Islamic liberal arts past seen as key to regional revival

Arab Spring nations must look back to advance, conference hears. Jack Grove reports from Madrid

November 1, 2012

Universities in Arab Spring countries need to revive a once-great tradition of liberal arts education if they are to prosper, an international conference has heard.

Mahmoud Ezzamel, professorial fellow at Cardiff University, told an audience at the Reinventing Higher Education conference in Madrid last week that universities in Muslim countries should focus on arts, humanities and the social sciences rather than concentrating solely on science and engineering.

But they must not "mimic or import different types of higher education" from Europe and the US, said Dr Ezzamel, whose research focuses on accounting theory.

Instead, universities should base new liberal arts courses on the teaching of medieval Islamic scholars who paved the way for the Enlightenment, he said on 23 October at the conference, which was held at IE University's business school.

"Arab and Muslim countries have a deep history in the liberal arts," he said. "In Spain, there are huge amounts of manuscripts that allowed the Renaissance to happen. Very seldom does an Arab scholar dig into these [documents]."

If academics simply taught the work of Western scholars, it would "suppress local traditional society", and Arab universities could never hope to compete on equal terms with the West in these areas, Dr Ezzamel argued.

Promoting liberal Muslim thinking within the Arab academy would also combat the myth that humanist thought had been crushed by repressive theocratic states, he said.

"Humanism and liberalism have never disappeared from the Arab world," Dr Ezzamel said.

"If you talk to people on the street, listen to songs, watch plays or follow pop culture, you will find it. However, under repressive regimes, these things had to go underground."

He also pointed to other problems that he said had contributed to the undermining of university education in the Arab world.

"There are not sufficient library facilities, even at the most prestigious universities, and classes are massive," he said. "Students are so rushed they do not have the space to think about their education."

But even though higher education in such countries of the region needed a "radical reinventing", Dr Ezzamel said, there were "enormous human resources available - thousands, even millions of students - and the opportunities are on a huge scale".

Salah Khalil, founder and director of the Alexandria Trust, a London-based charitable body that promotes open and accessible education systems in Arab countries, echoed the belief that liberal arts education could thrive in the Muslim world, particularly in Egypt.

"Egypt is a melting pot of global citizenship," said Mr Khalil, an Egyptian national.

He said that the Muslim Brotherhood - which has achieved political power with the victory of Mohammed Mursi, whom it endorsed, as the country's first democratically elected president - had scored "some early wins" in terms of influencing higher education, "but they will not be able to impose their agenda".

"You can see some issues [such as] where men and women are educated separately...but they will face resistance if they want to move people in that direction."

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Felipe Fernández-Armesto takes issue with a claim that the EU has been playing the sovereignty card in Brexit negotiations

Female professor

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

John McEnroe arguing with umpire. Tennis

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman explain how to negotiate your annual performance and development review

Man throwing axes

UCU attacks plans to cut 171 posts, but university denies Brexit 'the reason'

Cricket player and umpire exchanging bribe

The need to accommodate foreign students undermines domestic practices, says Lincoln Allison, spying parallels between UK universities and global sports bodies such as Fifa