Middle East studies in the News
St. Bonaventure's Center for Arab and Islamic Studies Aims to Promote Understanding Amid Tense World
by Tom Dinki
Catholicism isn't the only religion studied at St. Bonaventure University, and officials say that doesn't hurt its Franciscan values — it enhances them.
St. Bonaventure established the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies in 2015 to promote understanding and appreciation of Arab and Islamic cultures, as well as relations between Muslims and Christians. CAIS currently oversees the university's Arabic and Islamic studies minor, and provides both on- and off-campus instruction, as well as community outreach.
"The Catholic education is about embracing the world in its variety and in its diversity," said Father Michael Calabria, CAIS director. "The Franciscan charism encourages the study of history, of other cultures, of other languages in order to see how this God has so magnificently manifested himself in all of creation."
Calabria has witnessed the growth of St. Bonaventure's Islamic academic offerings from the beginning. After coming to the university in 2003, he taught a class that touched on the Quran, in addition to the Christian New Testament and Hebrew scriptures.
"As a result of teaching that class, students asked if they could study Arabic," Calabria said. "Students asked for it. They were the ones who asked to have classes in Arabic language and then they wanted more. They wanted courses in Islam, they wanted courses in history, they wanted everything."
St. Bonaventure began offering Arabic courses through its Modern Languages and Literature Department, as well as courses on various aspects of Islam. Those courses led to the university offering an 18-credit minor in Arabic and Islamic studies.
After leaving St. Bonaventure in 2012 to complete his doctorate at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, Calabria was asked back by then-President Sister Margaret Carney to lead a center overseeing the initiates he'd started.
Calabria said students, some of whom are pursuing the minor and others who just want to understand Islam, make use of the center, located on the second floor of the John J. Murphy Professional Building. Students such as sophomore Amina Golden-Arabaty can be found studying there. Golden Arabaty is president of St. Bonaventure's Muslim Students and Allies club, which helps represents the campus' growing religious diversity.
CAIS has also gotten strong support from the Olean Islamic community. Last year, several members of the Islamic Society of the Southern Tier committed gifts totaling nearly $70,000. Society President Dr. Adil Al-Humadi and his wife, Jehan, and their son, Dr. Mohaned Al‑Humadi, also established the Dr. Adil and Jehan Al‑Humadi Lecture Series for the center.
"We thought the center at St. Bonaventure University would be the best money we could buy to propagate understanding of Islam," Al-Humadi said.
Education is the key to "removing the bad picture" some Americans have of Islam, like associating the religion with terrorism, Al-Humadi said.
During the center's inaugural year, Calabria received what he called "negative communication" from some alumni and community members.
"The people who looked upon the center negatively were unable to make this distinction between this aberrant behavior of people who were claiming to perpetrate violence in the name of Islam, and the rest of the Islamic community, who is in fact the greatest victim of violence at the hands of people in al-Qaida and ISIS," Calabria said.
Some also questioned why a Catholic university would offer classes on Islam. Calabria said people often confuse what happens in a Catholic university with what happens in a Catholic parish.
"The Catholic Church teaches a certain faith perspective, but a Catholic university is not in the business of turning people into Catholics," he said. "Catholic education is about educating all people, Catholic and non-Catholics, Christians and non-Christians, in all facets of academia, including Islam."
Franciscans believe God's work is expressed in the world's variety of cultures and faiths, Calabria said. The Franciscan constitutions specifically state Friars should approach other cultures and faiths with reverence.
"It doesn't say with respect or tolerance — it cranks that up to reverence," Calabria said. "That signifies that from a Franciscan perspective, when you encounter another culture, another ethnicity, another faith tradition, you recognize that there is the presence of God."
That's also the perspective of the Catholic Church as a whole after its Nostra Aetate declaration during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
"In the document the church spoke very strongly indicating it has great esteem for Muslims (and) indicated the areas of our common belief," Calabria said.
However, that common belief dates back much further than the Second Vatican Council, as Calabria explained that Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a "prophetic history." Muslims recognize prophets such as Jesus, and Muslims and Christians have lived and worked side-by-side for centuries, Calabria said.
American students with a Judeo-Christian background often approach Islamic studies thinking all they'll learn about is fighting between Christians, Jews and Muslims, he said, adding that's a "false reading on history."
"I tend to emphasize those parts of our common history where Jews, Christians and Muslims formed a single society," he continued. "It's really in the West, particularly in Europe, that those religious communities were separated and the Christian community in Europe did not look well upon Islam and Jews. ... But in the Muslim Middle East and further to the East in Asia, you had much more of a mingling, creating together.
"The oldest mosque in Cairo, (Egypt), the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the architect, according to Muslim sources, is Christian. ... That's an interesting perspective: the idea that Muslims would employ Christian architects in order to build a mosque," Calabria said. "Those kinds of things need to be taught."
The current geopolitical climate makes that message all the more important, Calabria said. He thinks St. Bonaventure students, like many Americans, are realizing that Islam is "part of the American fabric," and appreciating what Muslims contribute to American society. In February students and other campus community members held a demonstration to show solidarity with Muslims in light of President Donald Trump's travel ban of seven Muslim-majority nations.
CAIS recently hosted a screening of docudrama "The Sultan and the Saint," which explores the spiritual exchange between Saint Francis and the Sultan of Egypt during the Crusades. Approximately 250 people attended.
"That's the kind of event we want to see here on campus to help educate people," said Calabria, who is interviewed in the film. "To bring people together and say, 'You know, we have a lot more in common than politicians and ideologues are trying to say we don't.'"Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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