Saudi prince donates £16m to improve Islamic studies

Edinburgh and Cambridge universities to set up Muslim research centres. Olga Wojtas reports

Two new research centres that aim to improve understanding between the Muslim world and the West have been launched this week at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge thanks to a £16 million donation.

The centres have each won £8 million from the Kingdom Foundation, set up by entrepreneur and philanthropist Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Carole Hillenbrand, head of Edinburgh's department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, said: "This is the biggest thing to hit Islamic studies in the UK ever. It is the biggest donation to the humanities that the University of Edinburgh has ever received."

The centres will now make a range of appointments, including two directorships, postdoctoral fellowships and fully funded doctoral students.

Yasir Suleiman, who recently left Edinburgh to take up the chair of modern Arabic studies at Cambridge, said projects would include Muslim identities in the UK and how Islam and Muslims were represented in the media.

Professor Hillenbrand said: "There is ignorance and phobia about Islam. Our major aim is to improve public knowledge of Islam, not just in the present context but about the many, many achievements of the Muslim world in the past. If you improve knowledge you improve understanding, and we can really build bridges."

The two centres will work closely together but will also have links to academic centres already set up by the Kingdom Foundation at Georgetown and Harvard universities in the US, and the American universities in Beirut and Cairo.

Professor Suleiman stressed that there would be no interference in the direction of the centres' research.

"We have made contact with our colleagues in the States and have been assured there have been absolutely no attempts at interference at any stage. There is a very clear understanding in the Kingdom Foundation that if these centres are to be seen as academically respectable their integrity is absolutely sacrosanct."

Professor Hillenbrand said: "These centres are not going to push a line. We don't have any 'agenda' at all. We are going to do very serious research projects and publish them through public outreach."

Professor Hillenbrand has seen an increase in student numbers in Islamic studies in recent years, the majority of them non-Muslim. Both Edinburgh's Islamic history and modern Middle East classes have more than 100 students, with 70 studying first-year Arabic.

"It would be simplistic to say there has been an increase since 9/11, but I do think recent events have enhanced people's interest. They want to know and understand the Muslim world, its civilisation, its religion, its society. It's no longer appropriate to view the Muslim world as 'out there', since there are now many Muslims in the West."

Prince Alwaleed, said to be among the five wealthiest people in the world, offered a $10-million donation to New York's relief efforts after the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, but the money was rejected by Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the prince said the US should re-examine its policies in the Middle East.

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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