In Islamic Studies, a World of Students Share Insights

The Religion Department’s Islamic Studies program is attracting a diversity of students from around the globe—including a host of young people from Muslim nations.
December 15, 2016
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Students from the Islamic Studies program. From left, Kelly El-Yacoubi , Ali Mohamed, Halim Khoiri and Yi Lei. (Photo: Logan Werlinger)

By John DiConsiglio

When Halim Khoiri announced that he was leaving his native Indonesia to pursue a master’s degree in Islamic Studies at GW, his friends and family tried to talk him out of it. Why would he travel from Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, to study his own religion in America? He already held a BA in philosophy and religion from Paramadina University in Jakarta. Why not complete an Islamic Studies degree from scholars who immersed themselves in Muslim life—if not at home, then perhaps in Egypt or Syria? Why, of all places, America?

Khoiri tried to make them understand that he was searching for a different perspective—a broader perspective—on his religion. He had been raised with a deep connection to Islamic tradition and culture. He went to an Islamic boarding school from age 11 to 17 and had a sharp recall of Koranic verses. “Islam is where my passion lies,” he said. “And I need to study it from many different sides.”

That’s why Khoiri uprooted himself from his home and traveled nearly 10,000 miles to a country that he’d never visited and enrolled in a course of study that not only viewed Islam through a religious lens but also in the context of history, political science and international affairs.

And Khoiri found that he was not the only one who was eager to debate concepts and theories of his religion through a global perspective. Of the 18 students in the Columbian College Religion Department's 2016-2017 Islamic Studies program, nearly half come from countries outside of the United States—from Egypt and Iran to Malaysia, Turkey and China. In the four years since its inception, the program has seen growth in both size and scope, offering students the chance to step into diverse, internationally-influenced classrooms and share experiences with people from different religions and nationalities.

“It’s like the individuals in the program become resources themselves,” said Kelly El-Yacoubi, a first-year student from Colorado. When, for example, the class discusses the state of Islamic feminism in Indonesia, Khoiri supplies first-hand knowledge. When the subject turns to the dearth of mosques in China, first-year student Yi Lei chimes in about conditions in her homeland. “Everyone has something to contribute,” El-Yacoubi.

And  students don’t shy away from debating current issues in the Islamic world either, including violence and extremism. While framing them from a political and historical context, the international make-up of the classes lets students present their personal views about the many faces of the religion. “You can’t paint Islam with one broad brush,” said Ali Mohamed, a second-year student from Egypt. “You can’t say Islam is violent or Islam is against America because there are a small number of black sheep who feel this way. In our classes, we have these diverse people who work together. That’s like the Islamic world and the rest of the world: We can work together.”

Deep Connections

The Islamic Studies program developed as a collaboration between Religion Professors Robert Eisen, who is Jewish, and Mohammad Faghfoory, an Iranian-American Muslim scholar. Close friends and colleagues, the pair expanded their mutual interest in Islam and interfaith dialogue into a graduate level degree. “It shows what can happen when an Iranian Shi’ite Muslim and an American Jew get together,” said Eisen, chair of the department.  “We can have a fabulous and successful venture. Whatever you read in headlines, there’s another side to the relationships between faiths.”

The program was conceived as an interdisciplinary approach to teaching Islam as a religion, a civilization, a culture and a political force. “We didn’t want the program to present just one side—just religion, religion, religion,” said Faghfoory, the program’s director. “What we are doing here is showing different branches of Islam and a variety of readings of the tradition within each branch, and the connection between religion, politics, sociology, economics.”

In addition to giving students a deeper understanding of their faith, Faghfoory said the degree prepares them to step into fields like public policy and international relations. Current students said they hoped their degree would lead to professions in editorial and translation services, military intelligence, national security and finance. The program has helped build Islamic Studies resources at Gelman Library, Faghfoory said, including two major collections of primary and rare secondary sources on law, theology, philosophy and literature and another collection on Islamic art.

For international students, Columbian College offers a version of Islamic Studies that is often unavailable in their home countries. Despite an intensive Islamic education, Khoiri’s Indonesian schools taught only Sunni Islam, omitting the minority Shi’ite perspective. “Although Shi’ite Islam is just about 20 percent of the Muslim population, they have a big influence on aspects of Islamic Studies like philosophy,” he said. “That’s an area of study that was closed to me back home.” For Lei, whose parents are economics professors in China, a degree in Islamic studies wasn’t an option if she had studied at home. “Because of the political sensitivity of this topic, there aren’t many universities [in China] that would actually offer something like this,” she said.

Mohamed earned an undergraduate degree in Islamic Studies and translation from Cairo's Al-Azhr University, the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the Islamic world. But while he considered accepting a teaching position in Egypt, the lure of studying in Washington was enticing. “I am interested in the interplay between religion and politics. There’s no better place to study that than Washington, D.C.,” he said. Since arriving at GW, Mohamed has worked as a teaching assistant and interned at the nonprofit Arab Gulf States Institute.  “In Egypt we think of Cairo as the center of the universe. We call it the ‘mother of the planet.’ But I’m learning that, if you get out of your comfort zone and explore the world, there’s a lot out there!”

Inside the classrooms, both Muslim and non-Muslim students, American and foreign-born, share their insights into the religion and its influence on the world. “Most people have only heard of Islam in the context of the news and that’s usually a negative portrayal,”  said Kelly El-Yacoubi, who converted to Islam at age 14 after spending her lunch periods reading books on the Muslim world in her Colorado high school library. “Islam has contributed so much to civilization, but it’s hard to learn about Islam unless you seek it out.” For Lei, hearing the opinions of fellow students who actually practice Islam—voices she might never have heard in China—have been as eye-opening as her classroom lessons. “They have lived it their whole lives,” she said. “Who better to learn from?”

Still, as Faghfoory noted, even students who have grown up in Islamic traditions aren’t necessarily well-versed in the broader academic study of their faith. “They may know quite a bit about Islam as a faith and how to practice it, but they don’t necessarily see it as a discipline and study it objectively. Some observers would suggest that critical thinking is in contradiction with their faith. But Islam allows you to question everything. Once you get your answer, your faith becomes stronger.”

While  being away from his Egyptian home has been difficult for Mohammad, it has also forced him to examine his connection with Islam, he said. In Cairo, he rarely thought about his daily prayers, following his cousins and friends to the nearest mosque when convenient. But in Washington, he’s had to think harder about how he practices his religion and how he models Islam in a foreign nation. That may mean scheduling his classes around his prayers or patiently correcting fellow students’ misperceptions of his faith. “Islam is a religion of peace,” he said. “My challenge is to show that to people by the way I live Islam every day.”