A developing Islamic University in Rotterdam

By Jan Felix Engelhardt

Tural Koç is feeling rather pleased with himself. The administrative head of the Islamic University of Rotterdam (IUR) has just taken a major step towards gaining state approval for his university. Following close consideration of content and formal requirements, the Dutch accreditation authority has now granted official recognition to the first IUR course.

Students taking the Masters programme in “Islamic Spiritual Counselling” are now able to qualify with a state-recognised degree. This, Koç believes, shows that the university is well on its way to fulfilling its aim of creating a Muslim academic elite in the Netherlands.

It is a goal that the Islamic University has been pursuing since taking up residence in the centre of Rotterdam in 2003. Its close proximity to a Reformed church and a Catholic church is a reminder that educational, health and social institutions were traditionally organised according to confession in the Netherlands.

“We are working on integrating a Muslim element into the Dutch social structure,” explains Koç. The IUR is intended as part of this process. And whether or not the school can be part of the process in the long term depends very much on official recognition.

In order to achieve this, those involved with the Islamic University are pulling out all the stops in their interactions with other institutions dealing with integration issues. Together, they organise events to promote interfaith dialogue, celebrate the end of Ramadan, arrange conferences on tolerance in Islam and maintain close contact with representatives from churches and the government. The motivating force behind all of this action is university principal Professor Ahmed Akgündüz. The 55-year-old who has taught in both Turkish and American universities in the field of Islamic law is an influential figure whose views carry considerable weight.

The IUR is intended to be a university that is run by Muslims and for Muslims. Founded in 1997, it currently has around 200 students. The courses, taught in Dutch and Arabic, include Islamic theology, Islamic arts, Muslim spiritual counselling, Arabic, law, the history of Islam and comparative religion.

In addition to housing a library that includes an extensive collection of classical works on Islamic theology and law, the university also has a small studio where calligraphy and ebru, the Turkish art of paper marbling, are taught.

Students who want to study Islamic theology or spiritual counselling in the Netherlands are not entirely dependent on the IUR. The universities of Utrecht, Amsterdam, Den Haag and Leiden all offer the same courses with an official degree and the kind of financial support that every student attending state university in the country receives. And the teachers in these universities have academic qualifications, whereas their counterparts at the Islamic University tend not to.

Recognised degrees, financial support and high academic quality are three factors where the Islamic University is struggling to compete with the state universities. Nevertheless, the IUR believes that it has an advantage. According to Akgündüz, “Islamic theology, art and spiritual counselling are best taught by Muslims.” In contrast to the state universities, only the IUR is a genuine Muslim institution where members of various Islamic schools of thought from all over the world come together.

The university’s teaching and student body reflect the great diversity and variety of interpretations of Islam. These diverse religious convictions are thrown together at the IUR when, for example, students whose parents are from Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia or Pakistan find themselves discussing questions of religious practice with teachers from, say, Egypt or Syria.

Questions cover areas such as, should Muslim shop assistants in the Netherlands have to sell pork or alcohol? The answer? Yes, according to the majority vote, because it goes with the job. And what about the position Dutch Muslims should adopt with regard to homosexuality? The general consensus is that they need not approve of it but they must accept it.

The IUR can provide Muslims in the Netherlands with an institution where their religious positions on such questions can be developed, believes Nico Landman, a researcher and teacher in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Utrecht. “The diversity of the teachers and students makes the IUR a space for internal Islamic discourse,” says the academic. It has a “positive, constructive role” to play in multicultural Netherlands.


* Jan Felix Engelhardt is a freelance writer. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de. The full text can be found at www.qantara.de.