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Session R4899 (Apology Accepted? Combatting Islamophobia without Sacrificing Critical Perspective in the Academy), 2017
As a professor of Africana studies, a trained historian, and a specialist on the Swahili coast, I'm often called upon by students to explain slavery in Africa and its relationship to Islam. Does 'Islam' legalize slavery? The issue is difficult to separate from the political context in which the question occurs, a context marked by institutionalized Islamophobia and a relentless attempt to demonize Muslims, as well as an attempted revival of slavery under Daesh. We as scholars must address this Islamophobic suspicion of Islam while maintaining a critical scholarly lens on the history of enslavement and slave labor by Muslims. The issue of Islam and slavery touches on deeper issues like interpretation of The Quran and the prophetic sunna, the universality of radical Enlightenment values, and debates about progress in human history. I will discuss some common approaches to these problems, which are not only political but epistemological. I will open up the different ways Muslim intellectuals, radical Enlightenment figures and others have discussed the issue. Some Muslim intellectuals in the West have tried to undermine the Historical-Critical method as a way of getting around Western critiques of the historicity of the Prophet's life. While contextually not without value for creating space for religious life, this move can actually have deeper negative consequences for global Muslim intellectual life, in that it tends to create forms of intellectual stasis that shut down important internal reflection. As a teacher at a large public university, with a diverse student body of African and Muslim immigrants, I strive to push students to use questions like Islam and slavery to evaluate core epistemological, philosophical and moral assumptions of bodies of belief, while remaining sensitive and appreciative of inspirational figures from the past like the Prophet Muhammad. I want students especially to come out of my classes both equipped to fight against cherry-picked Islamophobic arguments, and with a deeper understanding of the connections between their own personal moral convictions and larger philosophical ideas and historical movements.