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   Conferences / The Tenth General Conference :Islam and The 21st Century
Can Islamic Studies programmes in European and Muslim universities cooperate?

Can Islamic Studies programmes in European
and Muslim universities cooperate?
Prof. Jorgen S. Nielsen
Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations
Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, UK
In recent years there has been growing political attention devoted to
the relationship between Islam and the West. This is not the place to go into
the details of why and what, merely to register both the negative aspects,
such as the discourses of 'Islam, the new enemy' and the clash of
civilisations', as well as the positive ones, ranging from statements by
Prince Charles to the active programmes of the Swedish Foreign Ministry
and the Barcelona process bringing together the countries of Europe and
the Mediterranean. These are merely examples and one could list many
more on both sides.
For scholars of Islam and Islamic scholars this is a theme which is
far from new. We have come across aspects of it in the great debate
about Orientalism, symbolized particularly in the provocative study
under that title by Edward Said. It has been a regular experience
through decades in disagreements about quite key issues such as the
authenticity of Hadith, symbolized on the side of the critical western
scholars by such as Goldziher and Schacht as against the refutation by
such as Azmeh. The self-confident dominance of western scholarship in
the field during the middle decades of the present century could be
symbolized in the Encyclopedia of Islam project into which only few
carefully selected Muslim scholars were allowed entry. Central to this
tension, much older than the one politician and journalists have sold us
over the last couple of decades, is the question of the starting point of
the scholar. This is essentially a matter of belief, of faith. Is the belief
foundation of the scholar Islam or something else? And what is that
something else? Christianity? Scientific positivism? Socialist
materialism? Etc.
What I shall try to argue in this small contribution is that we have
moved on from those days, that there are changes taking place in our
subject field and in its relationship to the social and cultural realities
around us. I shall try to suggest ways in which these changes might be
built on and developed to the advantage both of the scholarly
community and the wider communities which we serve.
My title reflects our current starting points with their
asymmetries and their ambiguities. In seminars and conferences on
Islam and the west in recent years, I have often come across the
complaint that the two entities Islam and the West are not alike. The
former is a religious term, the latter a geographical term. In my title you
have the same problem. However, I will defend my use of the terms
while also pointing out some of the ambiguities.
It is precisely the incongruity of the two terms which expresses the
asymmetry between the two sides. In Europe, universities and their
teaching and research programmes do not start from the basis of a
religious faith. In some cases this may mean, especially in France but
not only there, that a university takes a stance which is either anti-
religious or not permitting a space for religion. It was such a particular
expression of secularism at, for example, the University of Amsterdam
which encouraged the more religiously oriented to found the Free
University of Amsterdam. Other forms of academic secularism in
Europe have been more permissive of religion. Thus the university with
which my Centre is associated, the university of Birmingham, has an
explicitly secular charter but that has not stood in the way of it having a
very highly regarded department of theology nor has it prevented the
university from giving full academic recognition to my Centre, explicitly
a partnership between Muslims and Christians. In other European
countries where there continues to be a state church, universities which
otherwise are secular include departments of theology which train for
the priesthood. In some countries there are also higher education
institutions of explicitly Christian foundation - seminaries and
theological colleges - which have state recognition So, yes, learning and
scholarship in Europe are generally of a secular post-Christian
character, but the secular spectrum broad and there remains space for
explicitly religious scholarship.
On the other side, I have deliberately used the term Muslim
rather than Islamic. The board culture in which Arab universities are
situated is Muslim with strong historical and culture foundation in
Islamic tradition. But few universities are Islamic in the sense which
might be true of, for example, Al-Azhar or the international Islamic
Universities in, say, Islamabad or Kuala Lumpur. But here again the
situation differs from one country to the next. In some senses, Saudi
Arabia would claim that all its universities are Islamic in a way which
nobody would claim about for example, Damascus University. But the
latter, like many other universities of a similar kind around the Muslim
world, have faculties of Islamic studies and Shari'a which hardly anyone
would claim were not Islamic.
But these two sides - Europe and the Muslim world - are not the
only two sides. Cutting across them are other divisions: Here I would
want particularly to identify distinctiveness between two different
approaches to the teaching of the subjects of the religious studies
curriculum. The distinction is related to perceptions of what the
purpose of university teaching and study in the subject is. To put it at its
simplest: is the purpose of the subject at university level to reinforce the
tradition or to relate the religion to the realities of the world around us?
Obviously, we are not here talking of two mutually exclusive concepts,
rather of differences of emphasis with, at the same time, an admission
that the situation is rather more complex than this simple formulation
would suggest.
But I ask for your patience as I reflect briefly and temporarily in
terms of the simplistic opposition of the two types. In the former, the
reinforcing of tradition, we are essentially dealing with the subject as
seen from inside the religious tradition, building on its textual and
historical resources of learning and the methods of analysis which
earlier scholars have developed. Our target audience is the believer who
in turn is expected to go out and serve the community in one way or
another by strengthening and reinvigorating its traditional beliefs and
religious practices. The world outside the historical faith community
(the church or the ummah) is at best irrelevant, except possibly as a
target for conversion, and at worst a threatening enemy against which
one must defend oneself.
In the latter, relating to surrounding realities, the subject is
allowed, even encouraged, to interact with the wider cultural and
scholarly environment, new intellectual methods are tried, tested and
critically absorbed. The target audience is as much the wider world as it
is the believer, and the believer who does graduate from this approach is
seen as being able to help the community come to grips with new
realities, to make the religion speak to the world at large in ways which
make sense to both the believer and the world.
If from this it is concluded that I favour the latter approach to the
former, I would remind you that I did state that the situation was
complex and that we are in actuality dealing with differences of
emphasis rather than mutually exclusive approaches. Each type needs
the other. If the dominance of tradition is left unchecked the community
is effectively being abandoned to deal with the contemporary world
without help or resources from its religious scholars - who can then
blame them for ignoring the scholars or seeking help in other quarters,
such as political ideologies or material well-being? On the other hand if
the tradition is abandoned the community becomes rootless and loses
the foundations which hold it together and faith becomes a free market
where anybody can display their wares with equal claim to attention.
Indeed, if we look at our great scholarly tradition over the
centuries, it was the greatest scholars who combined the two elements.
The fathers of the church, you might call them our great imams, started
with their roots in their traditions but developed and expanded the
horizons of our religious understanding in response to the developments
in the world around them. The same applies to Thomas Aquinas,
Martin Luther and so on down to Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer and Hans
Kung. As it does also to Abu Yusuf, al Shafi'i, al-Ash'ari, Ibn Taymiyya,
Ibn Khaldun, and many others to our own day with people ranging
from Sayyid Ahmad Khan, through Muhammad Abduh and Maududi
to people like Mutalthari and al Qaradawi. However much some may
wish to condemn some of these as conservative or, on the other hand,
progressive, none allowed themselves to be imprisoned by the scholarly
tradition, rather they built on it, used it and expanded it or redirected it.
Let me repeat what I said at the very beginning, namely that I am
of the conviction that our field, as a subject for university level study
and teaching, has changed in the last few decades. Among many
scholars of Islam and the Muslim world working out of the orientalist
tradition in European universities, Edward Said's attack on orientalism
was not a breakthrough. What it did was to bring into sharp focus a
change in academic atmosphere which was already well underway. This
had been brought about by the end of the imperial political system
which had fostered and encouraged the worst of orientalism and its uses
and abuses. The end of empire had necessitated on the part of scholars a
re-evaluation of the purposes and methods of their study. While much
of the research methodology had been developed in the 19th century,
oriental studies had lost touch with the main stream of their various
disciplines. History and religious studies relating to the Arab and
Muslim worlds especially had lost touch with the developments among
scholars specializing in parallel disciplines applied to, say, European
history, language and literature. The end of empire slowly forced on
many orientalists that they had fallen hopelessly out of date in the
concepts and methods. At the same time, the growth of the politics of
justice and human rights in the 1950s and 1960s, made it increasingly
difficult for academics to continue to defend forms of analysis which
were associated with the imperial era. In fact, an increasing proportion
of the senior academics of today had their first university studies in the
rebellious days of the 1968 student uprisings. Orientalism in the form so
devastatingly attacked by Edward Said no longer dominates.
Specifically in Islamic studies a further dimension must be
considered as having had a major impact, namely the growing presence
of Muslim communities in Europe. This has particularly affected our
subject in the last decade or so. For it has been during this period that
the children of the Muslim immigrants from Turkey, North Africa and
South Asia have grown up, entered colleges and universities and are in
the process of working out how Islam can be a resource for them in
their lives in European cities and how Islamic principles need new forms
of expression to ensure their relevance to the new realities in which
these young people live. Many are choosing to study Arabic, Islamic
Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, not for career purposes but to give
them the resources to achieve this task. It is impossible for teachers,
however well qualified, to pursue a traditional orientalist line of
teaching when a significant proportion of the class consists of committed
Muslims - and I speak from experience.
I would suggest that in the Arab world something similar is taking
place. A new generation of young people is coming through the
universities in a variety of subjects, especially the humanities and social
sciences, and moving into the urban middle class professions. Many of
them are women, the mothers of the next generation. They are serious
about their Islam but they often find it difficult to identify the relevance
and usefulness to them of a narrowly traditional approach. So they look
to those who can help them, and if those with traditional expertise do
not take the risk involved in meeting them where they are, these young
people are in danger of being attracted by others with less strength in
the mainstream tradition. Those teachers who are having most success
in speaking to these young people, in helping them in their search, are
those who have roots in the tradition but have also made themselves
knowledgeable in the 'modern' sciences: sociology, history, economics,
law, etc.
It is in this convergence of interests that the opportunity exists for
developing cooperation between departments and scholars of Islamic
studies in Europe and the Arab and Muslim world, especially where this
involves cooperation with scholars and departments in Europe which
have a Christian foundation. It is ironic that until recently, whenever a
Muslim benefactor has made a major donation to a European university
it has been to a secular university. It was as if a secular university was
felt to be somehow safer than a Christian institution: understandable,
given the history of aggressive Christian missionary work in the Muslim
world during the last couple of centuries. But this ignored the growing
divisions within the Christian world - criss-crossing the denominations
between those who wanted to continue proselytizing and those who were
moving towards a dialogue, whether spiritual or socio-political.
This is changing. In recent years a number of collaborative
ventures have been established between Christian and Muslim
institutions of higher education in the field of Islamic studies and
sometimes more widely also to involve the study of Christianity. The
most notable is probably that between the Gregorian University in
Rome and the Hahiyet Fakultesi at Ankara University; a cooperation
which has already lasted about ten years. My own Centre has existed for
22 years on the founding principle of a partnership between Muslims
and Christians, and three years ago we signed a cooperation agreement
with Al-Azhar University with the support of the University of
Birmingham. The Al Nahayan Foundation of Abu Dhabi has broken the
mould of major financial support for European institutions by
endowing Islamic studies at Cambridge University, not in any of the
'secular' faculties but in the Faculty of Divinity, one of the oldest
faculties of Christian theology in Europe.
The political environment between Europe and the Arab world is
also changing. I mentioned earlier the Barcelona process. This is the
agreement signed in November 1995 between the countries of the
European Union with most of the other countries bordering the
Mediterranean. The third 'basket' of this process involves the dialogue
of culture and civilisation, explicitly including the dialogue of religion.
The process has absorbed some of the smaller programmes which
already existed before the agreement was signed, particularly Med
Campus which encourages cooperation among universities across the
region. After a period of reevaluation, the Med Campus programme has
recently been re-launched. When I attended a meeting a couple of years
ago in Brussels as part of the re-evaluation process, the survey of the
Med Campus projects hitherto carried out showed that not a single one
had involved issues related to religion. Now that the programme has
been re-launched, those of us who are interested and concerned with
this area should make special efforts to get together to ensure that
projects are put forward involving university cooperation in Islamic and
Christian studies across the Mediterranean. We also need to keep an eye
on future developments in the Barcelona third basket: there are likely to
be new initiatives.
You can also be certain that some parts of the churches, and their
university partners, in various parts of Europe want to explore such
cooperation with Islamic studies colleagues in the Arab and Muslim
world, involving also where possible Christian colleagues in the Muslim
world and Muslim colleagues in Europe.

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