The Need for the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC)
In 1994, the Chancellor's Commission, a distinguished group of international academics, reviewed several major higher education studies focused on countries with Muslim populations. The studies included those undertaken during the preceding decade by the Harvard Committee, the Institute for International Education and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The subsequent analysis led the Commission to assert that there was an urgent need to strengthen institutions that were able to adopt the norms and techniques of modern scholarship without losing sight of the lived and historical experiences of Muslims struggling to resolve contemporary challenges. Such institutions, the Commission felt, would have to endeavour to create a language of scholarship that would avoid two faults: first, the transmission of knowledge about Islam in ways that are oblivious to the deep changes brought about by modernisation, and second, a reductionist approach to religious traditions found in some Western institutions.
The Commission concluded that Aga Khan University (AKU), an institution of higher learning with its main campus in a region with a majority Muslim population, was uniquely placed to address the challenges faced by Muslims today. It felt that AKU could achieve this objective through the establishment of an institute devoted to the study of Muslim civilisations, aiming to produce research and writings that would serve to bring an enlightened understanding of the heritage of Muslims and its contemporary relevance, and to contribute to the development of societies in which Muslims live.
AKU-ISMC believes it can make a distinct contribution to the understanding of Muslim societies and the emergence of new attitudes among Muslims and non-Muslims toward the concerns of contemporary societies. AKU-ISMC aims to study and raise awareness of the most serious issues faced by Muslim societies today. In doing so, it is aware of the difficulties.
The Task Force involved in setting up AKU-ISMC recognised that, "salvation will not be found without the clarity and sanity of the enlightened and disciplined minds that university education at its best can give to the Muslim world".
Approaches to the Study of Muslim Civilisations
In their focus on Muslim societies, the Institute's programmes take account of the diversity of cultures where Muslims were, and are, a significant constituency. The approach to the study of Muslim civilisations is within a framework of world cultures, allowing for a wider analytical and comparative perspective.
This approach will entail studying the context of cultural and intellectual history within which religious ideas and practices have meaning. It will require that cultural manifestations such as art, poetry and architecture be examined alongside doctrine, law and religious practice. The Institute will endeavour to understand the character of Muslim civilisations as they have evolved over time, and also to focus on the complex social, cultural and historical processes that they are undergoing in the contemporary world. AKU-ISMC will seek to address fundamental challenges to the human condition today, including, amongst others, the issues of poverty and governance.
This seamless integration of the study of history and current concerns is an enterprise with philosophical and educational significance and one that may help individuals and societies find meaning and purpose in the traditions that surround them and in the many different worlds they inhabit.