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Madrasa Discourses Project hosts winter intensive in Qatar, builds network in Bangladesh

From December 25-30, 2019, students and faculty from the University of Notre Dame converged with madrasa (Islamic seminary) graduates from India and Pakistan for a week of intensive teaching, dialogue, and exploration in Doha, Qatar. The intensive, part of Notre Dame's Madrasa Discourses Project, featured conversations about religion, society, and epistemology (the study of knowledge or ways of knowing) in a pluralistic and rapidly-changing world.

The intensive was hosted by Hamad Bin Khalifa University's College of Islamic Studies. The University also provided logistical support throughout the week.

Following a semester of online coursework, this event was the first in-person gathering for a new cohort of participants. Given the fraught geopolitical relationship between India and Pakistan, Doha provided a neutral landing space for the week-long learning experience.

The Madrasa Discourses Project is part of the Contending Modernities Initiative of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Keough School of Global Affairs. In July 2019, the Project celebrated the first group of young Islamic scholars and religious leaders to complete the project's three-year curriculum.

Throughout the week, scholars participated in learning sessions led by Ebrahim Moosa, primary investigator for Madrasa Discourses and professor of Islamic studies at the Keough School and lead faculty members for the project, Waris Mazhari in India and Ammar Khan Nasir in Pakistan. SherAli Tareen, U.S.-based Madrasa Discourses faculty member and associate professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College, and Joshua Lupo, Madrasa Discourses classroom coordinator, also presented lectures.

"One highlight from the week was that the scholars are beginning to discover that there are different ways of understanding theology and texts we encounter if one steps into a position of inquiry rather than believing that everything you read is simply true. They found that concept empowering and interesting."

Ebrahim Moosa

Madrasa scholar Hasan Sardar, Sheikh Ali Al-Qaradaghi, and Ebrahim Moosa

Several guest speakers presented on topics including evolution and processes of scientific inquiry. Speakers included Rana Dajani, associate professor of biology at Hashemite University in Jordan; Sohaira Siddiqui, associate professor of theology at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Qatar; and Sheikh Ali Al-Qaradaghi, professor of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence at Qatar University.

The group also participating in several outings throughout Doha, including visiting the Museum of Islamic Art and the Qatar Slavery Museum, which explores the history of the slave trade on the Indian Ocean.

For Notre Dame senior Cassandra Anzalone, a political science and Arabic major with a minor in peace studies, and sophomore Josephine Flanagan, an Arabic, political science and peace studies major, a highlight of the week was getting to build relationships with the Madrasa Discourses participants, especially their roommates.

"Through our discussions we were able to explore the differences between the madrasa educational system and American education. She talked about her own feminist views and it was interesting to see how much we had shared ideas, but one main problem she was grappling with in a different way was how to bring feminism into her Islamic, scholarly context," said Flanagan.

Anzalone, who has participated in several other study abroad programs prior to attending the winter intensive, was struck by the ways the structure of the week allowed for deep engagement in conversation and rich and intense cross-cultural learning.

"You learn quickly about cultural norms and understandings of how you should behave,” she says. "You're in a position where you're learning from each other all the time in a way I didn't have with other study abroad experiences."

Networking in Bangladesh

Following the week-long intensive in Doha, Moosa, Dajani, and Joshua Lupo, classroom coordinator for Madrasa Discourses, led a two-day workshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The workshop, convened by Katherine Marshall of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and Samia Huq of BRAC University, focused on introducing local ulama (religious scholars) to the Madrasa Discourses program.

Lupo presented an overview of the history of science and religion in conversation, and Dajani led a session providing an overview of the theory of evolution. On the second day, Moosa gave participants an overview of the Madrasa Discourses' approach to engagement with the Muslim knowledge tradition.

In addition, Moosa presented a well-attended public lecture entitled "Rethinking the Ethical in Contemporary Islamic Thought," as part of a lecture series on faith and development co-sponsored by BRAC and Georgetown.

Overall the engagements were powerful and several participants from the Dhaka workshop may make plans to attend the 2020 Madrasa Discourses summer intensive in Kathmandu, Nepal.

To learn more about the Madrasa Discourses Project, visit contendingmodernities.nd.edu.