IIUM: Beacon of enlightened Islam or well-paying divinity school?

Recently, Prof Tajuddin Rasdi wrote an article on the issue of critical thinking and the role of academia in society titled “Time to close down our 20 public universities?”

His piece was precipitated by the decision of Jais to ban the book “Islam Without Extremism”. It was partially directed in disappointment at the International Islamic University (IIUM) which was established to be “the beacon of an enlightened Islam for nation building and co-existence” but which has maintained a deafening silence on the issue and similar controversies. Thus, it was not a spur of the moment commentary.

The substance of the piece is consistent with Tajuddin’s prolific writings during the past decade in which he – one of a very few Malaysian academics – has probed into the quality of our higher education system, the failure of academics to be agents of intellectual and social change, and a host of similar related problem areas.

To date, his commentaries and proposals for reform have failed to elicit much response from his colleagues in academia.

This time around, with its provocative title, it is not surprising that it has drawn a quick response and flak from two academics holding prominent positions in IIUM – the rector of the university and a deputy dean.

In a column titled “Barking up the wrong tree”, Prof Dzulkifli Razak, who professes admiration for “intellectual honesty”, does Tajuddin a disfavour by beginning with the introductory line, “Last week, a ‘professor’ from a private university…”

The use of the single quote by Dzulkifli in referring to Tajuddin’s academic position will be interpreted by readers as mocking or questioning the latter’s credentials.

I hope this is not Dzulkifli’s intention.

To avoid any misunderstanding and in keeping with professional etiquette, it is incumbent on Dzulkifli to arrange for the removal of the single quote punctuation from the online article as well to provide a statement in the print version which corrects the error of fact and to express regret for it.

More important, in refuting the substance of Tajuddin’s commentary, it is essential that Dzulkifli does not brush aside the book ban subject by arguing that “banning of books in Malaysia is not a particularly new phenomenon”.

This “it has happened before and so what” attitude may be typical of the bureaucratic and political authorities. However, the thinking public does not expect it from the head of a divinity school currently ranked, according to its website page, at number 33 in the world for the subject of theology, divinity and religious studies.

In his further response, Dzulkifli could also inform the public in what ways IIUM has contributed to the enlightened discourse and scientific advancement on the many issues that trouble the international community – climate change, the impact of rising sea levels, religious conflict, food and water security, besides the local religious controversies that are rife here.

The concerns with IIUM not only relate to its value added in the field of learning and higher education in Malaysia and the Muslim world.

Billions of ringgit have been poured into IIUM especially from Malaysia since its establishment 36 years ago.

However, the overall ranking of IIUM between 651 and 700 in the QS World University Rankings 2019 – the QS system is based primarily on the criteria of academic reputation, employer reputation and staff productivity and impact and is one of the three most widely referred to university ranking systems in the world – indicates a poor return on investment and a less than stellar quality of human capital and scholarly output.

The second article by Danial Yusof makes the point that IIUM “is not narrow-minded or stuck in a Malay-Sunni-Shafi’i narrative. It works across disciplines with the indigenous, local and foreign, Muslim and non-Muslim, putting our best efforts into what is hopefully a new era of global and civilising Islam”.

That’s reassuring to hear though it appears that these “civilising” efforts appear to have come several decades too late. But better late than never.

According to Yusof, IIUM projects are “covering themes of Islam, sustainability and policy concerns over topics as wide-ranging as indigenous and traditional knowledge, the River of Life and sustainable biosphere, integrated care for older people and schoolchildren, sustainable endowment income, Islamic social finance and the development of a mosque study curriculum, to name a few”.

Impressive sounding but mindset breaking subjects?

What about concerns relating to Zakir Naik, dehijabbing, corruption in Muslim countries, Islamic State, missing religious leaders and the other more contentious issues plaguing our country and other Islamic nations?

Eighteen months from now, members of the public will be interested to know about how much money was spent on these flagship projects initiated by IIUM and the outcome – academic and social.

Publication of a detailed follow-up financial accounting and socio-economic analysis of these projects can help policy-makers and other stakeholders determine if Tajuddin’s concern that academia has isolated itself from the people by pandering to self-interest research for promotion and titles as well as to impress the current set of power holders is with or without foundation.

A final point on Yusof’s rebuke that “someone writing from the outside … is likely to have no proper knowledge of what takes place in the university”.

This assertion is correct.

The onus is on IIUM now to open up to the public on all aspects of the university hitherto couched in mystery, and for its authorities and academic staff to be fully transparent and accountable on all affairs of the university. This also means that they should respond positively and respectfully – not negatively or disdainfully – to criticism wherever this may stem from.

Lim Teck Ghee is a public policy analyst and author of the book Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.