By: Kelly Scrima, Free Press Staff
USM is currently in the planning stages of adding a minor in Islamic studies.
The idea of an Islamic studies minor has been on the minds of faculty and students for some time. However, it’s taken a while for things to actually get started. According to Brendan Butler, a fourth-year sociology and international relations major, the moment that set things in motion was a meeting with Glen Cummings and the Muslim Student Association.
“I laughingly brought up that I had taken almost every class the university had on Islam and could probably capture a cluster (which doesn’t exist),” Butler remarked, “but most students in the room said that they had thought of the very same thing.”
Butler said that there are high schools, such as Deering High School, which offer classes on Islam and on Arabic. Establishing an Islamic studies minor at USM means that students from Deering High School would have the opportunity to further their studies in Islamic culture. It can also create a dialogue between people of all faiths and cultures about Islamic culture, which would promote the sort of diverse thinking USM has, over the years, put an emphasis on, an initiative that has continued to grow in many respects today.
For instance, Abraham Peck, adjunct professor of history, directed a program called Academic Council for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies from 2003–2008 at USM. There are also several outlets in the Woodbury Campus Center on the Portland campus that advocate for on- and off-campus diversity.
Peck stressed the importance of the academic study of religion and how such study can promote religious tolerance.
“The study of religion at a public university is just that [a study],” he said. “It is in no way intended to propagate religious belief or raise one religion above another.”
Peck went on to say, “The Islamic studies minor will be of great benefit to both Muslim and non-Muslim students. It will introduce a rigorous academic examination of Islam in all of its 1400-plus-year history to build for both groups a much clearer understanding of themselves and the image of the ‘Other’ based on factual interpretations and not the stuff of anecdotal or stereotypical representations.”
The structure of the minor, according to Peck, could include courses on world religions, on interreligious dialogue and on Islam in America.
About the minor, Humza Khan, USM student body president, said, “It will be a minor between 6-12 credits. Classes will range from Arabic classes (which are currently available) to classes that discuss Islam and politics. We are hoping to also have classes that focus on discussion around current events, so having classes that focus on the current events in Middle Eastern or African countries will be a great idea.”
The minor in Islamic studies will potentially allow for interfaith dialogue and provide an opportunity for open discussions within not only the USM community, but in local communities.
“We have seen a lot of interest from local church groups, companies, and organization have would like to have training opportunities for their employees or members,” Khan said. “So this initiative obviously first and foremost serves the students of USM, but also serves the greater Portland community.”
Reza Jalali, USM’s Coordinator of Multicultural Student Affairs, argued the minor will help students attain a “better understanding and appreciation of Islam, the youngest Abrahamic religion.”
“Islam has been part of the American narrative for centuries. It did not come to Maine with the arrival of recent Muslim immigrants,” Jalali said. “The minor will showcase USM’s commitment to academic excellence and providing our students with the intellectual inquiries, critical thinking that they, upon their graduation, will need to be a global citizen. My personal hope is to see a center of academic excellence of Judeo-Christian-Islamic studies.”
While the minor is still in the planning stages, both professors and students alike are invested in ensuring the minor will be a success. The timeline for when students will be able to declare the minor is unknown, but there are classes available that focus on Islamic studies which students can look into until then.