Midlands mix of Koran, Kant and Kashmir

August 31, 2001

InWhat does democracy mean to a Muslim? Mandy Garner visits the institute tackling the issues that divide Islam and the West

Markfield lies in the heart of the Midlands. About half an hour's drive from the urban multiculturalism of Leicester, it is the very image of rural tranquillity. It is here that the Islamic Foundation has made its home and where it has begun work on building a dialogue between Islamic scholars and western thinkers. The foundation, which was set up in 1973 and has published more than 250 books in several languages on everything from euthanasia to cloning, has long sought to create a better understanding of Islam in the West. In a world where Islamophobia has run rife, particularly in recent years, it has its work cut out. Now it has turned its attentions to higher education.

The Markfield Institute of Higher Education was opened last year and is accredited by the University of Portsmouth, which acts, says Khurshid Ahmad, founder and chairman of the foundation's board of directors, as a form of "quality control". The foundation also has links with other British universities - notably Loughborough and Leicester, where it funds teaching posts.

Uniquely, the institute was launched last September with only postgraduate students. According to Nizam Mohammed, its academic coordinator, it offers students the opportunity to study in an Islamic environment under leading Muslim scholars but equips them with a qualification from a British university and tackles subjects through the "western methodology of objectivity and synthesis".

The ideas behind the setting-up of the institute are very much in keeping with the work of Khurshid, a much respected scholar in Islamic economics - he is credited with being instrumental in the emergence of Islamic economics as an intellectual discipline - as well as a former minister in the Pakistani government of Zia al-Haq and a leading figure in Jamaat-I-Islami, touted as one of the two main Islamic movements of recent years.

Sitting behind a huge desk and surrounded by books, Khurshid is extremely polite and explains everything he thinks I will not understand. In fact, all the staff do this. At one point, someone mentions Khartoum and then says "in Sudan". I feel embarrassed that they assume so much ignorance, but I suppose, apart from the occasional programme on the television, such as the recent Islam season on BBC2, there is very little talk of Islamic countries or ideas in the mainstream British press. This ignorance is what the foundation and the institute aim to counter by creating a dialogue between Islam and the West.

Khurshid says the foundation believes extremism on all sides is the result of "the absence of dialogue" and that this only spawns further extremism. The Iranian revolution, for example, was the result of the Shah's extreme brand of liberalism and intolerance. He says the Islamophobia of recent years, particularly after the Salman Rushdie case, "has not been helpful". Yet cases such as that of Rushdie and, more recently, of Shaikh Mohammed Younis, the lecturer sentenced to death in Pakistan for maligning Muhammad, are critical to any dialogue between Islam and the West. Speaking about Younis, Khurshid says all religions have had blasphemy laws - the law used in this case was put in place by the British - and that Pakistan has never actually executed anyone for blasphemy. He is positive about the power of dialogue to get beyond such issues. "With dialogue things will change," he says.

A former vice-president of the Standing Conference on Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe and a member of the advisory council of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, he says his role is not to act "as a salesman for Islam" but to bring together different traditions and to explain what Islam stands for. In this vein, the foundation runs short courses in cultural awareness for a range of professionals such as the police. "Journalists haven't yet shown an interest," one lecturer observes.

The courses offered on the institute's masters programme show the attempt to span the gulf between traditional Islamic studies and western thought. They include "Islam in Europe" and "Islam, women and feminism". The former has a section on the image of Islam and Muslims in European thought while the latter "critically examines the tradition of feminism and its impact on Muslim society".

However, it is no good understanding their use of the term feminism, or for that matter democracy, from a purely western perspective. Such concepts have to be taken in the political and social context in which they occur. Pluralism and democracy, for example, are equated with "a democratic system inseparable from divine guidance", what Khurshid terms a "theodemocracy". This has basic principles of law from which appropriate laws are implemented, similar to the amendments of the US constitution, as opposed to a theocracy where a particular religious class "reserves the right to interpret religious law and wield political power".

Ataullah Siddiqui, assistant director of the institute, adds that concepts such as citizenship and nation-state are western - Khurshid has long argued for a commonwealth of Islamic regions - but studying how they are perceived in the Muslim world and how the West confronts the issue of secularism and modernism are important elements in the emergence of a new discourse on pluralism in Islam. Such issues are covered in a course on Islam and pluralism, which has just been added to the institute's syllabus.

Khurshid believes that the intolerance of different traditions and beliefs and the reversion to strictly literal interpretations of Islamic texts without any acknowledgement of social and historical context, which have been a feature of some Islamic governments and parties in recent years, must be understood as merely one stage in the evolution of a modern Islamic society, one that involves a rejection of colonial influence and a desire to embrace a totally Islamic identity.

A few years ago a debate on the way forward that included the study of western traditions would have been difficult, and dangerous, in many parts of the Islamic world. In some it is still a problem. But Khurshid, who is no great admirer of western values and thinks Islam has a lot to teach the West about morality - particularly in terms of economic justice - believes there is now a real "demand for change". This would be a change rooted in Islamic tradition rather than one that simply apes western tradition. The Markfield Institute, which is autonomous from the Islamic Foundation, will provide the kind of scholarly research that "will be the catalyst for change in the future".

"For the first time Islamic studies is being introduced in a manner that Muslims can consider authentic and in a critical and objective western social science tradition," he says. This is different from Islamic studies in Muslim countries, which tend to be more traditional and are taught in Arabic, and from other Islamic studies courses in the West, which, according to Khurshid, are seen as an extension of Arabic studies.

"Our effort is to draw on classical traditions using the English language and literary criticism and social science methodologies. It is not just a question of transferring knowledge from one tradition to another. We want to inculcate our researchers to think afresh about the two traditions and how they interact. We want to modernise, but we will not blindly be following what is being done in the modern social sciences - we will be drawing on Islamic sources."

One example is the way political theory is taught at the institute. Fatma Amer, who teaches the course, says he aims to show how Islam and the West have cross-fertilised each other throughout history, from Greek philosophy to modern western theories on political authority and free will.

Khurshid says the institute's aims have been viewed with suspicion by the Muslim world, but states "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". Fatma Amer adds that, because the institute is based outside the Islamic world, it may give students more freedom to experiment with ideas. "We can debate issues in the UK more freely as we are not under political pressure," he says.

The institute's students come from around the world, including the UK, although most are from developing countries. There is a big interest from South Africa.

Several of the current students are attached to universities in Muslim countries. Abdullah Mohammed Abdullah, for example, is at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria. He is studying whether democracy and Islamic law are compatible, a hot subject in Nigeria where the majority of states are Muslim and some have already imposed Islamic law. Abdullah believes that both respect human rights. It is their implementation that is the problem. Fairuzzah Harun, from Malaysia, is also interested in Islamic law, whether it can be applied in western countries and if it needs to be interpreted more flexibly in such circumstances.

Other students include Lubna Ghosheh, who is doing an MA in Islamic studies. She is from Palestine and has studied western economics but wanted to see what Islam had to say about it. With Khurshid on the teaching faculty, Islamic economics is clearly a big draw for the institute - and for western economic organisations. Seif el-Din Ibrahim Taj el-Din, a lecturer in economics, says a big western bank has shown an interest in working with the institute to develop more services for Muslims, such as mortgages that would not accrue interest.

Students are also working with local authorities in the UK. Abdul Kalam Azad, a PhD student from Bangladesh, is doing his thesis on parental involvement in the education of Bengali children in East London compared with their white peers, and is working with the local education authority. "I am looking at what creates the proper academic environment," he says.

Last year's intake was 26. The institute hopes to double that this year and eventually to have enough students to be self-funding. At the moment it is supported by the Islamic Foundation and by grants from interested organisations, such as the Islamic Development Bank. Long-term plans are for it to have its own campus. Over the next ten years, the institute aims to raise £10 million towards this end. Already it has made a start with the foundation stone for a new auditorium, lecture theatre and cafeteria recently having been laid. Sleepy Markfield may yet go down in history as the intellectual hotbed of Islamic modernism.

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