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Efforts to establish Islamic studies program gain ground

Plans to establish a program in Islamic studies are expected to accelerate this year with the establishment of a speaker series that will bring eight leading scholars to campus for lectures and consultations.

Presented by the Department of Religious Studies and the School of Humanities and Sciences, the program kicks off Oct. 29 with Harvard University's Shahab Ahmed lecturing on "The Problem of the Satanic Verses and the Formation of Islamic Orthodoxy." (A preliminary speaker schedule is available at

Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said the lectures will help bring together the campus community as the university moves in the direction of establishing a tentative framework for a future Islamic studies program. "This is a way we can begin to reach out," she said. In addition to the public lectures, the scholars will share information about their fields with university faculty.

Although funding for two new faculty positions in Islamic studies has not been finalized, Associate Dean Bob Gregg, professor of religious studies, said it is expected that the university will support a new faculty position in religious studies and a second in a field such as political science, anthropology, comparative literature, art or history. A search committee has not yet been formed, Gregg said, but a push to fill the new religious studies position could begin in about a year.

Islamic studies

In addition to the faculty positions, a program in Islamic studies could include graduate fellowships, improved language instruction and library resources, and an overall administrative structure to give the initiative a "home," said Professor Carl Bielefeldt, chair of the Department of Religious Studies. "The most likely scenario is that this home, however it is organized, will be part of a new division of international and area studies now being developed," he said. It also may include a new program in South Asian studies, he added.

Support on campus for an Islamic studies program existed well before last year's terrorist attacks, Gregg said. However, momentum took off following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as student interest in the field soared. That interest has been sustained, according to Ahmad Dallal, associate professor of history.

"All my courses are overenrolled," he said. "I have to turn down students." For example, Dallal said a colloquium he teaches on Science and Technology in the Islamic World usually attracts 16 students. This fall, 40 signed up and 22 students were admitted. "The demand is still very high," he said.

On the language front, Elizabeth Bernhardt, director of the Stanford Language Center, said student interest in studying Arabic has been sustained following a sharp spike last fall. In the past, about 12 students enrolled into Beginning Arabic each year. Last September, classes doubled in size, and this fall 40 students enrolled, with nine continuing to study Intermediate Arabic and six at the advanced level. "It's good to see it sustained," Bernhardt said. Furthermore, Hebrew instruction this fall has doubled to include 14 students. And the center continues to offer instruction in languages related to the Islamic world including Persian, Turkish, Indonesian, Croatian and Swahili, she said.

Faculty needed

Dallal, one of the few Islamic scholars on campus, has said repeatedly that Stanford needs a permanent faculty in the field. "Muslims are one-fifth of humanity -- it doesn't make sense at all not to have someone in Religious Studies," he said. "We have a much smaller program than [the University of California-]Berkeley or any of the peer institutions. The university has already recognized the importance of doing more in this area. We have a strong group of scholars on site. There is a possibility that Stanford could have a very strong Islam and Middle East studies program."

Until that happens, the university is responding by offering a range of related courses in religious studies, law, history, political science and international relations. For example, the Rule of Law Program at the Law School will teach a course on Islamic law and contemporary issues next quarter. Erik Jensen, co-director of the program, said the speakers represent a "dream team" of Islamic scholars who will give public lectures and student workshops. "We hope that this initiative will highlight the richness of current intellectual and societal debate over Islam and its interpretations," he said.

In addition to the Law School's program, International Relations and International Policy Studies will offer courses on topics such as International Criminal Courts and Tribunals and The United States, UN Peacekeeping and Humanitarian War. Religious Studies will hold courses in Islam and the Modern World and Women and Islam. Political Science will teach Afghanistan: Its Conflicts and the War on Terrorism, Security Issues in South Asia and Security, Civil Liberties and Terrorism. Furthermore, the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies has funded a new postdoctoral fellowship in Central Asian studies and is sponsoring a new course this quarter, The New Geopolitics of Central Asia. Next quarter, the center's annual Teacher Workshop series will focus on "Islam and Politics in the 20th Century."

While such initiatives demonstrate the university's response to a growing interest in Islamic studies, they must be sustained, Dallal said. "It's becoming clear to everyone that this isn't one of the dispensable areas -- it's at the heart of everything," he said. "We can't afford to be weak. We have a responsibility to educate our students in this area."


By Lisa Trei

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