Reform of Higher Education in the Muslim World

[This is the second in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Law and Ethics held in Herndon, VA in June  2014. 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 general participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

Panel on “Reform of Higher Education in the Muslim World”

Abubaker al-Shingieti, Moderator (IIIT-USA). Our mission is the reform of Islamic thought, so it is natural to emphasize reform of education. The International Islamic University in Malaysia reflects and pioneers that reform. The issues they confronted inspired a lot of thinking, including the incorporation of the Islamic values and world view into the institution building and engagement of the university locally, regionally and globally. In the wake of the Arab spring we seek more engagement in the Arab world.

Ermin Sinanović (IIIT USA). In December 2013 we held a workshop at the Wilson Center on the issue of education. We do not have a single university in the list of top 150. The Israelis register hundreds of times as many patents as the entire Arab world. Governments are spending billions of dollars on new universities, but they are distinctly imitative in nature. A professor from Alleghany University found the efforts in Qatar hopeless. Qatar has cancelled its contract with Rand Corp to go into a new direction, but what that direction is, nobody knows. The crisis is systemic. There is no silver bullet. Poor governance, lack of transparency, corruption, and, above all, absence of freedom to act and, most importantly, to make mistakes from which one can learn. There is no historical and value-based vision. Pedagogical approaches are still rooted in memorization. Field trips are rare, as are experimentation and self-discovery. There is a mismatch between educational outcomes and market demand. Even countries with high GDP have lagging human development as measured by gender equality, freedom of expression, and education. For reform to be successful, I think a strong public-private partnership is required, but in the current atmosphere the authoritarian system subverts such attempts into service of the regime. The focus is on applied sciences not in the basic sciences. The unemployment rate is higher for women mostly because of the demand side in employment. There are many women graduates but few women in higher administration. I have some insight into what it’s like to be bored by a professor who doesn’t know what he is talking about. Islamic studies is one of the weakest areas in these universities, while in engineering, medicine, business, and law they are producing world-class graduates. Some universities are trying to redirect some of the really gifted students into Islamic studies, but the examples are too few to assess whether the approach will have much of an effect. IIIT had a role in the university which was interrupted. Recently we had the opportunity to create courses to create critical thought (ijtihad). There is a concerted effort to pursue this path of reform but many faculty are skeptical and resistant. The objective is to form a nucleus to teach and develop the 10-course module to inculcate original critical thinking.

Abdul Aziz Sachedina (IIIT Chair, George Mason University). My task is to clarify certain conceptual problems without which we cannot implement what we have in mind. I learn from my experience with the Sunday school curriculum because our objective is to build minds. The buildings will follow. If we can articulate our ideas to the younger minds, they will affect society. We are not just teaching disciplines, but the approach to disciplines. There is a crisis of epistemology. We teachers come to the field with no commitment to our ideas. Unlike the mathematician who firmly believes 5 x 5=25, we do not believe in the existence of God or in the efficacy of religion to affect our lives. My students are non-Muslims who are seeking a spiritual dimension to their life. I have changed in 35-40 years of teaching. I was always afraid of what I was teaching and how I would teach it. We create the paradigm based on what the Qur’an tells us. A`râf: 187 says, “We have prepared the Hellfire for those among humans and jinns who have the minds but don’t use them….” Not a single verse says we will punish those who don’t pray five times a day. Why are Muslim students running away from history? It is because history has been turned into tradition. To ask the context of a hadith is to tread a dangerous path. Taha Hussain’s works were forbidden. We are weakest in the humanities and social sciences.

We inherited the colonial institutions, but we did not revise and revisit what they left behind. We imitated and superficially implemented them. We need to overhaul the system, and that means a new curriculum. We have universities of Qur’anic studies, but they only teach tajwîd and tartîl (modes of recitation), they do not teach as the Qur’an would have us teach, critical understanding. This is why Shariati said the intelligentsia of Iran have no connection with the Iranian people. The sociology was so French, even the examples were French. Our weakest point in the Islamic world today is our failure to understand Islam itself. The crisis point is our unwillingness to face challenging questions in the study of Islam, and these are historical questions. We are not looking at providing a complete paradigm, but for a group of scholars to think about the questions we have hitherto thought unthinkable.

Ebrahim Moosa (Duke University). What is Islamic in Islamic Thought? A lot of what goes down as Islamic thought is identity politics or ideological projects. I want to know what the knowledge product is. The concept of “revealed knowledge” is intimidating. The IIIT report on education (available online) is a depressing document. The universities in the Gulf are pet projects that pay you big consultancy fees but never listen to a word you say. How do we create inspirational teachers? Qatari students have no intellectual urgency. They want the degree for their next promotion. How do you make people love knowledge? How do you awaken their intellectual curiosity? The problem with calling something a Qur’anic paradigm is that we outlawing alternatives. Let’s call it our paradigm, instead. The Qur’an is for all humanity, not just us. If we want to change Islamic thought we have to change the Sunday school. In American Universities there is an aversion to commitment in the religion department. An economics professor can be a Marxist or a liberal or conservative, but a Protestant in a religion department cannot let his commitment show. No one in the developing world wants to study the humanities. I fear the archives in the Muslim world shall remain untouched.

General Discussion:

Q. There is a joke about three Jewish women conversing over coffee. One says, “My son is studying to be a lawyer.” Excellent. Another says, “My son is studying to be a doctor.” Good. The third says, “My son is studying to be a rabbi.” What kind of a job is that for a Jewish boy?

Moosa. The most conflicted people in the Muslim world are the middle classes. They are accomplished, but ignorant in religion, at the mercy of the clerics. They think that we are doing sophisticated da`wa in the University, but we are not; we are trying to precipitate a paradigm shift. How do we become a catalyst for unbounded thinking?

Q. The main problem in the Muslim world is tyranny. It promotes a trivial understanding of sciences and religion in the service of the state. In the name of non-normativity we kill Islamic projects. American education meets the challenges here, but over there it merely trains people to be immigrants. Lack of prioritization is a problem in Islamic movements. Their Islamic agenda spoils the real agenda which is religious reform. In Canada, the elementary school teachers can make more than the University professors. We need to reform the Shariah professors to open them to reform. They now see themselves as the guards of the status quo.

Moosa: Guards or gods?

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: They start as guards and become gods.

Q. We all agree the Qur’an is central. We can look for the Qur’anic paradigm. It is the dignity of humankind. “Karamna bani Adam.” (We dignified the children of Adam.)

Q. What is happening in Qatar?

Q. I teach in a department of public policy and Islam. The system does not allow the idea to go too far, because the system is highly bureaucratic and highly inefficient. We need non-traditional systems of administration. There is the promise of academic freedom, unrealized. It is a small countries. It can produce a prototype.

Moosa: They have the financial resources but not the bureaucratic freedom. If you bring a visionary, will they be allowed to fulfill their vision or will they be frustrated by the bureaucracy? How do you create the next generation?

Q. You can have a shift from engineering to Islamic studies, but you need to keep them motivated.  One student articulated the view of the majority, “You are giving me a headache.”

Sachedina. We are not advocating a position; we are only trying to create an appreciation for what we are doing. We must believe in what we are doing. A scientist can be a scientist without believing in the Big Bang Theory, but we are teaching religion. Develop spiritual awareness within yourself.

Q. There are lots of centers of Islamic theology in Germany, 99% Muslims and 70% women, all good students and they all want to help Islam, but want to know how they can go against Al-Azhar and Bin Baz. They can speak freely in the West but they meet a wall against the Muslim establishment in their homeland.

Q. I have one reservation. We are taking a maximalist position on Islam, that everything in human knowledge must have an Islamic adjective: Islamic mathematics, Islamic physics, Islamic atomic bomb (it will have a hijab on it). I taught in a Sunday school class, but why don’t we go even further back.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. Three ideas have been mentioned that can be related to one another. We need to promote intellectual curiosity in the young, but good students will attract good professors. Well-educated women who are not in the workforce are not necessarily a loss to society, since well-educated mothers will be very effective teachers of their own children.

Q. Students are told about ijtihad but at exam time if they say anything new they are flunked.

Q. I am still waiting for a conceptual approach to changing higher education.

Q. The Mohammadis in Indonesia came out with the Sakina family program which was not only about educating women in religious knowledge, but the role of the father as well in creating a proper family environment. We see a lot of critical thinking pushing religious ideas in Indonesia, where there is a separation of religion from state. What is the Middle East experience?

Q. The role of social justice in education seems missing. It motivates us by allowing us to see ourselves as academic activists. It doesn’t end when the class ends.

Moosa. I worry that those of us in privileged positions should not have an imperial project. Most undergraduate institutions are building knowledge for public service into their curriculum. I think debates of legitimacy cannot be an imperial project. Sometimes we can only speak for the voices of our immediate environment. Someone’s experiment may be inspirational for another community, but they will adapt and repackage it. You cannot “nanny” Islamic reform. The faculty at the institution to be reformed must buy in. I tell my students “Follow your passion. Do not write about something about which you are not passionate.”

Sachedina. I participated at the Islamic Theological College at Munster. The imam was kicked out for saying something that the mufti at al-Azhar did not accept. They can have an impact, maybe not directly with the imams, but globalization provides an opportunity to affect the Muslims in Europe.

Sinanović. I don’t think IIU-Malaysia is a failure. There are critical issues that need to be addressed. I think to have an impact, a Muslim intellectual needs some kind of affiliation with Islamic institutions. When I worked at the Naval Academy I lacked credibility, but now that I work at IIIT people listen to me. I haven’t changed, but my affiliation changed.

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






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