Duke University Asian & Middle Eastern studies professor Mbayo Lo and University of Botswana theologian Muhammed Haron (a South African native) are the editors of a new book “Muslim Institutions of Higher Education in Postcolonial Africa” — published by Palgrave, Fall 2015.

The book’s authors include: Adnan A. Adikata (Islamic University in Uganda, Kampala, Uganda); Abdulmageed Ahmed (International University of Africa, Sudan); Chanfi Ahmed (Zentrum Moderner Orient, Germany); Ismail S. Gyagenda (Mercer University, Georgia); Moshood Mahmood Jimba (Kwara State University, Nigeria); Mamadou-Youry Sall  (Université Gaston Berger, Senegal); Hamza Mustafa Njozi, (Muslim University of Morogoro, Tanzania); Wardah M. Rajab-Gyagenda (Islamic University in Uganda); Ahmad K. Sengendo (Islamic University in Uganda); Adam Adebayo (Kogi State University, Nigeria); Alexander Thurston (Georgetown University); Adam Yousef Mousa (Republic of Chad); Roman Loimeier (University of Göttingen, Germany); Ousman Kobo (The Ohio State University).

The anthology, which grew out of *a workshop hosted by the Duke Islamic Studies Center in Fall 2013 on “Islamic Institutions of Higher Learning in Africa: Their History, Mission and Role in Regional Development,” examines, through case studies, the colonial discriminatory practices against Muslim education, and discusses the Islamic reform movement of the post-colonial experience.  (In the case of this book, Muslim institutions of higher learning refers to Islamic education at the university level.)

Haron wrote, in an essay published about the Duke workshop that brought together scholars and administrators: “Many Muslim institutions of higher learning have emerged on the African continent over the past few decades. These institutions have in one way or another made their contributions towards the societies and environments where they are situated. Despite the noble objectives of some that were set up, the objectives often have been unrealized as a result of a lack of financial and other resources. There have, however, been other institutions that have flourished and made invaluable inputs to their respective communities.”

In this written Q & A with ISLAMiCommentary, Professor Lo talks about the findings and conclusions of their book.

Which Muslim institutions of higher learning, as defined in your book, have flourished in post-colonial Africa? And to what do you attribute this?

Our primary goal was to study the phenomenon of these emerging universities across Africa. Little attention has been paid to the proliferation of Muslim institutions of higher learning (Islamic or Muslim universities and colleges) that have emerged recently across sub-Saharan Africa. Although there is a long tradition of Islamic scholarship in West Africa, the emerging Islamic universities and colleges have been established in countries as diverse as Ivory Coast, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa, and most of these institutions have been established in the last two decades: The Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU), established in 1988; King Faisal University, Chad, established in 1991; Mussa bin Bik Islamic University (UMBB), Mozambique, established in 1998; and the Muslim University of Morogoro, Tanzania, established in 2004. In South Africa, Islamic colleges of higher learning have emerged under the Darul Uloom umbrella and trace their roots to the global network of the Indian-based Deobandi Islamic revival network.

We have learned that these institutions are rapidly growing. Writing for The Chronicle of Higher  Education in 2007, Megan Lindow identified 17 Islamic universities located in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2012, professor Ousmane Kane of Harvard University had recognized 30 Islamic colleges and universities, while professor Hassan Mekki, the former Rector of the International University of Africa in Khartoum (2012) and I (2012) have identified 32 Islamic universities and colleges in the sub-African region. Interestingly, before the 1980s, the only known Islamic university in the sub-Saharan region was Omdurman Islamic University in Sudan, which was founded in 1901 and formally became an institution in 1912.

Which Muslim institutions of higher learning in Africa have not been so successful? Why?

In our study, we were primarily concerned with the history and factors that have contributed to the development and growth of these institutions in Africa. We trace the rise of Islamic institutions of higher learning in Africa, looking at their history, location and mission as well as at their contributions to the discourse of knowledge production and education reform in the region. Little research has been done on the historical background of these institutions, the politics of Islamic learning within countries and across borders, the subject content and language(s) of instruction, or the role of the graduates in society. Furthermore, if recent scholarship has highlighted the urgency of knowledge production in Africa’s education reform, then to what extent are these Islamic institutions contributing in knowledge production? And what kind of knowledge is been produced?

Generally speaking these institutions are providing much needed education and training to many Africans. For example, in terms of enrollment, there were about 8, 000 enrolled students at the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) in 2014, about 9,000 students enrolled at International University of Africa in 2014, and 1500 students enrolled at the Islamic University of Say in Niger in the same year.

In terms of content offered, there are schools of medicine and engineering at the International University of Africa in Khartoum and at the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU), in addition to flourishing schools in the humanities and sciences.

IUIU is often cited as a successful model of Muslim higher education institute in Africa. It is offering a much-needed human development training to many administrators of the ‘failed’ nation-state of Somalia.

I also learned, in a visit to Sudan, that the International University of Africa in Khartoum is the first educator of Somali citizens on a global level. IUA is providing much needed medical training to Somali students in the absence of a functioning education system in Somalia. Based on my personal observation and field visit, The Islamic University of Niger is Say is facing major challenges due to geographical location, limited resources and the absence of a clear long-term vision. Obviously, measures of success and failure in education are not static, they evolve according to many internal and external factors. Our study sought to provide a broader historical and contextual framework that could help improve educational delivery in these institutions.

Who are the stakeholders and investors in Muslim institutions of higher learning in Africa? Are these institutions publicly or privately funded or a combination of both?

The stakeholders are the citizens and residents of these countries. But here history matters, and the context through which these institutions developed are very telling and informative for future studies.

These institutions have emerged in response to three historic trends: 1) the continuing vitality of traditional indigenous Muslim educational systems, which have continued to produce students literate in Arabic and well-versed in the Islamic religious sciences; 2) the negative perception attached to programs of Arabic and Islamic Studies within African national universities as being narrowly defined and poorly resourced; and 3) the proliferation of Islamic institutions of higher learning that have been sponsored by governments and Muslim umbrella organizations in the Persian Gulf since the Islamic Revival in the mid-1980s. Institutions that belong to the third trend represent the majority of the pool and are mostly funded through a combination of private and public funds.

How do these institutions fit into the educational systems of their respective countries? Do they educate most of the population or just some of the population?  Are they gaining in popularity?

They only educate some of the population. This is not unique to Islamic/Muslim institutions of higher learning. IMF Structural Adjustment in the 1980s was devastating to Africa’s academic institutions. Restrictive IMF policies on government funding were largely directed at curtailing public funding of education. The result was obvious: universities and colleges were created or funded through privatization and globalization. Good education was privatized, while most public universities and colleges were deprived of funding, talent and resources. Muslim institutions of higher learning developed within this competitive background, where a good product was also important and valuable to both parents and students. We have seen many solid cases in Uganda and Nigeria where stakeholders of these Muslim institutions prioritize cutting-edge training in social sciences and the humanities for their students, which make them very appealing to both non-Muslims and Muslim students.

What do Muslim institutions of higher learning have in common with their non-Muslim peer institutions and what makes them different ?

Africa is not a monolithic place: it is rich and diverse in terms of cultures, resources and political orientations. These differences play out in all aspects of life including educational institutions.

The collected data in this study is not fully representative of all Islamic institutions of higher learning in the region. Countries with limited political support for  independent Muslim education systems, such as Ivory Coast and Kenya, have not been adequately represented in this study. Additionally, a mapping of the many Islamic intuitions led by minority groups such as the Ahmadiyya and the Shia is also missing. Ground- breaking work on the education of Muslims from minority groups in Southern Sudan, for example, is also much needed.

Therefore we cannot yet make a general assessment of similarities and differences. More data and case studies are needed before such implications can be postulated. However, we can see some trends , including how Islamic institutions of higher learning in minority Muslim countries such as Uganda and Mozambique are required to admit both Muslim and non-Muslim students, while Islamic institutions of higher learning in Muslim majority countries such as Niger appear to be more restrictive in their admission policies of non-Muslims.

What are the main conclusions of the book and what questions that you posed at the beginning of the project remain unanswered?

Due to the limited access and lack of information about these institutions, little research has been carried out on the accomplishments and shortcomings of these newly established institutions. We were not looking to answer specific questions as much as we were eager to raise more questions about these institutions. It is my belief that for this rapidly developing phenomenon, questions are not less important that answers. I deem this value as crucial in the global conversation about Islam.

Good answers can come from unexpected questions. We might see or think about alternative approaches to problem solving beyond our current conceptual world. This approach, for example, is urgently needed in the current impasse in global conversations on Islam.

In this work, some major questions remain to be answered: What role do these institutions play in research, curricular reform, creativity or economic development? What role does Islamic transnationalism play in the formation and administration of these institutions? To what extent do these institutions represent continuity or change within Muslim traditional scholasticism and history in Africa? What economic and social roles do graduates of Islamic universities and colleges fill in society?

These institutions are mostly playing a mediating role within society. They are sites of ongoing discourse, where religious traditions and practices are debated, reviewed, and changed in  response to the local or national context and to the educational regime of the particular society. Additionally, in a world where Islam is contested by globalized neoliberalism and militant secularism (the French model), and Muslims are often categorized into “good ones” and “bad ones,” Islamic institutions have the potential to educate Muslims and other communities about the true teachings of Islam as well as contesting false and incorrect appropriation of Islamic norms. Therefore, these institutions could help students gain an honest and transparent understanding of their own tradition in order to address challenges posed by a rapidly changing world.

What is your target audience for the book?

The target audience includes students of transnational Islam or Muslim networks; scholars with an interest in Islamic studies; scholars with an interest in globalized Islam; scholars and students of education in Africa and students of African Studies.


Mbaye Lo
Mbaye Lo

Mbaye Bashir Lo teaches at Duke University in the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and is core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center.  He was a visiting scholar at l’Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman (IISMM) & Institut des Mondes Africains (IMAF) at EHESS, Paris during the 2016 Spring semester, and is currently finishing a book on “Justice Versus Freedom: the Problem with Militant Islam.”

*The Duke Islamic Studies Center’s support of the workshop that made this book possible, was made possible through its Transcultural Islam Project grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Other sponsors included the International Institute of Islamic Thought  (headquartered in Virginia); The Africa Initiative (Duke); Asian & Middle Eastern Studies (Duke); African & Afro-American Studies (Duke); Duke History Department; Duke Religion Department; Center for Muslim Life (Duke); Franklin Humanities Institute (Duke), Duke Center for International Development; The Kenan Institute for Ethics; Duke Divinity School; and Duke University Center for International Studies.)

Click here for the write-up on the workshop, and here for an essay by one of the book authors on the challenges faced by scholars teaching in Nigeria.


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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