Professor Mazrui has been a pioneer in the field of African Studies, and among his work has been advancing what he called “The Triple Heritage of Africa” in which he gives insight into how his own identity and that of many from Africa is a combination of Islamic heritage, the influence of Western colonial legacy and traditional African culture. The panels on the study of Islam in African Universities were very much set in this context of Triple Heritage. While Africa has been the home to some of the most distinguished centers within the Islamic Tradition, and some of these universities such as Al-Azhar remain, the modern universities have been established following more of the Western tradition.
The full title for the panels was “The Study of Islam in African Universities: Is it a Priority?” which made the question of the prioritization of studying Islam central to the discussion, yielding different responses based on the perspective from which it is considered. Dr. Uthup Thomas, the first panelist, referred to his work with the U.N. Alliance of Civilization, to argue for the study of different religions within mainstream education in order to prepare better citizens for the future. He mentioned the importance of knowing about religious traditions as critical to knowing each other, working together effectively, living together respectfully in community and society and to co-exist without falling into the dehumanization that can occur when we view different religions as ‘other’ and fail to have accurate information and understanding. The other side of the question “Is it a priority?” was found by Dr. Zakyi Ibrahim who surveyed professors working in Religious Studies in chosen African universities. His researched found that it is not being considered as a priority by university administrators, policy makers, parents or students. Part of the apathy towards the study of Islam, he argued, was the vocational focus of how many are approaching university education with the prioritization being on those subjects that are seen as translating most directly into material success.
Dr. Muhammad Bukhari, professor of Religious Studies from Al Fatih University in Istanbul, Turkey, was able to draw from his experience teaching Islam in the context of Religious Studies in the University of Nairobi. His experience highlighted the demand for courses on Islam, that in countries, and universities where a significant percentage of the population are Muslim, 98% of Religious Studies courses are Christian focused. Because of the need for understanding the diversity in the society, as well as serving the interest of this diversity, more courses are needed on Islam. Many of these Departments of Religious Studies, established within secular universities, which was put forth, ought to be balanced in teaching about world religions and especially those prevalent within the society, have been funded by outside missionaries and operate more like schools of divinity within the Christian tradition, often under the leadership of a priest. He argued that establishing chairs for Islamic Studies is important and that when these positions are filled, they will find an enormous potential in filling the gap of information needed about Islam.
In the discussions related to the panels, it was clarified that the study of Islam is flourishing among Muslims within the mosques and madrasas. The question of the study within universities is not as much about teaching the practice of Islam or training Imams or religious scholars, but relates much more to understanding Islam as part of the society. While the presence of Islam in these countries is significant, part of the colonial legacy that remains is repeating stereotypes and misinformation about Islam that can become a source of fear and consequently social division. As Ramzi Badran from Binghamton University summarized, “teaching Islam in Africa is good for Africa.”
Following the second panel, IIIT with CGCS hosted a reception honoring Professor Ali Mazrui as he approaches his 80th birthday. Following a presentation from IIIT and a video featuring Dr. Mazrui, friends, students, and colleagues shared some of their experiences with Professor Mazrui over the years. The warm hearted reception was concluded with remarks from Professor Mazrui and birthday cake.