The value of Islamic Studies at LTSP

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Prof. David Grafton extolls the benefits of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations in preparing seminarians for leadership in a religiously diverse culture

Why does a Lutheran seminary – like The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) – have a program of Islamic Studies?

The Rev. Dr. David Grafton“That’s a good question,” said the Rev. Dr. David Grafton, who joined the LTSP faculty seven years ago to direct such an initiative as well as to head up the seminary’s Graduate School.

Grafton noted that in the 1980s the then American Lutheran Church began efforts to raise up scholars to consider service in majority Muslim cultures overseas. During the 1990s, the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America picked up on the idea, encouraging missionary participation in majority Muslim cultures and internships in those places. Grafton became involved in an internship in Cairo, Egypt, and that commitment has led to a calling in the church.

“Several Lutheran seminaries have since begun programs involved with Islamic Studies,” Grafton said. Before Grafton was called to LTSP,  Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, had begun one in 1993, and subsequently The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago set up a Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice.

“I can think of pastoral, theological, and sociological reasons for a program like ours,” Grafton indicated. “We live in one of the world’s most religiously diverse countries.” Grafton said he became sensitized to this reality by growing up in Dearborn, Michigan, home to a large and diverse Muslim community.

“Here are some pastoral questions clergy encounter today,” he said. “A woman tells her pastor her daughter has met a young Muslim man in college and wants to get married. She asks her pastor, ‘What should I do?’ Or, as a pastor serving on a community’s school board, the request comes from Muslim parents about allowing and serving halal food in the cafeteria. How do you respond? Or, you as a pastor or chaplain get a call from your neighborhood hospital concerning a death of someone who is part of a Muslim family. How do you handle that family encounter? What if a child brings a Muslim friend to your Vacation Bible School? How do you extend appropriate hospitality to such a child?

“You can try to respond to these experiences by the seat of your pants,” Grafton says. “But if you do, it is only a matter of time before you are likely to handle a situation badly or someone becomes hurt.

“There is the matter of theology,” Grafton said. “In my experience I have learned more about my faith by engaging Muslims than I ever did at seminary. Just as Christianity grew out of Judaism, Islam, which came along later, makes reference in its scriptures to Christianity and to Jesus. Muslims raise difficult questions for Christians about their faith — about the nature of the Trinity, and how it could be possible for Jesus, if he was divine, to be born of a woman. These are questions Christians have also raised in their own history. If one examines medieval Muslim writings on theology, one can experience a good course on Trinitarian theology. Through such challenges we have a unique opportunity to examine our own faith and be articulate about what we understand.”

Grafton goes on to consider sociological issues now before contemporary Christian leaders. “Since 9/11, sensitivities and concerns have risen sharply regarding Muslims in America,” Grafton said. “We’ve experienced acts of hate and violence not only to Muslims, but also to Sikhs because of the turbans they wear, leading people to presume they are Muslims, and to others because of the color of their skin. We have a responsibility to minister to people experiencing these acts and to work on their behalf so that they have nothing to fear. What do those of us who are church leaders do if a storefront mosque in our town is vandalized? We need to get to know and be known by Muslims in our communities so that we will not be scrambling as strangers to be responsive to their concerns.”

Grafton said students over the past half-dozen years have generally been of two mindsets when they have come to seminary and are faced with studying Islam. “Some have had a previous encounter with a study of world religions, and they are excited,” he said. “Others are wary about why they are being required to visit a mosque, and they are reticent. The vast majority of those who are nervous have had their eyes opened. They have developed their earlier feelings without ever having met and engaged a Muslim. And everything changes when they relate to someone face to face.”

Grafton recalled a Baptist student who was part of a congregation where nothing much was ever said about Muslims. And what was said had usually not been good. “She visited an African American mosque and was surprised about the cultural similarities between that mosque and her congregation,” Grafton said. “Has that experience helped her? It’s hard to say because the class is over now,” he said.

The professor was asked about his experience teaching in a seminary located in a multicultural community like Mt. Airy. “I had a steep learning curve the first two years I taught here,” he said. “In Cairo the atmosphere was really monocultural. What I encountered here was a wide variety of Muslim communities, traditions, and backgrounds. You can encounter a mosque with African American roots, or one with a Turkish community. You can visit a Muslim Student Association at Temple University or a mosque with a Sufi ideology. It is all quite remarkable.”

Asked if the seminary has had any Muslim students so far, Grafton responded there has been one such student who has taken online classes toward an MAR, studying part-time. He suspects the seminary could have more such students in the future.

“How will we welcome them?” he asked. “And where will they be able to pray? It is a question they will ask. We may have future questions to resolve. If church leaders are not able to face these questions, how will we expect our parishioners to deal with them?”

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