Celene Ibrahim always knew she wanted her life to involve both the practice and study of religion. But when she first graduated from HDS, she wasn’t quite sure what that would look like in her day-to-day experience.
Ten years later, Ibrahim teaches religious literacy, cultural studies, and applied ethics to high school students at Groton School, a New England boarding school with Episcopal roots. There, she is a member of the faculty in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy, and, notably, the first Muslim chaplain in the school’s over one-hundred-year history. She also offers courses in religious leadership and Qur’anic studies at the Boston Islamic Seminary.
When she’s not teaching or leading study groups, Ibrahim fills her time with research (she has published two scholarly books to date and has another forthcoming), interfaith leadership (you can find her speaking from the Unitarian Universalist pulpit), family (with a particular affinity for DIY projects with her husband and sports with her teenage daughter), and gardening (her backyard is an oasis, with a small pond and an array of seasonal flowers). We spoke with Ibrahim about life post-HDS, the joys of teaching religious literacy, and how to stay grounded in the world today.
HDS: What’s it like to teach religious literacy at the high school level?
Ibrahim: I’m trained in religious studies, which includes history, the sociology of religion, anthropology, and more. I like to bring to my students this sense of being able to look at issues involving religion and philosophy from many different vantage points. I want them to understand that there is a political history to look at when studying a religion, but also material culture, art, and literature.
At the core, my teaching is about helping the students understand that they, too, are part of particular histories, narratives, and worldviews. So, when we do our global survey of religious and philosophical traditions, I always take it back to, “Okay, where do you locate yourself in this picture?”
Many of my students have previously only had exposure to a thin slice of human religious and spiritual expression, but through my class, they have opportunities to think deeply about questions of meaning and identity. It’s phenomenal that my students have this exposure to spirituality, religion, and ethics at this time in their lives—to this plurality of ways in which human beings have tried to understand themselves and their vulnerabilities and their finitude and their creativity. I enjoy watching the students think about their values and how they want those values to show up in the world. What do they care about? What’s meaningful to them, given the possibilities?
HDS: Is this similar to the learning that happens at HDS?
Ibrahim: Faculty and students at HDS have developed innovative approaches to engaging with religious literacy in the professions, and I’m giving my students a similar type of pre-professional exposure. I have assignments where my students role-play real-life situations where religious literacy could be valuable. How might an environmental activist work with or appeal to an interfaith coalition? How might a civil rights attorney work with religious groups who are also active in this sphere?
In thinking about these assignments, I draw on my studies of religion in society and on my chaplaincy experience at Tufts University, where I worked with undergraduate and graduate students across professional schools. I was inspired by students training in many different career areas, from medicine to diplomacy, who were wrestling with ethical questions or trying to help their profession be cognizant of—or more empathetic toward—a wider range of human expression. I’m actively thinking about these practical experiences as I’m designing religious literacy curriculum.
“I was inspired by students training in many different career areas, from medicine to diplomacy, who were wrestling with ethical questions or trying to help their profession be cognizant of—or more empathetic toward—a wider range of human expression.” Celene Ibrahim, MDiv '11
HDS: How does this teaching compare to the faith-based teaching you do at the Boston Islamic Seminary?
Ibrahim: I’ve learned how to step in and out of different worldview paradigms in order to be an effective teacher. The teaching that I do with Muslim groups is from an Islamic worldview, whereas the classroom teaching I do at the secondary school level is rooted in a more secular framework. Of course, I show up to the classroom with my whole being, and I am rather conspicuously Muslim. I can’t take that out of my being or my experience, and I don’t want my students to think they have to separate out who they are either. I think that we can be deeply rooted and still open to transformative learning. I’m aiming to build a classroom that’s a transformative learning space, whether the transformation is one that deepens people’s Islamic commitment in a faith-based context or that stirs a high school student’s curiosity about spirituality in the world.
HDS: Teaching is difficult work, especially in today’s challenging contexts. How do you restore and take time to care for yourself?
Ibrahim: The rhythm of the daily prayers, the Friday day of gathering, and practices like fasting keep me centered. These practices also help me bring intentionality and commitment to the work that I do. I also garden a lot when I’m not researching, writing, teaching, or lecturing. There’s something about the process of getting covered in dirt and getting out in the sun that is rejuvenating. So much of my day is spent on electronics that I need that time outside to stay grounded and recharged.
A Week in the Life
Kick off a full week of high school religion and philosophy classes.
Attend a classical Arabic reading group.
Settle into the writing couch to make some progress on the next book.
Coach a Groton School sports match. (We’re the Zebras, and yes, I have Zebra hijab.)
Speak with an interfaith group about the importance of religious literacy in today’s world.
Mentor Muslim students and spend some extra time with the Qur’an.
Saturdays are DIY time. Time to get creative in the garden, then take some time to refresh and relax with family.
Teach an afternoon seminar on my latest book for the Boston Islamic Seminary.
—by Gianna Cacciatore