Address by Professor Richard Pring

Lead Director of the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training and the Former Director of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University

I feel very honoured to be invited to speak at the Graduation Ceremony for the students of the University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations. My connections with the Aga Khan University stretch back 20 years. (And, indeed, looking around, I seem to be one of the few constant connections with the AKU, for the last two decades). Those many visits to Karachi, to the University’s work in the north of Pakistan and in Afghanistan, to its professional development centre in Dar es Salam, and then, in later years, to the achievements of this Institute, have revealed to me an ideal of a university which I have never witnessed elsewhere.

I wish briefly to expand on this from the experience I have had of the Aga Khan University over the years, to spell out its unique contribution to the world’s higher education and to remind you of the responsibilities which now lie on the shoulders of those who have had the privilege to benefit from it.

In pursuing this theme, I shall make two major points.

First, I shall recall my early experience and knowledge of the University in Karachi, and of the ideals which shaped its formation and unique form of development. That brief story, you might say, has little to do with the studies here of Muslim Civilisations. Such studies would seem very different from the more practical and professional nature of the Departments of Community Health Sciences or the Medical School or the Institute for Educational Development, with which the University began. There I believe you would be wrong.

Second, therefore, I wish to say how central is that study of the Muslim Civilisations, from which you have benefited, to that overall vision of the University which strives to bring the benefits of its scholarship, teaching and research to a divided and deeply troubled world.

The first department or faculty of the new University was, I understand, that of Community Health Sciences. An odd choice, you might think, in a university which aimed for international renown and to be in the first division of world universities. The Oxfords and Cambridges of this world do not have Schools of Nursing. Would it not have been more prestigious to start with a Faculty of Science or to have world renowned departments of Philosophy and Theology? Why not begin with the Humanities – or, indeed, with an Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations?

The aim of the University was to make a difference to the world – to bring the fruits of civilisation (a morally and spiritually based civilisation) to those most in need. Not long ago, at a conference in Oman, which was concerned with the expansion of its higher education, I was speaking about this, referring to the example of the Aga Khan University. A major representative from the World Health Organisation immediately took up the theme. He spoke of the 50% decline in child mortality in a poor district of Karachi due to the work of the Faculty of Community Health Sciences – a practical and professional engagement with the community but based on, and informed by, medical and social research from the University. Here was an integration of knowledge and practice, driven by a vision of a society to be created, not by knowledge simply to be acquired for its own sake.

Then, of course, the Faculty of Medicine – again, the early development of the University to make a difference through the education and training of doctors who would serve society, but would do this with the help of first class research, linked with top-ranking universities elsewhere.

And, finally, the development of the Institute for Educational Development, and its distinctive model for the professional development of teachers, shared with the Universities of Oxford and Toronto. That model has at its centre a profound respect for the teaching profession. As in health, so in education, the raising of standards and the improvement of life of the poor and of the disadvantaged requires intelligent, reflective and well-researched understanding, an integration of knowledge and practice, a community of committed learners.

In a visit to see the work of the University in the Hunza Valley, near Karimabad, I saw the fruits of this. A rather poor rural area was served by the Aga Khan Health Centre, an Aga Khan School and an Aga Khan Centre for Rural Development – bringing together the fruits of educational ideals, the developments in health care and the knowledge and skills to improve the local agricultural economy. The school itself was the product of architectural research which made it a possible place of refuge should the district suffer from earth tremors.

Different kinds of knowledge, different kinds of skill, different kinds of research, all pulled together in a unique way, for each feeds into and enhances the other. Health depends on higher educational standards. A more scientific approach to economic improvement depends on a healthy and educated workforce. All depend upon research and a vision of what should be.

But what, you might ask, has this got to do with the study of Muslim Civilisations?

What I have just said reflects an idea of a university focused on social improvement – namely, professional preparation of those who are to teach, to nurse, to work in the communities, to practice medicine and to improve in many ways the societies they go back to. Such a university is shaped by noble ideals, certainly, but they are practical. The pursuit of knowledge arises from practical problems and from moral concerns.

The doubters, on the other hand, might argue that the study of Muslim Civilisations arises from different concerns - from the traditional university task of developing and transmitting knowledge, unsullied by practical relevance. The starting point is knowledge and understanding, not practice and doing.

But that would be wrong. The concern for the sick and the ill-educated, the care and respect for the environment, the desire for practical and life enhancing knowledge are themselves rooted in a vision of humanity and society which is an inheritance. They are the product of the wisdom of the past – of what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott referred to as the conversation between the generations of mankind in which we come to appreciate the voice of philosophy, the voice of theology, the voice of science, the voice of poetry.

That vision of a university, which shaped the AKU, did not come from nowhere. It came from a highly developed culture, rooted in an active religious tradition, which valued the pursuit of knowledge, which critically absorbed into its philosophical thinking the works of Plato and Aristotle, which created the great medieval universities of Al-Quarawiyiu and Fez in Morocco, of Al-Azhar in Egypt, of Qom in Iran, where scholars of jurisprudence, astronomy, theology, Arabic language, mathematics, and optics argued, researched, wrote and taught – a long time before the founding of the ancient universities in the West. Indeed, it is rarely recognised how much is owed by medieval scholasticism and the great and enduring works of Aquinas, or indeed of the Enlightenment, to the scholarship of the Arab philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes – in their words, to the enduring quality of Muslim Civilisation.

But, as Jonathan Sacks reminds us in The Politics of Hope

Civilization hangs suspended, from generation to generation, by the gossamer strand of memory. … If the guardians of human knowledge stumble only one time, in their fall collapses the whole edifice of knowledge and understanding.

Civilisation is, as one is only too aware from the daily news, a delicate thing. Its achievements - in knowledge, moral ideals, sense of community, respect for law, concern or the most vulnerable – ‘hangs suspended, from generation to generation, by the gossamer strand of memory’. And yet it is that civilisation – with its vision of human dignity and of social welfare, articulated in the writings, the way of life and the religious practices of the past - which inspires the continuation of a tradition of research, scholarship and teaching that will make the world a better place.

Therefore, it is essential that the vision of the university is deeply rooted in the study of that past. We need to be reminded of the great achievement then which make progress possible now. The study of Muslim Civilisations here is a strengthening of that gossamer strand of memory. It is an essential part of the conversation between the generations of mankind. We need continually to be inspired by the flourishing of scholarship out of which modern civilisation has developed.

I would like to think that the graduates of this Institute become the new guardians of knowledge that will inspire others.

But beware – you are not allowed to stumble, no, not even once​​​​​

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