A Conversation with Dr. Amal Ghazal

Dr. Amal Ghazal is the new Director of the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies since September 1, 2017 and the first holder of the Simon Fraser University Professorship in the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures.  Born in Lebanon and educated at the American University of Beirut and the University of Alberta, Dr. Ghazal is a distinguished specialist on the modern history of the Middle East and Africa.  She is best known for her groundbreaking book, Islamic Reform and Arab Nationalism: Expanding the Crescent from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, 1880s-1930s (London: Routledge, 2010).  She is the author of numerous articles as well as co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Middle Eastern and North African History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).  Dr. Ghazal is a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Middle East Studies and the Journal of Middle East Migration Studies and the President of the Canadian Committee on the Middle East.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Derryl MacLean, the founding Director of the CCMS and a historian of Muslim South and Central Asia.

DM: I am delighted to welcome you to the Centre, SFU, and Vancouver.  We are all looking forward to learning more about your brand of insightful scholarship across regions. Were you always interested in Middle East and Islamic history, or is this something that developed later?  

AG: It is a great pleasure for me to be the director of this distinguished Centre and I look forward to moving to SFU and joining the vibrant academic community there with whom I share my passion for and interest in Middle Eastern and Islamic history.

As you mentioned, I was born and raised in Lebanon. As someone who lived through the country’s civil war as well as the Israeli invasions, I grew up very interested in politics and in a household where discussions of politics were ongoing. I read newspapers and any books found on the family’s bookshelves, and asked so many questions. I was lucky to have a supportive family who nourished that interest by taking my questions, as a kid, seriously and answering them passionately. Moreover, some family members were involved in politics from head to toe and I grew up fascinated by and curious about their experiences and devotion to political causes. As for Islam, it did not have the same meaning in people’s daily lives and daily politics as it has been in the past twenty-five years or so. So I grew up in an environment where the political language of Islam was not yet dominant. That was something I started to witness when I enrolled at the university. Moreover, my paternal family was secular while my maternal one was religious. Through them all I learned that Islam is a subjective experience, can have different meanings and can be either cherished or challenged or both together in various ways. What was common between the two families was respect and adherence to what they believed were the ethos of Islam: compassion, generosity and humility. But little did I know growing up that understanding Middle Eastern and Islamic history would be my career.

DM: You originally studied at the American University of Beirut.  Did Lebanon generally and especially AUB, with its unique curriculum, have an impact on the way you do history?

AG: Studying at the American University of Beirut (AUB) has shaped me in many ways. I had moved to it from my town in the Bekaa Valley, where I attended a Catholic school as well as a public high school. I always enjoyed the history classes but they were merely an exercise in memorization of dates, names and events. I was also exposed to a particular interpretation of history, one that was nationalist and dogmatically anti-Ottoman. When I applied to AUB, my intention was to get a business degree. A friend advised I apply first to a department with lower enrolment then switch to the Business school, which was highly competitive. He randomly ticked History as a first option on my application. As a History major, I had to take at least two history courses every semester. I chose one on Ottoman history, which turned out to be completely different from what I was used to as it involved discussions, debates, critical analysis, trips to the library and independent research. The class was also full of students of different ideological backgrounds and different takes on Ottoman history, challenging each other on how the past is perceived and interpreted. I was fascinated by what was going on around me. When I took a course the following term on modern Egyptian history and another one on early Islamic history, I realized that nothing but a major in History would speak to my passion, my dreams, and most important, my skills. Thus, after one year at AUB, I decided not to switch to another major and to finish a degree in History. In a nutshell, it was both the curriculum and the very politically vibrant AUB campus that informed my decision to pursue a degree in History.

DM: Your influential book, Islamic Reform and Arab Nationalism, was one of the first works of analysis to look at the larger intellectual history of Zanzibar during the Bu Sa’idi period.  In the process, you insisted on a much wider international exchange of ideas founded on networks of intellectuals not confined to the Middle East, Africa, or the Indian Ocean littoral. What are networks and why do they matter in our understanding of Muslim societies and cultures?

AG: My interest in intellectual networks emerged when I was working on my MA thesis and realized that discussions about the meaning of modernity, Islam and imperialism were taking place laterally, across regions and continents, adopting similar arguments and terminology. I felt that area-studies, such as Middle Eastern studies, could not capture the scope and scale of what was unraveling intellectually. I then studied African history with a focus on the history of Islam in Africa and realized how disjointed it was from the broader field of Islamic history. I started to think about the network as a methodology to trace and examine the cross-regional connections I had been encountering. I define the networks as interrelated groups of individuals with common interests, values and goals, and who develop their own means of correspondence and communication through which they produce and share what they hold in common.

Networks matter because they capture the connectedness among communities, in this case Muslim ones, despite their linguistic, ethnic or cultural differences. This becomes crucial in an age of nation-states and borders. Networks remind us that the national framework is not enough to understand how communities define themselves, their identities and their visions, and that the national framework interacts with and is challenged by other contenders. Moreover, networks enable us to understand how ideas travel and become consumed, and how the local and the translocal intersect, feed into, or subvert each other.

DM: While the connections of Zanzibari nationalism to Arab and Turkish nationalisms are quite clear, I wonder about specifically Zanzibari rethinkings of Islam, especially in the case of the new ideologies.  Was there a uniquely Zanzibari instance of Islam, given its many local strands—the Ibadi, the Shafi’i, the Isma’ili, the Shadhiliyya—all of which have different translocal connections? And do modern reformist readings of Islam, with their assumptions of a universal Islam, privilege translocal ways of knowing and practicing Islam over that of the Zanzibar locality?  In short, how does the local connect with the translocal or universal without loss of meaning?

AG: At first, I thought that what I encountered was a Zanzibari instance of Islam given the cosmopolitan and mercantile settings in which Islam grew on the island. But the more I read and researched, the more I realized that Zanzibar was not an exception but rather a mirror of similar developments happening almost everywhere else. I see it more as a historical instance, when a mix of factors, including colonialism, anti-colonialism, the printing press, steamship, new ideas of a reformed universal Islam coalesced to produce a specific historical moment characterized by translocal connections at an unprecedented scale. The local was not necessarily idle and fixed in time before the modern period which brought fast and dramatic change, causing much tension over the meaning of what is local and what is not. Thus, the translocal ways of knowing did not dislodge the local per se but created an accelerated process of change and self-redefinition at an unprecedented rate.

DM: You have had an on-going interest in your scholarship on questions of cosmopolitanism in Muslim contexts.  This ranges from what you call “Zanzibari cosmopolitanism,” with its location in the Indian Ocean, to “Ibadi cosmopolitanism,” constructed within an Ibadiyya community spread from Oman through Zanzibar to Algeria. Are there different types of “cosmopolitanism” within Muslim communities? Does Ibadi cosmopolitanism, founded on a faith community, differ from Indian Ocean cosmopolitism, founded on mercantile diasporas?

AG: Ibadi cosmopolitanism is founded on mercantile diasporas (and like Sufism, there is this overlap between the mercantile and the intellectual), and on both Indian Ocean and Mediterranean cosmopolitanisms as they developed by the late 19th century onwards. What this means is that leading members of the Ibadi diaspora became embedded in larger Muslim networks who sought Muslim unity across the sects and transcended a parochial identity and parochial concerns. Anti-colonialism and the desire to empower Muslims during the colonial period fuelled those projects. This does not mean that the Ibadi identity was sidelined or completely subsumed but it rather adapted to new needs for the Ibadi communities. Thus, a cosmopolitan Ibadi was someone who preserved Ibadi identity by embedding it into regional and global intellectual and political currents. Ibadis saw no distinction between what is an Ibadi community and what is an Ibadi sect (and this is a loose translation as sect in Arabic has different words). The overlap makes it hard to distinguish one from the other. Thus, for the sake of preserving Ibadism as a community with a specific sectarian identity, Ibadis had to (re)define their roles and goals as they embraced the language of a reformist Islam, of ant-colonialism, of local nationalism and Arab nationalism. Yet the example of Ibadi cosmopolitanism is one type of Muslim cosmopolitanism. Not all types of Muslim cosmopolitanism relied on the idioms of Islamic reform and Islamic unity. We have a Muslim cosmopolitanism, for example, based on anarchist leftist ideas and idioms void of any reference to religion. When we highlight the different types of cosmopolitanism, we thus shed light on the diverse experiences of Muslims.


DM: In a recent issue of Jadaliyya, you and Larbi Sadiki argued that the understanding of ISIS, both in the Middle East and the West, has been compromised by assumptions ingrained within the discourse of orientalism.  Perhaps you could elaborate.  What are the implications of thinking of the framing of ISIS in these terms?

AG: Larbi Sadiki, a prominent Tunisian political scientist, and I have had concerns about how the discussion of ISIS in the West follows a dichotomous approach: is ISIS Islamic or not? We thought that was simplistic and unrepresentative of major political and intellectual developments in the 20th century that have made the rise of ISIS possible. We have also noticed that analysis of ISIS in the West sidelines the writings and opinions of Arab and Muslim intellectuals who are not based in the West on the topic. We concluded that this smacks of Orientalism, even among those who were denying any relationship between Islam and ISIS. The voice from the East, so to speak, remains marginalized or neglected, brought in randomly only to justify this or that opinion published in the West on the relationship between ISIS and Islam. Writers and intellectuals in the West are posing as the ultimate authority on ISIS, and framing their debates in relationship to Islamophobia. This was turning the debate into something that concerns the West, rather than the societies directly affected by ISIS. Larbi had written a piece to Al-Jazeera English on the escalating clash within the abode of Islam, pointing to the problems the Middle East has been facing in terms of escalating violence, archaic forms of rule and contemptible interpretations of religious texts. Thus, framing ISIS in dichotomous terms does not reflect the scale of problems certain majority Muslim societies have been facing, including a chaotic and amateurish interpretation of religious texts, the debates over the overlap between religious and political authorities, the constant calls to reevaluate the role of religious heritage in contemporary life, etc.  It ignores all efforts made by Muslim (and non-Muslim) intellectuals in those societies to seriously engage in those debates and discussions and challenge the status quo.


DM: To move from scholarship to teaching, your future colleagues here at SFU are looking forward with much pleasure to your participation in the Middle East and Islamic Concentration in History.  What is your approach to teaching and what courses would you want to teach?

AG: Teaching for me focuses, first and foremost, on developing students’ analytical and writing skills. The challenge for us is not so much in providing students with information but in providing them with the training to know what to do with it. We teach them how to transform information into a systematic body of knowledge. One comment I often hear from my students, both undergraduate and graduate, is that I push them hard. What they mean is that I challenge them to give me the best out of their writing and analytical skills, and I do so gradually. I start from the bottom up with them and diversify the assignments to reach that goal. The ultimate goal is for the students to become independent thinkers who can make judgments on their own. This is especially pertinent in the field of Islamic and Middle East studies. Islam, the Middle East and Muslims are daily news in the West. The coverage is generally very superficial and can be hostile. Students will be able to see beyond the headlines and the coverage when well-trained. After all, independent thinking ensures we have mature citizenship.

I will be offering initially a history of the modern Middle East and a seminar course on slavery and women in Muslim societies. However, there are three new courses I would like to teach at SFU eventually. One relates to the Indian Ocean and its port cities, another on the Sahara, and a third on popular culture in the Middle East.


DM: I understand from colleagues that at Dalhousie you have taught a very popular course on “Food for Thought: History and the Culinary Cultures of the Islamic World.”  Why does food matter in history?

AG: Let me tell you how this idea came up. First, I had been thinking about a course that would introduce my students to Middle Eastern societies through a cultural lens. In 2007, I visited the Mzab valley in Algeria. I noticed how women, dressed very conservatively, were walking back from the market carrying the French baguette, which was served for me with every meal I had at the guest house where I stayed. I asked my host to get me Algerian bread. He looked confused, pointed to the baguette and said: “But this is the Algerian bread!” I said: “No, this is the French baguette. I would like to have the round–shaped bread that I had just had in Algiers.” He made a phone call and was reassured that there was a local woman who could make that bread for me. I got very intrigued by this episode. Here I am in the Algerian desert hosted by a very conservative community whose traditions the French were not able to change, but for their bread. By then, I had also realized that food was key to my identity as an immigrant in North America and was also a major conduit through which I channelled my culture to my daughter who was born and raised in Canada. Upon returning from Algeria, I started to do research on the topic of food and Middle Eastern and Islamic history, in relationship to politics, class, family, religion, gender, etc. The more I read, the more I was convinced how much food is essential to shaping and defining identities at different levels. I might have been the first in Canada, if not North America, to offer a course on the history and the culinary cultures of the Muslim world, with a focus on the Middle East.  Students love this course for two reasons. It immediately brings a personal element into the discussion with students gradually realizing the importance of food in shaping their identity and relationship with the larger society. It also opens their eyes to the cultural richness within Muslim societies and to the commonalities they share with those societies. Food humanizes us.


DM: The Centre was established some ten years ago to encourage the academic and public understanding of the cultures and societies within Muslim contexts.  What is your view of the importance of this overall mission?  What parts of the various programs do you find of most interest?  

AG: There is nothing more urgent now than to further promote the mission of the Centre. The Centre speaks to values that we, as citizens and academics, cherish and defend: diversity, open-mindedness, and a desire to understand and appreciate other cultures. Islam and Muslims are part of the fabric of our societies here in the West, and have increasingly become a major part of public discourses and policies. Yet public awareness of what Islam is and who Muslims are remains lacking. This is where the Centre comes to play a critical role by engaging the wider academic public as well as the general public to raise the level of this awareness and to show the richness and diversity of Muslim societies and cultures, including the richness and diversity of non-Muslim communities who enrich and share the space with Muslim societies and cultures. While I can’t separate the different activities of the Center from each other as they all define its overall mission, I find its International Summer Program to be key to its mission and unique in its set-up to engage the interested public, nationally and internationally. The other program I find of most interest is the MEICON-BC workshops the Centre holds and that involve students and faculty across British Columbia. In sum, the broader the audience is, the more I find the program to be interesting.


DM: While of course it will take a while to move into the role as Director of the CCSMSC, what do you have in mind for programs to move this larger mission forward over the next ten years?

AG: The Center has already a wide range of activities that we need to preserve. What I would like to do moving forward is advertise these activities nationally and promote the Centre as a hub for academic and public events of great significance, not only in BC, but also in Canada and North America. The Centre is unique in its mission and resources within Canada, and we will seek ways to connect it to other Centres across the country and work collectively on our common goals. The Centre is posed to continue leading in that collective effort.

Once I become more familiar with the BC communities, I will work with my colleagues at SFU to look for more ways to engage the public. There is an urgent need to keep this aspect of the Centre’s mission as a priority to counter the rising Islamophobia and to respond to any developments associated with the new reality in the USA in the wake of the elections.


DM: Thank you very much for your time and thoughts.  We are looking forward to your arrival at Simon Fraser University.