An Interview with Necmettin Kızılkaya about the ISAR Specialization Program

23 November 2019

How did the idea of ​​a specialization program come about and how does student acceptance take place?

ISAR basic education is a four-year education. The students who receive this training receive a basic education that encompasses Islamic sciences, especially Arabic and other instrument sciences. Even though at the end of the second year, ie in the third and fourth years, students were taking courses covering Islamic sciences and social sciences, we began to think: How can we make the level and education that students have received more effective? The students of ISAR are mainly familiar with the issues of Sharia and some other fields. The issues that any university student is not aware of are starting to come to the agenda of ISAR students along with the courses in basic education. This gives them a significant advantage, but not entirely enough; because once we become aware of the issues, we need to create alternatives to what kind of work will be done. The specialization program was initiated with this aim. Our main goal is to make deeper readings with students who have reached a good level of Arabic and English, and to produce solutions to the problems faced by humanity today as a result of these readings.

We started the specialization program three years ago in order to take the students who have taken four years of basic education to the next level, to read more in-depth texts, to analyze these texts and to bring these texts together with their own fields and to obtain the results that we all need. Before the completion of this program, the students who completed the basic education were active in ISAR with the studies the contours of which were not fully defined but which lay the basis for the current program. With the specialization program, we had the opportunity to continue these training activities in a certain order and discipline.

As for student admission, first of all we want ISAR students to be successful in all courses in basic education. For this, we expect a two-step process to pass the exams during the semester and at the end of the year. Students who pass these two exams can move to the next level. We also take a four-year syllabus when taking specialized students. In addition, we conduct an interview about the future plans of the students, their interest in scientific studies, and their expectations from the institution. Of course, we can say that our students often pass the specialization stage either because they are the students who have gone through various qualifying processes or they have been successful during the education period. In addition to this, we also have students who receive basic education adequately and who take various duties or who are awarded admission to graduate and doctoral programs abroad. We have various programs for these students. I'm going to talk about this soon. Let me also express this: The students who have passed the specialization programs are mostly those who have graduated from the schools they have attended. Therefore, our specialized students consist of our friends who have passed on to graduate education both at their own schools and at ISAR.

“We started the specialization program three years ago in order to take the students who have taken four years of basic education to the next level, to read more in-depth texts, to analyze these texts and to bring these texts together with their own fields and to obtain the results that we all need.”

Can you tell us about the program content and objectives?

Specialized education is structured as a three-year program consisting of fall, spring and summer semesters. One of the main objectives of the program is to enable interdisciplinary studies for the students who have completed the qualifying (basic) education in ISAR and have completed their undergraduate programs in their own universities. So far, every semester, we have organized two basic courses and, additionally, workshops in different fields. Just as in ISAR basic education our students take courses in two areas Sharia sciences and what may be called social sciences, we try to follow a similar program at the level of specialization. This is a program with fewer courses, more reading, writing and research. In this context, in the first semester of the first year, in the course of ‘Ahkam al-Qur'an’ students learn how to interpret these verses in terms of procedure by establishing the relationship between the Qur'anic verses. They have the opportunity to see how a faqih understands the Qur'an, which methodologies he uses to try to understand it, and which principles he follows while interpreting the Qur'an. In basic education, students read a text from both fiqh and usul al-fiqh. In this lesson, they try to understand how these two sciences were brought together and applied. In the second term, they take the course ‘Ahkam al-hadith’ with the same logic. In this lesson, where Nurettin Itr's book Iʿlam al-anām is taught, we try to focus on how hadiths turn into judgments and what kind of data they provide to shape concrete life. Considering how the scholars and scholars in today's Islamic world understand these texts, I can say that we are trying to resurrect the lost depth. Especially from the 19th century onwards, a new form of discourse and religious understanding emerges with respect to religious texts. This textual approach has influenced many fields and thinkers and these texts are translated and understood without any methodology or scientific method. We are trying to show our students what kind of criteria are needed to understand texts and how Muslims have developed knowledge and culture with respect to these texts through history.

We can easily understand why these courses are necessary for theologians, but can you tell us why these courses are necessary for other students in the specialization program?

This is a very important point. Consider a student of history or economics; the question of how this student will benefit from these lessons is a question that we constantly ask ourselves. When we look at the general vision of ISAR here, we think that all sciences should be intertwined and as a whole. For example, when an economist's approaches the issue of interest, and bases it on the Qur'an, while he approaches other issues in economics on the basis of the mainstream's perspective, this reflects a fragmented mind structure. When a historian, economist, physicist, or medical student encounters the main texts of religion, he needs to understand that it is a sophisticated endeavor to understand, interpret and apply these texts, and to understand how Islamic scholars have understood these texts in the past. Along with modernity, we as Muslims face a disintegrated life and understanding of knowledge. We have different identities at the university, mosque and home. This is something we have faced since the 19th century. This is so even though, in the past, scholars such as Ghazali and Razi could write usul al fiqh, tafsir or a book of philosophy at the same time. Meaning, these sciences are intertwined. Consequently, we can say that a Muslim historian cannot do historiography and a sociologist cannot do sociology without the Qur'an and hadith texts that form the basis of his existence; therefore, it is needed to associate these texts with the field in which they work. Nowadays, the realization is that this is necessary in every field. After this realization the question of how becomes important. How will I relate my own field to these texts? The common understanding of today answers this question from a perspective that we can call Protestant; this is an understanding that approaches the text on the basis of individual interpretation. The practice we have followed in ISAR, taking historical experience into account, is based on the principle that this association (between the relative field and the Quran and hadith) is carried out within the framework of a method and in depth. At the end of this training, whilst the student will be able to think about how to establish a relationship between subject X of his field and the verse Y of the Qur'an, in a more general perspective he can face the issues he encounters with a holistic understanding.

If we continue to talk about the content, in the first period of the second year we read the text of al-Hidayah of Marghinani. To answer the question of how other students will benefit in the way that you asked, we read the “Kitab al-siyer” section of this text,. This section includes a number of issues that will attract the interest of every student studying law, politics, history, international relations, and international economics in the context of Muslims' relationship with other states and societies. We teach this section in order to take into account the Ottoman experience, along with the fatwas of the Shaykh al-Islam, and sometimes together with archival documents,. In the second semester of the second year, we teach a section from the Sharh al-Mawaqif of Jurjani. In the basic course, students read an aqaid text, followed by Sharh al-Aqaid in the field of kalam. Sharh al-Mawaqif is a book that subsumes logic, rhetoric, philosophy, kalam etc. Here, the specialization students try to understand a more sophisticated text using their experience in basic education. To read these books it is not enough to know the Arabic language only. Other areas I have mentioned also need to be known. The main reason for reading this text is to give an opportunity to students to reflect on problems of metaphysics. We try to place these classical texts in the context of today in order to profoundly address today's intellectual problems.

“…a Muslim historian cannot do historiography and a sociologist cannot do sociology without the Qur'an and hadith texts that form the basis of his existence; therefore, it is needed to associate these texts with the field in which they work.

As for the third year, we read a Sufi text in the first semester and a philosophy text in the second semester. The content that we read in the field of Sufism is composed of selected texts which have been authored in different centuries starting from the early period till the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Through these texts, we try to transfer the achievements that Muslims made in the field of Sufism through history. Especially, we see that in the texts written in the field of Sufism since the middle period that disciplines such as philosophy, kalam, logic and akhlaq are fused in them. This is important in terms of demonstrating how a field with a theoretical and practical dimension in Muslim societies is handled with broad competence. In the field of philosophy, we try to select the texts from the Mutaakhirun which may be called the late period, especially from the Ottoman period, and try to make the students see the point they have reached in terms of scientific development.

“Our students take introductory courses in various fields of social sciences both in the basic education and in their own universities.”

If you pay attention, as you move from the first year to the third year in the specialization program, the students go through an educational process that gives more space to theory and theoretical issues. Therefore, at the end of the first two years of specialization education, students receive an education that enables them to comprehend the inheritance of theoretical thought.

There are also courses in the social sciences side of the specialization program. Our students take introductory courses in various fields of social sciences both in basic education and in their own universities. Here, for three years, meaning six semesters, we have planned readings from Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima, one section to be read in each semester. For example, in the fall of the first year, there is our philosophy of history course, which revolves around the first part of the Muqaddima. Likewise, there are classes in sociology in the second semester, international relations and politics in the third semester, aesthetics in the context of architecture and urban history in the fourth semester, economics in the fifth semester meaning in the third year fall semester, and classification of the sciences in the spring semester of the third year. Each of our students who starts the first year will have learned English, Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. In this way, for example, students take the first part of the Muqaddima while studying philosophy of history and in this course they have the opportunity to discuss contemporary issues from articles in various languages. In addition, each student is expected to write an essay at the end of the semester. In these lessons, they should follow the Muqaddima's Arabic original text and the Ottoman edition and commentary by Pirizade. Here we want students to see how the Ottoman ulema understood and interpreted this text, what kind of contributions they made to it, and what characteristics a commentary should have. Therefore, in the social sciences courses of the specialization program, we try to focus on Muqaddima and examine today's issues in the fields I have counted. ISAR students coming from various fields have the opportunity to discuss these issues with the formations from their respective fields and think about them while writing about the same.

What distinguishes ISAR Specialization from similar programs?


In Turkey, especially in Istanbul, since many years we can find important institutions that impart seminars for university students. At this point, the most critical difference ISAR makes is to teach the Sharia sciences and the instrumental sciences needed to understand these sciences. From this perspective, ISAR is one of the first and pioneering institutions in its field with 10 years of experience. The most distinctive feature is that it gives classical education to students from many different disciplines. In Turkey there had already been institutions giving lessons in sarf, nahw and balagha, of course. ISAR is an institution that has been continuing the project of teaching balagha, munazara, fiqh, kalam and usul al-hadith to engineers, economists, political scientists and medical students for ten years. For example, in any waqf, students may be reading and discussing Sezai Karakoç's book on Islamic thought or Turgut Cansever's thoughts on city and architecture. These are very important contributions to university students' world-views and their cultural heritage. But what we do is to understand what has been said in the Islamic civilization that existed for centuries before us, to take the student there and to look at the issues of today. Therefore, we come back to the present starting from a little behind, and we try to deal with the issues from a perspective that comprehends today's writers. In my opinion, we can offer alternatives for today by considering the Islamic civilization and the social experience of Muslims since the Holy Prophet (S.A.W.). Considering the social experience of Muslims since the Prophet, we can offer alternatives to today. From this point of view, as ISAR, starting from our roots to the present, we try to contribute to today's issues from a scientific aspect. This is one of the main distinctions of ISAR. There are institutions that carry out programs similar to the basic education of ISAR, but work that resembles the specialization program here is not yet widespread.

One of the most important features that make the specialization program different is the absence of students from outside the institution. In other words, the specialization program consists of students who have successfully completed the basic education of ISAR. In other words, students who have completed their basic education under a certain discipline in ISAR and have formed a harmony among themselves continue their specialization level. We can say that the discussion environment and exchange of ideas among these students are more efficient. I think this is an important advantage for both the students and us.


What is done in addition to the seminars conducted during the semester?


Since the day it was founded, İSAR has been carrying out activities in workshops and workgroups. For example, the workgroup on Law has been organizing panels since the first years of ISAR, especially by hosting pioneering names in the field of Islamic law at ISAR and also inviting jurists and theologians interested in this field. The workgroup on Medicine and Ethics works on the intersection of medicine, ethics and law. There are also Kalam, Economics and History workshops and the Social Theory reading group. In the Legal Thought reading group the texts of Western political thought and philosophy of law are read and discussed in an environment where Islamic Studies students are also present. In the usul al-fiqh workshop, which has entered its fifth year, fiqh, language and logic within the framework of Khadimi’s Majami al-haqaiq's. The Contemporary Islamic Thought Workshop, which has entered its third year, is focused on the discussions in the last period of the Ottoman Empire and will start to produce its first products this year. In short, there are workshops and reading groups at ISAR that cater to students from different disciplines. We want each of our friends in the specialization level to continue in the special working groups for these fields; because the workshops are more product-oriented. Some of these workshops were put into practice at an earlier stage. The other type is two to three-year workshops, these are just starting to put forth the products of their work. These workshops are the platforms where our students will have the opportunity to combine their education in the university and the experience that they have gained in İSAR and produce works.


We also organize summer schools. Even though the specialization program has been continuing for three years, the fourth of the summer schools was held this year. Through these programs, we also maintain our liaison with friends who have graduated from İSAR and who continue their graduate studies abroad or who take various positions outside of Istanbul. Now we have around 20 graduate students studying abroad who are spending their summer in Turkey. The most important contribution of summer school is this: the alumni and graduates of our specialization program in Turkey and abroad can meet and interact with our students and provide an environment in which they exchange ideas. These programs consist of courses that we organize around specific subjects, especially considering the needs of our undergraduate and graduate students. In the first year, our students read Usul al-hikam fi nizami al-alam containing Hasan Kafi Aqhisari's political thought from handwritten manuscripts. In addition, the usul al-fiqh named Semt al-wusul by the same author was read. Therefore, by reading the works of the same author from two different fields, a holistic view of the scholar's intellectual world was obtained.

In the summer school that we organized in the second year, Shatibi's al-Muwafaqat and Lutfi Paşa's Âsafnâme were read. Shatibi was a Maliki faqih and an usuli who lived in Andalusia in the 14th century and was one of the important names mentioned in relation to issues such as maqasid al-sharia and maslahat which are widely discussed today. Lütfi Pasha, was an Ottoman bureaucrat and thinker who lived in the 16th century. His work is an important text in political thought.

In the third summer school, we examined modernization and religious currents in the Islamic world as a more current issue. We have realized a very successful program based on the religious currents and movements that have emerged, starting from the Balkans, in the Middle East, North Africa and the Far East and their relationship with modernization.


In the summer school program we organized this year, we had a thematic framework aimed at providing our students with the knowledge and skills of archive literacy. In ISAR, our students gain a significant accumulation in the field of instrumental sciences, Sharia sciences and social sciences. We think that our students should be familiar with the manuscripts and archives. Our summer school was about archives; It was a five-week program revolving around Ottoman bureaucracy, Ottoman archives and classification, and document types. We hosted some names very esteemed in their fields, some of them from outside the city. While we were doing the program, the institution and officials from the then-called Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archives which has now been named the Presidential State Archives made a very valuable contribution to the program. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them. We plan to organize a summer school about manuscripts next year too.


Is a program being considered for students graduating from the specialization program?


Among our specialization students, we have friends that we employ as researchers at ISAR. These are our colleagues who have made significant contributions to the implementation of the ISAR project. The students who have finished the specialization program are also approaching the end of doctoral programs after completing approximately seven years of education. I think that our students who have graduated from the specialization level are scientists who can produce solutions to the problems facing humanity. Therefore, we do not intervene very much where and how they do it. Some may contribute as faculty, some may contribute in another way. Our second important expectation is that they support ongoing education at ISAR. Our educational activity has now become a program to which ISAR graduates also contribute. This contribution can take the form of taking some classes or counseling students. Apart from these, they are actively involved in workshops and working groups at ISAR, and I think that all these efforts will soon emerge as important works that humanity needs.


“We have realized a very successful program based on the religious currents and movements that have emerged, starting from the Balkans, in the Middle East, North Africa and the Far East and their relationship with modernization.”