Islamic studies need thought

June 22, 2007

All of us who teach Islamic studies in British universities will welcome the promised injection of £1 million and the subject’s designation as one of “strategic importance” (“‘Gaps’ in Islam studies”, June 8).

However, many of us will surely be concerned with the direction in which the argument seems to be going. First, the report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills conflates the need for greater pastoral care for Muslim students with the desire that Islamic studies in British higher education be made more “relevant”. The provision of appropriate support services for Muslim students should be an essential element of any university’s programme for widening participation, but this cannot be linked to the academic study of Islam and Muslims.

Second, any research and teaching geared towards a government’s social policy inevitably runs the risk of being poor scholarship. In any case, what appears “irrelevant” today will, in all likelihood, become “relevant” in the future. It is this sort of think ing that has led to stop-start-stop funding of the study of the Muslim world in UK higher education over the past half-century.

Third, the current Government seems to want to use Islamic studies to further its programme of what the Prime Minister calls Muslims’ “true faith”. Islamic studies cannot be used to encourage politically acceptable expressions of Islam and eliminate less palatable interpretations. For that, the Government needs to focus on Muslim ­colleges that train religious professionals.

Finally, the report recommends that Islamic studies be extracted from “area studies”, and be more narrowly focused on Muslims in Britain. The study of trends within British Islam certainly needs greater encouragement. However, one cannot understand British Muslim perspectives without a proper understanding of events in the Muslim world, in particular the Middle East.
The Government would do well to consult widely before investing its £1 million.

Robert Gleave
Executive director, Council of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies

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