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City of Banjul
Thursday, February 29, 2024

Dr Bilal Philips (Chancellor Islamic Online University)

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Please tell us about yourself and your work?

I am a Jamaican Canadian. I grew up as a Christian and later converted to communism while in university. From communism I converted to Islam while in university.  From there I went to the Middle East, studied at Madinah University, graduated and learned Arabic. I did my masters in Riyadh and became a school teacher in Islamic studies in Arabic. I taught for about 10 years. Then I finished my Ph D and became a university professor at the American University in Dubai and taught there for about 10 years also. 

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I set up the department of Islamic Studies in Ajman. Then I moved to Qatar and set up a BA course in Shari’ah in English medium. I went to India and set up a university called Preston International College, a combination between Islamic studies and business administration. And then went online, established a university online which now has over 160,000 students from all over the world from 223 different countries. Our shari’ah programme first batch just graduated and we just recently introduced the college of education, college of economics, business finance and the college of psychology.  And in the fall we plan to introduce the college of IT and business administration.  In The Gambia, I have introduced an intensive English course called the IEC for madrassa graduates primarily as a bridge programme for them to be able to go into the university. But it is actually needed beyond the madrassa because there are other schools that are bilingual and their English is too weak for the graduates to do tertiary studies. So this course is good for them. We also have special classes for the madrassa teachers who are learning Arabic, who are learning IE also because you know, this is the future.


So what motivated you to make the spiritual odyssey of conversion from Christianity to communism and then Islam?

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I became a communist because in university we became acutely aware of the need for social change. I became conscious of the civil rights movements and the Vietnam War. So that’s what motivated me to join the communist movement because it had a programme for social change. Having been with them for some 4 to 5 years I came to realise that it wasn’t really the solution because it has so many errors in it. Those people who tried to implement it were very vicious. They killed so many people in China and Russia et cetera. I was sort of left wondering where to go. At that point, one young lady from the communist party converted to Islam. And that opened my eyes to want to look at it. I had seen it through the Nation of Islam; Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammed and saw it as nonsense. So I never considered Islam from that perspective. But then when I saw real Islam, real teachings of Islam I read comparative books  comparing Islam, Christianity, communism, and capitalism, showing the superiority of  Islam. I became intellectually convinced then after a brief period of spiritual struggle within myself. I accepted God back into my life and became a Muslim. 


You seem to have a low opinion of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammed and co. Why? 

The Nation of Islam is a non-Islamic sect. They are calling themselves the Nation of Islam, I call them the ‘nation of mislam’. It was reverse racism that was taught there. They said okay God is black. White people are devils. This is not religion. It is just concoction. They used the name of Islam and a couple of things here and there but it wasn’t Islam at all. That’s why the people like Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X and other people left. I understand the audacity of Malcolm X how he went through that. He made the Nation of Islam from what it was. He took it from being a little cult in Detroit and Chicago to a national movement. And then he left them. When he went for hajj and came to realise what was the truth of Islam, he came to realise what was being taught back home was ‘mislam’ and he became a real threat. So he was executed.


Which brings me to the next question. What race is God ?

Aha! Ha! Ha! God is not of any race, that is what I am saying. This is where ignorance is. When you have ignorance that is the time when you run an idea concept. God is beyond race. God is not a human being. God is not rated within that context. 


You have started enrolling students for your online university programme here. What do you aim to achieve with this and what progress have you made as well as challenges?

Well, for this coming semester, perhaps we have the largest numbers yet. There are students that are enrolled in both the free diploma in which you may have many hundreds and then the bachelors programmes with the total number around 50 or something like that. One of the problems faced here is Internet accessibility. We set up a centre in Tallinding opposite the Ahmadiyya Hospital where we are providing free Internet for students who want to study.  The university  is providing for a need, a great need which the society has, in that it is estimated UTG is only able to absorb only 5% of the high school graduates in the country. So what happens to the 95%? Where are they to go? This is a huge reality. And the only way these numbers can be absorbed immediately, is online. How many universities are you going to have build to absorb the other 95%? The money isn’t there. The projects are not there. There is no way. The only way is online. That’s the reality.  And Alhamdoulillah, the online courses save a lot of financial strain on the country and are able to provide education at a cost and  at an ease that any conventional university is going to be unable to achieve. So this is the big offer we have onboard here. We are struggling trying to get an operational licence here in The Gambia for over a year. Bureaucracy is killing us. But we haven’t given up . We do have licences already in Somalia , and we are looking to other countries to get  licences too.


You put a lot of emphasis on Islam, why are you not diversifying to other areas that would have more tangible impact on the young people and the country in terms of  pulling thousands of people out of poverty supporting Gambia’s development?

Our approach has been very progressive…because from the time we started offering shari’ah we required all of our graduates, all of those who are studying in our programmes to take courses in these other fields which I mentioned.  In  psychology to be able to counsel; in education to be able to teach; in a economics to be able to guide people economically; in business administration in order to administer and to manage. These are critical fields.

But besides that as I said, we are introducing five other courses. One is education. One of your biggest sources of corruption in the country is from foreign teachers, non-Muslims bringing their culture, their ideas, their ways of thinking, their corruption into the country. You can see that in the high schools. So we are introducing education. This is critical.  We introduced psychology, as I said because we don’t have Muslim psychologists. You can hardly find them anywhere. And they are greatly needed because of the counseling aspects at all levels from schools, universities to career counseling. Proper counseling is needed to guide people into what proper direction they should be following. And then economics you have only one Islamic bank and as a Muslim country the banks should be Islamic. And even in the Islamic bank.. you go to the one Islamic bank with all its branches maybe only two people are graduates of Islamic studies in economics, banking and finance. The rest of the people are conventional, they don’t understand Islamic economics, they are just performing tasks.  That’s all. How is the bank going to grow if its own staff are not educated? So now their staff members have now registered and are now studying in the Islamic Online University. When you are talking about the country’s future, it has to do with economics. We are also making IT available. It has turned India around. They became the source of outsourcing for the whole of the West. And then of course business administration. And the key is that we are teaching everything from an Islamic perspective. It is a comparative study not merely studying conventional thoughts but seeing what Islam has to say about it. Now areas of engineering, medicine; these areas require hands-on, you can’t teach it online. We are limited in online teaching today as based on the present technology. We are limited to those subjects which can be taught completely online. 


You have been in the country for some time now, what are your impressions of the country? 

Well the country is a growing, developing country. It has a long way to go technologically, infrastructurally and technologically. All these have got issues but at the same time it is a relatively secure country. I think the security makes one feel comfortable for being here relative to a number of other countries.  There is a lot of good because the ruler, President Jammeh, is himself Islamically-concerned. He promotes Islam and he supports local scholars. So that is a good thing. That means Islam is present in the society. So this is a comfortable place for a Muslim to live.


One of the biggest problems facing the West is homegrown terrorism from young Muslims whose sophomoric understanding of religion makes them see violence and terrorism as justified. What is your take on this and clerics like Abu Qatada who have been accused of radicalising  young Muslims ? 

My stand towards the West is that the West as a civilisation and as a community has its belief systems and its own practices some of which are contradictory to Islamic teachings. We as Muslims should be conscious of where to draw the line when we are taking things from the West. Where the West tries to force its values on us, like the issue of homosexuality which was being forced on the country and the ruler had to take a stance. This is what Muslims have to be able to do. We have to draw some lines.When it comes to technology, we can benefit from them. There was a time when they benefited from us. We were the leaders of technology in the days of Spain, and  Baghdad, Damascus… These were the times when people from Europe came and studied at the feet of Muslim scientists and scholars.

That issue is an issue based on ignorance. People go into it because they don’t know what the teachings of Islam are, that’s why I stressed this when I was in Nigeria just a month ago. I spent three weeks there. This was part of the message which I gave very strongly to deal with the Boko Haram that you have to educate the masses. People have to be educated to know what Islam really is to be able to distinguish the true teaching from the false teachings. So where there is a vacuum; where there is ignorance, then these extremist ideas will be born and grown. That is why even the attempts by some countries to ban me is not in their favour. It is against what they are really seeking because I am teaching true Islam which is a moderate path, not going to one extreme or the other. My teachings deradicalise. So when you block me from reaching the youths, then you leave that vacuum for the extremists to reach them and that’s exactly what is happening.  


Your native Jamaica struggles with the double whammy of gangsterism and high crime rates. How do you feel about this?

In my view, the only saviour for Jamaica is Islam because technologically Jamaica is a hundred light years ahead of The Gambia. You go to Kingston, it is developed. You don’t have dirt roads in the main city.  But securitywise it is at the bottom of the barrel because years of secularism where moral values have been removed from education and political parties playing with the ignorant masses, the gangs turned the country into a war zone in spite of its technological development. So it is telling us that technology is really not the answer.  There has to be core values which will shape and guide and govern the society for it to succeed.


It has been a very interesting conversation. Any final words?

My final words would be an advice to Gambians to take the opportunities for education that are available in the country; develop those opportunities, develop other alternatives for bringing  (importing), as I said foreign teachers. We need homegrown teachers who are aware of the Gambian culture ,who can protect the youths from cultural imperialism or cultural destruction. We need that. So we need to work in those directions. And know Islam. If you know Islam then these things will become clear.


With Sainey Darboe


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