There is nothing in Islam that makes it dangerous or threatening to a modern Western way of life. However, those looking to incite violence and hatred are always capable of finding textual references in almost anything to fuel their prejudices. We must combat this by fostering a culture of learning and an acceptance of diverse experiences and opinions.
The idea that Australia’s Muslim community should reflect on other nascent communities overseas is a philosophy shared by Aftab Malik, a leading British Islamic scholar. Malik recently left Australia after 18 months as scholar in residence at the Lebanese Muslim Association. Since 2005, Malik has argued that:
… traditional Islamic values themselves can overcome extremism.
More recently, Malik maintained that religion is a benign force that creates enlightenment and its malignant manifestation is actually an inversion.
Return to a culture of inquiry to counter extremes
One criticism is that religion can only do this when it’s infused with a strong culture of learning. Virulent and dangerous forms of religion do emerge from cultures of hatred and violence. In order to highlight Islam’s potential as an incubator of knowledge and participant in social change, it’s instructive to examine its historic success as a leading civilisation from antiquity to the early modern period.
During 750-1550 CE, the Muslim world was a pioneer of learning. The rise of the madrasa was at the heart of its success. While the madrasa is known today as a place for traditional Islamic education, the medieval madrasa was akin to the modern university.
What started as a 10th-century rural model of education in north-eastern Iran was quickly institutionalised across the Muslim world. Commonly known as the nizamiya, the madrasa fostered a vigorous culture of learning. It provided a regulated curriculum overseen and taught by a faculty of outstanding scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.
The madrasa in Baghdad, established in 1063, became the most famous example of many successful madrasas transplanted across the Muslim world up to the 14th century.
In all of these institutions, records indicate an impartial atmosphere of learning. They did not favour any one of the prevailing legal factions (Ash’ari, Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi) for their specific interpretation of law and theology; nor were they biased toward a particular sect, such as Shi’a or Sunni.
Muslims need to take note of this model of impartial learning. This is especially the case in Australia where the overwhelming majority of Muslims are cultural Muslims. As such, they do not follow strict “orthodox” Islamic practice.
The Islamic discourse cannot hinge on an essentialisation of religion as the “cure” to all problems. Islam’s own history illustrates how the culture of learning for learning’s sake must be cherished and promoted.
If Australian Muslims are to successfully play a part in shaping a mutually beneficial future, education will have to play a major role in this process. This needs to be not just education about their own religion, which is often private and personal, but the history of their religion.
Muslims are not of one fundamentalist mind
A commonly disregarded fact about the Australian Muslim community is that it is not a homogenous group. Instead, the community is a “multilayered mixture of various streams of religion”. According to recent records:
Australian Muslim community is among the most ethnically and racially diverse religious groupings, with members from over 60 different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Such evidence dispels many clichéd misconceptions about the monolithic attitude of Muslims. This diversity in Australia’s Muslim population perhaps should be seen as a natural advantage, which could safeguard against the prominence of narrow-minded and centralised interpretations of faith and practice.
Islamic tradition has generally given the impression of uniformity, which was not a feature of early Islam. The pursuit of an “authentic” Islamic education, therefore, is a cop-out.
It is important to remember that Australia’s young Muslim community isn’t necessarily in need of a specific, authentic Islamic education served on a platter, but like all Australians they need to embrace a culture of learning. The madrasa may not necessarily be the perfect template for today’s Muslims, here or abroad, but a love of education and participation in civil society is always a good ambition.
As a young and diverse community, the future of Islam in Australia is still in the making. Muslims here can look ahead to older established communities abroad, in Europe and the UK, to learn from their experiences and to build a positive future.
With this knowledge of the past, the new generation of Australian Muslims may be better placed to be free from the hatred, prejudice and bigotry that is prevalent on both sides.