In conversation with
Dr. Anis Malik Thoha

Rector | Islamic University of Sultan Agung

Higher Education Spotlight: What is the meaning of ‘education’ to you?

Anis Malik Thoha: Education is not just transfer of knowledge. Education, to me, is what we call ‘Tarbiyah’ in Arabic – it means to cultivate and shape an identity and as well as personal character.

How have you managed to not only retain UNISSULA’s prestigious reputation, but also expand it in the modern, globalised world?

Anis Malik Thoha: UNISSULA was established in 1961. In the beginning there were only three faculties- natural sciences, Islamic studies, and economics. Right from the beginning, it was designed as an Islamic university. It was founded by practicing Muslims, although that did not directly translate into an effect on the content of the programs. In the beginning they did not differ much from equivalent programs in other, non-Islamic, universities.

One year after the university was founded, the medicine faculty was opened, followed by law. In the early ‘70s the university was able to establish a teaching hospital for the medicine faculty. Around 2002 UNISSULA re-branded and underwent a significant change of philosophy. Our vision is now to be a world-class Islamic university in the development of knowledge and technology from the Islamic perspective, based on Islamic values.
After the re-branding the programs were gradually revised and re-developed in order to integrate them with our new philosophy and students were required to take some Islamic studies modules. This lasted until I began my time here, in February 2014. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the curriculum. I obtained my education in International Islamic University and my professional career followed in the same path. So my vision for UNISSULA was clear.

Through my work in comparative religion, the wide range of literature and people I have encountered, I have come to believe that people would not be able to live without a value system. He or she has to constantly evaluate and judge what they should do, and he or she must have a frame of reference in mind to do this. From where do they get their idea of what is the ‘right’ thing? And isn’t this actually a religion? This frame of reference, this religion, creates one’s worldview.

How did your awareness of your own religion affect what you came to do here at UNISSULA?

Anis Malik Thoha: I am convinced that my religion is everything, and I believe that applies to everyone. This does not mean we shouldn’t respect other religions. No, we must have respect. Everyone is free, and we cannot interfere with others’ beliefs.

I was involved in the development of the educational system at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) where I was head of the Department of Usuluddin and Comparative Religion. So I have a reasonable insight into the future of Islamic education. When the rector position at UNISSULA opened, I was approached by a dean here and invited to enter the selection process. This involved a number of fit and proper test. I was eventually, to my surprise, selected for the job.

In order to realise the vision of this university, to make it a world class Islamic university, I had to make sure I understood what Islam meant within the walls of this institution. There was some Islamic studies content on the curriculum, but it was not enough in my opinion. The Islamic worldview requires that all subjects must be integrated with Islamic values and principles. We are continuously fostering this integration to this day. It is important that our staff must be in tune with our philosophy, so we re-trained everybody. We continue to offer regular training workshops for fine tuning.

Sometimes my staff ask, for example, “How can Islam be put into engineering?” I say, “There are many ways to Islamise engineering. At least, we have to instil into the students the Islamic principle of causality, i.e., that everything happens by the Divine Will and Permission, in addition to use Islamic values and etiquette in the way you teach, the way you assess the work of your students, the way you interact with them.” This is what is expected from Islamisation.

How are you helping your students integrate with industry and small and medium enterprises? What key areas of research are you focusing on?

Anis Malik Thoha: As an Islamic university, UNISSULA aspires to realise the dream of the contemporary Muslim Ummah to re-establish Islamic civilisation through modern, yet holistic, educational system in all branches of knowledge. Therefore, like all universities, the western educational system- western knowledge, western science are exposed to the students but from Islamic perspective. The Muslim majority here longs to consume products and see innovation that is in line with their believes. The area of research and innovation is directed in order to cater to the needs of the Muslim masses. Our products will be Islamic products. Our services will be Islamic services. Our knowledge will be Islamic knowledge.

You may have observed in the last decades that Muslims have been very enthusiastic about living their lives according to their religion. I think this is the right time for our university to offer Islamic alternatives, for example halal products and medical services. This is strategic planning on our part, but also serves our nation.

Since the introduction of the MEA (Asean Economic Community), have you identified any key partnerships that you would like to establish within the ASEAN region, and how would that contribute to the mobility of your faculty?

Anis Malik Thoha: At UNISSULA we work in almost every academic field so we try to collaborate with colleagues in Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and Philippines in all different areas. So far, we have been doing well with them, especially with Malaysia.

Worldwide, we also have an active MoU with Dong Seo University in South Korea. Each semester we send two students there, where they can earn transferable credit. Our MoU with Changwon National University (CNU), also in South Korea, is expected to start with CNU students mobility program to come here. Our most active partnership is with Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences (RUAS), Netherlands, which started in 2013. Overall, almost 100 of their students have studied with us since then. This year we received a ¤150,000 Erasmus+ grant for educational mobility.

What role do you believe higher education plays in creating a united ASEAN identity? Can this be achieved?

Anis Malik Thoha: I think it can. A real part of this identity is Islam. In Indonesia and Malaysia, national and Islamic identity share equal priority. We share the Islamic culture, and a lot of common Arabic/Islamic vocabulary.

As long as Islam is universal by nature, there should be a common endeavour to materialise the universal values among the ASEAN countries. Indeed, we have a common root as Asian nations. There is a common uniquely Asian culture that you see in all these ASEAN countries. Before the modern era Southeast Asia was united in Hinduism and Buddhism, first. When Islam arrived it managed to introduce new, but not conflicting, culture. On a social level we share the same values, which we must foster between Asian nations.

The Qur’an clearly states, “There is no compulsion in religion.” People are free. We should not insult other religions, we should respect their gods. We try to instil a multicultural morality in all students. They have to respect the rights and freedoms of others. As an educational institution we support this and, whether people accept it or not, we will continue to do so.

How do you continue to develop yourself and learn every day? How do you promote the concept of lifelong learning to your peers, alumni, and faculty here?

Anis Malik Thoha: I am very busy with this job but I still try to allocate a time, to find a chance, to read when I can, especially books in my area. I need to develop myself also. No man is an island, so I have to continue learning by observing things, by practicing, by interacting with different people. I have to entertain the invitations from different institutions to give talks, present papers, and to publish. For instance, last October 2016, I was invited to give a plenary talk at Tenri University, Japan, on an aspect of Toshihiko Izutsu’s scholarship which has been one of my interests of study and research.

I want to show to my colleagues and students that, though I am busy, I also have to develop myself in areas not limited to my expertise. Learning never ends. Whenever I recite the Holy Qur’an, it gives me new vision and new knowledge, improving my personality and experience.