Science Education in universities in the Muslim world: No longer contented to merely be bystanders!

July 10th, 2015 | by MuslimScience
Science Education in universities in the Muslim world: No longer contented to merely be bystanders!
July 2015

By: Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

President, International Association of Universities (IAU)

Creating a “radical shift” In attempting to dwell on some of the issues related to education in general, and science in particular, it is prudent to seek guidance from some success stories in the Muslim world. From the Islamic viewpoint the shift in the financial world that has long been plagued with problems, if not crises, not unlike the education sector, draws an interesting parallel. Admittedly, some decades ago, terms like mudharabah, muamalat, mushrakah, sukuk, istisna’, takaful and the like were regarded strange in the world of banking and financial services. However today these are globally accepted financial products and services that are shariah-compliant beyond the core markets in the Middle East and Malaysia. It has resulted in an average growth rate of 15-20 per cent per year over the past decade, while Islamic financial assets grew from less than $600 billion in 2007 to more than $1.3 trillion in 2012 (Sergie, 2014). It is said that the sukuk market has come of age with global sukuk issuance in 2014 is expected to be $130 billion upwards from $119.7 billion in 2013.

Yet another testimony is the second annual London Sukuk Summit held in June 2014 that witnessed the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, reiterating that his government wants Britain to become the first sovereign outside the Islamic world to issue an Islamic bond. The British “Treasury is working on the practicalities of issuing a bond-like sukuk worth around UK£200 million,” with the “hope to launch as early as next year.” (London Sukuk Summit, 2014). In fact the Summit was able to attract experts, practitioners, issuers, regulators and clients from the industry and institutions alike.

This came close at the heel of the ninth World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) in London as late as October last year where Cameron unveiled a £200 million Islamic Bond Plan making it the first non-Muslim country to tap into Islamic financing. Cameron was quoted as declaring, “I want London to stand alongside Dubai and Kuala Lumpur as one of the greatest capitals of Islamic finance anywhere in the world.” (World Economic Islamic Forum, 2013).

In the wake of the 10th World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF), in Dubai from 28-30 October 2014, a report by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry based on a recent study by Ernst and Young stated that global Islamic banking assets have registered cumulative annual growth rate of about 16 per cent during the period 2008-2012, reflecting “the radical shift from conventional financial system in favour of Islamic finance.” (Dubai Chamber of Commerce, 2014). It spans, among others, retail and corporate banking, private equity, and insurance, catering to more than a billion Muslims worldwide, in tandem with the rising awareness in many different countries.

Lessons from the financial success story

Arising from this, the question that we urgently need to investigate is what constitutes this “radical shift”, that occured in the relatively short period of 40 years? And what can be learnt to fast track other similar shifts, especially in the areas of education? – Beyond just the Muslim world, but the world over (just like the financial system); and beyond the confines of predominantly science and technology-based teaching, at the expense of the so-called “nonsciences!”

Too be sure such a shift (radical or otherwise) will not happen if there were no efforts made to plant the seed of a shariah-compliant ‘tree’ in an area dominated by conventional financial system worldwide some 4 decades ago. Granted that its growth has been marked by constant fine-tunings to address the inevitable shariah challenge, but such is the nature of any evolving system that is here to stay.

Secondly, the shift will also not happen if the shariah-compliant framework is not able to make a significant difference to the current existing system with the gaps and flaws therein in order to equilibrate more benefits to the vast majority of people in improving their quality of life – both materially and spiritually.

Lastly is the need for an alternative system that is not just a product diversification exercise (based on the same fundamentals) but anchored on a radically different principle as a foundation that is vital to the understanding and practice of Islam. It could be to eliminate “usury” (riba in general) as it is forbidden in Islam and to institute more just and fair sociocommercial transactions. The Qur’an after all mentioned riba in a number of verses (2:274- 279, 3:130, 4:161, and 30:39) in comparison to the acts of charity. It is argued in juristic terms as one of the means to ‘devour’ the wealth of others resulting in an unjust and discriminatory system overall. That riba has no place in the Muslim way of life is made clear in the Qur’an (2:278-279): O you who believe, give up what remains of your demand for usury if you are indeed believers. If you do it not, take notice of a war from God and his Messenger. Accordingly, in the hadith, the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. condemns the one who takes riba, the one who pays it, the one who writes the agreement for it and the witnesses to the agreement.

The recent global financial crises are evident enough to validate the Islamic principles that prohibit riba and contrasting it to trade (… but God hath permitted trade and forbidden usury. Qur’an 2:275). It has been noted that while conventional banking morphs beyond recognition, Islamic banks remained true to their ethical commitments, shielding them from the financial meltdown. In hindsight, the recent financial crisis has brought about a rare moment of reflection and critical thinking, subjecting the Islamic finance logic to a rigorous test like never before, and rendering it more robust to withstand other vulnerabilities. The current global financial chaos indeed can be regarded as a vital touch point to ascertain if the Islamic financial services can indeed act as a more reliable alternative to the conventional financial system.

Addressing “education without soul”

Bearing these invaluable experiences in mind, several parallels can be drawn to the existing education sector worldwide. For a start the education crisis is also unfolding, and thus presents an opportunity for an alternative system to emerge and co-exist with the conventional education system. This is imperative as a counter trend to the conventional system that tends to promote education as a “tradable commodity” in a way that the severely compromises the ethos of education, leading to what is currently perceived as “education without soul.” Consequently, for all intents and purposes, education is now an industry – a big business in fact– that has further widened the disparities between those who can afford it and those who cannot. And analogous to riba it resulted in an overall unjust and discriminatory system of ‘devouring’ the future of the latter group belonging largely to the Global South, with many Muslim countries placed in the worst possible position.

Viewed from another perspective, modern Western education has lost its soul since the days of the so-called Enlightenment in eighteenth century Western Europe. This is the period of European cultural rebirth (the Renaissance) that relegates all things to the “almighty” human reason and knowledge that is the ultimate goal of the Enlightenment- Renaissance project. Anything which cannot be comprehended by rational human knowledge and its version of science was defied as meaningless or superstitious, hence discarded as “unscientific,” backward and useless. The natural world therefore is solely deliberated on the basis of reason, without taking into account Christian religious perspectives. It is because of this Thomas Paine coined the term “Age of Reason” which in essence heightened the conflict between religion (Christianity) and the inquiring mind that wanted to explain knowledge through reason supported by physical evidence and tangible proof. Generally known as the scientific method, Isaac Newton used this ‘recipe’ to make many advances in the eighteenth century, with lasting “scientific” impact. It became the basis of the European cultural expression in a new world of knowledge where natural philosophy becomes natural (modern) science backed by utilitarian philosophy (that is, all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people as determined by its utility).

Newton became the ideal Renaissance man for his rendering of a mechanical and ordered (if soulless) universe, which is the hallmark of the Enlightenment. This later spreads to other fields of knowledge including the non-sciences such as psychology, economics, and political theory in affirmation of the Enlightenment way of reductionist thinking. Human progress becomes dependent on such knowledge with an uncompromising ‘hostility’ towards the influences of the Church. Yet, invariably some Christian theological understanding and principles still find their ways into the “new” sciences (including mathematics) of the Enlightenment.

The Muslim dilemmas

It is at this juncture that Muslims encountered at least two major dilemmas. One, the rejection of Christian belief and theology as championed by the children of the Enlightenment is not necessarily the rejection of the Islamic faith and values in relation to science since many discoveries of the so-called modern sciences can be traced back to the Golden Age of Learning under the Islamic rule of more than 800 years. Indeed, science and religion then have exhibited a high degree of congruency, and that most early Muslim scholars were polymaths who were equally conversant in religious issues.

Secondly, the period of 1000 years (from the late 4th century to the 14th century) conveniently (mis)labelled as the so-called “Dark Ages” by the West saw many non-European sources of knowledge appropriated by the West (without any form of acknowledgement). Is it not the 11th century Ibn Al-Haytham (recognised by the West as Alhazen) – ca. 965-1041, heralded as “father of the modern scientific method” – long before Newton came into the picture? Likewise the Islamic root of education is totally disregarded, in favour of Europe’s oldest university in Bologna, established in 1088 (in spite of the fact the first functioning “university” in the world is based in Fes, Morocco in 859). Not only are Muslims denied direct association with their own heritage and traditions in education, which incorporate Revealed Knowledge as part of its scientific framework, the numerous contributions by Muslim polymaths in shaping the “new” frontiers of knowledge are virtually omitted by design. Just because Western Europe was trapped in the Dark Ages, the assumption was that no advances took place outside Europe. In other words, had Islamic scholarships and perspectives been factored in, the ethos of education would have remained strongly anchored on the “soul” as a means to not only to discover the physical world but also the spiritual world as a way to reach the Creator through an equally “enlightened” spiritual path without any form of conflict in the search for the Truth.

As exemplified in the Qur’an (21:30), which proclaims that God created every living thing from water – now a common scientific knowledge, it at once reaffirmed the existence of the Creator as the Giver and Sustainer of life. For in the Qur’an (16:65) it says: And Allah has sent down rain from the sky and given life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who listen. Other similar passages in Qur’an include 6:99 and 50:9.

In a nutshell as we move into the post- Enlightenment period, there is a compelling desire for an alternative framework (including values, principles, philosophy and worldview) beyond that of the Enlightenment “narrow” construct. That is, if we are serious in mitigating the conventional education state of crisis being central to several other crises: economic, social, ethical and ecological as an outcome based on the dated and provincial concept of the Enlightenment as well as the ensuing Industrial and Scientific Revolutions. This in turn points to the “Trust” (al-Amanah) that all Muslims are bound to as stated in the Qur’an (33:72): Indeed, We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and feared it, but man [undertook to] bear it. And the verse ends with a statement that seems to characterise that state of affairs today, namely: Indeed, he was unjust and ignorant – no doubt what humans have created for themselves amidst all the crises given the parochial worldview of the Enlightenment.

Taking leadership the way forward

If avoidance of “usury” is a key to opening up an alternative thinking to the (failing) conventional financial system, the reinstatement of the “Trust” (al-Amanah) as expressed in the Qur’an (33:72) is the key to spur an alternative thinking for education. As Muslims are commanded to constantly reflect and deeply think as part of the “Trust” rather than to blindly imitate (Qur’an 8:22), it is vital to fully embrace God’s Wisdom through knowledge (Qur’an 2:269: Allah grants wisdom to whom He pleases and to whom wisdom is granted indeed he receives an overflowing benefit) ranging from the discovery of quarks to quasars. More so when the blind act can predictably lead to a plausible collapse as expounded by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (2013).67 They forecast a wave of “second Dark Age on Western civilisation,” in which denial and self-deception (zulm instead of amanah?) hold sway on the occasion of the tercentennial phase of the Western civilisation (1540- 2073). They alluded this to a naive reliance on positivism and neoliberal, economic attitudes (namely, the “free-market fundamentalism”) which assume positive, favourable outcomes in tune to the march of the market. It takes precedence in an ideological fixation on “free” markets that disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy, encouraged by the fossil fuel industry and abetted by the media, while the planet continued to further deteriorate.

As highlighted by the authors, the role of scientists who best understood the problem were hamstrung by their own cultural practices, which demanded an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind – even those involving imminent threats. The issue raised “is how we – the children of the Enlightenment – failed to act on robust information about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to unfold.”

Taking this in its entirety, the time seems set for a radical shift in the education sector particularly driven from a non-Western, post-Enlightenment (not least the Islamic) perspectives. Thus far the search for an alternative to the crisis has proved to be difficult (if not impossible) because we are totally (and blindly) immersed in the Western narratives to the extent that there is no space to imagine a solution that is potentially capable of mitigating, let alone eliminating, the sources of such crises in seeking for a more sustainability future.

It is therefore timely to nurture an alternative space by embarking on a critical systemic analysis of the current situation to be “benchmarked” against the intrinsic values and principles of education that is also shariah compliant. It has to be aligned with the mission of maqasid al-shariah in the protection of life, balanced intellect, posterity and property as a way to navigate through life reflecting on life-long learning of the past, present and the future. This is well summarised in the Quran: The metaphor of the life of this world is that of water which We send down from the sky, and which then mingles with the plants of the earth to provide food for both people and animals. Then, when the earth is at its loveliest and takes on its fairest guise and its people think they have it under their control, Our command comes upon it by night or day and We reduce it to dried-out stubble, as though it had not been flourishing just the day before! In this way We make Our Signs clear for people who reflect. (Qur’an 10: 24).

No doubt this new effort would pose enormous challenges in dealing with the crises that the (collapsing) conventional education system has inadvertently caused. In this context it is worth recalling that when the alternative, if Islamic, finance system first appeared in the mid-1970s, it was deemed as a ‘flash’ in the pan; naively discounted as an inconsequential epiphenomenon of the oil bubble. To throw the shariah challenge into an arena of predominantly secular thinking (another product of the Enlightenment period) then, drew many criticisms from countless sceptics far and wide, not least from the Muslims themselves. The reality however is more optimistic, gaining widespread acceptance as a viable solution for the uncertain global financial system; although it is still work in progress being a young but bold initiative.

Concluding Thoughts

Encouraged by this success story, can there be similar courage and optimism in casting a shariah-compliant education system within the next 4 decades (or less)? – given the many relevant lessons that can be dwelt upon. Or must we continue to remain comfortable as pale imitations of a system that is not only less desirable to the Islamic ideals; but more so at the verge of a predictable collapse in about the same time period?

To choose status quo is to disregard the ongoing dangerously precarious situation and to dismiss the following rebuke: Truly, the worst of all creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf, the dumb, those who do not use their reason (Qur’an 8:22). Clearly, we are now at a crossroad to ensure that the Muslims are no longer just happy to play the role of passive bystanders while others are busy in (re)shaping the future of education, and reinventing science as it were. More pressingly, how do we respond to the numerous open invitations in the Qur’an to use reasoning ability and intelligence in ascertaining the Truth (Qur’an 21:10, 38:29, 43:3, 47:24). And towards this end creates yet another “radical shift” by instilling back the “Trust” that we have unashamedly long neglected. Unless of course there are locks upon our hearts (Qur’an 47:24).

Clearly too, this requires pure dedication, courageous leadership and hearts, as well as hard work for the Qur’an maintains: Indeed, truly with hardship comes ease; truly with hardship comes ease. (Qur’an 94:5-6). Then: So when you have finished (with your immediate task), still strive hard; and turn all your attention to your Lord. (Qur’an 94:7-8). By then the breast is expanded, with burden relieved by Allah to accept the duty of calling, and the repute raised high. (Qur’an 94:1-4). Before all these, however, there is no doubt that we need to make good the Amanah as the key prime mover. Allah knows best.

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