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A New Look at Islam

New institute to offer fellowships, research collaboration (with audio)


Click on the photo above to listen to CAS Professors Herbert Mason and Thomas Barfield discuss the new institute.


These days Americans seem eager to learn more about the Islamic world. Bookstores, newspapers, and television news brim with commentary about Muslims and their worldview. Unfortunately, a lot of what’s being said “is very superficial, and much of it discounts how varied the Muslim populations are,” says Herbert Mason, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of History and Religious Thought and a University professor.

Mason is the director of the new Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations (SMSC) at Boston University. Its mission, he says, is to foster a broader, more nuanced understanding of Islam and the communities that practice it. Last week, the new institute held its inaugural event, a showcasing of Islamic texts from the University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, selected from the collection of Richard Frye, founder of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

In addition to four recently acquired libraries of Middle Eastern and Central Asian texts, the heart of the new institute will be 28 affiliated BU faculty, in disciplines ranging from modern foreign languages and literatures to anthropology to religion to women’s studies. SMSC has also incorporated the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, headed by Thomas Barfield, a College of Arts and Sciences professor and chair of anthropology, who will serve as the new institute’s associate director.

“This institute will be a coordinating body,” says Mason, noting that it will foster research collaborations among faculty and graduate students, award graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, host lecture series and visiting scholars, and design academic programs within existing departments at the master’s and doctoral levels. Mason also says that work is ongoing to develop an interdepartmental undergraduate concentration related to Islamic studies.

“We will have a dedication to primary source reading and experience in the field. We want to understand the Muslim peoples’ sense of history and what’s precious to them,” says Mason. “Now, applying that kind of knowledge really takes time, and I think one thing that would characterize us, as opposed to more politically or development-oriented institutes, is a sense of the longevity of the Islamic world.”

Click here to listen to an interview with Mason and Barfield.