In more than 20 years of participating in interfaith dialogue, guest lecturer Dr. Mohammad Shomali has travelled widely. He is the director of international affairs at Jami’at al-Zahra, a Shi’a Islam seminary for women, as well as director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies (IIIS). He resides in Qom, Iran.
“I feel at home in many places in the world,” Shomali said, “but Eastern Mennonite University is one of those places where I really feel at home.”
Peace and peacebuilding, along with interfaith dialogue, is one of the core Quranic principles, Shomali says. This was one reason why nine female seminarians from Jami’at al-Zahra studied at SPI this summer, escorted by Shomali and his wife, Mahnaz Heidarpour, who also teaches at the seminary. In prior years, SPI has hosted a total of 10 students from Iran, but never a group of this size all at once.
Interactions with SPI students from around the world provide a practical complement to required seminary coursework in comparative peace studies, Shomali said. “Theoretical knowledge can come through books, but when the students eat and talk together and go to churches, this is different. They learn about the way people think, live, behave, and plan. This is very valuable.”
The Iranian women praised the interactive style of teaching at SPI, where lengthy lectures are rare and role-playing is common.
“We do lots of exercises, many projects, in this class,” said Sabereh Ahmadi Movaghar, referring to “Leadership for Healthy Organizations” taught as a seven-day intensive by David Brubaker, PhD, and Roxann “Roxy” Allen Kioko ’04, MA ’07. She also took “Faith-based Peacebuilding,” taught by Roy Hange, a Mennonite scholar and pastor.
Movaghar’s home institution, Jamiat al-Zahra, is the world’s largest Islamic seminary for women, with 5,000 Iranian students, 1,000 international students and 10,000 enrolled in distance learning. The nine students at SPI are all linked to the postgraduate section of the seminary’s international department.
“These women are excellent, diligent students,” said J. Daryl Byler, executive director of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. “They are devoutly religious as well as delightful – with great personalities, warm laughs, and deep insights. The friendships being built are priceless.”
Shomali told an EMU reporter that he hoped for better relations between the people of Iran and people of the United States and noted similarities between Quranic and Christian teachings about the importance of peace. “God says about the Quran in the Quran itself that God guides with the Quran those who seek His pleasure to the ways of peace (5:15).” There are “lots of things we can learn from each other,” he added. Iranians are rational people and “when you are rational, you tend to dialogue with people of other faiths and other cultures.”
Shomali welcomed more exchanges of Americans and Iranians from a variety of fields, including artists and professionals. He said that to reduce mutual misperceptions and encourage peace, “Nothing can replace face-to-face encounters. Our first Imam, Imam Ali, is quoted as saying: ‘People become hostile towards what they don’t know.’”
— Lauren Jefferson and Bonnie Price Lofton