The Study of Religion: A Joint Moroccan-American Project

Paul L. Heck, Fulbright Scholar 2008–2009 and 2018–2019

The study of religion usually doesn’t come to mind when we think of Moroccan-American cooperation. Americans do come to Morocco to study the history of Islam, but we do not think of Moroccan and American scholars coming together to discuss the meanings of religion today.

Well, that’s what I’ve been doing in my Fulbright-supported activity with Moroccans.

The idea was born in a prior Fulbright moment. While a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, I did a Fulbright-supported year of research, 1997–1998, at the University of Jordan in Amman, where I took classes in Islamic Studies. Naturally, I was drawn into conversations about religion with fellow students and faculty. I realized then that we have much to learn from one another and, even more, that we can actually build rich friendships around the study of religion.

I promised myself that once I got tenure, I would pursue this dream.

The process began during a Fulbright-supported year of teaching, 2008–2009, in the Department of Islamic Studies at Muhammad V University in Rabat. The chair, Dr. Mohammed Amine Smaili, and the dean of the faculty, Dr. Abderrahim Benhadda, were very welcoming. It was clear that they, too, wanted the dream to happen. I returned to Morocco, 2018–2019, for a second Fulbright-supported year of teaching, this time in Tetouan at Abdelmalek Essaâdi University. There, too, the dean of the Religious Studies Faculty, Dr. Mohammed Temsamani, was very welcoming, opening the doors of the faculty to a non-Muslim scholar for the first time.

Those years, 2008–2009 and 2018–2019, were actually part of something bigger. After the first year, a number of us, Moroccans and Americans, joined together and began to organize programs for scholars from both countries to build friendships around the study of religion.

We called the project the Study of Religions across Civilizations (SORAC).

SORAC is based at Georgetown University where I teach, but Moroccans are really the driving force. Many of my former students have taken the lead in consolidating the SORAC concept, known as scholarly companionship (al-suhba al-‘ilmiyya in Arabic). According to this concept, you can acquire knowledge of a religion only if you enter into companionship with its people. In other words, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be able to say that they know one another’s religion, they have to study one another’s religion while pursuing friendship with one another.

Again, it has been former students who have taken the lead with SORAC, including Said Naqchi, Hicham Elhilmi, and Loubna El Ghazi in the Rabat-Sale region, Ridouane Bisdaoun in Agadir, El Bachir Mailainine in the Sahara, Abdelaziz Rajil in Casablanca, and so many others. They arranged SORAC programs and brought SORAC to life in Morocco’s varied scholarly circles.

Why did they do this? It’s more than just the characteristic Moroccan hospitality. The bottom line is that we came to trust one another and even entrust our religions to one another. Think about that! Through SORAC, these former students and other scholars went to America with their Islam. American scholars went to Morocco with their Christianity and Judaism. It became clear to all that religious difference is not meant to be a point of division but of common enrichment. With friendship, we can share our religious convictions openly, entrusting them to people from other religious traditions, confident that they want only the best for us. Of course, we sometimes challenge one another’s ideas. After all, friends are meant to challenge friends.

And all of this started with Fulbright.

The history of interreligious relations is a mixed one. Empires long pursued warfare under the guise of religion. Many continue to view people from other traditions as potential converts. Because of this mixed history, we often put religion to the side when we meet other people. We do so in order to avoid potential tensions, but we end up missing something. Scholarly companionship around the study of religion is not for everyone, but all can benefit from it. Whatever your religion — or if you have no religion in the traditional sense, you cannot fully know yourself and your deeper convictions without discovering them in the mirror of the other.

The SORAC ship continues to sail the seas of the study of religion with programs that bring Moroccan scholars to Washington, DC, Baltimore, and New York, and American scholars to cities and even rural areas in Morocco. It’s not just tourism. It’s about entering more deeply into one another’s lives. Only in that way will new horizons and possibilities open up before us.

The SORAC family has inspired some of its members, such as Abdellah Haddari and Youssef Madrari, to develop a Moroccan-centered global network of scholars of religion. From the American side, Rachel Friedman, a Jewish scholar of linguistics and religion, and Jason Welle, a Christian scholar of spirituality, are now well-known in Morocco’s religious studies circles.

People often ask about results. What has SORAC concretely achieved? Countless things, but we have to remember that knowledge is of two kinds. There’s knowledge we quantify, such as the STEM disciplines, and there’s knowledge we can’t quantify, the humanities, including religious studies. Can you quantify friendship? And yet its impact is immeasurable! Moroccans and Americans in the SORAC family talk about the results as being in the heart. And they do have concrete impact. SORAC alumni teach religion better as a result of scholarly companionship.

Where is the global study of religion going? Some reject the idea of friendship around the study of religion. They’re comfortable with the divisions, which, truth be told, are based on old wounds. We often prefer the wounds that we know to the healing and the new life that we don’t know. Come what may, SORAC has shown that what is often thought to be a barrier between peoples to be avoided — religion and the study of religion — is actually a bridge.

I am very grateful to Fulbright for all the help in support of this dream.

The Fulbright Commission in Morocco