Islamic Liberal Arts

Arab Spring nations urged to embrace a tradition that once thrived in their countries.

November 1, 2012

Universities in Arab Spring countries need to revive a once-great tradition of liberal arts education if they are to prosper, according to speakers at an international conference.

Mahmoud Ezzamel, professorial fellow at Cardiff University, told an audience at the Reinventing Higher Education conference in Madrid last week that universities in Muslim countries should focus on arts, humanities and the social sciences rather than concentrating solely on science and engineering. But they must not "mimic or import different types of higher education" from Europe and the United States, said Ezzamel, whose research focuses on accounting theory.

Instead, universities should base new liberal arts courses on the teaching of medieval Islamic scholars who paved the way for the Enlightenment, he said.

"Arab and Muslim countries have a deep history in the liberal arts," he said. "In Spain, there are huge amounts of manuscripts that allowed the Renaissance to happen. Very seldom does an Arab scholar dig into these [documents]."

If academics simply taught the work of Western scholars, it would "suppress local traditional society," and Arab universities could never hope to compete on equal terms with the West in these areas, Ezzamel argued. Promoting liberal Muslim thinking within the Arab academy would also combat the myth that humanist thought had been crushed by repressive theocratic states, he said.

"Humanism and liberalism have never disappeared from the Arab world," Ezzamel said. "If you talk to people on the street, listen to songs, watch plays or follow pop culture, you will find it. However, under repressive regimes, these things had to go underground."

He also pointed to other problems that he said had contributed to the undermining of university education in the Arab world. "There are not sufficient library facilities, even at the most prestigious universities, and classes are massive," he said. "Students are so rushed they do not have the space to think about their education."

But even though higher education in such countries of the region needs a "radical reinventing," Ezzamel said, there were "enormous human resources available -- thousands, even millions of students -- and the opportunities are on a huge scale."

Salah Khalil, founder and director of the Alexandria Trust, a London-based charitable body that promotes open and accessible education systems in Arab countries, echoed the belief that liberal arts education could thrive in the Muslim world, particularly in Egypt. "Egypt is a melting pot of global citizenship," said Khalil, an Egyptian national.

He said that the Muslim Brotherhood -- which has achieved political power with the victory of Mohammed Mursi, whom it endorsed, as the country's first democratically elected president -- has scored "some early wins" in terms of influencing higher education, "but they will not be able to impose their agenda."

"You can see some issues [such as] where men and women are educated separately, but they will face resistance if they want to move people in that direction."

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