You don’t normally think of a divinity school as the place to do Islamic Studies. Certainly when I began looking into MA and PhD programs in contemporary Islam or the Modern Middle East, I looked at other, more conventional programs: the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the University of Chicago MA program in Islamic Studies, the Columbia MESAAS program. So why the div school, you might ask?
In the first place, when I visited in November of 2011 (God that’s a long time ago now…) I spoke with Dr. Baber Johansen, who shared my interested in Islamic law, about the difference between the CMES and Islamic Studies at the div school. We went to tea at the faculty club, and Dr. Johansen, who is now my advisor, gave me a very candid understanding of the difference between Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. He told me that, if you’re interested in Islamic theology and philosophy (which I was and am) then the div school is better than the CMES; if your heart is in the politics and history of the region, the CMES is the place for you.
You have to do your research, and you have to have a good sense of where you interest in Islam is if you’re going to get the most out of the program, in short. Are you passionate about Islamic law? The div school has Johansen and Shahab Ahmed. Are you interested in women in Islam? We have LEILA AHMED. You know, the most awesome thinker about women in Islam like, ever? Are you interested in political Islam, and in particular the conflation of din wa dunya wa dawla (faith and this world and the political realm) that has occurred in Islam over the past century? Malika Zeghal, a faculty associate of the div school and a Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies faculty chair in NELC is your person. What about Islam and science or medicine? Talk to Ahmed Ragab. Islam in Africa, which is an incredibly exciting new field just got a huge shot in the arm at the div school with the hiring of Ousman Kahn, one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on the topic.
What’s particularly wonderful about the program here, as opposed to a lot of other potential programs-say in NELC or Arab Studies-is the Field Education program. For many of us who study Islam without being Muslim, Islamic Studies tends to be a very abstract thing-we study Islam, but we never live it, we never know it, we’re always outsiders looking in. But field ed at the div school allows you to live Islam in ways that other programs simply don’t. For example, I work as the University Outreach Coordinator at the Islamic Community of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC). As the only Jew who works at the ISBCC, it can be an awkward identity to negotiate, but I’ve never felt anything other than welcome at my job. And I’m not just studying Islam, standing outside and watching it happen. I’m living it, working with Muslims, learning how to pray properly, contributing to charity initiatives and learning the challenges faced by Muslim communities in the US. I’m so proud and grateful to have this opportunity, and it’s a way to study/live Islam that you would only find at the div school.
The problem, for me, isn’t answering the question “why should you study Islamic Studies at the div school.” The problem for me is, given the outstanding faculty, the brilliance of my fellow students, and the community of friends that I’ve found at the ISBCC: how can I ever leave?