Dean Margaret M. Mitchell

A conversation with Margaret M. Mitchell, dean of the Divinity School and Shailer Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature

The University recently received a Mellon Foundation grant to support Islamic studies. What does the grant mean for the Divinity School?

The Divinity School’s Islamic Studies program is relatively new, established as a PhD track in the early 2000s. However, the Divinity School isn’t the only place for Islamic studies at Chicago; in fact there are great Islamicists throughout the University. We feel that it takes an entire university to study the world’s religions adequately, and the Mellon grant is intended to help make those scholarly interconnections more explicit and productive.

Several years ago, the Divinity School’s former dean Richard Rosengarten collaborated with Michael Sells, Barrows Professor of Islamic Studies in the Divinity School, to think about how the School could lead a University-wide initiative to solidify and enhance the study of Islam on campus. They came up with a dynamic model, which the Mellon Foundation has decided to support with a $600,000 grant for three to four years. Coordinated by the Divinity School, the program will bring one scholar of Islam from around the world to campus per quarter to be based in one of the academic units of the University. He or she will teach one course, conduct one workshop or conference presentation, and organize a wider public event of some kind.

Which visiting scholars will the Islamic studies grant bring to campus this year?

The interdivisional steering committee, which includes Michael Sells as chair (along with Professors Tahera Qutbuddin of NECL, Fred Donner of NECL and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and David Nirenberg of Social Thought and History), has already nominated two scholars who will spend a quarter on campus during the 2011–12 academic year. Maribel Fierro, research professor at the Institute of Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences (CCHS) at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIS, Madrid), will teach Religious Deviation Pre-modern Islamic Societies in autumn quarter. Abdolkarim Soroush, a world-renowned Iranian scholar who has done work on Rumi’s mystical poetry, will visit in winter quarter. Islam is such a complex religious tradition, instantiated in different ways in different geopolitical sites. The beauty of this program is that we will have eight or nine visitors from throughout the world helping us place the study of Islam in a more international context.

As you are welcoming scholars from around the world to the Divinity School, the Martin Marty Center helps bring the Divinity School to the world. Could you illuminate for us the center’s purpose and any plans for its future?

The Martin Marty Center was named for a great American religious historian who trained at Chicago, spent his career on this faculty, and is still a much sought-after media voice. From the very beginning, the idea of the center was to sponsor advanced research in the study of religion and to cultivate multiple publics for that research. Under the direction of William Schweiker, Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics, the Marty Center accomplishes that in various ways: publications, including the electronic journal Sightings; the Religion and Culture Web Forum; and conferences that are always open to the public. In addition, every year, ten or so advanced doctoral students receive a Marty Center fellowship, which entails participating in a workshop with other fellows, teaching a course either inside or outside the University, and, at the end of the year, presenting their work to a group of public interlocutors, educated and intelligent people who work in completely different fields than the academic study of religion.

We’re now thinking about how that experience, which is so great for a precious ten or so every year, can be made available to more students, and how we can expand the media presence of the center itself. The Sightings publication and web forum are wonderful as far as they go, but we want to become the go-to media source for thought-provoking engagement with the academic study of religion.

You’ve mentioned in the past that gifts to the Divinity School Annual Fund are allocated for student financial aid. What does it mean to have former students supporting those who are currently at the school?

Our alums, with a few exceptions, are not people who have a lot of extraneous income. So it’s a significant statement for each of them to decide that the Divinity School is where they would like to make a philanthropic investment. It’s not only a gift to the school, it’s a way of commending current students for choosing to do this with their life, and a way of honoring what we do here and why we do it.

The support of alumni helps ensure that the Divinity School continues its rich tradition of thoughtful, rigorous dialogue about religion.

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