Amid the multinational student body of Washington's Georgetown University, the five-year-old Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding attracts one of the most diverse groups of students on the campus.
"This is my refuge," says Sudanese-born Hibba Abugideiri, a doctoral candidate in history. "Here I'm encouraged to develop my religious as well as my academic interests."
Muqtedar Khan, who came to Georgetown from India, feels the same. "I was accepted at Harvard, UCLA, and Northwestern Universities," he says, "but I came here to do my doctorate in international relations because of the Center. Here it's easy to be understood."
The CMCU was founded in 1993 on the belief that dialogue and the study of each others' traditions is a necessary step on the path to mutual understanding of Muslims and Christians, Easterners and Westerners. As part of the university's famous Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, it attracts students headed for careers based on inter-cultural contact in business, government and academia. Since its founding, it has been embraced by the American Muslim Council, the International Islamic Council and the National Council of Catholic Bishops, whose vote of confidence seconded Pope John Paul II's official blessing of its opening. To date the Center remains the only academic institution in the United States dedicated to exploring the 14 centuries of cultural, historical, political and theological interactions of Christianity and Islam.
Seated around a table in the Center's main lounge one day recently were young men from Pakistan, India and Washington, D.C., women from Kuwait, Alaska and Oklahoma, and Dr. Yvonne Haddad, scholar, writer and one of the Center's four full-time faculty members. They were engaged in a vigorous discussion of global peace.
"In the United States it's possible, but difficult, to find an objective perspective on Islam, and that doesn't help world peace," said Pakistani Firas Kazi. "Here at the Center, though, there's no secret agenda and no judgments are made. Only open discussion and learning about one another. That does help." Afterward, Jim Helicke of Washington, D.C., who had returned recently from an internship in Turkey, added, "Thanks to the American media I grew up with negative images of Muslims. Coming to the Center has contributed to my understanding of Islam."
Among non-Muslims outside the university, the CMCU has become a trusted source of information about the Muslim world.
"The Center is especially valuable because it is independent," says Basheer Nafi, an editor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia. The Center, he adds, "has contributed greatly not only in making Islam more understood in this part of the world, but also in making Christianity more understood to Muslim scholars."
The financial and spiritual founder of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding is contractor and philanthropist Hasib Sabbagh, a Christian who grew up alongside Muslims and Jews in the 1920's and 1930's near Tiberias, in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. He earned an engineering degree at the American University of Beirut (See Aramco World, January/February 1991), and went on to form a construction company that, over the next five decades, built highways, houses, harbors, hospitals—and bridges—in many countries of the Middle East.
Throughout his years of personal success, Sabbagh says, he always felt deeply about the cause of peace, and his mother's humanitarian adages were never far from his mind. Heeding her advice over the past 50 years, he established a foundation, named after his late wife, that has aided charities, schools, hospitals and universities, funded interfaith programs, and brought diverse groups together to promote Middle East peace.
That he lived his beliefs has been widely recognized. In a 1996 biography, former US President Jimmy Carter called him "a citizen of the world," and the President's accolade was echoed by personalities as diverse as banker David Rockefeller, former US Secretary of State George Shultz, Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations, Palestinian intellectual Edward Said of Columbia University, international businessman Jacob Saliba and lawyer Hanna Hourani.
Sabbagh set a lofty goal for the Center he endowed: to educate, without encouraging syncretism, a diverse global audience on the widest possible variety of Muslim-Christian issues. This, he decided, could best be done by a mixture of permanent faculty and visiting scholars of both faiths from Africa, Southeast and Central Asia and the Middle East. The Center was also quick to establish links with universities in Lebanon, Jordan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Britain in order to co-sponsor conferences and publications and facilitate faculty and student exchanges.
Sabbagh chose Georgetown University, founded in 1789 as one of the first Catholic universities in the United States, "because of its location in America's capital and because of the university's Jesuit tradition of religious inquiry," said Sabbagh's daughter Sana, who herself funded the construction of the Center's suite in the university's Bunn Intercultural Center.
The Center's founding director is Dr. John Esposito, a lean and vigorous, dark-eyed Catholic who runs 13 kilometers (8 mi) before work each day. A professor of religion and international affairs as well as an Islamic scholar, he has written 11 books about Islam, has been called on to advise government officials in his field, and is much respected by Muslim scholars worldwide. To him, the Center exists "to impart not only knowledge, but also a sense of national and international cooperation and responsibility that can help us move toward a more peaceful world."
Esposito is deeply motivated by his belief that the West is now at a turning point in the history of Muslim-Christian relations. "Muslims make up one fifth of the world population, and Islam is the second-largest world religion," he says. "In the us, Islam will soon be the second largest religion, after Christianity as a whole, and there are already more Muslims in the United States than there are members of several individual Christian denominations. In the multicultural and multi-religious world of today we need civilizational dialogue, not conflict. That need makes relations between the Muslim world and the West critical.
"In America," he continues, "there is a growing awareness that Islam is not a 'foreign' religion but, along with Judaism, one of the country's three monotheistic faiths. It is important that we Americans affirm our common religious heritage and values without denying our differences. I see this beginning to happen."
As evidence he cites several "firsts" as straws in the wind: An Islamic prayer has been included in the opening ceremonies of the US Congress twice since 1991, and in 1993 Muslim chaplains began meeting the needs of the estimated 10,000 American Muslims in the US military. The American Muslim Council, Esposito says, is welcoming an ever-increasing stream of visits from Christian and Jewish members of Congress, who come seeking information and contacts. In 1996, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted the first reception at the White House to mark 'Id al-Fitr, the celebration that follows the end of Ramadan.
"We must understand and accept Islam," she said at that occasion. "Western society too often mischaracterizes Islam and its followers.... The reality is that the majority of the estimated four million Muslims in the US are loyal citizens whose daily lives revolve around work, family and community."
In 1965 the Second Vatican Council issued an unprecedented and welcome announcement known as Nostra Aetate, which Muslim scholar Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab, among others, believes "can truly be regarded as a turning point in Muslim-Christian relations. Here, finally, Christians officially acknowledged and expressed respect for the Muslims as a religious community, [and] the Roman Catholic Church formulated for the first time a doctrine that recognized the Muslims as believers included in God's salvation plan, because Muslims 'acknowledge the Creator' and 'profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day.'"
"Although in the course of the centuries," the Council said, "many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom."
The deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, spoke in a similar spirit at Georgetown in 1994. "For us [Muslims]," he said, "the divine imperative as expressed in the Qur'an is unambiguous. Humanity has been created in tribes, races and nations whose differences in physical characteristics, languages and modes of thought are but the means for the purpose of lita'arafu —getting to know one another."
Though teaching is its daily work, the Center's efforts to help the two religions to "get to know one another" goes beyond the classroom. More than 50 books have now been published by the Center's core faculty. Its faculty members also regularly give speeches about Islam to synagogue and church congregations and civic groups such as the Rotary Club; they advise foreign-affairs think tanks and policy-making government agencies; and they take part in training sessions at the us State Department. In five years, the Center's faculty have become leaders in Esposito's "civilizational dialogue."
"The Center fulfills a major need not only for our many students but for a wider community," says Deputy Director John O. Voll, who specializes in Middle Eastern and Islamic history. "It provides a clearly recognized academic home base for visiting Muslim and Christian scholars, as well as a place where people feel they can come to talk about practical matters."
For example, Voll recalls two state attorneys-general who wanted to know about the diet, hygiene, and prayer customs of Muslims serving time in their state prisons; an editor of National Geographic who inquired about the accuracy of photo captions; a Chicago attorney who needed to know how to treat a Muslim divorce case; and an Indonesia-bound US businessman who asked about protocol.
But Georgetown has always trained an international elite, and the classroom remains the Center's focal point. Its courses offer students both range and depth: "Religion and International Affairs," "Contemporary Islamic Activist Intellectuals," "History of Islam in Africa," "Women and Law," "Sources of Arab History," "Muslim-Christian Relations in World History," "Islam and the West," "Christians in the Qur'an" and "Early Islamic Sources" are among them.
Since last fall, the Center has offered students a certificate within the ba program. Under the aegis of the Center and the University's departments of theology, Arabic and history, students, regardless of their major, can earn the Certificate in Muslim-Christian Understanding after taking six courses through CMCU.
The Center has begun to leave a mark as a force for peace, says Syrian-born professor Yvonne Haddad, "because here we discuss all religions openly and do not go by pernicious slogans. Ultimately, we are teaching teachers, and that is crucial if we want to disseminate knowledge. One by one, we are making a difference."
Historian and faculty member Amira El-Azhary Sonbol passionately concurs. "The Center is important because it shows the best of Islam. Students from here head for jobs in law and teaching, the State Department, and big corporations. What they take from here can only lead to a more peaceful global society."
Aileen Vincent-Barwood is a free-lance writer whose new book is This Sweet Place (Media Publishing, ISBN 976-8170-07-7), a collection of essays on life in Exuma, The Bahamas, where she lives for part of each year.