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"...For different reasons in almost all the Muslim countries it is hard to hold an opened intellectual Islamic discourse. In some Islamic countries as in the case of Turkey and Tunisia where the laws are more secularized there is fear of too much Islam, in other countries the governments imposes their own understanding and interpretations of Islam on the people, and hardly any dialogue challenging the official interpretation is acceptable, Nasr explained.
*Nasr concluded that to all of those roles that Muslims should and could play in the West, Islamic education remains to be a pivotal instrument.
But such an education could only be beneficial if complemented with knowledge of the sphere that Muslims live in, in knowledge of the American social and cultural characteristics, in mastering of the language and sciences of the current times.
*Islamic education is not confined to the reciting or memorization of verses of Qur'an and Hadith, but the glory of Muslim intellectuals who enlightened Europe in the dark ages, lies in their ability to grasp the spirit of such verses and understanding of the Islamic teachings, to act upon the divine order to seek knowledge in every possible way, to implement this knowledge to enrich the lives of the people and to open new horizons and overcome boundaries.
*The fall of the Islamic civilization and the fragmentation of Muslims happened in part due to the loss of this vision, and any real resurgence of Islamic movements would have to start with educating the individuals about their roles and responsibilities to their Islamic nations and the whole world as well... "
Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Reflections on Islamic Education and the Role of Muslims in the West
Reporter: Dina Rashed
Almost all Islamic schools hold one or more fundraising event every
year, but when Averroes Academy, Chicago's newest full time Islamic
school, held its second annual fundraising dinner it was far from the
usual. Having professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr as the main speaker, the
function was an intellectual opportunity that gathered Chicago's
intellectual religious figures of different faiths.
Nasr, who currently heads the Humanities Department at George Washington
University, D.C., is considered one of the three most influential Muslim
thinkers in the Western World who shaped the Islamic discourse in the
last two decades. Besides those of the late Fazlur Rahman and the late
Isma'il AlFaruqi, his ideas made quite an impact on immigrant Muslims of
various nationalities. His ability to reconnect the philosophical
Islamic heritage of the past to the modern life is considered one of his
astounding contributions to current Muslim debate, while other
non-Muslim intellectuals found in his writings about Sufism and Islamic
spirituality another face of the faith more alluring to them in secular
Amina McCloud, Professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University who
introduced Nasr to the audience, and Kareem Irfan, President of The
Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago who led the school's
fundraiser drive, were among the various Muslim community leaders
attending the event. Other scholars as Dr. Umar Abdullah, Scholar in
Residence at the Nawawi Foundation and Dr. Ghulam Aasi, Chair of Islamic
Studies at the American Islamic College were also present.
Eagerness to listen to Nasr, a proponent of Muslims engaging in
interfaith dialogues, who stressed the particularity of the
Muslim-Christian track as a starting point, was equally shared by
Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Several members of the Christian faith
attended the event such as: Stan Davis and Nathan Kline of the National
Conference of Community and Justice, Ms. Rita George representing the
Archdiocese of Chicago - Office of Ecumenical Affairs, Rev. Thomas Baima
of the Provost, Mundelein Seminary, Dr. Scott Alexander, Director of
Catholic-Muslim Studies program of the Catholic theological Union and
Joe Petit from Protestants for the Common Good
As an expert scholar on the history of Islamic thought, Nasr believed
that any effective role Muslims could play in the West is inconceivable
without Islamic education. According to him Muslims play five major
roles outside Dar il-Islam (a term referring to Muslim countries in
Arabic classical writings). In speaking about the West he focused on the
U.S. given its large Muslim population and the role the American culture
plays in shaping the Western civilization at large.
To him the first role is simply in the manifestation of presence and
survival of Muslims in the U.S. Challenges of their survival changes
have been changing over time; whereas the prime challenge to the earlier
generations was the ability to exist and practice their rituals in an
environment not only strange to them, but in many ways opposing to their
social and spiritual values, the American values and social roles being
more secular and less spiritual advocated freedom from religion as much
as freedom of religion. Nowadays, Muslims' existence is more acceptable
but the challenge that the current and the following generations are
facing is their ability to create an American expression of Islam.
"No religion has ever existed in any society without creating its own
religious culture," said Nasr. He argued that Islam in European
communities like Bosnia holds distinctiveness than that manifested in
Asia or Africa, likewise American Muslims will have to develop their own
religious cultural expression. And because the first immigrants' efforts
are involved into adapting to the new environment and to overcome the
cultural barriers, the following generations hold the responsibility in
forming American Islam.
The second role is the responsibility of Muslims in the U.S. to act as
ambassadors of the Islamic world, given the hegemonial role that the
U.S. plays in world politics there is an ever growing need to influence
the American position on various issues of international politics. He
said that the Palestinian tragedy would not have happened had the
Muslims in the U.S. had a fraction of the Jewish lobby's impact on the
American policies. The same could be said as with other tragedies of
Albanians, Bosnians, Kashmiris and Chechens.
"The main responsibility of acting falls on the shoulder of the six
million Muslims in this country, not on the official diplomats," he
said, arguing that Muslim diplomats only act on policies set by their
governments and lack the freedom of expression to reflect the real needs
of Muslim peoples around the world while American Muslims do have
constitutional rights that allow them such a privilege, if they opt to
Equally important is the role of preserving the face of Islam; to
correct the Western distorted images about Islam, its Prophet and its
"That is the constant Jihad," Nasr said. He stressed the need to have an
internal corrective process, and that self-criticism is necessary to
adjust the Muslim path and to build constructive debate.
Fourthly is the presence and influence of Muslim scholars in all fields
from social science to applied sciences. He said in that context
Averroes gave the greatest example of a Muslim scholar influencing the
"Averroes hadn't an influence in the Muslim World as he had on the
Western World, not only on those who followed him but on those who
attacked him. The intellectual history of Europe is inconceivable
without Averroes," Nasr said.
He argued that Muslims could learn a great lesson from the Jewish
experience in America especially in the 20th century, which started with
minimal Jewish influence but ended with an increasing number of Jewish
scholars in almost all sciences.
Finally is the ability of Muslims in America to influence Islamic
thought through out the world including the Muslim countries.
"Never in the history of Islam have the intellectual figures of a small
minority living outside Dar il-Islam influenced Dar il-Islam itself, and
it is the first time it is taking place," he said. According to him, the
development of Islamic thought is finding an ample opportunity in an
intellectually opened environment as that available in the West, and
this environment is in fact producing more Muslim scholars than before.
For different reasons in almost all the Muslim countries it is hard to
hold an opened intellectual Islamic discourse. In some Islamic countries
as in the case of Turkey and Tunisia where the laws are more secularized
there is fear of too much Islam, in other countries the governments
imposes their own understanding and interpretations of Islam on the
people, and hardly any dialogue challenging the official interpretation
is acceptable, Nasr explained.
Nasr concluded that to all of those roles that Muslims should and could
play in the West, Islamic education remains to be a pivotal instrument.
But such an education could only be beneficial if complemented with
knowledge of the sphere that Muslims live in, in knowledge of the
American social and cultural characteristics, in mastering of the
language and sciences of the current times.
Islamic education is not confined to the reciting or memorization of
verses of Qur'an and Hadith, but the glory of Muslim intellectuals who
enlightened Europe in the dark ages, lies in their ability to grasp the
spirit of such verses and understanding of the Islamic teachings, to act
upon the divine order to seek knowledge in every possible way, to
implement this knowledge to enrich the lives of the people and to open
new horizons and overcome boundaries.
The fall of the Islamic civilization and the fragmentation of Muslims
happened in part due to the loss of this vision, and any real resurgence
of Islamic movements would have to start with educating the individuals
about their roles and responsibilities to their Islamic nations and the
whole world as well.
The past two decades had witnessed a growing movement in building
Islamic schools all over North America. Either sponsored through Islamic
centers or groups of involved individuals, the number of schools is on
Although challenges to such parochial schools vary from lack of
financial resources, to lack of human and organizational resources, the
gravest of them is the lack of intellectual vision on the role and the
function that Islamic education should play in a non-Muslim society.
This lack of vision is manifested in an isolationist Islamic education
where Muslim children are being taught in a closed environment, hardly
exposed to the American culture, which is portrayed as a threat to the
Islamic values and beliefs. In many cases the cultural values and ideas
of the first generation immigrants who are involved in the educational
process are conveyed to the Muslim children and what is part of their
culture is considered an issue of faith.
Averroes Academy has been trying in its two years of age not to fall
into this traditional pattern.
"Averroes Academy achieved a great goal for a small school only two
years old, that is to provide Islamic education while being in touch the
American society," said Kareem Irfan.
The Academy has been founded by a group of Muslim activists - most of
them are in their mid 30s and mid 40s- who are bringing new ideas to the
Islamic educational process. Azam Nizamuddin, a lawyer by profession and
the school's president of the Board, holds degrees in Theology has
studied Islamic thought under Nasr for several years and share his views
on the important role Muslim scholars can play in non-Muslim America and
in shaping human civilization, is only one of the school's executive
team whose diverse professional background and deep interest in Islamic
knowledge and contemporary Islamic thought give a distinction to the
educational service the school provides.
In addition to the Academy's ability to connect the Muslim children with
their surrounding society, the school generated an opened academic
environment that succeeded in attracting students with different ethnic
backgrounds, including Indo-Pakistanis, Arabs, and European Muslims. A
diversity, that both the founders and the educators hope will help shape
the American expression of Islam as Nasr noted earlier.
One of the obstacles that hinder the development of this American vision
of Islam is that most Islamic centers and consequently their affiliated
schools lack the diversity of ethnic backgrounds, because they were
founded as more of cultural ghettos to the first generations that deal
with their homesickness. Though this service is quiet essential to some,
yet its long term influence may be counterproductive to the Islamic
Da'wah itself and confronts with Islam's role as a melting pot for all
humankind. The same experience that could be bonding to the immigrants
could be at the same time alienating to their younger generations who
relate more to America than the country of their ancestors.
Still an existing challenge to the Islamic education both in the West
and the Muslim countries is the ability to develop leadership qualities
in young Muslim minds and souls. To produce future Muslims able to
overcome limitations of time and culture, to reach out to new horizons
and to walk in the footsteps of great Muslim scholars in quest of
knowledge as advised by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Muslim educators hope the educational process in the future will shift
to a more character building and personality training, a process that
invigorates the powers of the heart and the spirit filled with faith, a
learning process based on implementing inner wisdom that enables the
best use of human knowledge.
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