SAO PAULO: Latin American Islamic associations recently met in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo to sign an agreement to create the Latin American and Caribbean Islamic University.
The academic institution will allow future Muslim leaders to study in their own region, without the need to travel to Middle Eastern countries and other Muslim nations.
Imams in Latin America had been discussing this idea for years. Today, the Brazilian Center for Islamic Dissemination for Latin America, known by the Portuguese acronym CDIAL, and the Supreme Council of Imams and Islamic Affairs of Latin America and the Caribbean have finally made it possible.
CDIAL and the council have entered into an agreement with the Islamic University of Minnesota, which will provide academic courses and materials for the new institution.
Initially, it will have its headquarters in Sao Paulo, with courses in Portuguese, and in Mexico City, with courses in Spanish.
“We start with cities with a higher number of potential students. But our idea is for other countries to set up their own branches in the future,” CDIAL Vice President Ziad Saifi told Arab News.
He said the program was inspired by traditional Islamic courses such as those offered by the Islamic University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar University in Egypt.
“The aim of the university is not just to educate future sheikhs, but anyone who wants to deepen their knowledge of Islam,” he added.
Even non-Muslim students will be able to enroll in classes, said Egyptian-born Sheikh Abdelhamid Metwally, who will be the university’s president and academic director.
“We want to educate people in Islamic culture and tradition. We can certainly work on the training of sheikhs. Students who wish to follow such a path will be able to continue their studies,” he added.
“But we also just want to educate people about Islam. Muslims and non-Muslims need to have a better understanding of our religion.
Living in Brazil for 15 years, Metwally believes it is desirable to train religious leaders in Latin America to work in the region.
This is also the opinion of Sheikh Mohamed Mansour, who will coordinate the Spanish courses in Mexico City.
“We need to educate people here so they can think from here. Often people go to the Middle East to study and when they come back they want to impose the Middle Eastern culture in Latin America. It’s not possible,” he told Arab News.
Islam has grown throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, “but we don’t grow well if we don’t have real knowledge,” Mansour said. “We need an academic foundation, something that goes beyond the teaching of mosques.”
In Mexico, he explained, only Spanish can be spoken in class, except for Arabic language classes – if a teacher or instructor can only speak Arabic, a translator will be present. “God willing, we will soon also have masters and doctoral courses,” he added.
Saifi said that many sheikhs and the wider Muslim community supported the establishment of the university.
“Fortunately, people have given their time to this project and worked on translating teaching materials and other tasks,” he added, expressing hope that classes will start in August.
The coordination group is working on the official accreditation of the university in each of the countries of the region.
Initially, the university will operate with distance learning, given the growing number of COVID-19 cases in most Latin American countries. But a physical location is being selected in Sao Paulo, Saifi said.
No distinction will be made between Sunni and Shia students, and both men and women will be able to register.
Saifi expressed the hope that in the future, the Brazilian branch will welcome students from other Portuguese-speaking countries such as Angola and Mozambique.
“We still have a small number of mosques in Brazil, but their number is growing. We will definitely need more sheikhs and people educated in Islam,” he said.
Metwally agreed, saying, “In my own community in Sao Paulo, we have members who are already interested in signing up. We will educate good Muslims.