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Grant Gives Libraries Role in Bridging Culture Gap

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
April 15th, 2013

An award from the National Endowment for the Humanities will help the West Virginia University Libraries serve as a bridge between those who have questions about Islam and the Muslim community.

The Libraries are among 843 institutions across the nation to receive the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, a collection of books, films, and an online database assembled to introduce the public to Muslims and the Islamic culture in the United States and around the globe. The bookshelf is part of NEH’s Bridging Cultures Initiative.

“Borrowing from the title of the grant, we want to help build bridges where there are deep misunderstandings, mistrust, and a lack of knowledge,” said Beth Toren, a reference and religious studies librarian.

The Muslim Journeys Bookshelf is the first in the NEH’s planned series of Bridging Cultures Bookshelf programs. The NEH, along with the American Library Association, awarded the WVU Libraries with twenty-five books, three documentary films, a DVD of short films, and a one-year subscription to Oxford Islamic Studies Online. The books and DVDs are currently being added to the circulating collection and will be available to be checked out by all students, faculty, and staff. Members of the public are welcome to visit the Downtown Campus Library to use the books.

On its website, the NEH describes the Bookshelf as a tool to introduce readers to some new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, practices, and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world. The subject matter of the books is diverse, falling under five themes: American Stories, Connected Histories, Literary Reflections, Pathways of Faith, and Points of View.

“This collection will definitely compliment the religious studies curriculum, which focuses on world religions. Learning about a great religion in more detail is a fantastic opportunity for students,” said Dr. Aaron Gale, Chair of the Religious Studies Program.

Sohail Chaudhry is Imam at the Morgantown Islamic Center and teaches a class on Islam in the Religious Studies Program. He is also impressed with the books in the collection.

“There’s a lot of misconception about Islam and Muslims. These books will go a long way in helping religious studies students and other students who are interested in Islam to gain deeper insight and a more diverse knowledge base,” Chaudhry said.

Toren worked with Gale and Chaudhry to secure the NEH grant. The three are now planning a forum that will enable the University community and the public to open a dialogue about Islam. Tentative plans call for an informal gathering at the Downtown Campus Library in the fall.

The organizers are excited about the potential in bringing the community together and helping people learn about others with differing views.

Chaudhry believes fear is often a hindrance in establishing a dialogue between people of different faiths.

He said people in general are hesitant to talk with others because they are sensitive about their beliefs and see religion as something private. Asking a question about religion becomes more difficult when they don’t know the other person well.

“People don’t know where to go to seek answers. They’re afraid of talking to others, especially afraid to talk to Muslims about Islam,” Chaudhry said “This forum will provide people a platform to get together, bring out those misconceptions, and chat with each other.”

Gale witnessed firsthand that the interest in such a discussion exists. Earlier this year, he traveled to Charleston to participate in an event titled “Jesus’ Role in Islam.” More than 150 people attend the talk. He’d like to see the same size audience at the Bridging Cultures forum here in the fall.

“This is an opportunity to break down barriers and really see what Islam is about,” Gale said.

A Research Guide to Islamic Studies is available on the Libraries’ website, It includes links to Oxford Islamic Studies Online; Mango, a database that students can use to learn Arabic; and information on where to find books and articles about Islam.

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