Studying Islam at a university level means many things. ”Firstly, it is about gaining a deeper understanding of the Koran and the Islamic texts, many of which are from the classical period,” says Mehmet Ozalp, an adjunct lecturer of Australia’s first master of Islamic studies qualification through Charles Sturt University.
”This course aims to help students understand this in the context of the contemporary world without changing Islam itself.
”Secondly, it is about students thinking more deeply and developing a unique contemporary Australian perspective – understanding the context of Islam so religion makes a positive difference.”
The master of Islamic studies degree already seems to have struck a chord with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. There are 42 students enrolled in the part-time postgraduate course, which is only in its second semester.
”We are pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest we have had,” says Ozalp, who is also president of the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy of Australia, which has been working with CSU to develop the curriculum.
”Our vision is to provide high-grade education within the faith of Islam at the university level and to [enable students to] achieve a university qualification so they don’t have to go overseas to study.”
Ozalp says the course is broken into several core dimensions: classical Islamic sciences (the Koran and prophetic narrations, Islamic history and law, legal history and the study of Arabic); contemporary religion (including modern issues, such as globalization and jihad); and human beings and society (the fundamentals of philosophy, sociology and human improvement).
”We believe this gives it a nice balance,” he says. ”On the one hand, we are staying true to the Islamic tradition but in the Australian context and within the CSU framework and standards.
”It is hoped that students will gain a deeper knowledge to help them understand contemporary issues and then deal with them in an effective and constructive manner.”
A lecturer at Monash University’s School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Salih Yucel, was on the advisory committee for the CSU course. He says the qualification has strong support from the local Muslim community and thinks it is important for Australia.
”Being in Australia since 1987, it is my personal observation and experience that there is a need for an Islamic studies program in an academic environment,” he says.
”It will give an opportunity to the second- and third-generation Muslims to learn Islam from relevant and academic sources.”
As a graduate of one of the leading schools of divinity in Turkey, he says the programs and curriculum overseas do not fully address the needs of the second and third generation of Australian Muslims.
”Although theologically they are very similar in terms of articles of faith and pillars of Islam, Islam culturally is categorized by the anthropologists as Middle Eastern Islam, central-Asian Islam, Indo-Pakistani Islam, African Islam, south-Asian Islam, Anatolia-Balkan Islam and European Islam,” he says.
”The Charles Stuart University master of Islamic studies program focuses on common grounds with European Islam.”
He says that after September 11, 2001, ”there has been a great demand by non-Muslims around the world and Muslims who live as a minority to learn about Islam, especially in the Western countries”.
”News [public information] related to Islam and Muslims gives a poor representation of Muslims, leading to misunderstanding,” he says.
”This program will contribute to understanding. Moreover, it is an academic gap. Why shouldn’t there be academic study about the religion with the second-largest group of adherents?”
The course has drawn students from diverse backgrounds.
”There are 19 different ethnic backgrounds [in the course], including Lebanese, Turkish, Afghan, Egyptian and Syrian, most of whom were born in Australia,” Ozalp says.
”Our students are 55 per cent female and 45 per cent male. Most of them are doing this on the side, supplementary to their careers or another course of study.
”There are a number of psychology students, lawyers, doctors and nurses, teachers and police officers; they all deal with Islamic-related matters in their fields.
”There are also a few Islamic religious educators and non-Muslim students, as well as people who are doing it for the love of learning.”
In terms of career enhancement, Ozalp says the master of Islamic studies degree will help students in their existing professions do their jobs better.
”They can also go on to study to become academics, teachers in schools and maybe one day we will have home-grown imams,” he says.
”We want this course to be representative of the community and to be inclusive of the community as much as possible.”