Panel on Teaching Islam in American Universities


[This is the nineteenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on approaching the Qur’an and Sunnah held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference later and represent 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.]

Session 19. Moderator: Iqbal Unus
“Panel on Teaching Islam in American Universities”

Panelist Cemil Aydin:

There are more Islamic scholars in America than any other non-Muslim majority country. When Ismail Faruqi began teaching the Islamic section of the Academy of teachers has only twenty teachers, but now it has grown enormously.  MESA started humbly forty years ago but now has a membership of 3000. Why? America’s imperial interest is one reason, but not the main one. American Universities in recent years have overcome their Eurocentrism at the same time as the boom in the inflow of Muslim immigrants, a nonimperial humanist interest. Muslims are about half of the scholars in the field and may soon become the majority. I think that 90% of the scholars today are in the humanist camp. During the invasion of Iraq the Neocons complained that the scholars of Islam were not helping them. Edward Said’s legacy now dominates the organization that he criticized (MESA). In Continental Europe they want teachers who can explain Islam, but they don’t want them to be Muslims.

In the last 200 years Muslim scholars have strongly been concerned with issues of reform, but they were focused only on Muslim societies and Europe. They ignored other non-Muslim societies. American universities offer an opportunity to consider the issue of reform in a broader global context. Comparative engagement with the non-Muslim societies could help us overcome the limitations imposed by the myth of golden age and decline.

Panelist Mahmoud Ayoub:

I would like to look at the history of Islamic studies in America to see where we are and to where we may move. Islamic studies began in the colonial countries of Europe, with the Germans joining in the 19th century under the influence of the special relations with the Ottoman Empire. Between the two world wars there was shift of power from Europe to the U.S. and the U.S. adopted a number of European projects, including the study of Islam, as a form of area studies rather than religious studies per se. What may have initiated a change in this approach was the rising European interest in religious civilizations like Islamic civilization and the rise of American imperialism, which differs from the European style in that the Americans wanted to establish business concerns. Their interest in Islam was both commercial and cultural, especially as Islam in America began to grow. People like Gibb and Gruenebaum came to teach on America. Americans also became interested in establishing centers and journals that dealt with areas of special economic interest in the U.S. Things began to change drastically after WWII with the growth of indigenous educated Muslims in America. Jewish scholars including rabbis like Goitien did important work in Islamic studies. The missionaries also took an interest in Islam. The journal Muslim World was founded to understand Muslims better in order to convert them to Christianity. Missionaries started American universities in the Middle East. There were also students like Kenneth Morgan who changed from other fields to Islamic studies. Morgan was interested in all the traditions of the world and wanted them to be taught by people within the tradition, provided only that they did not advocate, i.e. attempt to convert. A final group are the Arabs and Muslims. In the 80s and 90s there was a concern about Muslims taking over Islamic studies. I came to Islamic studies from the history of religion and my view will be different from someone who was a physician or engineer or political scientist, but we played a role in changing the field. After 9/11 there was shift in which we emphasized trying to present ourselves as friendly and good citizens, which is good, but carries the danger of ignoring or watering down aspects of our culture in order to be acceptable to others. We need to be true to our culture and promote peace at the same time.

For a long time universities sought to teach Middle East studies without teaching Islam. I think things have changed. The question is how long will this interest in Islamic studies go on? God knows. We shall have to wait and see.

Panelist Aisha Musa:

One of my pet peeves is the Islam vs. the West dichotomy. I’m of northern European background and changed my name when I converted, but if I knew then what I know now I might not have, since I am now mistaken as being from the Middle East. When students enter my class they have no knowledge that Islam is an Abrahamic faith. Until recently the modality of teaching Islam, as a subset of the study of ancient or modern Middle East, has not helped. Religious studies as an academic discipline is only 20-30 years old. Public universities are trying to study religion as a force in the world without preaching the religion. The highest levels of Islamic studies have mainly been restricted to a few schools in the East. I see a growth of interest in hiring Islamic studies professors at state universities. When Jane McAuliffe gave her talk on “Reading the Qur’an with Fidelity and Freedom” she said twenty years earlier almost all of her students were non-Muslims, but now most were Muslims. I see great hope but we have to move away from the West vs. Islam mentality.

Panelist Khaleel Mohammad:

What I say is purely my own view and has nothing to do with IIIT or San Diego University. I say this because I enforce a stereotype. I am a terrorist. At McGill University there was decision to make at least 40% of the Islamic studies faculty Muslim, but they moved away from that. Despite the increase in vacancies for Islamic studies professors, I do not see a beneficial development. The stereotype still exists that Muslim professors will try to convert people to Islam. In 1898 at the world parliament of religions there was a sustained rhetoric against Islam. A lot of the rhetoric now does not have a positive goal in mind. What is the solution? When we write our texts and they need it be edited, why can’t we have it edited by IIIT? Because of the name. It is still an uphill battle.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: When I taught at JHU’s Social Change and Development Program, the head of the Dept. of Middle East Studies objected that Islam was being taught outside of his department.

Ayoub: It is important not to use our position to proselytize.

Abu Baker Al-Shingieti: How do we teach Islam without appearing to proselytize? How can we teach the will of God?

Aydin: Some non-Muslim scholars have done more than the Muslim scholars, for example the history of Sufi tradition. I recall when Faruqi refused to include a panel on Sufism over the objections of the non-Muslim scholars. There should be an intra-scholar conversation outside the classroom where we can talk about the Islamic tradition in turn of creating a better person.

Imtiyaz Yusuf: Everybody asks me if John Esposito is a Muslim. He is not. He is a Hanif. The best you could have.

Ahmad: In  my class on Islamic civilization at the University of Maryland, I tell the students up front this is not a theology class. Of course, you cannot completely eliminate theology from a discussion of Islamic civilization, so I tell them they may ask questions about Islamic theology in the second and third sessions, but not afterward.

Ayoub: We can’t teach the will of God. That is something one must discover. We can only teach the revelation. What we need here, and IIIT is probably the best to do it, is an Islamic Seminary (which is probably not a bad name) that would be respectable in academic standards and thoroughly train religious leaders and imams in a nonsectarian way, not tied to a particular madhhab.

Mohammed: When a Muslim is considered to teach Islamic studies there is a problem that does not arise when a Buddhist is considered to teach Buddhist studies.

Aydin: The links between academia and government are broken not just in the area of Islamic studies. Washington think tanks are the intermediaries between academia and the policymakers in government.

Ayoub: Two days before we were to meet to inaugurate the chair of Islamic studies at Temple the chair yielded to pressure from Daniel Pipes to cancel the chair.

Ahmad:  The importance of think tanks as the bridge between academia and policymakers is why the Minaret of Freedom Institute, IIIT, and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists produced the Directory of Policy Experts on Islamic Studies and Muslim Affairs.

Hisham Altalib: it would be interesting to compare the religious affiliations of the teachers of Jewish, Christian and Islamic studies.

Aydin: There are very few Christians and no Muslims teaching Jewish studies. There are many secularists and atheists teaching Christian studies, leading to the phenomenon of student who “fail for Jesus.”

Ayoub: We all teach Christianity or Judaism in a sense in a world religions course, as historians of religion. Regarding think tanks, they are of different varieties. Some are funded by and belong to government or intelligence agencies.

Ayoub: I think an introductory course in Islam should be an advanced seminar with a focus on the rich civilization.

Mohammed: There is a new thrust that focuses on syllabus design. We have boards that ask the students what they want to learn about.

Altalib: Why call Christianity, Islam and Judaism Western religions?

Ayoub: Because of the influence of Greek thought. We are all heirs of Aristotle.

Musa: You have to be a marketer in designing a course.

Ahmad:  Judith Latham, now retired from Voice of America, has hosted a salon in her home for many years she calls “Aristotle and Abraham: All Their Children.” Even if you teach a course on theology, these other questions will come up.

Yusuf: My students are surprised to learn that Christianity went to Africa and Asia before coming to the West.

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






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