Historic Islamic Higher Education Discourse

Reflections on a Historic Moment in Islamic Higher Education Discourse in the Western Cape: the Meeting of 30 July 2003*

Professor Yusef Waghid, DEd (UWC), PhD and DPhil (Stellenbosch)

`Allama hul bayan’ – And He (Allah Almighty) taught humankind Intelligence (Surah al-Rahman)

This meeting was not just a social gathering attended by `ulama, professionals, academics and educators, but also one characterised by a heightened sense of intellectualism, emotion and the quest to cultivate dialogical partnerships among different Muslim higher education institutions in the Western Cape: for now, Jami`at al-Qurra, Dar al-Arqam (affiliated to the Muslim Judicial Council) and ICOSA (Islamic College of Southern Africa). These established institutions had a single purpose in mind: to engage critically in a just conversation about the future of Islamic higher education in the Western Cape. And for now, they succeeded!

Professor Ahmad Muayiddin, a political economist, NEPAD (New Path for African Development) negotiator and invited guest, quite fittingly restated the need for Muslims to use their intelligence. His contention is that much of what is wrong with Muslim society all over the world can be attributed to a lack of using one’s intelligence. I agree since intelligence is conceptually related to emotion and wisdom which, if not enacted could exacerbate Muslim divisiveness – a situation in turn, Muslims cannot afford to let happen. Much of what has been argued for in his thesis about a perceived decline in Muslims’ contribution to knowledge production and the economy can be related to a confusion and error in knowledge which can lead to despair and hopelessness amongst Muslims. Yet, there is also an endearing feeling of hope which emanates from several of the positional presentations which ensued. This article attempts to capture some of the most significant propositions which constituted our deliberations.


Any potential Muslim higher education merger, partnership or collaboration (I prefer dialogical relationship) cannot be successful without a strong element of leadership. Leaders are not just people or individuals who assume authoritative roles based on unequal power relations. Rather, they are intellectual and intelligent beings that possess the capacity to cultivate in others (those who follow them) a sense of humanity. In other words, when leaders can instil in others capacities such as rational reflection and argumentation, the ability to justifiably criticise their leaders, and to be non-dogmatic and agents of critical inquiry, they have emerged as true leaders. When leaders cannot accept justifiable criticism and pretend that the construction of knowledge is through transmission – they alone know forms of truth – then, the ability to lead should seriously be questioned. I have no doubt that we have excellent leaders in our community, and the possibility to transform the Muslim community into a more vibrant critical voice should become our major priority. This meeting could be a catalyst to spark off a spiral of recruitability and respect amongst leaders and lead, where people challenge one another and honour one another through debate, refutation and practical rationality. Not once did I encounter feelings of hostility and antagonism when points of view were challenged and refuted. What I have identified could be described as a need for a form of pragmatic leadership; one which cultivates in others capacities to challenge and to refute, since we only seem to respect others when we challenge them and accept their justifiable criticism of us. If this were to be an indication of things to come, then our ensuing dialogical moments would really evolve in morally worthwhile activities with some purposive end in mind.


Certainly the meeting accentuated the importance of critical engagement. Critical engagement invokes an understanding of public participation whereby all legitimately interested groups not only have to explain and justify their points of view, decisions or choices, but should also make their arguments reasonable to others and by which they are to be held morally accountable by and to others for those arguments. Muslims have to participate and to lay down morally justifiable rules of engagement such as to care for the viewpoints of others. This form of engagement demands that participants be capable of justifying their views of how things should go to others, it requires that they be open to a multiplicity of points of view, and it requires that a person be capable of taking other persons’ points of view seriously enough to accommodate them.

Put differently, critical engagement creates space for a rational process of deliberation in which Muslims have to explain the basis of their actions to others without harshness and intolerance. Such a notion of critical engagement should be tied to a number of character traits our education institutions need to foster: a tendency to rationally justify one’s actions to others, openness towards others’ views and opinions and to take other people’s interests seriously as on equal footing with one’s own.


What should happen to Muslim higher education policy discourse? There is little doubt that South Africa’s economic-rationalist agenda for higher education policy discourse cannot be wished away, since higher education’s main benefit has become private, which in turn justifies the levying of fees upon individuals. That economic rationalism has led to the corporatisation of higher education is evident from the fact that Islamic higher education institutions are expected to raise a much greater proportion of their own revenue, enter into business enterprises, acquire and hold investment portfolios, encourage partnerships with private business firms, compete with other institutions in the production and marketing of courses to students who are now seen as customers, and generally engage with the market for higher education. The meeting acknowledged that such an understanding to our ensuing dialogical relationships could position as favourably in the future and in turn, offer much hope to our youth!


Finally, the meeting fully endorsed the threats of the post-modern or should I say anti-Muslim challenge. It is perhaps unfair to equate these two challenges since post-modernism demands that we pay more attention to the marginalised other, that is, those peoples such as Muslims that have been excluded from resources of higher education discourse for a long time. In this regard, post-modernism’s engagement with the other could open up possibilities for Muslims to become more visible in higher education discourse in this country. But then, post-modernism also threatens to undermine the fabric of our Islamic identity since, religion and religiosity have become dangerous truths for the post-modern mind. I do not think that Islam should simply ignore these challenges but rather cultivate in our people a sense of hope and willingness to produce counter-arguments and strategies for these real threats. And, we can only do so by being and becoming empowered through knowledge – knowledge which equips us both with the rational sciences and revealed sciences.

I commend every participant for having been part of a momentous occasion in our Muslim legacy. Let us continue to become practical reasoners willing to face up to the challenges of a globalising knowledge society!

* Attendees whose names I can remember include: Shaykh Yusuf Booley, Mr Shreff Abass, Dr Yusef Lalkhen, Dr Ismet Booley, Moulana Ahmad Mukaddam, Shaykh Ighsan Taliep, Mr Reshard Jedaar, Dr Salie Abrahams, Moulana Ihsan Hendricks, Dr Abdul Wahab Barday, Imam Alie Gierdien and many more important people.

This meeting was held in Cape Town, South Africa on 30th July 2003.