British Muslims seeking to integrate their religion with their Western lives often struggle to find religious leaders with cultural knowledge and understanding of their host country since the vast majority study in seminaries abroad, often in less liberal Muslim and Arab countries, and lack practical training.
Drugs, mental illness, minority law and running a mosque are pressing issues for Europe's modern-day imams, or clerics, who often fail to strike a chord with young congregants.
"There are plenty of young British Muslims studying all over the Muslim world and what they don’t learn in those places is how to relate their traditional wisdom to the reality on the streets in the city of Britain,” Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, also known as Timothy J. Winter, told AlArabiya.net.
Murad, a British convert, has founded a new college that offers an approach to teaching Islam tailored for Europe’s Muslims in hopes of bridging the gulf.
The latest in a series of similar European initiatives, the Cambridge Muslim College (CMC) is the first U.K. program that gives British imams and graduates from traditional Islamic madrassas, or schools, training in the practical application of Islamic knowledge.
More than 90 percent of Britain’s imams are born and trained abroad according to a 2008 Quilliam poll. Those with degrees in traditional Islamic science often lack the cultural skills needed to apply what they know in a British context, said Murad.
But of Britain’s 2.4 million Muslims, more than 50 percent are under 25 and are more likely to call the U.K. home than the Muslim countries from where their parents emigrated.
“What Muslims acknowledge, whether traditionalists or modernists, is that most of ulemaa (scholars) in the west really need to know what the modern world is,” he added.
Model for change
Murad stressed the college's open policy to students with different Islamic backgrounds.
"We take people from all points of view, schools of thought and give them the ability to make informed comparisons between traditional Islamic society and learning and the realities of the modern world so that they can make an informed choice about how they can integrate the two," said Murad.
The school is set to open in October with an initial class of 15, all of them born or raised in Europe. During the one-year program they will take 18 courses and emerge with a nationally-recognized Certificate of Higher Education.
Their courses include Islamic counselling and dispute resolution, which focuses on drug use, conflict and mental illness in Muslim youth and one on U.K. law and government with an emphasis on minority groups. Courses on British Islam and religious pluralism explore European Muslim identities and the history of multi-religious and multi-cultural societies in Islam.
We are giving them the cultural ability to apply what they know to the modern western context in which they live
Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, CMC
“We are giving them the cultural ability to apply what they know to the modern western context in which they live,” explained Murad.
With a generation of young Muslim leaders able to communicate with civil society and government, Murad said the Muslim community would be better able to tackle social exclusion and discrimination.
The school hopes its approach to teaching Islamic science within the context of modern European culture and society will provide a model for other institutions seeking to integrate traditional learning with modern-day challenges.
Students also take practical courses on how to run a mosque, work with youth and tackle problems like domestic violence, divorce and forced marriage. Islamic sciences are offered side by side with courses on astronomy, cosmology, information technology, environmental studies and their relation to religion.
If there is going to be a real tajdeed (renewal) in Islamic thought in this age, then you need to have leaders with a wide range of fields who can really speak with confidence
Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, CMC
“Cambridge is a good place to do that because you have the advantage of getting the best scholars in the world to walk over to CMC building to teach,” said Murad adding that the college’s vision is to launch a full Bachelor of Arts program in Islamic studies.
Murad stressed that the diploma’s curriculum does not interfere with traditional Islamic learning but seeks to teach Muslim graduates how to handle issues of the modern world that they have not studied properly at traditional Islamic institutions.
“The point of the diploma is not to teach Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) for instance, as these are things the students admitted must already know,” he added.
“If there is going to be a real tajdeed (renewal) in Islamic thought in this age, then you need to have leaders with a wide range of fields who can really speak with confidence. They need to have traditional Islamic knowledge and a good grasp of how it can be applied to deal with daily issues relevant to Muslim communities,” said Murad.
The missing link
Around 20 Muslim colleges already exist in the U.K., with about 300 students graduating annually with degrees in traditional Islamic sciences.
But the curricula at such colleges rarely provide students with sufficient training on how to be effective leaders in a modern mosque or address everyday issues like drug use among Muslim youth, gender dynamics and social alienation.
There are also a growing number of similar initiatives in Europe. The experimental new Buhara Institute in Berlin, for example, teaches Arabic language and Muslim theology alongside classes in German and civics. In France, an imam college founded in 2004 similarly aims to encourage its students to participate in the social and cultural life of their host society.
The problem from Muslims in U.K. is that they go to madrassas and marakiz to get a very good level of Arabic and Islamic knowledge but they end up with no qualifications that a regular university would recognize
James Abdal Aziz Brown, CMC
What sets the college apart is that it offers students a diploma that is accredited by mainstream British universities so that degrees from Islamic institutions can be transferable to other mainstream universities.
“The problem from Muslims in U.K. is that they go to madrassas and marakiz to get a very good level of Arabic and Islamic knowledge but they end up with no qualifications that a regular university would recognize,” James Abdal Aziz Brown, executive assistant at CMC, told AlArabiya.net.
“Universities do not care if you have excellent tajweed (Quranic recitation) and a grip on usul al fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) so a graduate has to start again and get high school qualifications to get into university,” said Brown. “It is a bridging program and that is one aspect other Muslim colleges don’t do.”
*To see a video of Murad's (Winter's) talk on Islam and the West visit