This seminar aims to nurture an environment of deep intellectual engagement and active learning in which NEH Summer Scholars interpret Muslim American history and contemporary life from a variety of perspectives. Scholars will reflect on and discuss thirty primary source documents and two major academic monographs; they will visit two mosques; and they will create and present individual teaching projects. The seminar is designed to be of interest to teachers of history, literature, social studies, cultural and religious diversity, and other allied fields.
The seminar begins with the history of Muslim Americans, who have become the most racially and ethnically diverse religious community in the United States. The three largest ethnic groups of Muslim Americans are African Americans, Arab Americans, and South Asian Americans, but Iranian, Turkish, Bosnian, Latino/a, and white Muslims, among other groups, have indelibly shaped the rich history of Muslim contributions to U.S. culture. First, the seminar explores the narratives of enslaved African American Muslims such as Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, who visited John Quincy Adam’s White House and toured the country as an antislavery speaker. Then we will read about Gilded Age Muslim immigrants such as Mary Juma, a homesteader born in Ottoman Syria who moved with her husband to Ross, North Dakota, and helped to build a little mosque on the prairie in the 1930s. Finally, we will learn why thousands of African Americans converted to various forms of Islam in between World War I and World War II, and how African American Muslims such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali became singularly important figures in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War.
The second unit of the seminar will then examine the Muslim American present, answering questions that many American students and Americans more generally have about Muslim American life. These questions include: how do Muslim Americans view their country, and what are their attitudes toward participating in public life? How does gender affect the lives of Muslim American men and women, especially in the mosque? How do Muslim American actually practice their religion—from teaching their kids about God and going on pilgrimage to Mecca to making end-of-life decisions and applying their ethics to family financial decisions? Like the first unit, the second unit will emphasize a variety of voices, advancing a number of different perspectives on such questions.
Our readings will include thirty primary source documents, most of which are compiled in the only collection of its kind, the Columbia Sourcebook for Muslims in the Unites States. The anthology includes a wide variety of genres: poetry, speeches, missionary tracts, interviews, newspaper articles, song lyrics, memoirs, blogs, jokes, and religious rulings.
Because it is critically important that participants be exposed to a variety of academic perspectives on the meaning of these documents, we will also engage some of the most significant secondary scholarship written about the Muslim American experience. Before arriving in Indianapolis, seminar participants will read excerpts from Jane I. Smith’s Islam in America. Once seminar participants arrive in Indianapolis, they will read Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s History of Islam in America. Our seminar will become a place where teachers can compare what these key scholars argue with the actual words of Muslim Americans.
In addition to discussing assigned primary source documents and academic monographs, it is essential that seminar participants see how Muslim American identities are embodied in practice. We will make two field trips to two different mosques for Friday congregational prayers. Before each visit, the seminar director will brief participants on the etiquette and expectations of the congregation and the religious service—explaining what will take place, where visitors will sit, and what they will do. The Friday sermons of Muslim preachers in Indianapolis often discuss the issues about which we will be reading, including American identity and its relationship to Islamic religion, gender relations, and ethnicity and race. Since Indianapolis is home to a diverse array of Muslims, the city provides a perfect setting in which seminar participants can observe the larger themes of our seminar.
Finally, throughout the three-week seminar, participants will work on individual teaching projects. While participants will choose the topic and format for their final presentations, the seminar will be structured so that the director will provide feedback to each participant on several different occasions. Participants will also have daily access to both the collections and staff of the IUPUI University Library. The overall goal of the projects will be to weave selected assigned materials and the participant’s independent research findings into a coherent and consequential analysis that can inform the teacher’s curricular and co-curricular activities. In the 2015 and 2017 iterations of this seminar, participant projects, many of which are now posted on the project website, included a study of interfaith dialogue between Muslim and Jewish Americans, a lesson plan on Sharia and the U.S. Constitution, and a social studies unit on Ramadan in the United States.