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A Class Apart

A Class Apart

Issue 60 September 2009

Celebrating 800 years of the University of Cambridge, emel marks the Muslim contribution to a quintessentially British Institution.  Remona Aly and Somaiya Khan report. 


Walking through the grand courtyards of King’s College, meandering past the ancient arches of Trinity, and leafing through the del icate manuscripts of the great library, the University of Cambr idge has been a centre of scholarship for eight centuries. The institut ion’s fame has spread far and wide, from being a pioneer in education to punting on the River Cam. Perhaps less well known about this quintessentially British institution is its Muslim alumni and Islamic influence.

The University of Cambridge, formed in 1209 CE, is thought to be modeled on earlier Muslim universities – a later form of the world’s first university, that of the Karouine in Morocco founded by Fatima Al-Fihri in 895 CE. Cambridge, like Oxford before it, mirrored many of the Islamic templates that we take for granted today, such as graduation, the granting of diplomas and the structures of the ‘Chair’. Even the influence of Islamic architecture can be detected in Cambridge’s celebrated design.

A distinctive characteristic of Islamic style is the courtyard, which expresses the desire to keep out the hustle and bustle of the outside world whilst providing a sanctuary for what lies within. The use of courtyards can be seen in other British universities, but in Cambridge there is a sequence of courtyard spaces reminiscent of the design of the 14th century Alhambra in Granada.

The Great Court of Trinity College is reputed to be the largest enclosed courtyard in Europe. Thomas Neville completed the court in the 17th century, and it harbours a centre of 341 metres when he rearranged existing buildings to create a single court. Notably, the surrounding architecture of the courtyard is heavily inspired by gothic architecture, which developed in Muslim India. Christopher Wren, regarded as the greatest English architect in history - and also an Oxford graduate - completed the ‘Saracenic theory’, which observed that gothic architecture originated in the Arabian era.

Islamic studies at Cambridge dates back to 1666 when the Professorship of Arabic was founded by Sir Thomas Adam. It is the oldest Chair of Arabic in the English-speaking world. Muslims first arrived in Cambridge in 1871 when religious entry tests were abolished. This first not able Musl im at Cambridge was Yusuf Ali who studied Law at St John’s College in 1895. Ali went on to translate from Arabic what is now a widely read English translation of the Qur’an.

 Another famous Muslim to grace the Cambridge alumni was the poet Muhammad Iqbal who was also philosopher, jurist, social reformer and a great Islamic scholar. He went to Trinity College in 1905, crossing paths with great scholars who inf luenced him to study philosophy.  His PhD thesis was on the ‘Development of Metaphysics in Persia’. He was joined later by Emmanuel College man Rahmat Ali. Both are credited for initiating the historic event of the creation of a Muslim homeland in the sub-continent, and it was Rahmat Ali who came up with the name Pakistan. The 1951 Emmanuel College magazine proudly claimed, “this college was the college of the founder of Pakistan.” Arab culture has also left it's academic hallmark: the first texts used at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge were translations of Arab works, the most notable being Avicenna’s Canons of Medicine, which was written around a 1000 years ago and subsequently inspired many more works in the field of medicine.

AJ Arberry, a fellow at Pembroke said, “no occidental literature can in any way bear resemblance with Arabic in the fields of... theology, law, philosophy, mathematics and science... it becomes clear that the literary legacy of the Arabs is something rather more than the tales of Arabian Nights.” The first Muslim Association, set up in Corpus Christi (whose recent Master was Professor Haroon Ahmed) in the 1890s only featured a handful of members.

Furquan  Kidwai

Today, there is an abundance of Muslims at Cambridge and there is a vibrant Islamic Society.

One recent member is Mohammad Furquan Ur Rehman Kidwai. He is the fifth generation of the Kidwai family to go to Cambridge University. His greatgreat grandfather was Shaikh Ehsan Ur Rehman Kidwai who arrived on England’s shores in the spring of 1917. Born into the aristocratic Kidwai family of Baragaon, he came seeking the best education. On the way his ship, Arabia, was sunk by Germans in the Mediterranean. Kidwai was later picked up by a coal carrier and he reached England via a land route through France. He enrolled at St. Catherine’s College for a Law and Economics Tripos, and was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 1920.

Inspired by a sense of nationalism, Kidwai decided to return to Lucknow to set up his own practice, and quickly became one of the country’s leading lawyers. With family tradition in mind it is no surprise that Furquan Kidwai has won a multitude of awards, beginning with the International Student of the Year Award from the British Council for his contribution to the academic and non-academic life at university, and for his active involvement in student politics. “Cambridge provided me with a multitude of opportunities both for personal development as well as career-specifics. My advice to anyone embarking upon their university experience is to do so with astuteness and make the most out of it academically as well as intellectually.”

Jasmine Hadi

Less imbued with family connections to Cambridge, but no less passionate about learning is Jasmine Hadi who studied Modern and Medieval Languages at King’s College. She was one of only a dozen students to obtain distinction for spoken fluency in French from Cambridge in 2000, as she says “much to the delight of my parents!” “My Cambridge University years were, and still are the best four years of my life. I always felt at home at Cambridge and didn’t really experience the much talked about elitism or Eton Tie club.

My particular college was the first male college to allow women and had students from different social and ethnic backgrounds. So it was a very lively and contemporary academic melting pot, amidst all the grandeur and heritage of an age-old institution.” Jasmine’s time at Cambridge helped her “not to be intimidated by future decisions or scenarios.” Her current work at the BBC reveals certain parallels for her.

“Cambridge is an academic giant and the BBC is of course the media giant. Both have long-standing gravitas in British history, culture and society and are recognised on an international scale. It is down to the individuals in either organisation to leave their mark and discover the opportunities for themse lves . So, courage and inspiration can continue throughout your career and later life.”

Jasmine cites her parents as fundamental in forming her own passion for learning. They had arrived in the UK from Iraq in the late 1970s to finish their own degrees. Their faith and resolve played an enormous part in Jasmine’s life, fuelled by the Islamic ethos of learning. “The Islamic emphasis on scholarship is exactly for individuals who seek and ask questions, not to be blinded by ignorance and prejudice.”

Amina Al-Yassin 

Another ambassador for Cambridge University is fifth year medical student Amina Al-Yassin.

During her studies there, Amina undertook the role of Junior Common Room Officer, where she was in charge of organising student union events in conjunction with other societies such as the Islamic Society. Not only did her role promote cultural integration but she also succeeded in introducing halal food at the university, 130 years after the first Muslims studied within these historic walls.

She describes Cambridge’s rich, academic heritage tinged with a lively cosmopolitan ambience of students who have travelled from near and far not only to take pleasure in scholarly pursuits on an academic level, but also to be educated on what fellow students have to offer from diverse cultures and beliefs, engaging with them rather than sticking to the familiar. Amina spent three years studying Preclinical Studies in Medicine at New Hall College, the University’s only single-sex college.

“I can honestly say that those years at Cambridge were the best of my life. I got to know so many people from different backgrounds that you wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to meet.” The modern day environment of the university is now taken for granted, yet there are those whose memories were not of a lively hubbub cushioned by freedom and creativity.

Hasan leGai Eaton 

Hasan le Gai Eaton, Islamic scholar and author of Islam and the Destiny of Man, attended Cambridge in a completely different climate – while the Second World War was raging. Only a month after war broke out he had begun his studies in History, but like his peers he saw little point in “studying dull subjects when these might be our last years on earth”. “It’s diff icult for people nowadays to really know what a shadow the war cast over my generation. My mother had three brothers, so I would have had three uncles, but they were all killed in the war. I took it for granted that my generation would be killed by the Germans while we were still young. That meant wartime Cambridge was a place dominated by the coming threat.” There is naturally little nostalgia in his voice when speaking of university life, an experience that was clouded by belligerent circumstances.

At the end of a shortened course (from three years to two) young graduates who otherwise would have looked forward to the beginning of a new phase of life were instead called up into the army or navy to fight for their country. Gai Eaton recalls the university nights during the war. “My most vivid memory of Cambridge was taking my turn at fire watching from a little room in one of the steeples of King’s College. All it possessed was a bunk bed, a table and a chair. Once a month I would spend the night in one of these rooms, watching for fire attacks. There was the silence of night and total darkness from the blackout, and we were able to shout out conversations between these steeple rooms over the sleeping town.”

Gai Eaton was involved with various organisations, as Treasurer of the Liberal club and a member of the Union. “In the early 1940s, during what was known as the Phoney War, before the hot war broke out, there was a students’ congress in Leeds, which to me seemed the biggest student congress ever, led by the famous author HG Wells. It was dominated by the Communists who wanted British surrender. The congress voted to end the war at once, and this created a sensation to say the least. The papers talked of the decadence of modern youth.

The Nazi propagandist, Lord Haw-Haw as he was called, rejoiced on the radio that the young were not prepared to fight.” While his studies at Cambridge did not strike him as memorable, there were however people who made an impact on him. He recalls one particular student who was a committed Christian, though he was not aware of it at the time. “He was brilliant! Handsome and admired by everyone, and was someone I wanted to impress. One day after having dinner in the hall, a few of us were talking. I took the opportunity and said, ‘Nowadays, no intelligent person believes in God.’

He replied, ‘On the contrary, nowadays only intelligent people are the ones who believe in God.’ I wanted to drop right under the table! Though I cannot say that this started me on the road towards Islam, it certainly did make an impact on me.” Gai Eaton speaks of brilliant young professors sent away from Cambridge on war and names one, Jack Plum, who was called upon to decipher German codes, and later became one of the leading historians of the time. “It was unfortunate that I was at Cambridge during the war. After 1945, people who went to university and chose their subjects with more discipline and maturity were better off than those who had studied during the war.

Education is important to the nature of learning, provided it is the right sort of education. Scholarship is hugely important in Islam. The acquisition of knowledge has to be accompanied by a process of maturing, learning to think clearly. In addition, there is the important factor of knowledge of the past without which we cannot understand the present. It is important for the younger generation of Muslims to understand how that past has transformed this country.” “If scholars are truly and deeply respected in Islam, they could be pioneers in learning in a wider sense.

The historic ignorance of a whole generation to the present one is comparable to a man who has lost his memory, which means he has lost his identity. Muslims can set an example by promoting what is traditional and authentic. Without right and true knowledge we are in darkness.” The light of learning has illuminated centuries of scholarship and graced the great halls of one of the most celebrated institutes of scholarship in the world.

While Islamic elements can be seen running through its very structure, Cambridge took on its own distinctive character and produced some of the world’s most influential people who went on to shape history and contribute to erudition. Individuals such as William Wilberforce who led the parliamentary campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807; Isaac Newton, the famous physicist and natural philosopher; Ted Hughes, who was appointed poet laureate in 1984.

Muslims today can take inspiration from these past achievements, but they should not be passively content with what their forefathers have achieved; rather they should aspire to contribute to the Cambridge heritage and continue this most noble of legacies.

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A Class Apart (4 Photos)

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