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Controversy and Debate in Islam with Chiara Formichi: Course Highlight

October 20, 2017

Chiara Formichi, Assistant Professor in Asian Studies at the College of Arts & Sciences, trained in Islamic studies at the University of Rome, Italy,  and the history of Southeast Asia at, SOAS, London. Her research focuses on Islam as a lived religion and as a political ideology in 20th century Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly. As such, her interests lie at the disciplinary intersection between Islamic Studies, History, and Area Studies, methodologically resting on archival research as well as ethnography. Formichi will teach "Controversy and Debate in Islam" (RELST 2247) in Spring 2018 on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:10-11:25am. The class is cross-listed with the Departments of Asian Studies, and Near Eastern Studies.

Why is this course important for students to take?

Islam has been increasingly visible on the media and public discourse, too often being misrepresented or the object of unfounded slander and bias. But on the other side of this coin there is the rise of so-called Islamic extremism and violence. In “Controversy and Debate in Islam” we address a number of critical topics – from pop culture to the scriptures, the law, the “Islamic State”, jihad, gender, etc. – to understand how varied the “Islamic experience” is for Muslims worldwide, with a focus on Asia.

It is important for students, as citizens and members of broader society, to gain the analytical tools and knowledge that will help them unpack and disentangle real-life situations, from critically reading the news to participating in a conversation about foreign policy or interacting on the workplace.

"Controversy and Debate in Islam" does exactly that, as we read academic literature alongside classical texts and newspaper articles; listen to different genres of Islamic music, and visit the museum to get a sense of what Islamic art is about.

In what way does this course fit in to your research interests/ scholarship?

Even though this course is broader in scope, and specifically aimed at giving students the tools to understand how Islam manifests itself in real-life, it is this course that has inspired my current writing project, a manuscript that explores the history of Asia from the perspective of Islam. This is actually quite new, as usually books on the history of Islam focus on the greater Middle East, and histories of Asia are rooted at the national or regional level, with Islam being side-lined. Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, China and Southeast Asia – even if about 60% of the world’s Muslims live in Asia – are more often than not analysed through the lenses of Hindu-Buddhism or Imperial structures.

Are you looking forward to anything in particular about teaching this course?

There are a few classes when students have their “a-ha” or “wow” moments, and that’s always gratifying and fun. Just to give some examples: listening to Muslim Hip Hop songs praising Islam or lamenting the end of the Caliphate a century ago; looking at 15th century Persian miniatures depicting the prophet Muhammad, and discussing why that is not blasphemy; finding out that although most Muslims want to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, there are “alternative” destinations across Asia; hearing that for some women, to wear a face-veil is what enables them to study, work, and generally leave the house freely; or going deep into the political history of Afghanistan, the role of the CIA, the Cold War, and how the Taliban and al-Qaeda came about.

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