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New program spans the diversity of Islamic studies

August 27, 2003

Photo of Al Azem palace in Damascus, SyriaAfter launching an ambitious effort last year to expand its academic resources devoted to Islamic studies, SFSU begins this academic year with four new faculty and a cluster of courses dedicated to Islamic civilization.

"Islamic studies is an area where we wanted to break new ground and we wanted to do it quickly," said Joel Kassiola, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and one of the program’s chief architects. "We are seeing that student interest in this area is still growing and we expect it to continue growing."

The goal of the new push -- first suggested by President Robert Corrigan -- is to create a one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary program in Islamic studies with emphasis on Islamic culture, politics, architecture, literature, philosophy and other areas that weave through many departments on campus, Kassiola said.

The University hired its first two scholars in Islamic studies before 9/11, but the terrorist attacks accelerated student interest in classes each following semester. For example, a class on Islamic history last fall was so crowded with its 40 students that the second part of the course last spring had to be moved to a larger classroom to accommodate the more than 50 students who signed up.

The media's new focus on Islamic culture has prompted many students to seek a deeper understanding of it, said Carel Bertram, an assistant professor of humanities and one of the first scholars on Islamic studies hired by SFSU. "Students want to know more about Islamic culture and its influence than just what they see on television or read in the newspapers," she said.

Bertram was instrumental in the creation of the new General Education Segment III cluster on Islamic civilization. The aim, Bertram said, is to bring together challenging courses that will help students gain insight into the diversity of Islamic culture. "Islamic culture is not only complex in literature, art and philosophical ideas, but it has been shaped and shared by a rich mosaic of different Muslim and non-Muslim communities. All of them are worth our study," she said. "We want to introduce students to the multifaceted role that Islamic culture has played historically as well its role in contemporary society."

Classes offered in the cluster are found across the curriculum. For example, this semester the Department of Humanities offers a class taught by Bertram on Islamic cultural expression. Political Science lists a new course on Middle Eastern states and Ethnic Studies offers a course on contemporary Arab and Arab American literature.

And students can choose from other related courses -- although not yet officially part of the cluster -- such as a class on Islamic mysticism in Philosophy and classes on Arab American identity and Arab media images in America, both offered by Ethnic Studies.

Many of those courses will be taught by the new incoming scholars in Islamic culture who join Bertram, an expert on Islamic architecture and Maziar Behrooz, an authority on Islamic history. New faculty with backgrounds in Islamic studies -- the result of lengthy searches -- include Nicole Watts, an assistant professor of political science, who studies Kurdish politics and social movements; Mohammad Azadpur, an assistant professor of philosophy, who has expertise in Islamic thought; and Lucia Volk, assistant professor of anthropology, who researches the people and culture of the Middle East. Joining the faculty in the spring will be Burcu Akan Ellis, an assistant professor of international relations, who studies Muslim states and communities. And the College of Ethnic Studies will soon launch a national search for a specialist on Islamic American communities.

-- Ted DeAdwyler


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Last modified August 27, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs