This seminar aims to nurture an environment of deep intellectual engagement and active learning in which NEH Summer Scholars interpret Muslim American identities 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 will focus on three key themes in the making of Muslim American identity: (1) racial and ethnic diversity; (2) the diversity of Muslim congregations and religious groups, and (3) gender relations. In studying the first theme of racial and ethnic diversity, we will explore the three largest ethnic groups of Muslims—African Americans, Arab Americans, and South Asian Americans—while also paying attention to the white, Latino/a, Iranian, Turkish, and other groups who make Muslim Americans the single most ethnically and racially diverse religious community in the United States, according to Gallup. Racial and ethnic differences are key factors in the lives of most Muslim Americans, but the seminar will also examine how Muslim Americans challenge or bridge these differences.
The second theme in understanding Muslim American identity will be the diversity of religious congregations and religious schools of thought and practice. Religiously observant Muslim Americans have a variety of approaches to the practice of Islam. Most Muslim Americans, reflecting the demographics of the Muslim world at large, are Sunni, technically meaning that they follow the Sunna (the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad) and the consensus of Islamic legal scholars who lived in the classical period of Islam (in Arabic, ahl al-sunna wa’l jama‘a).But non-Sunni communities have made an indelible contribution to the Muslim American experience, as well. These groups include Shi‘a Muslims, who trace their roots to an early disagreement among Muslims about who is best qualified to lead the community in the absence of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi‘a Muslims, who favored the direct descendants of Muhammad, are themselves further divided into various groups, the largest of which in the United States are the Twelvers (Ithna ‘Asharis) followed by the Seveners (Isma‘ilis). In addition to Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims, the United States has been and is home to Ahmadi, Nation of Islam, and Moorish Science Temple communities, all of which will be studied as part of this seminar.
Our third theme will identify the ways that gender issues affect Muslim Americans across both sectarian and racial boundaries. Muslim Americans study, write about, and hold informal conversations regarding Islam’s teachings on the ideal relationships between men and women with awareness that many non-Muslims take an interest in this topic. The need to explain Islam’s approach to gender equality and gender relations in public is an important form of civic engagement. Various public debates about gender and Islam become a means for Muslim Americans to define their place in U.S. society. Discussions about gender also become an important factor in larger conversations about the ways that Islamic religion should be practiced in the home, the workplace, school, and in public.
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 version 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, Islamophobia in Maine after 9/11, Muslim American children’s literature, and a comparison of French Maghrébins and Muslim Americans.