Afifi, an Egyptian Muslim, graduated from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a center of Arabic literature and Islamic learning that was founded in the tenth century. While a student there, he worked as an English translator and studied Islam. In particular, he was interested in gender issues and the structure of family in Muslim countries. His master’s thesis at Al-Azhar was on spousal abuse, and whether it is authorized in the Qur’an.
Though he demonstrated that it is not, interpreting divine text is far from straightforward. It requires a complicated marrying of past and present. “We must go back to the historical context in which this text was revealed in order to understand the Qur’an,” said Afifi. “But you have to reconcile between that historical context and our modern reality.”
To fully understand that modern reality, Afifi felt he needed to study in America and learn more about the country that was so prominently influencing modern Egyptian culture.
“What happens in the West resonates deeply all over the Middle East, whether we like it or not,” he said. “So the Western concept of family influences the Muslim concept of family in the Middle East. To fully understand this influence—which is largely American—I had to come to the United States.”
Thankfully, the Fulbright Commission in Egypt had recently begun recruiting Islamic studies students to earn their master’s degrees in America, with the goal of encouraging individuals who can be ambassadors for both the East and West. Afifi was one of the first students to receive this Fulbright award.
“At the Fulbright orientation the president of the commission told us we were going to be ambassadors of Islam in America, and when we come back we will be ambassadors for America in Egypt,” said Afifi.
He takes this responsibility seriously. Afifi usually attends church every Sunday to better understand Christianity and build cross-cultural communication. He also visits local high schools and state universities to discuss Islam with students whom he fears have learned everything they know about his religion from the media. “I ask these students to get to know Muslim people. The only way to get to know Muslims is to actually meet them,” he said.
At CGU, Afifi has been studying the Muslim tradition in America and the history of Western philosophy. “He received a sound and rigorous knowledge-base on Islam at Al-Azhar from an insider’s perspective, and that is being supplemented here with an academic approach that demands a critical distance from the subject matter,” said Hamid Mavani, assistant professor of Islamic studies in the School of Religion. “I am confident this will allow him to make a substantial contribution to the academic discourse and better mentor students upon his return to Cairo.”
All this knowledge and outreach do not just support Afifi’s research, but also fulfill one of the teachings in Qur’an: “There is a verse in which God addresses all of his people, not just Muslims,” he recalled. “He said, ‘I created you as different nations and tribes. Why? So that you may come to know each other.’”