Today's lecture: the good Muslim

July 13, 2007

Calls for an overhaul of Islamic studies in British universities imply that more 'authentic', moderate Muslim voices are not currently being represented in the syllabus. This is dangerously simplistic, says Chase Robinson

Responding to the publication of Ataullah Siddiqui's report on Islam at Universities in England last month, Bill Rammell, the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, announced that Islamic studies at degree level was to be classified as a "strategically" important subject and that the Higher Education Funding Council for England had committed £1 million towards addressing the "gaps" in teaching and research that the report had identified. "Dr Siddiqui's review, as well as other reports and conferences on Islam in higher education, have told us that Islamic studies departments are concentrating too much on a Middle Eastern focus and ignoring the realities of Islam in modern multicultural Britain," Mr Rammell said.

The timing of both report and response was synchronised with Islam and Muslims in the World Today , a Cambridge Interfaith Programme conference at which Tony Blair himself asked that the "authentic voices" of Islam - including, naturally, those attending the conference - be heard. The time had come, Blair said, "to reclaim from extremists, of whatever faith, the true essence of religious belief. In the face of so much high profile accorded to religious extremism, to schism and to confrontation, it is important to show that religious faith is not inconsistent with reason, or progress or the celebration of diversity."

Some have questioned just how diverse the conference's voices were, but Rammell, Siddiqui and Blair were certainly singing from the same hymn sheet: the battle against extremist Islam should be joined in the universities. The idea is not new - months ago it was proposed that university staff might keep a watching brief - but Government has now moved from vigilance to funded prescription.

In this it is following in a long tradition. As the Siddiqui report itself usefully describes, the first of four previous reports on national provision of expertise in the Middle East (and Oriental studies more generally) was published in 1909. But whereas earlier reports can be said to have aimed at addressing challenges from overseas, the Siddiqui report breaks from tradition and is intended principally for an internal one: "There is awareness that the universities, through their different departments which teach the study of Islam and Muslim societies, are not addressing the subject matter properly or meeting [the needs of] the growing number of Muslim students."

To judge by the report's survey of current practice and its nine recommendations, many of those needs are pastoral: the possibility of hiring properly qualified Muslim "chaplains" should be explored; student Islamic societies should be supported; university staff should be able to avail themselves of guidance on matters regarding prayer, diet and the like. So far, so good: universities should diversify student services not only because multiculturalism is a fact of life and Muslim and non-Muslim students will benefit from university settings that reflect that fact, but also because it will improve overseas recruitment. But four of the nine recommendations are more explicitly academic. They are not all so good, much is very unclear, and it is little wonder that the report's ink was scarcely dry before Universities UK had weighed in with a statement of its own: "It will be for the relevant academic community to debate any future changes to the teaching of Islamic studies."

The debate should be broad. One does not have to accept the report's description of current practice or its sometimes woolly terminology to agree that there is room for broadening provision and funding opportunities. In so far as the report calls for supplementing traditional strengths of the academic study of Islam by increasing staff levels in such areas as the history of Muslim minority communities (for example, in Europe and North America) and the study of contemporary social practices and lived belief, it deserves wide support. Islamic studies "should adopt a greater focus on theological and civilisational aspects of Islam which are relevant to practising Muslims". This is not the only place where the report raises questions, but there certainly is room for growth in areas of extraordinary achievement that have been squeezed out of traditional courses; the absence of the exact sciences (for example, Islamic astronomy and mathematics) is especially conspicuous.

All this said, funding bodies need to understand that those traditional strengths - the study of the languages, literatures, histories and traditions of the Islamic world - are under constant threat by diminishing resources, the clearest current example being the rolling-up of targeted funding for "minority" languages, such as Persian. In the British Academy's response to Hefce's draft strategic plan of 2006-11, it was pointed out that the generational regularity with which government-sponsored inquiries appear (1947, 1961, 1986 and now 2007) suggests "a lack of continued national policy". This must be right and it deserves fixing; but what deserves emphasis here is the paltry level of funding that has issued from the most recent instalment - and not only by comparison with earlier government initiatives. Again, a single example: four different sources (Hefce, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Scottish Funding Council) managed to scrape together enough short-term-funding for a single Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, which, divided among Edinburgh, Manchester and Durham universities, is somehow intended to increase the national capacity. So, one centre, divided among three universities, for a population of 60 million. The US, with a population five times that of the UK, has no fewer than 19 single-university "national resource centres" for the Middle East.

There is enormous scope for investment all across the board. The same British Academy response correctly called for increasing provision in historical coverage, particularly early modern, non-European history, including the Ottoman and Mogul empires.

About history the Siddiqui report is silent. The silence is curious, and points to a basic inconsistency: on the one hand, the report laments the narrow, Middle Eastern focus of Islamic studies; on the other, it calls for appreciation for the "underlying unity... of Islamic culture", and speaks of the "multi-faith and pluralist society that left a lasting legacy in Europe through Spain". Leaving aside the question of whether this last statement is actually true, one cannot have it both ways: the fact of the matter is that such unity that Islamic culture possesses is owed to ideas, practice and institutions that were formed in the Middle East, mostly in Arabic, sometimes in Persian, between the 7th and the 12th centuries. Indeed, it is ostensibly to recapture what they regard as a long-lost religious, cultural and political unity that many Islamists fight. It is surely the case that Muslim and non Muslim students alike should be given the opportunity to grapple with understanding the (more complex) historical reality of this past and the (equally interesting) sociology of its romanticised memory. Historicising change in Islamic societies is arguably the most important task currently facing Islamic studies.

There are more important issues at stake than the balance of provision, however. By definition, to set and fund academic priorities means promoting certain kinds of teaching and learning at the expense of other kinds, and if the debate about Islamic studies is to be a useful one, it must begin with an honest appraisal of what kinds we wish to have and whether it makes academic sense to have them. Government and community priorities may overlap with those of university teaching and learning, but they can hardly be expected to coincide, especially when politics and culture converge to produce a set of religious prescriptions.

And that appears to be happening. Guided as it is by international and domestic politics, the most striking feature of these contributions to the national debate about Islam is the ontological (and faintly theological) assumption that there is a "true" (read: moderate) Islam, that, once "properly" appreciated and disseminated, will expose the views of the "extremists" for what they really are: perversions, fantasies, distortions and lies. The debate is presented as one about truth and falsehood, but what it is actually about is social authority. Who controls the discourse of what is "authentic" or "real"? Who speaks on behalf of Islam and what fields of knowledge constitute expertise?

"There is also a clear move across the world to assert strongly the moderate and true authority of Islam," as Blair said in his conference speech. He has put half a finger on it: in large measure it is due to the collapse of traditional forms of authority, be they exemplified by emigre parents, religious institutions co-opted by authoritarian regimes or styles of learning undercut by modern technologies and social mobility, that extremist views - say, those that legitimise modes of jihad that the tradition itself regarded as abhorrent - have any persuasive power. So an attempt to patronise a "moderate" Islam is being made here, just as attempts are being made in the Islamic world, the "mainstream" New Islamist movement in Egypt perhaps the best known of all of them.

Of course, attempts to control the discourse of the "true" are as old as knowledge itself, and although of altogether less consequence than the debates currently raging among Muslims, within the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies the arguments have been fairly heated. In fact, the small stack of post-war government reports upon which the Siddiqui report now sits neatly tracks the shift of authority from language- and text-based Orientalism through area studies and (increasingly) towards the interdisciplinary study of modern and contemporary societies. Whereas it was once thought that "understanding" Islam came largely from the ability to read difficult Arabic, nowadays one must have a discipline (history, religious studies, anthropology) in order to exercise much interpretive authority.

It is against the backdrop of these debates that the prescriptions of the most recent report should be read. It reflects both intra-Muslim debates about the locus of religious authority and the shift of scholarly authority within Islamic and Middle East studies away from colonially implicated Orientalism towards the more heterogeneous and communally empowering social sciences.

It is also against that backdrop that the report's most controversial recommendation becomes so striking: UK university students need to acquire knowledge that only appropriately trained Muslim scholars can transmit. "There are very few qualified scholars in the core subjects of Islamic sciences outside the Islamic world who can teach and supervise Islamic subjects confidently," we read on page 36 of the report. There are many subjects that many staff teach well but with relatively little "confidence", and there is no escaping the temptation to emend "confidently" here to "competently" since that is exactly what is later proposed in the summary recommendations: "Students at universities should be given the opportunity to study under competent scholars of Islam who have been trained via traditional Islamic routes." What the author means by "core subjects of Islamic sciences" and "traditional" is, once again, not spelled out, but the only serious possibility is the area of learning that is conventionally categorised as the "Arabic" or "transmitted" sciences, for example the study of the Arabic language, the Koran, prophetic traditions and the law.

On the face of things, we move away from the social sciences and back into the world of texts, presumably those texts that have been and are being privileged in one way or another. The terminology being so imprecise, it would be unfair to speculate about precisely what is intended, but even at the outset one is entitled to ask several questions. Who is to decide what the "core" is? What constitutes the "tradition"? Which students are to be given the opportunity to study under these scholars? Given that the study of the Islamic religious and historical tradition has been subject to contentious and serious debate for more than a century, one would like to have some answers. Certainly those who deserve them most are our Muslim students, living as they do in a society that promotes secularity, and studying as they should in universities that are supposed to promote critical, open debate about all religious traditions.

Chase Robinson is professor of Islamic history, Oxford University.

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