The New Enlightenment

Rumee Ahmed speaks out for reconciliation through religion.

This is an image of Rumee Ahmed

Rumee Ahmed
Photo by Stew Milne/Associated Press

Reprinted with permission of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, a PBS production of Thirteen/WNET NewYork. All rights reserved.

Rumee Ahmed speaks out for reconciliation through religion. 

Rumee Ahmed (PhD Religious Studies ’08) recently accepted a tenure-track position in Colgate University’s Department of Religion after two successful years as Brown University’s first Muslim chaplain. As one of only a handful of Muslim chaplains at universities around the country, his role at Brown ranged from planning official events and bringing speakers to campus to counseling students and continuing his own scholarship. Only about 100 of Brown’s 5,000 undergraduates are Muslim, and Ahmed applauded the university’s decision to create such a position. “A major institution actually can’t afford not to have that voice,” he told Boston’s Phoenix.

Last fall, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly spoke with Ahmed about “scriptural reasoning,” a practice in which Christians, Jews and Muslims—the Abrahamic religions—read their scriptures together and discuss issues with the goal of building relationships while understanding differences.

Q: Can you find in scriptural reasoning grounds for hope that discussing different scriptures, different beliefs, can have practical consequences in reducing tensions between lots of Muslims and lots of people in the West, many of whom are Christians? Can you see it trying to work out peaceful relations between Islam and the West?

A: I have seen it. But more importantly, I believe it. I have to believe that this is going to work because the alternatives are so dire. When we’re talking about relations between people of difference, you really only have a few alternatives: You can destroy them. You can make them all like yourself. Or you can engage them and try and understand them. This process of understanding is very, very immature, both in the Muslim world and in the Western world. And I don’t say that in the sense that the West doesn’t understand Muslims. But in our modern education system, we often don’t understand religion and religious people, and we don’t take their religious conviction seriously the way that they take their religious conviction seriously. We have people graduating from universities in political science departments, in economics, in sociology, where people are studying the practical impacts of individuals all over the world. And these people are given—these students are given very little religion vocabulary, if at all, to relate to their own tradition, if not other people’s tradition. The idea that we don’t take religion seriously is, I think, the vacuum created that scriptural reasoning steps into, to say that, you know, your religious conviction actually is important and we’re going to approach you on that level, not as though we don’t have any differences and as though it’s a surface belief, but taking very seriously your conviction.

Q: How can scriptural reasoning deal with this huge problem of millions of people in the Islamic world thinking the United States and Christianity are out to destroy Islam?

A: Scriptural reasoning allows the opportunity for Christians, Jews and Muslims who are committed to each other, as they are committed to their texts, to demonstrate their commitment—at the round table. What Muslims need to see, and what the West needs to see also, are the vast numbers of people who are committed to reconciliation, and who are committed to their texts, so they can see there’s a Christian here who really cares about me and cares about my text and isn’t trying to convert me but just wants to understand me. And what happens then, the hope is that there will be a de-linking between a Christian in the West and American foreign policy. And hopefully there will be a de-linking between a Muslim living in a Muslim country and that Muslim country’s policies.

Editor’s note: Scriptural reasoning was conceived in 1994 by U.Va. Judaic Studies professor Peter Ochs and two colleagues at Cambridge University. It has grown into a worldwide movement of Christians, Jews and Muslims who join together to read and discuss their shared scriptures, a way of practicing peace at a time of inter-religious tension and conflict. The movement’s four Web journals are all published at U.Va. and edited in large part by U.Va. grad students and faculty. The University is the only institution that offers a Ph.D. in the subject.

Read the rest of the Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly interview with Rumee Ahmed.