Teaching Islam in Christian seminaries

 

Dr. Mark Toulouse, principal of Emmanuel College, greets incoming student Hidayatullah Sherzad at Fall 2015 orientation.

Credit: Stephen Milton

The summer session at Hartford Seminary usually begins after graduation in May, continues through June and wraps up before the July 4 holiday. Not this year. To accommodate Muslim students observing Ramadan from June 5 through July 5, Hartford added a second summer session in July and squeezed in a two-week seminar on “Women and Gender in Islam” in May, before the Muslim holy month began.

 

It’s even trickier to choose a time for graduation, historically held on a Friday, since the school must take into account both Jewish and Muslim students. “If we have it too early in the day on Friday, Muslims are still coming back from the mosque, but if it’s too late, some Jewish students need to get home before sunset,” explains Hartford’s president, Heidi Hadsell. “These are the challenges of living together.”

 

These and other challenges — such as allowing for prayer during late afternoon classes or accommodating religious dietary restrictions in the residence houses — are minor, says Hadsell. The bigger one is explaining why a historically Christian seminary, founded by Congregationalist ministers and considered nondenominational today, is training Muslims (and Jews and adherents of other faiths). “I’m sure there have been some people who feel this isn’t the vocation of a Christian seminary, but that is not a major sentiment,” says Hadsell. 

 

Student Nargis Alizada (right) in the Hartford library.

Credit: Bradley Clift

Instead, Hartford’s programs that focus on Islam “flow from the history and DNA of the institution,” she says. The school’s relationship to the Muslim world dates back to the late 19th century, when a missionary focus on conversion prevailed. In the mid-20th century, a new understanding of interfaith relations emerged, culminating in the founding of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations in the 1970s. Today the center houses the first accredited Islamic chaplaincy program in the United States, publishes a scholarly journal, The Muslim World, and offers master’s and doctoral degrees as well as certificates in Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations. 

 

But Hartford isn’t the only North American institution of graduate-level theological education offering classes, programs, degrees, and chaplaincy certification in Islamic studies. Increasingly, other primarily Christian theological schools are hiring Muslim faculty, attracting Muslim students, and including Muslims on their boards. At a time when the broader culture often equates Islam with terrorism, a growing number of Christian seminaries are literally opening their doors to Muslims. While the challenges can be real, the benefits are worth it, say faculty, administrators, and board members.

 

Interreligious benefits

Although the North American Muslim population is growing, it is still young and has yet to establish a network of accredited institutions of graduate-level theological study. The first undergraduate Muslim college, Zaytuna College in California, was founded in 2009 and does not offer graduate degrees, though it is adjacent to the Graduate Theological Union. The Association of Theological Schools currently includes only Christian seminaries, but it does include as an affiliate one Muslim school, the American Islamic College in Chicago, which offers a master of arts as well as an M.Div. in Islamic Studies. 

 

In the past, most American Muslims wishing to become imams or Muslim scholars chose to go abroad for study. But about 20 years ago, the need arose for military chaplains who could minister to Muslim soldiers. The catch: U.S. military chaplains are required to complete a three-year graduate theological degree from an accredited U.S. seminary. That’s when Hartford started its Islamic chaplaincy program, which provided legitimacy and a pool of candidates for colleges, hospitals, and the military.

 

It’s a win–win–win situation. Muslim students receive a contextualized American approach to studying Islam from professors who are leaders in their fields, while Muslim, Christian, and other students forge interfaith relationships during and after class. “At Hartford, there is such a culture of love and openness,” says board member Umar Moghul, an attorney who has also taken classes at the seminary. 

 

Finally, Hartford Seminary benefits from the diversity and from the students attracted to the new program. 

 

At Emmanuel College in Toronto, the impetus for an Islamic Studies program also came from outside the school — from the local Muslim community. Nearly 8 percent of the Toronto region is Muslim, the highest percentage in any North American metropolitan area. 

 

In 2008, Muslim leaders were looking for opportunities for graduate theological study and chaplaincy certification for work in retirement homes, hospitals, and prisons. In response, the school’s new principal, Mark G. Toulouse, began a conversation that resulted in a new certificate program and eventually a master’s degree. The certificate program has since closed, but in its place, Emmanuel offers a variety of continuing education events throughout the year. 

Emmanuel College highlights their Muslim studies program in their PR materials. This photo was taken for a Muslim studies brochure. Pictured left to right are: Esther Reiser, Khaiam Dar, Abier Elbarbary, and El-Farouk Khaki. 

Credit: Michael Barker 

Emmanuel’s master of pastoral studies in Muslim studies is a 20-credit degree with some overlap with the Christian version of the degree. Emmanuel also offers the master of pastoral studies in Buddhism, with both the Buddhist and Muslim courses open to all students. More than 20 Muslim students at Emmanuel represent diversity within Islam, as well, including both traditional and more progressive adherents. One female student wears a niqab, the traditional dress covering the entire body except the eyes, while another is an imam and gay rights leader in the city. “It’s quite an interesting mix,” says Toulouse, who had been involved in creating a similar program in Jewish studies while he was dean at Brite Divinity School in Texas.

 

The opportunity to build interfaith friendships and networks benefits students of all religious backgrounds, Toulouse says, and it’s seen as a plus by prospective Christian students. “Because Muslims are the second largest religious group in Toronto, chances are good that non-Muslims will be meeting Muslims in their work,” says Nevin Reda, an assistant professor who teaches many of the Muslim studies courses. “Having this exposure throughout their education is going to improve their skills in dealing with Muslims. It certainly is a big advantage.”

 

This year Union Theological Seminary added a program in Islam, social justice, and religious engagement for the same reason. “There are 2.1 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, so there’s no way a Christian can be responsible as a theologian and not know anything about Islam,” says Union’s president, Serene Jones. 

 

Union is a freestanding seminary that describes itself as “rooted in a critical understanding of the breadth of Christian traditions yet significantly instructed by the insights of other faiths.” Jones says that Christian students at Union find that classes in Islam strengthen their own faith. “Across the board, you hear from the students that interreligious engagement deepens the understanding of their own tradition rather than being a threat,” she says. “I would think that it can only make us a better seminary and prepare better ministers for the church.”

 

For Muslim students, one of the strongest benefits of attending a predominantly Christian school is the Western contextualization in the coursework, as opposed to traditional or classical sources taught at an overseas madrasa. “In this program, they learn how to make that knowledge useful and well suited to the Canadian context,” says Reda, the Muslim studies professor at Emmanuel. Moghul, the board member at Hartford, agrees that Muslim students there appreciate “an approach that offers a good understanding of how to apply the faith in a way that is relevant in American life.” 

 

Imams looking for chaplaincy credentials often are also in need of training in pastoral skills, which they can acquire through Christian seminary education. In a Muslim country, imams lead prayers, but in America they are increasingly being called upon to be “pastors,” although that is a Christian word. “How do you negotiate with the hospital so a dying father gets a Muslim funeral? How do you negotiate with the police department so the son in jail gets an Islamic meal?” says Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University. Those require pastoral skills.

 

Hussain, who teaches both undergraduates and graduate students in two theological master’s programs, believes that Christians benefit more from studying with Muslims than vice versa. “There is greater ignorance about Islam among Christians, than about Christianity by Muslims,” he says.

 

He has felt welcomed at the Catholic university, Hussain says, noting that openness to diverse religious traditions is part of Loyola’s mission, which includes “the service of faith” — not just the Catholic faith. 

 

At Emmanuel, a school affiliated with the United Church of Canada and embedded in Victoria University on the campus of the University of Toronto, a strategic planning committee examined the current mission statement and made some changes to ensure that the Muslim studies programs would be consistent with the mission. The United Church of Canada, which has been a leader in Muslim–Christian dialogue, was “100 percent supportive,” Toulouse says, as was the school’s advisory board. “It’s been really important to have board members excited about taking steps in interreligious directions,” he says. 

 

Challenges of interfaith education

Not everyone is always enthusiastic about admitting Muslim students or adding courses in Islam to a Christian seminary — including some Muslims. The Canadian Council of Imams told Toulouse that Muslim students would never attend a historically Christian seminary unless he allowed the imams to teach the courses — impossible, given accreditation standards.

 

And after a United Church newspaper ran a story about Emmanuel’s new program, they received a slew of negative letters opposed to the idea. Many couldn’t understand why a church-affiliated school would be interested in educating Muslims, Toulouse says. 

 

After Toulouse did an interview on a conservative television station, the opposition broadened to include those beyond the denomination. Some evangelical Christians mistakenly accused the school of using public funds to build an ablution facility for Muslim students in the basement. (No public money was used.) “Sadly, Islamophobia is as much a part of the Canadian scene as it is part of the American scene,” Toulouse says. Still, he estimates the negative reaction, though vocal, was small, and that fundraising was not affected.

 

Another challenge involves hiring faculty to teach Islamic studies courses. Obviously, funding a new faculty position is always a challenge, but it can also be difficult to find a qualified person with experience in a seminary setting and the ability to teach across the curriculum. Most schools have only one Muslim faculty member who faces the pressure to represent all of Islam. 

 

At Union, the full-time, tenure-track position in Muslim studies is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and the International Institute of Islamic Thought. “We were intentional about getting a koranic scholar who could go deep into the texts,” says Jones. They hired Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, who has a doctorate in religious pluralism from Georgetown University.

 

“I’m here not just to teach classes on Islam but for us to formalize a whole niche field of interreligious engagement,” says Lamptey. To prevent the Muslim program from becoming a silo, she makes connections to broader issues of social justice and power in her courses.

 

Lamptey advises hiring faculty with broad competencies and interdisciplinary experience. “You have to know that most of the students who walk through your door are going to be making assumptions about Islam,” she says, adding that negotiating latent anti-Muslim sentiment can be challenging for Muslim faculty even at schools that pride themselves on inclusivity.

 

Schools also may have to consider the denominational affiliation, or even the gender, of Muslim faculty members, while at the same time trying to avoid tokenism. At Emmanuel, even though the funding for the faculty line came from the Sunni community, the search did not specify denominational affiliation and initially resulted in the hiring of a Shia faculty member. 

 

“I thought it was really important that from the beginning we could signal that this is diverse,” says Toulouse. “We want to be able to accommodate and serve equally the diversity of Muslim voices. The fact that Sunnis, Shias, Ismailis, and Ahmadis can have a place where they can talk to each other has been interesting and important.”

 

Board involvement and best practices

Schools with Islamic studies programs can offer tips to other institutions considering such programs, but warn that one size does not fit all. Board involvement and commitment are important, as is connection to the local Muslim community. Some schools are inviting board members who are Muslim, not just to represent the community but because they bring gifts and talents to the organization.

 

“I think the seminary has done a wonderful job of integrating the Muslim board members,” says Moghul, who is one of several Muslim members of Hartford Seminary’s board and serves as its secretary. “We’re not there solely for the Islamic Studies program or for Muslims; we’re part of the fabric of the institution as a whole.” Nevertheless, he and other Muslim board members were helpful when, for example, Muslim faculty members indicated their desire for retirement investment opportunities consistent with their faith. 

 

Although it doesn’t currently have Muslim members, Union’s board has been supportive of the recent addition of a Muslim program. “We have so much to learn by engaging with people who come from different traditions,” says Wolcott Dunham, a lawyer and board chair. Yet, “the mission of Union isn’t necessarily right for every seminary.” 

 

Hartford’s President Hadsell agrees. “Different schools choose different models,” she says. “There are a variety of ways of doing this, and any one way is not the only way. I think schools should choose what makes sense for them.”

 

Connections to the local Muslim community are a good place to start, advises Reda from Emmanuel. “Seek out a variety of [Muslim] community groups, and be sure to include women, not just men,” she says, noting that interreligious work takes patience and perseverance. “It’s important to keep these conversations going to develop very strong interfaith relations, which we are so direly in need of all over the world.” 

 


Three models for teaching Islam

Although a growing number of seminaries are adding courses or programs in Islamic studies, they do so using a variety of models, depending on the school’s particular needs and situations. They can range from allowing students to take courses from non-theological departments of a university to creating emphases or even degrees in Islamic studies. Models also vary based on who the primary audience is —Christian or Muslim students — and who teaches the courses. They include:

 

1 Christian–Muslim programs exclusively or primarily for Christian students. Schools offer an emphasis within an existing major, often in interfaith relations. Students are primarily Christian, as are instructors, though there may be a few Muslim students and guest Muslim faculty. Community events, presentations, and conferences are hosted by the school, such as at the Center of Christian–Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice (CCME) of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Some evangelical schools, such as Fuller Theological Seminary, offer such programs as well. 

 

Islamic Studies programs aimed primarily at Muslim students. Schools offer certificates or degrees, including those for chaplaincy certification, with the goal of attracting Muslim students. At least one full-time Muslim faculty member is hired, as is the case at Hartford and Emmanuel. 

 

3 Islamic school housed at Christian seminary. Bayan Claremont is unique, in that it offers degrees primarily to Muslim students and uses Muslim faculty, yet operates as part of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist school. 

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Article from: Autumn 2016

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