March 03 2024

Muslim Studies at Emmanuel College: Intercultural Pedagogies and Emerging Epistemologies

by Nevin Reda, Emmanuel College, Toronto

Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto is one of a handful of North American theological schools associated with mainstream Protestant denominations that have introduced a Muslim studies program, hired Muslim faculty, and accepted Muslims into its denominationally diverse student body. This major institutional shift broadens the scope of the study of Islam to include new areas of research that have a theological and practical dimension, such as spiritual care and counseling. Before this move, the formal study of Islam was restricted to departments for the study of religion and other university departments which are normally not conducive to theological inquiry. Post-secondary Islamic theological institutions in North America also have their limitations, and since they are mostly unaccredited, with little in the way of resources, their curriculum consists of traditional subject matter, and they generally do not incorporate the most current scholarship or research into changing contexts. While they allow for a thorough grounding in the classical sources, some also form intellectual ghettos with few opportunities for advanced degree studies and intercultural bridge-building in a North American academic context. As a result, the new theological setting of the study of Islam offers unprecedented learning opportunities but also significant pedagogical challenges that accompany such a monumental change. This essay explores some of these opportunities and challenges from an Islamic perspective.

I begin by clarifying Emmanuel College’s distinct context and follow with some of the major challenges of its Muslim studies project: articulating a vision that informs the project and describes the new institutional identity in addition to the pedagogical dilemmas that emerge from the program. I continue with elucidating the main opportunities the project provides: developing new disciplines in the area of practical theology and related epistemologies, in addition to the experiential spiritual aspect. I argue that these challenges are also inherent opportunities for intellectual and theological growth.


Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto has a unique context and history that contributes to the distinctive character of the program. As the graduate theological college associated with Victoria University, the College is institutionally affiliated with the University of Toronto. As a member of the Toronto School of Theology (TST), and a school historically affiliated with the United Church of Canada, the College has a strong focus on social justice which is reflected in Emmanuel’s ethos, its approach to topics in academic classrooms, and its unusual spirit of collegiality. The school is located at the heart of Toronto, Canada’s largest city and financial center, with a metropolitan population of 5,521,235, of which 424,935 are Muslim, making Islam the second largest religious affiliation after Christianity (3,128,565) according to the 2011 National Household Survey performed by Statistics Canada. Emmanuel’s highly urban and multicultural context is reflected in the cultural pluralism of its students, faculty, and advisors.

Emmanuel College offers a variety of research-oriented and professional degree programs at both the master and doctoral levels. It attracts Muslim students to its research-oriented master of theological studies and doctor of philosophy programs; however, its most popular program is its master of pastoral studies (MPS), which allows Muslim students the opportunity to work toward qualifying as spiritual care workers and counselors in a variety of settings. Emmanuel has most recently introduced a Buddhist studies track in its MPS, thereby increasing the diversity of its course offerings and student body.


In a recent conversation with a colleague at a member school of TST, I was asked why Muslims could possibly want to be educated at Emmanuel College? Underlying this question were additional ones: How could Emmanuel’s Muslim studies project possibly be compatible with Islam? What is the Islamic theological perspective and vision that guides this project and informs its ethical underpinnings? To my mind, there has never been any doubt as to this vision: it can be encapsulated in the one Arabic word, islam, which I translate as wholeness-making, peace-making, well-being-making, and safety-making rather than the more common "submission." Indeed, only the first reproduces the word’s causative nuance (it is a Form IV equivalent to the Hebrew hifil) and the meanings implicit in its root (the Form I is salam, which means wholeness, peace, well-being, and safety), while "submission" does not (Arabic: istislam). To be sure, there is nothing new about this concept, since it is prevalent in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures and faith traditions. In fact, the Islamic tradition associates this terminology with Abraham, so at least from an Islamic perspective, this word, islam, allows for an articulation of common historical origin, current ethical praxis, and future interreligious direction.Its relational nuances of making whole one’s relationship to God and to God’s creations reflect the Abrahamic faith traditions' notions of love of God and love of neighbor. For while "islam" expresses the exoteric praxis, "love" describes the inner path.

While this translation of islam is relatively new (Reda 2012, 243–245), it does allow Muslims to deal with the challenges of ethical and theological integrity in this evolving institutional setting. While Muslims and Christians believe in the one God of Abraham, they diverge in other beliefs, including the Trinity, and therefore have profound theological differences. Required courses that lie at the intersection of theology and the social sciences, and have therefore traditionally been taught from a Christian theological perspective, must now include Islamic perspectives. Since Emmanuel is a historically Christian institution, how ethical is it to introduce Islamic theologies into the classroom and thereby change the distinctive Christian character of the college? In other words, if one may expand the interpretation of Islam as "wholeness-making" to incorporate the related religious-legal maxim of "harm shall neither be inflicted nor reciprocated in Islam" (Kamali 2008, 36), how can Muslims ensure that they only benefit the institution? And how can they ensure to do no harm to the Christian instructional content while maintaining their own Islamic theological integrity? The constructive character of the notion of Islam, as I have translated it, enjoins an appreciation and a support of the vertical relationship between God and Christians, and the horizontal relationship between fellow human beings, which is integral within Christianity—at least how I have come to understand it. As an ethical praxis, it informs the multidimensional activities of the institution: the generosity of teaching and the humility of learning.

Pedagogical Challenges       

The biggest challenge of introducing Muslim studies into theological seminaries is the pedagogical one: how does one educate Muslims and Christians in the same classroom when their educational needs are so different? To what extent can Muslims expect Christian faculty to adapt their course content when they have been hired to teach Christian subject matter and have no prior training in Islam? It is a complex matter. In order to fulfill their program requirements, Muslim students need to take courses originally designed for Christians, particularly in the pastoral department.

To be sure, some of these required courses are grounded in secular disciplines that can help bridge theological differences, for example, in psychotherapy- and psychology-related spiritual care and counseling. However, in courses that have their theoretical infrastructure in Christian theology, the matter is much more difficult, for example, when teaching the theories and practices of ministry leadership. Therefore, teaching Muslims and Christians together requires some creative cultural translation and theological bridge-building to ensure the cohesion of course content. This exercise also inadvertently identifies much needed areas of research. For example, Muslims struggle with the Christian notion of call and vocation, and few resources present Muslim perspectives (I have found only one). As a result, Muslim students have to rely on primary sources and classical secondary scholarship (in translation) in order to participate in classroom discussions and when fulfilling vocational assignments. The paucity of resources makes teaching and learning a challenge; however, these challenges are also opportunities for deep reflection and theological creativity on questions of religious authority, authoritarianism, and the safe and effective use of self in the practice of counseling and other expressions of religious leadership. To some extent, this interreligious context recalls the early centuries of Islam and the development of dialectical theology (kalam), which evolved in conversation with Christianity into a rich discipline.

The dearth of resources and the novelty of the program contribute to the challenge of developing intercultural pedagogies. In some instances Muslims and Christians learn side by side in the classroom, not always with access to the theoretical foundations that allow for insightful theological interaction and reciprocal learning. As a result, the classroom can be multifaith rather than intercultural in character, having yet to overcome disjunctions in the learning environment. Nevertheless, the spatially interreligious context does provide opportunities for the development of courses that make this connection. For example, one of my course offerings examines different approaches to the connections between the primary scriptural sources, exploring notions such as influence theory, intertextuality, and reception theory, among other things. The course, Intertwined Texts: Bible and Qur’an in Dialogue, was awarded a generous grant from the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College and The William and Mary Greve Foundation. Moreover, Emmanuel’s talented faculty members provide tantalizing possibilities for cotaught courses. The College’s recent introduction of Buddhist studies expands these possibilities, since the tradition has a highly developed esoteric and practical dimension with strong parallels to Sufism, the esoteric tradition of Islam. Cotaught courses are one avenue of exploring possibilities of developing intercultural pedagogies.

Epistemological Opportunities

For Muslims, the most exciting prospect at Emmanuel is probably the opportunity to contribute to new directions for Islamic intellectual activity and the construction of new epistemologies that better meet the current needs of the Muslim community. In the present-day Canadian context and elsewhere around the globe, there is a growing need for alternative discourses that are more conducive to strong intrafaith and interfaith relations that can help heal individuals and communities. However, most traditional Islamic educational establishments have a centuries-old focus on law that was designed to meet the needs of the Muslim community of the distant past, and they do not have the intellectual infrastructure to offer education in areas such as Islamic spiritual care and counseling which are more in tune with contemporary needs. The preoccupation with law also has social implications, for law by its very nature tends to give judgment after the fact, after someone has already done their deed. As a result, an overemphasis on law in the general discourse tends to leave behind a culture of judgment, whereas an emphasis on spiritual care and counseling can be more constructive and lead to healthier individuals and communities. Rather than give judgment after the fact, spiritual care workers and counselors have the tools to intervene before some great crisis befalls an individual, supporting them emotionally, spiritually, and morally. While traditional Islamic institutions are not generally equipped to teach care and counseling in ways that meet professional standards, Christian seminaries do. As they offer this expertise in a spirit of hospitality and generosity, they bring Muslims and Christians together in a learning environment, providing opportunities for Muslims and Christians to learn from one another and to build relationships of trust and friendship.


It is often hard to tease apart the challenges and opportunities of introducing Islamic studies into North American Christian seminaries. Probably the biggest challenge is that of preserving the theological integrity of both Christian and Islamic subject matter, which necessitates the articulation of a vision that allows for interreligious cooperation, religious authenticity, and spiritual growth. The pedagogical challenges are also inherently opportunities for developing intercultural pedagogies; the paucity and the burgeoning need for materials in areas such as Islamic spiritual care and counseling are opportunities for research and development in these emerging disciplines. While these are all significant benefits of the Muslim studies program, another aspect gives it a special dimension, transforming lives in unique ways: its contribution to the spiritual life of the people it touches. For practitioners of monotheistic world traditions, such endeavors provide occasions for experiencing how the one God is worshipped by others, and how this transcendent and majestic deity permeates their lives and aspirations. As a result, theological schools by their very focus on knowledge of God, allow for research and scholarship that is centered on the divine and that fosters growth in spirituality. Moreover, as these institutions educate Muslims and Christians together, they provide opportunities for forging networks of creative collaboration that are centered on a love of God and a love of neighbor.


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Nevin Reda is assistant professor of Muslim studies at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. She received her PhD from the University of Toronto in 2010, where she also completed a master's degree in biblical Hebrew language and literature. Her main area of research is the Qur’an, often enriched with interdisciplinary perspectives from biblical studies, literary theory, and women's studies. Her most current research is in the area of Islamic political theologies. In 2014, Nevin was the recipient of the Independent Book Publisher Award for her contribution to Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel and Qur’an, ed. Brian Arthur Brown, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). She also received the Canadian Council of Muslim Women’s Women Who Inspire Award in 2010, in part due to her instrumental role in the inception of the Muslim studies program at Emmanuel College.

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