Shahanaz's experience with the first Annual Oxford Muslim-Christian Summer School in 2015 was so positive that she now offers her own expertise as a Summer School facilitator.
I participated in the first Christian-Muslim Summer School, back in 2015, when I was studying traditional Islamic sciences at Ebrahim College, which helps to support the initiative. I felt Summer School would open up new doors, open me up to new ideas and generally be a good learning experience.
In fact, the impact was so positive that it opened the door to interfaith work, helping others to explore ideas in religion in more depth. I particularly enjoy helping others to explore controversial issues in a safe space and with the right tools, where my own learning can help them to build their understanding.
As a Summer School Participant...
At Summer School I enjoyed the academic rigour involved, but also the balance CMCS instilled in the school via the social aspects and informal environment.
I learned a great deal about Christianity from Christians, which in my opinion is the best way to begin that journey; learning about a faith through the eyes of people who have a deep commitment to it. I think this created an affinity between them and me in a way that I hadn't expected.
I remember one Christian participant saying that after the Summer School they would see a Muslim walk by in the streets and immediately feel like had some sort of connection with them. I can honestly say I felt the same way after my Summer School experience. I always knew people of faith share a lot, but the emotional connection I gained was a very different experience altogether.
It wasn't like that from the get-go. There was some nervousness, some suspicion, maybe a reluctance to ask the difficult questions, especially as we were the first cohort of students, but I was surprised at how much people's guards went down by the end of it. The informal environment outside classes really helped to foster trust, and the projects we had to go off and work on together helped too.
I found the whole experience faith affirming, and learned a lot about my faith too. I was called to articulate things about my own faith that I would often overlook, because I had either taken them for granted or I had just not been around people who had asked me certain questions. This ranged from being asked where we bought our clothes, to questions about gender relations and marriage (this one seems always to be a popular topic!), to why it was so great to be a Muslim.
Talking about these things and to those who didn't necessarily have a shared understanding, especially because of the emphasis on law in Islam, which was another thing that always seems to bring up great discussions, was definitely a challenge. It also set me on an on-going journey to learning about my faith.
As a Summer School Faculty Member...
Coming back as a faculty member brought its own learning as well. I helped to deliver the session on scriptural reasoning. It wasn't easy to figure out the right approach to take and we learnt along the way, but it was an amazing session to be a part of. Watching students open up about their own thoughts on their scriptures, the difficulties they had with the other faith scripture, the commonalities, the points of tension, even within faith groups was a real joy to be a part of, and provoked me to keep delving into my own learning and understanding, not just of the Qur'an, but also of the Bible.
Navigating the boundaries of respect and genuine enquiry is always a challenge, but I now see the potential of scriptural reasoning in a different way, sitting in as a guide in the process, rather than a participant. I'm keen to do more.
There were a lot of laughs, a lot of banter and a generally friendly vibe, both among students and staff, that was lovely to be a part of, and also more conducive for learning from each other. This isn't an easy thing to replicate, but if we can, we should. It was an amazing thing to watch unfold.
Learning and Teaching Scriptural Reasoning
In my experience as a participant, I definitely felt optimistic about the work that faith groups could do together in our current context to put faith back on the agenda in a positive way. I sometimes felt frustrated that we couldn't ask questions about the elephants in the room so to speak, but also nervous about whether I could do the issues justice in my answers if and when I was asked.
Opening up about your faith in the way that we did can be quite an emotional experience. There was definitely some challenging moments for people, where people disagreed, or found things difficult to digest, but there was a definite sadness to part ways at the end, which was very heart warming.
As a faculty member, I felt excited and nervous about guiding students through this process. As well as the scriptural reasoning, I also led a tutorial group, helped facilitate some of the discussions and did a short lecture on Islamic law. I desperately wanted to help the students get a full experience, and facilitate learning in a positive way. But I don't think I could have anticipated quite how it all went in the end.
The scriptural reasoning sessions were much more emotional than I thought they would be. By one of the last sessions, students were in tears but in a really positive way. They were connecting with the texts on a very different level to what I could have anticipated, and it was an amazing thing to be a part of. They were looking at the texts from very different angles as well, coming to conclusions around commonalities that were quite surprising and unexpected. There is so much potential in this process, and at different levels. I think because these are students who are not only committed to their faith, but also studying their faith, it brings a whole other dimension to this process.
As a tutor, I again was able to get a more in-depth insight into how students were feeling about their experience, also answer questions, help facilitate discussion, and this was a hugely positive experience. It was nice to be able to help create a safe space, a comfortable environment and allow the students to really learn from each other and support each other. By the end, they really felt at home with each other. We had a session towards the end where alumni had to join in for the tutorial session, and while they enjoyed having them there, I could sense they had already in a week developed a way of talking to each other, of being with each other that was uniquely their own. That was quite impressive.
The Impact of Summer School: An New Openness to Inter-faith Dialogue
Having spent a couple of summers with the Centre on their Summer School, I feel one of the biggest ingredients for its success so far is this balance between the academic and the experiential that they seem to have captured through their approach, and which I hope I have helped to continue through my engagement with them.
Summer School has changed the way I talk about my faith to people who don't share my faith, or even any faith. It has increased my interest in ideas outside of my traditional learning, and helped me to go on that journey in a more meaningful way, whether through my role teaching Islam, or on my Masters in Islamic studies.
Even in an everyday environment, I tend to find I take more opportunities now to discuss my faith and make a way for people to discuss the 'elephants in the room' with me if I feel that they want to, and feel more comfortable to do so.
I also see interfaith in a different way, and see more potential in interfaith dialogue than I did before. It is something that I am hoping to explore more as I move forward in my Islamic scholarship and community work.
Interested in Attending Summer School?
The programme is designed for men and women who are currently, or have recently finished, studying at Christian or Islamic theological colleges training for vocational, faith-based careers in the UK, and who hope one day to be leaders within their local communities.
You can find out more about Summer School and register your interest here.