Institute of Islamic Studies evolving but still true to original vision

McGill's Institute of Islamic Studies is celebrating its 6oth anniversary. Founded in 1952, the Institute has grown to become one of the world’s leading research and teaching centres devoted to the religion and civilization of Islam.
Unique in Canada, the Islamic Studies Library houses a rich and diverse collection of some 150,000 volumes. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

It’s one thing to get out of the blocks quickly in a race, it’s quite another to stay ahead of the pack… for 60 years.

But that’s exactly what the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) has been doing since it was founded in 1952.

Back then, the Institute’s primary objective was to help bridge the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Over the course of the ensuing six decades, however, the Institute has grown to become one of the world’s leading research and teaching centres devoted to the religion and civilization of Islam. The Islamic Studies Library, which started off as a modest departmental collection, is now considered one of the most important in the field, boasting more than 150,000 volumes of print and digital material.

“The Institute was founded originally for interreligious dialogue and understanding,” says Jamil Ragep, Director of the IIS. “And it was probably more focused on religion and on religious studies.

“But it has evolved,” Ragep contines. “Now we have political scientists who study politics in the Arab world, people studying Islamic philosophy, science and Islam, languages, the history of Islamic regions. Our interests are varied and the Institute is unified by the idea of trying to understand this vast entity called Islam.”

From the outset, the IIS tried to maintain a balance between faculty from the Muslim world and from the West. The idea was simple; to gain the fullest possible understanding of the Muslim world required the best of both Western and Islamic scholarly traditions – perhaps not such a revolutionary concept today, but entirely unheard of in the 1950s.

“We have professors from Iran, Lebanon and India, to name a few,” says Ragep. “And many of us have connections in the Islamic world because we travel back and forth so often visiting institutions. Over 60 years, that has developed into a very vibrant network.”

That same balance can be found among the students. One of the IIS’s deepest ties is with Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Indonesian scholars have been studying at the IIS since the 1950s.

Those same scholars went back and became influential in Indonesia. Among other things, they established the State Institutes of Islamic Studies, an archipelago-wide system of education basically modeled on the IIS.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the IIS has plenty of admirers worldwide – especially for the way it has eschewed the traditional approach to Islamic studies based on area studies for a more comprehensive approach based on subject matter.

“Area studies can lead to all kinds of problems,” says Ragep. “For example, Persian studies – Persian literature and language don’t stop with Iran. They have a very important manifestation in South and Central Asia, and in India and Pakistan. Because these boundaries are somewhat artificial you’re going to miss a lot.

“You can see a lot of other North American schools playing catch-up,” says Ragep with a smile. “Harvard, for example, suddenly discovered Islamic studies in the last 10 years.”

But while the IIS has evolved, it remains true to the original impetus to foster a better understanding of the Muslim world.

Ragep speaks of providing a “counter narrative to today’s standard perception of Islam.”

To do that, he and his colleagues at IIS will be doing more of the same work that has already garnered the Institute such a sterling international reputation.

“It means not being political and not being argumentative,” says Ragep. “It means doing research in the original languages and interviewing people on the ground in various countries of the Islamic world. It means gathering statistics, manuscripts, texts and evidence as would any well-trained academics. In the end, the result is quite different than that public perception.

“I know it sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but I think that’s where the Institute’s high standing comes into play. How many years did it take before climate change research reached public perception? But if you maintain your professionalism and integrity, over time, people will start to listen.”