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Fawzia Gilani-Williams, PhD

Author, International Educator, Storyteller

Islamic Critical Theory

Islamic Critical Theory is a theoretical lens that was developed by Fawzia to assist university students that prefer to use an Islamic Weltanschauung or world view in their dissertations or theses. Islamic Critical Theory is built on the ideals of positive transformation, happiness, positive visibility, global neighborliness, love for the world and peace.

Traditional theories are concerned with understanding and explaining what is happening so their agenda goes no further than discussion. Critical Theory, however, is different because it not only critiques but it seeks to make positive changes. Critical Theory seeks to emancipate and transform those who are oppressed and marginalized through functional steps.

“Critical theory is politically committed in the sense that it aims to achieve emancipation and transformation of individuals and society through human action. Theory and practice form a single process and philosophy is ‘put to work’ to provide analysis and critique of society leading to social change” (Jessop 2010: 3).

Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School initially coined the term Critical Theory. The Frankfurt School which was also known as the Institute for Social Research, was originally located in Germany but then moved to New York when the Nazis forced its closure and exiled its Jewish members (McLaughlin 1999:110).  Key developers of Critical Theory include Horkheimer, Adorno , Marcuse and later Habermas who formed the second generation.  Critical Theory emerged from a group of men who saw the atrocities inflicted by humans on humans. The scholars from the Frankfurt School wanted to understand how people could act the way they did but also how such behaviour could be stopped. Although the scholars were Jewish, Kellner states,

“The Frankfurt School had a highly ambivalent relation to Judaism …They were also, for the most part, secular Jews who did not support any organized religion, or practice religious or cultural Judaism. In this sense, they were in the tradition of Heine, Marx, and Freud for whom Judaism was neither a constitutive feature of their life or work, nor a significant aspect of their self-image and identity” (2006 online).

Despite the Frankfurt scholars being religiously detached, their focus in developing Critical Theory was “nothing less than the discovery of why mankind, instead of entering a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.” (Adorno & Horkheimer 1997: xi) The function of Critical Theory is empowerment, it seeks to encourage transformation for those “whose voices are silenced or marginalised.” (Bercaw & Stooksberry 2004). After critiquing society and understanding “what is,” it then asks “what should be” to create a “better life” (How 2003:9).

Developers of Critical Theory saw how mass media or the culture industry “played a highly manipulative role in modern society and served to control or subvert oppositional consciousness, thus removing any threat to the dominant capitalist class” (Strauss: 2012).  The demonization of the Muslim masses is a good example of subverting “oppositional consciousness”.

According to Habermas, “critical knowledge was conceptualized as knowledge that enabled human beings to emancipate themselves from forms of domination through self-reflection and took psychoanalysis as the paradigm of critical knowledge” (Huttunen: 2011). Habermas developed the theory of communicative action. This was a way that people could work together and produce positive social transformation. The theory of communicative action refers to interpersonal communication geared towards mutual understanding. Mutual understanding leads to mutual civility and this works to exclude barbarity. I will discuss the Islamic equivalent of this theoretical perspective later in my introduction to Islamic Critical Theory.

“Actors do not primarily aim at their own success but want to harmonize their action plans with the other participants. Opposite to communicative action is the concept of strategic action, which means calculative exploitation, or manipulation, of others. An actor who acts strategically seeks primarily his or her own ends and manipulates other people either openly or tacitly” (Habermas 1984:285).

In this section I have provided a summary of Critical Theory. In the next section I discuss critical pedagogy. These are both initial steps from which I then discuss Islamic Critical Theory.

Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy was initially based on Marxist theory (Lyles 2008:38). “Historically, critical pedagogy was perceived to be one realization of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School” (Breuing 2011: 4). However, critical pedagogy has now branched off into the various disciplines that use it. 

Similar to Critical Theory, critical pedagogy is not only a theory but also a practical educational philosophy. Paulo Freire was one of the first to create this radical educational and socially steering movement. Leading academics who embraced the philosophy include Kincheloe, McLaren, Giroux, Shor and Macedo (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008). Critical pedagogy is concerned with social justice.  In his most influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), Freire understood schools to be “impediments to the education of the poor, and thus sought to find strategies for students to intervene in what he considered to be a dehumanizing process” (Breuing 2011:4). He called for the liberation of the oppressed through learning. The focus of critical pedagogy is therefore to empower students with a critical lens.

Freire although born to a middle class family was exposed to hunger and poverty during the depression in Brazil.  This initiated a life-long concern to help the poor; he did this in a number of ways, one of which was to bring literacy to the underprivileged. Through his own experience of hunger, Freire was able to directly see how social class affected knowledge (Stevens 2002). Hunger does not allow a child to be able to focus on acquiring knowledge because a basic human need distracts him. Further, hunger is generally associated with the impoverished social class.

Critical pedagogy is concerned with questioning authority. It is in a way subversive. This was evident with Freire being imprisoned for his antagonistic views against the status quo which resulted in his exile. Emancipating the oppressed by challenging the beliefs and systems that dominate them is the concern of critical pedagogy. It seeks to empower the student to be critical about whatever he or she encounters. According to Ira Shor (1992) students need to look beyond the received knowledge and opinion by looking at deep meaning, social contexts and personal consequences in action, policy, subject matter, texts, and what is being said and by whom. In doing this the student is empowered to help herself against those who are subjugating her and preventing her from improving: essentially impeding her social mobility. Students are encouraged to look at the power interests, the winners and losers, the privileged groups and the status quo that protects the interests of certain groups (Kincheloe 2007).

Kincheloe discussed the importance of the knowledge of the group who are being subjugated by another group. There is a liberating effect on people who learn about their own history, accomplishments, heritage and religion. It leads to empowerment through the knowledge that one comes from a group that has made a positive impact. For example the huge contribution of the Muslims world to modern civilization was conveniently overlooked in British history school textbooks.

“It is to the Saracens [Muslims] that the world of today owes much of its science - mathematics, astronomy, navigation, modern medicine and surgery, scientific agriculture – and their influence led to the discovery and exploration of America. In the world of the Saracens, no authority suppressed scientists, and no policeman harried them - nor did any government take care of them. They opened schools; and from Baghdad to Granada, students flocked to them. Some of these schools grew into great universities, and for hundreds of years they continued to grow (Weaver 1953: 105).

Since all education is political and teachers have their own attitudes and beliefs that they bring to classrooms, students are made aware that political agendas are in constant motion (Kincheloe 2007) and students need to be aware that oppression occurs also in gender, race, religion and class.

Critical pedagogy or critical educational theory is not solely attributed to Freire. It  also has distinct American roots emanating from John Dewey and continuing with civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (McLaren 2005:183). According to Bercaw and Stooksberry, critical pedagogues “share a goal of academic success for each student, manifested in the preparation and experience of children to be active citizens in a fully democratic society” (2004).  Giroux and McLaren believe that changes need to begin in the classroom, or “public sphere” (Giroux & McLaren 1996), and then move outwards as students live beyond the classroom. Although dominant powers try to perpetuate their belief system, there is the possibility that institutions especially schools can change unjust systems.

“In order for teachers to be change agents of reform towards making schools public spheres, they must take a critical stance ... as transformative intellectuals who combine scholarly reflection and practice in the service of educating students to be thoughtful, active citizens” (Bercaw & Stooksberry 2004).

In the above section I have summarized critical pedagogy and highlighted its purpose and objective. In the next section, I introduce the terms Islamic critical theory and Islamic critical pedagogy. I discuss why and how I have hybridized them to incorporate an Islamic world view.

Islamic Critical Theory

Critical Theory is concerned with the mobilization of improvement for those who are marginalized or oppressed. Muslims living in the west are marginalized so if Critical Theory was applied to the Muslim situation it would firstly try to understand their condition, explain it and then suggest a way to give transformation. In developing an understanding for Critical Theory and critical pedagogy, I was interested in knowing what Islamic versions of the theory existed.

My reason for wanting to know this was embedded in the general approach that critical theory advocates which is empowering the voiceless. I began to wonder, was there an equivalent version of Critical Theory in Islamic social sciences? If there was then it would help by allowing me to situate my study on character development and Islamic children’s literature within an Islamic world view. This is important because,

“Modern epistemology, many Islamic pedagogues insist, minimizes the knowledge one derives from revelation (Wahi) and thus reduces the knowledge to a material realm wholly dependent on reason. In other words, they continue, Western thought assumes a secular starting point” (Merry 2007:52).


(The remainder of this paper can be obtained by emailing fawzia gilani at