Understanding Muslim civilisations

Over the last 200 years or so, western countries have largely dominated the flow of knowledge, with the result that ideas from other countries have been greatly under-represented in studying and analysing issues that affect the daily lives of people throughout the world. Correcting this imbalance, which arose partly under colonial rule, is an enormous task — but work is underway.

By Denise Marray

Published: Fri 12 Nov 2010, 11:05 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:27 PM

In London, the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) is striving to bring more voices to international debate. AKU has an international reputation in the fields of medicine and healthcare that it is extending into the fields of humanities and social sciences. Through the ISMC, it aims to strengthen research and teaching about the heritage of Muslim societies as they have evolved over time, with specific attention to the challenges these societies face in contemporary settings.

For Sikeena Karmali Ahmed, the ISMC’s manager of publications and editing, the work of bringing Muslim scholarship to a wider audience is a labour of love. “I feel very devoted to this work. I believe in it. It’s not just a job for me,” she said.

Ahmed’s direct experience in Central Asia, where she directed a human rights training programme, gives immediacy to the work being undertaken at the ISMC. She has worked with the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgistan. “I was working in Afghanistan during the American bombardment and on the outskirts of Afghanistan during the Taleban rule between 1999 and 2004,” she explained. It was while undertaking a survey on gender in Tajikistan’s Karategin Valley in 1999 that she saw the harsh actions of the ruling Taleban. A commander Shah ordered the public hanging of two girls, aged just 12 and 14, who had wanted to go to school. To meet the commander, Ahmed — herself a Muslim — donned a full veil, as it was only on his terms that any communication could take place.

She asked him, “Can you show me or explain where it is written that Muslim women should not be educated beyond primary school?” The commander, who Ahmed thought was unable to read the Koran in Arabic, could not point to a source for his edict. His brutal actions, she observed, also need to be seen in the context of his experience.

He associated education with Soviet occupation, as under the Soviets, education was compulsory and religious worship of any kind forbidden. In the commander’s mind, education had become synonymous with Soviet-isation — something to be eradicated. In this case, as Ahmed pointed out, the issue of education “was misappropriated and misassigned”, with tragic results.

The commander asked Ahmed, “Aren’t you afraid of asking these questions?” She replied: “You pray every day — or you claim to — to a God who is merciful and forgiving. Do you really think that a merciful and forgiving God would want you to have killed two young girls because they were trying to educate themselves?” The commander, she recalled, paused for thought at that point, but “not as much as I would have liked him to.”

The ISMC offers a range of short courses on Muslim cultures in addition to its highly demanding two-year Master of Arts in Muslim Cultures degree. Students come from the US, Canada, Iran, Central Asia, India, Pakistan and East Africa. Many graduates go on to work in the developing world, perhaps within the Aga Khan Development Network or continue their studies at PhD level at reputable universities such as Oxford or Cambridge.


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