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Syllabus: Inquiries Into Islam

Last spring semester, human rights major grace Bickers CC ’14 crossed Broadway to take islam in the post-Colonial World, a course developed and taught by Najam Haider, associate professor in Barnard’s religion department. Her goals were to learn about the religion and get a better understanding of current events. The class not only helped her meet these goals; it also had a major impact on her career path.

Prior to taking the class, her plan was to secure an education- development job at an international nongovernmental organization (NGO); now the 22-year-old senior is considering getting a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies. “It was one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken,” says Bickers. “But it has completely changed the way I view the news about the Middle East. I am a much more critical reader because I have a better understanding of the terms that are used and what they really mean.”

Haider, an assistant professor in the College’s religion department since 2010, developed and first taught the course at Georgetown University in 2006 while completing his PhD at Princeton University. Since then, the New Jersey native has offered the class at different schools including Barnard. “This course is my attempt to make sense of the modern world in a way that is grounded in the classical world,” says Haider, who offers his class once a year.

He begins the semester in late antiquity—the second through the seventh centuries in the context of the Middle East—and ends in the present day. A major part of the class is devoted to examining the impact of colonialism on the Muslim world. “The Muslim world was very powerful for a long time and colonization was a traumatic experience,” Haider explains. “Beginning in the 1800s, there have been attempts to rebuild and reverse the perceived weakness of the Muslim world.

Haider focuses on the central elements held in common by Muslims from a variety of cultural and geographical backgrounds. “We examine the life of Muhammad, the Quran, and the development of important intellectual traditions such as jurisprudence and Sufism,” he says. Other topics include attempts at societal and religious reform, and political reinterpretations of Islamic laws to accommodate scientific and technological innovations. He also examines the ways communities use such popular cultural trends as hip-hop to create distinct spheres of identity.

The requirements are stringent, and up to a third of the students are scared away after the first day, says Haider. Participation accounts for 15 percent of the grade so everyone must keep up with the reading, since anyone can be randomly called upon to answer questions.

“I use the Socratic method, so students must be well prepared for every class and cannot just ‘mail it in,’” he says. “This class requires a major time commitment.”

Haider assigns his students to create blogs where they post weekly responses and comment on news events; their blogs also link to an overall class blog. The first week he asks everyone to participate in a general exercise in which they imagine they are hearing voices that they believe to be truthful but no one else can hear what is being said. “The goal is to get them to empathize with the religious experience,” Haider says.

Throughout the course, students post response papers on their blogs concerning the week’s readings. They also must post one of three other items each week: an analysis of an article relating to Islam, a reflection on media coverage or current events, or a discussion about something that has not been covered in detail during class. They also have to read and comment on at least two of their classmates’ blogs.

Haider devotes several classes to Shiism, looking at the topic as inclusively and broadly as possible. “I don’t treat Sunni and Shia Islam as different religious traditions. I see them as two interpretations of the same sources.”

Students who take the course can expect to read and listen to speeches by Osama bin Laden and study suicide bombings. “Some of the discussions are heated, but Barnard students take both positions and the dialogue usually goes back and forth,” says Haider

For the final project, students are asked to pretend they are interning for a senator from a fictional state and are invited to a dinner at his or her home. They find themselves sitting next to Samuel P. Huntington, known for the 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” which posited that differences between cultures and religious identities would be the primary source of conflict in the post–Cold War era.

In this imaginary scenario, Huntington explains his views pertaining to Islam and the Middle East and the students are charged with writing an assessment agreeing with or opposing Huntington, as well as taking on the beliefs of Bernard Lewis, who first used the words in Hungtington’s title in an earlier article called “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”

The class is open to both Barnard and Columbia students, but draws more people from Barnard, where it satisfies a core requirement. Generally there is a 70/30 split between females and males, with many first years and sophomores making up the group and a number of different majors represented. “Some of my best students have been science majors,” Haider notes. Last spring there were about 25 students. “I am still a new professor, so I find I have more people each time I teach it.” The subject matter does attract some religion majors, like Allee Karmazyn ’14, who was part of last spring’s class. “His class was especially great because it provided an overview of a really complicated topic,” she says. “The blog posts were a really good way of incorporating what we learned in class and really required you to do the reading in depth. I appreciated this because it allowed me to get a lot out of the class.”

Karmazyn is considering getting a PhD in religion or going to law school. She plans to move to D.C. after graduation to work in public policy, which she hopes will help her to home in on her career path. “The class definitely gave me a greater awareness of different denominations within the religion of Islam and across Muslim communities and cultures,” she says. “I feel like I have a deeper understanding of these topics on a broader scale, and a more critical view of Western influence in the Muslim world.”

Applied physics major Haris Durrani (SEAS ’15) was also part of last spring’s session. Durrani minors in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. “It is one of the best classes I’ve taken,” he says. “A lot of classes provoke you to think about the subject matter of religion, politics, or history, but this one gives you the concrete tools by which to do so.” Durrani, who is Sunni, was also surprised to learn things he didn’t know about his own religion, including the nuances in the beliefs of liberals and jihadists.

Both schools of thought deny classical Muslim thinking, he says. “Jihadists say you must go back to the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran, while ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ thinkers also return to core texts, although in an attempt to draw out ‘ethical arcs’ rather than for a literal reading. Both bypass centuries of intellectual, spiritual, and legal development and thereby both rely on the assumption that vast amounts of classical scholarship can be easily cast aside.”

Another topic caught his attention— hip-hop and its relationship with the diversity and history of African American Muslims. “This is an essential, though sometimes tragically forgotten, part of any conversation on Islam or Muslims in America.”

Durrani says the focus on the movements of Islam did generate some lively conversation that was especially engaging because “everyone had to be acutely prepared for class, more so than any other course I’ve participated in.”

Islam in the Post-Colonial World will be offered again in the fall of 2014.

—By Sherry Karabin
—Illustration by Kustaa Saksi