Senegal: An Imam in Saint Louis

senegalA former French colony in western Africa, Senegal is a country where a Muslim majority and a Christian minority live peacefully together and pride themselves on interfaith harmony. Several UW-Madison faculty and staff members visited Senegal in January, 2009, to find out what makes Senegal a model for interfaith peace. You can read an overview of the trip and its results here.

The UW-Madison group interviewed a prominent Imam in Saint Louis. Following his father’s footstep, the 83-year-old Imam became a scholar and teacher at age 16. He started running a school well before Senegal became independent. Because his school was not involved in political activities, just in Qur’anic teaching, the colonial power left it alone. Continue reading

Senegal: Model for Interfaith Peace

Larry Nesper

Larry Nesper

A former French colony in western Africa, Senegal is a Muslim-dominated country where a Christian minority is well respected and has lived peacefully with the Muslim majority for ages. What has made Senegal so successful in maintaining interfaith peace and avoiding the religious tensions that plague other countries? A group of professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison traveled to Senegal last year to look for answers. In the next several weeks, you will read a series of their interviews from the trip. As an introductory overview, anthropology professor Larry Nesper, talked with me recently. You can watch our full conversation by clicking on the video below. Continue reading

Islam in Iran: Interview with Saideh Jamshidi

saidehIran is very much in the news. For example, the mass protests against last year’s disputed presidential election generated tremendous support for the Iranian people. Also, Tehran’s nuclear program is causing fears that Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship with the ability to launch devastating terrorist attacks. But how do ordinary Iranians view their country and Islam? I talked to Saideh Jamshidi recently, a journalist born and raised in Iran. She came to the US in 1999, has been working for Free Speech Radio News, and just started her graduate study in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Continue reading

Interview with Farha Tahir

The Fort Hood shooting in November and the arrest of five Virginia young men in Pakistan in December have shocked many Americans in a different way than 9/11 did. The terrorists in the 2001 attack were Islamic extremists from abroad, but the suspects in the two recent cases are American Muslims raised and educated here in the States. Even though it’s not clear whether the Fort Hood suspect was motivated mainly by his religious belief, the case with the five Virginia Muslims is definitely clear: despite their middle-class upbringing and higher education, they are still susceptible to twisted logic of extremism and the recruitment effort by terrorist organizations. Why?

To find out how American Muslims and their communities are wrestling with the question, I talked to Farha Tahir, a graduate student at the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been actively involved in the national American Muslim community since high school. She was a recipient of the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice in 2003 for her interfaith work. Continue reading

Islam and Women in Niger

Even though 98% of its population practices Islam, the Western African country of Niger is a secular state, protected by laws mostly inherited from the French. In recent years, the government has adopted some woman-friendly policies but rejected a few as well. What’s behind those rejections? What role does Islam play in the politics of women’s rights laws? Alice Kang, a PhD candidate in the UW-Madison Department of Political Science and a former SKJ Fellow through Global Studies, spent a year in Niger to look for answers. She sat down with Inside Islam to share her findings.

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Islam and Politics

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Antonio says to Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Religion is often used and misused by politicians to gain power. To understand the intricate relationship between Islam and politics, Brandon Kendhammer, a PhD candidate in political science at UW-Madison, went to Northern Nigeria and studied the implementation of sharia law in the region since the country’s democratic transition in 1999. He sat down with Inside Islam recently to share his experience and research findings. You can watch the whole interview by clicking on the video below. Continue reading

Music and Islam

SuttonThe complicated relationship between music and Islam has been something which has interested Inside Islam from the very beginning. Even though religious chanting is allowed–even encouraged–in Islam, there is an ongoing debate whether other music is permitted. Some Muslim communities ban non-chanting music all together, while others allow it as long as it doesn’t contain messages (e.g. sex, alcohol) that go against the teachings of Islam.

The Muslims in Indonesia adopt the latter attitude. As Prof. Anderson Sutton told Inside Islam, Islamic music is not only allowed but is also a huge part of the popular culture in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. You can listen to the whole interview  by clicking on the player below.

(11:20) [audio:http://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/andySutton.mp3]

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Art and Islam: Interview with Ken George

kenArt0Many of the world’s greatest art works are inspired by religion (for example, Leonarda da Vinci’s The Last Supper) and arouse an almost religious sense of awe (think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings). This close relationship between art and religion is very much alive in contemporary Indonesia, home of the largest Muslim population in the world. Nobody understands this better than Kenneth George, UW-Madison professor of anthropology and author of an upcoming book, Picturing Islam: Art and Ethics in a Muslim Lifeworld. Prof. George sat down with Inside Islam recently to share his diverse experience with Muslim culture, from living in a small rural Muslim community to working with cosmopolitan Muslim artists and urban intellectuals. Continue reading

Interview with Francis Bradley

bradleyThe first understanding of Islam beyond stereotypes for many non-Muslims starts with a Muslim friend. That’s the case with Francis Bradley, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at UW-Madison. The personal connection with a friend from Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, not only introduced him to Muslim culture, but also played a critical role in his research and career. He sat down with me earlier this month to talk about his experience with Islam. Continue reading

Interview with Arabic Students

Despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims do not live in Arabic-speaking countries, Arabic is still the language of Islam. As images of the prophet Muhammad are forbidden, Islam relies heavily on language to pass down ideas and stories from generation to generation. Language is, of course, open to multiple interpretations, mistranslations, and misunderstandings. For example, jihad, literally meaning “striving in the path of God,” can be understood as both an internal struggle to live a moral and virtuous life and an external struggle against injustice and oppression. But in English, unfortunately, the word is often translated to “holy war” and implies fanatical violence against non-believers of Islam. This is just one example why an in-depth knowledge of Arabic is important to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

More and more Americans, especially young people, are realizing the critical role of the Arabic language in breaking down misperceptions about Islam and in working with Muslim communities. As a result of 9/11, enrollment in Arabic in American colleges increased by 126.5% from 2002 to 2006. This fall, 225 students are taking Arabic at UW-Madison, up from 120 students in fall 2006 and the UW’s summer Arabic language program continues to grow. Earlier this month I talked to a few students in a first-semester Arabic class to see how their perceptions of Islam and the Muslim world might differ from others. Continue reading