Education as Tazkia: Is a child like a clean slate?

Education as Tazkia: Is a child like a clean slate?

In the academic circles, one often hears the view of a child as “clean slate”, meaning there is nothing written on the slate, and unless we make sure that we write something “good”, as quickly as possible, others may spoil it by writing on it something which is “not good”. There are several renowned scholars in the Muslim world who have adopted the  “clean slate” view of the child from the West without the necessary critical evaluation. 

This “clean slate” assumption about the child seems in serious contradiction to (i) the assertion in Quran “luqad khalaqnal insaan a fi ahsun i taqveem” [Sura Teen], (ii) the concept of tazkia in Islam, implying that the child comes to this world in a pristine and the best of the form and the dunya spoils it, and (iii) at the time of creation “He taught Adam all the names of everything.” (Quran 2:31) lest they can not claim during akhirah that knowledge did not come to them. 

Please note that this “clean slate” assumption of the child as it is understood today has origins from the West [See for example Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy] and has some far reaching consequences on the resulting educational system as explained below. 

The goal of education is the success here and in the hereafter. However, success requires purification of the soul.In Islam, the ultimate objective of religion and shariah (Islamic law) and the real purpose of raising prophets from among mankind was performing and teaching tazkiah.[2]“. “The goal of tazkiya is to return to one’s beginning i.e. as a new-born child, pure and innocent, free from malice, self-conceit and pride. The dunya, however, makes a person’s heart hard and ‘rusty’ and the purpose of tazkiya is to polish the heart and return it to its original state.” [3]

The view of a child as a “clean slate” is like considering a child as an “empty glass”. This view creates the following imperatives for the educational system:

  1. Unless the slate is written upon, it will remain clean. There is a danger that someone else will come and write on it something that is not desired. Unless the glass is filled, it will remain empty. There is a danger that someoneelse may come and fill it with some undesired fluid which may be poison or acid.
  2. It is the duty of the “state authorities” to write on the clean slate (or to fill the glass). Left alone, the child will become a threat to the law and order.
  3. A child is passive like a clean slate and not an active agency. There is no potential in the child to observe the signs, reflect and seek out the truth and discover the meaning of life. The child has no purpose, has no inherent impulse and drive towards growth and discovery of his relationship with nature. 
  4. The material of this clean slate is inert and its quality (read intelligence) is randomly distributed in a bell-curve i.e. people with very high intelligence and very low intelligence are few, while people with moderate intelligence are in majority. Please see bell-curve assumption about the distribution of intelligence of students
  5.  A child is a resouce, a “human resource” just like land, capital and machinery that needs to be put to the service of the global capitalist machinery. Therefore, schools have the responsibility to make the child malleable enough for becoming a cog in the machinery. School’s success is measured in terms of its ability to prepare the “workers” of this machinery. See for instance the criteria for world ranking of educational institutions. An institution’s rating goes down if its graduates are not employed and are not drawing higher salaries. 
The educational system formed on the basis of the “clean slate” assumption robs the man from his “human-ness” and gives him the attributes of the “resource-ness”. These are dangerous byproducts of the “clean-slate” assumption. 

The concept of “luqad khalaqnal insaan a fi ahsun i taqveem” and the concept of tazkia in Islam guide us towards human being as an active agent responsible for his deeds and actions. The pre-programming for righteousness was built-in to man at the time of creation. The process of education is that of cleansing the adulteration from outside and reverting the soul to its pristine and clean origins. 

A better analogy than the “clean-slate” may be that of a seed. Whereas a slate is life-less, the seed represents life and an active agency. A seed has the potential to become a tree and then that tree has the potential to become a forest. The potential is pre-programmed. The responsibility of the environment is to provide nourishment and nurture it. Similarly, the responsibilty of the education is to provide an enviornment suitable for the growth of a seed. The environment necessary for the growth of a grape seed is different from that of a mango seed which is different from any other seed. One-size-fits-all standardized environment is not suitable for the diversity and growth of different potentials inherent in different types of seeds. 

Unlike a seed, however, a child’s potential may or may not be visible even to experts. Each child as he grows has to find his own unique way of realizing the potential and fulfilling the responsibility for which he was sent to the world. Hence the difficulty and the problems inherent in designing a standardized system that is one-size-fits-all system that wants everyone to be exactly like the other. 

See also:

Also check this news item what babies know might freak you out

[1] This blog was triggered by the keynote speech of Mr. Zaid Scheik of and  at the Robotics for Beginners Workshop at L2L Academy on July 21, 2013.
[2] Amin Ahsan Islahi, Tadabbur-r-Qur’an: Tafsir of Surah Al-Fatiha and Surah Al-Baqara
[3] Shaykh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq as quoted in a blog.


  1. Salam!
    Dr. Sahab, kindly give the exact reference of this Quranic Ayah:
    "luqad khalaqna kum fi ashun i taqveem".

  2. Thanks for pointing it out.
    I have updated the post with the correction:

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Dr Saheb, what a beautiful connection developed to help us see the missing link between how-to-kill-creativity-based standardized education system and an (in)visible creative being inside a child. As a learner of language studies, please allow me to share the Nativist Theory and the Interactionist Theory of language acquisition in connection of language acquisition.

    Advocating Nativist Theory Chomksy (1972 ) argued that there is an innate faculty of (first) language acquisition in a child’s brain that facilitates language acquisition, which is known as Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Therefore, young children learn language effortlessly but lack the mental ability to analyze the rules and structure of the language logically. In contrast, despite being aware of ‘grammar’ of a second language L2 learners (this L2 stands for second language learners) experience difficulty of mastering the complexities of grammar, usage, meanings, and word order that are part of any language system. Chomsky's LAD has been invisible but it is generally accepted that the human brain is innately programmed for language acquisition. However, in the political arenas of rapidity and recency of expansion of different varieties of English across the world the Nativist Theory is being criticized against the backdrop of racial tension between the North and the South. This criticism is limited to the English language only though.

    Interactionistsm however, argue that language development is both social and biological and children are born with a powerful brain that influences them to share their new understandings beyond the existing ones through/in their language. Lev Vygotsky, a key proponents of Interactionist Theory, introduced collaborative learning framework on his concerns on the inter-relationship of language development and thought. He perceived a child’s inner speech (unique thinking or higher cognitive functions) different from his external speech (normal language). The inner speech becomes intelligible through the external speech. Although Vygotsky’s model/theory was not initially critically appreciated in the West, the critics are reevaluating his theory now.

    Sir, language studies do support that argument that a child is indeed born with a thought to share. We should encourage him to contribute his unique part.

    Selected readings on the core issue:

    Chomsky, N. (1972).Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

    Kachru, B. (2012). World Englishes: Overiew. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.

    Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and language. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Wajdan Raza

  4. I am aware of Chomsky's work only. However, "pre-programmed" is too a strong word, and because of its relationship with the classical computer programming languages and has rightly come under criticism. Interactionist Theory seems to be influenced by the recent advances in artificial intelligence where learning systems evolve through collaboration and interaction based on some initial builtin potential (programmed machine).

    However, this clean slate post of mine was analyzing this concept from a strictly Islamic conception.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Thanks for the reply, Dr Sahab. May Allah (SWT) continue giving you all the strength and wisdom for the betterment of society.

  6. Received via email from Mr. Zaid Scheik:

    Masha’Allah, you have rightfully linked the Quranic concept of “Tazkiah” with the Ayah of Surah At-Tin “ Laqad Khalqnal Insana Fee Ahsan-e-Taqweem”. Surah At-Tin clearly depicts the idea that a human being is born with the best potential, to develop gently, possess a good personality and character and own a thankful and submissive attitude towards his Lord. But at the same time he tends to spoil his God-given potential by refusing to surrender against his wishes and abides by the instructions given to him by Allah SWT and as a result he is demoted to own a worst human character and attitude ”Summa Radadna hu Asfala Safeleen”. So Prophets come to educate people in their best interest, covering all dimensions of human personality, and to make this task workable they do “Tazkiah” (cleansing & nurturing people) and try to explore the best potential given to them by Allah SWT. Rasulullah SAW said “Boistu Moalliman”, i am deputed as a teacher/mentor.

    Capitalist culture and philosophy has made human being a market commodity, so they have nothing to do with human character. In Islamic perspective we can say that they are spoiling human potential, Deen-e-Islam takes character at the first priority for the success of human being in this world and the world here after. Skills and talents, which are mostly concerned with the trades and professions, and can make people a good bread winners, but in-fact they utilize a very small part of human potential and have no comparison with the value and worth that can be added to a human personality by exploring his character traits.

    The agenda of exploring human skills and talents in a right direction makes a good co-relation with Islamic ideology, because of its concepts of “Tazkiah” (cleansing & nurturing people) and “Ahsan-e-Taqweem” (realization of best potentials inherited in human beings). So how do I perceive is that , the similarity of approach persists all around the various aspects of an ideology. That’s why the education system adopted and practiced by Islamic scholars and teachers in past centuries looks more productive and fruitful to explore human talents and skills as compared to all of the secular and capitalist education systems being practiced in the recent ages.

  7. Subhan Allah! Very Good Post Masha Allah Sir Irfan Hyder! Only Great Minds Like You Criticize The Western Education System, And You Have Very Rightly Put It As " A child is a resouce, a "human resource" just like land, capital and machinery that needs to be put to the service of the global capitalist machinery. Therefore, schools have the responsibility to make the child malleable enough for becoming a cog in the machinery."

  8. Mashallah. really an antique piece of work.this idea about children is one of the closest reflections of Shariyah's teaching about children as Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:مَا مِنْ مَوْلُودٍ إِلاَّ يُولَدُ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ فَأَبَوَاهُ يُهَوِّدَانِهِ وَيُنَصِّرَانِهِ وَيُمَجِّسَانِهِ كَمَا تُنْتَجُ الْبَهِيمَةُ بَهِيمَةً جَمْعَاءَ هَلْ تُحِسُّونَ فِيهَا مِنْ جَدْعَاءَ

    “No child is born except on the Fitrah and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian. Just as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?”
    Imam Navavi explained different meanings of "Fitrah" in his book ' Sharh Muslim" in which he said:"And it is said, “It’s meaning is that the child is born having the awareness of Allah and affirmation of Him. So there is no one born except that he admits that Allah is his Maker, and if he called by other than His Name, or worshiped others alongside Him, then the most accurate position is the meaning that every child is born prepared for Islam……."
    This quotation clearly opposes the idea of "clean slate"
    Jazak Allah Dr.Sahab

  9. Thanks for the references. I think you need to have your own blog

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