January 20-22, 2005

Over 1.4 billion people practice Islam worldwide. Encompassing a vast range of nationalities, ethnic groups and cultures, the Muslim population is united by the tenets and injunctions of the Qur’an and Sunnah, which concern virtually every aspect of personal, family and civic life. Yet, as a religious, social and cultural institution, Islam remains, in many ways, fundamentally misunderstood in the West. Since September 11, the attention given to Islam in the West has, in large part, focused on the commissioning of violent acts by Muslims who believe that they are acting in the name of Islam. Indeed, for many Westerners Islam is synonymous with terrorism, whereas, for the practicing Muslim, the values of mercy and compassion are central. Further, the spectrum of contemporary Muslim social practices is as diverse as it is geographically broad; thus, there is a need for greater awareness of Islam and its followers on a global scale.

Increasingly over the last three years, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have begun to address the challenges presented by contemporary Islam. At one extreme of Islamic practice, there exists a strain of conservative traditionalism that insists on a steadfast Muslim subscription to the authoritative decisions of the past. At the other extreme, modernist Muslims argue for a complete rejection of the traditional Muslim heritage. The large majority of Muslims, however, locate themselves somewhere between these two polarized positions. Recently, a progressive Muslim movement has advocated a critical engagement with and reassessment of the inherited traditions of the past in light of the pressing issues of the contemporary present. This intermediate group has introduced a multi-headed approach to the diverse communities and discourses surrounding the Muslim position, and insists on the necessity of opening new channels of communication between all persons, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

This seminar aims to provide one such forum for the exchange of ideas by bringing together faculty members from Midwestern colleges and universities to discuss the diversity of Islamic identities, cultures and practices and the intersection of each with contemporary local and global politics. We hope to draw on the different disciplinary, regional, and thematic foci of the various participants to address a series of critical questions facing all in the twenty-first century: What are the historical foundations for the diversification of Islamic belief today? What is the relation of Islam to nationalism and transnationalism? What are the various Muslim positions on politics, social justice, pluralism, and gender? Finally, as educators, what frameworks of analysis might we design to encourage our students in thinking about these questions?

Our speakers to lead us in such a discussion will include: Muzaffar Alam (South Asian Languages & Civilizations), Fred Donner (Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations), Martin Riesebrodt (Divinity School), Martin Stokes (Music), Lisa Wedeen (Political Science) and Malika Zeghal (Divinity School).

Pre-readings