IIIT Co-organizes AAR Panel on Opportunities and Challenges of Teaching Islamic Studies in Theological Seminaries
The panel was presided by Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, President of the Union Theological Seminary and President-Elect of the AAR, and included contributions from Nazila Isgandarova (Emmanuel College), Munir Jiwa (Graduate Theological Union), Jerusha Lamptey (Union Theological Seminary), Nevin Reda (Emmanuel College), Feryal Salem (Hartford Seminary) and Ermin Sinanovic (IIIT). Dr. Amir Hussain of Loyola Marymount University served as respondent.
The purpose of the roundtable was to address the growing trend amongst Christian theological seminaries in North America of offering courses and in some cases professional degrees in the study of Islam, which has oftentimes involved the hiring of Muslim academics to teach these courses. The panelists, who were all Muslim scholars affiliated with theological seminaries, endeavored to explore the opportunities and challenges posed by this new context, and the possible future direction of theological schools, in addition to the future trajectory of Islamic studies at these institutions.
The panelists identified several challenges of teaching Islam in a theological seminary environment. One of the major challenges highlighted by the panel was the Christo-centric framework that was cognitively embedded in theological seminaries. Dr. Feryal Salem noted that this Christo-centric framework, which was historically determined by the fraught relationships between Christianity and science as well as religion and reason, was not easily mapped onto the Islamic context.
Another challenge identified by the panel was the complicated positionality of the Muslim scholar in the classroom in light of widespread anti-Muslim sentiment. Dr. Munir Jiwa pointed out that scholars of Islam were forced to navigate five discourses through which Islam is contemporarily framed: 9/11 as a temporal marker, the discourses on extremist violence and terrorism, debates surrounding the agency of (veiled) Muslim women and sexual minorities, the clash of civilizations thesis, and the Middle East as a spatial marker.
All of the panelists concurred however that theological seminaries provided unique opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement and interfaith dialogue. Dr. Nevin Reda commended the pedagogical practices on spiritual care and counseling in theological seminaries. Similarly, Dr. Nazila Isgandarova identified Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) as a highly beneficial feature of theological seminaries. Whilst she acknowledged the criticisms leveled by some that CPE was “too Christian,” she indicated that steps were being taken to render CPE more multicultural and inclusive, and she encouraged Muslim spiritual caregivers to become certified in CPE.
The panelists also discussed the potential for theological seminaries to provide a “third space” for Muslim scholars who approached their tradition as believers. Dr. Lamptey asserted that Muslim scholars are oftentimes subjected to doubt and suspicion regarding their capacity to teach their tradition without proselytizing. She added that the faith of the Muslim scholar was for the most part not regarded as a barrier to comprehensive instruction in theological seminaries. Dr. Sinanovic emphasized IIIT’s commitment to providing support for faith-based voices in the study of Islam. He further noted the increasing “securitization” of Islamic Studies in colleges and universities, a trend that has not become prevalent in theological seminaries. The panelists therefore viewed the theological seminary as a space where building relationships of trust and forging networks of creativity and collaboration has many possibilities.