In the early 21st century, it is time to rethink traditional area studies approaches to the history, culture, religion and societies of Middle East and Islamic world. Today large numbers of Muslims live outside the Middle East and South Asia. Some find themselves in diasporic communities in Europe and North America while other groups have become refugees in neighboring countries.
Although we associate this transnational condition with the post-colonial experience and globalization, it is equally true that the model of the nation-state, which was predicated on notions of a culturally homogenous political community, does not lend itself to re-conceptualizing these multi-ethnic and multi-religious relationships.
To understand the Islamic world today requires appreciating the constant development within and the exchange with Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist communities. Indeed, Islam began as a minority faith and throughout its history Muslims remained a minority of the population in many areas of Europe, Africa and Asia, such as late Medieval Spain and modern China.
Over the centuries, the historical process by which Islam became the religion of the majority in the Middle East and other parts of Asia, also unfolded through dynamic exchange with other societies, religions and cultures. Under Muslim rule, members of different religious communities shared economic life and lived in relative harmony. This is true even where Muslims were not a numerical majority, such as in the Balkans and the Indian Subcontinent. These experiences deeply imprinted the cosmopolitan and pluralistic traditions of Islamic societies.
Regrettably, modernity has tended to occlude the memory of this millennial, multicultural heritage. Although European colonialism added new cultural dimensions to a long relationship between Islamic and Western Christian societies, it also ignored many of the contributions that Islamic societies made to that shared modernity. No less importantly, colonialism and the dislocations that followed it, especially during the Cold War and its often violent aftermath, adversely affected relations between Muslims and their neighbours.
Colonialism had other far-reaching consequences: it led to social breakdown in, territorial division of, and forced migration from what previously had been multi-religious and multi-ethnic polities. As refugees, guest workers, and migrants in search of better lives, Muslims began to settle in large numbers in Western Europe, North America and the Gulf states. These conditions may not precisely replicate historical precedents. However, as this program seeks to highlight, Muslim diasporic experiences today should be connected to Islamic pluralism before colonialism.
A new interdisciplinary and historical approach is needed that consciously engages the interplay between past traditions and present conditions, one that reconnects the pre-colonial with the post-colonial. It must also address the specific situation of Muslim communities in Europe and North America. This program aims to fill that need. It will do so by tracing three distinctive yet interrelated paths: religious cultures, social configurations, and historical trajectories. By following these paths our academic objectives are:
- To capture the dynamism of a living, spiritual tradition which has continually renewed and adapted itself to new circumstances and contexts.
- To document the complex interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims within pluralistic settings, past and present, inside and outside the Islamic world.
- To explore the condition of globalization/post-modernity through the lens of diasporic communities and their ongoing links with former countries and new homes.
- To appreciate the vibrant cultural, artistic and scientific achievements that have been the result of the pluralism of Islamic societies and are fostered by the Muslim experience of and in multi-cultural settings.
We also hope to develop inter-disciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs that incorporates these themes and approaches.
We are looking to transform the Muslim Societies, Global Perspectives at Queen's into a world-class research and educational centre that provides resources for both scholarly and public outreach, with a focus on inter-disciplinary exchange for scholars and students, policy makers, and the diverse religious communities in Canada.
By establishing a research and public programming agenda, the project will recover, discuss and analyze the many past examples of multi-religious and cultural pluralism in Islamic societies and explore the contemporary issues both of new Muslim communities in North America and Europe, and Muslim societies globally, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
The Muslim Societies, Global Perspectives (MSGP) project at Queen's has a vision to become:
- A dynamic hub for research, inter-disciplinary teaching, academic discussion and communication. The innovative research goal is the documentation and analysis of the patterns forged between Muslims and non-Muslims in historically Islamic regions as well as in countries where Muslims have been and are part of minority or immigrant populations. The project’s activities will include conferences and workshops on these themes, collaborative research projects, publications and a journal devoted to comparative and cross-cultural research. MSGP would hope to host post-doctoral and senior scholars through visiting fellowships, as well as to fund international student exchanges. We intend to develop an interdisciplinary minor centered around a core course called “Muslim Societies” as well as an MA degree over the next two and three years, respectively.
- A point of encounter between the wider public and the university. MSGP’s participants are committed to organizing outreach on important topics, from public policy and questions of multiculturalism in Canada and the United States, to explaining crises occurring in many parts of the Muslim world. Our expertise and invited experts will work with media, government, business, and secondary education to enrich public dialogue and education. Public lectures, informal lunch-hour workshops and online occasional papers series on contemporary policy topics, would be sponsored to better inform the larger Canadian community of our research and scholarly expertise.
- An open-classroom, where our students and colleagues can find resources for further study. The initiative hopes to establish a small, basic reference library including dictionaries and encyclopedias in the languages of Muslims around the world (beginning with Arabic, Persian and Turkish), where students can come to do their language homework. In addition, we hope also to provide access to media from around the Islamic world in many languages, as well as a DVD collection on relevant topics which could be used on site or borrowed for viewing in classes or in residences. Special lectures and workshop series geared toward our undergraduates and the broader public by scholars, journalists, and experts to expose them to different perspectives on some of today’s most important problems. We also plan to develop the university library holdings to insure a teaching, reference, and basic research collection on the Islamic world and Muslim diasporic communities.