International studies professor Jenna Rice Rahaim is a cultural anthropologist who studied Arabic in Morocco and Syria and focuses her research on charity, Islamic humanitarianism, and religious co-existence in Lebanon. In her class Comparative Muslim Cultures, Rice Rahaim’s students memorize the Qur’an’s first chapter and explore how the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims interpret and practice their faith—around the globe and across town. Macalester Today sat down with Rice Rahaim to learn more.

When you teach about the global Muslim diaspora, where do you start?

Often we associate Islam with the Arab world, but many people don’t know that the vast majority of Muslims live in south and southeast Asia. The four countries with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I want to strike a balance between thinking of Islam as a global religion, but one that always operates in local contexts. Muslims refer to the ummah, the global Islamic community that connects them all. But then—within one town, even within one street in that town—you find Muslims practicing in such varied ways. The class is organized around the nuances of these practices.

Who takes your class?

Last fall I had Muslim students from Pakistan, Palestine, and Egypt, as well as a Jordanian American and a Minnesotan whose heritage is Somali. Some students are studying Arabic or preparing to study away in the Islamic world. But I also teach students who never met a Muslim before coming to Macalester—and they’re taking my class because they haven’t received this education in high school and they’re curious.

What role does the Qur’an play in your course?

One of the first things we do is listen to the Qur’an. Many students come in thinking that the Qur’an is primarily a matter of dogma—and of course its message is crucially important. But a fundamental part of this message is a visceral feeling of majesty and beauty. There are legends about people who were so moved by the sound of the Qur’an that they converted on the spot. And there are many ways to recite it; I like to play them a recording of the most famous Qur’anic reciter in Indonesia, for example, a woman named Maria Ulfah.

My students memorize the Qur’an’s first chapter (pictured at left) in Arabic. It’s pretty short: just seven lines long. But I ask them to memorize it in the same way that students of the Qur’an do in many parts of the Muslim world: by ear. I encourage them to find a recording that they especially like and then listen to it again and again before they even understand the meaning of it, just to connect with the sounds. And we practice reciting it in class. Within a month or so, every student can recite the first chapter—and that’s something they carry with them their whole lives.

How do your students learn  about Islam in Minnesota?

Minnesota has a large Somali population, so when we study Muslims in the United States, Somalis in the Twin Cities are often our model. Each semester, Ahmed Hassan, a Somali-speaking psychotherapist, comes in to talk about working with the Somali refugee community here. A lot of what he does is try to negotiate different modes of finding psychological relief. One thing we discover is that Somalis have a very rich language for conceptualizing in spiritual terms what we would refer to as psychological illness. His patients might use metaphors about the heart or stomach. So he tells us about how biomedical models mesh with and clash with practices like seeing a Qur’anic healer or seeking solace through prayer.

In addition, I also have taken students on a variety of field trips over the years. We’ve attended Mizna’s annual Arab Film Festival, sat in on a Qur’an recitation class at a Minneapolis mosque, and toured the Somali Museum. I encourage my students to closely follow current events across the Islamic world, with a special focus on our own community in Minnesota.

How do you draw on your own research in discussions?

I tell a lot of stories from my ethnographic fieldwork. For example, a lot of my research has to do with zakat, an annual donation that Muslims are required to make. Zakat is like a tax on one’s wealth—but it can be a very joyous act, like any act of giving. As something required, you don’t get praised for it (just as we don’t say, for example, that someone is so generous for paying their federal income tax). So I like to tell students about the experience of sitting down and helping a Lebanese judge calculate his zakat for the year, and the lengths to which he goes to ensure that the distribution of his zakat is anonymous. He takes a secret pleasure in hearing his relations describe him as stingy, when in fact he has been supporting them financially for years. I want to provide that nuance to students so that they can understand how people relate to something that’s often just seen as a very cut-and-dried dictum—thou shalt give zakat.

What do you want students to remember from your class?

I surely want them to walk away with concrete images and texts and knowledge about Islam, but I also want to foster a sense of curiosity about diverse practices, which I think is central to a Macalester education. Students are often surprised when we start by reading religious studies scholar Robert Orsi’s wonderful chapter about snake handlers and evangelical Christians in Appalachia, on how to approach practices that might be uncomfortably different. It’s a blueprint for the semester, and it’s an invitation to students to take what might initially seem unusual or even uncomfortable, and approach it with a sense of curiosity, wonder, and even empathy.

By Rebecca DeJarlais Ortiz ’06

February 1 2019

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