“I am honored to be part of the Usul Academy team and to bring my own expertise and experience to this great initiative. In many ways, my life is a living example of the story of Usul Academy.”
When I was still a student, I was never really satisfied with formal school education. I felt it lacked the ability to address my entire being. While my mind was being nourished with abstract knowledge, my soul yearned for more. It wasn’t long before I pursued other sources of knowledge. Many traditional scholars still lived and taught in Istanbul, continuing a legacy of a timeless tradition. I knocked on the doors of some of these scholars and by the grace of God, they accepted me as their student. They opened up before me new horizons of knowledge that were simply not available in modern academic education.
Yet they never discouraged me from continuing my formal education. On the contrary, they advised me to combine both traditional Islamic education with modern academic education to become a scholar with two wings (dhū al-janāḥayn). They impressed upon me the idea that what our modern age desperately needs is this kind of well-rounded scholar. So, I completed my traditional education with them while continuing my modern academic training in Istanbul, Cairo, and New York. I always remember them with gratitude and send prayers upon their souls. Among them is Talip Uluşan who first initiated me to the path of Islamic knowledge in 1976. I was still a young child when he met me in my father’s shop and taught me Tajwīd, Ṣarf, and Naḥw. There is also the venerable Mahmut Kaya, who privately taught me Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn among other subjects in his home for many years; Mustafa Al-Azami whom I first met in New York but came to Istanbul to teach me and my friends hadith, and Muhammed Emin Er, whom I first met in New York and who continued to teach me privately in my home and his home in New York, Istanbul and Ankara until he departed this world to travel to the eternal abode. May Allah be pleased with all of them.
After I reached a certain level of knowledge, my teachers encouraged me to teach other students in order that I may continue this tradition and keep it alive. This is how I began teaching students in private and on a voluntary basis, in my home or at my office. Sometimes we met in a quiet corner of a mosque. Through these lessons, my students and I forged a strong bond of fellowship similar to the one I had with my teachers. This relationship was characterized by highly refined good adab (manners), mutual love and care. In the meantime, I successfully carried on my academic work, teaching and researching at various universities. My education is a combination of private tutoring in traditional Islamic disciplines by respected scholars and modern academic training under prominent academicians in Istanbul and New York. This opened my mind to various ways of looking at things from a comparative and critical perspective. It also made me realize that we should be epistemologically inclusive and avoid false dichotomies in our thinking between religion and science or tradition and modernity.
Then came a surprising turning point. A charitable person, who headed an organization established to promote education, kindly offered to help me establish a center for traditional education to offer students of Islamic Studies rigorous theological training. The purpose was to nurture a new generation of young Muslim scholars. I accepted the offer and we founded the Center for Sciences and Arts (İSM) at the Atik Valide Complex in Üsküdar. This was a 5-year extra-curricular honors program combining a traditional madrasah curriculum with the teaching of the English language and comparative and critical studies of the social sciences. The traditional madrasah, which was once a thriving center for traditional learning during the Ottoman period and then abandoned for decades, was revived. A large number of students showed great interest in this program, but we accepted only twenty students every year.
Two charitable and wealthy brothers heard about the success of the Atik Valide Program and invited me to set up another foundation to offer education to an even larger number of students. This time, it was not only for the students of Islamic studies but for students of all disciplines. I accepted this invitation and we established the İSAR foundation. It offered a traditional madrasah curriculum combined with modern social sciences for highly motivated students. It took me some time to convince the funders that students from all branches of knowledge can be Muslim scholars if they apply an Islamic perspective to their own disciplines.
While İSAR accepted only male students, two charitable ladies with a concern for the education of female students invited me to set up an institution offering an extra-curricular honors program for female students. This initiative gave birth to the Center for Excellence in Education (EDEP). We offered the traditional Ottoman madrasah curriculum combined with the study of English and Arabic as well as a critical and comparative approach to contemporary social sciences. Female students from diverse fields showed great interest in this four-year program which is still running near the Hırka-i Şerif Mosque in Fatih (where the sacred mantle of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is preserved) and also in Üsküdar, Istanbul.
I was able to take these ideas with me into the university context as well. In 2017, I served as the founding president of Ibn Haldun University. During this time, I tried to reflect upon my comparative, inclusive, and open-minded approach to knowledge and apply this to the pedagogy and curriculum design of that newly founded university. We decided that at Ibn Haldun University, learning three languages (English, Arabic, and Turkish) should be mandatory in most programs and the content of the education should be comparative and not Eurocentric. To contribute to this purpose, one of the projects I launched was an honors program adjusted to the university setting. This program also offered the classical madrasah curriculum combined with a critical and comparative examination of Western and Islamic classical works. Students from Ibn Haldun University showed great interest in it and those who were accepted after a competitive process worked with unmatched enthusiasm in addition to their course work at the university.
Offering to aspiring students what they have needed and desired most is the reason behind the success of these voluntary, extra-curricular honors programs. These programs have been extremely successful and highly attractive to students because they satiated their intellectual needs and interests. Also, the commitment and discipline of the students and the selfless dedication of the teachers are among the reasons for the success of these programs. I’m proud of my students and colleagues who carry on their work with great enthusiasm for the sake of emancipation from hegemonic, materialist and Eurocentric education and for the sake of gaining the pleasure of Allah by seeking knowledge as a communal responsibility (farḍ al-kifāyah).
In 2019, the Covid pandemic changed the way education was being delivered. The whole world experienced a digital revolution in education. Millions of students carried on their education using online platforms. Despite its shortcomings, distance education offered new opportunities. In the wake of the pandemic, I received several suggestions to launch an online program to offer a similar style of education to students from different parts of the world who cannot physically come to Istanbul to attend our face-to-face honors programs. Actually, offering an honors program to a global audience has been a dream of mine for decades. Many ideas, people, and efforts converged together and Usul Academy was born.