Muslim Theologian-In-Residence Opens Minds (And Dispels Stereotypes)
Posted 03/26/2018 08:58AM

by Katie Krantz/Lion Staff


In early March, the traditionally Judeo-Christian Lovett school welcomed diversity in the form of a Muslim theologian in residence. Every year, the school invites a theologian to meet with faculty, participate in small class discussions, and lead an assembly. Embracing Celene Ibrahim, a female, Muslim chaplain from Tufts University, was an exciting opportunity for students to encounter new viewpoints and dispel stereotypes.

Ms. Ibrahim converted to Islam after growing up Catholic in Rural Pennsylvania. She found her faith on a study abroad.

I cannot imagine a more qualified individual to speak to Lovett students on Muslim culture. Ms. Ibrahim, who was appointed Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University in 2014, has served as Islamic Studies Scholar-in-Residence on the faculties of Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College. Her work has been highlighted by the Religion Initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations.

For her work writing and publishing on Islamic family law, Muslim feminist theory, and Qur’anic studies, she has been recognized as a Harvard Presidential Scholar. If you’re not yet convinced that Ms. Ibrahim is to religious studies as Tony Hawk is to skateboarding, she has also been a Fellow in Religion, Diplomacy, and International Relations at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

How did we ever convince her to fly to Atlanta and speak to us? Well, besides Rev Allen’s connections to some high places, Ms. Ibrahim is deeply committed to Islamic scholarship and to fostering interreligious learning environments. “I’ve trained in interreligious conversation, and I really just want to open up discussions that lead to a greater understanding for everyone,” she says.

“That was one of my favorite chapels,” says Senior Grace Anne Muller. “It was so cool to hear her speak, and I think it really showed that Lovett is committed to letting a lot of different voices be heard. I think that’s really important, and I appreciate it in a school.”

“I just wish I could have heard her speak longer,” says sophomore Catherine Sherling, who later went to the TAP meeting hosted by Ms. Ibrahim. The TAP meeting, according to leaders Neil Patkar and Samantha Jones, was a “resounding success.”

Sophomore Emilio Ferrara feels that he gained knowledge and understanding of Islam from hearing Ms. Ibrahim speak both at the TAP meeting and his religion class with Rev Reck. “Before she came to our class, I always wondered if Islam condones violence. Now that I’ve heard her speak about it and seen the actual verses, I feel a lot better about it.”

“It’s always nice to have a voice of someone who may seem like an outsider in our mainly Christian community,” says Rev Reck, who hosted a discussion with her in his New Testament class. “I just wish that she could have come to the middle school.”

Well, if you are a middle schooler or a slacker who skips chapel days, we have a treat for you: an exclusive Coffee With Katie interview with Celine Ibrahim.

Katie Krantz: How old were you when you converted to Islam?

Celene Ibrahim: I  was twenty-two. I’m pretty sure it was around then. It was in college. I was in the middle of my college experiences. I had done a few gap year experiences, so I was a little bit older than your typical sophomore, but I was in my sophomore year.

KK: Who did you find as a mentor when converting?

CI: I’m still in this learning process. I’m about fourteen years into Islam now, and I’m still learning the religion. I still have mentors, I still have spiritual guides that I’m learning from. That’s one of the things that drew me to Islam. It’s very deep philosophically, theologically, textually, and so there’s always room for learning. No matter how much you study, there’s always more to learn. That appealed to me.

More immediately speaking, I was living in the dorms of the American University in Cairo. The women’s and men’s dorms were completely separate. The women on the floor were very inspiring. There were women there who took their Islam very seriously, and were praying and would be fasting and doing the practices very seriously. Other women on the floor were more culturally Muslim but not necessarily observant. Of course, they knew their religion and I could ask them questions. They would explain things to me. Both groups were really powerful.

I was taking courses in the university on Islam. I found a really inspiring woman professor. She was not only a historian and taught the more esoteric branches of Islam, but a mentor that helped with application as well. She was an artist, and an incredibly accomplished artist on the world stage. Connecting with her as a young woman was powerful. A politics teacher, who taught History and Politics of the Middle East, with a lot of strength and intellect was inspiring as well.

KK: What role do your views on feminism play in your religion?

CI: I didn’t realize the ways in which I was acculturated into a specific type of girlhood. I was athletic, I was a tomboy. There was not much racial and ethnic or religious diversity in rural Pennsylvania, where I spent most of my formative years. Even though I went to an international boarding school for high school, I had a very narrow definition of what girlhood and womanhood are. I wasn’t aware of what feminism even was. I had some idea of the 1970’s, bell bottoms, and bra burnings, but beyond that I didn’t have a good sense of the ways in which feminism is part of a social justice movement or how you have different types of theology.

I just didn’t have a lot of exposure. Now, over the years, being able to study and being able to sit around the table with some of the most accomplished feminists of this generation, I’ve begun to take the value from feminism as a social justice movement, but also realize the ways in which certain types of feminism still restrict womanhood to very narrow definitions. When I’m sitting around the table, I think it broadens the definition of feminism to be able to include women who have religious convictions, in my case specifically Muslim convictions. Feminist movements can be a little anti-religion, because religion for them can be the epitome of patriarchy.

KK: Did you convert first culturally or religiously?

CI: I converted in Egypt. I had studied Islam in terms of books. I had known different Muslims in my life. Before I went to Egypt, I was never immersed in a Muslim-majority society. I was seeing the practice of Islam in a way that I had only theoretically understood before. In terms of how that plays into culture, I didn’t really know what was part of Egyptian culture and what was pan-Muslim custom. What is the result of other historical influences versus Islam directly? I think it was both at the same time.

KK: Who comes into your office at Tufts to talk?

CI: It is completely across the board. Some people have an assignment for a class that relates to Islam and want to come talk to me to get a question answered. They don’t come from a Muslim background. I had one young woman with a Turkish grandmother who had inherited a beautiful pendant with Arabic writing on it. She sat down with me because she wanted me to help her figure out what was written on that pendant. That’s one example.

Often times it is the people in the Muslim community specifically, or it is other women from the subcontinent, India or Pakistan, who may not be Muslim but feel culturally at home. Tufts has a large Bangladeshi population and a large Pakistani and Indian population. Both with folks who have come directly from abroad, or those who are first or second generation American-Muslim kids.

Particularly women of color in general come to visit, because even though I come from a Euro-American ethnicity, by virtue of being identifiable as Muslim in society, I’m familiar. Because of the xenophobia and the othering that occurs, I’m almost sitting in a liminal, racialized space by virtue of my hijab.

Ms. Ibrahim was easy to talk to, open, and one of the most insightful people that I have met in my short eighteen years. I’m so thankful that I had the chance to interview her and that Lovett found such a wonderful theologian in residence for my senior year. Thank you Rev. Allen. Thank you Mr. Peebles. Thank you Mr. Boswell. Thank you Ms. Ibrahim.

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