From Mosques to Museums

Sarlo Award-winner Dr. Munir Jiwa reflects on art and Muslim identity, interreligious dialogue, and the growth of the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies

From the Fall 2015 issue of Currents

What does it mean to be Muslim, and how does Islamic tradition find expression in contemporary life? Some might expect to find the answer to such questions by visiting a mosque or speaking with an imam. But throughout his academic career, Dr. Munir Jiwa has sought to address these questions more expansively. “Being Muslim is not just a theological commitment,” says Jiwa, “it can also be a cultural or political identity.” As a graduate student at Columbia in the late 1990s, Jiwa began studying Muslim artists as a way of thinking outside of the normative frames or expectations about where Muslims can be found. “There are many Muslims who don’t necessarily identify as religious, but are still very much Muslim in terms of identity. While working with many mosque communities throughout the United States, I also want to think about the multiple locations where Muslimness is expressed, and the diversity of those expressions. So a lot of my work has been focused on thinking about Muslims in America through artists and their art, and what shifting from mosques to museums can teach us.”

Today, as the director of the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies (CIS), Dr. Jiwa continues to explore issues of Islamic religious and cultural identity. His effectiveness in working with diverse student scholars—including those who identify as Muslim and those from other traditions—is one reason Dr. Munir Jiwa is the recipient of the GTU’s 2015 Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award. In announcing his selection, the award committee highlighted the exemplary manner in which Dr. Jiwa embodies interreligious sensitivity and commitment, an interdisciplinary approach in teaching, sensitivity to diversity, and creative pedagogical methods.

Since coming to the Graduate Theological Union in 2007 to become the founding director of the CIS, Dr. Jiwa has seen significant shifts among the GTU student population in his classes. In the years immediately following the Center’s establishment, most students in Islamic Studies classes were Christian seminary students from across the GTU consortium, along with a few students pursuing Jewish Studies, and some from UC Berkeley. The GTU’s establishment of an MA concentration in Islamic Studies in 2010 brought with it a more intentional outreach to bring more Muslim students to the GTU, and the need to offer more advanced-level classes. “We still get a wide range of students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and our classes are open to all. But in our more advanced classes, where many students are Muslim, we see the intra-Islamic studies diversity expressed, including scholarly debates on theories and methodologies in the study of this vast intellectual tradition. So there’s a lot more engagement with interpretations of texts and understanding them within the tradition.  This makes for a very dynamic learning environment.”

Teaching amid the diversity of the GTU can be a challenge, especially in today’s charged political climate. “We all work from our own traditions and assumptions, and we tend to understand the richness and complexity of our own traditions. But when studying other traditions, we can forget that they are just as complex and diverse.” Jiwa’s interreligious experience includes two years with the Pluralism Project at Harvard University while a graduate student at the Divinity School in the mid-1990s, and working internationally with Religions for Peace from 1996 to 1998 in both Sarajevo and Sierra Leone. Jiwa says that those experiences “completely changed how I thought about religion, dialogue, and justice, and how we engage with others in a conflict situation.” Such training, along with other interreligious work throughout the Middle East and Japan, helps him remain mindful that that the questions one might ask or the approaches one might take within one tradition are not necessarily the most relevant to another tradition.

Jiwa was in the midst of his doctoral work in anthropology in New York City at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Up until that point, his project had focused on how artists who were Muslim were navigating art and identity in the New York art worlds. “I’d done all this preparatory field work where I was looking at artists through ethnic and cultural categories, national categories, gendered categories, and art-historical categories. But after 9/11, they became Muslim artists. It was a political category and a minority classification that was largely created after 9/11. So that’s what I ended up studying: What was this transition to becoming a ‘Muslim artist’ and what did it mean to be identified as such by the art worlds, and how was this expressed in the artists’ narratives and in their art?

Many artists found that the public perceptions of Islam changed the way their work was received. “An Egyptian painter might think of herself as an Arab artist, or a woman artist, or an abstract expressionist; but in post-9/11 America, she also was identified as a Muslim artist,” Jiwa reflects. "She could show her art work in an African art exhibit and people will ask one set of questions. But when she exhibits the same work in a Muslim artist’s context, people will ask a whole different set of questions.”

Political associations also shape the classroom context for Islamic studies today. “Whenever you’re trying to teach the Islamic tradition in the context of current affairs, the discussions are often very political. Students come with contemporary, political, media-driven questions that then get projected onto the entire history of a tradition. The constant joy and challenge of teaching is that you’re confronting contemporary questions. Students are trying to make meaning of this today, and my pedagogical commitment is to increase religious and cultural literacy by mediating and translating across seeming divides, and by studying how sacred texts and traditions are continually interpreted and lived.”

Dr. Jiwa believes the vibrancy of the GTU educational experience is shaped by the religious commitment of its students: “Practice of faith actually matters here at the GTU. People can bring their faith into the classroom. So, for example, when I teach about modernity and secularism, it is very refreshing to draw on the positive role of Islam and Muslims in society. The kind of interdisciplinary, interreligious, and global approach within and across traditions that happens at the GTU is education at its best.”

The questions he encounters in his daily work with students at the GTU take Munir Jiwa back to his own days as a graduate student. “The reason I applied to divinity school was that I was interested in questions of religion, both academically and in terms of practice. I was asking what it would mean to engage in an intellectual search of the Islamic tradition, alongside personal interests in the immense diversity of my own religion, and in the context of other religious traditions. So I feel like I have come full circle in my teaching here at the GTU—and that makes this a very fulfilling place for me.”


Doug Davidson is the Director of Communications at the GTU.