Religion faculty launch first-ever Shiism track for Islamic studies students

Media Credit: Athena Masthoff | Photographer

Robert Eisen, the chair of the religion department, said faculty created the new track in the Shia branch of Islam after a large volume of students expressed interest.

Graduate students studying Islam can now concentrate in the faith’s second-largest branch, Shia.

Religion department faculty launched a Shiite track in the Master of Arts program in Islamic studies this semester, the first graduate program in the country that directly focuses on Shia Islam, according to faculty. The department’s professors said the program will raise GW’s profile among scholars of the faith and give students the chance to extensively study the faith, which is followed by about 150 to 200 million people worldwide.

Robert Eisen, the department’s chair, said he and Mohammad Faghfoory, the director of the Islamic studies program, created the concentration based on interest from students and inquiries from potential applicants to the Islamic studies program.

“We believe there is widespread interest in the Shiism track and that the new track will attract many students,” he said in an email.

Eisen said students who want to concentrate in Shia Islam will take the same required classes as students in the regular track, which combines courses about both branches of Islam. But students will instead take four courses about Shiism in place of four electives and are expected to write their master’s thesis on the branch, he said.

He said these courses will include Philosophy and Mysticism in the Shi’i World, Shi’i Political Thought and Principles of Shi’i Jurisprudence.

Eisen said the department onboarded just one new part-time lecturer to offer the track this semester, adding that all the department’s current Islamic studies professors are already fully equipped to teach Shia courses based on their previous experiences.

“We have provided a program about a subject for which there is great interest and curiosity for those wanting to engage in the study of Islam,” he said.

Faghfoory, the Islamic studies program director, said the curriculum is “applicable” to both students interested in becoming religious leaders and those interested in learning about the compatibility of Shiism’s teachings with “the realities of life” in the United States, which are often seen to be at odds with each other. He said the addition enables GW’s religion department to stand out among other universities’ programs.

Four of GW’s 12 peer schools have graduate programs in Islamic studies, but none of them include a track focusing specifically on Shia Islam.

“I can safely say that this is the only program on Islamic studies which deals with both Shi’ite Islam and Sunni Islam,” Faghfoory said.

He said one of the primary goals of Islamic studies faculty in offering the track is to prepare graduate students to apply for Islamic studies doctoral programs at other universities. But Faghfoory added that he also hopes the program will have an impact on a community level, not just an academic one, by encouraging more students to take an active role in religious life.

“The most immediate objective of the program, as far as the community’s concern is to attract – I should say, re-attract – the younger generations into getting to know religion, studying religion and practicing religion,” he said.

Faghfoory said that as Shiism increasingly becomes relevant in international and domestic politics in the aftermath of events like the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, students will benefit from specialized knowledge of the religion.

He said he also hopes the program will entice first- and second-generation Shia immigrants interested in learning more about their own tradition and becoming an active part of the American “melting pot.”

“The courses are designed in such a way that they will not be abstract discussions of intellectual history or intellectual issues, philosophy, theology or the law, but in such a way that they will be applicable to contemporary life,” Faghfoory said.

Rasoul Naghavi Nia, the president of the Mufid Academic Seminary – a local organization that promotes Shiite studies in Western academia – said he submitted proposals to several universities to create concentrations in Shia Islam, and GW’s religion department accepted his offer.

He added that the group’s leaders are collaborating with faculty to provide scholarships to students interested in studying Shiism who are seeking financial support.

Naghavi said this program is “long overdue” because studies on other minority Islamic groups like Ismailism – a sect that constitutes about 1 percent of the global Muslim population – have received more attention than those on Shiism.

He said the other schools he contacted have not yet taken any action to create Shia concentrations in their respective Islamic studies programs, but he is hopeful that they will follow GW’s lead.

“I see a lot of people who are interested in taking classes at GW and to take this concentration as their major,” Naghavi said. “So I am sure that this will happen.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.