We are pleased to welcome Dr. Shirin Shafaie as our newest senior fellow! Dr. Shafaie comes to Newbigin House with a wealth of experience developing innovative cross-disciplinary resources in film, TV, and academia as well as cultivating interreligious dialogue in a variety of public settings. She has taught politics at the University of London and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies (CMCS), Oxford. We are especially excited about her invaluable contributions to our core course in Public Theology. In the following brief interview, she talks about her wide-ranging interests, her initial experience of teaching at Newbigin House, and her hopes for how theological education can do good in the world.
1. What are your areas of study and specialization and how did you come to be interested in them?
My interest in researching sacred narratives was ignited during my doctoral studies on contemporary Iranian war narratives at the Department of Politics at SOAS, University of London. Having spent many years studying various aspects of a major inter-state war (Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988) I became increasingly interested in the power of religious narratives in mobilising and maintaining war efforts but also the question around Divine Justice, Free Will and Human Suffering. I therefore decided to shift my discipline from Middle East Politics to Religious Studies by pursuing a postdoctoral position at the Department of Theology at University of Oxford where I met a number of very helpful contacts who were then able to offer me a fellowship at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies (CMCS) as part of the research group on “Reading the Bible in the Context of Islam”.
By this time, the focus of my research agenda had also changed towards inter-religious hermeneutics or to put it more simply an inter-textual reading of shared sacred narratives belonging to Islamic and biblical traditions.
My initial work as part of the research group resulted in an edited volume titled “Reading the Bible in Islamic Context: Qura’nic Conversations” (Routledge, 2017; A video of the book launch is also available here) where I was one of the editors as well as a contributor. I focused my work on reading between the biblical and qur’anic Joseph stories and am currently working on a monograph which offers a reading of Gen. 37-50 in the context of (Shia) Islam focusing on topics such as Genealogy, Nation-Building, Dream and Interpretation, Seduction, Imprisonment, Leadership, amongst others.
2. You received rave reviews when you taught a unit on inter-theological hermeneutics in our public theology class last winter. What was that experience like for you?
It was a real privilege and an absolute pleasure for me to be part of the teaching team on the public theology course at the Newbigin House. I was truly impressed by the high level of engagement from the students in both cohorts. Forum discussions were very rich and informative due to the diverse set of backgrounds that your students came from and their incredible ability to contextualise the issues of concern in the course according to their own lived experiences of religion. Their level of engagement with the course material was second to none. The level of writing and quality of essays were also of a very high standard. I personally learned a lot myself by engaging with your students and hope that they have also benefitted from my contribution to the course.
3. At Newbigin House, our work revolves around doing theological education in a way that serves the common good. What resonance is there between this vision and your view of theological education?
I strongly believe in the importance of praxis alongside theory. Theological education is a place where this gains even more importance because of the significant impact that religious beliefs and traditions have on people’s daily lives. Any approach to theological education that tries to feed back positive change to the community is of utmost importance and value in a world where there is an increasing level of misunderstanding and tension between and amongst various religious groups. Moreover, I believe that both our traditions (Islamic and Christian) demand a level of practice from us as believers whether it’s in terms of “following the example of Jesus” or upholding foundational values that were key to Prophet Mohammad’s life and leadership such as social justice, respect for women and gender equality, caring for the poor and the elderly, etc. Unfortunately, the academic study of religion in the form of theological study has become somewhat detached and abstracted from the daily experiences of believers and therefore no longer able to inspire real change amongst communities. Programmes such as yours, even as rare and unique as they might be, have the ability to release theological education from behind the closed doors of academic departments and once again inspire learners to take action towards serving the common good while also committing to a very high level of academic rigour.