June 13 2024

Challenges and Opportunities in Interreligious Seminary Studies

by Munir Jiwa, Graduate Theological Union

Greetings of peace. Before I comment on the opportunities and challenges in teaching Islamic Studies in theological schools and seminaries, I want to first give a brief historical overview of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU). This overview will also help us contextualize the Center for Islamic Studies; I will follow by sharing some of the institutional challenges as well as some of the personal challenges I have to navigate both as the founding director of the Center for Islamic Studies, and as an associate professor of Islamic studies, who is trained as an anthropologist. Finally, I want to share some of the opportunities I think need to be encouraged and funded, especially in the area of Islamic contributions to interreligious studies, dialogue and leadership both in the academy across disciplines, and in the larger public sphere.

Historical Context

During the first half of the twentieth century, several Protestant denominations and Catholic orders relocated their theological seminaries to Berkeley, drawn by the proximity of the vast educational resources of the University of California, Berkeley. The University and individual seminaries opened classes to students of other schools, listed courses in multiple catalogs, and shared library resources. In the early 1960s, understanding of theological education began to shift away from denominational isolation to a more ecumenical approach. Seminaries began to understand the advantages of working in cooperation to strengthen curricula and advanced degree programs.

In this atmosphere, a cooperative degree program was negotiated by Protestant seminaries that resulted in the creation of the GTU in 1962. In 1964, the first Catholic school was admitted to the consortia, and in 1968 the Center for Jewish Studies was established. In the decades to follow, the GTU added several additional academic centers including the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, and the Institute of Buddhist Studies. In 2007, the Center for Islamic Studies was created as an academic program unit of the GTU. We recently officially inaugurated the Center for Dharma Studies in December 2015, and the Center for the Arts, Religion and Education will become a program unit of the GTU in 2016.

The Center for Islamic Studies (CIS) is integral to the cooperative ethos and interreligious engagement of the GTU. The CIS generates innovative research and scholarship on Islamic texts and traditions in contemporary contexts. The Center offers a certificate and master’s degree, supports Islamic studies in the various GTU departments at the doctoral level, and provides graduate level courses on Islam for students throughout the GTU consortium and the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). The Center works collaboratively with a wide range of partners, including many departments and centers at UCB, expanding the resources available for classes, research, teaching, and public programs.

A recent study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding estimated that 250,000 Muslims, across a variety of ethnicities and countries of origin, live in the San Francisco Bay Area, within an hour’s drive of the GTU campus. This makes the GTU the perfect platform for deepening engagement with Muslims and the Islamic tradition in an interreligious context. The CIS attracts more than 5,000 attendees from Bay Area communities to its programs each year and has offered more than 700 educational programs, forums, and public events since its founding.

Within this diverse interreligious context, the CIS is uniquely positioned to build bridges of understanding within and across religious traditions, through informed scholarship and teaching in Islamic Studies that fosters balanced perspectives and invites deeper conversations.

Institutional Challenges at the GTU, and Moving in the Direction of Interreligious Studies

As the GTU continues to become even more expansive in its religious diversity and outreach, and as it establishes further programs and courses in underrepresented traditions, such as Dharma studies (e.g., Hindu studies, Jain studies, and Indian Buddhist studies), Sikh studies, and Mormon studies, along with its continued support of Jewish studies, Buddhist studies and Islamic studies, it is increasingly met with new challenges. On the one hand, each underrepresented tradition has the immense task of establishing and/or continuing its academic and public programming within its specific tradition. On the other, there are increased demands both by the institution and larger public to have underrepresented traditions included in classes on Christianity, to teach more interreligiously, and to provide interreligious programming. One example of this is how we think more collaboratively about teaching. There are courses modeled along the lines of world religions, where we have a professor from a specific tradition teach about her or his tradition in a week or two! But this model is a very different one from a class in which professors from various traditions and across academic disciplines attempt to actively collaborate to think through theories, methodologies, pedagogies, convergences and divergences around specific topics (e.g., women and gender, pilgrimage, sustainability/environment/ecology, art, etc). There are also models that many of our more ministry-oriented programs must consider, especially in terms of interreligious dialogue skills and sensitivities to the diverse practices of faith communities, including the sensitivities around the intersectionality of religious identity and belonging with race, gender, sexuality, class, culture, ethnicity, nationality, language, and able-bodiedness.

So, in addition to making sure all the courses in Islamic studies are regularly offered, including introductory and foundational courses that are required, we have to balance the faculty time and scarce resources of non-Christian faculty as we also move from being religiously representative (multireligious) to a deep engagement within and across traditions (interreligious and intrareligious).

While this remains a major challenge, extraordinary steps have been made at the GTU to address these challenges by providing opportunities for collaboration in new ways. The changing student body that is increasingly diverse and non-Christian, or those who identify as spiritual but not religious, or who are simply just interested in religion as an academic study, can all find a fit at the GTU. Our newly reconfigured doctoral program is a good example of how academic programs can be structured to advance research, teaching and interdisciplinary scholarship across traditions in innovative ways, attending to the changing religious landscapes in the United States and globally.

Administrative Challenges at the CIS, and Teaching Contemporary Islamic Studies

While I have mentioned some of the larger GTU challenges and offered an example of interreligious collaboration, I also need attend to administrative tasks that are part of my role as director of the CIS. In addition to my academic requirements of teaching, advising students, doing research, and publishing, I am also tasked with fundraising for the program. This includes recruiting new students, establishing and maintaining academic partnerships—especially throughout the GTU and various departments at UCB, Zaytuna College (the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States)—as well as public partnerships (e.g., World Affairs Council, Commonwealth Club, hospitals, schools, prisons, media, museums and the art organizations, Muslim and other religious and interfaith communities, to name a few). Growing the Islamic Studies programs simultaneously means attending to growing the interreligious programs. This requires thinking in new ways about contextual learning and pedagogy, whether engaging religion in the city, or in sacred spaces, or the use of media in classrooms, online learning, and immersion learning—all adding to diversifying and internationalizing our programs.

In addition, as we build programs in Islamic Studies, there are numerous (and urgent) demands made on us at the CIS. In the context of Islam/Muslims in the public sphere, Islamophobia, and daily negative news stories on Islam and Muslims, we are constantly engaging the public and media who have serious and urgent questions. Working in this crisis mode takes an extraordinary amount of time, skill and patience, as it also takes an emotional toll. There are also risks in scholarship topics (for example security and terrorism) which can make a scholar a target for particular kinds of scrutiny if one is a scholar who happens to be Muslim. This has a huge impact on academic freedom for such scholars. The other issue this raises is that much needed critical scholarship and understanding on the Islamic classical tradition is often less attended to, as focus is centered on Islam and Muslims in contemporary media and political contexts. This is a major difference from many of my colleagues who do not have to work in such a crisis mode, leaving them much more time for scholarship and publications with less scrutiny.

This places a huge amount of work on me and other minority faculty and/or those teaching Islamic studies. Like many other minority faculty, I also have to navigate being seen through my identity only as a Muslim. In other words, I must be saying what I am because I am a Muslim, forgetting other identities or academic credentials—like being an anthropologist or working in media and cultural production. This puts me and minorities in general on the defense because we are both trying to attend to excluded histories, while at the same time being evaluated on "objectivity" and critical distance from our identities. For example, in my class on critical theory, when I am looking at the history of Euro-American empire and its continued violence in the world, my critiques are often viewed as coming from “Islam” or my being a Muslim, rather than from my training in cultural anthropology, or being Canadian—just go north to get a vast and steady dose of critiques of the United States!

In my own field of working within contemporary Islamic studies, teaching on topics such as secularism, modernity, liberalism, critical theory, war and violence, identity, media, aesthetics, Islamophobia, the politics of pluralism, and interreligious dialogue, I am always working within the normative frames through which Islam and Muslims are most often represented in the Euro-American public sphere and media. These frames are what I call the five "media pillars" of Islam, namely: 9/11 as the predominant temporal lens through which we approach Islamic history and theology; violence and terrorism; Muslim women and veiling and new discussions on sexual minorities; Islam and the West and questions of compatibility and values; and finally the Middle East as the geographical/spatial lens through which we view the entire "Muslim world," focusing on politics.

In class we unpack these totalizing frames and discuss how difficult it is to work outside of them, given the risks of being unrecognizable or apologetic. We often begin with the language we use, such as "progressive," "moderate," "fundamentalist," including unpacking other English words such as jihad, madrasa, Taliban, al-Qaeda – notice how none of them come up as errors in spell-check! We also focus on how to unlearn or challenge the predominantly Christian lenses through which we attempt to understand the Islamic tradition, for example, not imposing the methodologies of biblical hermeneutics onto Qur'anic Studies, how religious norms are often liberating in many communities, challenging secular fundamentalism, or how not to dismiss feminisms that might base their liberation in the Qur'an and the Prophetic tradition. Or, for example, when I am trying to get my students to think about how Islam is mobilized and instrumentalized to make claims about "religious" violence in the world, I challenge students on how not to think about Islam/religion/theology alone but instead also focus on the sociopolitical and economic context of the military industrial complex.

This takes a lot of imagination among my already very diverse MA, MDiv, MTS, PhD, and DMin students, who, even in their care and sensitivity, often find it difficult to extend themselves to thinking beyond the confines of Euro-American Christianity and secularism – that’s why having so many international students adds significantly to class discussions. There is also a difference in the way this is experienced by Muslim and non-Muslim students in class, and those who are in Islamic studies and those who are studying other traditions, or in different academic disciplines.

Madrasa-Midrasha: An Example of Teaching Islamic Studies Interreligiously and Teaching Jewish Studies Interreligiously

While I highlight these challenges administratively and in terms of teaching, I cannot reiterate enough how well the GTU is continuing to address such challenges in very reassuring ways. I think it is critical to find collaborative ways to reflect upon, evaluate, and assess our programs, as well as share our learnings in person, online, and through publications with colleagues within and outside our institutions. I think the Henry Luce Foundation plays a central role in advancing such collaboration.

One such exemplary program, Madrasa-Midrasha, developed jointly by our Center for Jewish Studies and Center for Islamic Studies, explores the richness, diversity, and commonalities of the Jewish and Islamic traditions. Since its inception in 2009, the Madrasa-Midrasha program has produced courses, workshops, lectures, conferences, and other public programs that offer students, faculty, staff, and community members an opportunity to explore the richness, diversity, and commonalities of the Islamic and Jewish traditions. This program also promotes dialogue among participants about contemporary issues in both communities. Students generate scholarship on both faith traditions, and study the traditions as they are lived and practiced through the celebration of holidays, dietary laws, prayer, rituals, literature and visual arts, and politics.

Events and courses over the years have included topics such as: celebrating Eid and Rosh Hashanah; lunar calendar; laws and practices of halal/kashrut; circumcision; religion and the White House; Israel/Palestine; Islamophobia and anti-Semitism; Hajjar/Hagar; women and gender; media representations; aesthetics of sacred space; environment/sustainability/climate change; and sacred seasons: pilgrimage, piety, and personal transformation. Each of these programs and courses has been an opportunity to understand the particularities of studying these two traditions in their own contexts. But there is also the added learning of studying these two traditions together—acknowledging both the similarities and differences, visiting mosques and synagogues—all the while continuing to build and maintain relations with UCB, Muslim and Jewish communities, interfaith communities, and the public at large.

Some Closing Reflections

In this essay, I have tried to highlight some of the challenges and opportunities of teaching Islamic studies at the GTU, and I have tried to do so by both reflecting on my role as a director and professor, and simultaneously trying to do so by focusing on interreligious studies. I think this is critical, as Islamic studies is not just an add-on to how we think about, teach, and practice interreligious studies, but is integral to it. We need to study and reflect upon the Islamic tradition and diverse Muslim practices and expressions both in their own specificity and history, and we need to do so in the context of mutually constitutive histories—histories of entanglement, overlap, and messiness, but also histories of shared intellectual and spiritual learning and aesthetics.

There are many areas I have not presented here but that provide excellent opportunities for resources, such as our cosponsored Islamophobia Documentation and Research Project at the Center for Race and Gender, at UCB, now in its seventh year, including the free online Islamophobia Studies Journal. As we grow our programs in Islamic art and religion and the arts more generally, and as we develop our proposed work in Islamic and interreligious chaplaincy, and many other pedagogical initiatives such as online and immersion learning, or in growing library resources, there is much that needs to be learned and shared, academically and administratively.

I think Islamic studies and Muslims are not only critical to include in theological schools and seminaries for the obvious reasons of their historical exclusion—Islam is also an American religion and has been here right from the start, and has a long and rich history of African-American Muslims who have upheld the faith—but also because they make significant contributions to how we reflect upon ourselves in profoundly new ways in interreligious and interdisciplinary contexts, where we study and live our faiths. There is a major positive contribution that religions can jointly make. Because interreligious education equips students with skills and professional competencies that promote dialogue and understanding within and across traditions, we have the opportunity as a group of scholars and/or faith practitioners to advance the positive role of religion and theology in education and public life—in media, the arts, museums, public policy, law, social (justice) work, business, and religious communities. I like to think of this work as mediation, translation, and boundary-crossing as it reframes religions and religious practitioners as sources of divisiveness to ones that promote dialogue and understanding. Advancing religious and interreligious literacy in theological schools, which includes understanding people in their intersectionality and understanding things in their socio-political and economic contexts, has a tremendous transformative potential in the larger public sphere.

I look forward to continued conversations.


Ahmed, Mumatz, Zahid Mukhari, and Sulayman Nyang, eds. 2012. Observing the Observer: The State of Islamic Studies in American Universities. London and Washington: The International Institute of Islamic Thought.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press.

Asad, Talal, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, and Saba Mahbood, eds. 2013. Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. New York: Fordham University Press.

Esposito, John and Dalia Mogahed. 2007. Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. New York: Gallup Press.

Munir Jiwa is the founding director of the Center for Islamic Studies and associate professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. His research interests include Islam and Muslims in the West, Islamophobia, media, aesthetics, secularism and religious formation. He is the recipient of foundation awards and grants from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. Currently he is serving on the Islamic Studies Advisory Group for Public Education at Stanford University, on the advisory board of the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program, and as an advisor to the Islamophobia Documentation and Research Project at the Center for Race and Gender, both at University of California, Berkeley, and on the board of the Center for the Arts, Religion and Education at the GTU. Dr. Jiwa received the Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award at the GTU in 2015. His forthcoming work is titled Politics of Exhibition: Artists and Muslim Identity in New York City.

Photo credit: orangefan_2011 via Foter.com / CC BY-ND