As early as 2015, Naleemiah Institute of Islamic Studies (i.e. Jamiah Naleemiah) observed that the emerging trend of extremism in the Arab Islamic world aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and subsequent conflicts across the region. It predicted that this new development would shape the global security discourse in near future and in some way or the other, it will leave an impact on our country, at least, on ideological grounds in a different way that is of considering the reality of the new virtual mobilization sources such as social media. Against these observations, the institution had arranged a comprehensive academic symposium in 2015, September 16th and 17th, on the theme ‘The Extremist Movements in the Muslim World – A Historical and Contemporary Survey’ to discuss the issue from diverse perspectives. The event was highly successful in the sense that it had enabled the students to understand the severity of the issue from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Primarily, the seminar covered a wide range of topics such as historical roots of the extremist phenomenon in the Muslim world, the nature and background of Extremist movements in contemporary times, ISIS and the ideological roots of terrorism and How Islamic world view invalidates the ideas and practices of the extremist organizations, etc. The session was concluded with an in-depth panel discussion about the phenomenon of extremism in the geopolitical perspective and the panelists had enlisted the negative impacts of those terror groups on global peace in general. As such, this seminar should be considered as a pioneering event in all accounts as it tried to address the issue from religious, historical, global, and geopolitical perspectives on the one hand and it equipped NIIS’s students to analyze the issue with various theoretical devices on the other.
We bring this event as an example to portray simultaneously the broader scholarly vision of NIIS and its intellectual responsibility to address national and global challenges. This is the very place where we have been trained and nourished academically and intellectually since 2000. Therefore, it is deeply shocking and miserable to listen to some unfounded allegations portraying the institution as ‘exclusivist’ by some racist elements inspired by the creeping global Islamophobic tendencies. Further, these allegations should not be seen as just another in the growing list provoked in the context of ethnic polarization in post-war developments and more particularly, in the context of a threat of the religious extremism aftermath of the horrible Easter Sunday attacks. Instead, the scholarly community must perceive the accusation as a direct attack on the academic activism in the country given Naleemiah as the leading center of the Islamic scholarship for more than four decades. Adding insult to injury is that this accusation comes at a time when Naleemiah has been tirelessly working, for last ten years or so, to make itself a place where theologians of all other brotherly religious communities of Sri Lanka can come together and conceptualize the role of religions for the betterment of future of the country through mutual exchange of ideas and innovative perspectives.
Moving ahead, just a cursory survey about the other major internal symposiums of NIIS and the arguments which came out of those events in the last decade highlights the path it has charted for itself in a broader sense. For example, NIIS has invested much of its energy, in the last decade, to equip the students of Islamic Scholarship with the proper world view that push them to relate the knowledge to that of spirituality and humanity at large at a time of global uncertainty, supreme materialism and the mistrust between cultures and communities. As to reclaim the inner balance of humanity at a time of global moral recession, NIIS promoted a message through its seminar which held on 2010, April 06th under the theme ‘The Moral Challenges: A Future Perspective’ that its students must be able to understand the philosophy of knowledge in depth. In this context, it conducted several other academic sessions for students in disseminating the spirit of knowledge, especially in the last decade. Those events had endorsed a theme that the knowledge of religion is not for the sake of knowledge itself, but it should shape a Muslim personality to love God and his creatures of all kinds in general and the very knowledge should change a student into an ethical being. To sum up, the entire sessions emphasized the heart-oriented Sufi legacy and its positive consequences into peaceful practices and activities.
Another important theme that captured the interest of the institution in the last decade is building societal peace in the multi-ethnic society such as Sri Lanka. To put it another way, NIIS had tried to socialize ideas of intra-community and inter-community unity in a volatile post-war environment. In order to realize this objective, NIIS conducted numerous internal symposiums by bringing diverse resource persons, academicians, and practitioners with enough experiences on the subject and published several well-researched articles in its official journal ‘Islamic Thought’ as well. The key argument that NIIS had circulated through these endeavors is that the Muslim studentship and the professionals should join with progressive forces of the country to contribute to the ongoing debate about building an intra-community and inter-religious co-existence in the country. To partake in these initiatives with the proper guidance of the spirit of Islam, NIIS academic sessions developed various contextually relevant frameworks, theories, and concepts on how to channel the Islamic philosophy of pluralism into the new national developments. In this regard, the conference held on the topic ‘The Islamic perspective on Pluralism and Diversity’ at NIIS on 2012, October 18th, was a significant event.
In the same vein, both the theme of strengthening the civic responsibilities of citizens and reclaiming the role of the civil society in directing the country has been a much-debated topic in the post-war context of the country. It is always seen as part and partial of the national building discourse by the experts involved in the project. In order to participate in that national debate, NIIS had arranged a comprehensive forum, on 2017, September 19-21, to discuss the meaning, contents, ethics, and objectives of the citizenship and how to build a good citizen who contributes positively to the nation-building amid a host of challenges in the country. Interestingly, the creative contribution of the event was an argument provoked and endorsed by almost all the speakers in the forum. The argument was that the idea of responsible citizenship is spiritual as much as it is political and social in the Islamic world view. That is to say that if someone ignores his civic duties and disrespects the ethics of citizenship in his private and public life, it does create a negative spiritual impact on himself firstly as much as it has political and social repercussions in the country. In other words, the notion of spirituality has always positive co-relationship with the sense of civic responsibly in the Islamic perspective.
For NIIS, the central element of a religious studies program is to empower the student community on how to approach the religious teachings methodologically, and thus, it is not an objective of the program to dump wealth of information about religion into the head of a student. Hence, any of the religious studies programs which fail to equip its students with critical frameworks and approaches in understanding, interpreting, and applying the religious teachings would cause more harm than good for himself first and wider community next. Standing on this firm world view, NIIS organized a much-anticipated student conference on the theme ‘The Methodological Approach to Islam and its Teachings’ on 2014, September 25th. This event was organized to map-out the deferent frameworks in approaching the Islamic religious thought and to create awareness of a more inclusive version of it. The innovative aspect of the conference was that it presented comparative analysis on how a religious text can be manipulated by different groups if they don’t possess the required methodology to deal with it. Further, a separate session had allocated to discuss criteria on how to apply the moderate approach into religious sciences such as theology, jurisprudence, spirituality on the one hand, and social sciences such as environmentalism, politics, and economics, etc.
Finally, it is possible to capture the scholarly spirit of NIIS through the contents and key arguments of those of its flagship events. Within only the last ten years of it’s more than four decades of journey, it had promoted broader themes as the philosophy of knowledge, Islamic ethics on pluralism and diversity, Islamic inclusivism and the methodological approach to religious teaching, etc. By analyzing those scholarly endeavors, we think that it has done its share to the discourse of nation-building in the post-war context as a responsible religious academic institution despite pitfalls resulted from its limited resources. As a result of this scholarly heritage and expansive thinking, NIIS was selected as one of seven higher educational institutions by the government’s Office for National Unity and Reconciliation in order to work on spreading peace and harmony in the country. Hence, those who accuse a reputed institution like NIIS of exclusivism should bring evidence from its original academic contributions. It cannot be kept accountable for what it did not stand for.
*Zacky Fouz is currently reading Ph.D. in Political Science at International Islamic of University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur and a graduate of Naleemiah Institute of Islamic Studies.
**Rishard Najimudeen is a MPhil holder from Department of Social Science and Humanities at University Teknokogi PETRONAS, Malaysia and a graduate as well as a lecturer of Naleemiah Institute of Islamic Studies.