The World Islamic Countries/University Leaders Summit (WICULS 2015)

Reclaiming Education in Muslim Universities in the 21st Century’

Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh

Opening of Speech

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

  1. It is a pleasure for me to be here this morning and to be given the opportunity to address this gathering of university leaders and administrators not only from Malaysia, and also from all over the Muslim world and beyond. I especially appreciate the kind invitation from the organisers because the issue of education is one that I am deeply passionately about. I am sure the same can be said for all of you here. I recognise that there is already a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise in this room, but allow me to travel over ground that will familiar to you as I share my perspectives and observations as a student of development and a keen observer.
  2. To begin, I should like to offer some reflections on four great academic institutions from the history of our Muslim world in the hope that we can glean certain specific lessons from them. Following that, I should share with you some general remarks on what I believe to be indispensable features of any good academic institution.
  3. According to UNESCO and the Guinness World Records, the oldest university is in the Muslim world.  This is the first institution I would like to touch on, namely the Al-Qarawiyyin University, which is located in the historical city of Fez, Morocco.  It is the oldest continuously functioning university, and the first degree-awarding educational institution in the world.[1] It was founded by a wealthy lady, Fatimah al-Fihri, in the year 859—one hundred years before the foundation of the more widely reputed Al-Azhar University.
  4. Many people know this fact. But what few realize, and something I would like to highlight, is that since its founding, the Qarawiyyin has always opened its doors not only to men but also to women. Khayrunah (d. 1197) in the twelfth century, for instance, is a notable example of a lady alumna of the Qarawiyyin, someone who joined the ranks of the ulama of this ummah. A manual on the Aqidah of the Sunni Ash‘ari school that is connected to her, ended up being incorporated into the theological curriculum of her alma mater. This episode is proudly celebrated today by the students of the Qarawiyyin itself.
  5. Moreover, the Qarawiyyin’s history is distinguished by the requirement in its charter to teach the poor and the vulnerable in society. Ibn Ajurum (d. 1323)—the fourteenth-century author of probably the most important classical manual of Arabic grammar, the Ajurumiyyah—was one famous alumnus of the Qarawiyyin who came from such a deprived and disadvantaged background.
  6. The admirable “social mission” of the Qarawiyyin is not all that surprising, since this university was, after all, founded by a wealthy lady. But on a more serious note, university leaders and administrators should take heed of the lessons offered by the Qarawiyyin for our modern universities where, rightly, questions over access to education for women in some Muslim countries, and the oft-repeated refrain by protestors, especially in the West, that “students are not customers”, are, sadly, becoming all too common today.
  7. The second institution I would like to talk about is the most famous and renowned Islamic university of all time, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. Today, this is Sunni Islam’s most prestigious religious institution, and it is still the source of authoritative guidance for millions of Sunni Muslims across the world. It is so famous that I might not have anything to add to its narrative, and that whatever I might say about this great institution would be in danger of being too familiar.
  8. But what I would say is that it is ironical that Al-Azhar, the most famous Sunni institution today, started off, in the tenth century, as an educational institution set up by a Shia government in order to espouse the Shia tradition of Islam. This lasted until the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in the twelfth century at the hands of the celebrated Saladin—the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.
  9. What I find most interesting about the Azhar, however, is that it has created a long tradition of what Christian theologians call “ecumenism”, or what Muslim ulama call “tasamuh”. This is the opposite of “ta‘asub”—the fanatical following of one’s own opinion, school or even religion. Hence we find in Al-Azhar a tolerance and genuine acceptance of the various schools of the Sunni tradition of Islam. The membership of Al-Azhar is represented by the two schools of Sunni theology (the Ash‘ari and the Maturidi); the well-known four schools of Sunni law (the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali); and the various main Sufi orders or tariqats. There were even efforts by Azharis to harmonize the two main denominations of Islam—the Sunnis and the Shi`is—in spite of the fact that one had displaced the other in the origins and history of this great university. The most recent episode in this rapprochement occurred in the 1950s when one of the Grand Imams of Al-Azhar, Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963) endorsed the Shias as the “fifth school of Islam” in the Azhari syllabus.
  10. So much has this ecumenical spirit been institutionalized in this ancient university that when we walk around its grounds today, we can still observe how the architecture of Al-Azhar itself reflects the various Sunni schools through their beautiful riwaqs and colleges. That they can physically coexist peacefully and seamlessly is a testament to the brilliant motto celebrated by the early Muslims, which ended up as the title used by the Qadi of Safad, Palestine, in the fourteenth century—himself a product of Al-Azhar—for his bestselling book, “Rahmatul ummah, fi ikhtilafil a’immah[2] (The mercy of the ummah lies in the differences of our imams). It is our way of saying “to live and let live” and “to agree to disagree”—the principles we usually witness being practiced in the West, appearing, for example, in the famous Latin motto “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, One): something which we have sadly lost, and urgently require in the ummah today.
  11. We now move on to the third educational institution from our history: the Nizamiyyah Colleges in the Abbasid State, established in the eleventh century with branches in Baghdad, Nishapur, Isfahan, Herat and elsewhere, which were one of the most successful institutions of higher education in Islam. Although the Nizamiyyah was formally called a “madrasah”—an educational institution founded to train religious scholars, the ulama, in this case those belonging to the Shafi‘i school of law and the Ash‘ari school of theology in the Sunni tradition—the Nizamiyyah did not only offer religious subjects in its academic curriculum, as one might have expected, but included secular and “worldly” subjects, too, like the disciplines of logic, physics, astronomy and even music. The faculty of the main Nizamiyyah, in Baghdad, was home to many of the world-renowned professors whose names Muslims today can easily recognize. Indeed, probably the most famous of all the members of the ulama of Islam, Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111), taught there.
  12. As with the Qarawiyyin and the Azhar, it is easy for us in the case of the Nizamiyyah as well to reminisce over, and romanticize, the great achievements of our educational institutions during the Golden Age of Islam: but we sometimes stop short of considering the secrets behind their success.
  13. In the case of the Nizamiyyah, its strength lay with its open patronage system, which allowed, in effect, academic, and even political freedoms. The professors there had the freedom to research what they would like to explore, be it on any difficult issue or controversial question in any subject. Although this is no longer considered scandalous today (on the whole), Imam al-Ghazali himself promoted foreign, non-Muslim, Greek science against the prevailing view of most of the other ulama and political leaders of his time. How many of our researchers these days could escape the meddling arms of our university administrators and research councils and, indeed, governments? Especially if one’s research interests led to contradicting the views of those who supported the research project in the first place?
  14. The founder and patron of the Nizamiyyah in the eleventh century was Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092)—whence the name of the Colleges, “Nizamiyyah”. He was the famous Wazir (or in today’s manner of speaking, the Prime Minister) of the Seljuk party in the ruling government headed by Sultan Malikshah (d. 1092). Sultan Malikshah in turn ruled in the name of the Abbasid Caliph, al-Mustazhiri (d. 1118), who was the head of state reigning over the land. The fact is that the work of innovative and progressive scholars like Imam al-Ghazali was made possible by patrons like Nizam al-Mulk, who provided political protection for such scholars when they encountered opposition from their peers and other political leaders. This wise patron was wonderfully generous in allowing that culture of unrestricted exploration and openness, paying attention to the following Hadith of the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi was-salam, who said: “Wisdom is the lost item of a believer, hold on to it no matter who finds it”.[3]
  15. Still more remarkable is the fact that in that very same academic institution, the Nizamiyyah, the different political interests of the Abbasid State could coexist in mutual tolerance—one might belong to the party of the Wazir, or the Sultan, or even the Caliph. In spite of the different parties and interests, those patrons were able to support the various academics who worked there. In other words, it was possible to imagine professors and students who harboured different political views and opinions working and thriving together. Indeed, that is precisely what its history has shown us. The careers of “Professor” al-Ghazali and “Professor” al-Shirazi, for example, show that two contemporary academics of the Nizamiyyah, despite belonging to different parties and advocating different views on various issues, could thrive and work together in that same academic institution. So outstanding was the success of the Nizamiyyah Colleges in medieval times that university leaders and administrators of today might well draw lessons from it for our own present context.
  16. We now move on to the last academic institution that I’d like to reflect on. This is the legendary House of Wisdom, or Baytul Hikmah, in Baghdad, founded by the great Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (d. 809) in the ninth century. This institution predated the rest of the institutions that I’ve already talked about, but some will argue that it is not an actual “university”—if we require a “university” to be an institution that admits and educates students.
  17. Without students, then, the Baytul Hikmah had fellows and academics and functioned purely as a research centre. Most of the prominent institutions of this kind in the West today could be said to follow this model, such as All Souls College—the only Oxford College not to have students—and, of course, the famous American post-doctoral research centre, the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton University.
  18. The main activity at the Baytul Hikmah comprised a number of research projects involving the promotion of scientific knowledge and requiring interfaith and inter-civilisational activities. Its most famous research project, headed by the Christian scholar, Hunayn Ibnu Ishaq (d. 873), was the systematic translation of major Greek scientific and philosophical works into Arabic. Besides translation and commentary of scientific works, scholars at the Baytul Hikmah produced important original research.
  19. For me, the case of the Baytul Hikmah presents some interesting and difficult questions for us to ponder. Should all or only a small minority of our universities focus on high-impact research at the expense of maintaining good quality teaching in producing graduates? In fact, what is the meaning of a “university”, and should its role always include a major element of teaching? If its role is only to produce students, then should our universities be expected sorely to service the needs of businesses and industries? Is it realistic to expect academics who are over-burdened by teaching to produce cutting-edge research? And moreover, would a “polytechnic” be a lesser kind of university as they, too, produce graduates, but with vocational skills, or would a “research centre” be a better kind of university since they produce new knowledge and understanding?
  20. It is high time that leaders of our universities in the Muslim world reflect on these difficult and searching questions. They need to re-examine themselves and ask whether our universities are indeed platforms for true knowledge free from interests that are looking only for short-term gains.
  21. A university should be a place where the human mind can be fully utilized to shape our society and guide our people in such ways as to increase their productivity and their well-being. As a humanistic institution, it should produce not only individuals with broad knowledge and critical intelligence, but also those who will have moral decency and social sensitivity. It ought to be an institution that can fundamentally develop, even transform, human beings, both materially and spiritually.
  22. However, I would argue that this traditional humanistic role of universities has changed since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. It has increasingly diverged from its historical mission as a place of human transformation by seeking knowledge and understanding for their own sake, towards becoming a place for training graduates solely to meet the needs of our industries and businesses. That original humanistic transformative role of universities may be in danger of extinction if we continue simply to follow the requirements of our material world in its sheer materialism. It is for this reason that our university leaders and administrators today, I believe, should not forget that original “metaphysical” mission and pay heed to the transformative role that universities ought to play in society.
  23. After reflecting on those four great academic institutions that became famous in our Muslim history and on the particular lessons we might glean from them, I would now like to make some general remarks on what I believe to be the essence of a good academy as nurtured by our Islamic tradition. My remarks will again be fourfold.
  24. First, in keeping with the spirit of Islam, successful institutions in our Muslim lands have always shown great respect for their own tradition and for old knowledge—this according to our ulama, is the meaning of “tawaduk”. That is true even when they have been in the vanguard of those discovering new knowledge, something that can be possible only when they themselves are avant-garde in their outlook. In fact, in our quest for knowledge, tradition and innovation should go hand in hand, one supporting the other. This combination of respect for tradition, humility and confidence finds its most famous expression in Sir Isaac Newton’s memorable statement: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.[4]
  25. The irony of tawaduk must not be lost on our people today. When progressive academic institutions in the West like Oxford and Cambridge still hold on to their ancient customs and traditions, even to the minutiae of manners and external apparel—such as the way they eat and how they dress—why have some of our own, even older, universities sacrificed their traditions so readily in the name of progress? How many of our colleges have stopped reciting the communal du‘a that our beloved Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi was-salam, taught us before eating, while Oxbridge colleges still practice their time-honoured graces, even if in Latin, over dinner, and even if observed by persons including ardent secularists, atheists and agnostics? Have we lost confidence in our own culture and tradition in the face of development and progress? We must not. Instead, we must regain our confidence, have courage and be reminded of one of the famous disciples of our beloved Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi was-salam, Ibnu Mas‘ud, radiyallahu ‘anhu, who once said: “Make use of your traditions!”[5]
  26. Second, I believe that it is indispensible for our institutions consciously to embody academic excellence into their scholarly culture. What I mean is that they should instil among their scholars and students the successful ingredients and characteristics that made our four academic institutions great once upon a time. At least in three of the four cases I recalled earlier on, they produced generations of scholars who were able to analyze critically and to argue and debate persuasively.
  27. In fact, many of the pedagogical methods identified today with Oxbridge colleges have their counterparts, and possibly their roots, in the earlier Islamic institutions. Having sat in tutorials myself with my tutors at Oxford, I can say with fondness that this experience recalls an old Muslim tradition of learning known as “talaqqi” by our traditional ulama: that intimate, one-to-one technique of education between tutor and tutee as exemplified best between Angel Jibra’il, alayhissalam, and our Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi was-salam; or as illustrated brilliantly in the parable of the Qur’an itself between Prophet Musa, alayhissalam, and Prophet Khidr, alayhissalam, where having a frank yet learned conversation between the shaykh and the murid itself becomes a lesson. We were taught not simply to memorize whatever information we had learnt from the lines of books we read, but to bring it to bear with our own knowledge, analysis and, indeed, criticisms. How bemused Imam al-Shafi‘i (d.820), one of the founding fathers of our ulama, would be today were he to learn that places like Oxford and Cambridge, yet not his own institution, followed his original advice: “Knowledge is not what is memorized, but what we can use”.[6]
  28. The signs for us, however, are not that good. How many of our own institutions today, whether in Malaysia or in your home countries, embody such academic excellence as was hoped for by our pious predecessors? Can we confidently say that the two surviving great institutions of learning from the annals of our history, the Azhar and the Qarawiyyin, are still able to produce scholars who can analyze critically and argue and debate persuasively, holding their own against all comers? Why is it then that scholars from all over the world now flock to places like Oxford and Cambridge to pursue their studies, or wish to spend their sabbaticals there, even for Islamic Studies? You would have thought that at least for Islamic Studies, our own universities would have the advantage. Yet, ladies and gentlemen, such is the state we are in—when we allow academic excellence to be sacrificed in the name of expediency or some other convenience.
  29. Which brings me to my third important, and penultimate, point: the need to keep our institutions independent as well as strong. The four great institutions that I have made reference have, undeniably, one structural element in common. Although founded by different parties at different times in our history, some by government and others by individual persons, they were all funded by the system of waqf and pious endowments. There, each institution is governed by a board of trustees, the umana’, whose sacred trust and fiduciary duty is to perpetuate its institutional existence and well-being. In successful cases, the resulting institution not only survives and develops but becomes independent from outside interests as well, as we saw especially in the case of the Nizamiyyah Colleges, or as at present when such integrity is the norm and hallmark of such institutions in the First World.
  30. Here, I cannot but stress to our leaders and administrators who are placed by the public in positions of trust that they should act as reliable trustees and carry out their fardu kifayah and public duty with integrity and taqwa, on behalf of the rest of us and for the sake of all. They should recognize the great importance of preserving and strengthening our institutions and of maintaining their integrity and independence.
  31. It becomes particularly important to uphold this sacred and public trust, not only in calm times, but especially during periods of crisis. As Allah Subhanahu wa ta‘ala says in the Qur’an: “We shall test you to see which of you strive your hardest and are steadfast; We shall test the integrity of your assertions.”[7] And: “There are also some who serve God with unsteady faith: if something good comes their way, they are satisfied, but if they are tested, they revert to their old ways, losing both this world and the next—and that is a terrible loss!”[8]
  32. It is when the going gets tough, as Allah reminds us, that we will be able to find out those who truly have integrity. That is the true test from Allah, the best “stress test” for the institution, the truest measure of whether our institutions can weather the storm! Because once lost, once the trustee fails his or her test, once the al-amin no longer remains trustworthy, it will be difficult to regain the trust, the integrity and the independence of our institutions, be it in education, administration, the judiciary, the regulatory and enforcement agencies and even the monarchy. Therefore, my wish and hope is that our leaders and administrators will continue to strengthen the country’s institutional quality and not allow the capabilities, integrity and independence of our national institutions to be undermined.
  33. Finally let me end my remarks by restating my own conviction that a good academy, as shown by our Islamic history, must not forget that it also has a social mission to carry out, just as the Qarawiyyin famously did with the poor and the vulnerable in society. One of the obvious ways this can be done today is to offer bursaries and scholarships to students who come from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds.
  34. A more indirect way, one that is becoming more common in the West, is to offer continuing education or extramural programmes that cater mainly for part-time and mature students. In fact, our university leaders and administrators should recall that this is the oldest form of education in the Muslim world, and one that is still being used in the many mosques, traditional madrasahs and pondoks throughout the world where the general public, both the old and the young, study together.

Ladies and gentlemen:

  1. Since we are now talking about social mission, and given certain tragic events happening in the world as we meet at this Summit, I should like to end my address with the admirable example, once again, of the Qarawiyyin. We must not forget that when Muslims in Europe were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century, a great many refugees ended up being housed in the Qarawiyyin, and some even continued their studies there. As a result, the city of Fez became a famous place of refuge for the displaced persons of that time, and their quarter near the University in the Old City survives to this day.
  2. Let that be to our benefit as we learn from our own history. I hope we will begin to do even better than our pious predecessors. Over the past few weeks we have witnessed the plight of Syrian refugees as they made their desperately way to Europe. I have been deeply moved by one Syrian refugee who recently compared the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Abyssinian Christian King Negus, who famously sheltered Muslim refugees during their first Hijrah in the time of the Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi was-salam. And another Syrian refugee eloquently said: “We will tell our children that Syrian migrants fled their country to come to Europe when Makkah and Muslim lands were closer to them.”[9] I hope the ummah can do better in handling our own refugee crisis.
  3. With that I bid you all well in your endeavours at rewriting the narrative of higher education for Muslims in the twenty-first century. To our guests from abroad, I wish you all a pleasant stay in Malaysia and a safe journey home.

Wabillahi taufik wal hidayah

Wassalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.

  1. Fauzi M. Najjar, “The Karaouine at Fez”, The Muslim World 48:2 (1958): 104-112; cf. Jacques Verger, “Patterns”, in Universities in the Middle Ages, vol. 1 of A History of the University in Europe, ed. Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 35.
  2. Al-‘Uthmani, Rahmat al-ummah fi ikhtilaf al-a’immah (Baghdad: Maktabat al-Asad, 1990).
  3. Narrated by Ibn Abi Shaybah, among others.
  4. Isaac Newton, The Correspondence of Isaac Newton: 1661-1675, vol. 1, ed. H.W. Turnbull (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1959), p. 416.
  5. Narrated by al-Darimi, among others.
  6. Narrated by al-Bayhaqi.
  7. Surah Muhammad, 47:31.
  8. Surah al-Hajj, 22:11.
  9. BBC (26 August 2015): “Why are Syrians sending love letters to Angela Merkel?” at
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