Leaving the minarets to be inspired in Birmingham

August 31, 2001

During a visit to Islamic faculties in Kuala Lumpur this summer, I was struck by the number of academic staff holding PhDs from Britain. At one meeting, at the National University of Malaysia, of about 15 staff present, all but one held a British PhD, including the dean, one of our own graduates from Birmingham. Others had been at Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and Nottingham universities and London's School of Oriental and African Studies. A similar ratio of staff in the Islamic studies schools at Malaysia's International Islamic University has studied in Britain, while others have degrees from the US and a few from Australia. Even though the number of these students coming to the UK fell drastically during the economic crisis of the late 1990s, many continued to come. Now the numbers are growing again, even while the various Malaysian universities are developing their own home-grown PhDs in Islamic studies.

There are some very specific Malaysian reasons for this, apart from the obvious ones of colonial history and Commonwealth membership. Islam and Muslim identity are closely associated with Malay ethnicity, and so the subject is benefiting from the past two to three decades of Malay preference. But university authorities and government are well aware also of potential political sensitivities. They have, therefore, deliberately been increasing the academic traditions represented among their growing university staff. People trained in the West are felt to engender a healthy academic contrast to the many more trained in various Arab countries - mostly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

This long-standing Malaysian practice of seeking doctoral qualifications in the West is not unique. But recent years have seen a distinct widening of the practice. In small numbers, Islamic faculties in Arab countries have also been testing the waters. At Birmingham since the early 1990s we have seen students from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Is this just a noteworthy curiosity, or is there something more significant going on?

For one thing, it has to be clear that we are dealing specifically with Islamic studies, rather than the wider fields of, say, Middle Eastern history or law or Arabic language and linguistics, where Britain has a tradition that is several centuries old. In these subjects students from the region have been coming to British universities for well over a century. But sending graduates from the Muslim world to places such as Birmingham and Lampeter to do Islamic studies is, on the face of it, rather like European theology faculties getting their staff trained in Tehran.

I believe that there is in fact something significant taking place. I have no doubt that the geopolitical changes since the collapse of the USSR are one factor. The subsequent growth in perceptions of a potential confrontation between "Islam and the West" (what Samuel Huntington called the "clash of civilisations") has led directly to a much more serious interest in testing the possibilities of cooperation - as a counterbalance to more confrontationist options (Islamic "fundamentalisms") or as a deliberate strategy to counter the potential clash itself. So all kinds of institutions - government, university, non-governmental organisations - have been invited to numerous conferences and consultations on the interaction between Islam and the West and, sometimes more specifically, between Islam and Christianity.

We are also, I think, seeing the accumulated effect of several decades of sometimes unrestrained debate concerning how Islam should be taught. Edward Said's Orientalism was one very important moment in this debate, but a generation or more of Christian-Muslim dialogue has also had its effect. As it has become widely accepted, although there is certainly not a complete consensus over this, that western academia should be teaching Islam in ways that Muslims themselves can at least recognise, it is also beginning to be admitted that the reverse should also hold true. The West's "orientalism" has its counterpart in the Muslim world's "occidentalism", and academics in the Muslim world are increasingly seeing the latter as being as unacceptable as the former and are taking steps to counter it.

A third, very immediate, factor is the predominance of English as the language of international discourse and communications, not to mention its overwhelming presence on the internet. A university department in the Muslim world that cannot function in English soon finds itself marginalised. Islamic faculties, with their traditionally strong, sometimes exclusively, Arabic foundation are particularly likely to be thus disadvantaged.

But the English language factor extends further. In the transnational religious debate within Islam itself English has, in effect, become the main language of intercourse. International Islamic conferences now most commonly have two languages for simultaneous translation: Arabic and English. For many non-Arab participants in such events, Arabic is a text language, essential of course, but not the one they feel most comfortable speaking. And increasingly, major contributions to religious debate originate from English-speaking sources: the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Britain and the United States.

Arising from combinations of these three factors is also a growing interest in broadening the intellectual approaches and methodologies available to students and researchers in Islamic studies in Islamic faculties. Certainly, traditional methods, often much more subtle and critical than outsiders allow, remain central, as does faith commitment in ways that even the church-related theology departments in some European universities would find unacceptable.

But there is a realisation that Islam can no longer be taught as if the rest of the world were irrelevant. Islam is in an interactive relationship with other religions and cultures, and the students being taught through these universities need to have some preparation to deal with this. So undergraduate curricula are beginning to be reviewed and amended.

In such circumstances, it is natural that leading faculties of Islamic studies should wish to send some of their best people to study at universities in the West. But while Britain currently has the political advantage of not being the US, we are competing against universities where the US model of the doctorate is the norm. Increasingly, universities in the Muslim world are demanding that their people trained abroad also be trained according to the US doctoral model of a coursework foundation followed by research thesis. This was the clear message communicated to a team of three of us visiting Kuwait last year, a visit that provided the final impetus towards a consortium of ten English universities piloting the three-year "new route PhD" this year.

The course requirements of this new PhD ensure that students become familiar with intellectual traditions, approaches and methods associated with studying in a western university context. Working with other students exposes them to more varied - and certainly less lonely - learning situations, and working in class-sized groups is a much more effective way of improving English than in a solitary relationship with a research supervisor.

Formally, the coursework provides a more solid foundation for the research thesis, the requirements for which remain unchanged. Informally, and possibly more significantly, it encourages much greater student interaction, not only between Muslim and non-Muslim students, but, also just as important, among students from different parts of the Muslim world. The end result of this new route PhD is identical to the traditional route, but the way of getting there is more closely attuned to what our students and their sponsors want - and it allows us to continue to participate in a small way in developments of potentially long-term significance in Islamic studies in the Muslim world itself.

Jorgen S. Nielsen is professor of Islamic studies and director, Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, department of theology, University of Birmingham.

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