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Creative Leadership in Islamic Studies

CIS Graduates Are Expanding the Conversation--and Impacting Their Communities

by Doug Davidson

When the GTU celebrates commencement in May 2014, four extraordinary students will be their Master of Arts degrees in the field of Islamic Studies. In many ways, these four scholar-practitioners, among the first graduates of this new master’s program at the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies, exemplify the diversity of background, academic interests, and professional trajectories that make the GTU unique in the field of interreligious education.

The Center for Islamic Studies (CIS) was founded in 2007 to enhance the study of Islam at the GTU and help deepen understanding of the Islamic tradition and Muslims among students and scholars of all faiths and the general public. Since its founding, the CIS has offered a variety of courses on Islam to students throughout the consortium in partnership with the GTU’s member schools and the University of California, Berkeley, and cosponsored a rich variety of academic and public events, workshops, lectures, and conferences to advance scholarship and build bridges of understanding across and within different religious traditions and cultures.

In 2009, with the support of a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Center established a new Master of Arts program in Islamic Studies, with the first incoming class in 2010-2011. The program recognized its first two graduates in 2012, and four more scholars will celebrate their graduations this May. Twelve other students are currently enrolled in the program, with eleven additional students already admitted for fall 2014. At the doctoral level, there are currently ten students in the Islamic Studies track within the area of Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions (CHSR), with several new students expected in the fall.

Dr. Munir Jiwa, Founding Director of the Center for Islamic Studies, believes that the GTU is uniquely situated to serve students and scholars who want to study Islam. “The students who come to the GTU for Islamic Studies are interested in serious academic study of the Islamic tradition within its theological, historical and cultural contexts, and they want to do so in an interdisciplinary, intercultural, interreligious and intrareligious context, where practice of faith matters. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and traditions and value the environment here at the GTU where that diversity is respected.”

The four students completing their master’s degrees in Islamic Studies this year came to the GTU via different paths, and have pursued a wide range of projects within the broader field of Islamic scholarship. They will gather again in Berkeley for graduation in May, but in the meantime, each is already invested in scholarship and work that is helping to build communities of understanding and compassion.

Sarah Heddon’s master’s project involved the analysis of an integrated model of Muslim education that has been pioneered at the Madrasa Early Childhood Program in Kenya. Her involvement with that project led directly to her new job in Washington DC as a program specialist with the Aga Khan Foundation USA, one of the principle funders of the Madrasa program. A former Fulbright scholar and fluent in Swahili, Heddon has studied and worked in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. More recently, she worked with the International Rescue Committee in northern California, teaching English and providing resettlement services to newly arrived refugees.

Farah El Sharif was born in Jordan to a family “with a legacy in Islamic scholarship and decolonial resistance.” Her father was a professor of literature and editor in chief of Jordan’s oldest newspaper. Though she was raised Muslim, El Sharif says her identity came “full circle” when she fully embraced Islam as a sophomore at Georgetown University, and began to think more critically about both her heritage and her experience as a Muslim in the West. Here at the GTU, El Sharif’s work focused on contemporary issues surrounding the public perception of Islam. Her thesis explored “how and why Sufism came to be wrongly understood as the champion of political quietism within Islam,” and highlighted the role of “Sufi” figures in resisting colonization and oppression. “My time here has taught me that my voice as a Muslim woman in the field of critical studies in religion is valid and deserves to be heard.” She was recently accepted to the Ph.D. program at Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Fateme Montazeri is from Tehran, Iran. When she arrived at the GTU in 2010, she had already earned a Master’s in Studies of Art from the University of Tehran. As she sought a place to continue her study of the mystical and religious meaning of Iranian art and culture during the Islamic period, she found that the combination of the Center for Islamic Studies and the GTU’s areas of art and religion provided an exceptional environment for her work. “What especially impressed me about the GTU was their openness and being welcoming to my different background.” In her thesis, Montazeri investigated the importance of context in creating Islamic art, focusing particularly on Persian painting and manuscript illustration. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Deenaz Kanji was born and raised in Mombasa, Kenya, schooled in England, and is currently working in Dubai as the Executive Officer of the Community Development Vertical for the GCC, a not-for-profit company under the Aga Khan Development Network. Kanji has spent two decades in the field of Islamic education among the Ismaili community, developing curricula, programming, and educational training in more than ten countries. While studying at the GTU, Kanji continued her professional career, often combining her coursework with a 75-80 hour work week. “My experience at GTU allowed me to do what I love most—to expand my horizons intellectually, and challenge myself to discover new areas of study.” Kanji’s MA thesis focused on globalization and the Qawwali tradition of South Asia, and she will be returning to the GTU in the fall to begin a Ph.D. in the Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions.

Dr. Jiwa explains that the growth of Islamic Studies at the GTU is positively reshaping the Center’s work. “Our courses have always been oriented both toward students focused primarily in Islamic Studies as well as to students studying other faith traditions and disciplines throughout the GTU. With the exponential increase in the number of students within Islamic Studies, and the incredible range of their academic and vocational interests, we are seeking to serve a student body at the GTU that didn’t exist when the Center was established in 2007. I am humbled by the wonderful opportunity and challenge to think about how our resources—faculty, visiting scholars, library, events and programs—can best meet the needs of students at the CIS, and throughout the GTU, in order to foster scholarly exchange and more informed public education about Islam and Muslims. Academic partnerships with colleagues at UC Berkeley and Zaytuna College have added significantly to our programs at the CIS and this is having a very positive impact on Holy Hill, Berkeley, the Bay Area and beyond.”

An exciting way in which the Center for Islamic Studies is meeting these increasing demands is by bringing a GTU alumnus back to play a critical role in expanding the organization’s work. In spring 2013, Mohamad Som Pourfarzaneh was the GTU’s first Ph. D. graduate in the Islamic Studies track within the area of Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions. A year later, Som has returned to the GTU as the new Associate Director of Public Programs and Lecturer at the CIS. Pourfarzaneh’s fields of expertise include media, anthropology, cultural production, and Muslims in the West; his dissertation explored the ways in which Muslim cultural producers—including artists, entertainers, comedians, video game developers, musicians, and social media users—utilize their forms of creative self-expression to counter stereotypes and misperceptions regarding Islam. He’s delighted to be returning to the GTU, where he played a vital role as the Program Coordinator for the CIS throughout his time in the doctoral program.

Pourfarzaneh believes the Center for Islamic Studies has a critical role to play in the academic study of Islam. “Our program is uniquely situated within the wider study of Islam because it celebrates practitioners of many different faiths, all of whom speak from their own traditions within an academic context. Some of our students self-identify as Muslim; others identify with different traditions. That self-identification brings something unique into the scholarly conversation with the topic.”

Pourfarzaneh sees the four students graduating in May from the master’s program as illustrative of such engaged scholarship. “These four students have moved their respective areas within Islamic Studies forward, pushing both other academics and the wider public to consider questions about Islam that are not normative. Usually, talk about Islam in the public arena tends to focus on a few hot-button topics. But these students are pushing the field in other directions. In a sense, they are saying, ‘Why can’t we ask the same questions about Islam and Muslims that we ask about other faith traditions? And why do we ask questions about Islam that don’t get asked about those other traditions?’ Rather than just falling into the same mold, their research is pushing us to understand Islam in a different fashion.”

Farah El Sharif has completed her own master’s studies at the GTU, and is excited about the direction in which the school is headed. “The GTU is at a great historical moment. People all over the world are hungering for deeper truths about the impact of religion at a time when turmoil and conflict reign supreme. I believe there is a new era unfolding, especially for Muslims who have by-and-large been excluded as viable and valid voices in Western academia. I have a feeling that Holy Hill in general and the GTU in specific will play a very positive role in changing that experience.”