The Nordic Master's Degree Programme in Theology:

The Religious Roots of Europe (RRE)

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A Student's Report from a PhD Seminar in Jordan by Anna-Liisa Tolonen

Having just about completed my master's degree in RRE, being firmly in the process of getting intimidatingly nostalgic about the memories from 'those good old RRE times'... The autumn was darkening while I was meant to direct my attention next to early Islam and its relations to its contemporary Christianity and Judaism. So, there I was, clueless, in need of new insightful adventures, inspiring one-to-one conversations, and a change of scenery – it was just about the time for another RRE seminar!

petraThe RRE research network organized a PhD Seminar in Jordan in November 2011. The seminar was titled The Emergence of Islam in its Jewish and Christian context – most conveniently to meet my needs!

Similar PhD seminars take place every year and they are open for all applicants; preference, however, is often given to those who have completed their MA and are connected to the universities within the RRE network. (For more information about the RRE network and the seminars, see

Why Jordan?

Jordan proved to be the place to go for anyone interested in the religious roots. We were based in Madaba – a city of mosaics. During ten days, we travelled south (to Petra), north (to Jerash), west (to the Dead Sea) and east (to the desert and Qasr Amra), we climbed two mountains to properly familiarize with the timeless landscape.

It is not exceptional to find a site in the area which would have been considered holy by several contemporary religions or which would once have hosted both Christian and Muslim, perhaps also Jewish, pilgrims. Potential points of exchange? Undoubtedly!

Indeed, it may be mind-exploding to set aside the books for a while and to let the landscape and the sites inspire conversations and define questions we ask. From my experience, it is not just important but also most stimulating to study in a seminar like this, not least when it is held in such settings. The environment, the material context, becomes a part of one's learning process, shaping the understanding about the region and its history.

Moreover, simply to come together is of value: typically in a RRE setting, different interests and approaches are at play and often complement one another – the mixture results in a learning environment which is both confronting and rewarding.

Why RRE?

RRE is a question of continuation and development of religious ideas and practices in the monotheistic faith traditions. Therefore, a student in RRE is challenged to allow, understandand appreciate multiplicity and complexity, both of which are typical of historical sources related to religions. Meanwhile, to enable comparisons, the student should havethe skillsand means to search for connections and even continuity among these sources. In order to reach such aims, I think unprejudiced and dialogic company is highly recommended, if not a precondition.

RRE is a question of comparison, interplay and mutual influence. To me this has become crystallized not only in the general focus of the program and seminars but often just as much in the practical realization of my studies. Seminars, like the one in Jordan, stand as a proof for that. Interactive learning in such a setting enables a rich learning process, which does not lack constant self-evaluation and reconsideration of one's own approach and perspective of study.


The seminar program was made by professors Samuel Rubenson (Lund) and Thomas Hoffmann (Aarhus) of whom the latter also attended the seminar as a lecturer. In addition, two guest lecturers were invited, Garth and Elizabeth Key Fowden, both of them former students of Peter Brown (the man who had practically invented Late Antiquity...). The rest of us were PhD and post-doctoral students mainly from Sweden and Denmark, complemented with one from Germany, a university lecturer from Pakistan, and myself from Helsinki.


AarhusUniversity BergenUniversity KopenhagenUniversity LundUniversity OsloUniversity