Professor Dr. Abd al-Fattah El-Awaisi, a British Arab historian, to Yemen Times:”Research in Humanities and Social Sciences is a MUST for Yemen to face the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century” [Archives:2007/1093/Reportage]
El-Awaisi had received training in Political Sciences, History, Middle Eastern Studies, and Islamic Studies; and taught for a number of years in History, Religious Studies, Arabic and Islamic Studies Departments. The Study of Islam and Muslims has always been the focal point of his work and a field. He challenges current teaching and scholarship, recognizing that this is a time for change in Islamic Studies. There must be better education on Islam and Muslims in today's world which reflects the needs of our contemporary multicultural society.
Now Prof. Abd al-Fattah El-Awaisi is establishing a center for research and development for humanities and social sciences at the University of Science and Technology. Nadia Al-Sakkaf interviewed El-Awaisi for Yemen Times.
A research center in Yemen
My experience enabled me to form a much broader approach to the field of Islamic and Muslim studies and compare the differing views of Arab, Muslim and Western schools. At this stage I felt that I need to move to the Arab world with a clear aim to bridge and transfer this long and extensive academic experience to the Arab region, in particular to the most needed Arab country for these experiences. To the country that is trying seriously to develop itself with its limited resources. In other words, I decided to come to Yemen to contribute in helping Yemen in the field of humanities and social sciences to face the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century through serious and high standard research. One of my top priorities is to help bridge, create and transfer the knowledge and its tools to the Arab world through the wider gate of Yemen. As knowledge is a two-way traffic, I am hoping that through this bridging and transfer of knowledge I contribute to break down the barriers that separate and divide the contemporary world.
As to why a research center, I believe that establishing serious research centers is a MUST to any country in the 21st century trying to face the challenges and opportunities of our current time. They should be a response to the national and international needs of that country. Indeed, that country needs to develop its research within global framework while remaining attentive to local perspectives.
Rresearch is the planning for the present and the future. It is the key to effective decision making and the key to create and transfer any country into a knowledge-based society. Indeed, any developing country needs to seek scholarly solution to its social problems which will help the leaders of that country to make the right decision on the right time. Research will also ensure that produced knowledge is sensitive and useful to that particular country. We need to ask questions and seek answers in order to avail knowldge like truely instructed in Islam. To find knowledge which is suitable to our time and place and not suitable to other countries or produced to address the need for previous generations. I was chocked to see the curriculum and methodologies in humanities and social sciences in some universities in the Arab countries which is not relevant to the 21st century or addressing our contemporary issues. This discovery about the Arab world helped me to understand why the Arab world is now a static entity and not developing.
A world less divided: a new agenda for cultural engagements
To break down the barriers that separate and divide the contemporary world, there is an urgent need to establish and develop this new agenda for cultural engagement through education in both the west and the Arab and Muslim world. Although I was successful in setting the new agenda for cultural engagement in Scotland and the UK at both academic and communities levels through the establishment of Al-Maktoum Institute in Scotland (2000 – 2007), we urgently need to establish this new agenda in cultural engagement in the Muslim world. Through the Institute in Scotland, we have done everything possible to encourage a two way traffic in developing cultural engagement, in particular through serving the local, national, and international communities, and by forging international academic links, scholarship and collaborations with sixteen of the world's leading Universities in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Gulf States, and South East Asia, BUT this is not enough.
At this stage of setting the new agenda in cultural engagements, it is time to establish a similar institute in the Muslim world which will hopefully complete the circle of laying the foundation for the new agenda for cultural engagement. Indeed, to ensure really successful cultural engagement, it should be well established and accepted by all the peoples in the world including China, Japan and Africa BUT at least at this stage by both the Western and Muslim worlds. Setting this new agenda in the Muslim world will be at the top of my priorities in the coming years.
I am looking forward to continue working with colleagues in both western and Muslim worlds to face the challenges and opportunities of the twenty first century.
The leading humanities and social sciences research center in Yemen
As a scholar and leader who established several academic projects nearly from scratch, I enjoy innovative, creative, and challenging big ideas. As a person and a professional, I am very passionate about progressive education, research and community welfare. One of my central arguments is that, to improve the quality of life in a country and to transfer that country into a knowledge-based society, the leaders of that country need to work with scholars to provide world-class educational opportunities for its citizens.
My vision is to establish a leading research centre in Yemen for excellence in humanities and social sciences. To achieve this vision, my strategic plan for the Centre is to seriously contribute to the development of an academic-knowledge environment which encourage research and preparing young human capital in the field of humanities and social sciences which will be capable to contribute to human development in Yemen. One of the central aims of the Centre is to contribute to develop and foster a research culture in Yemen, advance knowledge by supporting original competitively selected research, and to encourage research-based education in the whole of the Country.
Accordingly, the Center will not be for the University only but for the whole of Yemen. The Center will serve the country and its establishments, the Yemeni scholars, researchers and postgraduate students; and the serious research centers in Yemen, which are seriously in addressing the need of the Country. In addition, we will be working with decision makers in Yemen, and all who concern to support the human development in Yemen through research activities.
We are planning a serious of research activities during the first establishing year of the Centre. The aim of these activities is to help build and develop young human capital in Yemen, connect Yemen to the international research community, raise its visibility, and offer additional mentors and inspiration to researchers in Yemen.
Al-Maktoum Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies
Al-Maktoum Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies was my latest project that I developed in the last seven years (2000 – 2007) in the UK is a new and exciting development in teaching and research in the Study of Islam and Muslims in Scotland. Indeed the Institute is a distinctive and unique development in British higher education and Scotland's first academic institute of its kind. This experience of unique development of innovation in cultural engagement at academic and communities levels has been documented in one of my recent publication Setting the New Agenda for Cultural Engagement. As a historian as well as the Founding Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the Institute, it was my honor to write and document this distinguished history of achievements and contributions for our time and for the coming generations to prove that there is nothing impossible in this life.
The Institute was founded in October 2000, and in January 2001 I was appointed as the Founding Principal and Vice-Chancellor. I was aware of the big challenges ahead of me in establishing the Institute. In simple terms, I knew my task was not only to set up a new institute of higher education from scratch but to build, lead and develop the newborn Institute from the start right through to its successful establishment and day-to-day running.
In the last seven years (2000-2007), I have successfully established a leading distinctive national and international centre of academic excellence for developing teaching and research in the Study of Islam and Muslims of the highest standard. This is based on critical and analytical debate in which better understanding of Islam and Muslims can be developed – both for Muslims and non-Muslims – in an environment focused on a common sense of purpose and belonging. I feel proud that the Institute is playing a unique and key role in setting the new agenda in cultural engagement and shaping and developing teaching and research in the Study of Islam and Muslim at university level in the UK and internationally. Indeed, the Institute now is a unique seat of learning and research-led institution of higher education, which offers postgraduate programs of study (validated by the University of Aberdeen).
The Institute takes great pride in the continual growing success of our Master and PhD students. With the 14 graduates in 2006 (7 with PhDs), this brings the total of PhD and Masters Graduates to 54. Indeed, as the Founding Principal and Vice-Chancellor, I feel very proud that we have now a community of 54 graduates working across the globe at several levels. I am absolutely delighted that we the Institute is playing its part in educating the new generation of scholars who will take that message of cultural engagement and multiculturalism out into the wider world, and will go out into the world of work ready to challenge the old ways of thinking, teaching and learning.
Islam and Muslim studies
I am proud to be one of the key leading scholars behind the development, implementation, and dissemination of this new innovative agenda in the Study of Islam and Muslims. Which defined the field as Post-Orientalist, Post-Traditionalist, Multicultural, and Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary in its methodology as well as its theoretical framework. The aim of this unique new agenda is to challenge and develop current teaching and scholarship, recognizing that this is a time for change in Islamic Studies. There must be better education at university level on Islam and Muslims in today's world which reflects the needs of our contemporary multicultural society. The agenda has been developed to bring scholars together from all backgrounds, based on a principle of mutual respect, in order to develop a common intellectual goal in the field of the Study of Islam and Muslims.
Indeed, there is an urgent need for a new agenda to develop Islamic Studies into the Study of Islam and Muslims to challenge both the more traditional approaches that were often faith based and excluded non-Muslims and the orientalist approaches that often alienated Muslims. Indeed, the call for a new agenda is truly timely and necessary, particularly to prevent the misguided and narrow interpretation of Islam which is the source of so many problems in many societies. It is only through multicultural education that we can work to eliminate extremism and fundamentalism.
For me, the Study of Islam and Muslims is a field which should include a number of disciplines and approaches, looking both at the religion of Islam and also Muslims in particular social and historical contexts within a number of different methodologies, e.g. political sciences, history, geography, anthropology, and Islamic Studies. The aim is to gain understanding of a broad range of issues relating to the study of Islam and Muslims, looking at the field in many different ways, and in many global contexts, spanning a variety of disciplines and methodologies; and distinct from traditional approaches where the focus has been to study Islam and Muslims from just one limited perspective. My philosophy is to offer interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary training in the Study of Islam and Muslims within a number of different methodologies, eg., history, political sciences, geography, as well as traditional areas in Islamic Studies.
'Islamicjerusalem' is a new terminology for a new concept, which may be translated into the Arabic language as Bayt al-Maqdis. It can be fairly and eventually characterized and defined as a unique region laden with a rich historical background, religious significances, cultural attachments, competing political and religious claims, international interests and various aspects that affect the rest of the world in both historical and contemporary contexts. It has a central frame of reference and a vital nature with three principal intertwined elements: its geographical location (land and boundaries), its people (population), and its unique and creative inclusive vision, to administrate that land and its people, as a model for multiculturalism.
'Islamicjerusalem' Studies is an intellectually exciting and stimulating new field of inquiry that seeks to understand the region of Islamicjerusalem from an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary perspective. The field explores the historical and theoretical framework within which Muslims approach 'Islamicjerusalem', as well as examining the ways in which the region has been manifest in particular historical and social contexts. The approach consists of social, religious, historical, geographical and political perspectives on Islamicjerusalem with in-depth studies and critical analyses of particular aspects and approaches. In particular, 'Islamicjerusalem' Studies addresses the key social, religious, historical, geographical, and political aspects of Islamicjerusalem from the time of the rise of Islam to the present day, and how can the region be understood within the context of the relationship between the land, the people, and the vision of Islamicjerusalem as a model for multiculturalism.
It was founded in the UK in 1994. It is working towards educating the next generation of scholars, both nationally and internationally, and addressing the needs of our societies by investing in human capital through preparing and developing an international core academic team of young graduates, as specialists in the field, who meet the international standard. It has published an academic referred journal Journal of 'Islamicjerusalem' Studies in both English and Arabic languages, since 1997; and holds an 'Annual International Academic Conference on 'Islamicjerusalem' Studies' in the UK since 1997 (the forthcoming conference is the tenth conference which will be held on 4 February 2008). To institutionalize this new field in the UK: the post of 'Chair in 'Islamicjerusalem' Studies' was created in 2001, the research centre 'Centre for 'Islamicjerusalem' Studies' was established in 2002, taught and research postgraduate programs which lead to MLitt and PhD degrees from the University of Aberdeen were founded. A number of monographs have been published in this field, including the groundbreaking monograph Introducing 'Islamicjerusalem' which was launched in three countries.
The way to the future
In the last seven years, my main focus has been to set the new agenda for cultural engagements to generate an atmosphere in which a constructive dialogue can take place rather than a clash. I firmly believe that through education as the key means to defeat religious and secular fundamentalism and extremism, we will contribute to achieve a common ground and space, mutual understanding and respect, and peaceful co-existence between and within people, nations, religions, and cultures. I recognise that not everyone will agree with this vision, and I do not pretend to have all the answers, but at least I am putting forward some ideas on how to improve understanding between people of different religions and cultures.
For my part, I have been doing all I can to promote cultural engagements that will see people acknowledging and respecting their differences but willing to share a common ground and space, living and working together in a peaceful co-existence.
One of my central aims has been to promote a greater understanding of different religions, and cultures in a multicultural context, for the benefit of the wider community, and to build bridges between the Muslim and Western worlds of learning at this crucial time.
The issue of multiculturalism is also firmly at the heart of my work. This includes, for example, the creation of a professorial chair in multiculturalism. We were the first higher educational institution in the UK to create such a post, currently held by Professor Malory Nye. The chair was created in response to the dire need to engage in a more serious and structured way in research and teaching in multiculturalism. We also established 'The Centre for Research on Multiculturalism and Islam and Muslims in Scotland', which aims to contribute to the development of awareness of multicultural Scotland.