descendants, they reasoned, they can generate their own oil. They became so enamored with the idea that all light essentially emanated from within themselves that they thought the book itself was not as important as finding the purest oil within themselves, the one that almost self ignites without being touched by fire. They also concluded that their portion of the estate was a temptation and a distraction so they gave it away.

Offspring of all three groups felt that their forefathers had gone astray, be they "memorizers," "scholars," or "mystics." They reasoned that the sacred book's message was in fact extremely simple, and the righteous man was simply instructing them to clear their mind before each day, so that they can work better and prosper. They concluded that what they needed was action, and formed brotherhoods, parties, and other organizations, which mobilized numerous members with promises of consolidating their estate and regaining their long-lost prosperity. Once they had garnered sufficient support to lead, they -- and their dismayed followers -- discovered that they had no idea how to reconstitute their family or rebuild their estate.

The children of this fourth group reasoned that their parents had been so preoccupied with action, and had such a grossly oversimplified understanding of the message of the sacred book. They embarked on their own quest to succeed where their parents had failed. Sadly, they did so by tracing the footsteps of their forefathers in separate competing groups, so some preoccupied themselves with memorization, others with historical, grammatical and logical dissection of the text, and a third group with contemplating their inner lighting oil.

The righteous man's command was simple: clear your mind from distractions, clear your heart from temptations, and read the sacred book. But the book itself was anything but simple, and reading it for success in each generation is itself hard work, agreeing with others over what work it commands is hard work, and following its commands is hard work. Each of the four groups had done some of the work but in isolation from, and sometimes disparaging, the other groups. They all needed to do at least some of the work of the other groups to appreciate it, and then all must collaborate to rebuild their forefather's estate. The oil that once belonged to one man was scattered across his progeny. Only if they can pool their talents with mutual love for one another can their collective oil self-ignite and only then can the sacred book reveal its mysteries for their generation.


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