Prophets are the spiritual teachers of humanity. As the people selected by God to deliver His message to humanity, they were exemplary educators and role models. Therefore, teachers and parents should consider their educational methods seriously, for each parent is a natural teacher and role model for his or her children. In this article, we give examples from the lives of Prophets Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as teachers.
When reviewing their lives and educational methods, we must keep their era and mission in mind. For example, global dissemination of God’s message became possible only after the time of Prophet Muhammad. Thus, all previous Revelations were restricted to a specific people and period, and so stressed certain principles. Also, God bestowed special time-dependent favors upon each Prophet and community. For example, Noah was endowed with steadfastness and perseverance; Abraham was honored with intimate friendship with God and being the father of numerous Prophets; Moses was given the ability to administer and was exalted through being God’s direct addressee; and Jesus was distinguished with patience, tolerance, and compassion.(1)
Their miracles reflected that which their societies valued the most at that particular time. For instance, medicine was highly valued by Jesus’ society. Thus, his miracles of raising the dead and curing the blind had the greatest possible impact upon his people. During the Prophet’s time, poetry and eloquence were highly valued, and famous poets were celebrities. The Qur’an, his most significant miracle, was a literary miracle. In the words of a non-Muslim translator of the Qur’an: ‘The Koran is the earliest and by far the finest work of Classical Arabic prose’. It is acknowledged that the Koran is not only one of the most influential books of prophetic literature but also a literary masterpiece in its own right.'(2)
While all Prophets share some of the praiseworthy qualities, each of them surpasses the others in one or more of them because of his mission.(3)
Moses as a Teacher
The Israelites lived a wretched life in Egypt before Moses was sent to them. Due to the Pharaohs’ despotic rule and oppression, slavery had become part of the Israelites’ character. To purge this trait, Moses was sent with stern and rigid rules: the Torah (Law). Thus, he was a somewhat stern and unyielding reformer and educator. The story of the golden calf indicates an important social lesson: Yielding on essential principles of faith is detrimental to a faith-based society. In Egypt, the cow was the main ‘tool’ used to cultivate the land that made Egypt rich. Eventually, its importance caused it to be raised to a divine status.
Although the Israelites were monotheists, this belief, symbolizing wealth, became ingrained in their subconscious. When they settled in the Sinai peninsula, God called Moses to Mount Sinai to talk to him. Moses left his brother Aaron in charge. During his absence, a Sumerian fellow (al-Samiri in the Qur’an) among the Israelites made a golden calf and declared it to be a god that Moses had forgotten. Fearing division, Aaron was lenient. Upon his return, warned the Sumerian and was angry with Aaron, as he had expected Aaron to prevent the reappearance of pagan beliefs. In other words, Moses was sensitive to matters that were critical to the community’s preservation. As monotheism was the main bond of communal identity, Moses worked to prevent future deviations.
Jesus as a Teacher
Jesus was sent to the Israelites at a time when the clergy had been corrupted by their unlimited power and materialism was prevalent. He invited his people to leave conventional wisdom behind in order to live by an alternative wisdom. His wisdom teachings consisted of short memorable sayings and parables that included ‘crystallizations of insight that provoked and invited further insight,'(4) such as: ‘If a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch’ and ‘Leave the dead to bury the dead.’
His parables included short stories and invitations to see the world differently, such as in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Both concise sayings (aphorisms) and parables are evocative and provocative forms of speech. But more importantly, they are invitations to see something previously unseen or to see things differently. We observe an important principle of education in this style: repetition. ‘No great speaker of one-liners tells a great one-liner only once, no great teller of great stories tells a great story only once.'(5)
How we see things and events makes all the difference in our thinking, attitude, and behavior. Jesus pointed to the world of conventional wisdom as a world of blindness, and invited his audience to see differently. Comparing Jesus’ alternative wisdom with that of the Prophet reveals many parallels:
Jesus Trained His Apostles
Let’s examine how Jesus trained his apostles by means of a program based upon a detailed pedagogical program6 that provided a comprehensive education.7 According to Schirrmacher, the main tenets were the following:
1. Jesus limited his group, for just as a parent can properly care for only a few children, he could train properly only a few followers at a time.
2. The goal of this intensive fellow-ship and dependence was mission preparation.
3. The training program followed a clear plan. The apostles were to be trained by living and working for several years with Jesus, who served as a prototype. He followed a clear order: He first preached alone, then preached while the apostles watched, then let them preach while He watched, and then sent them out in groups of two and afterwards discussed the results with them. This first, short-term assignment is described in Matthew 10:1-11, Mark 6:7-13, and Luke 9:1-6. Finally, he sent them out alone as described in Matthew 28:18-20. The Apostles trained other Christians in the same way.
4. His training program included all aspects of instruction and life, theory and practice, individual and group counseling, personal and public activity, activity and rest, professional and private life. Teaching and counseling formed a single unit.
Jesus’ miracles also played an important role here. Just like the miracles of other prophets, they removed the doubt in some believers’ hearts, challenged the unbelievers’ view, and further strengthened his followers’ bonds.
Analyzing how the Prophet interacted with his Companions reveals that he employed various educational methods. He emerges as a resourceful educator who sometimes asked, and at other times answered, questions. Sometimes he limited his answer to the question; other times he went beyond the question. Sometimes he illustrated a concept through parables, diverted a question to a different path, or told his Companions to write down his words. He drew figures and used body language, repeated a statement three times when it contained a critical lesson, and used symbolic language with implications or else clear and unambiguous words. He also used humor, puzzles, comparisons, and asking seemingly obvious questions to raise curiosity. The most important educational principle was using himself as a living example.
Teaching by Character.One of the first lessons of public speaking is that one’s character speaks louder than one’s words. The Prophet, whose words and actions were in perfect agreement, was a perfect leader and educator. For example, he often advised his Companions to pray during the night, for such a time provided an ideal, uninterrupted environment for reflection, thanksgiving, and prayer. His wife ‘A’isha related that he would wake up in the middle of the night and ask her for permission to pray. He prayed so much that one time she asked him if doing so was really necessary. He replied: ‘Shall I not be a thankful servant to my Lord, Who has bestowed upon me so many bounties?’
Gradual teaching of principles.Ibn Mas’ud, a Companion, relates: ‘We would learn 10 verses from the Prophet, and would not continue with new verses until we internalized and practiced those 10 verses.’
Be moderate and prefer ease over difficulty.The most authentic books of the Prophetic Traditions, Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim relate the following saying: ‘Make it easier and not difficult. Give good news (endear) and do not alienate and repel.’8 ‘A’isha related: ‘When the messenger of God was left with a choice, he would always prefer the easier option, other things being equal.’
Observing the learner’s circumstances. Bukhari 7:140 relates: ‘A man asked the Prophet for permission to fight in God’s cause. The Prophet asked him: ‘Are your parents alive?’ The man said: ‘Yes.’ The prophet told him: ‘Go and serve them as best as you can.” Many Companions asked him what was the best deed in God’s sight. The Prophet answered according to the situation. When Abu Dharr asked: ‘O messenger of God, advise me (a good deed).’ He replied: ‘Be God-conscious wherever you are, clean your sins by immediately following them with a good deed, and treat the people around you in the best manner possible.’ Another Companion asked: ‘O messenger of God, advise me (a good deed), but keep it short so that I can remember.’ He replied ‘Don’t get angry.’ The man repeated his question two more times, and the Prophet gave the same reply.
Teaching by dialog or asking questions. Questions demand attention. Starting a dialog with a question prepares one for the message. The Prophet made great use of this technique. Bukhari (2:9) relates that the Messenger of God asked: ‘If a river ran by your door and you bathed in it five times a day, would any dirt remain on your body?’ The Companions answered that no dirt would remain. He continued: ‘The daily prayer is such a river. God cleanses you of sins with these prayers.’ We also see this technique in Bukhari (32:1:6251), where Abu Hurayra narrates that the Messenger asked: ‘Do you know who is the real bankrupt among my people?’ The Companions answered: ‘The one without money or property.’ He said: ‘The real bankrupt is the one who comes on the Day of Resurrection with prayers, fast, and charity but nevertheless finds himself bankrupt on that day. He will have exhausted his good deeds because he reviled others, brought calumny against them, devoured their wealth unlawfully, shed their blood, and beat them. So his good deeds will be credited to the account of those (who suffered at his hand). If his good deeds do not clear the account, their sins will be added to his account and he will be thrown in the (Hell) Fire.’
Teaching by comparison and parable. Comparisons and parables help people understand a new concept. Bringing a similar concept as an example makes the new aspects of the concept in question easier to digest. Comparisons and parables that refer to common and strong experiences improve the memory of the new concept that is learned. Muslim (6:83) relates that the Prophet told his Companions: ‘A good friend is like a person who carries amber (which has a fragrant pleasant smell). If nothing else, his pleasant smell will get on you. A bad friend, on the other hand, is like a blacksmith. Even if the dust of his work does not touch you, its fumes do.’
Using body language. Our visual memory far surpasses our audio memory. We remember images and scenes with great ease and speed. With body language, a good educator can make a lasting impression. Bukhari (9:389) relates that the Messenger of God said: ‘One who cares for an orphan and I will be this close in Paradise,’ and he pointed to his index and middle fingers.
Taking advantage of the occasion. Bukhari (8:458) relates that the Companion Jarir ibn Abdullah al-Bajali relates that: ‘One night we were watching full moon with the Prophet. He looked at it and said: ‘All of you will see your Lord on the Day of Judgment just like you see this full moon. None of you will be denied the opportunity to see your Lord.’
Using humor. In Abu Dawud,9 it is related that a man asked the Prophet for a riding animal. The Prophet asked: ‘Would it be alright if I put you on the calf of a female camel?’ The man said: ‘O Messenger of God, what good will that do me?’ and received the following reply: ‘Isn’t every camel the calf of a female camel?’
These are just a few of the many methods the Prophet used to educate his people. Other methods include, but are not limited to, the following: teaching by drawing, diverting the answer toward a different path, asking for the question to be repeated, letting the audience answer, teaching by approval, repeating to emphasize and establish, hiding the culprit or target or subject, describing a concept briefly and then in detail, leaving something ambiguous for the audience to discover, listing and then describing, combining encouragement and discouragement, teaching by stories and stories of past people.
Prophets were sent to the humanity to deliver God’s message in the most effective manner. Every Prophet strove to accomplish his mission by using those educational methods that were best suited to their mission. Today’s educators and parents can learn many lessons from their lives.
1 M. F. Gulen. Online at: www.pearls.org/prophets
2 N. J. Dawood, The Koran (Penguin Classics: 1997).
3 Gulen, www.pearls.org.
4 M. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith (Harper San Fransisco: 1994). Online at: www.united.edu/portrait/wisdom2.shtml.
6 T. Schirrmacher, Jesus as Master Educator (1999). Online at: www.visi.com/~contra_m/ab/schirrmacher/educator.html.
7 A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve (Kregel Publications: 2000 ).
8 M. Khan (trans.), Sahih al-Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings (Darussalam Publishers: 1997), 1:163 and A. H. Siddiqi (trans.), Sahih Muslim (Kitab Bhavan: 2000), 12:42. All subsequent Tradition citations are taken from these two sources.
9 Harf Information Technology, Hadith Encyclopedia (Egypt: 1996).