Learning to appreciate Islamic thought in modern context

A programme for aspiring Islamic religious leaders to better understand religious teachings in the context of contemporary, plural societies was launched yesterday.

A total of 40 recent graduates and final-year undergraduates from universities in the Middle East and South-east Asia are attending the Islamic Thought in Context: Living in Plural Societies series at the Singapore Islamic Hub over 10 days this week and the next. The sessions are organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore's (Muis') research and education arm, Muis Academy, together with the Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University.

They cover such topics as syariah in a modern context, and diversity and Islam in modern Singapore.

On Friday, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim announced plans to study the feasibility of setting up an Islamic college here to provide a higher quality of religious education that is better tailored to the local context.

Dr Yaacob also told reporters over the weekend that such a college could have its first cohort in, say, five years, but a full-fledged institution might need a longer timeframe of between 15 and 20 years.

In the meantime, sessions like this month's aim to help equip local religious teachers with an appreciation of current trends, and skills to better teach the religion today.

Sessions will be taught by lecturers from both RSIS and the Muis Academy, as well as international scholars such as University of Melbourne Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies Abdullah Saeed, and University of Notre Dame Professor of Islamic Studies Ebrahim Moosa.

Participant Muhammad Ashraf Anwar, 23, said the series would help him better understand current issues facing the community. Said the final-year Islamic theology student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo: "In Egypt, we learn traditional Islam from credible sources, but the community in Egypt is very different. We have to learn how to contextualise what we study to better serve the community here."

Muis Academy's vice-dean, Ustaz Mohammad Hannan Hassan, said: "The programme was created to help students consult the Islamic tradition and place it within the context of Singapore's plural society." He added: "This contextualisation is not something outside of Islam, it's an established part of our tradition."

As for an Islamic college, SRP Head of Studies Mohammad Alami Musa said it would benefit madrasah graduates, who are now not able to pursue higher religious education locally. A pool of some 15 asatizah (religious teachers) with master's and doctoral degrees could be part of the faculty, he said.

Other community leaders also welcomed the college. Managing director of education group SimplyIslam Mohamed Nassir Abdul Sukkur said it was "long overdue".

Mr Alami said: "It has been a dream of asatizah from the pioneer generation to have an Islamic college here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Learning to appreciate Islamic thought in modern context'. Print Edition | Subscribe