Medieval Muslim thinkers on foreign language pedagogy

Ibn Khaldun Paper

Medieval Muslim Thinkers on Foreign Language Pedagogy; the Case of Ibn Khaldun. 




For a long time, the history of language teaching witnessed using traditional methods that relied primarily on the relationship between the learner and the teacher. These methods were mainly confined to the teaching/learning of grammar and structure, and/or imitating the native speakers of the language being learned/taught. It was not until the 19th century, from a Western point of view, that linguistics and pedagogy experts started to form the concept of foreign language teaching method/approach. However, in this article, we are taking a different stand: we claim that most of the seeds of modern methods of teaching foreign languages and language acquisition theories have their origins in the writings of Medieval Muslim thinkers about teaching Arabic as a foreign language. To prove that, a qualitative content analysis methodology was used to draw evidence from the medieval Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun’s history book: ‘Al Muqqadimah’ [The Muqqadimah / The Introduction]. Findings of this study indicate that a number of teaching methods – similar to contemporary ones – were developed by medieval Muslim thinkers. Implications for the teaching of languages to non-native speakers are also provided.

Keywords: Foreign Languages; TAFL; teaching Arabic; medieval Islam; education.

  1. Introduction

A review of the history of foreign language teaching methods shows that the grammar translation method prevailed in the educational settings since the old ages from the time of the Romans and the Greek. For a long time, there were different attempts to change this method and develop new techniques for teaching (Griffiths, & Parr, 2001). However, the biggest turning point in language teaching pedagogy was witnessed in the late 19th century and the beginnings of the 20th century (Richards & Rodgers, 2000). It was not until then that the new world of approaches, methods and techniques came into being. In fact, the very idea of differentiating between a theoretical basis called an approach, a clear design called a method, and practical steps called a technique, was originated with the Reform movement on that time (Howatt, & Widdowson, 1984).

Nevertheless, the western point of view neglects the important impact of Arabic Muslim thinkers on the advancement of the foreign language teaching methodology. Arabic – being the language of Science and civilization in the medieval ages (alternatively called dark ages in Europe) – had the high demand on learning by non-Arabs who lived within the Islamic Empire or came in contact with Arab scholars in different branches of Science (Menocal, 1985; Osman, 2013). Arabic script was also widely used by European artists for decorative purposes (Mack, 2002). The demand on teaching Arabic to the children as well as adults of the new opened lands was high by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In fact, the teaching of Arabic was part and parcel of teaching the new religion and its related sciences (Menocal, 1985).

  1. Arab/Islamic Education in Medieval Europe

Lewis (2003) notes that Muslims were in the forefront of human civilization and achievement during the Medieval Europe ages. Ragep (2001) states that “nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600”. Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West. In fact, many western writers, such as Sir Walter Scott, showed a tremendous respect for the Muslims and their Civilization and gave us an insight into the debt Western culture owes to the Islamic civilization (Deeb, 2014).

According to Bibbs (1999), it was the Muslim expansion into Spain in A.D.1085 that created a new world view and new learning previously unknown in Europe, such as the technology of paper-making. Muslim scholars also contributed with a vast number of empirical studies in natural science. These studies were developed by generations of scholars whose approaches neither belonged to nor were confined by the narrow view of the Catholic Church articulated by St. Augustine of Hippo.

This lead in science, according to Menocal (1985) and Hinkle (2009), gave the Arabic language (being the language of science at that time) a prestigious stand in the European Medieval ages. Gallego (2003) states that in certain parts of the Islamic territory “Christians had Arabic as their written and spoken language by the eleventh century is attested in the Arabic documentary evidence produced by the Mozarab community of Toledo” (p.113).  It was not only the language of the Muslims at that time, but also became the language of the non-native elite, the educated, and the language of prestige. In many cases, an excellent knowledge of Arabic allowed non-native Arabic speakers to hold important offices in Christian Kingdoms, as secretaries and courtiers (Gallego, 2003). This led later to the spread of both Arabic authentic and translated writings throughout Europe.

According to Spade (2013), many of those non-native Arabic speakers who learned Arabic started to translate Arabic texts to other languages. John of Spain (Johannes Hispanus) for example, translated, among other things, Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina, 980–1037) Logic from Arabic into Latin. Another example is Gundissalinus who translated Avicenna’s Metaphysics into Latin, and some of his other works, as well as writings by the Islamic philosophers Al-Farabi (c. 870–950) and Al-Ghazali (1058–1111). Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187) also translated Al-Kindi’s (d. 873) On the Intellect and other works.

Corriente (1997) states that these translations were accompanied by an Arabization process that started since the end of the Eleventh century. This caused Arabic to gradually replace Romance and Berber as spoken languages. This Arabic mono-lingualism prevailed in Muslim Spain since the end of the eleventh century, or the thirteenth century according to some others, until the end of the seventeenth century. Gallego (2003) notes that “during these times, the pride in having a good knowledge of classical Arabic was a prevalent notion in Muslim Andalusi scholarship. And a good way to prove one’s linguistic command was, no doubt, making a linguistic correction to a real Arab.” (p. 123). It was also one of the qualities that one would highlight in his/her biography.

  1. Arab/Muslim Thinkers and their Philosophy of Education

Many Arab and Muslim thinkers showed deep insight into the philosophy of Islamic education.  Some of them, for example, are Ibn Suhnun (817-870), Al-Farabi (d. 950), Avicenna (980-1037), Al-Jahiz (776-868) and AlGhazli (1058-1111). Almost all of them wrote extensively on education and the roles of both learners and teachers. Although it is noticed that just few of them talked about teaching Arabic to non-Arabs (as a foreign or a second language), but their contributions were acknowledged by many scholars (Günther,2006).

Ibn Sahnun – the ninth-century Arab jurist and chief judge (qaDi) of the Malikites, wrote on the ethics of teachers and learners, developed the outline of a sound curriculum and set rules for developing the characters of the learners (Günther, 2006; Ismail & Abdullah, 2013; Brockopp, 2011). In fact, he was the very first Muslim scholar to write a handbook for teachers entitled ‘Rules of Conduct for Teachers’ (Adab al-mu_allimin) in which he talked about issues that elementary school teachers may encounter in their classes. (Günther, 2006).

Moreover, Al-Jahiz was more interested in informing teachers on how to foster the deduction and reasoning method rather than memorization of texts in learners (Günther, 2006). His book entitled ‘The Book of Teachers’ (Kitab al-Mu_allimin) deals, from a literary-philosophical point of view, with questions of learning and teaching. Opposing the low status of school teachers, he “champions them and stresses their superiority over all other categories of educators and tutors” (Günther, 2006, p.372). He did not only contribute to the development and enrichment of Islamic philosophy of education, but he also presented a theory of evolution long time before Darwin (Bayrakdar, 1985). From more than a hundred and twenty writings of Al-Jahiz (Arifin, 2015), about forty of his writings exist nowadays (Bakalla, 1984).

Similarly, Al-Farabi was a philosopher, a logician, a doctor, and a musician. Rescher (1962) states that “Arabs call him the ‘second teacher’ i.e., the successor of Aristotle, the first teacher (p.11). Al-Farabi advocated the student-centered approach in teaching, and focused on demonstration (his very book is called The Demonstration) rather than just instructing students. He also believed that education must be for all, and if education must be available to all, the method of teaching should, in turn, be adapted according to the group it is intended for. (Al-Talbi, 1993).

While Avicenna is well known as a medicine scholar, his views on education are not less important than his views on medicine. In his writings, he advised teachers to combine the teaching of reading and writing and stressed the importance of employing Arabic poetry in the curriculum (Günther, 2006). He encouraged teachers to make the classroom joyful for the students (Abassi & Malekkazerunian, 2014). He also encouraged teaching students to read poetry with pleasure thus involves teaching them about freeing themselves to attend to the poem as much as it does teaching them about the poem (Azadpur & Silvers, 2005, pp. 37-38).

Al-Ghazali, on the other hand, focused on the guidance rather than correction method in teaching young learners. He specified detailed roles for the students and for the teachers. Günther (2006) states that Al-Ghazali “devoted the first chapter of The Revival to “The Excellence of Knowledge, Teaching, and Learning” (Fadl al-_ilm wa-lta _lim wa-l-ta_allum), and provided a great catalog of detailed advice on the duties and proper behavior of both the students and the teachers, entitled “Rules of Conduct for the Student and Teacher” (Adab al-muta_allim wa-l-mu_allim) (p. 382). These are but examples of the intellectual history of Medieval Muslim thinkers on Education.


  1. Abdulrahman Ibn Khaldun

The scholar we seek to investigate, however, is quite different from the above mentioned. Abdulrahman Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a historian, a sociologist and a philosopher (Osman, 2003). Boulakia (1971) states that Ibn Khaldun’s given name was Abdulrahman, and his ethnic denomination was Al-Hadrami. He witnessed the last days of the Andalusian Empire, lived in Morocco, visited Egypt and the Orient and had numerous students in all these parts. He is considered an eye-witness of the historical, political, social and educational changes that happened in a very rich as well as very important era in Muslim and world history (Alatas, 2006).

He is well known for his lengthy introduction called “Al Muqaddimah” [The Muqaddimah / The Introduction] for his history book. This introduction has long been celebrated in the Arab as well as the Western world because it is seen to contain the seeds of modern science of Sociology. It lays out the basis for studying the human gathering phenomenon and suggests a theory for human architecture represented in the term asabiya or group feeling (Sidani, 2008). Toynbee (1972) asserts that Ibn Khaldun has “conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place” (p. 321). Thus, several western scholars recognized Ibn Khaldun as the founder of sociology (Von Kremer, 1879; Gumplowicz, 1928: 90–114; Maunier, 1913; Gasset, 1976–8).

The Muqaddimah, was “an attempt to explain the different events in history through a cause and effect relationship and to derive scientifically the principles that lie behind the rise and fall of a ruling dynasty or state (dawlah) or civilization (umran)” (Chapra, 2008, pp. 838-839). Simon (1978) states that the Muqaddimah is “by far surpasses everything that had been said about human culture until the time of Ibn Khaldun; and it is of equal rank with modern works that are concerned with similar problems” (p.11). It is also celebrated for its handling of roles of the historian and how to observe objectivity in recording and commenting on historical events.

However, away from these two broad themes of Sociology and History, scattered around in the text are allusions for important observations in language description and linguistics in addition to language teaching observations. In this article, we are going to investigate some of these observations and historical allusions to Arabic as a foreign language teaching pedagogy.

  1. Method


Using qualitative methodology, this study analyzed selected extracts from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqqadimah. The extracts were selected from the sixth part of the Muqaddimah, which deals with education and instruction methods at the time of Ibn Khaldun. These extracts are thought to fall within two categories. The first is the actual practices of teaching and learning Arabic by native and non-native speakers of Arabic at the time of Ibn Khadun. The second includes Ibn Khaldun’s own intellectual ideas regarding the theories of language and language learning that were either implemented or called for implementation at his time.

The purpose of our analysis is to explore samples of the early writings on foreign language teaching and learning so as to have a look at a different perspective on the history of foreign language pedagogy. In order to achieve this goal, the following procedures are followed:

  • The text of the extract is presented in English translation (Rosenthal’s translation of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqqadimah, 1969)
  • A commentary on the main ideas presented in the extract is presented with reference to the historical, social or linguistic background of the text for better understanding of the details of the text.
  • Relating Ibn Khadun’s ideas to modern theories, approaches, methods and techniques in language teaching or learning strategies is attempted by comparing and jotting down the similarities between the extract and the practices of modern science.
  • A conclusion on the pedagogical implications for foreign language teaching is presented.


  1. Actual practices of teaching AFL

6.1 content-based instruction

The Maghribi method is to restrict the education of children to instruction in the Qur’an and to practice, during the course (of instruction), in Qur’an orthography and its problems and the differences among Qur’an experts on this score. The (Maghribis) do not bring up any other subjects in their classes, such as traditions, jurisprudence, poetry, or Arabic philology, until the pupil is skilled in (the Qur’an), or drops out before becoming skilled in it. In the latter case, it means, as a rule, that he will not learn anything. This is the method the urban population in the Maghrib and the native Berber Qur’an teachers who follow their (urban compatriots), use in educating their children up to the age of manhood. They use it also with old people who study the Qur’an after part of their life has passed. Consequently, (Maghribis) know the orthography of the Qur’an, and know it by heart, better than any other (Muslim group). [part6, ch. 38].

In this extract, Ibn Khaldun mentions part of the practices of teaching Arabic to children as well as adults in one area of the Arab world which is Morocco (Maghrib). He explains that the Moroccans used the Quran only as the sole text of study. Learners would study the Quran content and form; meaning and orthography. Mastering the text (Quran) would then mean mastering the language. This trend is nowadays called content-based instruction in which the content is the central point in the language teaching practice. Content, within language teaching methodology, is interpreted as the use of subject matter as a vehicle for second or foreign language teaching/learning. (Stoller, 2008).

According to many scholars (Vyas & Patel, 2009; Grabe & Stoller, 1997; Stryker & Leaver, 1997; Pessoa, Hendry, Donato, Tucker, & Lee, 2007) content-based instruction has many benefits. Some of these benefits include:

  1. CBI exposes learners to a considerable amount of language through stimulating content.
  2. CBI enables learners to make greater connections with the language and what they already know. Via contextualized learning, learners are taught useful language that is embedded within relevant discourse contexts rather than as isolated language fragments.
  3. Using CBI enables educators to deliver complex information through real life context. Thus, it makes it easy for leaners to grasp new concepts and leads them to develop intrinsic motivation.
  4. In CBI, information is reiterated by strategically delivering information at both the right time and suitable context, which in turn helps learners to learn out of passion.
  5. Flexibility and Adaptability of the CBI-based curriculum can be deployed as per the student’s interest.

6.2 Whole language and the language experience approach

The Spanish method is instruction in reading and writing as such. That is what they pay attention to in the instruction (of children). However, since the Qur’an is the basis and foundation of (all) that and the source of Islam and (all) the sciences, they make it the basis of instruction, but they do not restrict their instruction of children exclusively to (the Qur’an). They also bring in (other subjects), mainly poetry and composition, and they give the children an expert knowledge of Arabic and teach them a good handwriting. They do not stress teaching of the Qur’an more than the other subjects. In fact, they are more concerned with teaching handwriting than any other subject, until the child reaches manhood. He then has some experience and knowledge of the Arabic language and poetry. He has an excellent knowledge of handwriting, and he would have a thorough acquaintance with scholarship in general…[part6, ch. 38].


In this extract, Ibn Khaldun mentions another facet of the actual practices of teaching Arabic especially as a second language in another part of the Arab world namely Muslim Spain. He explains that The Spanish had a different method of teaching to those that were used in the other parts of the Arab world (mainly Morocco where Ibn Khaldun spent most of his life). The Spanish utilized the integration of reading and writing in a fashion similar to what is called today whole language learning.

Whole language, sometimes called the language experience approach, is an approach in teaching that embodies both a philosophy of language development as well as the instructional approaches embedded within that philosophy. It includes the use of real literature and writing in the context of meaningful, functional, and cooperative experiences in order to develop students’ motivation and interest in the process of learning (Bergeron, 1990, 319). It also is a constructivist approach to knowledge creation that focuses on making meaning in reading and expressing meaning in writing (Altwerger, Edelsky, & Flores, 1987).

The emphasis in whole language, according to Bergeron (1990) is on culturally-diverse literature, journal writing, choral reading, charts, big books and understanding the meaning-making role of phonics, grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation in diverse social contexts. In the previously mentioned extract, Ibn Khaldun shows that students studied, in addition to the Quran, poetry and extracts from Arabic authentic writings. Teachers combined the practice of the reading skill, on a practice on the writing skill, whereby students had to imitate the reading materials and follow their model.

Ibn Khaldun seems to favor this latter method of instruction followed by the Spanish as it would make the child “[have] some experience and knowledge of the Arabic language and poetry [and] an excellent knowledge of handwriting, and he would have a thorough acquaintance with scholarship in general”. It seems also natural for the Spanish to integrate reading and writing in their instruction, because Spain is perceived of as a place where Arabic existed mainly as a second language and was taught to nonnative speakers of the language. They needed, above all, to learn language for communication. The medium, for them, was more important that the content. So the study of the Quran and its sciences for the sake of language development would not suffice. A general study of Arabic, Qur’anic and non-Qur’anic, writings aided with follow-up writing practices would have been the best methodology to follow.

In following this integration of reading and writing, and relating both skills to authentic materials and experiential practices, the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language was very similar to present-day communicative, even post communicative, trends in language teaching. It is interesting how modern trends in language teaching methodology resemble other methods that were utilized centuries ago. However, these methods were introduced as new ones. In this regards, Decoo (2001) argues that language learning is one of the few disciplines that are ignorant of its own past (p.18).

  1. Ibn Khaldun’s views on language learning and teaching

    7.1 Scaffolding; the best technique of teaching

It should be known that the teaching of scientific subjects to students is effective only when it proceeds gradually and little by little. At first, (the teacher) presents (the student) with the principal problems within each chapter of a given discipline. He acquaints him with them by commenting on them in a summary fashion. In the course of doing so, he observes the student’s intellectual potential and his preparedness for understanding the material that will come his way until the end of the discipline under consideration (is reached). In the process, (the student) acquires the habit of the-science (he studies). However, that habit will be an approximate and weak one. The most it can do is to enable the student to understand the discipline (he studies) and to know its problems.

In this extract, Ibn Khaldun sets it clear that students need gradual repetition. Starting from an overall view of the subject matter (something that echoes the Gestalt stand), moving to the details of the mental image, and finishing with a recalled comprehensive view of the subject matter (Bell, 1991; Parrish, 1928). In suggesting this as a successful technique in teaching, Ibn Khaldun is also forth echoing the instructional scaffolding technique.

Scaffolding was introduced primarily as an aid to young children oral language acquisition. This is naturally relevant to the old Arab tradition of oral instruction. Although the term started with Bruner in the 1970s (Puntambekar & Hubscher, 2005), it reached its fame with the Vygotsky’s ZPD model within the concept of an expert assisting a novice or an apprentice (Chaiklin, 2003; Wells, 1999). Scaffolding in this sense, is a temporary framework that is put up for support and access to meaning by the leaner (Sims, Dobbs, & Hand, 2002; Gibbons, 2002).

We notice that Ibn Khaldun focuses on the development of the habit of learning reaching mastery of the subject matter through this three-fold process of repetition. Saye and Brush (2002) identify two levels of instructional scaffolding; the soft and the hard. The soft level would be used when need arises among students in the classroom especially with a hard piece of information or language structure (Van Lier, 1994). The hard or embedded scaffolding is planned in advance for special students when the teacher knows they need assistance. It would become as a type of remedial teaching. (Kao & Cennamo, 1996). Ibn Khaldun points out that not all students need the three-fold repetition process; as some of them may be able to get it by fewer repetitions.

Table 1: The steps within the process of scaffolding

Ibn Khaldun’s steps Modern scaffolding steps

Group scaffolding

Modern scaffolding steps


–          A Gestalt overview (principal problems, summary, evaluating aptitude).

–          Detailed commentaries and explanations, problems.

–          Another overview, all secrets revealed, nothing complicated or vague.

–          Know your students.

–          Model explicitly.

–          Nurture struggling. reader’s development

–          Teach within the ZPD.

–          Learners’ independence. (Gibbons, 2002; Walqui,   2006)

–          Motivate the student.

–          Sit side by side as you explain.

–          Focus on the need.

–          Give the student feedback. (Robb, 2003)



7.2 Language as a habit; audio-lingual method

It should be known that all languages are habits similar to crafts (techniques). They are habits (located) in the tongue and serve the purpose of expressing ideas. The good or inadequate (character of such expression) depends on the perfection or deficiency of the habit. This does not apply to individual words but to word combinations. A speaker who possesses a perfect (linguistic) habit and is thus able to combine individual words so as to express the ideas he wants to express, and who is able to observe the form of composition that makes his speech conform to the requirements of the situation, is as well qualified as is (humanly) possible to convey to the listener what he wants to convey. This is what is meant by eloquence.

Habits result only from repeated action. An action is done first (once).Thus, it contributes an attribute to the essence. With repetition it becomes a condition, which is an attribute that is not firmly established. After more repetition, it becomes a habit, that is, a firmly established attribute. [part 6, ch. 45].

Ibn Khaldun’s stand in this extract is similar to that of the tenants of the audio-lingual method. Within the audio-lingual method, language was seen as a habit formation (Howatt & Widdowson, 1984) whereby a learner develops a response to a stimulus in presence of reinforcement.  The Audio-lingual method was basically developed by the merging of two very broad theories in language and psychology. Bloomfield’s structuralism marked the theory of language where language is no longer what is coded in dictionaries or grammar books. Rather, language, in the structural view, is what the native speakers of the language say. The theory of learning, on the other hand, was the ambitious results of Connectionist psychologists, headed by Pavlov and Thorndike. The successful animal-based experiments of connectionism was like a spark for the emerging Audio-lingual method that took drill, accordingly, as the main language teaching activity. Mimicry-Memorization was the name of the game (Kumaravadivelu, 2006).


It is interesting how Ibn Khaldun describes the process of habit formation through repetitions, and how this description is fully applicable to the drill activities within the Audio-lingual Method. Habit reaches its utmost form, in Ibn Khaldun’s views, when it becomes an attribute; thus making the learner use the language naturally in a mode similar to its native speakers.  The three stages of habit formation are thus: habit, condition and then attribute. With guided repetition and gradual learning action, it becomes “a firmly established attribute”.

Ibn Kaldun’s description of habit formation may well represent the theory of language learning. The theory of language, on the other hand, would be his emphasis that language habits “exist in the tongue”; that is; it is natural with all human beings. This may ring a bell regarding Chomsky’s universal grammar, where all languages of the world are learnable to the human being based on universal rules that govern the underlying system of human languages. It is surprising how Ibn Khaldun emphasizes that habit is relevant to word strings not to individual words; thus focusing on the holistic view where language is not parts that are grouped together, but rather a whole view of a living organism. There is also the reference to the communicative situation where the learner should “conform his speech to the requirements of the situation”. It is not just the linguistic competence by being “able to combine individual words so as to express the ideas he wants to express”, but also a communicative competence that pays equal attention to the form “and who is able to observe the form of composition”, and the communicative contextual meaning “to the requirements of the situation” (Kumaravadivelu, 2006).


7.3 Teach the language, not about the language

The habit of the language is different from Arabic philology and can dispense with it in (the process of) instruction. The reason for this is that Arabic philology is merely a knowledge of the rules and forms of this habit. It is the knowledge of a quality, and not a quality itself. It is not the habit itself. Rather, it is comparable to a person who has a theoretical knowledge of a craft but does not know how to exercise it in practice…. But if he were challenged to do something like the (things he talks about) with his own hands, he would in no way be able to.

The same applies to the relationship between knowledge of the rules governing the vowel endings and the (linguistic) habit itself. Knowledge of the rules is a knowledge of how to use them, but it is not the actual use of them. Therefore, we find that many outstanding grammarians and skilled Arab philologists who have a comprehensive knowledge of those rules make many mistakes and commit many solecisms when they are asked to write one or two lines to a colleague or friend, or to write a complaint concerning some injustice or anything else they might want to say. They cannot put (the words) together and express what they want to say in a way that corresponds to the ways of the Arabic language. [part 6- ch. 49]

In this extract, Ibn Khaldun clearly differentiates between knowing a language and knowing about a language. He explains that knowing a language refers to the skills of using this language through actual practice “writing letters, or complaints to express different needs”. Knowing about the language, on the contrary, is knowledge of the system of the language without being necessarily able to functionalize this system in communicative interaction. Knowing about a language entails knowing about the peculiarities of its grammar and sound systems, knowing about the different case endings and their rules, and knowing about how words should be grouped together to form a string of meaningful language utterance. The difference between the two (knowing a language and knowing about a language) is the object of many recent discussions in language teaching methodology. The basic cause behind this difference is the concept of “habit”.

Using the language, for Ibn Khaldun, is a habit that needs to be developed till it is full-fledged as an attribute of the person. Knowing about the language, on the other hand, is not a habit; it is mere theoretical knowledge. Even some of the great scholars in Linguistics (Philology) will make mistakes in the actual practice of using the language, if it has not been fully developed from a habit into an attribute.

With the reform movement, in the last quarter of the 19th century, scholars decided that it was not linguistic study that we seek to teach to our children (knowing about the language), rather it was the different language skills that ensure successful and meaningful communication. Ibn Khaldun gives the examples of a tailoring student and a carpentry student who both know well about the technicalities of each craft, but otherwise cannot put this knowledge to action. Moulton’s (1961: 63) slogans compile the descriptive and methodological features of this position:

  1. Language is speech, not writing
  2. A language is what its native speaker’s say, not what someone thinks they ought to say
  3. Languages are different
  4. A language is a set of habits
  5. Teach the language, not about the language

7.4 Nonnatives as better language teachers

As for the Spaniards, their varied curriculum with its great amount of instruction in poetry, composition, and Arabic philology gave them, from their early years on, a habit providing for a better acquaintance with the Arabic language. They were less proficient in all the other (religious) sciences, because they were little familiar with study of the Qur’an and the traditions that are the basis and foundation of the (religious) sciences. Thus, they were people who knew how to write and who had a literary education that was either excellent or deficient, depending on the secondary education they received after their childhood education. [part 6, ch. 38]

It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars both in the religious and in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs. When a scholar is of Arab origin, he is non-Arab in language and upbringing and has non-Arab teachers. This is so in spite of the fact that Islam is an Arabic religion, and its founder was an Arab. [part 6, ch. 42].


In this extract, Ibn Khaldun sets the differences between native and nonnative teachers of Arabic as a foreign language. He points out that nonnative (Spanish) teachers of Arabic were very professional in the Arabic language, although their knowledge about other sciences of religions may not have been as such. Native teachers, however, provided better language models, not necessarily better language teachers. Ibn Khaldun notices that the prominent figures in the history of Arabic language study – in addition to other religious sciences- were non-Arabs.

In this distinction, Ibn Khaldun seems aware of the mental processing strategies followed by native and nonnative teachers of the language. Baily (2005) explains that natives are not much concerned about explaining grammar and focus more on meaning and communication. Nonnative on the other hand, are keener on explaining every bit of grammar and pronunciation.

Amin (2001 in Baily) states that “the native speaker of English is such a powerful construct, one so embedded in myth, that it is daunting to attempt to disentangle fact from fable” (p.90).  Medgyes (2001) shows that non-native-speaking teachers tend to focus on accuracy, including attention to grammar rules. They emphasize the printed word and formal registers and often teach items in isolation. They prefer using controlled, teacher-centered activities and may rely on a single textbook. They also seem to give more tests. Non-native speakers use more of the students’ first language and resort to translation more often during lessons. They also assign more homework than do their native speaking counterparts. Native speakers supply more cultural information than non-native-speaking teachers do (p. 435).

Native speakers, on the other hand, adopt a more flexible approach, are more innovative and less empathetic, attend to perceived needs, have unrealistic expectations, are frequently more casual, and are sometimes less committed to teaching. In contrast, nonnative speaking teachers adopt a more guided approach, are more cautious, are more empathetic to the students, attend to real needs, and have realistic expectations. It appears they are also stricter and more committed to teaching.

In a study carried out by Medgyes on native and nonnative teachers of English, students/respondents listed six areas where nonnative speaking teachers were better equipped than most native speakers: They can (1) provide a better learner model; (2) teach language-learnings strategies; (3) supply more information about the English language; (4) better anticipate and prevent language difficulties; (5) be more sensitive to their students; and (6) benefit from their ability to use their students’ mother tongue” (2001: p. 436).

  1. Implications
  • Speculating the past creates the future: it is noticed that most of modern day theories of foreign language teaching existed long time ago in the teaching of Arabic during medieval Islam. An example of that is Scaffolding that was revived within modern theories and was presented as a totally new concept. Speculating the past of Language teaching/learning theories and techniques shows that many of these theories have been presented as new, while, in reality, they had already been invented decades before, had blossomed and then died.
  • The use of different teaching methods: learners are different in the way they receive, conceptualize, and reproduce knowledge. They also learn using different learning styles. Educators in medieval Islam acknowledged these differences and used various methods to satisfy this variety. Modern language teachers should do their best to understand and address different learning styles of their students.
  • Emphasis on teaching the language communicatively: educators of foreign languages should focus on teaching the skills of using the foreign language through actual practice “writing letters, or complaints to express different needs”. The ultimate goal of an educator should be helping learners practice and acquire the ability to communicate with the language being learned in a communicative real-like situation.
  • The use of scaffolding: medieval Muslim educators believed that the best teaching environment is where both the learner and educators can take turns in taking the responsibility of learning (Abu Amsha, 2014). One of the teacher’s responsibilities is to know the weaknesses of his/her students and provide remedy whenever necessary.
  • Non-native teachers are also capable: they possess the ability of knowing what difficulties non-native learners face in the process of learning the foreign language. They provide a better learner model and they could better anticipate and prevent language difficulties.
  1. Conclusion

This study showed that Medieval Muslim thinkers paid great attention to the pedagogy in general and to the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language in specific. In their writings, Ibn Jenni, Al Jahiz, Al Do’adli, Aljurjani, Ibn IsHaq, Ibn Elsekkeet, Ibn Khaldun, and other Muslim thinkers did not prescribe a method that fits all students. Rather, as was illustrated in Ibn Khaldun’s ‘The Introduction’, they tried to investigate the ways their students learn and came up with a variety of methods that address different learning styles.

The pedagogical/educational heritage that medieval Muslim thinkers left behind, most of which is still hidden in the Arab traditional sources, could be of a great benefit to modern educators and theorizers. For a long time, the contributions of medieval Muslim thinkers – to the theory and practice of foreign language teaching – were neglected by the western mainstream and it is time for it to be revived and celebrated. 


Abassi, A. & Arezoo M. (2014). “Comparative Study of Avicenna and Farabi Attitudes on Children (5-12). Journal of Social Issues & Humanities, 2 (12), p.166-170.

Abu Amsha, K. (2014). Arabic Language in Al-Andalus: Teaching and Spread. A study documenting the teaching of Arabic to non-Arabic speakers. Amman: Jalees Al-Zaman.

Alatas, S.  (2006). Ibn Khaldun and contemporary sociology. International sociology, 21(6), 782.

Al-Talbi, A. (1993). Al-Farabi. Prospects: Quarterly review of comparative education, 1, 353-372.

Altwerger, B., Edelsky, C., & Flores, B. M. (1987). Whole language: What’s new?. The Reading Teacher, 144-154.

Amin. N. (2001). Nativism, the native speaker construct, and minority immigrant women teachers of English as a second language. CATESOL Journal, 13 (1), 89-107.

Arifin, Z. (2015). Al-Jahiz’s Method of Writing: An Analysis of Risalah fi al-Sharib wa al-Mashrub. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(29), 68.

Azadpur, M., & Silvers, A. (2005). Avicenna on Education in Philosophy and Art. Arts Education Policy Review, 107(2), 35-39.

Bailey. K. (2006). Language teacher supervision; a case-based approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Bakalla, M. (1984). Arabic Culture through Its Language and Literature. London: Kegan Paul.

Bayrakdar, M. (1983). Al-Jahiz and the rise of biological evolution. Islamic Quart, 21, 149-55.

Bell, N. (1991). Gestalt imagery: A critical factor in language comprehension. Annals of Dyslexia, 41(1), 246-260.

Bergeron, B. S. (1990). What does the term whole language mean? Constructing a definition from the literature. Journal of Literacy Research, 22(4), 301-329

Bibbs, H. (1999). The Islamic Foundation of the Renaissance. Scriptorium Series, 3.

Boulakia, J. D. C. (1971). Ibn Khaldun: a fourteenth-century economist. The Journal of Political Economy, 1105-1118.

Brockopp, J. (2011). Contradictory Evidence and the Exemplary Scholar: The Lives of Sahnun B. Saʿ Id (D. 854). International Journal of Middle East Studies, 43(01), 115-132.

Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and instruction. Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context, 1, 39-64.

Chapra, M. U. (2008). Ibn Khaldun’s theory of development: Does it help explain the low performance of the present-day Muslim world?. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 37(2), 836-863.

Corriente, F. (1997). Poesía dialectal árabe y romance en Alandalús. Madrid: Gredos.

Decoo, W. (2001). On the mortality of language learning methods. L. Barker Lecture. Retrieved from

Deeb, G. (2014). Inventing a myth: The Medieval Islamic civilization through Western perspectives. International Journal of Language and Literature, 2(4), 139-177.

Gallego, M. A. (2003). The languages of Medieval Iberia and their religious dimension. Medieval Encounters, 9(1), 107-139.

Gasset, J. O.Y. (1976). Abenjaldún nos revela el secreto. Revista del Instituto Egipcio de Estudios Islámicos en Madrid, 19, 95-114.

Gibbons, P. (2002). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (1997). Content-based instruction: Research foundations. The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content, 5-21.

Griffiths, C., & Parr, J. M. (2001). Language-learning strategies: Theory and perception. ELT journal, 55(3), 247-254.

Günther, S. (2006). Be masters in that you teach and continue to learn: Medieval Muslim thinkers on educational theory. Comparative Education Review, 50(3), 367-388.

Hinkle, R. C. (2009). Medieval Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) as a Civilizational Bridge between Later Antiquity and Early Modernity. Comparative Civilizations Review, 61(61), 87-104.

Howatt, A. P. R., & Widdowson, H. G. (1984). A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ismail, Z., & Abdullah, S.  (2013). Teachers’ religious coping in Malaysia: scale validation. In: 3rd International Conference on Islamic Education 2013, 6th-7th April, 2013, Selangor, Malaysia.

Ibn Khaldun, Abu Zaid (1969, originally 1377), The Muqadimmah, translated by Franz Rosenthal, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.

Kao, M., Lehman, J., & Cennamo, K. (1996, February). Scaffolding in hypermedia assisted instruction: An example of integration. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Indianapolis, IN.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). Understanding language teaching: From method to postmethod. Routledge.

Lewis, B. (2003). What went wrong?: the clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East. Harper Collins.

Mack, R. E. (2002). Bazaar to piazza. California: University of California Press.

Maunier, R. (1913). Les Idées économiques d’un philosophe arabe au XIVe siècle’. Revue d’histoire économique et sociale, 6, 409-19.

Medgyes, P. (2001). When the teacher is a non-native speaker. In Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (415-427). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Menocal, M. R. (1985). Pride and prejudice in medieval studies: European and Oriental. Hispanic review, 61-78.

Moulton, W. G. (1961). Applied linguistics in the classroom. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 1-6.

Osman, G. (2003). The Historian on language: Ibn Khaldun and the communicative learning approach. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, 50-57.

Parrish, W. (1928). Implications of Gestalt Psychology. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 14(1), 8-29.

Pessoa, S., Hendry, H., Donato, R., Tucker, G. R., & Lee, H. (2007). Content‐Based Instruction in the Foreign Language Classroom: A Discourse Perspective. Foreign Language Annals, 40(1), 102-121.

Puntambekar, S., & Hubscher, R. (2005). Tools for scaffolding students in a complex learning environment: What have we gained and what have we missed? Educational psychologist, 40(1), 1-12.

Ragep, J. (2001, October 30). How Islam won, and lost, the lead in science. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Rescher, N. (1962). Al-Farabi: An Annotated Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robb, L. 2003. Teaching reading in social studies, science and math. New York: Scholastic.

Saye, J. W., & Brush, T. (2002). Scaffolding critical reasoning about history and social issues in multimedia-supported learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development50(3), 77-96.

Sidani, Y. M. (2008). Ibn Khaldun of North Africa: an AD 1377 theory of leadership. Journal of Management History, 14(1), 73-86.

Simon, H. (1978), Ibn Khaldun’s Science of Human Culture, Translated from German by Fuad Baali. Lahore: Ashraf Printing Press.

Sims, R., Dobbs, G., & Hand, T. (2002). Enhancing quality in online learning: Scaffolding planning and design through proactive evaluation. Distance Education, 23(2), 135-148.

Spade, P. V. (2013). Medieval Philosophy. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from:

Stoller, F. L. (2004). Content-Based instruction: perspectives on curriculum planning. Annual review of applied linguistics, 24, 261-283.

Stoller, F. L. (2008). Content‐Based Instruction. In Encyclopedia of language and education (pp. 1163-1174). US: Springer.

Stryker, S. B., & Leaver, B. L. (Eds.). (1997). Content-based instruction in foreign language education: Models and methods. Washignton: Georgetown University Press.

Toynbee, A. (1972). A Study of History. Oxford University Press, London

Van Lier, L. (1994). The classroom and the language learner. London: Longman.

Von Kremer, A. F. (1879). Ibn Chaldun und seine Culturgeschichte der islamischen Reiche. In Commission bei K. Gerold.

Vyas, M. A., & Patel, Y. L. (2009). Teaching English as a second language: A new pedagogy for a new century. PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd.

Walqui, A. (2006). Scaffolding instruction for English language learners: A conceptual framework. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9(2), 159-180.

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic inquiry: Towards a socio-cultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




اترك تعليقاً