Swat to develop Islamic studies minor

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In 1999, when Swarthmore College began the Meaning of Swarthmore campaign, one of it’s long term curricular goals was to develop a strong Islamic studies program. “We had plans to develop more coverage of Islamic studies well before 9/11, but 9/11 goaded us into hiring a new position and going ahead with those plans right away,” said Academic Provost Connie Hungerford. Instead of waiting for funds to come at the end of the campaign, the College used provisional funding to hire a tenure-track professor in Religion (Scott Kugle, now succeeded by Tariq al-Jamil). It was Kugle who helped organize the first courses on Arabic for text study.

The program at Swarthmore is still in its developmental stages– Hungerford calls it “Islamic studies with a small ‘s’.” Though the college offers several courses on Islam, they are not yet grouped together in a formal inter-disciplinary program. “I’m sure that will happen fairly quickly, but the faculty who are going to be key players are only just arriving. I can’t guarantee that it will be in place for next year.” Those key players include Farah Ghannam in the Sociology and Anthropology department, who is now on leave, and al-Jamil in the Religion department, who was hired last year.

“I have a lot of very strong ideas about what I would like to see [the program] become,” said al-Jamil. “I would like to see it become a multi-disciplinary program that has an academic minor first, and perhaps even more down the line.” Because Ghannam is on leave, there haven’t yet been sufficient opportunities to have the kind of planning discussions that are needed to outline what a program would look like and specific time tables have not yet been drawn up. However, al-Jamil said “My hope is to do it as soon as possible. I have a lot of energy about it, I’m very excited about it, I have a lot of ideas. And I’d like to get started sooner rather then later so that students who have an interest can start planning their academic programs around it.” A film and lecture series will also be a part of the effort to create greater awareness of Islam and Islamic studies.

Swarthmore has received significant funding over the past few years to build up the program. According to the Swarthmore College website, the program has $2.7 million of the $5 million goal it set for the Islamic studies program. “I think we have enough resources in place to do it. We have faculty members who have a core interest in Islam, such as Farha [Ghannam] and myself, but we also have faculty in politics, economics, and history who offer at least one or more courses that are in someway at least tangentially related to Islamic studies.”

The College has also received funding, by way of the Mellon grant and the National Endowment for the Humanities, to expand its Arabic program. Right now, Swarthmore offers first and second year Arabic, with one professor assisted by a lecturer. There are plans to hire another professor for next year, to add a third year Arabic class, and to add courses in Arabic literature, film, and culture.

Though Islamic studies and the Arabic program are obviously intimately linked, the two will remain somewhat distinct. But they will work together. Unlike the Arabic program, Islamic studies will not be directly connected to the Tri-Co initiative. Though Bryn Mawr and Haverford are taking steps towards developing a Middle Eastern studies program, no small liberal arts college currently has the sort of Islamic studies program Swarthmore is envisioning. Once developed, it will be one of the few of its kind. “In ten years, I see it as one of the most important courses of study we offer, at the very least in terms of numbers.” says al-Jamil. “In the way that we’ve seen an increase in student interest, I see an equal, if not greater, increase in student participation.”

Al-Jamil believes that this increase in student interest comes from the increased visibility of Muslims around the world. As Muslims become more visible, discourses involving Muslims will become crucial for thinking about the larger social world. He believes that this interest is not dependent on dominant social or political circumstances. “The college’s interest and commitment to Islamic studies well precedes 9/11, and the momentum and popularity of the program will go far beyond the popular political discourse of the time.”

Many students are excited about the possibility of an Islamic studies minor. Farah Hussain ’09 describes al-Jamil’s Gender, Body, and Sexuality in Islam class as “one of the best experiences” she has had at Swarthmore. “It’s funny because people think that Muslims know more about Islam, but really, there is so much to learn,” she said. “Having taken Tariq’s [al Jamil] class I decided that I was going to do a religion minor, and to be perfectly honest, I was planning it out so that I would be taking Islam classes for all five credits. Having an Islamic Studies minor would be even better. “

Elizabeth Hipple ’10 said, “I’m very excited about an Islamic studies program at Swat.” She adds “It would be very useful in a career in politics, which is something I want to puruse. I think it’s incredibly relevant.” Hungerford echoed Hipple’s sentiments: “[The College has] a strong sense that [Islam] is a critical part of the global culture in which we inescapably participate, and it is imperative that we give our students the means to participate in that global culture.”

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