Antonians in Religion

St Antony's Looks at the World

Asher Lopatin

Asher Lopatin (DPhil International Relations, 1989) is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a non-profit community organization, as well as Rabbi and leader of Kehillat Etz Chayim, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, both in Detroit, Michigan.

Initially at Hertford College for an MPhil in Medieval Islamic Thought, he came to St Antony’s on the recommendation of Avi Shlaim, to study for a DPhil in International Relations, researching Islamic Fundamentalist Attitudes towards Jews, Judaism & Israel.  Before coming to Oxford, he had spent a couple of years at a rabbinical school in Chicago although, at the time, he did not have the ambition for a career as a religious leader. He was thinking about a future in world affairs, a career in DC at the State Department or at a think tank to help establish peace at the Middle East.

He felt that his time in Oxford was a perfect combination of his religious and world passions and found a welcoming atmosphere where people with different backgrounds could come together and learn from each other. As President of the Jewish Society as well as the Israel Society, he organised a ‘peace night’ in collaboration with the Middle East Society. Asher describes it as an incredible evening, in the spirit of St Antony’s, where 100 people listened to Arab, Christian and Jewish poetry.

Keeping a strict kosher diet, Asher had most of his meals in the synagogue in Jericho. It was there that his religious beliefs came out strongly, as he became involved in its many activities. After a long walk with a friend, Asher decided not to complete his DPhil and to finish rabbinical school in New York. It was a tough decision to make; his faith and the rabbinate or peace-making in the Middle East. In the end, his passion for his religion and the Jewish community won. He emphasised that he took St Antony’s with him to the Rabbinate and in his activities to build relations with the various communities in Chicago and Detroit.

Connecting with, and advocating for, the broader community is what Asher is passionate about. Reaching out to other communities is a major part of his job at the Jewish Community Relations Council. He connects with Imams, Priests and Pastors, disagreeing on almost everything, whether it is on Israel or abortion rights and the legal status of a foetus. It is, importantly, all in good spirit and learning from each other, whilst acting and protesting jointly against, for example, what was happening in Darfur. Essentially, in his current life, Asher continues doing what he did in Oxford.

The Jewish Community Relations Council is connected with Israel through the consulate in Chicago but there are no formal relations. Asher believes that in Israel, there is fondness and sympathy for his work, but at the same time that comes along with some scepticism. He says that people in Israel do not really know what is going on in America and many see Black Lives Matter as anti-Israel. So when a right-wing Israeli journalist spoke with Asher as part of a tour through the United States for an article on relations between the Jewish and Black-American communities, Asher was delighted that his work with the various communities in Detroit was positively reported on.

Asher thinks that some of the ideas to improve relations between Jews and Muslims are considered by others, in particular Israeli politicians and closely-linked academics, as crazy and naive. As an example, in Israel, about 20% of the population is Muslim and Asher argues that it will not diminish the Jewish state to celebrate and include Muslim holidays in the national calendar. The idea was not well received, and it is the battle with people who think that everything is a zero-sum game that Asher finds most challenging. Realising naivety is not strange to him, having different opinions and strong disagreements is not the same as being threatened.

Asher likes to express himself, politically but mostly religiously. He does that, amongst other ways through a podcast: A Rabbi and a Lawyer Walk Into a Bar (follow this link to sign up).

Dr Shadaab Rahemtulla

Dr Shadaab Rahemtulla (DPhil, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, 2013): Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh

Shadaab has always felt strong connections to the UK. A Muslim of Indian-descent, he was born in London and moved to Canada when he was eight years old. It only felt right, then, to return to his country of birth for his doctorate.

Shadaab saw Oxford as a major player in Islamic studies and was drawn to St Antony’s for its international character, postgraduate focus, and the high level of intellectual discussion. Given St Antony’s diverse and cosmopolitan environment, Shadaab found it easy to fit into college life. In fact, he met his future wife Dr Sara Ababneh (DPhil, Politics and International Relations, 2009), who was just finishing her DPhil, at the Freshers' Fair in his first month at Oxford.

Shadaab advises everyone to engage not only with the College intellectually but also socially as this really helps research and writing, and overall wellbeing. The informal atmosphere of St Antony’s is perfect to have a less forced and more organic intellectual conversation. Shadaab has always been interested in contemporary Islamic thought and the relevance of religion in the modern world, so St Antony’s was the right place to be. Other colleges at the University were better suited for pre-modern and late antique studies in Islam.

His broad academic focus is global Islamic thought and Shadaab is particularly interested in the relevance of addressing contemporary social problems and challenges. His first book, Qur'an of the Oppressed: Liberation Theology and Gender Justice in Islam (Oxford University Press, 2018), is a comparative analysis of how contemporary Muslim theologians have expounded the Qur’an as a liberating scripture and it discusses feminist and liberation theology in three different contexts: South Africa, South Asia, and North America. It was the (trans)regional studies angle of the research for his DPhil and book that made St Antony’s the perfect place to study.

Even though Islam, as a world religion, cannot be reduced to the Middle East or Arab societies, a lot of formative Islamic thinking has emerged in the Middle East. Islamic thought is global, cosmopolitan, and ongoing but the canon has, to a large degree, been produced in that region. For Shadaab, spending time at the Middle East Centre at the College gave a great foundation and intellectual anchor. At the same time, Shadaab sees his time at St Antony’s as the beginning of an interdisciplinary conversation with scholars and centres of learning in other parts of the University. One of his co-supervisors was Professor Christopher Rowland, a leading Christian liberation theologian at Queen's College, and Shadaab’s scholarly ambition was to engage with the Qur’an in a similar (though not necessarily the same) way that Latin American liberation theologians had engaged with the Bible.

After having spent six years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Jordan in Amman (2013-19), Shadaab joined the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity in September 2019. At Edinburgh, he helped establish a new Masters in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, which offers a broad study of the Islamic intellectual traditions of scripture, law, theology and philosophy in conversation with Christian thought, ethics and political theology. It is approaching Islam in a way that it is not isolated, and looking for historical connections, dialogues, but also disparities between the two faith traditions. With his interest in questions of justice and liberation, Shadaab was naturally drawn to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) work at the School of Divinity, and became the School’s Director of Equality and Diversity. In June 2022, he was awarded the Advancing Inclusion Award by the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

As mentioned earlier, in his research Shadaab is interested in liberative reading of religious texts in the context of oppression. He is a Muslim liberation theologian and one of the things that drew him to the University of Edinburgh was the fact that his department, the School of Divinity, has played an important role in liberation theology, from the Scottish theologian Duncan Forrester to the Argentinian queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid. Shadaab wants to build on the School’s longstanding tradition of liberation theology, while at the same time bringing a Muslim perspective to the conversation. One of the courses he teaches, which has become quite popular at the School, is called ‘God of the Oppressed: Liberation Theologies in Christianity and Islam’. Using a comparative framework, the course asks how contemporary Christians and Muslims have re-read the Bible and Qur’an, respectively, in the light of lived experiences of marginalisation, exploring categories of race, gender, class, and empire.

Shadaab is now working on his second book, titled "Islam and Native American Suffering: Decolonising Islamic Liberation Theology", under contract with Oxford University Press. It seeks to approach the Qur'an in the light of Native American rights and indigenous struggles against settler colonialism. Centrally, he asks: what does it mean to be a “Muslim settler”? American and Canadian Muslims, after all, live on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples. What are the ethical, social, and theological implications of that historic injustice, especially in the light of a religion that believes in the supreme justice of God? And how can the Qur’an be (re)read in that particular context of dispossession? As an example, Shadaab points to the narrative of the Conquest of Canaan, which is one of the biggest challenges for biblical scholars in both the Christian and Jewish traditions: how do you ethically grapple with the entry of the Israelites into the land of Canaan and the subsequent genocide of its indigenous inhabitants? Does the Qur’an offer a similar narrative and, if so, how can it be exegetically wrestled with? These are the type of questions that this book will tackle. Shadaab hopes to complete the manuscript in the next couple of years.

Dr Masazumi Okano

Dr Masazumi Okano (DPhil Sociology 1993) is the President of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship and the Director of the International Buddhist Exchange Center.

Masa started the conversation by saying that the Warden, Professor Roger Goodman, was one of his DPhil examiners. Masa’s research focussed on the sociology of religion, in particular Buddhist movements in Japan. He specifically mentioned and emphasised the Warden’s good knowledge of Japanese religions.

The primary aim of Buddhism is to attain enlightenment, or Nirvana. It is the kind of state that goes beyond the ordinary mind-set; a calm state, free from suffering. In order to be enlightened, one has to go through various stages and leading a lifestyle to prepare the mind is very important. One has to go into deep meditational practices; individualism or selfishness are not conducive to a way of living that leads to spiritual growth.

Masa’s grandfather was ordained as a priest of the Tendi School of Buddhism, so he had strong religious inclinations from a very young age. At the time, the traditional Buddhist world in Japan had become strongly institutionalised due to historical factors that started four centuries before. It had become ritualistic instead of trying to teach people to live according to Buddhist beliefs.

The Tokugawa family ruled Japan between 17th and 19th centuries as shōguns and were using Buddhist temples as registry offices as a way to control and contain religious movements. By law, parishioners had to support local temples and at the same time, priests had to obey the central government and were not allowed to preach beyond their own villages. Instead of spiritually leading the parishioners, the priests performed rituals and fulfilled their duties as civil servants.

In 1868, a minor revolution took place. The Tokugawa family was ousted and the imperial family reinstated. The new government was open to the American and European modernization models. On the one hand, new educational, governmental, legal and economic systems were introduced by the west. And on the other hand, old traditions were reshaped in new ways by the government. Prominent amongst which were the newly promoted emperor worship and Shintoism. Shinto became the de facto state religion, and Buddhism was widely persecuted and became very weak.

In short, over the course of history, the division between lay and ordained people in Buddhism became blurred. The ordained priests lost their spiritual authority which had been based on their spiritual lifestyle. Buddhism had moved far away from its primary aim; Masa’s grandfather was disappointed and realised that the way he had to practise his priesthood was not what he had been looking for. To his mind, lay people were different from the ordained but that would not mean that they could not lead a lifestyle which was conducive to spiritual growth. He decided, whilst retaining his priesthood, to create his own Buddhist organisation that encouraged lay people to learn Buddhist teachings and practices.

Gradually, this new Buddhist organisation started attracting people. It was particularly in the aftermath of the WWII that the organisation grew, with its main temple in central Yokohama. The growth of the organization coincided with the drastic demographic changes that occurred in the 1950s and the 60s. In 1950, the ratio of rural to urban population was 7:3. Ten years later, it was reversed. Japan’s economy grew rapidly, people worked very hard and the industrial area of Tokyo – Yokohama was built up. Many people had grown up in rural villages with a community culture, but in cities it was very different and people felt isolated. The Buddhist organisation that Masa’s grandfather had set up, served as a community and was something people were looking for. Masa explains that until 1945, many people believed in the cause of Japan and the Emperor. After the war, many felt lost and were looking for common values.

Up until 1980s, there was a lot of demand to be part of a community and a value system. However, once rich and affluent, values became less relevant, which became quite apparent during the bubble in the late 80s. One other big blow for religious organisations was the Sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995. Whilst perpetrated by a doomsday cult, Buddhism and other religions were painted by media as very dangerous. As Masa put it, they were implicated by imagination and association. Consequently, Japan became extremely secularised. People thought religion outdated, and no longer relevant to people’s lives. There were also political reasons for the secularisation. Following the war, Japan’s new Constitution emphasized separation between state and church because the military government had persecuted religious organizations that did not belong to Shinto. It was meant to protect religious freedom, however, in reality this constitutional principle was used by the central and local governments to exclude religion from the public sphere. Religion had become an entity in decline. At the same time, religious organisations were not able to adapt to the new societal sentiments or spiritual needs of people.

Masa, however, has a sense that this decline is going to be turned around. He refers to an increased interest in mindfulness that has its roots in meditation. Having said this, he also fears that mindfulness in the west in a way abuses the Buddhist tradition of meditation, as that is to attain enlightenment to be beyond egoist instincts. On the positive side, people in the west are perhaps becoming a bit calmer.

Running a Buddhist temple is a family affair. His father took over from his grandfather, and Masa took over from his father. He was ordained as a priest at the age of 15 but that is too young to be a teacher. As a child, he grew up in California until he was seven years old. He is bilingual and always wanted to study overseas. He thought he would follow the footsteps of his father by going to America, but by chance he met his future DPhil supervisor at a conference in London, who encouraged him to apply to Oxford. Having grown up in a religious family, his supervisor - Brian Wilson at All Souls - gave different perspectives of life as well as how to study Buddhism from an academic side. Sociology gave him a wider view of religion in general: how religious organisations come into being, how they develop and decline, and what relation they have with society.

As President of the Kodo Kyodan Buddhist Fellowship, Masa spends a lot of his time on management. He feels that it is best that someone who has knowledge of the religion rather than someone with a business mind does this. Following his grandfather and father, he has taken up the role of religious leader as well, giving talks, listening to problems, providing meditational practices and teaching Buddhism.