When the School of Religion was established in the spring of 2000, one of the most significant changes made by Dean Karen Torjesen was to expand the study of religion beyond its predominately Christian borders to include studies in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. The primary reason for this was to respond to the changing religious landscape of the United States. As Diana L. Eck points out in A New Religious America, “there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and as many Muslims as there are Jews.” Moreover, the school’s proximity to Los Angeles, one of the most religiously diverse cities in the world, compelled the school to expand its scholarly focus to take full advantage of the increasingly rich cultural landscape in which we find ourselves.
However, this integration would not be accomplished by simply adding a course or two, rather it would be realized by engaging the entire faculty and curriculum in this process of incorporation, and it would be accomplished in stages. The first of these stages was made possible by a Focus Grant of $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop ways to incorporate the study of Islam into the curriculum by both adding new faculty and courses as well as by enhancing the present faculty’s knowledge of the tradition and to help them develop ways to bring Islam into relationship with the Christian tradition through teaching and research.
Engaging Islam, as this Focus Grant was called, allowed the school to pull together the faculty from the School of Religion, the Claremont School of Theology, and the Claremont Colleges to participate in workshops and seminars on three specific types of methodologies—historical, constructive, and social scientific—led by outside scholars. A comprehensive reading list was given to each participant, and the workshops were followed by seminars led by CGU Professor of Religion Ann Taves who, in addition to the History of Christianity, heads the newly established Religions in North America program at the School of Religion, and Zayn Kassam, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Pomona College. Dr. Kassam, who teaches courses on Islam at Pomona, is working on two books, the first on aspects of Quranic interpretation in medieval Islamic philosophy, the other on gender issues in the Islamic world.
The first of the outside scholars was Brannon M. Wheeler, an Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington, Seattle and the author of Applying the Canon in Islam: The Authorization and Maintenance of Interpretive Reasoning in Hanafi Scholarship, who led a seminar on scriptural interpretation and the formation of canonical authority in Islam. The workshop enabled faculty to gain familiarity with issues pertaining to the study of the Qur’an and the development of authoritative forms of interpretation in the Islamic tradition.
Mehrzad Bouroujerdi, a Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University and the author of Iranian Intellectuals and the West, later spoke about the rise of political Islam, in particular that which carries the fundamentalist label. This seminar addressed contemporary challenges resulting from the Muslim experience of modernity, the West, colonialism, pluralism, globalization, migration, and history.
The final seminar was led by possibly the most prominent scholar of Islamic Studies working in the United States, Yvonne Haddad, Professor of the History of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. In addition, Dr. Haddad is the most widely published author of books on the Muslim community in the United States. Dr. Haddad spoke of the experience of migration of Muslims in the United States, the establishment of an American Muslim identity, the ethnic diversity of the American Muslims, the role of women, and the often negative representation of Islam in the dominant American culture.