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For students in IIS Graduate Programme, the whole world is a field for study
Zuleikha Haji
Sehr Tejpar
11 November 2011
  • This past summer, students of The Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities (GPISH) travelled to seven different locations across the globe as part of their field research projects. Zuleikha Haji and Sehr Tejpar share accounts from two sides of the globe.

  • This past summer, students of The Institute of Ismaili Studies' Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities (GPISH) travelled to seven different locations across the globe as part of their field research projects completing their two year journey at the IIS.

    Zuleikha Haji ventured to Victoria, British Columbia to explore Horizons al-Ummah, a summer youth camp program for Ismaili Muslim youth in Canada. Some 10 000 kilometres to the west, Sehr Tejpar was taking a closer look at traditional residential architecture in the Pamir mountains. They share their accounts below.

    Zuleikha's story

    Horizons al-Ummah, a youth summer camp, provided an ideal field study on the development of Ismaili Muslim identity. Photo: Zuleikha Haji Horizons al-Ummah, a youth summer camp, provided an ideal field study on the development of Ismaili Muslim identity. Zuleikha Haji

    I come away from the IIS with a perspective that is not confined to the theological and religious heritage of Islam; it incorporates the relationship of religious ideas to broader dimensions of society and culture, and the variety of contexts in which the ideals, beliefs and practices of the faith take root. Over the course of GPISH, I was inspired to pursue studies in Education, and the field research project provided an opportunity for me to take the first step on this journey.

    My research sought to generate insight about how knowledge was being conceptualised from a faith-based curriculum in episodic youth programmes within an informal learning environment. Conducting my field study at Horizons al-Ummah allowed me to explore how a youth camp as an educational setting provided a platform to shape religious identity. In the process of resolving conflicts involving values, what types of experiences enable Ismaili Muslim youth to develop an identity that would serve as an anchor throughout their lives?

    I discovered that while the Horizons al-Ummah camp curriculum played this role of providing experiences that impact the students' worldview about their faith and their religious identity, the participants were also active recipients within the learning environment, shaping their own identities and constructing their own meanings and interpretations based on their own contexts. Thus religion and its positive understanding in a changed environment provide a sense of belonging and act to preserve the role of religion in the lives of the participants by reinforcing their beliefs and practices.

    A positive understanding of faith creates a sense of belonging, brotherhood and community spirit. Photo: Zuleikha Haji A positive understanding of faith creates a sense of belonging, brotherhood and community spirit. Zuleikha Haji

    I met some amazing people in the process, and made life-long friends. The experience highlighted that it truly does take a whole village to raise a child, and the ethos of brotherhood and community spirit within the Canadian context is alive in ways that cross boundaries of culture, gender, age and nationality. I look forward to continuing my journey of acquiring knowledge and applying it for the benefit of others.

    Sehr's Story

    The interior of a traditional Pamiri house locally known as “chid”. What appears to be a minimalist space is in fact rich in religious and philosphical symbols, some of which can be traced back more than 2 000 years. Photo: Sehr Tejpar The interior of a traditional Pamiri house locally known as “chid”. What appears to be a minimalist space is in fact rich in religious and philosphical symbols, some of which can be traced back more than 2 000 years. Sehr Tejpar

    After two years of living in London, deconstructing my own rose-tinted lenses and studying the multiplicity of inheritance and diversity of culture within the Muslim world, I found myself wondering about the concepts of home and dwelling. Amidst changes in tradition and ways of life what does it mean to "dwell" in a world affected by the forces of modernity?

    This question led me to Khorog, Tajikistan to explore the place of the traditional Pamiri house within the worldview of its residents. The goal of the research was to see through their lenses, to let their descriptions animate the building and reveal its secrets. What a way to learn about a different culture, right?

    So what did I learn? First, I learnt the nuts and bolts of research. Second, I discovered that much like traditional Pamiri dance, the Pamiri house embodies the barakat of cultural and religious inheritance in their society. And third – perhaps most importantly – that my own role could never be limited to an objective researcher: I arrived as a curious IIS student and left as an adopted member of their family.

    I'm really not sure there is another programme in the world that would have allowed me to travel to such an isolated community, to simply ‘take it all in' and then to reflect upon and analyse it through a framework decided upon by my own sensibilities. Added to that was the opportunity to live with and learn from spiritual brothers and sisters whose way of life causes one to pause, reflect and feel. I believe that's a recipe for a truly eye-opening and heart-warming experience - the kind that I'm sure many young Ismailis might crave.

    The mountains of the Pamirs, illustrated by Suleman Tejpar, Sehr's father, based on photographs that she had taken while in Tajikistan. Painting: Suleman Tejpar The mountains of the Pamirs, illustrated by Suleman Tejpar, Sehr's father, based on photographs that she had taken while in Tajikistan. Painting: Suleman Tejpar

    Completing their studies

    Zuleikha and Sehr are now in the third year of the programme, which allows for the pursuit of a Master's degree at a UK university. Zuleikha is currently at University of Cambridge studying for a Master of Philosophy in Education whilst Sehr is studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science studying for an MSc in City Design and Social Science. The third year prepares students for future participation in academic and community life; and to play a leadership role in institutions. The programme seeks to enrol individuals who aspire to leadership roles in fields as varied as academia, government, media, civil society and education. The IIS is inviting applications for the 2012-2015 cycle.

    About GPISH

    The Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities is an intensive, three-year programme of study. The first two years of the programme are devoted to the study of Islam–its heritage and contemporary issues. Interdisciplinary in nature, the programme encourages a perspective that is not confined to the theological and religious heritage of Islam, but seeks to explore the relationship of religious ideas to broader dimensions of society and culture. Attention is given to issues of modernity that arise as Muslims seek to relate their heritage to contemporary circumstances.

    In their second year, with the assistance of research supervisors, students come up with a research project related to the objectives of the programme. Then, between July and August they spend five weeks in the field realising the project that they designed.

    Dr Fayyaz Vellani, Head of the Department of Graduate Studies, and Dr Laila Halani, GPISH Course Director, will deliver a presentation about the programme for interested candidates on Saturday, 19 November 2011 at 12:00 PM GMT (London time). The event will be broadcast live on the IIS website. Email admissions@iis.ac.uk for a GPISH application pack. The deadline for applications is 10 January 2012.