Challenges of Educational Reform in Muslim Societies


[This is the fifteenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Good Governance in Islam: Classical and Contemporary Approaches held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.

“Challenges of Educational Reform in Muslim Societies”

A panel discussion with Jamal Barzinji, Ali Mazrui, and Abdalla al Sheikh Sidahmad

Dr. Jamal Barzinji: Educational reform is a major challenge for us at IIIT, under the broader mission of civilizational reform. There is the notion that we are not responsible for the result only for putting forth or best effort. Out of this came The Crisis of Muslim Thought. Tawhîd has been totally misunderstood, and Isamil al-Faruqi attempted to reform it. Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani insisted fiqh was for individual salvation, not societal change. We rejected offers to move IIIT to other countries where the absence of freedom of thought would have fatally impeded our mission. We finally realized the importance of focus on educational reform, beginning with the International Islamic University in Malaysia. It took ten years, but the end result is the pride not only of Malaysia but of IIIT. That increased from 1,000 to 15,000 students with 10-15% of the students from depressed countries. We did not select top students, but only serious students. The next step was to focus on the maqasid ash-Sharia. Our Moroccan contemporary ben Ashur was almost completely unknown. We discovered Malak ben Nabi.

We have been struggling in Egypt and the Gulf because they have no conception of what educational reform is about. For them it is a debate about which Western system (American, British, German) should be imported. The changes in Turkey, universities under the AKP, gave us tremendous hope. Educational reform will take a whole generation. We must tell the ascendant parties, “It is not for you to impose education reform. It must emerge from a national consensus. It must come out of our conception of civilization.”

Professor Ali Mazrui: My focus is in part the emergence of a global university. Muslims started the process of globalizing higher education with al-Azhar and the Fez Institution of Learning of Morocco and the no longer extant institution in Timbuktu, where, in Mali, militants who have attacked tombs are threatening books as well.

I speak of Euro-colonial colleges which are colonial recreations established by Britain, France, and Belgium, of schools in their respective homelands. After independence, American universities arose that were autonomous rather than extensions of universities in America. After the 1960s the Euro-colonial colleges mainly affected non-Muslims, but the American universities impacted Muslims. The problem in Euro-universities is too many students and overcrowded classes. The American extensions have too few students as the Muslims prefer to go to the U.S. itself to study.

A consequence on Muslims has been a reduction is self-reliance and independence. There is also a question of what can and cannot be taught in universities intended for Muslim clientele. To what degree can we modernize without Westernizing? When I was in school, the question “When does a sin become a crime?” was an issue under discussion. Are these topics an Islamic university can discuss? Does the Islamization of modernity require a language policy in which all schools in the world include classes in the most important indigenous language, the relevant imperial language, and Arabic?

We need a decolonization of modernity. This includes a reduction in foreign dependency, relevance, diversification (learning about many other civilizations, not just the west) and counter-penetration into the West, e.g. al-Azhar University of DC to counter the American University of Cairo. Finally you will never Islamize education if you leave out the women. Al-Azhar started including women a little earlier than Princeton. Women have always died for their country but it is controversial whether they should kill for their country.

Dr. Abdalla al Sheikh Sidahmad: I have been asked to speak on educational reform in Egypt. Many experts say education is a necessary precondition for development. As educators, we focus on curriculum, students, faculty, library, laboratory, technicians, and environment (lecture halls, entertainment, sport, discussions). Egypt has been a center of civilization and education from the Pharaohnic era. The creation of the pyramids is such a puzzle to moderns that some have speculated they are the product of aliens from outer space. I prefer to believe they are the product of a sophisticated educational system.

After 9/11 funded foreign proposals were submitted to Egypt for educational reform. Some of the proposals address the youngest children who, in the classical Islamic era, were devoted to studying Qur’an. I think the youngest children should focus on the Qur’an and teachers should carefully be selected to be good models. For secondary schools, emphasis should be on literacy and career preparation. Technical programs including computers should be included at the secondary level to alleviate the overcrowding of universities. For higher education Egypt has grand goals. The first is to achieve sustainable development, second an ever growing growth rate, third to cement society. For education in general the goals are 1) promoting educational abilities long-term, 2) self-esteem, 3) skills, 4) creative thinking, and 5) commitment to moral and professional integrity.

Economically Egypt has four options: 1) appeal to lending institutions; 2) restructure the economy so the productivity of the economy fills the gaps, 3) print more currency, and 4) restructure the economy to enhance the service sector. An educational reform that emphasizes technical education can contribute to the fourth approach, especially if the government avoids policies than impede the development of the service sector. Rather than educate a small elite, a colonial legacy, the masses must be educated. Islam is a divine declaration of war against ignorance. That should be the guideline for the Islamists in Egypt.

General Discussion:

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: I think students must be encouraged to read the Qur’an for understanding, not memorization.

Sidahmad: The issue of memorization vs. understanding is raised all the time. Young minds have a greater ability to memorize. The memorization gained in youth helps in the tafsir later. Doha is an impressive project, but Qatar University is converting the language of instruction from English to Arabic. They seem to think it is either or.  To what extent is Gulen movement a model for other Islamic movements?

Does your concern for indigenous Islamic Language constitute a  change in your position on education?

Mazrui: In my earlier analysis I had no specific proposal for the Muslim ummah. I was asked to be an external examiner of a university in Malaysia that taught only in Bahasa, a language in which I had no competence. It impeded my performance. I wouldn’t say I had changed my mind so much as elaborated on a fluid idea that has become more solid in its evolution.

Ahmad: Why is there no panelist from the Gulen movement?

Barzinji: We met several times with the leaders of the Gulen movement in Turkey and elsewhere. There is room for cooperation, but it would take some work on differences in vision. IIIT emphasizes the ability to think freely, which I do not find in the Gulen movement. Inviting a speaker for a panel is a possibility.

What happened that we entered `asr al in hitâ`, the era of decline? Maybe it is a Khaldunian phenomenon.

The colonizing societies were as changed as the colonized societies. What was the reciprocal process of impact in education?

When I hear someone say the Muslim ummah is a burden on humanity, to me they are the medium of everything I treasure.

Sidahmad: There is a worry in Egypt that foreign education is out of control. 17 of the 36 universities in Egypt are foreign.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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