A Program Schedule of Our Organization’s 49th Conference

49th Annual Conference – 2020

Conference Program

North American Association of Islamic and
Muslim Studies (NAAIMS)

The 49th Annual Conference
“The Future of Islamic Studies”
Saturday, December 19, 2020
Cosponsored By: 
Department of Religious Studies
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 
A Vitual Conference on the Zoom platform
Registration Required – details forthcoming:
All Sessions held in Eastern Standard Time (UTC-05:00)

10:30 – 10:45 a.m.       Welcoming Remarks by NAAIMS President 

Frederick S. Colby, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR  

                                    (Program Chair) 

 10:45 – 11:00 a.m.       Introductory Remarks: NAAIMS Vice President 

                                    Sarra Tlili, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 

  11:00 a.m.– 12:45 p.m.            Part 1:  

Theme: Rethinking the Profession of Islamic Studies 

Moderator: Zahra Ayubi (Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH) 

Oludamini Ogunnaike (University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA): “You Are Studying us, but Who is Studying You?: Race, Epistemology, and Pedagogy in Islamic Studies” 

 Ilyse R. Morgenstein-Fuerst (University of Vermont, Burlington, VT): “It Doesn’t Ad(d) Up: Academic Hiring, Racialized Bias, and the Future of Islamic Studies” 

 12:45 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. EST     Mid-Conference Break 

 1:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.             Part 2: 

Theme: New Directions in Research and Teaching 

Moderator: Mohammad H. Khalil (Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI)  

 Carl W. Ernst (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC): “The Writings of Omar Ibn Said: The Implications of Race and Slavery for Islamic studies” 

 Seemi Bushra Ghazi (University of British Columbia, British Columbia, Canada): “This is the Book: Envisioning Islamic Studies Futures from a Qurʾanic Arabic Classroom” 

 3:00 p.m.                     Concluding Remarks 

                                    NAAIMS President 

North American Association of Islamic and Muslim studies.

Conference Report

Muslim Communities in Europe and North America:
Contemporary Developments and Challenges

Future of Islamic Studies

Due to the pandemic, the 49Th Annual Conference of the North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies (NAAIMS) on the “Future of Islamic Studies” was held December 19, 2020, in an online virtual ZOOM platform. It was cosponsored by the Department of Religious Studies, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, under the direction of NAAIMS President, and Program Chair, Frederick S. Colby, associate professor of religious studies, and director of the Middle East and North Africa Studies program, University of Oregon. In his welcoming remarks to the panelists and guests he noted that our conference theme aims to “bring informed perspectives on some of the most pressing issues of our time, especially as we struggle to justify the place of Islamic studies within the Western academy … [but also address questions on] how to confront institutionalized racism and other discriminatory systems that have been endemic to our discipline since the beginning, and … how best to train and welcome into the field new scholars who represent a broader range of specialties, backgrounds, and methodologies than have traditionally been recognized in the past.” NAAIMS Vice-President, Sarra Tlili, associate professor of Arabic literature and language at University of Florida, provided a brief statement about NAAIMS’s well-known annual university-cosponsored conferences, and how its bi-annual publication, the Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies (JIMS), provides a major outlet for innovative research on Islam, Muslim societies and experiences within a wide variety of contexts.

This event was divided into two sections: Part 1 (morning session) “Rethinking the Profession of Islamic studies,” and Part 2 (afternoon session) highlighting issues linked to “New Directions in Research and Teaching.” Part 1, moderated by Zahra Ayubi (Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH), opened with a presentation by Oludamini Ogunnaike, assistant professor of African religious thought and democracy (University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA). In his presentation “You Are Studying us, but Who is Studying You?: Race, Epistemology, and Pedagogy in Islamic Studies” he examined African religious, philosophical and artistic traditions. With the debates and protests in the U.S. during most of 2020 exposing ongoing systemic racism and racial injustice, Ogunnaike’s presentation sheds light on how discrimination in the academy is most prevalent when it comes to the minimal role that African religious thought has had on the field of Islamic studies. Ogunnaike noted that although “Islamic studies is a broad and rapidly evolving collection of fields, [it is an ongoing process] of racialized harm [which is] taking place along four overlapping dimensions.” H examined these dimensions as (1) “Inter-personal” which covers racist assumptions and prejudicial actions; (2) “Institutional” which consists of practices and cultures; (3) “Subject Matter” which devaluates such topics as Islam in Africa, Southeast Asia, Shi’ism or racial issues; and (4) “Theoretical and Methodological” that reviews the concept of traditional Islamic thought.
He focused primarily on how the theoretical and methodological dimension views how “traditional Islamic thought is regarded as data, not theory, and thus writing and thinking ‘from’ Islamic intellectual perspectives is still viewed as ‘confessional’ or academically suspect.”

He concluded that the future of Islamic studies can become more comprehensive when it “examines ideas, concepts and lessons from the fields of African studies and Black studies.” He added that “Islamic studies can and should follow the lead of these fields in refusing the wider academy’s racist, exclusionary theoretical practices that elevate certain thinkers and intellectual traditions (categorized as being free of religion and race) to the level of universal theory and relegate racialized others (categorized as religious) to mere objects of analysis.”

According to the moderator, Zahra Ayubi, Ogunnaike’s presentation “critiqued the dichotomy of outsider objectivity and insider bias as he pointed to a complex relationship between theories and approaches. … [And] proposed that theoretical lenses in Islamic studies and the study of religion in general ought to be constructed using works of Muslim thinkers that are usually considered primary sources.”

Whether the minimal role that African religious thought had on the development of the field of Islamic studies in the Western academy was due to the burgeoning concept of Orientalism in the early 19th century or blatant racial prejudices, this long overdue study seems to be headed for resolution in the 21st century. Could the future of Islamic studies be based on reconstructing the methods used to define academic theories that examine religious practices inherent in Muslim societies? In fact, contemporary topics on cultural, ethnic and racial diversity have been explored and documented in various social science disciplines at major universities in the field of Islamic studies from the Middle East and Africa to Asia, Europe and North America. Muslim lifestyles across the globe represent aspects of Islamic thought that basically provide the framework for the field of Islamic studies.

The second presentation by Ilyse R. Morgenstein-Fuerst (University of Vermont, Burlington, VT) added another critical dimension to the field of Islamic studies. She outlined in great depth how racial bias is front and center in hiring policies within the academy. Her talk on “It Doesn’t Ad(d) Up: Academic Hiring, Racialized Bias, and the Future of Islamic Studies” examines how job advertisements for faculty positions within the field of Islamic studies is stymied by “Orientalist and racist ideas, [which] limit the future of Islamic studies.” She suggested that structural change in its hiring practices is a practical way to move forward. Her presentation replete with slides examined how ads for faculty positions were crafted to focus on countries in the Middle East, the Arabic language and texts. Morgenstein-Fuerst noted that “these ads serve to further entrench inaccurate notions of ‘authentic’ Islam.” She argued that “… quantitative and qualitative data demonstrate how religious studies’ colleagues craft job-calls that replicate stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, [and show] how the study of Islam functions [within] an Arab- and Arabic-centric emphasis.”

According to Ayubi, Morgenstein-Fuerst’s presentation provides “bare data from recent Islamic studies’ job-ads to show that our non-specialist colleagues, who write the ads, hold problematic assumptions about what Islamic studies is. [She] provides us with tools to address this misperception of Islamic studies, which is exacerbated by Islamic studies colleagues who assent to Orientalist confines of our field, on the hiring and departmental levels.”

Her talk addressed issues that are rarely voiced on problems with university hiring practices. She focused primarily on how university-ads created for positions within the religions studies departments “betray an endemic, discipline-wide imagination of Islam as Arabic-speaking, Islam as inherently textual, Muslims as ‘brown,’ Islam as either classical or exclusively contemporary, politically relevant.” Morgenstein-Fuerst added that although these scholars are “the primary people responsible for crafting these job-ads [they unintentionally] reproduce grotesque and inaccurate imaginations of Islam. In fact, job advertisements for Islamic studies positions in religious studies create a pattern so stable as to suggest our working equation: Islam = Arabic + Middle East + Texts.”
Ayubi notes that Morgenstein-Fuerst’s talk highlighted how “the disproportionate focus on Arabic-only and text-only studies of Islam problematically leaves out the breadth of languages, geographies, and diverse methodological approaches in Islamic studies.”

In her presentation, Morgenstein-Fuerst briefly highlights a valuable historical account on “when” the study of Islam began as a subject in universities in the West. She noted that the study of Islam as a university subject “emerges in the era of Orientalism, imperialism, colonialism, and scientific racism. The start of Islamic studies in the Western academy is the history of Orientalism, and Orientalism creates an Islam inextricably Middle Eastern, Arabic-speaking and Arab, and Sunni, among many other troubling, stereotypical imaginations.” She concludes that “Orientalism and racialization have left indelible marks on the study of religion and Islam alike.”

The afternoon session (Part 2) which highlighted “New Directions in Research and Teaching” was moderated by Mohammad Khalil (Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI). Carl W. Ernst (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC) examined “The Writings of Omar Ibn Said: The Implications of Race and Slavery for Islamic Studies” and noted the indelible and unfortunate impact they had on the “colonial formation of the study of Islam.” By reviewing the concept of Orientalism with its problematic sentiments and tendencies about Islam, it becomes clear how a major body of work by enslaved African Omar ibn Said (1770-1864) was historically overlooked during the shameful era of slavery. In his comments, Ernst stated that by “Enlisting amateur scholars of Arabic, missionaries, and members of the American Colonization Society, [his enslavers] invented fantasies based on racial and religious prejudices to account for the existence of a literate African, even as their consultants arrogantly criticized the [works of Omar Ibn Said] for their defective Arabic.” According to the panel moderator, Mohammad Khalil, the writings of Omar Ibn Said are “rhetorically sophisticated texts that historically have been under-appreciated and under-studied by American scholars. A careful analysis of his writings reveal that he quotes major works in Arabic grammar, Islamic law and theology, and Sufism.” Khalil felt that scholars who “failed to appreciate the nuances and references in Said’s writings were influenced by racist ideas, including scientific racism [and that American writers] oversimplify his life story and writings by telling us that he was a ‘prince,’ and that he converted to Christianity, and preferred to remain enslaved.”

In his examination, Ernst affirmed that since Omar Ibn Said’s “autobiography” was written during conditions of slavery it “requires a new approach to this unreadable archive, to evaluate the roles of racism and slavery in the colonial formation of the study of Islam.” It was his statement that “newly discovered quotations in Omar’s writings from works on Islamic law, theology, and Sufism, combined with a rhetorical analysis of the documents, demand a reconsideration of Omar’s scholarship and of his supposed conversion to Christianity.” His final comments illustrate how recognizing, acknowledging and accepting the fact that the seeds of discrimination were sown in our history at the time when Islamic studies research programs were being instituted in the early 19th century is “an important step toward establishing Islamic studies as a normal part of the humanistic and social scientific disciplines.”
This presentation was followed by an equally stimulating paper by Seemi Bushra Ghazi (University of British Columbia, Canada) on “This is the Book: Envisioning Islamic Studies Futures from a Qur’anic Arabic Classroom.” In her talk she examined how teaching classical Arabic through a Qur’anic and grammar-centered approach encouraged students’ creativity and engagement with various aspects of textual, theoretical and pedagogical encounters within the field of Islamic studies. In fact, during her presentation, Ghazi spoke about how teaching within the field of Islamic studies has exposed how this field actually “continues to grapple with a methodological and even ideological divide between theoreticians and textualists.”

She began her talk by sharing some of her “encounters” at different stages in her life and how these “encounters” had an enduring impact on her profound appreciation of Islam which provided the outline for her teaching method. And as noted by the moderator, “she developed a deep understanding of the rich diversity of Muslims and their interpretations of Islam.” Ghazi’s “humanities-oriented [teaching] approach … that re-centers texts as sites of creative and productive inquiry” inspires and ignites student’s creative engagement in the study of Islam. For example, in her Classical Arabic class she talked about how she included a lesson from her Islamic studies course and asked students, including those who had never studied Islam or Arabic, to analyze a Qur’anic chapter (Sura) titled “al-Inshirah (The Expansion), (Q 94: 1-8). Inspiring stories and artwork were the results of this novel classroom exercise. If the “the ‘root of the root of the root’ of Islamic studies is ‘encounters,’” as noted by the moderator, then the key to Ghazi’s method of teaching illustrates how the impact of short-lived experiences and “encounters” by Muslims across the globe opens a window on cutting-edge and progressive approaches to teaching Islamic studies in the Western academy.

To show the diversity of Islam and Islamic studies through her teaching methodology, Ghazi gave examples of “innovative works of several students: a student from Hong Kong who created a series of Black Lives Matter art pieces in Arabic calligraphy; a Latin American student who wrote and illustrated a children’s book interpreting Surah Inshirah (The Expansion) to talk about the ‘Cov-Eid’ challenges of a Muslim girl during a pandemic; a Kenyan Canadian anthropologist who applied close grammatical analysis to analyzing the marginalized subjectivity of African domestic laborers in Beirut as articulated in Lebanese Law.”

In fact, it was through her analysis of creative works by various students in her classical Arabic class that one could envision a pioneering approach for the future direction of Islamic studies. Ghazi’s method of teaching adds a new theoretical dimension to teaching Islamic studies, as it introduces the use of literary, social and artistic perspectives to explore the interpretation and rich diversity of Islam and Muslim experiences.

Layla Sein
NAAIMS Executive Director
Director of Academic Affairs
Managing Editor, Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies (JIMS)