New program expands Islamic studies in America’s heartland

February 12, 2014

Dome of the mosque, ornaments from Isfahan, Iran. (stock image)ANN ARBOR—Islam is much more than a religion. It’s also a civilization, a variety of cultural traditions and a basis for political ideologies. Islam’s complexity makes it nearly impossible for one university to offer enough courses to cover it all.

To fill the gaps, the University of Michigan is joining other Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago in establishing a distance-learning program that allows students to take courses about Islam not offered at their own institutions.

The new program, known as the Islamic Studies Virtual Curriculum, is funded with a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Classes begin in the fall of 2015 and will involve sophisticated video equipment allowing students to be active participants in courses at the universities in the group, called the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

“Students want to learn about Islam, but they don’t always have the opportunity,” said Pauline Jones Luong, director of U-M’s Islamic Studies Program. “There is a lot of misinformation about Islam and Muslims around the world. There is a real need for students to understand the diversity and expansiveness of the religion itself.”

It’s important to give students a real sense of how diverse Islam is, both as a religion and culture as it is practiced on the ground. Pauline Jones Luong

The program will also involve teaching assistants, or graduate-student instructors, based at the students’ own universities. They will help grade papers, give exams, answer questions and staff office hours for the professor.

“It will be active learning,” Luong said. “The students just won’t be listening to a lecture and going back to their dormitory and having no one to talk to. They’re going to have an actual instructor at the graduate-student level to help them with the course material.”

Also key to the program is that it will offer a well-structured curriculum with enough classes for students to do a minor – and possibly even a major – in Islamic studies, Jones Luong said. For many students, this would be impossible to do because their universities don’t have enough courses or can’t offer them consistently.

The new initiative will be administered by U-M’s International Institute and the university’s Islamic Studies Program.

“Demystifying Islam is really important,” Luong said. “At the same time it’s important to give students a real sense of how diverse Islam is, both as a religion and culture as it is practiced on the ground.”


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U-M International Institute
The University of Michigan International Institute houses 18 centers and programs focused on world regions and global themes. The institute develops and supports international teaching, research and public affairs programs to promote global understanding across the campus and to build connections with intellectuals and institutions worldwide. For more information, visit

Committee on Institutional Cooperation
The CIC is the nation’s premier higher education consortium of top-­tier research institutions,

including the Big Ten Conference members and the University of Chicago. Through collaboration, CIC members save money, share assets and increase teaching, learning and research opportunities. Founded in 1958, CIC members engage in voluntary, sustained partnerships such as library collections and access collaborations; technology collaborations to build capacity at reduced costs; purchasing and licensing collaborations through economies of scale; leadership and development programs for faculty and staff; programs that allow students to take courses at other institutions; and study­ abroad collaborations. For more information, visit