Africa in Malaysia: A Visit to Kuala Lumpur (Habari no. 1, 2012)

By Benjamin Soares

In July 2011, I traveled to Malaysia to attend an international conference on Islam in Africa organized by the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). The conference was held at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) at IIUM in Kuala Lumpur. The IIUM was founded in 1983, apparently under the patronage of the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed with support from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). With English as the language of instruction, the IIUM has attracted students and staff from across the world. Former staff members include Ahmet Davuto─člu, the current Turkish foreign minister, and Amina Wudud, the American Muslim feminist scholar who controversially delivered the Friday sermon in the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town and later prayers as imam for both men and women in New York. Launched by Mahathir Mohamed in 1991, ISTAC has become an important center for Islamic higher education and the study of “Islamic thought.” ISTAC’s current dean is Sudanese historian, Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim, known for his work on neo-Mahdism.

Before going to Malaysia, I had anticipated that this might be a good opportunity to learn about some of the developing connections between Africa and Asia and particularly those between African and Asian Muslims about which researchers still know very little. When I had visited Indonesia in 2003, I had heard about a handful of Africans who had studied and/or had taught in various Indonesian universities. At the time, several Indonesians told me that there were many African Muslims studying in Kuala Lumpur.

During my brief visit to KL, I, indeed, met many African students, as well as African staff members of IIUM and other Malaysian universities, and I was able to get some sense of the growing importance of African-Malaysian connections. Sudanese staff at IIUM told me that at one point there were as many as 50 Sudanese staff at the university. There are apparently fewer Sudanese staff members today. Nevertheless, Sudanese academics hold key positions at the university. Sudanese historian, Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk, the Islam in Africa conference’s main organizer, heads the university’s International Institute for Muslim Unity, and there are senior Sudanese staff members teaching law, literature, anthropology, and in other fields. There are also staff members from Nigeria, Mauritania, and elsewhere in West Africa at the IIUM. Although I met students from across the African continent (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana,

Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, etc.) at the IIUM, many people told me that the greatest number of African students come from Nigeria. Although many Nigerians from the southwestern part of the country attended the conference, most Nigerians agreed that northerners were the largest group of Nigerians studying at the IIUM. Many of the African students I encountered were studying Islamic studies. But many others were studying in such fields as comparative law, banking and finance, and computer science. A few explained how they had studied earlier in the Arab world but they much preferred to continue their studies in Malaysia for two reasons:

first, the lack of racism in comparison with the Arab world; and second, the use of the English language for instruction would afford them an opportunity to gain proficiency in English.

The actual conference on Islam in Africa lasted three days. On the whole, it was quite interesting with more than 50 papers, albeit of uneven quality, which were presented. Keynote speakers included Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former prime minister of Sudan. Approximately one-third of the presentations were in Arabic, and for most sessions there was simultaneous translation between English and Arabic. Many of the paper presenters seemed not accustomed to presenting academic papers, and there was frequently (though not always) a lack of critical distance from the object of study and analysis—usually Islam in a particular setting in Africa. That said, there were a few original and engaging papers on such topics as Islamic education, the first translation of the Quran into an African language by a Christian missionary in Nigeria, and a comparison of Timbuktu with an Islamic religious center in Thailand.

While in KL, I was also able to visit some other Malaysian institutes that focus on Islam. I had received an invitation to speak about Islam in Africa at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) (http://www.iais.org.my/en/). Founded in 2008 this institute has apparently sought to promote former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's ideas about Islam, modernity, good governance, and economic growth. In the past few years, these ideas about so-called civilisational Islam (or “Islam Hadhari”) have had an impact among some African Muslim thinkers, most notably, in Nigeria and Sudan where some have been saying they are looking to Malaysia and also Turkey rather than the Arab world or the West for models for their societies.

I also visited the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue at the University of Malaya to attend a lecture by Prof. Ruediger Seesemann from the University of Bayreuth who also attended the conference on Islam in Africa as a keynote speaker. Founded in 1996, the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue is an academic institute that has focused on promoting “dialogue” between different faith communities within and outside Malaysia. The centre’s director, Azizan Baharuddin, is a philosopher of science, and she has a broad network of international scholars with whom her centre has worked.

Immediately before the conference on Islam in Africa, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) hosted a conference on so-called Islamic centrism or moderation – wasatiyya in Arabic -- that was sponsored by the International Forum for Islamic Moderation based in Amman, Jordan. Wasatiyya is a trend among many Muslims who seek to distance themselves from extremists, and it has become one of the key organizing ideas for some leading Muslim intellectuals, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Egyptian scholar of Al Jazeera satellite television fame/notoriety. In sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic centrism is also increasingly discussed and debated. For example, the popular preacher and media personality in Sudan, Yousef al-Koda has founded an Islamic centrist party (Hizb al-Wasat al-Islami), and one of Mauritania’s most prominent Muslim intellectuals and Islamist, Mohammed Hacen Ould Dedew, also speaks about and openly calls for moderation or centrism. One of the keynote speakers at the conference on Islamic Moderation in KL was Sadiq al-Mahdi, who also discussed the merits of moderation, respect for minorities, and human rights. Some colleagues in KL suggested that Malaysian support for the idea of civilisational Islam was now waning as many have turned their attention to what has effectively become the latest trend in Islamic thought – wasatiyya – definitions of which seemed rather elastic at the conference.

Attending the conference at IIUM and giving a lecture at IAIS were great opportunities for gaining insight into Africa-Asia connections, particularly among Muslims. There are clearly very important changes afoot with so many African Muslims studying and working in Malaysia, learning new things and techniques, and taking these home or elsewhere in the world. In KL, I met a lecturer in Arabic and published novelist, who originally hails from northern Côte d’Ivoire. After studying for some time in Medina in Saudi Arabia, he completed his PhD at the IIUM and then took up a post at an Islamic university in southern Thailand. But he said he was anxious to return home to Côte d’Ivoire. One young Malian student studying for an MA in Islamic law at the IIUM, whose grandfather is the imam in a village where I have conducted research in western Mali, told me that he was looking for new models for how to be Muslim in the contemporary world and specifically models that were non-Western and non-Arab. Another young Gambian completing his PhD in comparative law told me that he hoped one day to be the Minister of Justice in his country. It would be interesting to know more about the trajectories of such African Muslims who have been in Malaysia and other places in Asia that are quite far from “home.” Indeed, we need to know more about how they are changing socially, as well as their shifting transnational ties, affiliations, and aspirations, their relationships to various social and political movements and Islamic currents, and the different social, political, and economic agendas that they might seek to advance in the future. At the same time, it would of course also be useful to know more about Malaysia in Africa, most notably, its investment activities on the continent, as well as its foreign policy in relation to Africa, which are the backdrop for some of the larger contexts in which to understand the trajectories of the African Muslims I met in Kuala Lumpur.