By Dave Gulliver
In her Introduction to Islam and Introduction to the Qu’ran classes this fall, Dr. Nassima Neggaz brings a world of knowledge to her students.
The Islam class covers the rise of the religion from late antiquity to today, from the life of the prophet Muhammad, to modern states and Islam in Africa in Africa and Asia.
The Qu’ran class studies the Islamic scripture in depth, from its compilation in the first Islamic century, to major themes, to comparisons with Jewish and Christian scripture, to topics such as feminist interpretations of the text.
But even with all that classroom work and reading — or perhaps because of it — Neggaz also brings her students into the lives of Muslims, via a tour of the mosque of the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton.
“Taking students to the mosque is a way to go from the abstract, the things that we do in class, to a concrete experience,” Neggaz said. “They’re able to watch prayer, so they see what it looks like. They’re able to also walk through the mosque.” The tours, which are available to the public, take visitors to the prayer room and the ablution area (in which Muslims wash before prayer), and explain the mosque’s food pantry and health clinic, which provides free care to all in need, regardless of ethnic or religious identity.
Perhaps more important than seeing the building, though, is meeting Muslim people from the local community — most of her students have never met a Muslim before.
“I wanted them to get a personal touch,” she said. “The people who gave us the tour were also very open about their own experiences, about their faith and so they were open to questions. We talked about so many different topics; they also talked about some of their experiences, in some cases, with Islamophobia.”
Neggaz is in her second year of teaching religion and Islamic studies at New College, arriving after completing her master’s and doctorate at Georgetown University, and has arranged the mosque visit both years. “Last year, in my evaluations, I was surprised by the number of students who mentioned the mosque visit as being a highlight,” she said. “They said that it was so good to have this concrete experience.”
In their written comments, this year’s students agree. “It was an amazing opportunity to take information we learned in class and see it in practice,” said first-year Chloe Fodor, who is in the Introduction to Islam class. “To connect with the modern Sarasota Muslim community and to have an open discussion about their faith on a more personal level after having studied the religion through a more academic lens was a great experience.”
“I had a wonderful and super educational experience at the mosque,” said second-year Emma Gonzalez, in the Introduction to the Qur’an class. “One of the things that impacted me the most was how peaceful it felt inside the main prayer room. The quiet and the stillness was so present and yet not uncomfortable in any way — it would be very easy to find oneself in a meditative state in such a space.”
“Hearing first-hand from Muslims how the Islamic community welcomes everyone and how they have banded together, especially in the current political climate, was quite impactful,” said Shawna Clapps, a third-year Introduction to Islam student. “It really does give an air of love and kindness triumph over hate.”
Most of her students have little experience with Islam other than what is portrayed in mass media, so the classes provide facts, depth and context. “As students learn, they understand the complexities,” Neggaz said. “They understand that usually what they see in the media comes from a perspective that usually fulfills a certain purpose, and I think that they’re slowly deconstructing a lot of those impressions.”
For example, the Introduction to the Qu’ran class discusses human rights. Students are often surprised, she said, to learn that the Qu’ran granted women the right to own property, inherit estates and initiate divorce in the seventh century, while those rights only emerged much later in Europe.
“Overall, students are willing to challenge preconceived notions, and when they take the class, it’s with the awareness that there’s much more there,” she said, “And they usually are critical, they want to know what the sources say, and that’s something that I appreciate a lot.”
— Dave Gulliver is interim associate director of the Office of Communications and Marketing at New College of Florida.