When people ask me what I study for my Master’s degree, they are often shocked and bedazzled to find out that I’m a Middle Eastern Studies student at the University of Chicago. “Why would anyone study such a strange topic?” they ask. “Why don’t you just get a more practical degree like engineering or medicine? And why would anyone take Middle Eastern Studies in America? Wouldn’t it make more sense to learn Middle Eastern Studies IN the Middle East?” They’re confused why an SBM-ITB (School of Business and Management) graduate would simply run off and do something utterly absurd instead of getting a comfortable job in a multinational corporation. Part of the reason is that I’m completely insane, but another part of me chose this path because I felt that it was my true calling in life.
First, let me explain my major a little bit. As you could already guess, Middle Eastern Studies (or Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations as it’s called in most US universities) is the historical and sociological study of the entire Middle East. At the University of Chicago, this means that you could literally study anything from the time of Ancient Egypt all the way until contemporary Syria. As for myself, I chose to research welfare in early Islam from the time of the Prophet Muhammad until the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258. I research the ways in which various caliphates and dynasties instituted various social security programs. For example, during the Umayyad Caliphate, guides, servants, and monetary stipends were assigned to the blind, the crippled, and the poor respectively. Huge free public hospitals and rural mobile medical teams were established by the Abbasids, while Saladin’s famous Ayyubid dynasty was really big on creating schools for orphans.
I chose to research this because I saw that there was a huge disconnect between what Islam teaches and the reality of the Muslim world. The Qur’an stresses that helping the poor and the needy is our most important societal duty, and if you study history, it’s obvious that early Muslim rulers took this responsibility very seriously. The famous orientalist Patricia Crone wrote in her book God’s Rule that it was considered sinful for a ruler to neglect even one poor person. However, if you look at the Muslim world today, you’ll see that it is filled with poverty and injustice. Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world, so I hoped that through this research, Indonesians, and everybody in general, would be inspired to make a positive difference in the world.
As to why I didn’t study in the Middle East, there is a huge difference between studying in a traditional religious school like Al-Azhar and studying at a western academic institution like UChicago. One focuses strictly on teaching religious laws and beliefs, while the other attempts to analyze history from an “objective” perspective (“objective” is a very loaded word, but at UChicago, there’s a good balance of Muslim and non-Muslim professors, so you get a nice mix of opinions to choose from). For a Muslim, there’s merit in both type of study. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, for example, is a traditional Islamic cleric who has a Ph.D in Islamic philosophy from Paris-Sorbonne. Many Muslims do both, and I may even want to get a traditional education one day. However, for right now, I choose to study at UChicago because I feel that history is more relevant to the problems that we currently face, and the faculty, resources, and environment provided by this university is hard to match anywhere else in the world.
I also wanted to study in the west because I believe that it’s also important to engage with non-Muslims. I wanted to dispel the myth that Islamic studies is something that is only relevant for Muslims (here, the biggest fanatics about the Ottomans or the Safavids are American non-Muslims, and even I’m boggled at their enthusiasm). Rather, everyone can learn from it. When I was a kid, my mom would tell me stories from the Mahabharata and Romance of the Three Kingdoms because they had good moral lessons, and I am neither Indian nor Chinese. Likewise, you don’t have to be a Muslim to benefit from Islamic philosophy or literature. In fact, Islamic civilization has had such a profound impact on the west that you’re probably already benefiting from it whether you realize it or not. To put it shorty, I want everyone to be comfortable learning with me regardless of his/her religious affiliation, and I feel that I could better accomplish this task by studying at a western institution.
One of my other main focuses is studying tolerance between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout history. This is a topic that is very close to my heart. Growing up, most of my friends were non-Muslims, and to this day, the majority of my friends are non-Muslims, so of course it saddens me to see religious intolerance in the world. Contrary to extremist propaganda, if we study Islamic history, we’ll find numerous examples of peace and cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims in previous Islamic societies. The Qur’an unequivocally states, “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” Keeping true to these principles, in 622, Muhammad created the Constitution of Medina, uniting Muslims and Jews under his rule, granting them equal rights and protection, and affirming that they are “one and the same community.” In fact, accounts from non-Muslims living in this period confirm that Islam did more than simply protect religious freedoms. In 647, a Nestorian Christian Patriarch by the name of Ishoyahb III wrote in a letter, “Not only do [Muslims] not oppose Christianity, but they also praise our faith, honor the priests and saints of our Lord, and give aid to the churches and monasteries.” Historically, Christians and Jews have played important roles as administrators, soldiers, and scholars in many Islamic governments. This was greatly exemplified by an incident which occurred in 1492, when the Ottoman caliph Bayezid II welcomed thousands of Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition into his lands, saying, “[Ferdinand] has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” In fact, the famous St. John of Damascus was Prime Minister under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik. And in the 8th century, a massive public hospital was established in Bagdad under the guidance of Christian doctors from Gundeshapur. This would become the most advanced medical institution of its time, uniting Greek, Indian, and Iranian medical knowledge under one roof. If Muslims and non-Muslims could get along so well in the past, shouldn’t we be able to do more today?
In conclusion, I chose to take Middle Eastern Studies because it was a reaction to the world around me. Some decisions are not really logical, but are made from the heart. Engineering, business, and medicine, are all important, and if you feel that you can make a positive difference that way, by all means do it. But I saw that there were societal problems that couldn’t be fixed through material resources alone, and I believed that knowledge of history could dramatically change people’s beliefs and contribute to a better society. I know that it seems like a long shot, and when all of my peers graduate and make huge, concrete strides in their own fields, it may seem that out of all of them, I will have contributed the least. But my dad says that the job of the historian is to inspire people. I may not accomplish anything immediately, but if inspire one person, and they inspire several other people, who then inspire even more people in turn—who go on to change the world, I will have done my part in contributing to a better future.
Photo Courtesy: University of Chicago’s Facebook page, Wikipedia.
Matahari Kesadaran is a Master's student at the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). His research focuses on welfare in early Islam. For questions or comments, please feel free to contact him at email@example.com