How does one approach establishing higher Islamic learning in Western countries and Australia? The challenge stands before us – on one hand, there is the obvious inclusion of the vast array of classical Islamic sciences and disciplines; on the other, there are inconspicuous contemporary needs and academic standards. This challenge is precisely what we set out to address in the last six years of continually improving our course design for the Islamic Studies programme at ISRA and Charles Sturt University.

Since the tenth century, madrasas have been the primary education providers in the Muslim world. Ever since the introduction of Western-influenced educational institutions in the nineteenth century, there has been a chasm between madrasa and university educational approaches, not only in the study of Islam but educational approach in general. The result was the fragmentation of Muslim countries into two segments that had dramatically different visions for society. The problems facing Muslim societies could be traced to this chasm in education that has continued to widen for the last 200 years.

Even though madrasas and their influences have diminished in the twentieth century, they have survived in their traditional form in many Muslim countries. Islamic higher education in Australia and the West has also gravitated towards madrasa-style traditional education, mainly due to its low cost, being offered through mosques unencumbered by regulation, and esteem held about the sheikhs and the institution in Muslim religious circles.

Madrasa-style education is characterised by a study of traditional Islamic sciences, including tafsīr (exegesis), the Qur’an, hadīth (Prophetic traditions), fiqh (Islamic law) and usulī (foundational methodology) disciplines, along with Arabic and logic. The advantages of this style of education are: it focuses on usulī or method-based disciplines; it places greater emphasis on Arabic and therefore allows access to primary sources and classical texts; and the thorough coverage and memorisation of the Qur’an and hadith literature.

Madrasa-style education, nevertheless, has its disadvantages that are particularly accentuated in the Western context. Shortcomings include: limited curriculum constituting only classical disciplines; lack of or poorly designed assessments; over-emphasis on information recollection and memorisation; and limited focus on research skills and critical thinking.

Madrasas also fall outside the structured and formal educational system and their quality assurance processes; therefore, there is no acknowledgement by way of qualifications, accreditation or awards for students. Consequently, while madrasa-style Islamic education gives an excellent grounding in tradition, graduands are usually not prepared well for the societies in which they live nor is there formal acknowledgement of their efforts and standard of education.

Although Islamic studies programmes offered at Western universities provided a contemporary approach and rigour of academic standards, a brief examination reveal shortcomings here also. For the last few centuries, university departments dedicated to Middle Eastern and Near Eastern languages and civilisations often housed Islamic studies. These were historically dominated by Orientalist approaches and non-Muslim academics who did not share Muslim sensitivities and priorities.

Further, the courses offered often exhibited an exaggerated emphasis on culture and politics, rather than Islam as a faith tradition. As a result, Muslims generally did not trust courses on Islam offered through Western universities and students often felt frustrated at their lecturer’s lack of knowledge of Islam and lack of depth in how Islam is understood and practiced by Muslims.

Hence, it seemed reasonable that, rather than picking one or the other, there was a need to bridge the chasm between the madrasa and university styles of education to provide a comprehensive, integrated and balanced course profile for students of Islam. It was with this specific intent that ISRA partnered with Charles Sturt University to establish CISAC (Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation) and design new bachelors and masters courses in Islam.

CISAC’s Islamic Studies course design constituted three core components: classical Islamic sciences; contemporary academic liberal arts; and human development and leadership. The combination of these three components ensured balance between traditional and contemporary disciplines as well as setting a platform for encouraging desired graduate attributes of grounding in the tradition of Islam, being relevant for the society in which we live and prepare ourselves to address deeply rooted issues affecting all humanity.

Added to this is our approach to knowledge: Qur’an, Sunnah and authentic historical reports as well as the knowledge of the universe and natural world are essential sources. Human reason is the critical instrument that seeks correlation between the revealed sources and creation to correctly understand both.

The Muslim world and Muslims in Australia need men and women who have acquired a balanced higher education of grounding in core Islamic sciences, a deep familiarity with the contemporary world and human reality, and a competence in academic and liberal arts offered by universities.