New Center for Arab and Islamic Studies Seeks to Educate Franciscan Community

Maria Hayes Friar News


Michael Calabria reads from the Qur’an during the Interfaith Thanksgiving held on Nov. 19 at St. Bonaventure University.

ALLEGANY, N.Y. — Inspired by the encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in 1219 and in recognition of the important contributions of the Arab and Islamic worlds — both historical and contemporary — to the human experience, St. Bonaventure University established the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies earlier this year.

The center is directed by Michael Calabria, OFM, who taught courses at SBU on the Arab and Islamic world from 2003 to 2012. After completing his doctorate in Islamic studies with the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom while serving as chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University in Washington, he returned to the university to direct the center earlier this year at the invitation of president Sr. Margaret Carney, OSF.

“The center primarily has an educational mission, that is, to provide the university as well as the local community and the broader Catholic Franciscan community with accurate, up-to-date information on matters related to Arab and Islamic cultures, both historical and contemporary,” said Michael, who has traveled extensively in the Middle East and Islamic world.

He emphasized that the center was created to recognize that Arab and Islamic studies deserve a place on every college campus, as do area studies of all kinds. With an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, Islam is the second largest religion in the world. Though roughly 20 percent of Muslims are ethnic Arabs, the origins and history of Islam are intricately linked to the Arab world, which is why instruction in the Arabic language is an important part of the center’s activities.

“There are very few academic disciplines that have not been impacted and shaped by scholarship from the Islamic world,” said Michael. “The Islamic world inherited an intellectual tradition from the Greco-Roman and Byzantine world. Muslim scholars in all fields of knowledge built upon that heritage, and made advances which were then absorbed by the West.”

Educating through Writing, Speaking and Community Outreach
“Many current events, both national and international, involve Arab and Islamic studies and issues to a significant degree, including the American presidential election,” Michael added. “All of that makes the need for accurate information on the Arab and Islamic world absolutely essential.”

The mission of CAIS comprises four main areas: on-campus instruction, off-campus instruction, scholarship, and community outreach and engagement.

One of the center’s first on-campus events was a viewing of “The Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime.” Michael gave an introduction to this National Geographic documentary, which provided a closer look at the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) that all Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime, if possible. Commentary and a question-and-answer section with members of the local Muslim community followed.

Michael has also begun writing about timely issues related to Islam. His first two posts — “Jerusalem: Promises of the Past and Problems of the Present” and “Islam, Islamophobia and the American Presidential Campaign” — are included on the CAIS blog. The center is also producing a newsletter called Nūr, which means “light” in Arabic.

The center has also been available to help educate the community in the wake of major world events, like the terrorist attacks that occurred earlier this month.

“The center has responded largely through my teaching, through preaching and through speaking at the university as well as through the use of social media and the center’s blog,” Michael said. During the liturgies he celebrated on Nov. 15 and Nov. 22, Michael spoke out against the rise of Islamophobia and cautioned listeners to not allow apathy, prejudice and hatred to take the place of reason, love and compassion in their minds, will and hearts. He also shared the similarities between Islam and Christianity, and encouraged those present to stop the spread of hate by sharing a message of “unity in our diversity” supported by academia and a sincere and enlightened faith. Sr. Margaret invited him to share his Nov. 15 homily with the larger campus community during a moment of reflection the following Wednesday.

For several years, St. Bonaventure University has offered a minor in Arabic and Islamic studies. The center will oversee this curriculum and will be responsible for revising existing courses and developing new ones. In addition to the Arabic language program, courses include Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations, Islamic Art and Architecture, Women and Gender in Islam, and the History of the Modern Middle East. Michael teaches the Islamic part of the curriculum and instructor Wardia Hart teaches the Arabic part of the curriculum.

Responding to Interest
Michael suggested that St. Bonaventure begin offering Arabic studies when he noticed student interest in his Clare 206 (Foundations of the Western World) classes when covering the Qur’an.

“What I like about all of this is that it was student interest that drove it in the first place,” he said in a Sept. 3 article in The Bona Venture. “And I’m assuming that student interest will also move it forward.”

Michael is also working to affiliate to the center SBU faculty members who have a particular interest and expertise in their own field of knowledge related to the Arab and Islamic world. The center is also developing a lecture series that would bring national and international Muslim scholars to campus.

To broaden the center’s educational outreach, its director travels off campus to places such as the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, Pa., where Michael gives annual weekend programs on topics related to Islamic studies. In October, he presented “Mary and Jesus in Islam: Grace and Good News beyond the Gospels,” which explored the significance of Mary and Jesus in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition, spirituality and the arts. During the talk, Michael provided points of comparison, contrast and commonality between Christian and Islamic beliefs.

Michael is also working on behalf of the center with the HNP Franciscan Missionary Union to develop a trip to Turkey. The trip will explore Turkey’s Christian and Muslim heritage and is open to anyone.

The university community’s response to the center has been positive, according to Michael.

“People have been very appreciative of what we’re doing,” said Michael. “There have been some individuals who have contacted the university and me directly who do not want to see this in place at the university for whatever reason. I don’t quite understand why someone would object to educating people on this or any issue, but certainly the larger response from the university has been very positive.”

Information about the center and its events can be found online.

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province. She took Fr. Michael’s class on the history of the modern Middle East while a student at St. Bonaventure.

Related Links