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Harvard University Professor Ali Asani discusses a new course on Ismaili history and thought
Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji
12 August 2010
  • In the spring of 2010, Harvard University, for the first time in its history, offered a course on Ismaili History and Thought. Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji had the opportunity to take the course, and spoke with Professor Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard, about his experience designing and teaching it. Professor Asani is also Chair of the University's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Associate Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program. The following is an excerpt of her conversation with him.

    Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji (SKM): Within academia, certain discourses on Islam receive greater prominence than others. Your course Ismaili History and Thought, in some ways sought to highlight a minority interpretation of Islam that has historically been marginalised. What made you decide to offer this course? What was your inspiration and motivation?

    Professor Ali Asani (AA): For too long, Islam has been taught in the western academy through discourses that primarily represent the religion as a religion of empire and power. The story of Islam is framed solely as the history of Muslim empires, dynasties and their political fortunes. This has had serious implications on how students understand the tradition: certain perspectives are privileged and others marginalised; notions of orthodoxies and heresies are created; understandings of the nature of religious experience are severely curtailed; Islam is perceived in political and monolithic terms with students developing very little awareness of the lived religious experiences of Muslims, the rich diversity of their devotional life and its expression through artistic and literary traditions.

    To counter these highly problematic discourses, I have opted to frame the courses I teach about Islam and Muslim cultures at Harvard through the Cultural Studies approach. This approach is premised on the notion that as a cultural phenomenon, Islam, like any religion, is intricately tied to a web of contexts: political, social, economic, literary, artistic and so on. It emphasises that these contexts both influence and are influenced by religion. In this regard, the study of religion is essentially a multidisciplinary enterprise and not just about theology and religious doctrines. I have found the cultural studies approach to be very effective in helping students appreciate the diversity of interpretations of Islam. I have also found this approach to be an effective way for students to become literate in their thinking about religion and culture.

    My decision to offer a course on Ismaili history and thought was first and foremost motivated by the urgent need I felt to broaden the Islamic Studies curriculum at Harvard so that it reflects the plurality of Muslim experiences and the multiple ways in which Muslims understand and practice Islam today. In this regard, the absence of courses at Harvard representing Shii perspectives was also an important factor. Naturally, my own research on and familiarity with Ismaili traditions of South Asia, and Ismaili history in general, were also critical.

    Professor Asani's use of the arts as a teaching tool is just part of his broader effort to eradicate what he calls “religious illiteracy.” For more than 30 years, he has dedicated himself to helping others better understand the rich subtext and diverse influences that make religion – in particular Islam – a complex cultural touchstone. Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer
    Professor Asani's use of the arts as a teaching tool is just part of his broader effort to eradicate what he calls “religious illiteracy.” For more than 30 years, he has dedicated himself to helping others better understand the rich subtext and diverse influences that make religion – in particular Islam – a complex cultural touchstone. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

    SKM: How did you go about formulating this course and designing the curriculum, given the scarcity of written materials on this interpretation of Islam?

    AA: In terms of putting together the course, there were several challenges. The first was how to represent the many different ways of being Ismaili. When we talk about Ismailis today, we have a tendency to confine our definition to just the Nizari Ismailis; but we must not forget that there are other groups such as the Bohras who are also Ismailis. Historically speaking, even the Druze in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, are Ismaili as well.

    A second challenge was being careful not to project contemporary formulations and understandings on to the past as this would inevitably distort our knowledge. For instance, some communities which we today identify as Ismaili did not use this label of identity when referring to themselves until very recently.

    A third challenge was the sheer amount of material to be covered extending over at least ten centuries and many different geographical regions. Organising the topics and readings so that the course did not become too unwieldy was definitely a daunting task. Eventually I did manage to organise the course into three parts so that it had some sort of thematic coherence: in the first part, we surveyed history, in the second we explored thought, and in the third we focused on devotional literature and practice.

    SKM: It must have been difficult to provide a representative voice to all the various Ismaili traditions. How did you manage that?

    AA: Putting together a course like this, which has not been taught before, is difficult, especially with regard to compiling reading material. Thanks to the active publication programme of The Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS), I had a fair amount of material representing Nizari Ismaili perspectives, but identifying and accessing materials for Bohra and Druze traditions was not easy. Fortunately, I was awarded an innovation grant from the University to design the course, so I was able to hire a research assistant to help with this time consuming task. Although we were able to include material from different traditions, I feel, however, that there is a need to identify more material to make the readings truly representative in their view points.

    Comparing the experiences of different Ismaili communities was for me an exciting part of the course. For example, while studying the modern period, it became clear that the Nizaris, Bohras and Druze have had to deal with similar issues with regard to identity, pluralism, and relations with the nation-state. This kind of comparative study across Ismaili communities representing different branches is certainly an area that needs to be developed.

    SKM: And how did you deal with the geographic diversity of the Ismaili communities?

    AA: I tried to accommodate the regional diversity by ensuring that I had enough representation of materials from different geographic regions in the three parts of the course. For example, in the modules on thought as well as literature and practice, we incorporated material from the Fatimid philosophical and legal traditions in Egypt and North Africa, the Nasir Khusraw tradition in Central Asia, the South Asian ginan traditions and so on. In this regard, the Anthology of Ismaili Literature that the IIS recently published was very helpful.

    SKM: During your career as a Professor at Harvard, have you observed a change in the approach to the study of religion? Can we expect more courses that focus on specific religious interpretations within the broader religious traditions?

    AA: Definitely, there have been changes. There are more course offerings on specialised topics in Islamic studies such as Islamic law, Sufism, Islam in local or regional contexts (Central Asia, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa), religion and gender, religion and the modern state, etc. In this regard, the course on Ismaili History and Thought is a welcome addition.

    Although the old paradigm of teaching Islam as a religion of empire is still strong, Islamic Studies is increasingly being perceived as an interdisciplinary field. For example, students can pursue Islamic Studies through many different disciplines such as anthropology, women's studies, art history and so on. Such interdisciplinarity will inevitably lead to students being exposed to broader perspectives. Today, the study of Islam is not simply the study of Islamic history as many people mistakenly assume. We are definitely seeing this change in graduate education. I am particularly keen to introduce and promote this interdisciplinary perspective at an undergraduate level as well, especially among students who are taking courses related to Islam or Muslim societies as part of their liberal arts education.

    SKM: In your view, how was the course received by the students?

    AA: Students were really engaged as demonstrated through the broad range of topics they chose for their final projects. One student wrote an essay on the Ismaili novelist M.G. Vassanji's book, No New Land, which concerns the experiences of Khoja Ismaili families from East Africa living in an apartment complex in Toronto. The student discussed Ismaili identity in the Canadian context as depicted in the novel, noting that this kind of portrayal of the Ismaili experience through literature is far more humanising than an anthropological study. This paper underscored the need to incorporate modern fiction and popular literature in courses on religion.

    Another student wrote a paper on the use of the crescent as symbolic of the Imam in Fatimid architecture. Yet another student focused on the Ta'alim curriculum and its articulation of Ismaili concepts and ideas. Comparing Ismaili Neoplatonic thought with Ibn Arabi's mystical philosophy; improving the status of Ismaili women; Fatimid treatises on Imamat; the phenomenology of Ismaili poetics; reinterpreting the figure of Fatima – these were some of the other papers.

    SKM: It sounds like students took a personalised approach to these materials and came at it from a variety of perspectives, ranging from art and history to literature and educational theory.

    AA: Yes, that was a particularly interesting outcome for the course. On reflection, this result is perhaps not so unexpected given that approach of the course itself was interdisciplinary and that it encouraged students to think about religion as a cultural phenomenon, particularly the Ismaili tradition, in interdisciplinary ways.

    Shenila Khoja-Moolji interviewing Professor Ali Asani for this article. Photo: Courtesy of Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji
    Shenila Khoja-Moolji interviewing Professor Ali Asani for this article. Courtesy of Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji

    SKM: My understanding is that the course was oversubscribed in terms of students who were interested in taking part. Did you expect such a response?

    AA: When I first began designing the course, I assumed that due to the specialised nature of the subject, it would probably attract a very small number of students with a background in Islamic Studies. To my surprise, the course attracted students from a variety of fields and educational training: from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, The Graduate School of Education, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Harvard Divinity school, the Harvard Business School, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, a postdoctoral anthropologist from Uzbekistan and a former officer from the British Foreign Service also attended the course occasionally.

    Teaching a course with students coming from such varied backgrounds and interests was definitely daunting. Some had no knowledge of Ismaili history at all while others were already familiar with some of the materials. Some were acquainted with the frameworks of studying religion while others weren't.

    SKM: This was the first time that a course of this magnitude was offered at a prestigious institution such as Harvard. What does this mean for the Ismaili community?

    AA: We live in a rapidly globalising world in which there is a growing appreciation for respecting and embracing diversity as a necessary condition for democracy and world peace. Although we are far from attaining this as a universal ideal, once oppressed communities are increasingly able to express their views without the fear of persecution, as evident in the case of many Ismaili communities.

    The Shia in Iraq are another example. This development has, of course, challenged traditional paradigms of knowledge and authority. Not everybody is comfortable with the challenges posed by voices and perspectives that have long been silenced. Some are, indeed, threatened by this newly emergent plurality of voices and seek to suppress it. One of the strengths of a university such as Harvard is that it encourages its faculty and students to engage in free inquiry and consider a diversity of viewpoints on any given subject. It is thus able to provide opportunities for students to access knowledge from all kinds of sources, making it possible for courses like the one on Ismaili thought to be part of a diverse curriculum.

    Increasingly, western universities are becoming institutions where the plurality of interpretations of Islam can be studied within geographic contexts ranging from sub-Saharan Africa and China to South Asia. In this sense, these universities are able to expose their students to the rich diversity of thought and practice within Islam, something that is sadly impossible in most universities of Muslim majority countries where the state and religious authorities exercise ideological control of the curriculum, especially as it pertains to Islam. Inshallah, one day when Muslim societies become more comfortable with intra-Muslim pluralism we may see courses on Ismaili Thought being offered in these universities as well.

    Khoja-Moolji also spoke with some of her fellow students who were enrolled in the course to understand how it informed their views of Ismaili Muslims.

    “It is really unique to see a community that is open to embracing and engaging with the various cultural influences that have shaped its thought and practice,” said Ailya Vajid, a graduate student of Islamic Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Expressing her excitement at the opportunity to learn about the Ismaili community, she added that she was impressed with the community's values of pluralism and its engagement with it.

    Vanessa Beary, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, noted that she took Professor Asani's class due to her interest in the various educational initiatives of the Aga Khan Development Network in Tajikistan. For her final paper, she examined how the Nizari Ismaili community presents the purposes of learning and the pursuit of knowledge in Tal'im, their international religious education curriculum. She appreciated that “both the historical and contemporary Ismaili approaches to knowledge and learning reinforce a pluralistic worldview”.

    Overall the course provided space for students to take a personalised approach to learning Ismaili history and thought. As an Ismaili student, I was particularly happy to see the interest that this course generated in the study of Shia Ismaili Islam. Personally, the course afforded me the opportunity to further my research in Ismaili women's history by studying the role of our forty-eighth Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, in improving the status of Muslim women. The course will no doubt continue to inspire many more students at Harvard in the years ahead.

    Recommended course readings

    The Institute of Ismaili Studies publications provide a good source of reading materials on Nizari Ismailism for Professor Asani's course. Photo: Shenila Khoja-Moolji
    The Institute of Ismaili Studies publications provide a good source of reading materials on Nizari Ismailism for Professor Asani's course. Shenila Khoja-Moolji

    Abu-Izzeddin, Nejla M. The Druzes. A new study of their history, faith and society. Leiden – E.J. Brill, 1984.

    Asani, Ali S. Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002.

    Blank, Jonah. Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

    Cortese, Delia and Simonetta Calderini. Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

    Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

    Landolt, H., Shaikh. S., and Kassam, K. (ed.) An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: a Shi'i Vision of Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.

    Lawson, Todd. (ed.) Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism in Islamic Thought. Essays in Honour of Hermann Landolt. London: I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2005.

    Sanders, Paula. Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1994.