Courses in Islamic theology begin at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology – Learning about textual and lived Islam

Academic study and research into Islamic theology aim at gaining a deeper understanding of Islam and of the life of Muslims today.

“Academic study and research of Islamic theology at the Faculty of Theology will aim at a multidimensional understanding of both textual and lived Islam through an interdisciplinary approach,” says Academy research fellow Mulki Al-Sharmani.

Al-Sharmani will be holding the new lectureship in Islamic theology at the faculty starting from September 3, 2018. By offering an area of study on Islamic theology, the faculty will be following the suit of many reputable universities in Europe.

“In recent decades, Finland has gained religious diversity. There has been a demand for academic study in Islamic theology for a while now,” says Dean of the Faculty of Theology Antti Räsänen.

The programme for a Bachelor’s degree in Islamic theology will be open to all applicants, and may later be complemented by a Master’s programme. The aim is to launch the full-fledged area of study in autumn 2019. In the upcoming academic year, the studies will be introduced through the courses taught by lecturer Al-Sharmani.

Al-Sharmani researches gender in Islamic interpretive tradition, Islamic feminist hermeneutics, Islamic family laws and marriage and divorce practices in both Muslim majority contexts such as Egypt and in Diaspora contexts such as Finland.

Developing a new area of study

In autumn 2017, the Faculty of Theology applied for funding for studies in Islamic theology from the Ministry of Education and Culture. Strategic funding from the Ministry was granted, and will be used to establish Islamic theology as a branch of study.

Al-Sharmani’s lectureship will be the first building block in the faculty’s effort to develop this new area of study. Further work for developing the curricula and expanding the teaching is also now being planned by a special task force committee. The committee is led by Vice Dean Tuula Sakaranaho who is in charge of teaching at the faculty, and consists of the following members: lecturer Mulki Al-Sharmani, Prof. Hannu Juusola, and lecturer Sylvia Akar.

“We aim to develop research-based curricula and teaching that will equip students with multidisciplinary understanding of Islamic textual tradition and its complex role and significance in the lives of contemporary Muslims. Thus the teaching will combine both textual and ethnographic approaches,” says Al-Sharmani.

Another important goal for Al-Sharmani is to work closely with the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the university and coordinate teaching in both faculties towards the aim of providing university students with wider and well-connected options of courses.

Teaching Islamic theology: texts and contexts

The courses planned by Al-Sharmani for next year will reflect the understanding of Islamic theology as an area of study that connects Islamic sacred texts and the lived realities of contemporary Muslims in diverse contexts.

“For example, one of the courses will introduce students to the authoritative religious rulings on marriage, divorce, and parenting in the main schools of Islamic Sunni and Shii jurisprudence,” Al-Sharmani says.

The students will also learn how these religious rulings have shaped contemporary state family laws in Muslim majority countries, for example men and women’s right to divorce.

Later on, this broad theme of religion, law, and family is further delved into in another course on Islamic family law in Europe, which will cover Muslim marriage and divorce practices in different contexts in the continent as well as the regulation of these practices on the part of European states.

A third related course will focus on the work of mosques in Finland with regard to different aspects of family welfare such as family dispute mediation and arbitration.

“Through a field-based study of the activities of different mosques, students will also learn about the Finnish state model of governance of religious minorities,” Al-Sharmani says.

Al-Sharmani will also teach a course on Quranic exegesis and the hermeneutical work of selected contemporary Muslim women scholars who are questioning dominant patriarchal interpretations in this tradition.

Revisiting some assumptions on Islam

As Finland becomes multireligious and home to increasing number of Muslim communities, what are some common misconceptions about Islam that need to be revisited?

“The term sharia is often misunderstood as static religious laws that take a harsh and discriminatory stance to women and to non-Muslims. The literal meaning of the word is ‘path that leads to the water source’. This means a path that a believer seeks towards God, who in Islam is all that is good and just,” says Al-Sharmani.

In classical Islamic tradition, sharia is not reduced to mere law. Rather it is a complex concept that  encompasses the Qur’an’s guiding ethical values, central theological doctrines, the norms and laws, the institutions and ways of life that reflect these values and doctrines.