The main duty and purpose of human life is to seek understanding. The effort of doing so, known as education, is a perfecting process though which we earn, in the spiritual, intellectual, and physical dimensions of our beings, the rank appointed for us as the perfect pattern of creation. At birth, the outset of the earthly phase of our journey from the world of spirits to eternity, we are totally impotent and extremely needy. By contrast, most animals come into the world as if mature or as if they have been perfected beforehand. Within a few hours, or days, or months, they learn everything necessary for their survival, as well as how to relate to their environment and with other creatures. For example, sparrows or bees acquire maturity and all the physical and social skills they need within about twenty days; we need twenty years or more to acquire a comparable level of maturity.
We are born helpless as well as ignorant of the laws of life and must cry out to get the help we need. After a year or so, we can stand on our feet and walk a little. When we are about fifteen, we are expected to have understood the difference between good and evil, the beneficial and the harmful. However, it will take us our whole lives to acquire intellectual and spiritual perfection. Our principal duty in life is to acquire perfection and purity in our thinking, perceptions, and belief. By fulfilling our duty of servanthood to the Creator, Nourisher, and Protector, and by penetrating the mystery of creation through our potential and abilities, we seek to attain the rank of true humanity and become worthy of a blissful, eternal life in another, exalted world.
Our humanity is directly proportional to the purity of our emotions. Although those who are full of negative feelings and whose souls have been influenced by egoism appear to be human beings, it is doubtful whether they really are human. Almost anyone can train their bodies, but few can educate their minds and feelings. The former produces strong bodies, while the latter produces spiritual people.
Our innate abilities and education
Since the time of Ibn Miskawayh, human faculties or "drives" have been dealt with in three categories: reason, anger, and lust. Reason encompasses our powers of perception, imagination, calculation, memory, learning, and so on. Anger covers our power of selfdefense, which Islamic jurisprudence defines as something necessary to defend our faith and religion, sanity, possessions, life and family, and other sacred values. Lust is the name for the driving force behind our animal appetites:
Decked out for humanity is the passionate love of desires for the opposite sex and offspring; for hoarded treasures of gold and silver; for branded horses, cattle, and plantations; and for all kinds of worldly things. (Al-Imran 3:14)
These drives are found in other creatures. However, whether in their desires, intelligence, or determination to defend life and territory, these drives are limited in all creatures, but not in humanity. Each of us is uniquely endowed with free will and the consequent obligation to discipline our powers. This struggle for discipline determines our humanity. In combination with one another and according to circumstances, our capabilities are often expressed through jealousy, hatred, enmity, hypocrisy, and ostentation. These too need to be disciplined.
Humans do not only consist of a body and a mind. Each of us has a spirit that needs to be satisfied. Without this, we cannot find true happiness or perfection. Spiritual satisfaction is possible only through knowledge of God and belief in Him. Confined within the physical world, our own particular carnal self, time, and place can feel like a dungeon. We can escape this imprisonment through belief and regular worship and by refraining from extremes while using our faculties or powers. We must not seek to destroy our drives, but rather to use our free will to contain and purify them, to channel and direct them toward virtue. For example, we are not expected to eliminate lust, but to satisfy it lawfully through reproduction. Happiness lies in confining our lust to the lawful bounds of decency and chastity, not in engaging in debauchery and dissipation.
Similarly, jealousy can be channeled into emulation free of rancor, which inspires us to emulate those who excel in goodness and good deeds. Applying the proper discipline to our reason results in the acquisition of knowledge, and ultimately of comprehension or wisdom. Purifying and training anger leads to courage and forbearance. Disciplining our passion and desire develops chastity.
If every virtue is thought of as being the center of a circle, and any movement away from the center is thought of as being a vice, then the vice becomes greater as we move further away from the center. Every virtue therefore has innumerable possible vices, since there is only one center of a circle, but an infinite number of points around it. It is irrelevant in which direction the deviation occurs, for deviation from the center, in whatever direction, is a vice.
There are two extremes related to each moral virtue: deficiency or excess. The two extremes connected with wisdom are stupidity and cunning. For courage, they are cowardice and rashness, and for chastity, lethargy and uncontrolled lust. So a person's perfection, the ultimate purpose of our existence, lies in maintaining a condition of balance and moderation between the two extremes relating to every virtue. 'Ali ibn Abu Talib is reported to have said:
God has characterized angels by intellect without sexual desire, passion, or anger, and animals with anger and desire without intellect. He exalted humanity by bestowing upon them all of these qualities. Accordingly, if a person's intellect dominates his desire and ferocity, he rises to a station above that of angels, because this station is attained by a human being in spite of the existence of obstacles that do not vex angels.
Improving a community is possible only by elevating the young generations to the rank of humanity, not by obliterating those who are on the wrong path. Unless a seed composed of faith, tradition, and historical consciousness is germinated throughout the country, new evil elements will appear and grow in the place of each eradicated evil.
The true meaning and value of education
Education through learning and leading a commendable way of life is a sublime duty that is the manifestation of the Divine Name Rabb (Educator and Sustainer). By fulfilling this, we are able to attain the rank of true humanity and to become a beneficial element of society.
Education is vital for both societies and individuals. First, our humanity is directly proportional to the purity of our emotions. Although those who are full of evil feelings and whose souls are influenced by egoism appear to be human beings, whether they really are so is questionable. Almost anyone can train themselves physically, but few can educate their minds and feelings. Second, improving a community is possible by elevating the coming generations to the rank of humanity, not by obliterating the bad ones. Unless the seeds of religion, traditional values, and historical consciousness are germinated throughout the country, new negative elements will inevitably grow up in the place of every negative element that has been eradicated.
A nation's future depends on its youth. Any people who want to secure their future should apply as much energy to raising their children as they devote to other issues. A nation that fails its youth, that abandons them to foreign cultural influences, jeopardizes their identity and is subject to cultural and political weakness.
The reasons why we are able to observe the indulgence in vice in today's generation, as well as the reasons for the incompetence of some administrators and similar nationwide troubles, can be found in the prevailing conditions and ruling elite of 25 years ago. Likewise, those who are charged with the education of the young people of today will be responsible for the vices and virtues that will appear in the next 25 years. Those who wish to predict a nation's future can do so accurately by taking full account of the education and upbringing given to its young people. "Real" life is possible only through knowledge. Thus, those who neglect learning and teaching should be counted as being "dead," even though they are living; we were created to learn and communicate to others what we have learned.
Making correct decisions is dependent on possessing a sound mind and being capable of sound thought. Science and knowledge illuminate and develop the mind. For this reason, a mind deprived of science and knowledge cannot make the right decisions; it is always exposed to deception, and is subject to being misled.
We are only truly human if we learn, teach, and inspire others. It is difficult to regard those who are ignorant and without desire to learn as being truly human. It is also questionable whether learned people who do not renew and reform themselves in order to set an example for others are truly human. Status and merit acquired through knowledge and science are higher and more lasting than those obtained through other means.
Given the great importance of learning and teaching, we must determine what is to be learned and taught, and when and how to do so. Although knowledge is a value in itself, the purpose of learning is to make knowledge a guide in life and to illuminate the road to human perfection. Thus, any knowledge not appropriated for the self is a burden to the learner, and a science that does not direct one toward sublime goals is a deception.
But knowledge acquired for a legitimate purpose is an inexhaustible source of blessings for the learner. Those who possess such a source are always sought out by people, like a source of fresh water, and are able to lead people to good. Knowledge limited to empty theories and unabsorbed pieces of learning, which arouses suspicions in minds and darkens hearts, is a "heap of garbage" around which desperate and confused souls flounder. Therefore, science and knowledge should seek to uncover the nature of humanity and the mysteries of creation. Any knowledge, even "scientific knowledge," is legitimate only if it sheds light on the mysteries of human nature and enlightens the dark areas of existence.
Family, school, and environment
People who want to guarantee their future cannot be indifferent to how their children are educated. The family, school, environment, and mass media should all cooperate to ensure the desired result. Opposing tendencies among these vital institutions will subject young people to contradictory influences that will distract them and dissipate their energy. In particular, the mass media should contribute to the education of the young generation by following the education policy approved by the community. The school must be as perfect as possible with respect to its curriculum, the scientific and moral standards of the teachers, and its physical conditions. A family must provide the necessary warmth and atmosphere in which to raise children.
In the early centuries of Islam, minds, hearts, and souls strove to understand that which the Lord of the Heavens and the Earth approves. Each conversation, discussion, correspondence, and event was directed to that end. As a result, whoever could do so, imbibed the correct values and spirit from the surrounding environment. It was as if everything was a teacher which would prepare the individual's mind and soul and develop his or her capacity to attain a high level in Islamic sciences. The first school in which we receive the necessary education to be perfected is the home.
The home is vitally important for raising a healthy generation and ensuring a healthy social system or structure. This responsibility continues throughout life. The impressions we receive from our family cannot be obliterated later in life. Furthermore, the family's control over the child at home, with respect to other siblings and toys, continues at school with respect to the child's friends, books, and places visited. Parents must feed their children's minds with knowledge and science before their minds become engaged in useless things, for souls without truth and knowledge are fields in which evil thoughts are cultivated and grown.
Children can receive a good education at home only if there is a healthy family life. Thus, marriage should be undertaken to form a healthy family life and so contribute to the permanence of one's nation, in particular, and of the human population in general. Peace, happiness, and security at home establish mutual accord between the spouses in thought, morals, and belief. Couples who decide to marry should know each other well and consider purity of feelings, chastity, morality, and virtue rather than wealth and physical charms. The mischief and impudence of children reflect the atmosphere in which they are being raised. A dysfunctional family life increasingly reflects upon the spirit of the child, and therefore upon society.
In the family, older members should treat younger ones with compassion, and the young should show respect for their elders. Parents should love and respect each other, and treat their children with compassion and due consideration of their feelings. They must treat each child justly and not discriminate among them. If parents encourage their children to develop their abilities and be useful to themselves and the community, they have then given the nation a strong new pillar. If they do not cultivate the proper feelings in their children, they release scorpions into the community.
The school and the teacher
A school may be compared to a laboratory; it offers an elixir that can prevent or heal the ills of life. Those who have the knowledge and wisdom to prepare and administer this elixir are the teachers.
A school is a place of learning, where everything related to this life and the next is taught. It can shed light on vital ideas and events, and enable students to understand their natural and human environment. A school can also quickly open the way to unveiling the meaning of things and events, thereby leading a student to wholeness of thought and contemplation. In essence, a school is a kind of place of worship; the "holy leaders" are the teachers.
True teachers sow the pure seed and preserve it. They occupy themselves with what is good and wholesome, and lead and guide the children through life and whatever events they may encounter. For a school to be a true institution of education students should first be equipped with an ideal, a love of their language and know how to use it most effectively; they should possess good morals and perennial human values. Their social identity must be built on these foundations.
Education is different from teaching. Most people can teach, but only a very few can educate. Communities composed of individuals devoid of sublime ideals, good manners, and human values are like rude individuals who have no loyalty in friendship or consistency in enmity. Those who trust such people are always disappointed, and those who depend upon them are sooner or later left without support. The best way of equipping oneself with such values is a sound religious education.
A community's survival depends on idealism and good morals, as well as on being able to reach the necessary level in scientific and technological progress. For this reason, trades and crafts should be taught, beginning at least at the elementary level. A good school is not a building where only theoretical information is given, but an institution or a laboratory where students are prepared for life.
Patience is of great importance in education. Educating people is the most sacred, but also the most difficult, task in life. In addition to setting a good personal example, teachers should be patient enough to obtain the desired result. They should know their students well, and address their intellects and their hearts, spirits, and feelings. The best way to educate people is to show a special concern for every individual, not forgetting that each individual is a different "world."
A school provides its pupils with the possibilities of continuous reading, and speaks even when it is silent. Because of this, although it seems to occupy only one phase of life, school actually dominates all times and events. For the rest of their lives, pupils reenact what they have learned at school and derive continuous influence from this experience. Teachers should know how to find a way to the student's heart and be able to leave indelible imprints upon his or her mind. They should test the information to be passed on to students by refining their own minds and the prisms of their hearts. A good lesson is one that does more than provide pupils with useful information or skills; it should elevate them into the presence of the unknown. This enables the students to acquire a penetrating vision into the reality of things, and to see each event as a sign of the unseen world.
 Ibn Miskawayh (c.930-1030): Muslim moralist, philosopher, and historian. His moral treatise Tahdhib al-Akhlaq [Gilding Morality], influenced by the Aristotelian concept of the meaning, is considered one of the best statements of Islamic philosophy. His universal history Kitab Tajarib al-Umam wa Ta'aqub al-Himam (Eclipse of the 'Abbasid Caliphate), was noted for its use of all available sources and greatly stimulated the development of Islamic historiography.
This article is a summary from Gülen's articles published in Sızıntı, March 1981–June 1982, Issue No: 26-41.