Excerpted from Dr. Ahmad's talk to the 1996 Separation of School and State Convention.
The essential teaching of Islam is that there is only one God, the Creator of all things. From this fundamental principle all Islamic thought flows, and the Muslim position on the separation of school and state also follows from this premise.
In the Islamic worldview, religion is an entire way of life and all knowledge is religious knowledge. Knowledge cannot be acquired from any single source but must come from a combination of three sources: reason, experience, and transmission from reliable sources. The fallacious view that reason alone is sufficient for knowledge is called "rationalism;" the view that experience alone is sufficient is called "empiricism," and the view that transmission from authoritative sources is sufficient is called "authoritarianism." In reality, all three sources must be used to serve as checks upon one another.
Authority is a reliable source only if its reliability can be established by scrutiny of its consistency with reason, experience and other reliable authorities. Most of our knowledge in fact comes from what we have read or been told. Not even thee greatest scientist in the world has the time to rederive every theory in existence and repeat every experiment ever performed. He depends upon the authority of the scientific literature. But he uses his critical thinking in order to determine what literature, what scientists and which journals are reliable sources to which he can turn.
At the same time, reason is not an infallible source because humans are not infallible reasoning beings. Similarly experience by itself may be deceptive. That lake ahead of me in the desert may, in fact, be a mirage.
Government schools defeat sources of knowledge
Thus, only the proper combination of these sources can give us true knowledge. The problem is that the government schools have been designed to defeat all three. Schools do not encourage rational analysis. Forcing students into regimented classroom settings for so many hours of the day deprives them from the opportunity of acquiring their own experience. One might ask, but don't schools teach the value of authority, since the school demands you respect the teacher who is telling what's true and ordering you to read books which they want you to believe teach true things? Knowledge comes from reliable sources, however. Unless the school is encouraging students to develop the tools by which they may determine which sources are reliable, unless they are encouraging students to question authority, they are not teaching how to use the sources of knowledge, but are defeating the true purposes of education.
Classical Muslim society used private schools
Muslims must also support separation of school and state for historical reasons. The classical Muslim society developed a dynamic public education that succeeded because it was not under the state but under a system of what we would today call private foundations or trusts. People would write charters for organizations devoted to certain public purposes, including education, would appoint the trustees to operate them, and would donate wealth to fund them.
The waqf institutions were motivated by a tradition from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that once you die no more good deeds accrue to your account with one exception: if you should plant a tree that continues to give fruit or shade, write a book that continues to educate people, or raise a pious child who prays for you. The scholars have unanimously understood this to mean that any good deed that continues to benefit humanity after your death accrues to your credit.
Four more reasons for Separation
Separation of school and state is also needed to provide the environment of the greater success of Muslim schools. It is difficult for Muslim schools to thrive when government schools use money taken from their customers and patrons to create institutions to compete against them.
The The government schools also are detrimental to Muslim culture by their perpetuation of secularism and materialism. They are detrimental to morality as well. Value-free teaching teaches the absence of values. The biggest problem we have today is people who can find no meaning to their lives. I think it's the reason for the very high suicide rate we find among young people in this materialistic society.
Compulsory government schools get in the way of the Muslim's duty to seek knowledge.
Compulsory government schools get in the way of the Muslim's duty to seek knowledge. The Prophet is reported to have said that it is the duty of every Muslim, male or female, to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. Learning is education, not teaching. As Kahlil Gibran put it in The Prophet:
Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is founder and president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, an Islamic think-tank. He holds a Ph.D in astronomy and astrophysics, and is the author of Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer's Perspective on Religion and Science.
"No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge."
If we are forced into a system which treats us as vessels for knowledge to be poured into our heads, we are deprived of the opportunity to fulfill the Islamic obligation.