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The Role Of The Teacher
Oct 1, 1996

This article deals with the role of the teacher in the learning process.

Different views of the teacher

The curriculum is a process. It is not a set of documents distributed win a central government office. The curriculum is based on a set of beliefs and views about the classification and organization of knowledge the respective roles of the teacher and learner, and the process of learning.

It may seem obvious that good teaching is carried out by good teachers, but within this simple concept are many diverse issues. Is a good teacher one who comes to school early and stays late? Is he or she one who stimulates the children, writes copious notes about philosophy of education or plans every moment of the day according to a teacher’s maul? Does the teacher’s dress have any bearing on ‘good teaching’? Can the individual who does not speak to his or her neighbours make a good teacher?

The idea of ‘good teacher’ is not simply a job description related to employment contracts, it is the very essence of educational philosophy. Earlier in the century the ‘good teacher’ was a ‘good disciplinarian’. With this notion came a particular understanding of the curriculum and classroom practice. During the l960s, the teacher was seen as a ‘facilitator’ inspiring children to ‘discover’ knowledge. This contrasted with the image of the all-knowledgeable specialist whose job it was to ‘till empty vessels’ with a commodity called ‘knowledge’.

Educationalists have arrived at the conclusion, that effective change in education cannot take place without re-examining the role of’ the teacher. This is an on-going process and the teacher is now seen as a ‘reflective practitioner’ or ‘an artist who is constantly striving to improve his or her art’. Stenhouse (1985) made a ‘call to arms’ saying that ‘the way ahead is to disseminate the idea of teacher as artist with the implication that artists exercise autonomy of judgement founded upon research directed towards the improvement of their art.’

Teachers need to reflect. They need to improve, but improvement does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place in discussion about issues. The contribution of early Muslim philosophers and educationalists can make an interesting contribution to this discussion.

The role of the teacher in Islamic education

The Prophet Muhammad,upon him be peace, affirmed: ‘Verily I was sent as a teacher.’ and himself established the status and role of the teacher. He chose, prepared and sent Companions to teach whole communities. Of all aspects of Islamic education, the role of the teacher has been the most clearly defined one.

The teacher has always been more important than the books. Imam al-Shafi’i, the famous jurist, said: ‘Whoever learns from books will miss the required achievement’ (lbn Jumah, p.87). Among the most concise descriptions of the teacher’s role was written by Imam al-Ghazali (d, 505H/ 1113) in his Ihya Ulum al-Din. (‘The Revival of the Islamic Sciences’) and his Ayyuha 1-Walad (‘0 Child!’). A text written nearly a hundred years later and covering similar themes and used in training teachers. Ta’lim al-Muta’allim by al-Zamuji. has also been translated into English. Below we summarise some of the main principles of teaching according to al-Ghazali.

Ghazali’s view of teaching and learning

Ghazali likens studying to the acquisition of wealth. There are four states in both. One may he:

  1. actively seeking them but relying on others
  2. self sufficient and independent
  3. enjoying one’s hard-earned acquisition
  4. enjoying and sharing one’s acquisition with others.

The fourth state is the highest. The one who shares his wealth is charitable. The one who shares his knowledge is a teacher. The Prophet upon him he peace said: ‘The best of you is the one who learns the Qur’an and teaches it.’ However, not all who claim to be teachers fall into this category.

In his hook al-Bidaya ,Ghazali describes three types of teacher: ‘There is a man who seeks knowledge as a provision for the life to come ... he is of the successful ones’. There is the one who seeks knowledge for worldly benefit. This person is in jeopardy. It is possible that his knowledge will save him and he will repent before he dies. If he does not repent, he may be faced with a bad ending and punishment in the Next World. The third type has been overcome by the devil. He has chosen knowledge as a means to get wealth and influence. In addition to this evil intention he has become arrogant and feels he has obtained a high status with God. Such a person is among those who will be punished in the Hellfire. To be of the first category, Ghazali prescribes eight duties.

1. Empathy with one’s students

The teacher is often likened to the parent. He should feel the same sense of duty and love that the parent feels. The Prophet upon him be peace said: ‘I am to you like the father to his child.’

2. Not working for remuneration

Teachers do the work of the Prophets,that is they educate people in the ways of goodness. The Prophets did not ask for remuneration. They said : ‘Oh my people, I ask you not for riches. My reward is of God alone’ (Hud. ll.29), Teachers should not feel that their students ‘owe’ them anything. They should always give the students full credit and respect for disciplining themselves in order to come close to God. Teachers should not feel pride in what they have done. Although a teacher is allowed to take payment, anyone that teaches for money will soon lose the satisfaction and pleasure of teaching. Payment is a necessary but secondary aspect of a teacher’s motivation. The Messenger, upon him be peace said: ‘Three things which (society) cannot do without: paying of teachers, otherwise people would be ignorant: the selling of Qur’ans otherwise the Book would become rare: and judges. otherwise people would ‘eat’ one another.’

3. Guidance through the programme of study

The teacher should never hold back good advice. The religion is built on good counsel. Guiding the student is part of the religion. Groundwork must always be covered before attempting new tasks and approaching new concepts. ‘Guidance’ means reminding the student of the goal of study and condemning any desire for power boasting and competition.

4. Sensitivity and gentleness in addressing students

As a ‘guide’ the teacher should ‘drive away’ bad characteristics. This requires sensitivity and gentleness. Reprimand should take the form of suggestion as much as possible and guidance should not be through rebuking. Rebuking and outright and direct prohibition invite defiance and encourage stubbornness.

5. Respect for other disciplines

The teacher must never belittle other fields of knowledge in front of his students. He should respect them and prepare his students to study all useful knowledge without impressing on them his or her own personal interests.

6. Matching the lesson to what the student can understand

The teacher should follow the Prophets about whom the Prophet Muhammad said: ‘We Prophets have been commanded to place people in their rightful places and to speak to them according to their ability to understand.’ Giving students concepts which are beyond their comprehension may lead to misunderstanding and frustration. For this reason Jesus said: ‘Do not hang pearls around the necks of pigs.’ The teacher has to assess and evaluate the students’ level and then plan and guide.

7. Dealing with remedial learners

Not all people are the same. The teacher has to ensure, while helping learners to fulfil their potential that they are not given work or exposed to concepts which confuse and frustrate them. Some knowledge is compulsory. The teacher has to make sure the student attains this knowledge and then, sometimes, protect the student from going too far into what might cause harm.

8. Practising what one preaches

It is important that the teachers’ actions match what they teach. The student learns through observation of behaviour. Teachers open themselves to ridicule and accusation if their conduct belies their teachings. He will, through such behaviour, only encourage secret or open disobedience and bad character. In this respect a learned person has a greater responsibility than an ignorant one.

To be of the ‘best of people’ is not easy. The reward is great but so is the responsibility. The descriptions found in the works of Ghazali are as important today as they were 900 years ago. They are based on the words of the greatest of teachers. one who showed us how to fulfil that great role.


  • AL-GHAZAIJ (n.d.) lhya ‘Ulum al-Din, Beirut.
  • AL-GHAZALI(1983) Ayyuha 1-Walad (with notes by Daghi, MA.), Cairo.
  • STENHOUSE, L. (1985) ‘Curriculum research. artistiy and teaching’ in RUDDUCK. J. AND HOPKINS, 0. (eds) from the Research as a Basis for Teaching: Readings Work of Lawrence Stenh use,London.
  • AL-ZARNUJI 1947) Ta’lim, wal-Muta’allim, translated by C. E. Von Grunebaum, New York.
  • IBN JUMAH (1933) Tadhkirat al-Sami’ wa’l-Mutakallim, Hyderabad.