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Expanding Perspectives: Islamic Studies in CNES

December 20, 2018

Portrait of Mohsen Goudarzi

Portrait of Mohsen Goudarzi
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

Have you ever wondered how religions begin? CNES’s newest faculty member, Assistant Professor Mohsen Goudarzi, thinks about that quite a lot.

Goudarzi earned his PhD from Harvard University earlier in 2018 and started teaching at the University of Minnesota this fall. As the University looked to hire a scholar specializing in the Quran and early Islamic history, Goudarzi felt that this position would be a perfect match for his training and interests: “that's exactly the kind of focus that I'd had in my studies, so I just felt that it was a wonderful fit.”

Developing Thoughtfulness through the Liberal Arts

Goudarzi is energized by the “vibrant scholarly community” here and the possibility of collaborating with other faculty and students. “I love to learn from students and their unique perspective on things,” he explains. “I appreciate their fresh ideas on how we can interpret things and put them together.”

He is keen for his students to embrace the opportunities available to them here. “A liberal arts education at a major university makes us thoughtful in both a literal and metaphorical sense: our exposure to the breadth of human thought enriches our own intellectual world, which in turn enables us to be more understanding and considerate towards others.”

Research of the Quran

What drives Goudarzi to study the early days of Islam? For one, he enjoys “being transported to the ancient world.” In addition to that thrill, he also feels a responsibility as a historian to reconstruct the past, “to bring things back to life, to imagine how people went about,” as he puts it.

Goudarzi is working on his first book project, which focuses on the Quran as a means to understand the earliest phase of Islamic history. “Islam’s emergence is fascinating because the Prophet Muhammad’s movement develops in a remote part of the ancient world. It doesn't start in a major urban center, as Christianity did,” he explains. “So it comes from an unexpected area and becomes a very successful movement in a short span of time. Arabian armies conquer much of the old world, including what is called the Middle East today, and Islam rapidly becomes a global religious movement. But how did it take off in such a way and why? At its heart, that’s the thrust of my research.”

He also aims to fundamentally rethink how the Quran presents human history in general and hopes his book will be of interest to a greater readership than solely the scholarly community. For an American audience, the Quran’s relation to Christian and Jewish traditions creates a foundation of background knowledge. He believes that many from a Christian or a Jewish background may find interest in “how a different tradition has developed a similar set of ideas and has colored them in certain ways.” He emphasizes that learning about other cultures assists in strengthening a broader understanding of how human history has developed from different perspectives.

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