Universities in Muslim countries are rich in heritage and conceptual diversity. But they have faced numerous challenges from the first day of their inception. These include funding, quality assurance, leadership and management, organisation of knowledge, the position of women, the integration of modernity and tradition, and the study of Muslim cultures and civilisations, in which religion is of pre-eminent importance. However, we should see these challenges not as intractable problems but as transformational opportunities.
To understand the challenges facing universities in Muslim-majority contexts, one must look into the history of these institutions. This is because higher learning in its institutional or non-institutional forms has a long-standing tradition among Muslims, and modern universities retain some cultural and civilisational ties with this heritage, even though most of them do not necessarily embrace every aspect of it. The struggle (jihad) to acquire knowledge, whatever the source, has been obligatory for all Muslims, both men and women, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The very first verse of the Qur’an, as well as several others, urged the Prophet to read, understand and reflect on the mysteries of creation, and he in turn conveyed this injunction to the believers and encouraged them to search and struggle for knowledge ‘even if it be in China’. The early Muslims, therefore, actively sought to harmonise the message of Islam not only with their existing cultures but also with earlier civilisations. Since the search and struggle for knowledge was a divine command for Muslims, they endeavoured to acquire and transmit it using any appropriate means at their disposal, whether it was through memorisation, writing, reading, or a range of art forms, including calligraphy, architecture, poetry, recitation, and singing. By the middle of the eleventh century Muslims developed distinctive institutions for higher learning with their unique architecture, funding structure and organisation of knowledge and also introduced degrees (ijaza) and academic rankings. Some of these features were borrowed by medieval European universities, and early Muslim institutions such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, Al-Qarawiyin in Fez, and Al-Zaytuna in Tunis, have sometimes been described as the prototypes on which the Christians of Europe modelled their own universities. Nevertheless, debates about whether the Muslims or Christians were the inventors of universities do not really yield productive discussions simply because there were many cultural and intellectual exchanges in the Middle Ages. Muslims engaged in a dialogue with Christian theologians and intellectuals in the eighth and ninth centuries and learned a great deal from them, and in turn the Christians benefited from the rapid intellectual and cultural achievements of the Muslims from the ninth to eleventh centuries. Once these cultural exchanges slowed down, the universities established by Christians or Muslims developed their own distinctive features drawing on their own religious and cultural world view and their respective approaches to knowledge acquisition. Later, during the colonial period in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a revival of cultural exchange, though this time largely a one-way phenomenon with Muslims borrowing heavily and sometimes uncritically from European models so as to establish their own modern institutions of higher education.