In the spring of 2010, Harvard University, for the first time in its history, offered a course on Ismaili History and Thought. Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji had the opportunity to take the course, and spoke with Professor Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard, about his experience designing and teaching it. Professor Asani is also Chair of the University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Associate Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program. The following is an excerpt of her conversation with him.
Shenila S. Khoja-Moolji (SKM): Within academia, certain discourses on Islam receive greater prominence than others. Your course Ismaili History and Thought, in some ways sought to highlight a minority interpretation of Islam that has historically been marginalised. What made you decide to offer this course? What was your inspiration and motivation?
Professor Ali Asani (AA): For too long, Islam has been taught in the western academy through discourses that primarily represent the religion as a religion of empire and power. The story of Islam is framed solely as the history of Muslim empires, dynasties and their political fortunes. This has had serious implications on how students understand the tradition: certain perspectives are privileged and others marginalised; notions of orthodoxies and heresies are created; understandings of the nature of religious experience are severely curtailed; Islam is perceived in political and monolithic terms with students developing very little awareness of the lived religious experiences of Muslims, the rich diversity of their devotional life and its expression through artistic and literary traditions.