The 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.
Always interested in history, Francis Bradley is in the midst of finishing his dissertation about the development of Islamic scholarly communities around the Indian Ocean rim, and how they transformed Southeast Asian Islam through teaching and schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His choice of topic is largely influenced by two experiences in his life. The first is his honeymoon trip to Turkey, where he had direct contact with Muslim culture for the first time. But it was the close friendship with an Indonesian Muslim that spurred his fascination about Islam and led him to turn to Islamic history in Southeast Asia as the focus of his dissertation and future career. “I feel that there’s a real disconnect between what American media pay attention to and the experience I’ve had when I travel to the Islamic world. I really want to get involved in broadening Americans’ understanding of Islamic cultures. … There’s a similar disconnect in the Islamic world quite often about the United States. I’d like to engage with that as well.”
How would he respond to people who think Islam is a violent and backward religion then? He said (3:10) that there are violent groups who commit violent acts in the name of Islam. However, the extremists who carry out those acts represent only one tiny fragment of this worldwide religion. “I think it would be unfair to allow them to characterize the entire faith,” he remarked, just as it it would be unfair if we characterize Buddhism by looking at the oppressive regime in Burma.
Finally I asked him to use only three words to describe Islam and Muslim culture. The first two words he chose didn’t surprise me (4:50) but the third one did. Find out for yourself. You can listen to the full interview (6:50) by clicking on the player below.[audio:https://insideislam.webhosting.cals.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/francisBradley.mp3]
Do you have any Muslim friends? Have they changed your perspective on Islam? We’d love to hear from you.