Education of Muslim Clergy

By Moorthy Muthuswamy, May 2001

Out of the fifty odd Islamic nations, very few, if any are truly democratic and none is known for scientific or technological prowess. But most have a strong, if not a growing Islamic extremist presence. The ones not blessed with oil are poor and getting poorer. In countries where Muslims are a large minority, there are Muslim insurgencies, in the Philippines, Russia or India. For ideological reasons and its support of Israel, America and its citizens have become the primary targets of many Islamic extremist groups. All of this shows a pattern implying a need for an institutional reform of Islam. Thus, it has become important to find out the root causes and address them.

Despite the oil wealth, Saudi Arabia, the most influential Muslim country and the birthplace of Islam, has remained irrational, retrogressive and intolerant. Perhaps, not knowing any better, it is said to spend substantial portion of its oil revenues in promoting the Saudi version of Islam around the world. This has clearly exacerbated the problems faced by Muslims. In Pakistan for instance, many religious schools funded by the Saudis teach Islamic history exclusively with virtually no exposure to science, Besides, these schools support the ideology of "holy war" against non-Muslims. Thus, it may be left to the American Muslims, among the most educated Muslim groups, to take initiatives in reforming Islam.

Disturbing trends are emerging even in developed countries where Muslims have substantial presence extending several generations, Britain for example. A recent study in Britain found the British Muslims near the bottom in both education and income levels; found to top the crime charts. By far, an overwhelming majority of them are from South Asia. In particular, they have fallen way behind non-Muslims who arrived in Britain at about the same time from South Asia with comparable socio-economic background. Muslims are certainly capable people. But something is holding them back. What is it and why?

Most Muslim clergy in Britain were brought up in Islamic countries with little exposure into the workings of the Western world. Even in Britain, their exposure is mostly restricted to the Muslim community. Clergy education involved mostly learning glorified Islamic history with little, if any of modern science. During the formative years they were taught to view the West and its culture as an enemy of Islam. This has made them view modern education or even the British society with suspicion and distrust. The following question arises: Given the strong role played by the clergy in the lives of the British Muslims, are they well placed to guide their flock? The answer, as the results have shown, is a resounding no!

Given the similar recruitment background, there should be little difference between British and American Muslim clergy. So, how are the Muslims doing in America? The good news is, certainly much better than the British Muslims. This may have to do with higher education levels of American Muslims. Enhanced by the American immigration policy of preferential admission for the highly educated, unlike the then British policy. However, it must be realized that it will take a generation or so before the negative influence of the Muslim clergy becomes apparent, as in Britain.

Fortunately, time is on the side of American Muslims. They now have an opportunity to ensure that the fate of British Muslims does not befall on them. What could be done? The key is installation of Muslim clergy in Mosques who are exposed to the inner workings of the Western society and who have received a modern education. This will ensure a far more effective guidance of American Muslims. The strength of Islam is its institutions and the clergy form the basis. Itís time this powerful institution is made into a progressive one instead of being retrogressive. Herein may lie the key to unlocking the puzzle of Islamic extremism.

These issues require a serious study by American Muslim Council (AMC) and Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). If this clergy reform is found to be beneficial, American Muslims may have found a winning formula for the betterment of Muslims around the world. When they do, Muslims should reach a more equitable arrangement with other civilizations rather than continue the undesirable escalation in tensions and confrontations.