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August 20, 2011

IIIT Roundtable on Islamic Studies in American Universities


[This is the ninth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on iftaa and fatwa held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference and represents my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Moderator: Mazen Hashem
IIIT Council of Scholars Roundtable on Islamic Studies in American Universities
Ingrid Mattson, Mahmoud Ayoub, Mumtaz Ahmad, Muqtedar Khan, Zahid Bukhari

Zahid Bukhari: A working draft of our policy recommendations has emerged from the Center or Islam and Public Policy study on the state of Islam in American universities.

Mumtaz Ahmad: All the reports and recommendations are available at the IIIT website. The project was conceived on the premise that Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies are divided into pre- and post-publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which profoundly shook the field. Since then a new generation of Islamic scholars have emerged with new theories and experimentation. We have examined who established the tradition of Islamic studies imported from Western Europe, the roles of Arab Christian scholars, and how this classical tradition based on the study of texts, philology, humanities, and language changed, especially in the context of the Cold War, to be more policy driven than scholarship driven. U.S. national security interests impacted the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world. After Orientalism, scholars were put to shame by their collaboration with the imperialist enterprise. The new scholarship is more aware of its intellectual responsibility to go beyond the narrow focus of U.S. national security interests. Our main weakness was our strength: none of us were Islamic studies scholars; all were trained as political scientists. This gave us the humility to approach the people who were experts to reformulate our questions and sharpen the assumptions on which we had proceeded. Besides a critical survey on how Islam 101 is taught (the first comprehensive survey of this kind ever), we undertook five or six case studies of major centers of Islamic study, the first in such detail.  A variety of subjects, like the treatment of Muslim women under gender studies, are covered. Carl Ernst’s edited volume covers a different terrain than ours. Ernst and is colleagues focus on the future of Islamic studies; our focuses is on the current state of the art.

Khan: I am not on this panel because I am a political scientist, but because I founded an Islamic studies program at the University of Delaware (UD) five years ago and was its founding director for three years. I left it because I feel 9/11 has stolen ten years of my life. UD is unique. For example, it is the only private university largely funded by the state (just under 10%). Religion  has been the concubine of philosophy there, as we have no religious studies department and religious studies is disliked in the philosophy department. Being in the political science department, I have to put the word “global” into the title of every course. (I will be soon teaching a course on “Introduction to Global Qur’an.”) Many universities put their Islamic studies under Near Eastern studies. Even the CMCU at GU is under their area studies program. Every department needs its own Islam guy. The only course dealing with Shariah at UD is taught by a professor of criminal law, so all you will learn is hudûd laws, because that’s what he knows. To minor in a subject you need six courses, so you can minor in Islamic studies without having touched the Qur’an or hadith. I created an Islamic studies program by copying the Jewish studies program and housing it under area studies. I use Islam: the Straight Path at the 200 level, Sachicko Murata and William Chittick’s book The Vision of Islam at the 300 level and Fazlur Rahman at the Ph.D. level. I have a Ph.D. student in physics who wants to take my Ph.D. level course. I reserve 10% of the lower level course seats for heritage students. The faculty is not opposed to teaching an introductory course for heritage students alone, but want to know how you would teach the class and how would you avoid separation of religion concerns. Imagine Robert Spencer teaching such an introductory course to heritage students. You can’t critique without first introducing the subject. There is a Ph.D. student who wants to study Shia thought rather than Iran, and after three years of study has finally been told that he needs Arabic rather Persian to do that. Stand-alone Islamic studies programs are the heart and the core of serious work. MEISGS is a very good discussion group at yahoogroups. You must be invited to participate. I sent an e-mail asking why is there repetition in the Qur’an, and I got an e-mail from a sister in Pennsylvania saying she’s writing her dissertation on that. It is very exiting. There is no definition of core courses for Islamic studies programs. Should a course on Qur’an and hadith be a core course? The first year I spent one week on these and later three weeks. Now I am on sabbatical and the Qur’an and hadith will not be studied.

Mattson: The opposition claims that the development of such curricula is part of the decline of the study of Western civilization—that we are teaching Toni Morrison instead of William Faulkner. Once a professor has tenure he can do whatever he wants in course development, but adjunct professors and occasional lecturers at small and community colleges want to teach a course in Islam but are busy and would be happy to find an accessible useful well-proven course that is already designed. Such course should be easily searchable and findable on the Internet. Universities and college courses cannot make up for deficiencies in the Islamic community. We still do not have good curricula for the study of Islam at Muslim high schools. If someone only knows Islam through something important to them, like Islamic art, I would be happy; but I do agree that someone should not be able to get a major or minor in Islamic studies without some familiarity with the scriptures. Daniel Pipes’ article on National Review online is important for us to read. Understanding where he wants to see Islamic studies go can better help us to understand the gaps in our own thinking. Graham Fuller’s book, A World Without Islam is essential reading. Graham’s point that without Islam the West’s problem with the Muslim world would be identical, that imperialism is the issue and Islam only comes into play as a legitimization of resistance. Pipes places responsibility for the change in Islamic studies not so much on Said’s insights as on the leftward turn of universities. I want students of Islam at the university level to have a sound factual basis, and we must be cautious to avoid a normative approach. When I was at the University of Chicago you could only study Islam thorough area studies, but that has changed. A divinity or theology school program is different; they study religion as such. That is where they take religious experience seriously and where they engage texts. There is a difference between an apologetic work and a study of what people say about themselves. Pipes is proud of the movement to deny tenure to what he calls “radical Middle East specialists.” It is not hard to find where the books Pipes recommends have been discredited.

Ayoub: Diversity in the study of Islam is not something necessarily bad. Area studies, a German invention, takes the study of something like Islam, for instance, in a Hindu context and makes it look out of place. We have made progress in studying how Islam works on its own terms in the contexts of different civilizations, like South Asia, or Europe, or America. The first institute of Islamic studies was established by my professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith at Magill University. Very early on, when Ismail Faruqi and Ahmad Sakr were working on establishing the Islamic College, I opposed that and advocated creating chairs of Islamic studies, which IIIT has been doing. I think now we need to do what the Jewish community has done and establish programs in Islamic studies like what we do at the Hartford Seminary that treats Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations as a single program. Last year we started the imam education program, an interesting pilot project, done with IIIT, that should be expanded. Imams with no academic background can use the certificate to their advantage in interfaith dialog, while for those with academic credentials, the certificate may count towards credit for an M.A in Islamic studies.

General Discussion:

Kenneth Honerkamp: University of Virginia (?) has a curriculum online that may be helpful. We need to offer and encourage the offering of scholarships for Islamic studies and encourage parents to encourage their children to enter the field. There need not be a huge difference between a Muslim and a non-Muslim teaching Islam. I don’t tell students my affiliation until the end of the course, and they usually guess that I am a Christian.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: I notice Pipes doesn’t disclose his connection to Campus Watch. Imagine how he would jump on a Muslim who made no such disclosure in an analogous article.

M. Ahmad: If you are assigned to teach Islam 101 the university will not dictate the content. You are free to teach it as you wish. In our survey we found a wide variety of approaches and emphases. Islam is taught at many universities, esp., the Ivy Leagues, as a part of world civilization core curriculum courses. Hodgson’s Venture of Islam came out of his notes for the Islam part of his world civilization course at University of Chicago. I am concerned about the time devoted to Pipes when he has never been taken seriously by any university.

Mattson: He has more influence at American universities than any person in this room.

M. Ahmad: He has a nuisance value. We have not discussed the role of Muslims in Islamic study in the U.S. of Fazlur Rahman, Ismail Faruqi and S.H. Nasr,the founders of thee broad categories of Islamic thought in the U.S. The contributions of Mahmoud Ayoub, Abdul Aziz Sachedina, and other younger scholars need to be acknowledged. Qasim Zaman moved from assistant professor to full professor at Princeton in a few years and I believe his contribution will prove enormous. We are seeing more and more books by Muslim scholars in the U.S.

Sarah Albrecht: We have hardly any Muslim scholars teaching at schools in Germany. In October this year they will start teaching Islamic theology in three different universities by Muslim teachers for the first time, and it has spawned a huge debate over credibility.

Mattson: In the U.S. divinity schools teach normative theology, but they have become increasingly secular. The most vital Christian denominations are leaving those courses to the seminaries.

M. Ahmad: There is a long list of scholars scholars at universities in Germany.

Albrecht: Many of them are not teaching.

M. Ahmad: After Weber’s Sociology of Religion came out, much German scholarship incorporated insights from sociological theory and, in my opinion, is ahead of the U.S. in such respects. German scholarship has changed and is now a fine blend of classical scholarship, field research, and archival research.

Dale Corre: I agree with Sarah Albrecht’s point and those scholars Dr. Ahmad mentions have no impact here. Archival study is not lacking in America.

Azur Hussain (International Center of Religion and Diplomacy): I work very closely with the State Dept. on public diplomacy, and university scholars think the madrassah leaders know nothing and vice versa; and the politicians in Pakistan think nobody knows anything. The policy leaders decide what their policy is and then seek scholars to support that.

Abubaker al-Shingieti: It seems that Islamic studies as practiced in the U.S. today is a field but not a discipline, like other interdisciplinary fields including my own, communication. Ulum al Qur’an, Ulum al hadith, however are well established disciplines.

I. Ahmad: Daniel Pipes is effective because of his ability to promote his ideas, something we have yet to cultivate.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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