“Contextualising Islam in Britain” Enters Second Phase

The views of leading UK Muslims on some of the most contentious issues affecting Muslims in Britain are to be compiled and published online in the second phase of a groundbreaking project.

The initiative, called “Contextualising Islam in Britain”, first ran in 2009 and will bring together about 30 Muslim scholars, academics and activists to address a range of topics. These include, among others, Islamic faith schools, Islam and gender equality, the relationship between the individual and the community, and political participation.

It will be hosted by the University of Cambridge, working in association with the Universities of Westminster and Exeter. The group’s findings will be released to the public in a full report which it is expected will be published online and made available for free download in June.

The project is the second phase of an initiative originally conceived and funded by the last Government as part of the “Prevent” strategy, which is currently under review, to combat extremism. It will, however, be fully independent of both the Government and of the Universities involved.

Panel on Teaching Islam in American Universities


[/This is the nineteenth in a series of my notes on the International
Institute of Islamic Thought conference on approaching the Qur’an and
Sunnah held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited
report I will write on the conference later and represent my perception
of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later
time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that
makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any
errors in the notes is mine alone./]

Session 19. Moderator: Iqbal Unus
“Panel on Teaching Islam in American Universities”

Panelist Cemil Aydin:

There are more Islamic scholars in America than any other non-Muslim
majority country. When Ismail Faruqi began teaching the Islamic section
of the Academy of teachers has only twenty teachers, but now it has
grown enormously. MESA started humbly forty years ago but now has a
membership of 3000. Why? America’s imperial interest is one reason, but
not the main one. American Universities in recent years have overcome
their Eurocentrism at the same time as the boom in the inflow of Muslim
immigrants, a nonimperial humanist interest. Muslims are about half of
the scholars in the field and may soon become the majority. I think that
90% of the scholars today are in the humanist camp. During the invasion
of Iraq the Neocons complained that the scholars of Islam were not
helping them. Edward Said’s legacy now dominates the organization that
he criticized (MESA). In Continental Europe they want teachers who can
explain Islam, but they don’t want them to be Muslims.

In the last 200 years Muslim scholars have strongly been concerned with
issues of reform, but they were focused only on Muslim societies and
Europe. They ignored other non-Muslim societies. American universities
offer an opportunity to consider the issue of reform in a broader global
context. Comparative engagement with the non-Muslim societies could help
us overcome the limitations imposed by the myth of golden age and decline.

Panelist Mahmoud Ayoub:

I would like to look at the history of Islamic studies in America to see
where we are and to where we may move. Islamic studies began in the
colonial countries of Europe, with the Germans joining in the 19^th
century under the influence of the special relations with the Ottoman
Empire. Between the two world wars there was shift of power from Europe
to the U.S. and the U.S. adopted a number of European projects,
including the study of Islam, as a form of area studies rather than
religious studies per se. What may have initiated a change in this
approach was the rising European interest in religious civilizations
like Islamic civilization and the rise of American imperialism, which
differs from the European style in that the Americans wanted to
establish business concerns. Their interest in Islam was both commercial
and cultural, especially as Islam in America began to grow. People like
Gibb and Gruenebaum came to teach on America. Americans also became
interested in establishing centers and journals that dealt with areas of
special economic interest in the U.S. Things began to change drastically
after WWII with the growth of indigenous educated Muslims in America.
Jewish scholars including rabbis like Goitien did important work in
Islamic studies. The missionaries also took an interest in Islam. The
journal /Muslim Worl/d was founded to understand Muslims better in order
to convert them to Christianity. Missionaries started American
universities in the Middle East. There were also students like Kenneth
Morgan who changed from other fields to Islamic studies. Morgan was
interested in all the traditions of the world and wanted them to be
taught by people within the tradition, provided only that they did not
advocate, i.e. attempt to convert. A final group are the Arabs and
Muslims. In the 80s and 90s there was a concern about Muslims taking
over Islamic studies. I came to Islamic studies from the history of
religion and my view will be different from someone who was a physician
or engineer or political scientist, but we played a role in changing the
field. After 9/11 there was shift in which we emphasized trying to
present ourselves as friendly and good citizens, which is good, but
carries the danger of ignoring or watering down aspects of our culture
in order to be acceptable to others. We need to be true to our culture
and promote peace at the same time.

For a long time universities sought to teach Middle East studies without
teaching Islam. I think things have changed. The question is how long
will this interest in Islamic studies go on? God knows. We shall have to
wait and see.

Panelist Aisha Musa:

One of my pet peeves is the Islam vs. the West dichotomy. I’m of
northern European background and changed my name when I converted, but
if I knew then what I know now I might not have, since I am now mistaken
as being from the Middle East. When students enter my class they have no
knowledge that Islam is an Abrahamic faith. Until recently the modality
of teaching Islam, as a subset of the study of ancient or modern Middle
East, has not helped. Religious studies as an academic discipline is
only 20-30 years old. Public universities are trying to study religion
as a force in the world without preaching the religion. The highest
levels of Islamic studies have mainly been restricted to a few schools
in the East. I see a growth of interest in hiring Islamic studies
professors at state universities. When Jane McAuliffe gave her talk on
“Reading the Qur’an with Fidelity and Freedom” she said twenty years
earlier almost all of her students were non-Muslims, but now most were
Muslims. I see great hope but we have to move away from the West vs.
Islam mentality.

Panelist Khaleel Mohammad:

What I say is purely my own view and has nothing to do with IIIT or San
Diego University. I say this because I enforce a stereotype. I am a
terrorist. At McGill University there was decision to make at least 40%
of the Islamic studies faculty Muslim, but they moved away from that.
Despite the increase in vacancies for Islamic studies professors, I do
not see a beneficial development. The stereotype still exists that
Muslim professors will try to convert people to Islam. In 1898 at the
world parliament of religions there was a sustained rhetoric against
Islam. A lot of the rhetoric now does not have a positive goal in mind.
What is the solution? When we write our texts and they need it be
edited, why can’t we have it edited by IIIT? Because of the name. It is
still an uphill battle.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: When I taught at JHU’s Social Change and Development
Program, the head of the Dept. of Middle East Studies objected that
Islam was being taught outside of his department.

Ayoub: It is important not to use our position to proselytize.

Abu Baker Al-Shingieti: How do we teach Islam without appearing to
proselytize? How can we teach the will of God?

Aydin: Some non-Muslim scholars have done more than the Muslim scholars,
for example the history of Sufi tradition. I recall when Faruqi refused
to include a panel on Sufism over the objections of the non-Muslim
scholars. There should be an intra-scholar conversation outside the
classroom where we can talk about the Islamic tradition in turn of
creating a better person.

Imtiyaz Yusuf: Everybody asks me if John Esposito is a Muslim. He is
not. He is a Hanif. The best you could have.

Ahmad: In my class on Islamic civilization at the University of
Maryland, I tell the students up front this is not a theology class. Of
course, you cannot completely eliminate theology from a discussion of
Islamic civilization, so I tell them they may ask questions about
Islamic theology in the second and third sessions, but not afterward.

Ayoub: We can’t teach the will of God. That is something one must
discover. We can only teach the revelation. What we need here, and IIIT
is probably the best to do it, is an Islamic Seminary (which is probably
not a bad name) that would be respectable in academic standards and
thoroughly train religious leaders and imams in a nonsectarian way, not
tied to a particular /madhhab/.

Mohammed: When a Muslim is considered to teach Islamic studies there is
a problem that does not arise when a Buddhist is considered to teach
Buddhist studies.

Aydin: The links between academia and government are broken not just in
the area of Islamic studies. Washington think tanks are the
intermediaries between academia and the policymakers in government.

Ayoub: Two days before we were to meet to inaugurate the chair of
Islamic studies at Temple the chair yielded to pressure from Daniel
Pipes to cancel the chair.

Ahmad: The importance of think tanks as the bridge between academia and
policymakers is why the Minaret of Freedom Institute, IIIT, and the
Association of Muslim Social Scientists produced the /Directory of
Policy Experts on Islamic Studies and Muslim Affairs/.

Hisham Altalib: it would be interesting to compare the religious
affiliations of the teachers of Jewish, Christian and Islamic studies.

Aydin: There are very few Christians and no Muslims teaching Jewish
studies. There are many secularists and atheists teaching Christian
studies, leading to the phenomenon of student who “fail for Jesus.”

Ayoub: We all teach Christianity or Judaism in a sense in a world
religions course, as historians of religion. Regarding think tanks, they
are of different varieties. Some are funded by and belong to government
or intelligence agencies.

Ayoub: I think an introductory course in Islam should be an advanced
seminar with a focus on the rich civilization.

Mohammed: There is a new thrust that focuses on syllabus design. We have
boards that ask the students what they want to learn about.

Altalib: Why call Christianity, Islam and Judaism Western religions?

Ayoub: Because of the influence of Greek thought. We are all heirs of

Musa: You have to be a marketer in designing a course.

Ahmad: Judith Latham, now retired from Voice of America, has hosted a
salon in her home for many years she calls “Aristotle and Abraham: All
Their Children.” Even if you teach a course on theology, these other
questions will come up.

Yusuf: My students are surprised to learn that Christianity went to
Africa and Asia before coming to the West.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspectives

A report which explores the philosophical and theological perspectives on what it means to be a Muslim in Britain today has been published.

The publication of the study, entitled “Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspectives” marks the culmination of a nine month research project by the University of Cambridge in association with the Universities of Exeter and Westminster.

A total of 26 Muslim scholars, academics and activists representing a diverse spectrum of views from Muslim communities in the UK took part in discussions about what it means to live as a Muslim in modern Britain. The report covers a wide range of issues including secularism, democracy, Shari’a law, human rights and citizenship.

The report presents the group’s conclusions and aims to act as the basis for a wider discussion with other Muslim leaders and communities around the UK. In time, it is hoped that this will lead to the development of a virtual “House of Wisdom”, providing space for discussion among both Muslims and non-Muslims on how Islam should function in modern Britain and contribute to wider society.

The research project was funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government but remained independent of both Government and the Universities involved.

Members were invited to participate by a steering committee of academics and activists. Members of the project set their own agenda, choosing items for discussion and meeting five times between February and May 2009 to debate these issues before producing the final report.

The document is, however, only intended to mark the start of the debate. “The report’s contents are the ideas of a small group and they need to be refined by a wider number of participants,” said Project leader Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at Cambridge.

“The process has already succeeded in bringing together Muslims from a wide range of backgrounds who, in spite of those different backgrounds, have been prepared to work together. What we want to do now is stimulate further dialogue with a wider group of Muslim leaders and communities.”

Minister for Communities Shahid Malik said: “This is a ground-breaking report from a wide cross-section of British Muslim scholars, academics and community leaders. I hope that this report by Cambridge will inspire wider debate from communities across the country on the values that we all share.

“Following the terrorist attacks in New York and London, many Muslim leaders expressed concern that their religion was being misrepresented and misinterpreted. The silent majority of Muslims have since fought hard to restate their religion as they see it and this report is an important contribution to that.”

Despite its exploratory nature, the report puts forward conclusions concerning a number of key areas.

The authors argue, for example, that a secular British state provides many benefits for British Muslims, not least by allowing Islam to be practiced freely in an atmosphere of respect, security and dignity.

The group agreed that Muslims should assert and teach what they see to be the truth of their faith, but also recognized the existence of different religions and the right of others to do the same. Their study urges Muslims to identify shared values between Islam and other world views, pointing out the Qu’ran’s emphasis on qualities such as good neighborliness, charity, hospitality and non-aggression.

The report also redefines a number of terms which the authors believe have been misinterpreted. It notes, for example, that both Muslims and non-Muslims often have “skewed understanding of the term Shari’a, which conjures up images of floggings and beheadings.”

In fact, it stresses, Shari’a is a way of life based on an ethical code that emphasizes dignity, equality and justice for all. Islam, it says, teaches the equality of all human beings regardless of gender.

Similarly, the study notes that “jihad” in its true sense refers to active citizenship, and is meant to encourage Muslims to strive for social justice, fight against poverty and make efforts to reform themselves.

In some, clearly defined, cases, it can also mean the legitimate use of force in self-defense. The authors add, however: “It is important to stress that Islam is opposed to all forms of terrorism, regardless of who sponsors them. While all legal systems recognize self-defense as a legitimate rationale for the use of force, it is clear that foreign conflicts cannot justify violence in Britain.”

Finally, the report says that Muslims have a responsibility to be active citizens and engage with society in a positive way. Political engagement is described as an obligation for Muslim citizens and voting is to be encouraged. This can, however, also involve questioning and challenging the state when it fails to uphold principles of justice.

Copies of the report are being supplied to the Government, community leaders and others, but it can also be downloaded by anyone online.

University of Cambridge in Association with the Universities of Exeter and Westminster

Dutch Opposition Questions Degrees Granted by New Universities

Dutch opposition party SP has asked the government to prevent training institutions from implying that they grant university degrees. Seven institutions of the Hague have recently been registered by the Chamber of Commerce. At the Free University in the Hague all teaching is in Arabic, and students obtain training in various subjects including political science, philosophy and law. However the Netherlands does not recognize their diplomas as university degrees. Parliament has asked the government to make “university” a protected title to clarify the
granting of degrees. Minister Ronald Plasterk has promised to investigate.

Halal food on US University campuses

Islam Online examines the availability of halal, or Islamically permissible foods on various US university and college campuses. At Stanford University, halal food is widely available on several places of the campus – though it is not already made, but must be done so on-demand. At Harvard University, already-made halal meals on campus have been stimulated by support from wealthy Arab countries. However, such availability is not always the case on other campuses with growing a growing Muslim student body. A Yale student reflects on the dining halls of the university’s New Haven, Connecticut campus. “I didn’t find any halal grocery or meat store on the campus. I had no car and we were frustrated,” reported Imtiaz Ali. Georgia Tech students reported sticking to vegetarian meals, without a halal option at school.

Full-text article continues here. (Some news sites may require registration)

Niqab ban extended to colleges

Dutch Education Minister Ronald Plasterk confirmed extending a proposed ban on the face veil – also known as the niqab – from schools and universities, and the ban applying to students, teachers, and service providers. “It will forbid any kind of garment that covers the face. The intention is to ensure that all people who communicate with each other are able to look each other in the eye, to see each other’s faces,” said the minister.

The ban would apply to all women who enter the gates of such educational institutions. Presently, all schools could make their own decisions regarding the face veil.

Full text article continues here. (Some news sites may require registration)

Iran claims links with British universities

Officials from the country’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology said they were in talks with a number of universities in Britain, the United States and Germany. Reports from Tehran claim they will provide teaching materials and scholars after striking up deals with several unnamed institutions.

Gholamreza Khajesarvi, a government official, told the Islamic Republic News Agency: “The ministry is currently studying proposals by numerous world academic centres and universities, including several universities from Britain, the United States, and Germany. The departments will be set up to train and educate experts on Islam so as to assist in the introduction of Islam and its realities to the world in a proper academic setting,” Graeme Paton reports.

Full-text article continues here. (Some news sites may require registration)

Universities told to root out extremists

British university leaders have agreed to inform the police of any extremist behaviour by students or visiting speakers that they suspect may lead to terrorism. A new tool kit for universities issued today by Bill Rammell, the Universities Minister, advises universities to draw up a national watch list of guest speakers who should be banned from speaking on campus. It also suggests that universities consider setting up multi-faith chaplaincies instead of separate prayer rooms for different faiths, to promote integration and prevent pockets of extremists forming. Where they are allowed, Muslim chaplains should be trained to support vulnerable students who are being groomed, bullied or harassed by violent extremists so that these concerns can be passed to the police. Alexandra Frean reports. Mr Rammell was adamant, however, that Muslim students – particularly those coming from overseas – did not have the right to demand special treatment from British universities. Britain technically is a Christian country with many secular features. It’s those two things. It’s not anything else. If you expect that you would have the same response to your faith needs in Britain as would happen within a Muslim or Islamic country, (you) would be disappointed, he said.

Universities Install Footbaths to Benefit Muslims, and Not Everyone Is Pleased

University of Michigan announces it would install $25,000 foot-washing stations in several restrooms to accommodate its Muslim students; this has provoked controversy, with students divided on use of their building-maintenance fees, and tricky legal questions about whether plan is legitimate accommodation of students’ right to practice their religion, or unconstitutional government support for that religion; more than 10 percent of students at University of Michigan are Muslims; nationwide, more than dozen universities have footbaths, many installed in new buildings; American Civil Liverties Union says footbath issue is complex, since footbaths themselves can be used by anyone, and are not stylized in religious way…

Universities ‘must improve help for vulnerable Muslim students’

Universities must employ Muslim chaplains or advisers and join forces with Islamic schools to break down widening divisions between British society and its Muslim communities, according to a senior Government adviser. In a wide-ranging review of Islamic university syllabuses and the support available to Muslim students in England, published today, Ataullah Siddiqui, will tell institutions that their teaching of Islamic studies is out of date and for years has been conducted in isolation and probably in complete ignorance of the [Muslim] community. Courses should be more job-related, departments should link up with seminaries and madrassas to reflect Islam in Europe post-9/11, they should have more qualified staff and provide better pastoral support for Muslim students, according to Dr Siddiqui.