By Joshua Stanton
NEW YORK: Seminaries, higher education institutions where professors of religion and religious leaders train students to become clergy, have been present in the United States for centuries. Because seminary students are generally being trained as religious leaders who will oversee congregations, their seminary education has a powerful impact on these students’ future congregations.
For decades, religious diversity in American seminaries meant the admission of students from different Christian denominations. Then Jews began to attend and even found prominent seminaries, notably Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Yet with the notable exception of the MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam at Hartford Seminary, few American seminaries have historically developed programs focusing on the study of Islam. The Muslim population had been dramatically underrepresented. Only in the past decade have these trends begun to change — with a greater emphasis on both teaching Islamic studies in Christian and Jewish institutions and giving credence to the increasingly prominent idea that it is time for Muslim Americans to found a seminary of their own.
Regarding the latter, the last two years have shown a particular flurry of growth and institution-building within the Muslim American community. First was the founding of Zaytuna College (as an outgrowth of the Zaytuna Institute) in 2009, designed to become a full-scale university for Muslim undergraduate and graduate students in America.
Then just this past October, a landmark interfaith workshop, “Judaism and Islam in America”, co-sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hartford Seminary and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), brought to the fore discussions about building an American seminary solely for the training of imams and Muslim religious scholars. While such a project may still be years away, excitement surrounding the idea for a Muslim American seminary reflects a growing need to train Muslim clergy well-versed in traditional texts and with an understanding of the American context in which they would work.
Yet even as an institution that trains Muslim American clergy remains in discussion, Muslim students are now becoming valued as essential participants in divinity and graduate programs across the United States. In fact, a number of new partnerships have emerged in recognition of the growing presence of Muslims and Islamic studies in seminaries.
Since 2008, for example, the Hebrew Union College and University of Southern California have partnered with the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation — a Los Angeles-based philanthropic organization that works to support other Muslim organizations — to establish the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement. All three institutions feel that the centre holds significant potential, noting the success of its interfaith text-study programs and existing efforts to bolster Jewish studies programs in majority-Muslim countries while also strengthening Islamic studies programs in North America and Europe.
Other centers, such as the Center for Muslim-Christian Engagement for Peace and Justice (MCEPJ) at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, have been in existence even longer. MCEPJ has focused largely on urging Christian graduates of the seminary to be knowledgeable about Islam so they may collaborate with Muslim organizations and clergy throughout their future careers.
Most remarkable, however, was the announcement earlier this year that southern California’s Claremont School of Theology, an institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church, is poised to add full-scale ordination programs for Muslim and Jewish students seeking to become members of the clergy in their respective communities. This is one of the only avenues for Muslim Americans to become certified imams and is the only institution in the world that also offers parallel ordination programs for Jewish and Christian clergy.
While these profound institutional shifts may be more visible, cultural shifts in seminaries are also rapidly taking place. When I first spoke with colleagues about the potential to found State of Formation (stateofformation.org), a blog for top emerging religious and ethics leaders from across America, the first question many asked was whether I would be recruiting Muslim students. This would never have happened five years ago and is an indication that Muslim students are not simply tolerated in American seminaries but actively welcomed.
Seminaries have historically been at the leading edge of social change in America. It would seem that one of their current causes is the fuller integration of Muslims into American society – beginning in their very own classrooms.
Joshua Stanton is Co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (www.irdialogue.org) at Auburn Theological Seminary, a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College and a founder of State of Formation (www.stateofformation.org). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.