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Muslim scholars from Iran offer profound insights, understandings, to Center for Interfaith Engagement

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The Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University has been hosting two outstanding Muslim scholars from Iran, who are also a married couple. Their unusual journey, from a country with no diplomatic relations with the United States to the welcoming atmosphere of EMU, reflects their devotion to interfaith engagement and optimistic persistence in working towards their scholarly goals.

Here are their scholarly bios, beginning with the most recent arrival, Sedigheh (Sheida) Shakouri Rad, who joined her husband, Amir Akrami, at EMU at the end of 2012.

Sedigheh (Sheida) Shakouri Rad

Sheida arrived at EMU after her reformist political leanings led to her termination as a professor at the University of Tehran. She is hopeful for her country, though, after the election of a more progressive president of Iran in June 2013.

She joined her husband, Amir Akrami, who had been a visiting scholar at EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement since September 2012. In the fall of 2013 she was appointed a visiting scholar as well.

The visiting scholar program is funded for three years by the Henry Luce Foundation of New York City.

Sheida is teaching courses at EMU on “Women and Islam” and “Elementary Farsi,” the language of her country. In addition to teaching, Sheida and her husband are leading a series of informal coffeehouse programs on campus about Iranian life and culture.

For 15 years Sheida was a professor at the University of Tehran, first in the department of Islamic theology and knowledge, where she had been a student herself, and then in the new Center of Women Studies. Her main areas of expertise are women in the Quran, women in Islamic law, women in Iran and Islamic feminism. During her time there, she received a scholarship from her university and the government to pursue a doctorate.

Sheida earned an MA in the history and civilization of Islamic nations from the University of Tehran and a PhD in Islamic studies at the University of Birmingham in England. The title of her doctoral dissertation was “The Status of Women in Iranian Modern Shi’i Thought (1906-2004).”

She and her future husband both graduated from the University of Tehran in 1987 with a BA in Islamic theology and sciences, but they did not know each other at the time. They were introduced later through common friends.

Sheida and Amir have a son in university in Montreal, Canada, and a daughter who just graduated in clinical psychology at the University of Tehran.

Her first jobs as a young university graduate were to conduct research on “Iranian women’s problems” for the Office of the Prime Minister and to teach Iranian history at an elite high school for talented students.

As a faculty member at the University of Tehran, Sheida mainly worked in Cultural Studies and Social Planning Institute under the auspices of the government’s Ministry of Sciences, Research and Technology. She served as a researcher, research supervisor and evaluator of research projects. In 2000 she helped establish a women’s studies program at the institute and served as its first chair for three years.

Earlier, Sheida conducted research on the textbooks on religion that should be used in Iran’s elementary schools. This led to a national conference on religious training in schools.

Currently she is one of three researchers who are working on a “Gender in the Quran” project for a non-governmental organization called the Institute for Women Studies. “It is an effort to present a new interpretation of the Quranic verses on women,” she says.

In 2010, Sheida presented an academic paper on “The Quran and Domestic Violence” at the Peace and Islam Conference in Sweden.

Sheida is the editor of three books on women’s issues. She also co-authored What is Islam? which was first published in her country and then translated into English and French.

Amir Akrami

Amir, firmly rooted in his home country, pursued part of his education in the West and travels the world as an expert in interfaith dialogue.

He missed the opening of EMU’s fall 2012 semester, however, because of travel difficulties between Iran and the United States, whose governments have been enemies for 35 years. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

When Amir arrived on campus a few weeks after the semester started, he was the first participant in the visiting scholar program of EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement.

Amir has taught three different courses at EMU – “Introduction to Islam,” “Issues in Islam” and “Rumi’s Thought.” During the spring 2014 semester, he is teaching Islamic spirituality as well as a course in comparative monotheistic religions with a Jewish scholar and Christian scholar.

Amir came to EMU after three years as a researcher and lecturer at the Iranian Institute of Philosophy. Before that he was a visiting research fellow for five years at the Centre for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the University of Birmingham in England. While there he also taught Islamic studies at Al-Mahdi Institute.

Earlier, Amir taught for five years in the Islamic theology department at the University of Tehran, which he had attended as a student. While there, in Iran’s capital city, he was active in three related organizations – International Center for Dialogue among Civilizations, Institute for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and Inter-Religious Dialogue in Islamic Culture and Relations Organization.

A 1987 graduate of the University of Tehran, majoring in Islamic theology and sciences, Amir went on to earn a master’s degree in religions and mysticism. He earned a PhD in the philosophy of religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He finished his doctoral dissertation at the Iranian Institute of Philosophy.

For much of his career, Amir has traveled the world to interact with scholars of other religions, often presenting formal academic papers. Among the events were: Conference on Faith Communities in a Civil Society, held in England; Conference on Islam and Peace, in Sweden; Conference on Dialogue between Religions, in Iran; International Conference on Dialogue among Cultures, in Spain; and International Consultation on Christians and Muslims in Dialogue, in Switzerland.

Perhaps most significant was an annual Christian-Muslim dialogue series organized after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Called Building Bridges Seminars, they were organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the worldwide Anglican churches (known in the United States as Episcopalians). Responsibility for the seminars was later transferred to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Amir attended the first seminar in 2002 at the archbishop’s palace in London, England. He also attended the seminars in Bosnia (2005), Washington (2006), Singapore (2007), Rome (2008) and Qatar (2011). Each seminar features three days of intensive study by Christian and Muslim scholars on texts from the Bible and Quran.

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