A Big Tent Society
More and more scholars in the United States are researching the Koran. But they lack a scholarly organization -- and some say they need to travel to Britain for an appropriate scholarly meeting.
This scenario might change in the next few years.
On Tuesday, the Society of Biblical Literature, an organization devoted to the critical study of the Bible, announced that it had received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to explore the formation of a Society for Qur’anic Studies. The goal of the three-year, $140,000 project is to set up a society that could provide support to scholars of the Koran beyond the institutions they work for, with the goal of encouraging more collaborative research, holding conferences, publishing a journal and offering other kinds of professional support, such as career development.
The organization would, in many ways, resemble established scholarly groups such as the American Historical Association or the Modern Language Association, officials said. They stressed that the agenda of this new organization would not be determined by the Society of Biblical Literature, which would only provide some infrastructure.
"We want to midwife an independent organization. The idea is to set up a big tent organization so that Koranic scholars could appreciate the work of others and broaden international dialogue. The goal is to have an independent learned society at par with any learned societies in the humanities. This is about research and teaching, and we have deep respect for the subject matter," said John F. Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature and professor of Biblical studies at Emory University.
The initiative comes at a time when study of the Koran is growing quickly. Numbers from two disciplinary groups that advertise job openings in the field of religious studies – the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion -- show that year-to-year increases for positions related to Islamic studies averaged about 31 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Openings in only two other job categories -- social sciences and religion, and Christian studies -- showed stronger growth, Kutsko said. “In 2010 … we listed 34 positions in Islam, while social sciences and religion had eight openings and Christian studies had 12,” he said. (The Middle East Studies Association also lists similar positions.)
Kutsko hopes that the formation of a society will lead to thoughtful and careful conversation. “This is the best place to nurture teaching and research. Scholarly research leads to understanding, and understanding leads to tolerance and peace,” he said.
A Journal of Qur’anic Studies has been published under the aegis of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London since 1999. The journal is published twice a year, and includes scholarly articles in Arabic. The school also organizes a biennial conference on the Koran.
In North America, the discipline has been somewhat isolated with occasional seminars and sessions organized by the American Oriental Society and the American Academy of Religion.
“There hasn’t been a formalized forum. And you need that for more robust intellectual inquiry,” said Shawkat Toorawa, associate professor of Near Eastern studies at Cornell University, who will be on the steering committee of this new initiative and also serves on the board of the journal published in Britain. A forum of those who study the Koran would lead to more collaborative research, Toorawa said. “Some will say this makes sense. Others will look at it with suspicion. It is inevitable that some people will jump to conclusions,” he said.
Toorawa hopes that the scholarship of this new association will silence any possible naysayers. “The great advantage is that we are in an educational marketplace in the U.S., and scholarship is always going to prevail,” he said.
Search for Jobs