Why did you decide to pursue a Masters degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School?
Explaining what made me come to Chicago is hard and very personal. Religion is a very hot topic in Egypt and it was a rare occurrence when a friendly gathering did not involve, at some point, fiery debates about what constitutes “true” Islam. But often debates and conversations would get stuck in rigid dichotomies, like broken records. I grew up in a family with parents who often represented opposite sides of the spectrum: my mother is fairly conservative, veiled, works at a mosque, and spends the majority of her time reading Qur’an. My father is much more of a “liberal” reformist, an ophthalmologist who is well read in Islamic history and is critical of much about the state of contemporary Islam. Both, however, drew on Muslim sources in their discussions. As a political science undergraduate in Cairo, I was introduced to Western critique of Islam and that shattered many of my assumptions about Islam but provided me with no alternative foundation. That was when I decided I wanted (and perhaps needed) to study Islam as a religion, not just its history or its thought, but its theology and more so, that I needed to pursue this in a context that was not as volatile as my personal context was at the time in Egypt. One of my all-time favorite history professors recommended studying in the U.S. I applied to three schools: UChicago, Columbia, and Claremont. I was accepted to all, but UChicago’s Divinity School program seemed to complement my purpose the most.
How did the program and the wider University help you to attain your goals?
My goal coming into the MA was to have a better grounded and more detached stance when talking about religion. The Divinity School helped me achieve this in three main ways: 1) by exposing me to a different set of questions than those I was used to hearing; 2) by allowing me to ask my own questions without provoking the sensitive reaction typically associated with these issues; and 3) by being incredibly humane and in tune with me as a student, which made me all the more appreciative of my learning experience there. The first two have to do with the academic program itself whereas the last is the School in general.
Despite the many raised eyebrows I get in Egypt when I tell people that I studied Islamic Studies in the US, I cherish that experience so dearly. I was given the opportunity to raise as many questions as I wanted, no matter how silly, inappropriate, or flat out blasphemous they might have been. That right there was the most valuable asset the Divinity School gave me. Classroom diversity was another. The classes often had people from different religions and different sects within the same religion and different regions of the world, which by default enriched the conversation and the scope of complicated issues discussed, and that was pretty brilliant.
What were the highlights of your experience as a student? Do you have a favorite memory from Swift Hall?
I loved Wednesday lunches. The food was always good, the company warm, and the lectures interesting. With the help of Dean Owens, I had the honor of giving a Wednesday lunch talk myself. It was Spring 2011, right after I came back from home and it was about my experience in the revolution. It was one of my favorite moments because it was such a proud moment in my life and the Divinity School allowed me to share it with the rest of the department.
What are you up to these days, and how does your time at the Div School factor in to your current work?
I am currently working in Cairo as a legal researcher with a law office based in D.C. – Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG). In Egypt, PILPG provides pro-bono advice on drafting constitutions and legislations. Since my MA focus was the application of Sharī‘a in the Egyptian legal system, this was a dream job for me. It is no secret that the Islamists were a dominant wave in Egyptian politics and governance in the past two years. Even now, with their dramatic downfall, I do think (and hope) that they will continue being a force to be reckoned with. My MA program allows me to provide educated opinions on controversial issues where the split was often “liberal/secular” vs. “Islamist” and I am often very aware of how I do not fit in either camp, something that I reflect on with pride. I feel confident in my convictions and in presenting my point of view. This, I believe, is in large part UChicago’s making.