A unique Fulbright initiative, developed in partnership with Islam’s oldest university, is building bridges of interfaith understanding, while giving concrete expression to President Obama’s call in Cairo in 2009 for broader engagement between the United States and the Muslim world.
The Islamic Studies Program with Al-Azhar University is the result of collaboration between the Binational Fulbright Commission in Egypt and the administration of Al Azhar University, one of the leading Islamic institutions of higher education in the world. This program creates opportunities for a handful of students who specialized in Islamic studies at Al-Azhar to travel to and study in the United States each year, familiarizing themselves with American culture, religious practices, and education. Students in the program enroll in U.S. master’s or doctoral programs or pursue research in areas such as comparative religion, Islam in the United States, and Islamic jurisprudence. Equally important are the ample opportunities built into their programs to experience American society and culture with a particular focus on the diversity in religious practice in America. The first three ISP students began their studies in fall 2009, three followed in fall 2010 and three more are expected to arrive next fall.
“The opportunity to get to know the American people, Americans themselves, has been the most important aspect of my Fulbright program,” says Muhammed Abulezz, who arrived in fall 2009 at the University of Georgia to pursue a master’s degree in religious studies. “It has provided an opportunity to discover that Americans have a lot of values that I like and that exist in my religion, too.”
Similarly, Sami Metwally was drawn to the ISP Fulbright program by the opportunity to get to know America firsthand. His interest stemmed from his work as an editor at IslamOnLine.Net, providing religious counseling to an audience that included American Muslims.
“We hear from the media about the U.S., and people here have impressions about Muslims from Egypt, Libya, and so on, and I thought that coming here would be a great opportunity for me to know more about American society and people, and to give them an idea about Muslims. That’s why I came,” he notes.
Metwally is pleased that his program at Hartford Seminary has enabled him to become “integrated in American society from day one.” Although he is pursuing a master’s degree in Islamic Studies, he has appreciated the many activities organized by his program that relate not just to his course of study, but Islamic-Christian relations and other aspects of interfaith dialogue.
The Fulbright students are contributing to the intellectual and religious life at the institutions that are hosting them, which include Yale University’s Divinity School and the Universities of Georgia, Chicago, and Arizona. Abulezz is one of the few imams to ever participate in the Fulbright program. He notes that he is often called upon in class to explain Islamic concepts to his classmates: “My professors appreciate that I am from Al-Azhar University and a Fulbrighter at the same time.”
By including several women, moreover, the program is helping to break down stereotypes of women in Islam. Mariam Shehata began a master’s degree program at Yale University’s Divinity School in fall 2010. “When she arrived, the school saw this model of a Muslim woman,” recalls Dr. Sallama Shaker, a visiting professor of Islamic Studies and the Middle East at the school. Shaker, who is her adviser, goes on to explain that this is the first time in the school’s history that it welcomes “a young woman who is wearing a veil and is willing and capable — having graduated at the top of her class — of discussing Islam and engaging in academic discourse about comparative religion.”
The lessons learned are transformative and likely to become part of a bridge-building process that will continue after the students return to Egypt. “They’ll be able to go back to convey to the young students all their experiences in the United States, which were very positive, and that Islam is not the enemy. This is a very important message,” says Shaker, who is Egyptian.
Meanwhile, Yale has reciprocated, sending a group of American students to Al Azhar in January. Although the exchange visit was cut short by the unexpected political events, organizers hope to be able to plan another trip in the future. Other programs are seeking to reinforce the lines of communications between Americans and Muslim scholars in Egypt. AMIDEAST’s Cairo office recently introduced a special “English for Religious Purposes Program” with support from the U.S. Department of State. In addition to strengthening the language and cross-cultural communications skills of the 45 participants, it will help to expand the pool of prospective Islamic scholars with the necessary language and cross-cultural communication skills to make the most of this unique Fulbright program.