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Professor Nida Sajid’s Interdisciplinary Approach to South Asian Studies

December 17, 2018

Portrait of Nida Sajid.

Portrait of Nida Sajid.
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

Assistant Professor Nida Sajid is the newest scholar to join the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures. Professor Sajid graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India with a BA in Spanish studies, an MA in Linguistics, and an MPhil in Linguistics and English. After completing her PhD in comparative literature at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, she went on to teach and conduct research at universities in North Ameria, Europe and Asia before coming to the University of Minnesota. Her research expertise focuses on the literary and cultural history of Islam in South Asia. She also writes about human rights and religion from a comparative perspective.

Why did you decide to study South Asian history and culture in-depth?

Growing up in India, I was always curious about how certain everyday practices and rituals become sacred, especially as parts of belief systems. How do simple gestures take on larger symbolic meanings? Graduate school allowed me the opportunity to examine these questions through South Asian history, culture, and literature. I realized that the Indian subcontinent offers invaluable experiences where I could observe religion and everyday life in a highly diverse setting. While earning my PhD, I began to study Muslim intellectual history through this lens of cultural studies. 

What life experiences led you to your research? 

My surroundings and life experiences have constantly shaped and redefined my academic interests. In the past ten years, I have studied, taught, and conducted research in five countries: Canada, Germany, India, the Netherlands, and the United States. Each place taught me how to adjust my questions making them relevant in a fast-changing world. During my postdoctoral fellowship in Germany, I worked with a team of scholars researching Middle Eastern human rights and constitutional laws. They inspired me to explore unknown connections among legal trails, censorship, and Indian religious nationalism. Every academic opportunity gave my research new areas to explore. It offered questions to ask—making it relevant to multiple disciplines, regions, and time periods. 

How do you explain your research to people with no experience in South Asian history? 

My research mainly focuses on South Asian Muslim history and culture. Most people don’t know that the Indian subcontinent houses one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. Through my research, I debunk common myths about Islam as a monolithic religion. Specifically, I draw attention to the extraordinary diversity across many dimensions from language to dress to art. While teaching, I frequently emphasize this diversity through real-life experiences from working among different communities across India. It helps students realize that education doesn’t end in a classroom. For all of us, learning is a life-long process of discovery through interactions with new and challenging environments.

What questions or challenges did you set out to address in your research?

Equality, freedom, justice: these are ideas of basic human rights that we often take for granted. Where exactly do they come from and what do they mean in today’s world? This is the primary question I try to address through my teaching and research. One of the biggest challenges is looking for common links while remaining respectful of differing viewpoints in complex cultural and religious contexts.

What are the real-world applications of your research? 

As a scholar of Islamic intellectual history, I provide a deeper understanding of the philosophical debates that define religious public discourse in our world. A big part of my research focuses on gender in Muslim societies to create greater awareness about the political impact that modernity puts on women’s lives. My new research project looks into global challenges as well as local responses. I plan to investigate multiple facets of religious practice with the pressing issues of environmental protection and climate change in India.

What brought you to the University of Minnesota? 

I was immediately drawn to the ALL department because of the vibrant, dynamic team of scholars with keen interests in rethinking the traditional boundaries of academia. So far, every interaction with UMN students has left me impressed. Their creativity and political awareness create a welcoming campus vibe. I'm excited to help higher education be more inclusive and socially responsible.

What are you looking forward to about teaching here? 

I am teaching two courses next spring 2019, South Asian Women Writers (ALL 3636) and Religion and Society in South Asia (ALL 3679). I look forward to introducing students to the complexities of Indian culture and history through a variety of lenses: tradition, modernity, religion, gender, and sexuality. I am also excited to offer a freshman seminar titled Fashioning Islam in the academic year 2019-20. This course will explore how fashion trends and dress practices are stitched together with questions of faith and choice in different Muslim societies around the world.

This story was written by an undergraduate student content creator in CLAgency. Meet the team.