Cambridge launches Al-Azhar partnership to train young Muslim faith leaders

2 July 2010

An intensive professional training course has been launched for some of the young British Muslims most likely to become the faith’s next generation of spiritual leaders.

The 15-week programme, which has just completed its pilot run, is a joint initiative by the University of Cambridge and Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

It is uniquely designed for young, British Muslims studying in Darul Ulooms – the Islamic equivalent of seminaries, where many future Imams and Muslim chaplains are trained.

Its principal aim is to build on the knowledge students receive at these institutions with a challenging programme of lectures, tutorials, seminars, workshops and personal study assignments, designed to further broaden the participants’ appreciation of Islam in a modern context.

Alongside other topics, the course covers issues such as multiculturalism, gender equality, human rights and Muslim-British identity. It also involves visits to Muslim organisations, a Christian postgraduate theological training centre and a Jewish Rabbinical College.

The project has been designed and run by a partnership of scholars from both Al-Azhar University and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, at the University of Cambridge.

“The course is really an exercise in self-learning,” Professor Yasir Suleiman, director of the Centre of Islamic Studies, said. “It provides the students with an opportunity to develop their ideas about Islam by asking them to answer difficult questions that they might not have had to deal with before. It is an opportunity to step outside themselves and re-evaluate their views and opinions.”

Although only a handful of students can be taught at a time, organisers believe it will have a much wider and longer-lasting effect on British Muslim communities. Graduates from Darul Ulooms typically go on to work in junior positions in mosques, with the most successful then going on to become Imams, or Muslim chaplains in institutions such as universities and prisons.

The course operates in two stages. The first involves a period of three months study at Al-Azhar, designed to deepen the participants’ existing knowledge of key Islamic principes. Al-Azhar is one of the world’s oldest universities, having been founded around 970 AD, and is a leading centre for Arabic Literature and Islamic Scholarship, as well as a point of reference for Muslims around the world seeking guidance on faith issues.

The first cohort of students variously described the experience as “eye opening” and as one which revealed to them the “breadth of Islam” and the religion’s emphasis on balancing different points of view.

“It showed us that balance is a broad road, in which there is always room for acceptable differences of opinion,” one participant said. “We got the view that Islam is not about one country or one place and time. That means that there is not always just one way of looking at a problem, either.”

The Cambridge component of the course then asks the students to tackle questions and issues that they will not necessarily have encountered before. Themes include the role of Muslims in Britain, the challenges facing Muslims in the West, multiculturalism, gender equality and human rights. They also get the opportunity to learn from the experiences of community organisations of different faiths, exploring the areas of pastoral care, interfaith working and community leadership.

Among other tasks, the pilot group was asked to develop a proposal for a community-based project which builds on what they have learned during the course, which will cement the benefit of the training in their local communities. They will return to Cambridge in September to present on this project before graduating.

“To date, these students have been taught a fairly standard, traditional Islamic curriculum,” Dilwar Hussein, a visiting fellow at the Centre of Islamic studies, said.

“What this course aims to do is add new dimensions to their knowledge. Inevitably it only deals with a handful of people, but because they are the future leaders of their communities we expect it to have a multiplier effect. Eventually, we hope that the course will enable many more people to draw on their Muslim heritage to deal with issues that face them in the modern world.”