They spend years in theological seminaries and Islamic schools, some of which are boarding schools. They come to Cambridge Muslim College with a rooted understanding of the Islamic tradition and an open eye to learn what the world of academia and interdisciplinary studies has to offer. These are the religious leaders of British society undertaking CMC’s intensive Diploma in Contextual Islamic Studies & Leadership. This programme aims ‘to enable students to understand and engage with contemporary debates about the role of religion in general, and Islam in particular, in modern society.’ It also trains them to be ‘compassionate and reliable spiritual and pastoral advisors to Muslims and others.’ In addition to modules in interfaith studies and visits to Anglican Churches in the UK, CMC students experience a direct encounter with faith leaders from the Catholic Church at a place of central importance to their tradition, the Vatican. They learn and practice interfaith dialogue, challenging and being challenged by their Christian brothers and sisters.
Last year, and as part of my lectureship position at CMC, I had the honour of accompanying our Diploma cohort on this journey. With a growing interest and involvement in inter-religious studies, I joined this trip to Rome with a deep appreciation of what it means to be a student. Although this certainly was not my first encounter with members of other faiths, I felt the weight of inhabiting two roles simultaneously, that of observer and guide.
We stayed at a nunnery in central Rome and had the pleasure of joining the students and faculty of the Lay Centre, a Catholic international educational institution providing formation for lay students at the pontifical universities and institutes in Rome. Participants from the Lay Centre formed dialogue partnerships with our students and both groups eagerly engaged in theological as well as historical discussions from the first encounter. This certainly had an impact on the level of deep understanding and honesty that was eventually reached by the two groups toward the end of the trip. We took turns in giving praises before each meal and joined the congregation’s prayers & Masses on a daily basis. Amongst the places we visited are the Vatican Observatory, Saint Peter’s Church, the Vatican Museums, St. Peter's Basilica, the basilica SS Quattro Coronati, the British Embassy to the Holy See, and the Colosseum.
Each of these visits and the lessons learnedwould be great to consider in their own right, especiallyattending, the Wednesday Mass of Pope Francis! Yet, the one visit which stood out for me, and seems to have also been particularly unique to many of our students, is our visit to the basilica where we met a highly learned and inspiring group of nuns. The basilica is the home of a cloistered community of nuns who follow the Rule of St Augustine. Their service, the nuns eloquently and persuasively explained, is essentially their learning. The knowledge they acquire, they add, is for their own spiritual development, not for teaching, and not for scholarly composition. They have their own struggles to become religious leaders, ordained priests, or scholars. However, the spiritual leadership of these nuns humbled us all; the depth of their knowledge of history, theology, and the Christian communities, have impressed our intellects. Reflecting on their model, I have asked myself: if formal degrees, positions, teachings, or Calling were none-existent, would I still pursue God through knowledge as I currently do?! Needless to say, this reflective moment is not to undermine all of the much-needed scholarly works faith leaders ought to undertake or the service they perform; rather, it is to emphasize the point of it all, God. I am reminded of this beautiful Qur’anic verse stating:
We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth (Q 41:53)
Signs are everywhere, not only in the outer world or in books, but within ourselves and they will keep being shown to us until they lead us to the Truth.
Our students concluded their trip realizing they have more questions and more concerns, but also a deep sense of commonality and spiritual connection with Christian believers.
Dr. Najah Nadi
The Aziz Foundation Lecturer in Islamic Studies, Cambridge Muslim College
CACS Fellow in Peace and Reconciliation
 For more information on the programme, please visit: http://cambridgemuslimcollege.ac.uk/programmes/diploma/