Towson-based institute embraces Islam along with Christianity and Judaism

Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, sits with Homayra Ziad, the institute's scholar of Islam, in the institute's offices in Towson, on Feb. 12.
Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, sits with Homayra Ziad, the institute's scholar of Islam, in the institute's offices in Towson, on Feb. 12. (Staff photo by Larry Perl)

Homayra Ziad, a Muslim and native of Pakistan, is as upset as anyone about the rise of ISIS and other terrorist groups that she says have threatened to undermine religious tolerance and have placed Islam under a critical microscope in the United States and around the world.

"This for us is a sword in our cultural and religious heart," she said. "This is painful for everyone."


But as a full-time scholar of Islam at the Towson-based Institute of Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, Ziad, 38, is not on a mission to fight terrorism around the world, but rather to help Baltimoreans better understand all religions and cultures, including Islam, as a way to "push forward" for peace among the unrest.

Through continuing interreligious programs, seminars and "conversations," many of which Ziad is leading, "We can certainly have an effect on thinking through habits of mind that lead to polarizing," she said.

The institute, founded in 1987 and formerly called Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, announced last week that it has changed its name to add the word Islamic. The 30-year-old institute, located on Dulaney Valley Road opposite the entrance to Goucher College, already has a diverse staff of Christian and Jewish scholars. It hired Ziad in September 2014 from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where she was an assistant professor of religion with a focus on Islam.

President Barack Obama came to the Catonsville Islamic Society mosque Feb. 3, held a roundtable discussion with community leaders and spoke about the Muslim community in America. In his speech he rejected political rhetoric and violence directed at Muslims, and talked about the role Islam has played in American history.

This past September, the institute brought on board a second Islamic educator, Allison Kysia, who is also Muslim. Kysia has a background in curriculum development. She commutes from Fairfax, Va., where she used to teach at Northern Virginia Community College.

The educational nonprofit's mission has always been to foster interfaith dialogue, and its longtime executive director, Christopher Leighton, said the hiring of Islamic educators furthers that goal.

"This is historic," Leighton said. "In addition to being an exceptional scholar, [Ziad] is an exceptional person. What she opens up for us is how integral Islam is to Western civilization."

Ziad said an estimated three percent of Marylanders are Islamic, but that she has not been able to find reliable statistics for the Baltimore region.

The Federal Hill resident said she brings a world view to her job. She came to Washington at age 6, when her father, now retired, joined the World Bank, specializing in international development.

"I spent a lot of time traveling around the world as a kid, seeing a lot of ways that Islam was practiced," she said, noting that there are many differences among Muslims in their religious and cultural traditions, from how they celebrate weddings to how they interpret dress codes and head coverings.

"There's not just one way of being Islam," Ziad said. "It's actually sort of bewildering."

But she considers that diversity to be a strength. "The religion has adapted itself to so many different cultural contexts," she said.

Leighton said Islam is not unlike Christianity, which has 43,000 forms in the U.S. "On the one hand, we can bemoan that there's not greater unanimity," he said. "On the other hand, this organization has said the challenge is to see differences in more positive, constructive ways."

In stark contrast, Ziad noted, "ISIS says only one kind of Islam can exist in the world."

Ziad and Leighton said the institute wants to be part of the national conversation about ISIS' exploitation of Islamic ideology. But rather than try to change the world, they are committed to changing Baltimore and making the city a model of an interreligious city, while making the institute what Leighton called "a welcoming place" for Muslims, as it has been for Jews and Christians.


"We have enough to do here," Ziad said. "The eyes of the world are on our city now."