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Information for Graduate Applicants in
Islamic Studies at UNC


Note: It is suggested that anyone planning to apply for admission to the UNC Department of Religious Studies graduate program should correspond with UNC faculty members Juliane Hammer, Waleed Ziad, and Youssef Carter, and set up a Skype interview before applying.  Anyone planning to attend the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion in November may also request to meet there.

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On the field of Islamic Studies in general

What is Islamic studies? At UNC, Islamic studies is a concentration available in the Department of Religious Studies. As such, it is part of an interdisciplinary academic approach to Islam that integrates the comparative and theoretical approaches that have developed in the modern academic study of religion. In this respect, the academic approach to Islam differs from the theological study of one’s own religious beliefs, whether in a madrasa or in a divinity school. Modern Islamic studies represents a departure from classical European Orientalism, which tends to focus on the study of mostly normative early Arabic texts, to the exclusion of regional Islamic cultures and contemporary critical developments. For an account of the way that Islamic studies has developed in relation to religious studies in recent decades, see the article by Carl W. Ernst and Richard C. Martin, “Toward a Post-Orientalist Approach to Islamic Religious Studies”; this is the Introduction to the book we have edited, Rethinking Islamic Studies: From Orientalism to Cosmopolitanism (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).
Islamic studies is also connected to Middle East area studies, although the overlap is only partial. See the detailed study by Charles Kurzman and Carl W. Ernst, “Islamic Studies in U.S. Universities.”  Approaches to Islamic studies differ from one country to another; the UNC-Duke collaboration has been highlighted by the Higher Education Foundation Council for England (HEFCE) in its June 2008 report on “International Approaches to Islamic Studies in Higher Education.”

How does one choose a graduate program in religious studies? Graduate study is a highly specialized training, though its goal is generally communication to a wider public, including but not limited to university students. Graduate programs should not be chosen by reason of location, general reputation of the university, or climate. A doctoral program in the humanities or social sciences revolves around the close relationship that a graduate student establishes with an academic adviser; it resembles a medieval apprenticeship in that respect. The best way to choose a graduate program is to identify the top 5 (or 10) scholars in your field, whose work has been directly relevant to what you aspire to achieve. This presupposes that you have not only been thinking about subjects in religious studies, but also about the questions that are being debated in the field. Potential applicants who seek the leading scholars in a particular field should investigate basic reference works in religious studies, such as the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, edited by Jonathan Z. Smith, or the Encyclopedia of Religion published by Macmillan; for Islamic studies, see the reference works mentioned in Suggested Readings on Islam. Relevant articles in these reference works include bibliographies listing the most important scholarly writings on these subjects, and they can serve as a guide for identifying significant current issues and leading scholars in the study of religion. One should study the writings of those scholars, and then write to them, asking detailed questions about whether they would be willing to advise you as a graduate student; make sure you identify the scholarly questions that frame your desired research specialty. If a scholar responds positively, then it makes sense to apply to that program. Important information about graduate programs can also be gained from consulting with current graduate students (see the list of UNC religious studies graduate students).

General information about applying to UNC. If you are interested in applying to the graduate program in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, you should look over some of our web sites, so that your statement of your professional goals in the application may be as fully informed as possible regarding the resources and programs available at UNC and related institutions. Application to UNC is done on the internet. You can find all the relevant information from the UNC Graduate School. Please note that applications for fall admission, including GRE scores, must be received by Dec. 13 for consideration for admission the following August with financial aid. International applicants must also submit TOEFL scores.

Degree programs. Our department permits admission either directly to the Ph.D. or to a combined M.A.-Ph.D. degree, in which entering students start in the Master’s program; those who have completed a master’s degree elsewhere may petition after one year of courses to enter the doctoral program. For full details, see the departmental web site. In most cases, we strongly recommend that applicants in Islamic studies should have completed a master’s degree elsewhere in religious studies or some other humanities or social science discipline, or else in an area studies program.  International applicants should note that, as with most American Ph.D. programs, we have a significant component of coursework (roughly 3 years) both at the M.A. and Ph.D. levels, followed by Ph.D. qualifying examinations, before a Ph.D. dissertation topic may be proposed; in the case of the Ph.D. dissertation, the dissertation proposal (usually formulated in the semester after qualifying examinations) is itself subject to approval by the Graduate Studies Committee as well as the dissertation committee. This process is intended to initiate graduate students into the wider discipline of religious studies as well as prepare them for research on a specialized topic. This also means that an application essay should not take the form of a dissertation proposal, since we believe that a considerable amount of preparation must be done within our program before a credible dissertation proposal can be presented.

About Islamic Studies at UNC. Islamic studies may be studied as a graduate field in the Department of Religious Studies. It is not part of a Middle Eastern area studies program, though it benefits from area studies resources. Like the 33 other universities that offer the Ph.D. in religious studies in North America, UNC offers professional training for teaching and research in academic departments of religious studies in American colleges and universities (see brief descriptions of Islamic studies in Ph.D. Programs in Religious Studies as well as Current job listings in Islamic studies). It is not a seminary for training theologians or religious leaders in any faith tradition. As a Class-I research university, UNC has a national and international mission, and the Department of Religious Studies places its Ph.D. graduates in leading academic institutions in North America. We therefore draw upon a national and international pool of applicants on the graduate level, and we do not have any admissions preference for residents of North Carolina. In order to pursue Islamic studies at UNC, it is necessary to take advantage of collaborative research centers and affiliated programs, in addition to faculty resources at UNC in Religious Studies and other departments. We can provide training in many areas of Islamic studies, but it is recommended that potential applicants consult with faculty members here before applying in order to determine if this is the best place to pursue a particular research program. Applicants who need to acquire relevant languages or training in religious studies should consider the master’s degree programs listed in Islamic studies in M.A. Programs in Religious Studies.

Local Research Centers. 
UNC in 2003 established the Center for Islamic and Middle East Studies, which is housed in the FedEx Global Education Center; this center promotes understanding of the Middle East with a special emphasis on cross-regional approaches to Muslim societies. Another collaborative partner is the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), which supports teaching and research to facilitate understanding of Muslim-majority countries.

The network of scholars with whom we are associated aims to coordinate research in a new paradigm of Islamic studies that is neither Orientalism, area studies, nor interreligious dialogue. This project has also involved the creation of a new book series on “Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks” published by UNC Press, and edited by Bruce Lawrence and Carl Ernst. Why is this new approach to Islamic studies being developed? We feel that American higher education  needs more critical engagement between religious studies and interdisciplinary approaches to Islamic civilization. For further details, see the essays indicated above under “What is Islamic studies?” The vitality of our collaborative graduate program is indicated by the annual Duke-UNC Graduate Student Conference on Islamic Studies held annually since 2004.

Related Faculty Resources and Affiliated Programs. Related faculty at Duke University and UNC include the following scholars:

  • Cemil Aydin, UNC, History — Ottoman and global history
  • Youssef Carter, UNC, Religious Studies — anthropology of Islam in Africa and U.S.
  • Banu P. Gökariksel, Geography, UNC — urban landscapes in Istanbul and Jakarta, gender and feminism
  • Juliane Hammer, UNC, Religious Studies — Islam in America, gender studies, Sufism
  • Mohsen Kadivar, Duke, Religion — Muslim philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and political thought
  • Charles Kurzman, UNC, Sociology — Iran, Islam, and modernity (adjunct in Religious Studies)
  • Mbaye Lo, Duke, Asian and Middle East Studies — Arabic, Islam in Africa
  • Timothy Marr, UNC, American Studies — images of Islam in American literature
  • Ellen McLarney, Duke, African and Asian Languages — Arabic literature
  • Omid Safi, Duke, Asian and Middle East Studies — Contemporary and Pre-modern Islam; Islamic Mysticism (adjunct in Religious Studies)
  • Waleed Ziad, UNC, Religious Studies — Islam in South and Central Asia, Sufism 
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it includes most people here who are engaged in Islamic studies and connected topics.

Admission, Financial Aid, and Application. Admission to the Department of Religious Studies at UNC is handled by the Graduate Studies Committee. Knowledge of Middle Eastern languages (usually Arabic or Persian) and the history of Islamic culture is very important for admission — increasingly, many applicants are coming with several years of language study to their credit. Yet it is equally important for applicants to have an extensive background in religious studies, the humanities, and social sciences, both in terms of particular subjects and in theoretical approaches, and to have an excellent ability and extensive experience in writing research papers. Since there is no quota for admission by field of study in our department, applicants in Islamic studies are competing against applicants in all other fields of religious studies, many of whom already have a master’s degree in religious studies, area studies, or some other field, and significant work in relevant languages. Admission is therefore highly competitive (roughly 5-10% of applicants have been accepted in recent years), and the best fellowship awards go to students with outstanding academic records, excellent recommendations, and persuasive statements in the application essay. Excellent GRE scores are still a major factor for multi-year competitive university fellowships. Experience and skill in writing is of great importance, and a clearly thought out plan for specialized research, including relevant languages, is also essential (see the language courses offered by the Department of Asian Studies). Our minimum financial aid awards for admitted applicants generally consist of teaching fellowships, annually renewable for five years, covering tuition plus a stipend, although we cannot necessarily offer financial aid to all qualified applicants.

It should be emphasized that your application essay will be more likely to be successful if it is very specific about the precise area of study you wish to make the focus of research, in terms of time period, region, and relevant languages. The essay should not be a personal expression of religious interests, nor should it be a narrowly defined dissertation topic (see above in Degree Programs); the essay instead should offer a demonstration of intellectual engagement with an academic field. It should also be apparent to the committee that UNC and sister institutions have the appropriate faculty expertise to help you reach these goals, and that your project indeed fits into the parameters of religious studies as a discipline — thus your essay should also indicate which scholars of religious studies (including but not limited to Islamic studies) you have found helpful to your work, and which academic writings are models of the kind of scholarship you would like to achieve. In this way you can make clear not only what subject you are interested in, but also how your trajectory will engage with critical questions of modern scholarship.

Religious studies as an academic discipline in North American universities is based on scholarly methods and presuppositions that are somewhat different from the approaches to religious studies found in universities elsewhere. For this reason, international applicants are generally advised to complete a graduate degree (MA) in religious studies at a North American university before applying to the PhD program at UNC. Applicants who have been trained in Islamic studies programs in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, or Europe, should explain in their application essays how their previous training relates to North American scholarship, and how they would benefit professionally from the academic approaches available at UNC.

It is also important to emphasize that, in religious studies, it is not sufficient simply to have a topic or a text that one wishes to study. You need to have a question, which means relating a topic or text to a theory, a school of thought, a comparison, or a historical context – in other words, you must be able to connect your topic to the world of contemporary scholarship.  It is this kind of theoretical grounding that distinguishes religious studies from Orientalism, which treats texts and topics as self-evident. Theory also provides the reasons why a particular subject is important enough to study. It is not sufficient to observe that no one has yet explored a given topic; one has to answer the “so what?” question — after all, why should anyone be interested enough in your topic to work with you for five or six years? Paying attention to these issues should be helpful in focusing your application essay so that the Graduate Studies Committee can make the right evaluation.