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Student Perspectives on the Islamic Studies ProgramAmmar Kahf

Student Perspectives on the Islamic Studies Program

Twenty students are currently pursuing MA and PhD degrees in the interdisciplinary graduate program sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies. CNES Assistant Director Jonathan Friedlander spoke with three students whose different backgrounds and research interests illustrate the IDP's rich possibilities.

Jonathan Friedlander: Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up?

Lorraine Pratt: I was born in North Carolina and moved all over the place because of my Dad's job, both in the US and abroad (Turkey, Kenya, New Zealand). I went to an international school in Kenya and then to public schools in the US.

Ayman Shabana: I was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up in Mansura, a beautiful town in the Nile Delta 100 kilometers north of Cairo.

Ammar Kahf: I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. My parents immigrated from Syria in the early 1970s. I went to a private British high school in Saudi Arabia. So I grew up partly in the US (in Indiana and New Jersey) and partly in Saudi Arabia. I come from an educated middle-class family. My grandfather was one of the founders of the School of Shari`a at the University of Damascus in the 1960s. My father is a retired professor and researcher specializing in Islamic financial institutions and Islamic economics. I have four brothers and two sisters, and most of them have at least a Bachelor's degree.

Jonathan: What was your preparation for graduate school?

Lorraine: I have a BA in Modern Languages from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, with a minor in Medieval European Studies. I studied Arabic during my undergraduate program and I spent quite a bit of time in Turkey, so I suppose this combination of factors turned me on to the field. Also, for a long time I had been very frustrated with US foreign policy in the Middle East and I thought I could pursue a career in government.

Ammar: After graduating from high school, I went to the University of Amman in Jordan where I earned a BA in 1999 and an MA in 2001 in Islamic Legal Studies (fiqh or jurisprudence). My Master's thesis focused on Islamic laws governing the social interactions of Muslims residing in the US.

Ayman: After high school I moved to Cairo to study at the famous Al-Azhar University. I majored in Islamic Studies and simultaneous translation and received my BA with honors. I went to Leiden University and got my MA cum laude in Islamic Studies.

Jonathan: What prompted you to choose Islamic Studies?

Ammar: Islamic Studies is the field I have most enthusiastically enjoyed learning about since I was 10 years old. I pursued my interest and came to Los Angeles to work as an assistant Imam at a local Islamic Center. After working in this position for two years, I wanted to further my studies to the PhD level.

Ayman: After finishing high school, I joined the department of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Languages and Translation at Al-Azhar. I have always been interested in the study of foreign languages and other cultures. I was intrigued by the multitude of languages that human beings use. I wanted to see whether or not their language affected the way they think. Coming from a Muslim background, I knew that religion is very important in people's lives. I wanted to see whether that was true in other cultures as well. Contrary to the common misconception, I came to know that the majority of Muslims are not Arabs. In fact, Arabs are only a small minority of the Muslims, at least in the present time. Because English is the global lingua franca, I was interested in mastering it so that I could be able to communicate well with the "outside" world.

Jonathan: What is the focus of your studies?

Lorraine: The late Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey, nationalism and statecraft.

Ammar: I am interested in the following: Muslims living in the US, their assimilation patterns, ethnic divisions and social and intellectual communication with other communities; area studies on Jordan and Syria; and the politics of the Middle East.

Ayman: I tend to focus on issues related to Islamic law in general and to usul al-fiqh in particular. I am interested in the process of the construction of Islamic law, how a certain ruling regarding a given issue is developed, how Islamic law, based for the most part on "fixed" texts, has been able to serve the needs of the Muslim community over time. This requires researching issues related to continuity, change, adaptability and accommodation. At the heart of this discussion is the question of the flexibility or the rigidity of Islamic law. I am also interested in Islam and human rights, Islam and politics, and Muslims in the West.

Jonathan: What are your career ambitions and how do you plan to use the knowledge you've gained toward that end?

Ammar: I hope to find a job in a California college or university teaching in the field of Islamic studies, preferably within a religious studies department or program, or working in a think tank or research institution. I plan to stay in Southern California if I can, since this is the place I enjoy the most!

Ayman: I hope I will be able to use the knowledge I accumulated over the years, especially during my graduate study, to pursue a career in teaching and writing. We live in a very troubled world and almost on a daily basis we feel that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate. Our world is getting smaller and smaller. Somehow we have to find ways to promote common understanding and peaceful coexistence. Ignorance and misunderstanding are at the heart of the world's most pressing challenges and crises. In my view, intellectuals and the learned community at large have a very important role to play in promoting values such as constructive criticism, tolerance and respect for others. They are equally called upon to condemn and fight prejudice, bigotry and fanaticism.

Lorraine: Though I originally intended to pursue a career in the State Department, I have discovered through various teaching assistantships that I enjoy teaching very much. I would like to pursue a teaching career at the university level or even at the secondary school level. It's unfortunate that few PhDs decide to teach in the high schools. We desperately need to raise the bar for what we require of secondary school students and the curriculum. But I'm keeping my options open. I wouldn't be averse to taking a government service position for a few years if only to experience firsthand how all the gears work together.

Jonathan: Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

Lorraine: Finished with my dissertation (finally!), teaching, and hopefully giving my daughter a baby brother.

Jonathan: Would you advise your peers to pursue Islamic Studies at UCLA?

Ayman: Yes, if they're well prepared!

Ammar: UCLA offers a unique program that exposes students to at least three different fields of study that relate to Islamic Studies. It's exhaustive, it's as if you were taking three PhDs, but it's a worthwhile program that enables students to grasp the many aspects of Islamic Studies. It will also widen prospects for employment and a wider network of educational fields of study. UCLA provides a unique opportunity, both in terms of resources, such as the Middle East collections of the Young Research Library, and in terms of its highly qualified faculty who provide openings to a number of fields for those who want to seize the opportunity. Yes, I hope that more people join the program. And Southern California is a great place with all the world's religions, cultures and ethnicities represented. You can spend your entire life in Los Angeles and still not be able to grasp all the social and intellectual aspects of life here. UCLA is just a great university in a great location!

Center for Near Eastern Studies