Faculty voice:

Deborah Margolis and Mohammad Khalil: Healing and educating, one book at a time

Jan. 10, 2019

Deborah Margolis is the Middle East studies and anthropology librarian for MSU Libraries.

I began working with the Muslim Studies Program after a copy of the Qur’an was burned outside the Islamic Center in 2010. In response, we organized an exhibition in the library. Mohammad Ayoob, the director of the Muslim Studies Program at the time, called me on the phone and said, how about having an event in the library? That was my first time organizing a Muslim Studies public event, which was a panel speaking about common Abrahamic traditions in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Over 100 people came; it was a good start!

The following year I applied for a grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities called Muslim Journeys. The grant provided MSU libraries with a collection of books and videos; this led to organizing a more extensive series of scholar-led book discussion programs.

I love the structure of it: a short (15-30 minute) lecture from a scholar followed by facilitated discussion of the book in groups and a wrap-up at the end. I also loved the idea of bringing together people from the community with faculty/staff/students from the university; I thought of it like building a web of people that would help each other learn and help each other during difficult times, which, as a nation, we continue to find ourselves in.

The program has really evolved over the years. We’ve moved more into reading different genres of literature, which tap into the diversity of Muslim experiences across time and place. We had one year which focused on Muslim-American writing and experience, and we’ve continued to come back to that topic, including works about African-American Muslims and racism in the U.S. I still think people want and need to learn more about the faith — the tenets of Islam.

Muslim Journeys has also evolved in terms of the organizers and scholars. We’ve always gotten ideas from our faculty on Muslim Journeys’ book selections. I am happy how we’ve involved graduate students from the beginning as small group discussion leaders and two as scholars. The graduate students gain experience facilitating discussions with diverse participants, and the participants get to know our grad students — budding scholars from diverse backgrounds.

The Islamic Society of Greater Lansing has been a co-sponsor of the programming from the start. So, we have always had a good number of participants from the Muslim community. I was really happy to hear from Thasin Sardar, our contact at the Islamic Center, how much he has learned through the series; it was not just non-Muslims learning about Muslims. It has been all participants learning.

One of the rewards of Muslim Journeys for me has been working with scholars to prepare appropriate book discussion questions, which often involves trying to make questions more accessible to the public and to students. I like trying to be a bridge between communities — between the academic and the public; between the U.S. and other countries; between generations; between Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of other religions or no religion — and I like learning about the incredible diversity within countries and communities.

In Judaism we have a Hasidic saying and song, “All the world is a very narrow bridge; what’s most important is not to be afraid, at all.” I feel that with friends and companions I’ve made (through this program), the world is not so narrow.

Mohammad Khalil is an associate professor of religious studies, director of the Muslim Studies Program and adjunct professor in the College of Law.

I love attending Muslim Journeys sessions. These are opportunities to learn from one of our scholars and opportunities to learn from and engage with the diverse participants.

Our last session on Khaled Beydoun's "American Islamophobia" was quite interesting and memorable. Professor Nazita Lajevardi from the Department of Political Science did a great job critiquing the book and relating it to current events and recent developments in the turbulent world of government politics.

In fact, I have enjoyed and benefited from all of the sessions. And I appreciate the opportunity to connect with various members of our community, including, incidentally, my high school English teacher!

Muslim Journeys allows us to reach members of the community who don't typically attend Muslim Studies events. And conversation is a fundamental part of the program. Whereas most Muslim Studies events are lectures with Q and A at the end, Muslim Journeys sessions devote considerable time to small group discussion. This, of course, enriches the experience because more voices are heard.

I'd like to see Muslim Journeys continue for a long time. This has been one of the more heartwarming experiences I have had since coming to Michigan State. Now we're at a point where I can't imagine an academic year without Muslim Journeys. And I would hope that those who have yet to attend a session would stop by to check out one of our upcoming spring meetings.

For information about upcoming Muslim Journeys events, visit MSU Libraries.