Issues in Islam: School of Islamic and Social Sciences Completing First Year of Courses in U.S.
From the time of Prophet Mohammed, whenever Muslims migrated from one area to another the first institution they established was the mosque. Next came the school, or madresa. This sequence indicates the reverence attached to faith and learning in Islam.
Since the major inflow of Muslims into the United States that began in the 1960s, Muslims have set up more than 1,200 mosques and community centers across America. Many of these have established weekend schools to impart religious instruction to Muslim children. Muslim secondary schools also have been started in major metropolitan areas, and Islamic institutions of higher education have been established in Chicago and elsewhere.
Now the first graduate-level Islamic institution, the School of Islamic and Social Sciences, has been opened near the national capital in northern Virginia. Although the beginning is modest, its financing seems solid, its plans are ambitious and, according to Dr. Taha Jaber Al-Alwani, president of the infant institution, "they are attainable."
The Leesburg, Virginia location of SISS puts it in good company. In addition to George Mason University in Fairfax, in recent years several other prestigious universities including the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and George Washington University have set up satellite campuses in northern Virginia. They have located there because the area, selected by the governor of Virginia as a hi-tech corridor, already has become the state's largest population center.
Across the United States, dozens of U.S. institutions of higher learning have departments of Arabic and/or Islamic studies. There also are separate universities and colleges for Christian and Judaic education. SISS hopes to combine some of the aspects of both by providing an opportunity for students and scholars of Islam to study under a largely Islamic faculty in the United States.
Dr. Al-Alwani explains that SISS is not going to be a "traditional school" where Islamic theology is taught along lines largely unchanged since the 11th century A.D. and only "juridical (fiqh) interpretations" of Islam are offered. The SISS catalog states that it provides a "curriculum designed to clarify the vision of Islam, revitalize its traditions of learning, and prepare future generations of Muslims to understand, interact with, and contribute creatively to Muslim culture and civilization in North America and throughout the world."
SISS founders are guided by a realization that literal interpretations and legalistic approaches to Islam have stifled intellectual growth in the ummah (Islamic world), and contributed to a lack of understanding of this religion by non-Muslims in recent centuries. "We have to free ourselves from the weight of history and recognize the dynamics of the 20th century," says Dr. Al-Alwani. "We must foresee the coming thrusts and trends of the 21 st century, and help a better understanding of Islam by adhering to the word and the spirit of the Qur'an and the Sunnah in the light of today and tomorrow."
Although this may not be a radical shift in scholastic methodology, it can be described as a fresh way of imparting Islamic knowledge wherein spiritual and temporal studies are attuned to the exigencies of our times. If this is not an altogether new promise, it contains a welcome resolve for renewed study and interpretation.
Program of Study
The School started with 36 students in the fall 1996 semester and has continued with a total of 30 students enrolled for the current spring semester. SISS offered four graduate courses in the fall, and doubled the number to eight this spring. At present the school has two areas of study. One is a Master of Arts program in Islamic Studies with possible specializations in shariah sciences or in history or political science. The courses are so arranged that students, after they have completed their core courses, have the option of choosing which specialization to pursue. …