Al-Zaytuna Mosque, Tunis
Tunis – Nabil Zaghdoud
The return of Zaytuni education in Tunisia has caused wide controversy. Some have welcomed it, while others are against the 13-century-old form of education. “The institution of the al-Zaytuna Mosque
will be an independent scientific institution away from all partisan influence,” said an official statement from supporters of the move.
However, critics have said: “This education does not conform with the tenets for general education that the government provides under the flag of republican and civilian values.”
Fathi al-Khemiri, amemeber of an Arabic association of "al-Zaytuna Mosque lovers", filed a lawsuit to facilitate the return of the educational model, telling Arabstoday: “The return of this scientific and religious beacon is something very important in light of the increase of religious extremism we are currently experiencing. The aim of its return to Tunisia and north Africa is to spread the moderate values of religion.”
He also said it would serve to restore the historical scientific and religious role of Zaytuna after it was closed in 1962 due to a decree by late president Habib Bourguiba, which forced the teachers and professors to join state education as part of Bourguiba's move to modernise education.
The head of the scientific body in the mosque, Sheikh Hassein al-Obeidi, told Arabstoday that the lessons launched on May 13 were attended by 1800 students, comprising both genders.
He also said that 25 branches would open across the nation, saying: "We teach Islamic studies and, the education has nothing to do with current politics...we will offer several specialisations."
"The education and teachers are independent and have no political affiliations," he added.
Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Tunisia's ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party, has said "the return of the Zaytuni education is a correction of a historic mistake towards our religion and our country, and that the Zaytuni institution is a guardian of the Arab Islamic identity and is its exporter to Africa".
Tunisia's ministry of religious affairs had declared that “introducing an integrated vision and preparing a Zaytuni education project will take place through partnership between it, the Zaytuni teachers, ministers of higher education and scientific research and education".
Ali al-Lafi, the political and medial consultant of the religious affairs ministry, said to Arabstoday: “The Zaytuni education project will take place through making use of the experiences of Islamic universities such as al-Azhar in Egypt and al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco."
"It will seek to make Zaytuni education contemporary and enlightened in a way that reinforces national unity, guides moderate religious intellect and eradicates religious ignorance," he added.
The health ministry however has opposed the Zaytuna Mosque's proposal to teach medicine as well.
The leftist Social Democratic Path also warned of the danger of reviving Zaytuni education as MP Samir Battaib said they were against religious education. He said a statement to Arabstoday that he was committed to the unity of the education system, both general and private. "This may lead to division on a doctrinal and ideological basis between people," he warned.
Al-Zaytuna Mosque is the first religious intellectual institution in Africa and is categorised among renowned Islamic universities such as al-Azhar and al-Qarawiyyin. It also had a major role in the graduation of thousand of scholars.