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Mohammed Comes to Holy Hill

September 15, 2009
by Don Lattin
a Msulim person praying

Increased interest in Islamic studies has brought new programs to the Graduate Theological Union as well as to Berkeley.

Back in 1962, when the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) was founded in Berkeley’s Northside neighborhood, the idea of Protestant and Catholic seminaries working together was thought to be a daring ecumenical experiment. Now, recognizing that Islam has woven itself into the multicolored fabric of religion in the United States, GTU has embarked on what could be its most daring initiative yet—an interfaith campaign that promises to make Berkeley a mecca for serious Muslim scholarship.

Over the last five years, enrollment in classes on Muslim faith and culture has risen steadily at the University as well as at the GTU, which just over one year ago founded a new Center for Islamic Studies. This makes Islam the latest religion to establish itself on “Holy Hill,” that climb just north of the Cal campus. Meanwhile, the innovative Zaytuna Institute opened its doors in downtown Berkeley with the goal of ultimately transforming itself into a world-class Islamic university. Program leaders at all three schools say they are committed to helping a new generation of Muslim leaders get a classical Islamic education and the skills and scholarship they need to function in puzzling, spiritually diverse places such as the San Francisco Bay Area.

At this point, the three centers now operating in Berkeley are largely working independently. Students at the seminaries take classes at Cal and work with faculty advisors there to broaden the theological education received on Holy Hill. Both the GTU and Cal offer graduate degrees, but only the seminaries hand out ministerial credentials. Zaytuna at present offers only courses and not a degree but has already sponsored conferences jointly with the University and the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies. Officials at all three schools are now considering other ways they can cooperate. But there are some hurdles to overcome.

Most of the nine member schools of the GTU—whether Catholic or Protestant—take a relatively liberal approach to the study of theology. Islam does not seem to have the same tradition of progressive theological scholarship, however. In an interview in his office overlooking the San Francisco Bay, GTU President Jim Donahue acknowledged the potential challenges involved in opening the consortium’s doors to “passionate believers” of any religion. “In academia,” he said, “you have to be willing to submit your truth claims to wider scrutiny. That’s what makes an educational institute different. We are not a grassroots religious organization. We don’t sit around singing ‘Kumbaya.’ There are academic and intellectual standards.”

“We’re not starting a madrasah,” Donahue said.

Madrasahs—Islamic schools—have gotten a bad rap since the events of September 11, 2001, when the nation’s attention focused on extremist schools operating in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. That reputation suffered further when it was learned that John Walker Lindh, a young Marin County man who joined forces with the Taliban, studied at a madrasah in Pakistan before his infamous, ill-fated journey into Afghanistan. Madrasah is simply the Arabic world for “school.” Just as in the United States, which hosts institutions as diverse as Bob Jones University and the University of California, Berkeley, Islamic schools and colleges come in all shapes and sizes and encompass all sorts of political and theological perspectives.

Yet Munir Jiwa, the founding director of the GTU’s new Center for Islamic Studies, acknowledges that the Islamic world does not have the same tradition of modern scriptural criticism. Most Muslim scholars, he said, see little need to question the historicity of the Koran or critically examine the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. “Islamic studies scholars have not really taken that up,” he said. “Is it because it is taboo? Is it because they fear they would be killed? What are the reasons? Well, there are a whole host of reasons. Maybe it is just not that interesting. There is the question of why does the Koran have to be pushed through [Judeo-Christian] Biblical lenses?”

Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian-American scholar who lectures at Berkeley, sees no problem with Zaytuna’s working with GTU. As Chair of Academic Affairs at Zaytuna, he is now helping the school get full academic accreditation for the new seminary program.

“Zaytuna does adhere to academic principles and free inquiry, but it holds steadfast to the principles that guide the community,” said Bazian, who earned his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at Berkeley. “There is a difference between raising questions and sanctioning answers. Does God exist? That’s a legitimate question, but Zaytuna is never going to say God does not exist. That’s turning their tradition upside down.”

Bazian looks forward to the day that Zaytuna can be fully incorporated into the GTU, operating just like its other member schools. Those seminaries include the (liberal Protestant) Pacific School of Religion, the (Roman Catholic) Jesuit School of Theology, and the (Episcopalian) Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

Officials at the GTU say it’s premature to establish a full partnership with Zaytuna. “Right now, we want our Center for Islamic Studies to offer a curriculum for all our students, so anyone who leaves here and goes out into the world will have a fundamental understanding of Islam,” Donahue explained. “We want to generate conferences and scholarly activities to create conversations here and in the larger community. We want to reach out to the Islamic communities and invite them to come here and participate.” Eventually, the GTU could “develop some kind of training program where future imams could come to study.”

Jiwa, head of the Center for Islamic Studies, said there is a dire need for such programs. American Muslims have few places where they can get the kind of theological and pastoral training they need to serve as imams, to work as chaplains in hospitals and prisons, or to run Muslim community centers. Currently, Americans interested in such theological training often go overseas to schools in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere in the Islamic world, to learn Arabic and immerse themselves in the Koran and other Islamic religious texts.

“They are huge institutions, but they are not very good at training people to think broadly,” Jiwa said. “They mostly focus on explaining why Islam is the right religion. Every faith does that, but there has to be some kind of comparative perspective.”

So far, the GTU outreach is in its early stages. There are about ten Islamic students enrolled in the consortium’s seminaries—a mix of converts and Muslim-born seminarians.

Som Pourfarzaneh, born in London to Iranian parents, began his college career at Berkeley, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology before transferring to the GTU. There he earned a master’s in Religious Leadership for Social Change, at Starr King School for the Ministry. He is now pursing a doctoral degree at the GTU, studying contemporary issues in Islamic America. “There are very few places in the U.S. with such a rich environment to study contemporary religious issues in Islam,” he said. “There are schools with good religious studies programs, but they tend to only focus on the history of Islam. I’m interested in what Muslims in the U.S. are actually doing now, looking at how they are living and how that conveys a far more positive image than we usually see in the media.”

Bazian sees the Bay Area as the perfect place for a new generation of homegrown Muslim students to deepen their knowledge of their own culture and religion. Silicon Valley jobs have drawn thousands from India, Pakistan, and other Muslim lands. Many of those immigrants’ children have now reached university age and are showing up at Cal. “We are seeing students now who grew up in Muslims schools in the Bay Area and are very comfortable with their identity as American Muslims,” Bazian said. “They are now able to maintain [religious] continuity from kindergarten all the way through the University.”

Those involved in these new cooperative efforts at Zaytuna, Cal, and the GTU know there will be roadblocks ahead. Mixing religion and politics, church and state, is never easy. The GTU, for example, is also home to a Center for Jewish Studies. The center has been relatively static in recent years but announced in September that it had won a total of $900,000 in grants fromthe Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. So far, relations between the GTU’s Jewish and Muslim centers have been civil—but this is Berkeley, after all, where it doesn’t take long for discussions about religion, politics, and the Middle East to devolve into accusations of “Islamophobia” and anti-Semitism. In the past, Bazian’s outspoken advocacy for the Palestinian cause and his sharp criticism of the Bush administration and the state of Israel have made him a lightning rod for conservative attacks.

At the same time, the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies and the Zaytuna Institute must peacefully co-exist with another GTU organization, the Center for the Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, an unapologetic advocate of gay rights.

Cal’s involvement in the mix raises the broader question of how one studies God at a secular university. During the 20th century, many U.S. universities began to downplay the study of religion—especially after the 1960s, when the “secularization theory” that the world would become more and more secular in modern times was popular in academic circles. But rising religious fervor among Muslims and Christians alike has called that theory into question. Recent years have seen renewed interest in religious studies courses in secular colleges, with UC Santa Barbara leading the way among California’s public universities. These days, academics are less likely to challenge the idea that someone can be both a fervent believer and a respectable scholar of their own faith.

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