Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Celene Ibrahim

Dr. Celene Ibrahim serves on the faculty of the Groton School in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy. Ibrahim is a public voice on issues of religious pluralism and has authored numerous publications in the field of women’s and gender studies, religion in America, and Islamic studies. Ibrahim’s current book project (forthcoming with Oxford University Press) examines female figures in the Qur’an. She is also the editor of One Nation Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets (2019). Ibrahim holds a bachelor’s degree with highest honors from Princeton University, a Masters of Divinity from Harvard University, and a PhD in Arabic and Islamic civilizations from Brandeis University. She is a frequent public speaker and consultant to educational and civic institutions and is the recipient of several dozen awards and honors, including being named a Mellon Fellow; a Harvard Presidential Scholar; and a fellow in the Program on Religion, Diplomacy, and International Relations at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Vennly: You studied in Egypt during your undergraduate studies and shortly thereafter converted to Islam. What inspired you to explore and ultimately convert to Islam?

Celene: In my first weeks in Egypt, I was exposed to the works of Persian Sufis through a class at the American University of Cairo. I gravitated toward the formidable intellectual legacy of Islam and its practices for cultivating the spirit. The wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was vivid; reading through thousands upon thousands of sayings passed down from him and about him awakened my desire to better understand his legacy. Islam was a personally inspiring religious and philosophical framework; the more I studied Qur’anic revelations, the more the Qur’an would seemingly reveal itself. It seemed to contain within many of the insights that I most appreciated from the religious, ethical, and philosophical traditions that I had previously studied. Islamic wisdom was an ocean, and I was thoroughly enjoying the plunge. I had many lovely Muslim friends too. The religion was alive in people’s beings, and it made me alive too. 

Vennly: You speak frequently about the challenges of being Muslim in America. Given the current environment, what are your hopes for future generations of Muslims in this country?

Celene: The rising generation is -in general- the most ethnically diverse America has ever seen, and American Muslims are themselves the most ethnically diverse of America’s faith communities. The majority of us are under forty, so we have a lot of energy and vision for the future. We are also, on the whole, very civically engaged and inclined to tell our authentic stories through whatever mediums that we have available. Yes, we face a lot of bigotry, but I find that on the whole there is a tremendous spirit of resilience and a deep desire for self-definition. Even in the face of severe anti-Muslim bias, our generation, and our children, will help shape an America that is more multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious than ever before. Some may find this to be a rather scary prospect, but I find diversity to be delightful and exciting. Our country may have a dark legacy of racism, and centuries of xenophobia to face, but our history also gives us a deep appreciation for religious freedom and for fundamental liberties for all people. I am confident that American Muslims will build upon and bolster the aspects of the American legacy that we can all celebrate and that we will, collectively, help this country to live up to the most worthy of its core values.

Vennly: As a society, we’re having more productive conversations about gender equality in the workplace. What has it been like being a female religious scholar in a largely male dominated space?

Celene: I have come to accept that I will have to work harder and longer to receive the esteem that is more readily given to male colleagues. But this is still true in many professional fields. I am heartened by many of male colleagues who really do attempt to make space at the table for women’s voices and contributions. And for those who still seek to exclude women from leadership and from contributing their efforts and insights, it is to the wider community’s detriment. We are, I believe, at our best when our value as religious leaders in the eyes of our community is not predetermined by gender, or race, or any other such factor, but that is, perhaps a bit idealistic. For my part, I hope to keep striving in the ways that I feel called, and trust that some good will be created by the striving. In particular, I am committed to mentoring other women who feel called to religious study and leadership and to creating networks of women and other marginalized groups.  

Vennly: How do you balance your work as a distinguished Muslim scholar and a chaplain?

Celene: Scholarship enriches the intellect, spiritual caregiving exercises the heart, and both elevate the spirit. In many ways, theory and praxis inform one another. I bring insights from my work as a spiritual caregiver into my scholarship, and the scholarship enriches and informs the caregiving. In any given day, week, month, or year, I try to balance my time between being in study and being of service. 

Vennly: What are some of the key messages and/or issues you will be discussing on the Vennly app?

Celene: We face many environmental and social pressures in our careers and in our personal lives, and practices of self-care are critical to emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. I hope to share some of the practices and insights that have been meaningful to me in different life circumstances. 

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