In Arabic the word for mosque is Jami' and for university is Jami'a. A thousand years ago the first universities emerged within mosques where religion and science sat comfortably side by side. Building on knowledge from Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese and Indian Civilizations, Muslims developed a learning culture where enquiring minds searched for truths based on scientific rigor and experimentation. In almost every field of knowledge, Muslims made new inventions and discoveries with practical outcomes that helped develop society.
The ongoing 1001 Inventions educational exhibition in the country is uncovering one thousand years of scientific, technological and cultural achievements of Muslim civilization from the 7th century onwards, and how those contributions helped create the foundations of our modern world.
The exhibition is exactly what it says, "A journey to the past"; looking at recent years, there has been a lot more of destruction than constructive growth of education in the Arab region.
The Arab Knowledge Report 2014 released in December reveals that of the top 500 universities in the world, only five institutions were based in an Arab country, which indicates how the Arab region fell short in knowledge development.
Experts say: "Arab universities face challenges related to a critical shortage of quality teaching and research staff, poor governance, leadership and management, deteriorating quality of research, irrelevance of many degrees to the labor market and undue influence of government and religion."
Although, Arab universities are continuing toward improving the quality of education, the progress in academic freedom, research capacity and innovation has practically stagnated. While many factors could be responsible for this sorry situation, political instability and limited funds are perhaps the two main contributors.
Arab higher education experts agree that "except in the Gulf region, Arab universities will continue to struggle in 2015. Most are underfunded; there is comparatively no culture of basic research in science and technology and freedom of thought will remain constrained by several forms of authoritarianism."
They also feel that "Arab nations need to set up university free zones and fund them generously to support research and publications. If universities are to become incubators of new knowledge in the Arab world, faculty, students and researchers must be guaranteed absolute freedom. But students suffer from double isolation from international renowned universities and from the business sector."
In their quest to transform into a full-fledged knowledge economy, Arab countries face many challenges. Nonetheless, the Arab region’s potentials are immense and positive; with some Arab states declaring 2015 as the 'Education Year' (in Yemen) and the 'Year of Innovation' (in the United Arab Emirates), the Arab states are willing to focus on reforming higher education focused on employment and sustainable development.