Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill evolving

November 13, 2012

It’s one thing to get out of the blocks quickly in a race, it’s quite another to stay ahead of the pack… for 60 years. But that’s exactly what the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) has been doing since it was founded in 1952. The Islamic Studies Library, which started off as a modest departmental collection, is now considered one of the most important in the field, boasting more than 150,000 volumes of print and digital material.

From the outset, the IIS tried to maintain a balance between faculty from the Muslim world and from the West. The idea was simple; to gain the fullest possible understanding of the Muslim world required the best of both Western and Islamic scholarly traditions – perhaps not such a revolutionary concept today, but entirely unheard of in the 1950s. Those same scholars went back and became influential in Indonesia. Among other things, they established the State Institutes of Islamic Studies, an archipelago-wide system of education basically modeled on the IIS.

Islam in Bosnia: ”We belong to the West, culturally and mentally”

Bosnia is entering a new phase in its history: the post-war era is over; communities and mosques have been rebuilt. But where are Bosnian Muslims heading in these turbulent times? Charlotte Wiedemann spoke to Ahmet Alibašić, lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo

In what direction are Muslims intellectuals of your generation looking?

Ahmet Alibašić: We’re not looking in any particular direction. Because we were cut off from the Muslim world for several decades, during the Yugoslavian Empire and the Communist period, we have learned to be self-reliant. We have developed our own education system and produced a certain Islamic approach to learning. We were forced to rely on ourselves; we are used to independence. And we are very pluralist.

The lecturers of this faculty come from a huge variety of universities: Chicago, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Belgrade, Zagreb, Turkey, Kosovo, India. You won’t find such diversity at any other university in the Muslim world. We have modernists here, traditionalists and reformists.

And where are modernists such as yourself looking?

Alibašić: Bosnian modernists are looking more to Muslim scholars who teach at western universities or who used to teach, for example Fazlur Rahman, Abdolkarim Sorush or Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid.

Sarajevo seems to be a market place for all possible strands of Islam. You have just compiled a bibliography of all the works that have been translated into Bosnian. Who is paying for all this?

UCLA’s Ongoing Suspension of Admissions to Islamic Studies Worries Students

Admissions were frozen in 2007, awaiting a reorganization. But that hasn’t happened, and students fear that the program could simply be allowed to die. On Friday, several dozen students rallied to support it, gathering outside a meeting of a faculty panel considering recommendations aimed at ending the admissions suspension. The students, mostly members of the Muslim Student Assn., had walked across campus chanting slogans and carrying signs that read, “Scared of Islam? Learn about it.”

The Problems begin outside of the University

This article introduces us to Sara and Fzilat: two sisters born and raised in Zurich, who live according to the Qur’an, wear a headscarf and attend the University of Zurich. Pakistan, the land of their parents, they barely know – their homeland is Switzerland.

Neither one of the girls is afraid to speak about their religion, or the wearing of a headscarf, while surrounded by other students. Fzilat explains that she began wearing hers at the age of 14, and that her mother had no influence on the decision: “Back then in secondary school I just thought, it’s about time for it.” Though she has covered her entire face on certain occasions, in Zurich, at the university or on the ski slopes she would not, as it simply does not fit. According to her, that is also in accordance with the Qur’an.

Sara, seven years the elder, runs off quickly to the bathroom to switch from an azure headscarf to a turquoise one for the photo shoot. “She has scarves in every color,” says Fzilat jokingly. Sara is what is generally called a “working student”: while majoring in English and minoring in pedagogy and Russian, she worked as an English teacher for large companies and accompanied clients during language trips. Though she stills lives at home, she covers all her other costs.

How is it, studying with a headscarf? “No problem,” they answer in choir. A few looks every now and then, but nothing compared to “outside,” says Fzilat. Sara tells a story of how once while visiting an elementary school as an English teacher, a teacher told Sara to sit next to her and said: “This is what a Muslim looks like.” In the teachers’ room people would switch their accent and ask her “what are you looking for?” She laughs while telling these stories – moments to encourage some indirect awareness training, she says, while assuring that she breaks the ice quickly each time.

Her sister Fzilat would have liked to become an elementary school teacher. Following high school she was accepted into a faculty of pedagogy and began along with two other headscarf-wearing women. “That’s when the knife was put to my throat, so to speak.” While she was finishing a compulsory internship, the father of one of her students threatened to get the press and politics involved, because he did not want a Muslim teaching his son. The school administration forced Fzilat to remove her headscarf while teaching, but it made her feel uncomfortable. After hours of discussion with those involved, she ultimately decided to leave pedagogy altogether after three months. Since that time only one of the three Muslims women has continued in pedagogy. At the faculty the rules are clear: studying with a headscarf is allowed. The transfer to the classroom, however, is full of hurdles.

Oppression of women, forced marriage, holy war – for Sara, none of this fits with her understanding of Islam. “Islam also means freedom,” says Fzilat. The prophet Mohammed said that women should cover their beauty; however, he did want for women to be able to work. “That’s why the eyes, hands, and feet need to stay uncovered,” she says. The sisters pray numerous times daily, go to the mosque on Fridays and attend the monthly meetings of the community. They also find it self-evident that their parents will be involved in the choice of their future husband (most likely a Muslim from the community). “My parents know me the best,” says Fzilat.

And what do the sisters do to try and remedy all these misunderstandings about Islam? Sara’s method is through personal encounters. She is involved in interreligious dialogue across Switzerland. “My dream is to give public talks on Islam throughout all of Switzerland,” she says.

New Dissertation makes the news

When Mosa Sayed, researcher at the Faculty of Law at Uppsala University, defended his thesis, “Islam och arvsrätt i det mångkulturella Sverige. En internationellt privaträttslig och jämförande studie” (“Islam and inheritence law in multicultural Sweden”) it was spoken about as controversial already, and as a result the hall was packed and had to be guarded by watchmen. Even so the disputation ran without interruptions.

Dr. Sayed himself says the dissertation is to be considered a contribution to the debate of multiculturalism in Sweden.

In a response, well known debater on Islam related subjects Dilsa Demirbag-Stan says Sayed is pleading for the introduction of Shari’a inheritance laws for Muslims in Sweden – and this, she states, would give women half the inheritance of men. “Eager to express their sympathy for multiculturalism, the faculty of law in Uppsala have let Sayed’s sniper-shooting at the Swedish constitution and the citizen’s equal rights pass as law.”

In a response to Demirbag-Sten, Torbjörn Andersson – Dean of the Faculty of Law at Uppsala University – states that “Sayed’s thesis is a pioneering work in a field in need of exchange of opinions and research, but which also is charged with political tension. To discuss multi- and mono-cultural value structures, equality issues, and people need to be able to arrange their family affairs in a predictable way, requires nuance and objectivity. Sayed shoulders his responsibility.”

Erasmus University Officials Oppose Ramadan’s Dismissal

News coverage of Tariq Ramadan’s dismissal from the Rotterdam city council and Erasmus University continues this week, DutchNews reports from NRC and Volkskrant. Erasmus University in officials are angry with the decision. “’It is a politicial [sic] decision and we are shocked about it,’ economics professor Arjo Klamer said. Professors can only be sacked if they are suspected of commiting a crime, fail to turn up to do their job or damage the university’s reputation, he said.”

University faculty members and employees have released an open letter protesting the dismissal on the grounds that it threatens academic freedom. Ramadan was dismissed by Erasmus and from his advisory job at the city council last week because of his involvement with an Iranian television show.

Fifty Percent of Belgians Want Headscarf Ban

One in three people in Belgium is bothered by women wearing headscarves in public spaces. Over half would prefer that they be banned in certain places. Intolerance and racism are at the root of negative views on headscarves. This was the conclusion drawn by the religious faculty’s Center for Psychology at the Catholic University of Louvain-La-Neuve after two studies into Belgians’ attitude towards headscarves. Some 69 percent of those questioned see the headscarf as a sign of oppression and 53.3 percent thinks wearing one goes entirely against modern western values. Some 44.6 percent are disturbed by someone wearing a headscarf at school. The researchers said that this study is evidence that society still has a long way to go in the fight against racism and intolerance.