Experiencing Islam: An Interview with Homayra Ziad, PhD

In January, Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School offered for the first time a joint winter seminar on Islam for rabbinical, cantorial and ministerial students. This one-week intensive course, “Experiencing Islam,” was led by Homayra Ziad, assistant professor of religion at Trinity College. Following her time on our hilltop campus, Ziad spoke with the staff at the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education about her teaching experience at Hebrew College and Andover Newton.

HomayraCIRCLE: What were your goals for this new seminar?

Homarya Ziad: We are confronted on a daily basis with facts, figures and foregone conclusions about Islamic beliefs and practices. My first hope for this weeklong introduction was to provide students with tools to intelligently navigate this complicated terrain. Another hope was to encourage and provide resources for students to partner with Muslim communities on issues of common concern; thus, my decision to bring in speakers from the Boston area on ecology and the environment, queer identities, youth voices, and religion in prisons and the military. I wanted the course to provide some basic historical facts that would serve as a useful anchor and springboard for further exploration and to introduce participants to a plurality of Muslim voices, through time, on questions of revelation, scripture, prophecy, community, law, worship and spirituality. At the same time, I wished to highlight points of tension — the internal and external challenges that Muslim communities, like other religious communities, have to face up to in order to flourish. 

What was it like for you, as a Muslim instructor, to teach a class on Islam for future Jewish, Christian and Unitarian Universalist leaders?

I am acutely aware of the potential pitfalls in situations in which I am the lone Muslim educational voice; it brings up critical questions of representation, the dangers of being appointed — and the temptation of appointing oneself — a “spokesperson,” and the danger of trying to represent too many people at once and resorting to misleading generalizations. I tried to take the position of an educated, committed and critical insider. From the outset, I made clear my personal commitments and the trajectory of my spiritual formation, which in some ways also placed me outside what some people might imagine are the authority structures of American Islam. I brought in other voices to mitigate against complacency, whether among students, or my own. For example, during an afternoon session, when there happened to be four Muslim voices present in the classroom, we suddenly had four very different points of view on students’ questions regarding the acceptance of queer identities in Muslim communities and on gendered God language.

The guest-host dynamic was not easy to negotiate, but it was easier than I expected it to be. Before I arrived at Andover Newton and Hebrew College, I thought of myself primarily as a guest, a new instructor and a new religious presence on campus, part of a religious community that is historically the latest addition to the Abrahamic spectrum, and part of a first-generation immigrant presence that, despite U.S. citizenship and active civic participation, still retains the idea of being “hosted” in the United States. At the same time, my guest status was somewhat mitigated by the fact that I was invited on the strength of personal relationships and friendships with folks at ANTS and HC, and with some of the students as well — so I did have some “street cred”! This brought home, yet again, the importance of personal relationships in interreligious learning. The exciting work of the new CIRCLE Muslim Community Fellows Program also made it much easier for me to walk in as part of a group that had already established a presence on campus. 

Once I arrived on campus, however, I realized that I had to step into the role of host quite quickly, as teacher and guide to students I was inviting to experience elements of a religious tradition that many were only marginally familiar with. My job then was to create an environment of safe learning and set conversational guidelines, but to let the class see that I would not mistake critical analysis for polemics — that it was important for me to address the difficult questions. I also had to make it as easy as possible for students to give voice to the presuppositions they may have come in with, and may still be grappling with, while recognizing that there is such a thing as Islamophobia and that we may all fall into that rhetoric without even being aware of it. I don’t know how well I succeeded in holding that balance, but I was keenly aware of it throughout the course. I was also thrilled that many of the students were fully attuned, from their own experiences, to the delicate questions of representation and tokenism, and I never felt cornered or boxed in, nor belabored by impossible expectations.

Please share with us one or two salient moments from your teaching experience.

To my mind, some of the most beautiful conversations took place around clips of devotional music. I took the suggestion of one of the students that I play a different piece of music each time the students took a break, so that they get a sense of the rich musical traditions in the Islamic world. I had a great time using music to speak about lived religion in different parts of the world. Another lovely moment was an impromptu conversation I had after class with a group of rabbinical students, on questions of representation and spiritual preparedness, when I realized again that I had so many sincere and beautiful partners in this interfaith venture. 

I also had some brief moments of personal discomfort. For example, during a Quran study session, I asked students to form interfaith “hevruot,” based on rabbinic model of peer study, and gave the pairs about 10 minutes to begin their conversations before I began to walk from group to group and check in. Just before I began, I suddenly had the strange idea that my presence as a Muslim could actually stifle the lively conversation that had already begun, and at the same I wished that each group had a Muslim voice as an equal participant, and not a teacher. At that moment, just for few seconds, I felt very alone, and burdened by the weight of expectation. But these moments were few and far between. 

Can you share with us a few key resources for learning about contemporary Islam?

There are so many resources on contemporary Islam that I will only name a few that I’m using these days as I teach a course on Islam in America. The first is a new book by Juliane Hammer, a dear friend, activist and scholar of Islam at UNC-Chapel Hill, called “American Muslim Women, Religious Authority and Activism: More Than a Prayer” (University of Texas Press, 2012). Hammer examines the highly publicized mixed-gender prayer service led by Amina Wadud in New York in 2005 through the lens of gender studies to expand on some of the most salient issues in contemporary Islam, including media and self-representation, modes of authority and leadership, religious participation, and the scope and application of law. Another wonderful resource is the website for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (www.ispu.org), a think tank founded after 9/11 by a group of scholars and philanthropists in Detroit, and now based in Washington, D.C. ISPU’s mission is “to provide expert analysis, insight and context to critical issues facing our nation, with an emphasis on those issues related to Muslim communities in the U.S. and abroad,” and the group has assembled a tremendously talented group of experts to produce policy briefs, op-eds and in-depth studies of social and political issues related to contemporary Islam. 

Thank you very much for serving as a partner and guide in this new seminar. We look forward to future collaboration.

Thank you. Insha’Allah (God willing), we will have many more opportunities for joint learning, dialogue and action!