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Higher Studies in Islam in the US
Education
Mahan H Mirza

Mahan Mirza obtained his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1995. He worked in the industry as a design engineer for three years and attended a ‘One-Year Course’ at the Qur’ān Academy in Lahore from 1997-98. In 1999, he joined a masters program in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. He graduated from this program in 2003, and is currently pursuing a PhD program in Islamic Studies at the Yale University.

American Universities are secular institutions which means they do not subscribe to any particular religious doctrine. Although each professor carries his personal faith and background into his research and the classroom in some form or another, it is supposed to play almost no part in his scholarship. This is true for the Christians when they study Christianity, for the Jews when they study Judaism and the Muslims when they study Islam. There is a difference between ‘Universities’ and ‘Seminaries’ or ‘Divinity Schools’. The latter two are more faith-based; they typically adopt a more devotional approach. Seminaries are designed to train students as pastors and ministers, whereas divinity schools are less denominational and more academic (and thus secular), but nonetheless based on a ‘believing’ environment. Both seminaries and divinity schools focus on Christianity, but some such as Harvard Divinity School have programs in comparative religion. There are also separate seminaries for the Jews. Students in Muslim countries would be most interested in universities, with the exception of institutions such as the Hartford Seminary where Muslim teachers participate in the comparative instruction of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

The university approach to teaching religion is very different from the way religion (Islam) has been taught in madāris throughout the Muslim history, and continues to be taught in universities throughout the Muslim world today. One does not question the authenticity of the Islamic tradition in Pakistan, but rather tries to prove its validity according to a certain method of argumentation and by the selective use of sources. Of course, the definition of the term ‘tradition’ depends on one’s own religious community (such as Shiite, Sunni, Ahl-i-Qur’ān). In the US, one does not study within the purview of a single ‘correct’ Islamic tradition. Rather, one confronts the fact that there are (and have been) in fact many Islamic traditions. These traditions developed over the centuries after the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (sws) and often in mutual hostility towards each other. This does not mean that a particular ‘correct’ way that Islam has been practiced and passed down to us does not exist. It only means that it is not the purpose of academic study to identify any particular strand of interpretation that plays this role. Students and professors are free to believe in whatever they like.

Muslims and non-Muslims, be practicing or otherwise, teach courses and guide students through their coursework and dissertations. This guidance is not intended to provide a certain way of believing or making sense of Islam, but rather a certain method of doing research in any subject that the student is interested to explore. Thus, the curriculum does not consist of memorizing books, creeds, and sayings, but rather of examining trends and ideas, and the sources that can be used to research them in the best possible way. This quest for both original and secondary sources in turn implies that one ought to be comfortable with the languages that contain a substantial and rich Islamic literature. The overall environment within which this research is conducted, however, remains secular and in some cases hostile towards approaches that lend themselves positively towards a ‘traditional’ religious worldview. Sometimes, this puts a considerable strain on people of firm faith stemming from a traditional understanding of Islam.

The difference between studying Islam from a traditional perspective and from a modern secular one is that in the former one’s main concern is to learn the correct teaching that has been handed down, whereas in the latter it is not only to identify what has been handed down without making a value judgement, but also to take into account the historical and cultural influences that affected (or might have affected) the formation and transmission of ideas. At times, some members of the Muslim community raise questions about the purposefulness of studying Islam in America, particularly when the professors who are teaching are non-Muslims. This concern is not entirely unfounded since one’s point of view and religious (or non-religious) outlook certainly plays an important role in one’s scholarship, not only by the way in which questions are answered but also by the very choice of questions that are raised in the first place. However, simply pointing out that Muslims should be teaching Islam instead of non-Muslims is not a fair critique if one considers the purpose and method of studying religion in secular institutions. Here, one can say that studying religion is an extension of studying subjects like history, sociology or literature. Although it might be argued that this is an illegitimate way to study religion because it does not take seriously its ultimate psychological and experiential purpose, this is nonetheless the reality of how religion is studied in American universities. There are very few Muslims who are qualified (or studying to be qualified) in the teaching of Islam based on the conventions of these disciplines, which require extensive training in reading a wide range of sources in a number of languages so that many points of view are taken into consideration before forming an opinion. In my instance for example, the professor knows no less than ten languages to facilitate his research and scholarship. I have discovered to my surprise that this is not an exceptional case in circles of high scholarship. Muslim scholars trained in the Muslim world know at best two to three languages, which includes only one European language, their mother tongue, and Arabic. Even then, their mastery of English (or French) is questionable in many cases. Arab scholars are further deprived of a second language such as Urdu, Farsi, or Turkish. These languages, although essential, are inadequate for first-rate research scholarship in the field of Islam.

Within the field of religion or area studies, there is a difference between emphases in the classical or modern period. The demands of programs in the study of religion in the modern world or in recent history – particularly in terms of language expectancy at the time of admission – are not so extensive. The emphasis in this essay is on classical studies of Islam, which focuses on early to medieval Islamic history. Classical studies rarely consider current affairs at all, but provide a solid basis with which students are well suited to comment on modern themes in the long run.

Coming from Pakistan to study classical Islam as a graduate student in the US, one must be able to read classical Arabic texts with a dictionary, be fluent in English, and also have reading knowledge in either French or German. One will still have to learn Persian or Turkish, and in some cases both. Some institutions will accept Urdu as a second Islamic language, but Urdu is of little help in studying early Islam, although it is very helpful in studying Islam in contemporary India and Pakistan. The order of priority of languages to apply for graduate Islamic studies in the US, according to my opinion, is: English (fluency), Arabic (advanced), German (reading), French (reading) and/or Persian (reading). After this, it depends upon your interests. If you need to choose between French and German, then I can pass along the advice of one of my professors who said that German is typically better if you are interested in philological whereas French is better for sociological approaches, but this is a generalization with many exceptions.

As for specific institutes and universities where one should apply, this is a question that students should explore for themselves. Off the top of my head, I can say that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia give automatic fellowships upon admission to PhD programs. This means that the student does not pay tuition and gets some money for living expenses. I believe some other universities such as the University of Chicago, New York University (NYU) and Duke also offer similar benefits. Some universities give funding on a yearly basis such as The University of Virginia and Temple. The amount given to each student varies from institution to institution and program to program. All of this information is easily available on the Internet for research. Most Islamic Studies programs are housed in a department called Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). Fewer are housed within the department of Religious Studies itself. The universities mentioned here are by no means the only and also not necessarily the best places to study.

Please do your research well and take into account the professors you will be working with in addition to the institution, particularly if you are interested in studying something specific. This is not a one-day or one-week task. It might and ought to take months. Remember to start early because applications sometimes need to be submitted as early as January 1 for beginning studies in the fall. Each university has different admission and language requirements, as well as different financial obligations and benefits. Look at these things carefully. If you are someone with very special interests, then look carefully at the profile and research interests of the professor at the institution where you wish to apply. If you are not sure and simply wish to study something in Islamic/religious disciplines, then look at the universities of high repute and best fellowships. One important item to keep in mind is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) that most universities which offer fellowships require. Remember that this is a highly competitive process and many people have to apply more than once before they are admitted to a program of their choice. You do not have to have an undergraduate background in the Study of Religion or Islam if you have the language skills and can demonstrate that you have general background knowledge through reading. Your experience as a Muslim who has grown up in the tradition is usually a strong plus.

Finally, for those who are uncertain about whether to study comparative religions or Islam, my sincere and strong advice is to study Islam proper. If one steps into a comparative environment with a parochial vision of their own religious tradition, then little good comes from it. We are in a position today where Muslims have to study their own tradition critically first. If students of Islam study other traditions before understanding how their own history is (or ought to be) perceived, then neither group will take them seriously, and others will continue to be the authorities and experts in both our tradition and their own. Ultimately, by studying in the US Muslims from abroad are not deprived of the comparative perspective that they seek. One should not think that Islam is studied in complete isolation, or whether that is even possible. By emphasizing the study of Islam I do not want to undermine the need or importance of studying other traditions, both religious and secular. That remains, however, the second and not the first step, and is partially performed in tandem because studying Islam (or any faith) from a purely secular perspective has its own methodological assumptions and pitfalls. What is most important for the Muslims today is to critically study and interpret their own history and texts, as well as the methodologies that are used in this endeavor. Only then will they be able to articulate a coherent and authentic vision for tomorrow. And Allah knows best.

 

   
 
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