There are some important news regarding Italian Islam as the possibility of an agreement between a confederation of Muslim associations and the state is taking shape. On September 26, the University of Siena and the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, one of the oldest Islamic teaching centers in the world, signed a cooperation agreement that includes, as the statement released by the Italian university says, “an exchange of faculty members, researchers and students” and the creation of specific courses “aimed at the formation of professional profiles capable of operating in a multicultural environment.”
The formation of professional profiles capable of operating in a multicultural environment
Journalist Carlo Panella, project creator and coordinator, explained to Oasis that at the University of Arezzo a course of Educational Sciences has already started, designed to train multicultural operators and “social educators specializing in anti-radicalization methodologies.” The synergy with the Moroccan university also aims to create a scientific-pedagogic center specialized in the prevention of radicalization and in de-radicalization. The Moroccan Ministry of Religious Affairs, to which Qarawiyyin is currently connected, is in fact talking about a program that will form “a new generation of religious guides (men and women) capable of dealing with terrorism, fanaticism and all forms of ideological and religious extremism.”
The University of al-Qarawiyyin will contribute to this training project by sending “professors who will teach the Sharia subjects in Arabic”, i.e. Islamic sciences while the University of Siena will be responsible for the teaching of the disciplines related to human and social sciences. According to the agreement, the University of Siena acknowledges the al-Qarawiyyin University has specific competence in everything related to Islamic sciences, and the Moroccan university acknowledges that the Italian university has “a specific competence in education and pedagogy, as well as in legal, administrative, historical and cultural disciplines related to the Italian context”.
All indications are that there would be no lack of candidates signing up
Abdellah Redouane, head of Rome’s Mosque and representative of the inter-university agreement on the Moroccan side, told us that the teaching of Islamic sciences in Arabic will start in January as optional seminars. All indications are that there would be no lack of candidates signing up for this academic course: a few dozens individuals, men and women, ages 18 to 40, Muslims but not exclusively, are currently undergoing admission interviews for the course. There are also talks of opening an English language course as well which would make Arezzo a reference point of all of Europe.
Italian university cannot issue theology diplomas nor form religious leaders or ministers of worship. Thus, those who study in Arezzo will graduate in Educational Science but, Redouane says, the Italian degree would be recognized by Qarawiyyin as a diploma in Islamic Sciences. Students would thus be able to use the knowledge gained as associative leader, cultural mediator but also as preacher or mosque imam, “chaplain” in hospitals or prisons.
This program marks the beginning of a new phase in the formation of Muslim leaders in Italy. Until a few years ago, Islamic leaders’ formation was left to the initiative of the communities, despite their being aware of the problem of self-taught religious guides.
The beginning of a new phase in the formation of Muslim leaders in Italy
In a study on Islam in Italy published in 2014, sociologist Bartolomeo Conti wrote that among all mosques and Islamic centers visited for his research in Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia-Romagna, only two could claim to have an imam leader with any sort of institutional training.
The situation began to change in 2010 when the FIDR (International Forum for Democracy and Religions, an inter-university research center) launched the “New religious presence in Italy” project, a training course mainly aimed at representatives of Muslim associationism. From this experience, in 2014 a Master in Studies on European Islam was born at Padua University and is now attended by the main Italian Islamic Associations, which, as stated by one of the Master coordinators, aims to offer “training on all that concerns our public sphere; from questions such as the secular state, to extremely practical things, such as how to formulate the statute of an association.”
A similar course was inaugurated this year in Ravenna, and in this case too the course was organized by a university consortium and funded by the Interior Ministry. Rather than a true formation for preachers or imams, these paths offer complementary education, with a strong emphasis on the civic dimension of those responsible for Islamic communities, leaving the theological formation of their members to the latter. Furthermore, a 2016 document of the Council for Relations with Italian Islam speaks of the need to offer “contextualized” training for religious leaders who are “active citizens” capable of “fostering citizenship education”.
The agreement between the Islamic University of Fes and the University of Siena does not go beyond the dualism between religious disciplines and “profane sciences”, an issue that has also been debated in Morocco over the past year, but it puts it inside a single university curriculum.
For the first time, Islam, but even more generally a religion, is entering the university
For the first time, Islam, but even more generally a religion, is entering the university sphere not through the lens of human and social sciences, but as a “confessional” teaching, taught in Arabic by professors belonging to a foreign educational center. This formula follows a different path from that adopted by other European universities, in which the institutions try to make room for a new discourse on Islam, more reflective and less based on origin, even through modern hermeneutics. The new format entrusts Muslims with the practical task of integrating a traditional religious discourse, such as the one produced by official Moroccan Islam, and the problems of the European context. It remains to be determined how non-Arabic speaking students will gain access to the study of Islamic sciences.
The formation of Muslims and especially those responsible for Islamic communities (imams, preachers, associative leaders) outside Islamic countries is a complex matter and its direction depends on two fundamental questions: 1) Who, among the various subjects and the various tendencies of Islam in Europe, can and should teach Islam? 2) With what content and what methods should this teaching be carried out? A cooperation with states and foreign institutions is a possible answer.
As shown in a research conducted as a PhD study at the Paris School of Political Studies, Morocco has been pursuing a religious policy for years to maintain the bond of Moroccan immigrants with the country of origin, offering to European countries where its influence extends its tolerant interpretation of Islam.
This policy has found expression in various forms. In 2006, the French Association of Muslim was formed, an organization which coordinates the mission of imams sent by Morocco under an agreement with France.
In 2008, the Moroccan Ulema Council of Europe was set up in Brussels, an entity entrusted with the task of “establishing a Moroccan religious framework for the Moroccan Muslim community in Europe” and that it is presented as a “beacon of a moderate Islam in a plural society.”
In 2014, the “Morocco Plan 2014-2017” was launched in Catalonia, a project that hands the Kingdom of Muhammad VI the privilege and task of caring for the religious education of Catalan Muslims.
Italy has already established strong relations with Morocco, particularly through the Mosque of Rome and the Italian Islamic Confederation, but the agreement between Qarawiyyin and the University of Siena is new to Europe.
It will also be necessary to evaluate the impact that this initiative will have on the various currents of Islam in Italy. The course in Arezzo, if it actually develops, is likely to become a point of reference for Islamic centers and associations linked to Moroccan institutional Islam. Other communities, which do not recognize themselves in the “magisterium” of Rabat, and those who would prefer to get rid of its control, will likely continue to look in other directions.
The agreement with Qarawiyyin University does not completely solve the question of the formation of Muslims in Italy, among which the plurality of the guidelines has already gave rise and will continue to give rise to different training paths. However, it unlocks a situation characterized by a shortage of institutionally structured programs.
It is a first step which calls for further in depth analysis, particularly with regard to the question of parallel training tracks. The university could really become the context within which not only does the approach of different disciplines develop, with the goal of the formation of certain professional profiles, but it could also be the place for the rise of real interdisciplinarity. This would favor the development of a European Islam not just as a transposition the patterns seen in the countries of origin with possibility integrating them with useful skills to fit them into a Western life, and not just something to be seen as a safety feature of sorts, but rather the possibility of elaborating new syntheses also favored by the interaction between traditional knowledge and modern knowledge.
One of the pioneers of Islamic Studies in Europe, sociologist Felice Dassetto, wrote that our societies need “new configurations and the challenge is to find ways to build them together with religiously committed Muslim populations”.
Education will be a decisive factor in this process, and the initiative that is coming to light in Arezzo could be a good opportunity to reflect on the right path.