BERKELEY — When students — Muslim, Christian or Jewish — come to his classes on Islam, professor Munir Jiwa expects tough questions.

"They are not apologetic," he said. "But when bringing up divisive issues in class, it is in the spirit of learning to work with people different from themselves."

California's largest seminary has long nurtured such a spirit in its nine schools and two study centers.

Ten years ago, directors of the Graduate Theological Union began planning a Center for Islamic Studies, Today, they have achieved their dream of establishing a home to each of the world's major religions.

Today, Bay Area scholars, attorneys, spiritual leaders and journalists will help the Union celebrate its new center at a day-long conference called "Pluralism in Practice."

Speakers include the head of the Center for Jewish Studies and an imam. A panel of Persian, Palestinian and Arabic leaders will discuss media images with representatives of print and broadcast media.

"A lot of institutions have departments of Islamic study, but none are engaging communities of faith about the theology — the academic piece and the practical piece," said James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union.

A place of study, research, and bridge-building, the center will also be a resource for the diverse Bay Area Muslim community: "We want to be a place where different perspectives within Islam can find a safe space," Donahue said.


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Jiwa, a Canadian scholar who holds a master's degree in religion from Harvard and a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University, began work as director July 1.

Since then, he has encountered Muslim students dumbfounded by violence in the name of Islam — "They are at a loss as much as anyone to understand it" — and non-Muslim students who speak articulately on liturgical and theological Muslim themes.

He has taught students from all faith backgrounds who know little about Islam.

"They are surprised by the deep, deep respect for Jesus," Jiwa said. "An entire chapter on Mary in the Quran. They are very surprised. It's almost like, 'How can that be?'"

"Whatever course, they always come into class with questions related to current affairs, immediate concerns," he said. "I can count on them coming in with political questions — on violence, on veiling. ... It's a given, including with Muslim students."

Courses span Islamic theology, liturgy, philosophy, mysticism, Sufism, arts and culture.

Jiwa gets his students out into the community once a week to visit mosques, museums or schools.

After watching devout Muslims praying at a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner, one woman suddenly realized why the sexes segregate for prayer: the genuflecting, the movement, and the prone bows. If she were a Muslim praying in a mixed congregation, she would seek her own space, she told Jiwa.

"We think segregation speaks to the conservative nature of the mosque, but it's quite the opposite," he said.

Many have experienced a desire to study Islam in the lens of Sept. 11. That has given way to a renewed public discourse on faith, Jiwa said.

Grants totaling $500,000 will fund the center for the coming three years. School officials say a multitude of sources can be tapped for future funding.

The seminary's next step will be to develop a certificate program, then a master's program that would parallel master's programs in Jewish and Buddhist studies.

Faith brings the study alive, Jiwa said.

"You're not just studying Islam historically," he said. "A person asking about women's roles is likely to be interested in those things in her own faith tradition.

"It's a great model, asking questions of the other through one's own theology. Through learning about the other, we affirm our own faith."

The opening for the Center for Islamic Studies is 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. today at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, 2451 Ridge Road, Berkeley. Information is available at 510-649-2420. Admission is free.