July 14, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 19

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    Islamic studies programs thrive at University, as interest in Islam grows

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    As interest in the Middle East and Islam has grown, so have the University’s resources in these areas. From quadrupling the size of its Arabic program in the last three years to bringing in new faculty members with expertise in everything from Persian mysticism to Timurid art, Islamic studies at the University is expanding at a rapid rate.

    For generations, the University has been “a powerhouse” in the study of the early, late-medieval and early-modern Islamic world, said Martin Stokes, Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and an Associate Professor in Music. The University’s strengths in the modern period are now growing across disciplines to match its prowess in historical studies, improvements that will add to “the rich and interdisciplinary tradition of Islamic world scholarship at this university, a tradition that already is internationally preeminent and clearly set to stay that way,” said Stokes.

    The University has a long history of distinguished scholarship in the field of Islamic studies, extending back to its founding when Arabic was offered during the first quarter of instruction in 1893. Today, the main focus of such study is in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, in which the overwhelming majority of scholars at the University who specialize in the Islamic world hold their appointments.

    “At the University of Chicago, Islamic Studies means more than studying Islamic countries or Islam itself,” explained Peter Dorman, Associate Professor of Egyptology and Chair of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations. “We also are unsurpassed in the study of the Islamic world in general, non-Islamic communities who contribute to the Islamic world and Islamic communities in areas that aren’t traditionally Muslim.”

    The department’s programs in Islamic studies are focused on several tracks: Islamic history and civilization, Islamic thought, literatures of the Middle East, and Islamic archaeology. Most students of Islamic studies work within one of these loosely defined tracks.

    Students in the Islamic history and civilization track can study the origins and rise of Islam, medieval Islamic history, Jewish communities in the Islamic world, the music of Central Asia, and the rise of modern nation states in the Middle East. The Islamic thought and philosophy track includes Arab intellectual history, Qur’anic exegesis, hadith methodology, Islamic theology, Islamic law, Sufi mysticism, nationalism and Islamic historiography.

    In the literary track, classical and modern Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Uzbek and Persian literature are taught, in addition to basic language classes in all of these areas, as well as Armenian and Uzbek.

    In Islamic archaeology, a relatively new field, students can study with one of its founding practitioners, Donald Whitcomb, Associate Professor in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and the Oriental Institute. Among other subjects, Whitcomb teaches the archaeology of Islamic Syria and Palestine, Islamic art and artifacts, the Islamic city, and Egypt after the pharaohs.

    Some students design their own field of study or combine elements of one with work in other fields, Dorman said. Students may choose to combine the study of Near Eastern history or literature with the study of the history or literature of South Asia or Europe. In other cases, students may focus on the non-Muslim communities that formed an integral part of the fabric of Near Eastern societies during the Islamic era, and in many cases still today.

    In addition to all of the offerings through Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, various complementary activities and events are available to enrich students’ learning. For instance, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies sponsors a lecture series, a Middle Eastern film series, outreach programs designed to familiarize secondary school teachers with the Middle East and Islam, and weekly language circles for students studying Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish and Armenian.

    In the fall, Middle Eastern scholars Franklin Lewis and Persis Berlekamp will join the faculty. Lewis, who will join Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, currently works in Persian languages and literatures, medieval Islamic mysticism, Arabic literature, Sufism, and Iranian religion.

    Berlekamp, an expert on Islamic art and architecture—particularly the relationship between art history and intellectual history in the Ottoman Empire, the art of the book in some Arab and Persian cultures, Islamic gardens, Timurid art, and medieval Baghdad—will join the Department of Art History.

    The University already holds “one of the largest concentrations of first-rate scholars dealing with Islamic and Middle Eastern studies in the entire Western world,” Dorman said. With the addition of these new scholars—as well as Malika Zeghal, Associate Professor of the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion in the Divinity School, and Michael Sells, the John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature in the Divinity School—and the general expansion of classes in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, it appears the amount and level of scholarship is primed only to improve.