By Seid Ali
There is a famous hadith narrating the story of a boy and a king recorded by Imam Ahmed. Quranic scholars link this story with the six verses of the 85th surah of Quran (Sura Al Buruuj) and commonly use it to show a counterintuitive view of Islam on the meaning of SUCCESS. The story ends with two groups: a group that followed the teaching of the boy and a group that continued to follow the dictates of the King. The followers of the boy end up perishing by fire. Still Allah characterized their end in the 11th Ayah of the same Surah as “…. the great success”.
I looked at this story as an educator. Seen from this point of view, one can see two contrasting groups in the story; a status quo group represented by the king and a sorcerer and a transformational group represented by the monk and the boy. The boy in the story symbolizes a future and whichever group manages to “educate” him is assured of its continuity. His training by the sorcerer could herald the continuity of the socio-economic and political system of the king. If trained by the monk, he could end up contributing to unraveling of the existing system.
We live in a world where dictatorship and their “Haman” like technocrat-enablers are ubiquitous. This reality is as common now, if not more, as they were in the past. I believe we cannot defeat dictatorship without countering the educational system that produces the “sorcerers” of today, technocrats serving the modern dictatorships. My focus in this piece is to present this story in this light and draw lessons on the education of the “boys” of the next generation.
The King in the story aspired to be more than a king. He demanded to be worshipped and might have proclaimed, like a Pharaoh of Egypt, “I am your Lord, the most high (79: 24)”. To convince or coerce his subjects of his Heavenly nature, the king needed to use both the “soft and hard powers” at his disposal. The king had a sorcerer, a source of soft-power, tasked with convincing the populace of the godly nature of the King. Old age caught up with the sorcerer and he asked the king for a boy to train as his replacement. Bankrolled by the King, the selected boy started to receive training from the aging magician.
On his way to the “training center” of the sorcerer, the boy met a monk, listened to his teaching and influenced by it. Two teachings with diametrically opposite contents and purposes were passed on to the boy. It was up to the boy to discern the truth from falsehood and follow it. The boy put the two teachings to test and found the teaching of the monk to be the righteous one.
The boy started to live by the truth he learnt and used it to serve and save his community. The boy could have used his age to avoid shouldering this enormous responsibility or he could have justified his inaction with lack of resources or he could have explained his fear of confronting the king and his cronies by the size of the armies of the king. Rather he chose to act and employed whatever resources he commands, his knowledge and prayer, to treat the people suffering from congenital blindness, leprosy, and other diseases. These “community development” activities attracted the attention of the public and those in the inner circles of the King. Few including the courtier of the King accepted Islam.
Obviously the king was not happy and resorted to the typical tactic of all dictators; he used torture to force his opponents rejoin the “official faith”. He also made many failed attempts on the life of the boy. Allah gave the boy many miracles. One of the miracles Allah gave him was that he would not be killed without his consent and unless the killers follow his specific guidance. For the boy, this miracle is another resource he could use to advance his cause.
The boy determined to spread Islam; the King resolved to halt the spread of Islam. The strategy the king and the boy planned to use to realize their respective visions coincided. The boy saw in his death an opportunity for the spread of Islam; the king saw in the death of the boy the end of Islam. The boy and the king became unlikely partners of a joint project. The duo shared the responsibility of realizing their joint project; the planning of the project was undertaken by the boy while the execution of the project was undertaken by the king. Following the plan set by the boy to the letter, the king gathered his subjects to witness a public execution of the boy, took an arrow from the quiver of boy, shot the arrow aiming for the boy saying “in the name of Allah, the Lord of the boy”. Hit by an arrow, the heart of the boy stopped biting, but the hearts of some of the people watching the execution of the boy resurrected from the “death of disbelief.” By dying, as Christians often assert regarding the death of Jesus (PBUH), the boy gave lives to the spiritually dead ones of his community. Once they tested the sweetness of Islam, the new Muslims followed the footsteps of the boy and chose to perish by fire than renounce their new faith.
What can we learn from this story?
Exposure to the “sorcerer” educational system might not seal the fate of our kids; its monopoly of our educational is dangerous.
Parents often worry about the contents of the education their children receive in their formative years. The fight for the mind and the soul of the next generation is not unique to the current era. Our ancestors faced it in the past, we are living it now and our children and grandchildren will encounter it too. We learn from this story that the exposure of our children to the educational system aimed at producing the “sorcerers” will not necessarily seal their fate. Our children can survive the toxic teaching of the “sorcerer” if we manage to offer them an alternative educational system. For instance, our children can learn the theory of evolution in their biology classes and still believe that the first human being to walk on the face of the earth to be Adam if they have access to a competent alternative education. Their homes and madrassas can serve as a venue for the alternative education system.
It is the educators, stupid
The most crucial resource needed in the training of “the boy” was the monk. The monk taught the only student he has and using the time the boy can spare from the sorcerer training schedule. If we aim to produce the likes of the boy, there is no short-cut to a possession of motivated, dedicated and competent teachers. We need educators determined to produce students who excel them. It is clear from the saying of the monk “O my son! Today you are better than me…….” that the monk succeeded in doing just that.
In the story we read the monk devising strategies to enable the boy overcome the challenges he faced at home and at the training center of the sorcerer (The monk said to him, whenever you are afraid of the sorcerer, say to him: `My people kept me busy.’ And whenever you are afraid of your people, say to them: `The sorcerer kept me busy). We need educators who are not just competent in their specific fields, but also understand the weaknesses of the “sorcerer” educational system and use it to their advantage. For instance, going forward our madrassa educators should not just teach their students that their Creator is “Allah” but they should be able to equip them to counter the arguments of the theory of evolution. As the connectivity of the world increases, the influence of the “sorcerer” will only increase. So should the preparation of our “monks” be.
Aim for the production of honest and independent thinkers, not blind followers
For long our religious and non-religious educational systems often produced blind followers. This is so despite a clear instruction by Allah to take prophet Ibrahim as our role model, a prophet famous for asking questions including Allah (Remember when Ibrahim asked Allah how he resurrects the dead).
Like the boy in the story, our educational system need to aim at producing independent thinkers equipped with the knowledge and the skill sets of the 21st century. It is not enough to produce scientifically competent graduates. Yes our graduates should be competent in their specific field, but they also need to be nurtured by Islamic morality. We should aim for producing graduates whose purpose in life goes beyond this world and who understand that they will have to answer to their Creator on the Day of Judgment to the question of how they used their knowledge.
We need “the boys” willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to rescue their community; who see the reality for what it is and can go beyond the apparent and the illusions. We need an educational system that produces graduates who are not limited with the resources at their disposal and can devise ways of tapping into the resources of their enemies as the boy in the story did. As the reader might have noted, for his last sermon the boy used the state machineries of the King to gather the public.
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