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Beyond the Ivory Tower

This should serve as a reminder to us that university faculty and students are involved daily in the great issues facing our world.


I could provide a list of the many programs and schools across VCU that daily see to the physical and mental health of citizens, city planning, teaching of the young and care of the aged in Richmond and beyond. They regularly test our society's old ways of doing things and seek to discover new solutions to human problems. But I will stick to what I know best, a brief sample from VCU's religious studies program within its school of world studies.

Just about 30 years ago I arrived at VCU, then in its infancy as an institution. I was asked to create a religious studies major that would meet the needs of a globally oriented university. I couldn't have imagined then the rich mix of women and men, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who one day would serve as faculty in the new program.

One professor has focused his work on social justice, race and poverty issues, and has instituted service learning courses in global ethics that have sent hundreds of VCU students into community tutoring programs, homes for the aged, boys and girls clubs, and more, integrating experience in the community with classroom projects. Another professor has focused on the role of women in religions. Drawing on her own difficulties faced as a woman scholar within the Baptist church, she speaks tirelessly across the country and daily in her classes on the current debates regarding sex, gender and the woman's role in religion.

Another of our faculty members, after long experience as a leading rabbi, has been involved in the political and cultural debates of Richmond for decades, published his dialogues with Bishop John Spong on Jewish-Christian relations, worked with the hospice movement and led in conversations between Jews and Muslims. Another professor teaches Tibetan Buddhism, has spoken tirelessly regarding the plight of Tibetan Buddhist refugees and has worked with the displaced.

A flurry of media attention to an event in the activist life of one scholar, Amina Wadud, may be misinterpreted as strange or unusual. It should, in fact, serve as a reminder of the wider duties assumed regularly by university students and scholars as they seek to test theory in practice. Dr. Wadud's involvement in serious issues within Islam is, in fact, the product of decades as a respected Islamic scholar versed in Arabic, Islamic history and Qur'anic interpretation.

Dr. Wadud came to VCU several years ago as the chief candidate in an international search for a leading scholar in world religions generally and Islam specifically. Her experience teaching Islam in a Muslim college at the very center of the world's Muslim population, Malaysia, has put her in a particularly favorable position to interpret world Islam within our School of World Studies, and to work in developing a program within Islam for our many students attracted to that field. She assumed her place at VCU within an already distinguished position held before her by a leading Palestinian Muslim scholar, Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, now teaching in a graduate school of theology, and Dr. Yashau Sodiq, a Nigerian Muslim scholar who taught both traditional African religions and Islam within our religious studies program.

A single picture and article in Time Magazine may give us the wrong idea about a scholar's life. Dr. Wadud has a long and consistent history of weaving research and practice together. I have in my office a full folder of newspaper articles from around the world reporting Dr. Wadud's engagement in issues of race, social justice and rights of women on tours of South Africa and Asia. More recently, the Toronto newspapers featured her appearance at a major conference where, as an African-American Muslim scholar, she challenged both religious and racial prejudices both within and beyond the Islamic community. She has worked for decades as a leader of a global Muslim Sisterhood, as an invited scholar at Harvard University and a sought-after lecturer at scores of American universities. She has been an invited representative of the Islamic community of scholars at meetings at the White House and on international committees of the United Nations. Alongside my file of her involvement as activist in Islamic interests around the world is a second file, containing a stack of her carefully researched articles from leading journals, chapters in collections of essays on Islam and social justice issues, and her groundbreaking book interpreting the Qur'an from the perspective of the woman's place in Islam from its beginnings. Currently, she is at work on a new book that will blend and explain the importance of her struggle as an activist for social justice and women's rights and her role as a scholar in Islamic literature and history.

Theory, creative dialogue, and practice belong together in a university seriously dedicated to learning, teaching and doing in a world seeking deeper understandings of community. Dr. Amina Wadud's work enriches us all serves as a model for such a blending of global concerns and scholarly duties.S

Cliff Edwards is a professor in the religious studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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