Dr Abu Aminah Bilal Phillips Founder, International Open UniversityDr Abu Aminah Bilal Phillips (Part 2)

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By Omar Bah

I became the head of department of Sharia in English medium at knowledge International University in Riyadh. It was done online but it was done in Riyadh University based in Riyadh. So that gave me training as to how to run an online department of a university online and as I gathered that information and taught in India, I also set up the university there – put the curriculums together and in 2010, I decided to launch the International Open University which was known at that time as the Islamic Online University (IOU). Of course, International University still is IOU but when I started in 2010, it was only Islamic Studies and Arabic as a degree subject and bachelors but in English media and that continues till today. However by 2014/2015 when the first batches of students graduated I sought to expand the university’s fields of study to include other critical areas that graduates of the university from Islamic studies should have knowledge of and as such, we launched the Department of Education, department of psychology, Islamic banking and finance, IT, business administration and we continue to expand it to include public health, agricultural economics, mass communication and journalism – subjects which I believe the developing world is in dire need of. We don’t teach advanced robotics because when you learn advanced robotics the only place you can utilize that knowledge is in America so it’s the brain drain you know. They’re taking the brains of the Gambia to America or UK or wherever else. So we focus on subjects which are needed here and, in the continent, in the third world and developing world. So, that is the focus of the university and the name change reflected that change, it’s still Islamic because even though we will teach IT – it is a requirement on the instructor, the professor to teach it from an Islamic perspective. Now somebody might ask, how do you teach IT from Islamic perspective? The point is that you know windows many people today buy are hacked versions. Hacked version of Windows is illegal; buying it is buying stolen products; so it is not appropriate for a Muslim to use it. It’s haram. Now a professor teaching that course normally would not even enter into that subject, that’s your business, what you do is what you do. You know that’s what’s out there but it is something if you are going to teach your subjects from an Islamic perspective which is what is needed, we don’t need to study according to a purely secular perspective which has no morality involved. Then the professors have to have that consciousness that whatever in that subject is incorrect or people use it incorrectly or whatever he has the responsibility of addressing that. So, for example in business administration when you’re studying marketing, the professor will tell you that the ideal salesman – marketer is the one who is able to sell sand to the desert Arab, he’s living in sand and you’re able to come and sell him a box of sand. If you can do that you are the ultimate salesman but from an Islamic perspective, we have to say well, how do you manage to do that? You must deceive him that’s the only way because if he knows what you are trying to sell him it’s the same as what he’s living in, he’s not going to buy it so to get him to buy it you have to package it in a particular way using particular words et cetera and you know Western marketing is very much you know analyzed and psychologically prepared to get to the mind of the people, to get you to buy what you don’t need. So that approach to marketing is unacceptable Islamically because the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) says whoever deceives us, who cheats us, is not of us so this is the job now of the instructors. Though they’re delivering the subjects they are required to deliver it from an Islamic perspective, bringing morality back into the classroom or into the lecture hall.

It’s been few years since this school was established in the Gambia. How has the journey been like? Are you confident that you will be able to reshape the country’s education system to bring back that morality you are so passionate about?

The journey has been rough, it has hiccups and ups and downs but in general it has been a journey forward and Alhamdulillah the International Open University currently is listed as the number 2 university in the Gambia after UTG. So, to have achieved that is itself a mild post and furthermore we have reached the unreachable students who normally couldn’t afford to study in UTG are studying with us because our fees are one quarter of the UTG’s fees. You get a bachelors in IT from UTG and a bachelors in IT from IOU, there’s no difference in terms of the facts of what had been taught but there is a difference in terms of how they are taught because the same facts are now taught from an Islamic perspective. So this is something new – many of our students in IT will say they learned their Islam here, they were Muslims in name but from studying IT from Islamic perspective and of course they’re required also to take some Islamic subjects it helped them to realize what Islam was and our responsibility to leave that message and to carry it to others. So we are making a difference, I mean all over the country you will find students who graduated from IOU and their numbers are increasing continuously and we launched a program in 2017 which is called the One Mass Pro Project which is one million scholarships for African youths, not limited only to Muslims, none Muslims can study. The idea being to provide the opportunities of higher studies to the 94% of graduates from high school who don’t find any places in the universities of the country and this is common across Africa. Only 6% of high school graduates find places in university in Africa – the global average is 26% but in Africa, the youngest continent with the youngest population you only have 6%. So, what happens to those 94%? They end up among Al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Mali you know devastating societies and they’re ignorant because no avenue was open for them to enter into proper studies and to know what proper Islam is. So we have dedicated funds from the university towards setting up centers which provide access to higher learning to those in the rural areas; those who can’t afford university fees even though our university fees are a fraction of what you pay at UTG. $4000 for a bachelors in UTG, it’s only $1000 in IOU and the country’s higher education ministry and its connections have supported IOU in terms of accreditation, we have full accreditation. We are the only other university besides the UTG that has full accreditation in the Gambia. So, we have made great strides and what we have done is, we have opened up learning centers in other parts of the country. We have made Gambia a pilot project, the population is small, the country is small, seven regions we can work with to demonstrate to other countries the benefits of studying online for the future of the countries of Africa because this is where the future lies, it does not lie in the brick-and-mortar universities. Can you build enough universities for them? You don’t have the finances to do it, it’s not possible. I mean unless you find an oil well you know off the coast of Gambia and you become super rich country like Qatar where I am based. Where I live. So, otherwise there’s no hope, so what we have done is to open our first center here in Banjul for those who can’t afford higher learning. They establish their credentials as being proper graduates from your high school educational program and that they are eligible for Zakat, if they are able to establish that we give them a scholarship. So 1/3 of our students are studying with us on scholarship – only two third pay fees. I don’tthink you can find another university that can say that. You’re talking about 3000 students studying for free from across Africa and not only that we have provided the necessary infrastructure for the students to be able to study because it’s not only just giving them a scholarship you also have to give them a computer, Internet access and electricity. So we set up our initial center here in the headquarters, a computer classroom that the students can come and use it so they can study and in shifts in 25 sitting classrooms which can handle a 100 students in a day. This is the philosophy here. We have now opened up a classroom in Jarra Soma, we rented a building as unit and put in the computers and one of our Gambian graduates is made the manager of the unit, a classroom and office and we intend to put a similar unit in all the seven regions of the Gambia and give access now to the rural populations where they don’tnormally have access to higher education at all and this project was endorsed by the president. I met with the president a couple of weeks back and gave a cheque for 1000 scholarships to be given to the underprivileged youth of the Gambia through the office of the president and properly vetted to ensure that it goes to the people who it is intended for and not going to friends and relatives of the people in the government. We launched that project with the support of the president and the ministry of higher education among others. So, this is making real change happen now, the motto of the university is changing the nation through education. This is what the UN says the difference between the underdeveloped countries and the developed countries is education so that’s where it begins and ends, education. We have embraced that and sought to implement it within the Gambia.

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Thank you very much Dr Abu Amina Bilal Phillips.

My pleasure.