A comparison between the perspectives on the fundamental right of freedom of education in Islam and Tai Ji men.

by Davide Suleyman Amore*

*A paper presented at the international webinar “Freedom of Education, Freedom of Belief, and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and HRWF on January 24, 2024, UN International Day of Education.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on January 26th, 2024.

An artistic rendering of teaching in the early days of the University of al-Qarawiyyin. AI-generated
An artistic rendering of teaching in the early days of the University of al-Qarawiyyin. AI-generated

Islam places a significant emphasis on knowledge and education. The Qurʾān, the holy book of Islam, encourages believers to seek knowledge, stating (96:1),

ٱقْرَأْ بِٱسْمِ رَبِّكَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَق

Read in the Name of your Lord who created.

Education is considered a means to enlightenment and personal development in Islam. The Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ also emphasized the importance of seeking knowledge, stating that “the ink of scholars (used in writing) is weighed on the Day of Judgement with the blood of martyrs and the ink of scholars outweighs the blood of martyrs” (As-Suyūṭī, “Al-Jāmiʿu’s-Saghīr”; also, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr,” Jāmiʿ bayān al-ʿilm wa faḍlihi”; Ibn Al-Jawzī, “Al-ʿIlal al-Mutanahiyyah fi’l-Aḥādith al-Wahiyyah”).

The Islamic tradition promotes the idea that education (tarbiyyah) should be accessible to all, regardless of gender or social status. Historically, Islamic societies have been centres of learning, contributing significantly to various fields such as science, medicine, philosophy, and literature. Suffice it to remember the University of al-Qarawiyyin, located in Fes, Morocco. Established in 859 CE by Fāṭimah al-Fihriyyah, a wealthy and devout Muslim woman, the university is recognized by both UNESCO and the “Guinness Book of Records” as the oldest continuously operating educational institution in the world. Initially established as a mosque, the institution evolved into a comprehensive educational complex over the centuries. It played a pivotal role in preserving and advancing Islamic scholarship, science, and culture during the medieval period.

The mystical branch of Islam, Sufism, refers to the term “at-tarbiyyah” as spiritual education or development too, emphasizing the cultivation of one’s inner self and the purification of the heart. The role of education is multifaceted and plays a crucial part in guiding individuals on their spiritual journey. It involves guidance from a spiritual teacher (Shaykh), self-discovery, heart purification, mystical knowledge, ethical values, community engagement, and the integration of knowledge into daily practice—all contributing to the seeker’s journey towards spiritual enlightenment and closeness to God.

In all this, the role of the Shaykh is pivotal. The Shaykh serves as a mentor, guide, and facilitator on the spiritual journey of the disciples. The relationship between the Shaykh and the disciple is often deeply personal and characterized by trust, respect, and a commitment to spiritual growth.

A 19th-century Sufi Shaykh and his students. AI-generated.
A 19th-century Sufi Shaykh and his students. AI-generated.

Tai Ji Men, a group teaching self-cultivation, martial arts, and Qigong, and promoting a holistic approach to life, may have unique perspectives on education. Holistic practices often emphasize a balanced development of the mind, body, and spirit. In such philosophies, education extends beyond academic knowledge, encompassing physical well-being, emotional intelligence, and spiritual growth. The holistic approach may encourage a broader view of education, emphasizing the interconnectedness of various aspects of life. Freedom of education, in this context, involves the freedom to explore diverse dimensions of personal development, including physical health, emotional well-being, and spiritual fulfilment.

That said, even in this case the role of the spiritual guide (Shifu) is fundamental. In the ancient tradition Tai Ji Men belongs to, a Shifu refers to a highly skilled and experienced master or teacher. The role of a Shifu in this tradition’s spiritual teaching goes beyond physical movements and martial art techniques; it encompasses the transmission of profound philosophical and spiritual principles.

Overall, the concept of freedom of education is deeply rooted in both Islamic tradition and Tai Ji Men culture. Islam advocates the pursuit of knowledge as a means of enlightenment and personal development, while a holistic approach such as that of Tai Ji Men may encompass a broader spectrum of education. Regardless of the specific cultural or religious context, the common theme is the recognition that education is a fundamental right that should be accessible to all, fostering individual growth and contributing to the betterment of society.

“Persecution destroys culture”: Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
“Persecution destroys culture”: Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

Spreading this education is a fundamental human right, one that was denied to Tai Ji Men as their progress was halted and disturbed by the so-called Tai Ji Men case. It is great time to resolve the case, so that the educational journey of Tai Ji Men may continue undisturbed for the greater good of its dizi, Taiwan, and humanity.