Graduate Theological Union

Islam from the Public Square to the Academy

With few counterparts, the Center for Islamic Studies (CIS) offers graduate students and scholars, Muslim and those of other faith traditions, the opportunity to pursue the academic study of Islam, within the multireligious context of the GTU, where pluralism, dialogue and interreligious understanding are the basis of scholarship and service. It also provides a community for Muslim students throughout the consortium regardless of academic interests.

The Center’s mission is to build an academic platform to help scholars and students of many faiths understand Islam as a living world religion. “A lot of the work we do at the Center connects to everything that is going on with Islam and Muslims in the public sphere — in media, the arts, politics, law, business, and education, ” said CIS founding director Munir Jiwa. CIS emphasizes study, dialogue, and interaction with contemporary Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities, and civic engagement.

In cooperation with GTU member schools, CIS offers introductory and advanced courses in a range of academic disciplines, including interdisciplinary approaches, theories and methods. It also strengthens GTU’s ties with the University of California, Berkeley, through conferences, programs, and courses with departments such as African Diaspora Studies, Anthropology, Ethnic Studies, Near Eastern Studies, South and Southeast Asian Studies, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Center for Race and Gender, School of Journalism, and the iGov Program at the Institute for International Studies. The Center offers a Certificate in Islamic Studies while heavily supporting the Islamic Studies doctoral track. With the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation, CIS began offering the M.A. in Islamic Studies in the 2010-2011 academic year, graduating its first student in May 2012.

In addition, the Center serves as a liaison with local Muslim communities and study centers, sharing resources in interfaith and intrafaith education and dialogue, and religious leadership. This focus fits well with Rizwan Mawani, a first-year M.A. in Islamic Studies student from Canada. “I want to see if there are ways to understand how to create better dialogue in the Muslim community by looking at intra-Muslim dialogue among and within Muslim communities. GTU is already a model for Christian communities coming together in dialogue, so I thought this would be a great place to see if there are possibilities for models in the Muslim community as well.”

Since 2007, CIS has sponsored more than 300 conferences, symposia, workshops, and research projects to foster scholarly exchange across disciplines, to build bridges of understanding across religions and cultures, to promote civic engagement, and to increase better public education about Islam and Muslims. Among them, a Carnegie Corporation of New York-sponsored workshop in March 2009, “Who Speaks for Islam? Media and Muslim Networks.” More recently, CIS and the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies (CJS) sponsored a day of learning focused on the theme of “Hagar in the Jewish and Islamic Traditions,” as part of their cooperative Madrasa-Midrasha program which began in 2009.

Students are drawn to CIS because of its academic reputation and the breadth of knowledge of its faculty, particularly Jiwa, an anthropologist focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West and in the media, and Sr. Marianne Farina, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. “GTU is a great place to be because of how closely we work with the Center for Jewish Studies, and I’ve had a great experience with the Dominican School [of Philosophy and Theology] and Sr. Marianne Farina who is so knowledgeable in Islamic Studies,” said Sarah Heddon, a second-year M.A. in Islamic Studies student who has connections to Muslim communities on the East Coast of both Kenya and Tanzania. Visiting Scholar Carol Bier has been particularly instrumental in the work of Fateme Montazeri, an Art and Religion doctoral student examining Islamic Romantic Literature and the corresponding miniature paintings. Dr. Mahan Mirza, a visiting scholar from Zaytuna College working in Qur’anic Studies and scriptural reasoning, has added another layer of expertise.

CIS students and their work reflect the breadth of Islamic traditions and the myriad of subjects which are often grouped under the umbrella of Islamic Studies. They gravitate toward studies on al-Ghazali, Persian literature, social media, and intrareligious dialogue. Their interests are situated from the U.S. and the West, to East Africa. These students are seasoned travelers and plan to apply their studies to international education, media, public policy, and law, and work with international non-governmental organizations, as well as teaching and research.

An exchange program with the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) in Yogyakarta, whose director is GTU Alumnus Bernard Adeney-Risakotta (Ph.D. ‘82), allows students to study at the partner institution for a semester or longer. This program brought Roma Ulinnuha to CIS to expand his understanding of Islam in the West. Two GTU students have already studied at ICRS.

In addition to Jiwa’s leadership, the Center has benefitted from the contributions of doctoral student Som Pourfarzaneh, who also serves as program coordinator and office manager. For Pourfarzaneh, the greatest accomplishment of CIS has been the building of community and a cohort that did not exist before 2007. “It adds that little bit of camaraderie required for the Center to thrive and to be more than just a library or a resource center.”

The world desperately needs peace to descend on conflict-ridden areas whether domestic or abroad. The growth of CIS from 2007 to 2012, which will continue through increased support for faculty, visiting scholars, and students, makes it clear that CIS leads the way in educating and preparing its students to serve as knowledgeable scholars and leaders, and courageous ambassadors of peace and religious understanding at a most critical time for humanity.

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