Back to School: Intro to Islam

The Alcalde staff heads back to the classroom in the first installment of its new series, “Back to School.”

It’s like a bad dream. Not the one where you somehow wind up in class naked or show up for the final exam realizing that you haven’t been in class all semester. It’s the one where you have to make it to class in time, but the room doesn’t seem to exist. And then when you get there, well, you’ll see.

I didn’t attend UT, but I like to think I have figured out where things are around campus, despite my lackluster sense of direction. So when I arrange to attend Intro to Islam (Islamic Studies 310, to be exact), located in MEZ B0.306, I am confident that I can navigate Mezes Hall and find the room. I am wrong.

Eventually, traipsing my way through the labyrinthine building, I find my destination. Then the nightmare hits. I am in the correct classroom, but for the wrong class. I had misread the time, and Intro to Islam is later in the morning. I slink over to a curved concrete bench outside the classroom to hide until the blood leaves my face. Ninety minutes later, I’m back in class, but it’s less full this time.

Notably, the makeup of the room is only about one-third white, though I wouldn’t say Intro to Islam is composed of entirely Middle Eastern students. It’s probably one of the more diverse slices of UT Austin one can see. Slotted for an enrollment of 60, Associate Professor A. Azfar Moin says that he has about 55 students, from freshmen to seniors, with majors as diverse as business, engineering, computer science, and liberal arts. Some seniors take it to fulfill a requirement to graduate. Others are freshmen in their first semester who may go on to continue in Islamic Studies.

While I expect every single student to pull out a MacBook to take notes (and tool around on the internet), once Moin settles in and begins talking, the entirety of the class pulls out old-school notebooks. My only concern is that I look like the police, in my wool sweater and button-up shirt. No matter, for the next 75 minutes, I am here to learn.

To my delight, Moin doesn’t merely stand erect in front of the students and deliver a neverending diatribe on the subject. He conducts his class like it’s a piece of classical antiphony. He’ll begin a phrase, “The end of the Abbasid Caliphate came … ” and call on an eager student who responds, “when the Mongols showed up.” Then he’ll elaborate on this notion, as to not reduce this important historical event to a headline, weaving in historical anecdotes, and asking the class to elaborate on perhaps why a certain leader was deposed, or what his motivations were for leading the way he did.

I find myself interested for a few reasons, namely that the dawn of my critical thinking came during the beginning of the Iraq War, when many people, myself included, didn’t understand the nuances of the Islamic world. The difference between Sunni and Shia was maybe as deep as it went. Moin (and the class) enlighten me with tales of the Shah Abbas, fifth king of Iran, who fought the Ottomans with his Georgian slave army. I learn that drinking alcohol, banned in Iran for Muslim citizens since the 1979 Revolution, was an important ritual in Shia Islam dating back to the Book of Kings. Crucially, I learn that the legacy imparted to modern Iran from this period is the centralized organization of Islam. It’s difficult to find the thread from the 16th century to what I currently see on Twitter, but Moin helps bridge that gap.

Moin attended UT in the early ’90s as an engineering major, graduated, and got a good job in the field, but left it because he wanted to write. Being an academic allowed him to do that, and thus he has been on the Forty Acres as a professor since 2014, following a short stint at SMU.

The Intro to Islam section is taught by a rotating crop of professors across multiple disciplines, since it is cross-listed in religious studies, Asian Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies. When I ask him what he likes about distilling his extensive scholarship into a survey course, his answer is threefold.

“One, it’s the foundational story of Islam—we spent a month on that. The second thing is how Islam grew from a local movement in desert Arabia in the seventh century to a world religion, like Christianity or Buddhism—we spent a month on that,” Moin says. “The third part, which I’m starting now, is geopolitics and contemporary Islam: politics, war, violence. I want them to understand how we got to the current situation.”

The class I attend is at the tail end of the second section, the spread of Islam, and he says the next part ends “almost like a political science lesson.” This must be difficult, I say, because of the partisan nature of that discussion.

“This is going to be difficult, to engage with topics that are very much still alive,” he says. “People are going to take tough positions on it, but I think part of the university education is you have to deal with difficult questions.”

The moment I feel the oldest in his class is when Moin dims the lights and prepares to show a satirical clip about the Ottoman Empire from the Colbert Report. He asks who has seen it before. No one raises their hands, and, as I scan the room, I see a few confused faces. The Colbert what? Now, I haven’t seen the episode either, but I know what is about to come.

Besides the unassailable fact that watching a movie in class is the best thing to happen to a college student outside of $4 pitchers of PBR (I went to college a long time ago), Colbert’s sendup of Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert’s 2012 assertion that the Ottoman Empire was coming back in full-force has the class cackling and learning. It’s an unbeatable combo, like a $4 pitcher of PBR that comes with a free shot of Jameson because you’re dating the bartender’s roommate. Hypothetically.

After the Colbert clip, I feel the familiar pang of another nightmare, this time involving a test. Moin passes out blank sheets of paper, and implores every student to write a few short paragraphs relating to the clip and the lesson from a previous class. I freeze, blankly staring at the sea of white in front of me. Then I snap out of it, stash the blank sheet in my bag, and stand up to walk out. I only write for money now. I shake Moin’s hand, thank him for the opportunity, and go about my day, a bit more educated.

Illustration by Peter Arkle


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