A relatively new Bahá’í from Pakistan (who asked that we not use her name) enrolled in the Wilmette Institute course Islam for Deepening and Dialogue 2016 (faculty, Susan Maneck, Daniel Gebhardt). Her goals were ambitious, considering that she is a PhD student in molecular and cellular biology at Stony Brook University in New York City: She planned to meditate on and do more research about the new course materials every week; to discuss a few aspects of the content posted with a friend at her workplace whenever she found a suitable opportunity; and to learn and collect ideas from this course that she could use to conduct more uplifting devotionals and even for personal meaningful conversations.
In her end-of-the course Learning Self-Assessment, she admitted that, even with “a fairly adequate background in Islamic studies,” she found that she “knew far less” than she thought. She did deepen her “understanding” of the life of Muhammad, the Qur’an, mystical Sufism, and contemporary religion, as well as Shia Islam, the Sunni/Shia split, the impact of Sufism on Islam and the Bahá’í Faith, and the similarities and differences between Islam and other religions, which deepened her understanding of the concept of unity in diversity and the fact that, as Qasim Hashid writes, “God’s Divine guidance is not exclusive to any one people.”
But perhaps her greatest take-away from the course was a skill called for in the Five Year Plan—meaningful conversations. She wrote this about learning to “draw comparisons and contrasts between Islam and other religions”: “The knowledge I have obtained . . . has better equipped me to hold interfaith dialogue with friends/colleagues who practice other religions, and I plan to return to the content again in the summer.” About becoming more comfortable in having conversations with Muslim friends, she added this:
This course has foremost helped me in gaining a deeper understanding of various aspects of Islam. In the past whenever I have had conversations based on this topic with friends or colleagues—I often have to summarize and skip a lot of important details, but with the information I now have, I believe I am in a better position to have more productive discussions with people.
Before taking this course, I was always very hesitant to discuss Islam, as a topic, with my fellow Muslim friends. I always felt that there was lack of discussions of significance, and more often than not the conversations I have had with them would be swayed by emotions, and things would often boil down to heated arguments. I now believe that my thinking has greatly changed because I am more informed, and have gained more insights into a diverse range of Islamic topics that will enable me to hold more meaningful conversations that are more focused on factual knowledge and history. This was one of the primary reasons why I wanted to study this course, and it brings me immense joy that I was able to achieve that.
As for her goal of making an “art-related project using the ideas” she would “learn from the course,” she changed her plans:
We have a good network of Stony Brook University students who are in touch with the community activities. I now plan to hold a fireside with them and the community members with the goal of using the ideas that I have learned from this course. In addition, I also plan on hosting a screening of the movie My Name is Khan with Sanjida Cabot and Naomi Escobar (my friends with whom I took this course).
The end result? An already-busy graduate student has learned a lot about Islam and has succeeded in preparing herself for meaningful conversations with her Muslim friends and colleagues. In addition, she is sharing what she learned in a fireside and a film showing.
For anyone interested in learning more about other religions to hone skills for participating in meaningful conversations, three such courses are scheduled for the remaining months of 2017:
- Exploring the Qur’an, September 15 – November 16, 2017
- Zoroastrianism for Deepening and Dialogue, August 25 – October 12, 2017
- The Book of Revelation, October 1 – November 17, 2017 (This is a new course.)