Student Profile: Building expertise in Islamic theology in Edinburgh

Note: The Christian-Muslim Studies Network aims to advance academic scholarship and improve public engagement with the scriptural, theological, political, and sociological aspects of Christian-Muslim relations. This post is one of a series that illustrates how postgraduate students are engaging with Christian-Muslim Studies and related fields in Edinburgh. 

Josef Linnhoff began his undergraduate studies in 2009 at the University of Edinburgh, where he has watched increasingly vibrant intellectual engagement with Christian-Muslim studies develop ever since.

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His time at the School of Divinity has seen the growing commitment to Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Studies take shape, especially with the launch of the Christian-Muslim Studies Network, funded by the Luce Fund for Theological Studies.

Mr Linnhoff’s interest in the field began during an introductory course in Islamic Studies that he took as a second-year student in Religious Studies at New College. He had already experienced the School’s extensive expertise in Christian theology, but both the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity fascinated him. For the next three years, he took every relevant course he could find at both the School of Divinity and the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department.

‘I got hooked, I just absolutely found my niche’, he said. ‘My undergrad time had run out, but there was so much more I wanted to learn intellectually’.

He realized that a continuing study of Islam would require knowledge of Arabic. He moved to Oman and settled in a rural, Bedouin region where Arabic was spoken exclusively. For the first few months, he said, communication was incredibly challenging,  but he returned to Edinburgh a year later with the language skills he needed to move forward.

PhD in Islamic Studies

A Masters by Research at New College preceded his current studies as a PhD candidate under the supervision of Prof Mona Siddiqui at the University of Edinburgh. Mr Linnhoff explores shifting interpretations of shirk, the idolatrous transgression of worshiping or associating anything besides God.

His research touches on the debates inspired by the Islamic State group. Early on, the militants advertised their  destruction of ancient sites and shrines in Iraq and Syria as a manifestation of their commitment to avoiding shirk. Other Muslims have disagreed with this interpretation, complaining that the destruction and violence against holy sites is itself a sin.

Mr Linnhoff’s research seeks to demonstrate that Muslim thinkers have clashed over competing definitions of shirk for centuries.

‘What I’m really trying to show is that what it means to commit shirk is contested within Islam itself’, he explained. ‘If Muslims are debating what shirk is today, that’s nothing new’.

Studies of such disagreement has been most prominent in classical historic studies of Islam and in Christian-Muslim engagement, where Muslim thinkers employ shirk in  critiques of the Christian theologies the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Changes at the University of Edinburgh

Mr Linnhoff spoke with excitement of the change and growth he has watched during his time at New College. When he began his studies at the School of Divinity, expertise in Islam could be found in just one staff member, who soon left. Since then, Prof Mona Siddiqui has joined the staff, as well as Dr Joshua Ralston, a lecturer in Muslim-Christian Relations, and Dr Abdul Rahman Mustafa, the Luce Fund for Theological Studies post-doctoral fellow.

‘This has been another reason why I’ve wanted to stay at Edinburgh’, he said. ‘We’re building something right now, and it would be ridiculous to leave now’.

His hopes for the future of the Christian-Muslim Studies Network are simply ‘more of the same’: more seminars like that of Dr Martin Whittingham from the Oxford Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies, more conferences like the September gathering at Edinburgh for ‘Reframing Christian-Muslim Encounters: Theological and Philosophical Perspectives, and more students who come to study from Muslim-majority countries.

Mr Linnhoff noted the importance of the Network’s upcoming conference in Beirut, ‘New Trends in Political Theology: Religion and Secularity’. Located in the Middle East, the conference will provide an opportunity to study Christian-Muslim engagement outside the Western world.

‘It’s very easy to fall into the trap of being in the Western, intellectual world, not aware of the issues most pertinent to Muslim-majority countries’, Mr Linnhoff said.

The Beirut conference will occur in September 2018, just months before Mr Linnhoff is set to graduate from a School whose expertise in Islamic and Christian-Muslim Studies has grown exponentially since his arrival.

The School of Divinity currently offers courses in Islamic law and in the history of Christian-Muslim engagement, as well as two masters programmes and the PhD. Those interested in applying for a degree program in any of these areas should see the website for the School of Divinity or contact Dr Ralston directly.

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