FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The first degree in Islamic studies was awarded by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on Dec. 15.
Seminary President Kenneth S. Hemphill awarded a master of arts in Islamic studies to Gregory S. Self during the seminary’s 202nd commencement ceremony. Self, from northern Alabama, graduated from Auburn University in 1985 and has attended Southwestern since 1999.
Obtaining an advanced degree in Islamic Studies has been Self’s dream for some time, he said. Nine years prior to enrolling in seminary, Self became acquainted with an orthodox Sunnite Muslim family from Syria. His interest in their culture and desire to share Christianity with them and other Muslims led to his own personal study of Islam and a journey to the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan in 1992.
After the seminary approved the Islamic studies degree earlier this year, Self enrolled in the program under the direction of Samuel Shahid, who also directs the evangelistic organization Good News for the Crescent World.
“The degree has afforded me the opportunity to study in more depth Muslim culture, religious traditions, and the Arabic language,” Self said.
Self has also worked closely with Shahid’s organization and currently worships with an Arab Christian congregation in the Fort Worth-Dallas area.
“The Islamic Studies program at Southwestern has informed my understanding of Islam. Violence is rooted in Islam. Mohammed had a favorable view of Christians and Jews when he first began to preach his religion. His revelations reflect that.” Self said. “When first the Jews and then Christians rejected his religion and his role as a leader, he began to promote violence against those he called ‘unbelievers.'”
He added, “I have also come to realize how far reaching Islam is. It has come to the West with such force, and we need to know everything we can about it in order to effectively share Christ with Muslims both in our nation and overseas.”
The outlook for the Islamic studies program at Southwestern is positive, Shahid noted.
“Many church planters and missionaries serving in the Middle East are coming to Southwestern in order to gain a better understanding of Islam.” He added, “Mr. Self is only the first to graduate. Twenty more students are now enrolled in the program. Many more are needed.”
The world’s Muslim population now exceeds 1.2 billion and Islam is outpacing Christianity in growth.
Only two other seminaries in the United States, Fuller Theological Seminary and Columbia Seminary, currently award similar Islamic studies degrees.
Including the degree awarded in Islamic Studies, the seminary awarded 313 degrees to 281 students from 11 countries. Hemphill said that the commencement ceremony was much more than a simple graduation — it was a “commissioning service.”
The student who traveled the greatest distance for the commencement ceremony was “Ellis” (Wai Ip) Yau, who directs missions and evangelism for the Baptist Convention of Hong Kong. Yau traveled from his hometown in Kowloon, Hong Kong, in order to receive a doctor of ministry degree.
Daniel Sanchez, director of Southwestern’s Scarborough Institute for Church Growth, called Yau “a very dedicated student.”
Sanchez said, “Initially he didn’t have the language requirements to be admitted into the doctor of ministry program, so he looked around and found some courses at Texas Wesleyan University and began to brush up on his English language. But even as he was doing that he asked if he could sit in on some of my classes because he felt like he had just a limited amount of time to be here and learn as much as possible.”
Sanchez added, “He knew already that Hong Kong was going to revert back to the People’s Republic of China. I gave him permission to do so.”
Jan Johnsonius, director of International Student Services, also spoke warmly of Ellis.
“We have the privilege of training future evangelical leaders who will be reaching the world for Christ in areas where we as North Americans could never hope to go.” She added, “We’re excited about what God has done and is going to do through Ellis’ life and the lives of those people he will be ministering to.”
Students from 45 states and 45 countries are enrolled at Southwestern. More than 62,000 students have enrolled in the seminary since it was founded. More than 36,000 have received degrees.