Revitalizing Higher Education in The Muslim World

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All aspects of backwardness in the Ummah’s history are the results of distortions in the Ummah’s cognitive and psychological makeup, which can be treated only when their true nature is discovered and they become the focus of reform efforts by Muslims. Only then can the Muslim nation rid itself of its hazy vision, poor motivation, and inadequate performance.


The remedy prescribed for a given problem is often inappropriate or insufficient for a complete resolution of the situation, owing to an erroneous diagnosis or a defective analysis of the underlying causes. This applies in a real sense to the deficient diagnosis made for the underdevelopment of the Ummah (the Muslim nation), an ailment from which it has been suffering for several centuries. The ailment does not seem to have responded to any treatment since Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s (d. 1111) cry of alarm in ‘Tahafut al-Falasifah’ [The Incoherence of Philosophers] and an appeal for a cure in ‘Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din’ [Revival of Religious Disciplines]. One major reason for the failure of both diagnosis and treatment has been that the focus has hitherto concentrated on symptoms rather than underlying causes. As a result, appearances alone have been targeted, in addition to the distortion of the dominant concept of civilization and the inability of the approach used, limited as it is, to explore fundamental causes.

The Ummah has been suffering from a number of maladies that include underdevelopment, division, tyranny, and oppression, as well as injustice, poverty, ignorance, and disease. At the same time however, the Ummah yearns for power, unity, and justice. None of its hopes for political, economic, scientific, and technological development have been realized. Furthermore they still remain an elusive ideal, a mirage that always seems just out of reach over the horizon.    The Ummah and its people’s desire to catch up with the developed world and enjoy high and truly human standards of living, education, and health is an aspiration that continues to be unfulfilled. There is agreement among major reformers that all these reforms are required. However, neither can the awakening of the Muslim nation from its current lethargy take place, nor can its mission be accomplished, without these reforms, particularly educational reform. It is also believed that these are reforms which address only the symptoms of deeper and more extensive causes. Unless Muslims adopt a bold and critical perspective to equip themselves with the appropriate tools of knowledge to identify these causes, the Ummah’s failure to detect them will persist. It will continue to lack the ability to confront and overcome them, or to realize its legitimate cultural aims and demands and the practical reforms which it urgently needs.

All aspects of backwardness in the Ummah’s history are but an expression of an inadequacy of performance. It is a disease caused by poor psychological motivation, stemming from a distorted vision and a defective approach. It results from distortions in the Ummah’s cognitive and psychological makeup, which can be treated only when their true nature is discovered and they become the focus of reform efforts by Muslims. Only then can the Muslim nation rid itself of the hazy vision, poor motivation, and inadequate performance which underlie its failure and backwardness in all aspects of life including politics, economics, science, and technology.

How could the Ummah have fallen seemingly irrevocably behind all others given the fact that it accounts for one-fifth of the human race, and covers an area extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific? The combined gross national product (GNP) of all Muslim countries is approximately US$1,100 billion, less than the GNP of France and about half that of Germany! It is also less than a quarter of the GNP of Japan, with a population of no more than 120 million, living in small scattered islands, poor in natural resources, with mountains covering more than three-fourths of the total area, and earthquakes and volcanoes plaguing both the land and the population.

One of the possible explanations for this tragic phenomenon is that Muslims seem to have lost their vision, the setting up of the highest objectives and the ethic of striving their utmost to achieve them. The current aspiration of the Ummah and its peoples seems to be no less than to survive with the least possible effort expended, envisaging no real future and no real ambition. They seem content to either simply produce basic materials using primitive methods or depend on foreign expertise and consumer-oriented assembly industries. Tons of metals and raw materials that are exported for a handful of dollars come back in the form of electronic and technological products worth millions of dollars. Why? Because the achievements of human beings are qualified by their performance, ability, and the quality of their thinking. The Muslim side seems to be seriously lacking in these virtues.

Today’s Muslims are the descendants of the early Muslims (the Mission generation) and the inheritors of Islamic civilization. The Muslim world has no shortage of natural resources. Its land is expansive and rich. Similarly, Muslims do not lack noble principles, values, and aims, for Islam has the lion’s share of these qualities. Nevertheless, until Muslims delve deep into themselves and their history and scrutinize the cognitive and psychological distortion of their minds and souls, they will not be able to understand their backwardness and weakness. The ailment, in the final analysis, lies in the foundation of the Muslim intellectual structure with its attendant psychological effects that have led Muslims to the worst malady: performance inadequacy. It is an ailment that afflicts the patients wherever they go. It afflicts the Ummah in its public order, production, education, technology, protection of rights, and defense of the homeland. The only cure is to affect real and lasting change in oneself, that is, to change and reform one’s very mind and soul, for: “God does not change the fortune of people unless they change inside” (13: 11).

Reformers are right when they mobilize themselves to improve education, regarding it as one of the most important and the strongest building blocks of a nation. Unfortunately, due to their quantitative orientation, as in all other things, reformative action has remained superficial. It addresses appearances and is based on duplication and the imitation of all types of capable people. Thus, it blindly follows others in the darkness, stumbling as it goes, and where the road forks, it does not know which way to turn.

Undoubtedly, appropriate education and learning are the right foundations on which to build, for they are the two bases of dynamic human energy. Without them, neither power, production, nor achievement is possible. It is unfortunate, however, that reform movements in education and learning have essentially imitated the buildings and methods of others, including quantity and teaching aids. This is true even in the establishment of branches of foreign schools and universities. Thus, an examination of the prevailing conditions of education and learning in the Muslim world reveals a high concentration of what is termed “urban and technological”, going too far in imitating all the latest fads of developed countries. The main interest of these reform efforts is in the importation of new machines, equipment, and systems. These efforts soon turn into “confusion and fabrication,” guided only by “duplication and imitation”. In its ideological essence, this approach is no different from the indulgence given to historical imitation and futile duplication that are perpetuated only by repetition and memorization.

Does it not seem odd that all the reforms have failed to bear fruit? In fact, throughout recent history they have not led the Ummah to the realization of a single objective, or a single goal. The lack of success and the loss of soul persist because of an enormous gap between the actual and the ideal, the assertions and the results. It should be understood that the implementation of reform in education and learning is not limited to tools, quantity, imported plans, blue­prints, mechanisms, instruments, and equipment. Rather it involves a deep understanding of the essence of the building blocks of humanity and humankind, a process that is a cultural, doctrine-based vision, and a cognitive, intellectual, and scientific approach. This in-depth effort requires a particular ability such that appropriate tools are utilized, suitable quantity is achieved, and skills are developed to achieve goals, solve problems, and achieve reform and progress in political, economic, and technological arenas. The aim is triumph in the cultural race and delivery of the message.


The most important question facing Muslims at this point in time and on this particular issue is: Where does one begin? The answer is with self-reform. The beginning of Islamic reform lies in the reforming of every Muslim soul, remedying the distortions in their ideological vision, cultural motivation, intellectual approach, and educational discourse. The tempestuous events that accompanied the Ummah’s progression through the centuries and the cultural accretions of folk heritage left by various other nations are largely responsible for these distortions. They are akin to pebbles thrown at the cogwheels of Islam’s cultural progress since its inception during the 6th century. These impediments continually slowed its progress and reduced its impetus until eventually they stopped its motion altogether. It is a tragedy that the total number of trades and industries developed by the Ummah over many centuries has been of no avail. Today, it is a lifeless corpse, a neglected entity in the development of nations and civilizations, suffering severe pain and continually lamenting its misfortune. More ominously, the Ummah has turned into a prey for its enemies.

How have things reached such a sorry state? How did it all begin? When did these distortions and impediments become such a serious impetus? It began in the century of conflict under the Umayyad rule, following the end of the era of the Prophet and the orthodox caliphate. During this period the performance of Islamic education and training slackened, favoritism and sectarianism                                                                                                         flourished, and vestiges from the dark pre-Islamic cultures resurfaced in the midst of events which took place in rapid succession and posed formidable challenges. As a result, scholars who were striving to preserve the model embodied in the era of the Prophet were eventually isolated from government, politics, and public life. They were forced into a scholarly isolation, employed in issuing fatwas, handling individual affairs and matters of personal status, leading the prayers at the mosques, and urging worshippers, on Fridays and in mosque seminars, to observe high moral standards.

The exclusion and isolation of active scholars, upholders of the Islamic ideal, who are, in the final analysis, the Ummah’s driving force, brought terrible consequences: the distortion of the comprehensive, cultural, ideological vision; the destruction of national leadership institutions and of the Ummah’s educational future.

The comprehensive, civilized, doctrine-based Islamic vision is the creed of tawhid (monotheism), of deputation, of belief in God and the Hereafter. It is a serious and positive creed that takes charity and reform as its purpose in this world (“Work for your life on earth as if you were to live forever, and work for your life in the Hereafter as if you were to die tomorrow!”). It turns a Muslim’s life, in all its dimensions, into worship, subjugating it to the One True God. This vision serves as the conscience of the Ummah, stimulating it to righteous action that is useful in both this life and the Hereafter. It requires it to divide its time between invocation (of God’s name) and jihad [1]. The invocation serves as an incentive to do righteous work useful for the Hereafter, that is, an incentive to spend all kinds of effort (jihad) in learning and in action. Thus, it is an incentive for the jihad for self-purification, seeking sustenance, pursuit of learning, endeavours at reconciliation, efforts to meet the needs of the deprived, advocacy in defence of faith, self- protection, defence of family and homeland, and defending the weak and the oppressed. This implies that a Muslim’s life is a life of constant effort (jihad), whether in its private or public aspect, and whether it strives to meet individual or social needs. In all this, a Muslim seeks support by invoking God’s Name, glorifying Him, reciting the Qur’an, praying, fasting, giving alms, performing Hajj, undertaking additional religious rites, and privately and publicly observing God’s instructions.

God has promised those of you who believe and do good that they will be His deputies on earth, the same as their predecessors were… (24: 55)

Say, “My prayer, my devotion, my life, and my death are to God, the Lord of all creatures.” (6: 162)

Those who strive for Our sake, We will guide to Our right paths. God supports the righteous. (29: 69)

Perform prayers, for prayers prevent lewdness and wrongdoing. Invocation of God’s Name is a greater duty. God knows what you do. (29: 45)

Meanwhile, the isolationist vision that came to be a prevailing feature of the elite Muslim scholars was bound to have negative consequences that marginalized political governance, economic equity, social solidarity, performance of public office duties, and public institutions in general. It was bound to focus on the invocation of God’s Name and religious ceremonies, as defined in Qur’anic terminology, calling them acts of worship and excluding other things although, from the Qur’an’s perspective, a Muslim’s whole life is worship [2], whether it is the invocation of God’s Name or the pursuit of knowledge. The isolationist scholarly vision was thus a passive one giving little importance to the kind of jihad that took the form of action, activity, effort and earthly pursuits, reducing it to mere procedures and contract rulings meant to regulate the transactions of people and affairs relating to their interests and means of livelihood.

This distortion of the comprehensive view, affected by the isolation of the elite scholars, was psychologically responsible, more than anything else, for the passivity that dominated the identity, goals, and collective functions of the Ummah in its attitude toward life and its cultural and reformative purposes. It was no longer a positive, cultural vision that encouraged cultivation and labour, such that, even with the end of life approaching, the cultivator continued working when he had no expectation of living long enough to harvest the crop. This distortion of vision was certainly responsible for the death of consciousness and for the serious decline in important and creative endeavours in the life of the Ummah. It also bore principal responsibility for the corruption and division which seeped into public life; its passivity and poor psychological stimulation, and its defective cultural performance.

The scholarly isolation which men of learning and wisdom seemed mired in produced in later days a one-dimensional vision, causing human knowledge and experience, as well as social changes, to retreat into a remote corner. Consequently knowledge became limited to textual and linguistic comprehension only. In the end, potential for renovation and interpretive judgment was ultimately stifled, with imitation and memorization becoming the dominant factors. Intellectual failure shielded itself with the sacredness of the text to overpower the will of the Ummah and subjected it, whatever the original intention, to the practices of dark ignorance and the clutches of promoters of self-interest.

Learning, science, and nearly all fields of human knowledge witnessed a decline in the centuries that followed the practice of imitation and decadence. The general education of the Ummah at large and young people in particular became limited to modest elementary schools offering a simple and insignificant amount of education, parts of the Qur’an, basic principles of arithmetic, and just enough information for the common needs of daily life. The educational and instructional approaches used were defective, based on authoritarianism and punishment. This education was financed by parents with the little that they could afford to pay the unfortunate teacher who could find no better employment than the teaching profession. It was an educational system using methods and practices that became the target of criticism, censure and derision by many intellectuals and enlightened people when they compared it with the educational system offered to the children of the upper classes. Indeed, theirs was education of a different level, wider in scope than their poorer counterparts, and which included religious and literary studies. Students were well treated and not subjected to any abuse. This type of education included also the training given by government officials and upper class dignitaries to the tutors of their children at home. Nothing was added to these opposite poles of the educational system other than the existence of a few schools designed to train students to serve as a corps of prayer leaders, preachers, judges, and muftis.

With the distortion of the comprehensive ideological vision, the one-sidedness of knowledge, the barrenness of the cognitive approach, the setback of the religious discourse, and the tyranny of the political elite, the progress of the cultural spirit of Islam slowed down and the Ummah and its institutions experienced decline and decadence. People became afflicted with passivity and subservience, and the performance of individuals tended toward deficiency. All energy waned, and with it psychological incentives for excellent workmanship. It is those who are sympathetic and willing to work who devote themselves to and accept the burden of earnest and diligent work, whereas those who are fearful and reluctant are usually passive and content themselves with doing the minimum.

Performance inadequacy and poor motivation are still insurmountable obstacles to all efforts at reform. The Ummah has first of all to free itself from these shackles so that Islamic reform schemes can succeed, yield the desired results, and allow the Ummah to participate actively in modern civilization and the age of science and technology.


Where does higher education stand within the Islamic cultural reform project? How do we revitalize and allow it to play the assigned roles: dissemination of knowledge and education, generation of new branches of learning, and the training of the personnel needed to meet the Ummah’s present and future requirements? Since these are among the most important tasks and purposes of higher education, they go beyond the efforts to secure material equipment, administrative procedures, and the academic structures of schools that depend on the importation and imitation of cognitive patterns and educational and learning systems. Every cultural identity has its own starting point, objectives, values, and keys that release its latent potential. Any efforts that ignore these particular characteristics and do not address the potential energies of the Ummah’s cultural identity will fail to awaken its conscience toward the necessary response and workmanship. Therefore, the Ummah will not be able to progress and take its proper place among nations unless higher education is revitalized and reformed, and unless the blights that have dominated it are removed.


The First Affliction is that of imitation and replication. The majority of higher education systems and philosophies in Muslim countries are Western in character, a character which is at base alien to the Ummah’s conscience and cultural goals. Based on imitation and duplication, these systems fail to take into consideration the nature of Islamic civilization, as well as its special characteristics and values. These values are based on the principles of tawhid and deputation, the purposefulness and moral dimensions of existence, the unity of its foundations, and the complementarity of its material, spiritual, and moral — as well as its secular and eternal – dimensions. In Islamic civilization, gain, achievement, efficiency, and urbanization are not ends in themselves, but rather they are tools for living, and a spiritual means to something beyond, something more important. It lies in making the soul eligible for the immortality of the Hereafter with competence and charity, which express love of and subjugation to the One, the Most Just and Merciful.

The Second Affliction is the distortion of the comprehensive attitude toward life and its cultural and reformative purposes. It was no longer a positive, cultural vision that encouraged cultivation and labour, such that, even with the end of life approaching, the cultivator continued working when he had no expectation of living long enough to harvest the crop. This distortion of vision was certainly responsible for the death of consciousness and for the serious decline in important and creative endeavours in the life of the Ummah. It also bore principal responsibility for the corruption and division which seeped into public life; its passivity and poor psychological stimulation, and its defective cultural performance.

A reformed Islamic vision and a sound intellectual approach are prerequisites for the refinement of culture and educational curricula. These in turn, are prerequisites for the affective structure of the soul, providing it with guidance for its movement and incentive for its performance. When this guidance and incentive become operative, there would be a wise and effective utilization of available tools and equipment, leading to the fulfilment of tasks and provision of needed materials, setting the Ummah’s wheels back into motion, and stimulating its potential for ethical and creative production.

Therefore, if after centuries of deviation and wandering, the Muslim world wishes to set the reform agenda on the right track, its priorities have to be reflected in an educational reform plan. It must put quality before quantity, content before facilities, and curricula before instruments. However, each of these items must be given its due place in both function and purpose, without any conflict or failure.

A balance in quality and quantity, content and facilities, is characteristic of nations with performance skills. With culture, education, and learning, these nations express their identities and their civilizational foundations. This balance originates in their innate energy and the performance incentives within their structures. They place cultural and educational affairs, and the skilled training of human beings, at the top of their lists of priorities, providing their citizens with all the available resources required to ensure that they become the instruments to achieve the goals and objectives of those nations. Backward nations, on the other hand, are wont to imitate and replicate. Their educational systems fail to express their basic principles, features, and civilizational particularities; and they are rather an artificial combination, both in vision and orientation. Educational needs and requirements are placed at the bottom of their lists of concerns, and these are the first to suffer the effects of scarcity when a crisis occurs and helplessness and failure are compounded. Yet, it is a known fact that energy renewal and improvement of performance depend mainly on the quality of the culture and on the improvement of educational curricula.

Authored by AbdulHamid A. AbuSulayman, President of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), President of the Child Development Foundation (USA), former Rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia (HUM), and former Secretary General of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).


[1] Jihad: Literally, striving. Any earnest striving in the way of God, involving either earnest personal effort, material resources, or arms for righteousness and against evil, wrongdoing and oppression. Where it involves armed struggle, it must be for the defence of the Muslim community or a just war to protect even non-Muslims from evil, oppression and tyranny, [ed.]

[2] While the Arabic words for worship, slavery, subjugation, and enslavement are derived from the same root, the concept of worship is derived from submission rather than enslavement, with the implication that by their free will, Muslims accept what is true and right. This for them is a source of pride and strength. (“Power belongs to God, to His Messenger, and to believers.” – (63:8))