The Integration We Seek by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

What route should we take through the landscape of higher education, in particular within Muslim societies? As a keen country walker, given to long-distance trekking in a range of ‘wilderness’ environments, I might suggest that we approach this task as another arduous trek, setting out to cover as much ground as possible in all weathers and take in every conceivable vista on the way.

As such, I might attempt a survey, ranging over as many views and perspectives as we could hope to encompass, taking in and trying to synthesise as much evidence and analysis as possible. One could begin, for example, with an exploration of the evolution of ‘Universities in Muslim Contexts’ as presented by Marodsilton Muborakshoeva. ‘The early Muslims’, she writes, ‘actively sought to harmonise the message of Islam not only with their existing cultures but also with earlier civilisations’. The institutions of higher learning that developed in the classical period, such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, Al-Qarawiyin in Fez, and Al-Zaytuna in Tunis, had ‘unique architecture, funding structure and organisation of knowledge and also introduced degrees (ijaza) and academic rankings’. Their approach to knowledge was holistic; and they became ‘the prototypes on which the Christians of Europe modelled their own universities’.

But that is history. Modern universities in the Muslim world, Muborakshoeva notes, ‘lack creative and original approaches to knowledge acquisition and production, and ‘have very little to contribute either in the field of scientific  and technological advancement or in cultural and religious studies’. A point emphasised by Martin Rose in his meticulous survey of universities in North Africa. Egypt,  Libya, Algeria, Tunisia  and Morocco ‘have been amongst the biggest spenders in the world, fairly consistently putting some five per cent of GDP and about 20 per cent of government spending into education over the last half-century’. Yet, the returns, laments Rose, are ‘slender’. Or I could venture into the controversial territory of the madrasas. As the symposium on What is a Madrasa? by Ebrahim Moosa shows, the landscape has changed drastically and is now overwhelmed by undergrowth, bogs and perilous situations on and off the path. I might wail at the desolate panorama before me and take this as incontrovertible evidence of the urgent need for reform, as urged by Abdelwahab El-Affendi. Or I could critically examine the competing models and paradigms which purport to define the nature and purpose of a university education.

All of this is invaluable. The contributors to this issue of Critical Muslim provide us with a wealth of analysis and insights, shine a torch on their varied findings, and furnish us with facts and arguments about what is wrong and what ought to be done to get out of the forest of decay and degeneration. Here, I want to approach this task not as a surveyor charting the territory, nor even as a trekker with his eye on the map seeking a way out of the quagmire, but as an explorer searching for new vistas.

Read more...