Interview: Dr. Aisha Yousef Al Mannai, dean of QFIS
The Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS) dean Dr. Aisha Yousef Al Mannai speaks to The Edge about the role of theology and religion in the modern world, the advantages QFIS enjoys as part of Qatar Foundation and how an Islamic university can bridge the gap about perception issues related to the religion on the global scale. by Aparajita Mukherjee
As the first woman in Qatar, and possibly the entire Gulf Cooperation Council, to head an Islamic educational institution, Dr. Aisha Yousef Al Mannai, dean of QFIS, leads a multicultural college under the Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) which has been a member of the Federation of Universities in the Islamic World since 2010.
Talking to The Edge on her academic training, Dr. Al Mannai says, “My educational background is rooted in religious studies. I received my first bachelor’s degree from the College of Education at Qatar University and I later pursued a second degree in Islamic Jurisprudence, again at Qatar University.”
Subsequently, Dr. Al Mannai enrolled at Al Azhar University in Cairo to pursue a PhD in Faith and Religions. Dr. Al Mannai says, “I believe that my choice of study was stirred by my dream and passion for Islamic studies as it enriched me with greater knowledge and discernment.“ She adds, “I continued to pursue and advance my learning until I was honoured to serve as the dean of College of Sharia and Islamic Studies at Qatar University for nine years.”
Having been in a leadership role at Qatar University and now at QFIS, Dr. Al Mannai believes that the challenges that she faced during her career “are also faced by men in the academic field”.
QFIS and Qatar Foundation
QFIS is part of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF), which has an avowed mission of unlocking human potential through superior educational, research, and development programmes that are actualised by a bevy of education centres. Many students, according to Dr. Al Mannai, go through a comprehensive education cycle, starting with one of the Qatar academies and then progressing to one of the universities at Education City.
Dr. Al Mannai continues, “One of QF’s highlights is the creation of HBKU, alongside its partner universities, which created a unique, dynamic and innovative model comprising several universities providing students with world-class higher education learning. By engaging with individuals at every stage of their academic lives, QF is able to unlock their potential and enhance the culture of innovation and creativity.”
Discussing the role of QFIS in unlocking human potential, Dr. Al Mannai says, “QFIS represents one of many institutions contributing to QF’s comprehensive educational cycle that provides quality learning to serve the higher education needs of Qatar and the wider Islamic societies.”
“As a member of HBKU,” adds Dr. Al Mannai, “QFIS has worked to fulfil the vision and mission of QF by providing quality education to students and helping them realise their potential, while instilling in them a respect for and commitment to Islamic traditions, alongside innovation. Thus, maintaining and balancing the Islamic values and culture in Qatar.”
Under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, QFIS opened its new facility recently.
“QFIS is based on the plurality and tolerance of Islamic jurisprudence and civilisation. It provides a structure of study that adapts and contributes to a modern and changing world.”
Talking about the architectural specifics, Dr. Al Mannai says, “The QFIS building reflects a strong commitment to its philosophy of originality, plurality, and contemporaneity. It reflects the beauty and moderation of Islam in a unique and contemporary manner and features all modern amenities needed to serve as a new and futuristic example of Islamic architecture, derived from the traditional concept of a Madrasa.”
In Dr. Al Mannai’s opinion, the new QFIS building blends perfectly with the educational atmosphere of the mosque in Education City, which is connected to it. She continues, “The mosque itself represents notions of serenity, clarity and aspiration with its massive structural dome embracing the main prayer hall and the addition of the mezzanine floor, which is exclusively for the use of women for study and prayer. It also has the inscriptions of the diverse messages and meanings mentioned in the Holy Quran, which are all closely tied to the rich ideas of Islamic architecture.”
Through this new facility, QFIS will continue to grow, develop and serve the higher education needs of the State of Qatar and the wider Islamic societies in various aspects of life and sciences, according to Dr. Al Mannai.
Commenting on the courses offered at QFIS, Dr. Al Mannai reveals that QFIS is based on the plurality and tolerance of Islamic jurisprudence and civilisation. It provides a structure of study that adapts and contributes to a modern and changing world. She continues, “The curriculum illustrates the richness and diversity of Islamic culture, emphasises the openness of the Islamic faith, and demonstrates the power and potential of Islam to serve humanity through infinite paths for dialogue and action.”
QFIS offers six master’s programmes that cover theology and jurisprudence, sociology, public policy, finance and economics, architecture and urbanism, and comparative religions.
How do students taking QFIS courses gain an edge in selecting a career? Dr. Al Mannai is of the opinion that QFIS programmes increase the understanding and skills of the students by equipping them with wider Islamic knowledge. These courses, she adds, will help them develop problem-solving and decision-making techniques through shari’ah law.
Dr. Al Mannai clarifies, “QFIS’ ultimate goal is to produce responsible decision-makers in various governmental institutions that may serve the public by the essence and ethics of Islam, including ministries, local authorities, as well as the private sector such as banks, private business, and many other institutions.”
Theology in the modern world
In the opinion of Dr. Al Mannai, theology is perhaps one of the most remarkable subjects one can study within social sciences and the arts.
Commenting on the role that religion and theology play in shaping the life choices of youngsters in today’s modern world, she says, “The study of theology and religion requires an intellectual exploration of various aspects of life and the need to frame or set them within the Islamic religion, in order for it to play a vital role in shaping our world, as it has through the centuries.”
Dr. Al Mannai adds that young people are in continuous search of meaning and answers, and their engagement with religion and study of theology allows them to connect religion with the various needs of life. “Theology helps humanity to seek the crucial meaning and worth of life, based on rational and critical philosophy of the human faith, commitment, and morality,” she says.
“QFIS chose to be different, by offering programmes that embrace the essence of perception, knowledge, and awareness, and less about competition.”
The majority of students of the QFIS faculty are Muslims, according to Dr. Al Mannai. “Nevertheless, we have non-Muslim students among our student body. On the other hand, the teaching philosophy at QFIS is to associate the study of Islamic theology with modern sciences and knowledge. Thus, the faculty identifies and fills in the increasing need for detailed theological study of Islam by Muslim teaching staff from diverse ethnic backgrounds and nationalities,” Dr. Al Mannai tells The Edge.
As the dean of an Islamic college, Dr. Al Mannai sees QFIS as contributing to bridge the gap in perception issues with respect to Islam as a religion on a global scale.
Talking about the role that QFIS plays in shaping the perception of Islam on the global scale, Dr. Al Mannai says, “Ever since QFIS was established, the initial idea was to create a faculty that would supplement or fill in the areas of deficiencies that required religious attention. Thus, rather than having an Islamic teaching institution similar to the ones that are already present around the Islamic world, we chose to be different, by offering programmes that embrace the essence of perception, knowledge, and awareness and less about competition.”
The initial idea, explains Dr. Al Mannai, is to introduce religion in our daily life sciences and submission of the self to Islam, in all forms of operations. QFIS’ philosophy is to engage, on a global scale, by partnering with international universities and institutions to help bridge the gap of understanding and amalgamate Islam in sciences. She adds, “Needless to say, we succeeded in establishing more than 12 partnerships with high-profile international universities to explore the different methods of teaching and course supervision at QFIS. This helps prevent any kind of competition that may arise between cultures and religions internationally. Through our partnerships, we aim to pursue mutually beneficial research objectives.”
The road forward
Commenting on the new initiatives that one can hope to see in the coming two years from QFIS, Dr. Al Mannai says, “QFIS offers various science courses apart from the study of Islam and jurisprudence. Our current student and faculty body is made up of over 50 nationalities. Thus, QFIS is seeking to establish a PhD degree-granting unit for outstanding students with high academic standing who are planning to study interdisciplinary research.”
The programme, says Dr. Al Mannai, is intended for dissertation topics, which require supervision from two or more of the embedded programmes of QFIS and other faculties of HBKU. Each of these research studies is designed by students with a considerable amount of input and continued guidance from the students’ supervisory committee. The PhD programme is in the early phase of planning and will focus on the disciplines of Islamic finance and public policy to start with, to be followed later by other disciplines taught at QFIS.
Detailing out the academic achievements of QFIS, Dr. Al Mannai focuses on the six different programmes that have been established with more than 350 postgraduate students within Education City.
“QFIS,” says Dr. Al Mannai, “has attracted some of the finest teaching staff from around the world, whose research has also attracted a few Qatar National Research Fund research grants. We have successfully engaged the youth by developing various professional training workshops in order to serve the wider professional community in Doha.”
Dr. Al Mannai adds that QFIS has trained more than 1500 people in the field of stock market exchange systems. “We have also organised several public lectures and conferences. We hosted the 10th International Conference of Islamic Finance and Economics, with more than 100 delegates who shared their ideas and innovations in this field, with local partners such as the Qatar Central Bank, and many other financial institutions,” says
Dr. Al Mannai.