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Islamic Universities; Past, Present and Future

The transmission of knowledge has been a fundamental aspect of the Islamic tradition since the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632 C.E., a class of religious specialists or ‘ulamā‘ emerged in Muslim societies. These ‘ulamā‘ attracted students and devised systems for transmitting texts, ideas, and practices. [1] By the beginning of the eighth century C.E., influential study circles existed in cities throughout the Umayyad Caliphate, including in Mecca, Medina, Basra, Kufa, and Damascus. In the ninth and tenth centuries, mosques such as Al-Azhar in Cairo and Al Qarawiyyin in Fez began to develop into centers of learning that drew knowledge-seekers from across the Muslim world.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have referred to pre-colonial universities in Timbuktu and other centers of learning. [2] Yet the “Islamic university,” in the sense of a bureaucratically organized, degree-granting institution that aims to compete with Western-style universities, is a phenomenon that dates only to the colonial period. During and after colonialism, new kinds of centers for Islamic learning emerged. Some existing institutions were dramatically reformed, most notably Al-Azhar. These new and reformed institutions are Islamic universities in the contemporary sense of the term. They are distinct from the classical-style madrasa (school) and the ma’had (institute), where seekers of knowledge typically study one text — such as the Qur’an or a manual of jurisprudence — with one teacher and his or her advanced pupils, and obtain not a general certificate but rather an ijāza (authorization) to teach that text.

Islamic universities have become important players in shaping religious thought across the global Muslim community. Their influence is felt as they connect Muslims from different parts of the world, and advance particular intellectual, political, and theological programs through teaching, publishing, organizing, and preaching. Islamic universities have contributed to the educational formation of many of the most prominent Muslim intellectuals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For example, Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi (b. 1926), perhaps the most famous contemporary Muslim scholar, received his diploma, M.A., and Ph.D. from Al-Azhar.

One-dimensional portrayals of Islamic universities often circulate in policy discussions. Numerous accounts by think tanks, scholars, and journalists depict the activities of Islamic universities, particularly in Africa, as conduits for spreading radicalism. According to political scientist Abdelkérim Ousman, for example, Arab Islamic universities “groom distinguished [African] students so that they may become members of staff of various national universities, and hence themselves take part in spreading and developing radical Islamic thoughts in different fields of education.” African graduates of Islamic universities, he continues, seek to Islamize their governments and societies in accordance with Wahhabi and Salafi ideals of Islam. [3]

However the Islamic university as a concept has exhibited diverse theological, pedagogical, and political manifestations, and are dynamic institutions whose curricula, priorities, and relations with governments change over time. Students who attend these institutions react in different ways to the environments they encounter there, pursuing various professional and religious paths on their return home. Rather than the sterotype of unthinking vehicles for the transmission of Wahhabism or Salafism African graduates of Islamic universities hold a variety of theological positions and utilize their educations in a range of different ways.

Defining the Sunni Islamic University: The Case of Al-Azhar

The Islamic university did not take its full form until the colonial period, and Colonial schools—and the Muslim schools that emerged in reaction to colonialism—possessed organizational structures that distinguished them from other models of Muslim learning. In Muslim study circles, local and traveling students sought knowledge from scholars reputed for mastery of particular disciplines, such as jurisprudence (fiqh) or the traditions of the Prophet (a ḥād īth, singular ḥad īth). A student’s education often included the tutelage of multiple teachers, each of whom might provide the student with a document attesting to the student’s competency. The teacher, rather than an institution, certified the student.

Colonial-era schools, in contrast, often introduced strict distinctions between teachers and students. These schools formally grouped students into cohorts, and defined their progress through examinations and grades. Colonial-era classrooms featured desks, chalkboards, and other markers borrowed from European schools in the age of the Industrial Revolution. [4] As it emerged out of these colonial schools, the Islamic university’s new and central trait was its emphasis on transmitting Islamic knowledge not through the individual teacher, but through the institution. The Islamic university certified a student’s receipt of Islamic knowledge through degrees, including degrees explicitly modeled on the Western B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.

The educational reforms set in motion by colonialism not only produced new schools, they also transformed existing ones. For example mosques that hosted lessons could grow into institutionalized centers of learning. Al-Azhar, founded in 969 C.E. in Egypt, is the most famous example of such a mosque. Over time, Al-Azhar developed into a center for full-time study, boasting dormitories organized partly by students’ geographic origins, and possessing a hierarchically organized structure of teachers and administrators.

After Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, both the country and Al-Azhar grappled with their relationship with European modernity. Education became a site for experimentation by both Egyptian and European elites. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, under Ottoman, British, and independent rule, centralizing reforms brought Al-Azhar under increasingly strong state control. These reforms included efforts by Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha (1769–1849, reigned 1805–1848) to place the religious endowments (awqaf, singular waqf) that funded many religious institutions, including Al-Azhar, under state supervision. State reforms of Al-Azhar culminated in a 1961 law, enacted by the revolutionary military government of President Jamāl ‘Abd al Nā ṣir (1918–1970, ruled 1954–1970), that added faculties such as medicine and engineering to the University, transformed the University’s staff into state civil servants, and gave the President the power to appoint the University’s head, the Sheikh Al-Azhar.

Alongside state-led transformations of the University, Al-Azharalso saw internal movements of reform, stemming in part from Muslim scholars’ efforts to reconcile Islam with European modernity. Modernist ‘ulamā‘ such as Sheikh Mu ḥammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905), Sheikh Mustafa al Maraghi (1881–1945), and Sheikh Maḥmūd Shaltūt (1893–1963) advocated a transformation to Al-Azhar’s curriculum and favored an extension of the concept and practice of ijtihād, or independent legal reasoning. Some of their reforms were reflected in the 1961 law. It is worth noting, however, that the Egyptian state’s attempts to control Al-Azhar did not render the institution politically subservient; ‘ulamā‘ at the University retained and reimagined their voice in Egyptian and global affairs in the decades after 1961. [5]

Islamic Universities in the Colonial Period

Many of the first Islamic universities emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Muslim lands under European colonial domination. A number of Islamic schools that were roughly or closely equivalent to Western-style primary and secondary schools also formed in this period. Some of these schools or universities were founded by European colonizers, but in some cases, Muslim leaders or ‘ulamā‘ founded schools with the encouragement or permission of colonial authorities. In other instances schools were established by Muslim activists amid colonial authorities’ skepticism and even hostility. Regardless of their origins, these schools shared the aim of reconfiguring the transmission of Islamic knowledge in an era when many–Muslims and Europeans alike–believed that European modernity had challenged Islam on a variety of fronts, from the question of how societies should be organized politically to the question of what relationships obtained between science, religion, and knowledge. [6]

European colonial administrators sometimes sought to control and supervise the flow, content, and political orientation of Islamic knowledge. In early twentieth-century French West Africa, colonial administrators founded médersas (a corruption of the Arabic madrasa, and recruited Muslim teachers and pupils. [7] In the same period, educational policymakers in British-ruled Northern Nigeria founded the Shahuci Judicial School and the School for Arabic Studies in Kano, where Muslim students followed a reorganized version of the traditional jurisprudential curriculum of West Africa, and studied Arabic in an immersive environment. [8]

Not all colonial schools were so explicitly “Islamic”—some, such as Gordon Memorial College, which opened in Sudan in 1902, included Islamic subjects among a broad array of others. However, even as they founded schools for Muslims, European rulers sometimes sought to restrict Muslim students’ travel and/or discourage them from attending centers of learning that Europeans viewed with suspicion. The British, for example, frowned on Nigerian Muslims attending Al-Azhar, which the British perceived as a center of dangerous propaganda particularly after the Egyptian revolution of 1919. [9]

Some educational institutions sought to endow Muslim graduates with the knowledge and attributes that founders deemed necessary for Muslims to embrace European modernity. In British-ruled India, for example, Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) founded the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in 1877. The College aimed to equip graduates with proficiency in the English language, the natural sciences, and other subjects.

In other cases, Muslims founded institutions of higher learning in order to transform pedagogies and implement bureaucratic administrative practices, but not necessarily in order to promote Muslims’ participation in European modernity. In colonial India, Dar al-Ulum Deoband, founded 1866, exemplified this trend. [10] Sometimes, Muslims explicitly repackaged the learning they had received in colonial schools or at Muslim institutions such as Al-Azhar. In 1940s French West Africa, for example, Muslims returning from Al-Azhar began creating their own médersas. In the 1940s and 1950s in Northern Nigeria, Muslim graduates of Shahuci and School for Arabic Studies began establishing their own “Islamiyya” schools. In both French West Africa and Northern Nigeria, colonial authorities often subjected such Muslim-driven projects to surveillance and harassment.

Many of the major Muslim institutions of higher learning created during the colonial era not only survived into the early twenty-first century, but also grew in complexity. The College at Aligarh became Aligarh Muslim University in 1920, [11] and ranked as India’s ninth most prestigious institution of higher education according to the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings in 2013. [12] Sudan’s Al Ma’had al ‘Ilmi, which opened in 1912 under British colonial rule, became Omdurman Islamic University in 1965 and boasted eighteen colleges as of 2013. [13]

Islamic Universities in the Postcolonial Period

Alongside those colonial institutions of Islamic higher education that survived into the postcolonial period, new Islamic universities appeared as well. In many cases, another distinguishing feature of the Islamic university is its direct control by the state or by transnational organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). States that founded Islamic universities in the postcolonial period have sometimes used these institutions as part of their broader foreign policy goals.

The best known of these postcolonial Islamic universities is the Islamic University of Medina (IUM), founded by royal decree in Saudi Arabia in 1961. Although Saudi Arabia, escaped formal European colonial control, IUM can be seen as a postcolonial institution in that it was a vehicle through which Saudi rulers attempted to influence the Muslim world in the wake of decolonization. IUM sought to promote Saudi Arabia’s religious views as part of what one scholar calls the “Arab Cold War” between Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Egypt. [14] Through IUM and other forums, Saudi Arabia attracted leaders and students from around the Muslim world, including Egyptian Muslim activists who faced persecution under ‘Abd al Nāṣir. In an illustration of IUM’s geographical reach, members of the University’s Advisory Council (al-majlis al-istishār ī) included such famous Muslim activists and thinkers as Pakistan’s Sheikh Abū al ‘Alā Mawdūd ī (1903–1979) and Nigeria’s Sheikh Abubakar Gumi (1924–1992). [15]

Changes in a country’s political and religious atmosphere have affected the trajectories of Islamic universities, especially when rulers showed more interest in a adapting a distinctly “Islamic” character. Some postcolonial Islamic universities began as civil society initiatives and later attracted government interest. Sudan’s International University of Africa (IUA), for example, was founded as a study center by independent ‘ulamā‘ in the late 1960s. It closed after only a few years, but reopened with Sudanese government assistance in the late 1970s, at a time when President Ja’far Nimayri sought to re-brand himself as an Islamist leader.

The postcolonial period has also seen the proliferation of Islamic universities beyond the Arab world. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2011, has played a central role in this proliferation. The OIC, founded by representatives of Muslim-majority and -minority states in Rabat in 1969, seeks to advance Islamic values and deepen solidarity among member states. The OIC has helped to found institutions such as the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM, founded 1983), Umm al-Qura University of Niger (inaugurated 1986), and the Islamic University in Uganda (founded 1988). The OIC has strategically placed these universities—the institutions in Niger and Uganda, for example, are meant to serve, respectively, sub-Saharan Africa’s Francophone and Anglophone populations.

Outside the Arab world, Islamic universities have played particularly prominent roles in South and Southeast Asia. For example, IIUM graduated nearly 61,000 students between 1987 and 2012, of whom approximately 7,500 were international students. [16] IIUM alumni have served in high office in Malaysia, and notable faculty at the University have included the Qur’anic scholar Dr. Amina Wadud and Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, who taught Political Science at IIUM from 1990–1995 and subsequently became Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2009. [17] Other major Islamic universities in South and Southeast Asia include the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan (founded 1980) and Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia (founded 1957 and recognized as a university in 2002). All three of these institutions are public, as are many other Islamic universities.

Shia Islamic Universities

These Islamic universities are all Sunni institutions, but Shi’a Muslims have also founded their own institutions, notably Iran’s Al Mustafa International University in Qom, established in 1986 as the International Centre for Islamic Studies and transformed into a university in 2008. Al Mustafa currently operates twenty-four branch colleges around the globe, including ten in Africa. [18] One of these branches is the Islamic University of Ghana, which grew out of a training institute operated out of a rented Accra apartment in the 1980s into a college recognized by Ghana’s National Accreditation Board as a B.A.-granting institution in 2001. [19]

Global Outreach: Africa as a Case Study

Islamic universities have reached out to Muslim audiences in a variety of ways–recruiting globally (often providing scholarships to foreign students), sending teachers on tours overseas, holding conferences abroad (including conferences for their own alumni), and establishing branch campuses–and some transnational organizations have established entire universities.

Africa has been a major recipient of this outreach. IUM and Al-Azhar alone have offered thousands of scholarships to African students since the 1960s; some of the largest recipients have been Senegal, Mali, and Nigeria, as well as the Horn of Africa countries. For example, during the 1993–1994 academic year 1,944 African students received grants to study at Al-Azhar. Countries topping the list for grant recipients were Nigeria (233 students), Senegal (168), the Comoros Islands (162), and Mali (148). [20]

In its short existence, Al Mustafa has brought thousands of students, many of them Africans, to Iran. In July 2013, Iran’s Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, Kamran Daneshjoo, stated that 12,000 foreign students were studying at Al Mustafa, though precise numbers for African students there were unavailable. [21]

IUM and Al-Azharhave also dispatched teachers to African countries, Al-Azharsince the 1960s and IUM since the 1980s. One of IUM’s main conduits for outreach is its dawrāt (singular dawra), or study tours. The extent of these efforts has been massive: between 1982 and 1997, IUM sent 296 dawrāt to eighteen countries, reaching nearly 30,000 students. Nigeria, where 8,146 students participated in total, and Senegal, where 3,227 students participated in total, were the two most represented countries in the program, worldwide. [22]

Conferences have connected African alumni to their alma maters and have allowed them to discuss religious and educational issues with fellow graduates. For example, a 2001 conference in Kano, Nigeria, sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for African graduates of Saudi Arabian universities, yielded a two-volume set of conference proceedings wherein Saudi and African authors wrote on a variety of topics, including the challenges of conducting da’wa (“the call to Islam”) in Africa. [23] Many educational institutions founded by African graduates of Islamic universities do not maintain a formal institutional tie with the alma mater, but may nevertheless reflect the pedagogical and theological styles of the alma mater as understood by particular alumni.

Outreach to Africa varies according to these Universities’ visions and goals. IUM has been distinctive in its efforts to shape a style of da’wa that is global in ambition but partly localized in form. Attendees at the 2001 conference in Kano discussed at length the special characteristics and challenges that their da’wa confronted in Africa and its sub-regions, including the historical influence of Sufism and the legacies of colonial rule by mostly Christian European nations. African scholars who taught at IUM, such as Sheikh Muhammad al Aman al Jami of Ethiopia, also gave considerable thought to the issue of how da’wa could be adapted to African contexts and make use of African histories, such as the legacy of northern Nigeria’s pre-colonial jihad leader Sheikh ‘Uthmān dan Fodio. [24] Other Islamic universities, however, have not tried as systematically to influence the theological trajectory of Islam in Africa. Al-Azhar, in part because of the University’s own internal theological diversity, has not made an effort parallel to IUM’s to coordinate an African da’wa.

Some examples from Northern Nigeria provide an introduction to how different African graduates of Arab universities may be. Sheikh Ja’far Mahmoud Adam (1961?–2007), a 1993 graduate of IUM, appears at first glance to illustrate the stereotypical pattern of the alumnus of a Saudi Arabian institution who returns home to disseminate Salafism. After graduating from IUM in 1993, Adam became one of the best-known Salafi preachers in Northern Nigeria, and an outspoken critic of local and national authorities, as well as of American foreign policy. Yet he was also one of the most outspoken critics of Muhammad Yusuf, the founder of the violent movement Boko Haram (Hausa for “Western education/culture is forbidden”). [25] Adam’s opposition to Boko Haram underscores the need to develop more complex portraits of African Salafis and their relationships with Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Isa Waziri (1924?–2013) illustrates how African graduates of Arab universities have reintegrated into existing institutions. Waziri studied at Al-Azhar from 1962 to 1967, returning home to pursue a dual career in education administration and service within the upper ranks of the hereditary Muslim elite in Kano, the largest city in Northern Nigeria. In the final decade of his life, Waziri held the posts first of Imam of Kano and then Wazir, or counselor, to the Emir. Far from acting as a conduit for “radicalism,” Waziri became one of the most prominent representatives of the hereditary Muslim elite in Northern Nigeria. Taken together, the examples of Adam and Waziri gesture toward the diverse outcomes that result from African Muslims’ studies at Arab universities.


The Future of Islamic Universities

As Islamic universities increasingly become centers for intellectual production and exchange, their influence is poised to grow. While some Islamic universities face problems common to institutions of higher learning around the world – such as underfunding and inadequate facilities — many receive substantial public and private funding, enabling them to recruit quality faculty and students. Influential scholars and alumni have brought renown to some institutions, and universities such as IUM, in Saudi Arabia, have become significant parts of some governments’ higher education systems and foreign policies.

A pressing question for Islamic universities going forward will be what kind of knowledge they seek to produce and transmit. Some institutions, seeking to offer students a diverse set of academic specializations that range beyond branches of Islamic knowledge, find themselves at risk of losing their Islamic identity. Other institutions, offering a curriculum rooted in the Islamic tradition, find some of their graduates struggling to find well-paying work, and risk having the degrees they award viewed as second-rate. Still other institutions have chosen the ambitious path of attempting to “Islamize” knowledge in a broad sense – to teach, study, and publish about fields like economics from an Islamic perspective. The success and failure of these different approaches will determine how the character of Islamic universities continues to evolve, and what relationship is formed between these institutions and the broader, interconnected, global system of higher education.


1For more on the ‘ulamā’ in Islamic history, see Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

2See, for example, UNESCO World Heritage Convention, “Timbuktu,” available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/119/; accessed January 2014.

3Abdelkerim Ousman, “The Power of Radical Islamist Ideas in Fragile States in Parts of Sub-Saharan Africa,” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, December 2012, p. 13. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/dac/incaf/WP7%20Radical%20ideas.pdf; accessed January 2014.

4For example, see Gregory Starrett, Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).

5For more on struggles to reform and control Al Azhar, see Malika Zeghal, Gardiens de l’Islam: Les oulemas d’Al Azhar dans l’Egypte contemporaine (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996); and Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009).

6Charles Kurzman, editor, Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

7Louis Brenner, Controlling Knowledge: Religion, Power, and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).

8Alexander Thurston, “Managing Ruptures, Telling Histories: Northern Nigerian Muslim Intellectuals and Arab Universities, 1900-2012,” Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 2013.

9G.J.F. Tomlinson and Gordon Lethem, A History of Islamic Political Propaganda in Nigeria (London: Colonial Office, 1927).

10For more on Aligarh and Deoband, see Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

11Aligarh Muslim University, “History,” available at: http://www.amu.ac.in/amuhistory.jsp; accessed January 2014.

12Phil Baty, “India’s Top Ten Higher Education Institutions,” Times Higher Education, March 4, 2013, available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/news/the-indian-reputation-rankings; accessed January 2014.

13Omdurman Islamic University, homepage, available at: http://www.oiu.edu.sd/; accessed January 2014.

14Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Jamal Abd al-Nasser and His Rivals (London: Oxford University Press, Third Edition, 1971).

15Aḥmad ibn ‘Aṭ īyah al-Gh āmid ī, al-Kit āb al-wath āʼiq ī ‘an al-J āmi’ah al-Isl ām īyah bi-al-Mad īnah al-Munawwarah (Medina: al-Mamlakah al-‘Arab īyah al-Sa’ūd īyah, Wiz ārat al-Ta’l īm al-‘ āl ī, al-J āmi’ah al-Isl ām īyah bi-al-Mad īnah al-Munawwarah, 1998.

16International Islamic University of Malaysia, “28th IIUM Convocation Ceremony,” available at: http://www.iium.edu.my/news/28th-iium-convocation-ceremony; accessed August 2014.

17Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Ahmet Davutoglu,” available at: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/ahmet-davutoglu.en.mfa; accessed August 2014.

18Al Mustapha International University, “Colleges,” available at: http://en.miu.ac.ir/index.aspx?siteid=4&siteid=4&pageid=1295; accessed January 2014.

19Islamic University of Ghana, “History,” September 14, 2009, available at: http://islamicug.com/?do=history; accessed January 2014.

20Maḥmūd ‘Abbās Aḥmad ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, Al Azhar wa Afrīqiyā: Dirāsa Wathāʼiqīya (al Haram, Giza: Al Dār al ‘ālamīya lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzī’, 2004), 271-281.

21Tehran Times, “14,000 Foreign Students Studying in Iran,” July 10, 2013, available at: http://www.tehrantimes.com/politics/109202-14000-foreign-students-studying-in-iran; accessed January 2014.

22Aḥmad ibn ‘Aṭ īyah al-Gh āmid ī, al-Kit āb al-wath āʼiq ī ‘an al-J āmi’ah al-Isl ām īyah bi-al-Mad īnah al-Munawwarah (Medina: al-Mamlakah al-‘Arab īyah al-Sa’ūd īyah, Wiz ārat al-Ta’l īm al-‘ āl ī, al-J āmi’ah al-Isl ām īyah bi-al-Mad īnah al-Munawwarah, 1998), 230.

23Buḥūth Multaqá Kh ādim al-ḥaramayn al-Shar īfayn li-Khirrij ī al-J āmi’ āt al-Sa’ūd īyah min Afr īqiy ā, al-Awwal: al-Muq ām bi-Nayj īriy ā, K ānū taḥta Ishr āf al-J āmi’ah al-Isl ām īyah bi-al-Mad īnah al-Munawwarah (Medina: al-J āmi’ah al-Isl ām īyah bi-al-Mad īnah al-Munawwarah, 2003).

24Muḥammad Am ān ibn ‘Al ī J ām ī, Majmū’ ras āʼil al-J ām ī f ī al-‘aq īda wa-al-sunna (al-Mad īnah : D ār Ibn Rajab, 1993.

25See Anonymous, “The Popular Discourses of Salafi Radicalism and Salafi Counter-radicalism in Nigeria: A Case Study of Boko Haram” in The Journal of Religion in Africa 42:2 (June 2012): 118–144.

This Article was written by Alexander Thurston of Georgetown University


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