Q&A with New Faculty in Global Islam

The UF Religion Department is excited to welcome the Izzat Hasan Sheikh Fellow in Islamic Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion Dr. Ali Altaf Mian to Gator Nation! Dr. Mian received his B.A. in Philosophy and M.A. in English from the University of Louisville, and his Ph.D. from the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. His research  areas include Islam in South Asia, the history of classical Islamic theology, mysticism, and legalism (especially the Hanafi Law School), Qur’anic studies, Hadith studies, gender and sexuality in contemporary Islam, religion and modernity (with particular emphasis on how religious traditions changed in and through European colonialism), as well as method and theory in the study of religion (particularly the invocation of psychoanalytical theory for interpreting religious ideas, rituals, and institutions).


Why did you go into religious studies in the first place? What is your educational background?

It took me some time to find my intellectual home as an undergraduate. What excited me most were conversations with faculty and students in the philosophy department, especially in classes on Aristotle, medieval philosophy, and existentialism. At the same time, I also became quite interested in American Transcendentalism and the reception of Sufism in nineteenth-century American literary circles. I ended up double-majoring in Philosophy and English and subsequently did an MA in English at the University of Louisville. The coursework for this latter degree was nothing short of life transforming for me: all at once I was exposed to deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminist philosophy, and queer theory. These bodies of knowledge productively challenged my religious formation and certain taken-for-granted truths. So, I had to figure out things for myself. I therefore applied to study religion at Duke University and spent eight years at that institution.


Who was the single most influential person in your preparation for this career? 

It is hard for me to name a single person whose insights have prepared me for this career. If I had to name a few remarkable teachers at Louisville and Duke they would be: Thomas Maloney for medieval philosophy, Susan Ryan for American Literature, Matthew Biberman for literary theory and Levinas, Ebrahim Moosa for numerous reading courses in classical and modern Islamic thought, Kalman Bland for hours of instruction in medieval Jewish philosophy, Bruce Lawrence for his inspiring vision in global Islamic studies, Robyn Wiegman for her cutting-edge insights in feminist and queer theories, Toril Moi for ordinary language philosophy as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Laura Lieber for the Talmud and Jewish ethics, and Elizabeth Grosz for Derrida.


Where did you graduate from? What’s one fond memory you have of your graduate student career? 

I graduated from Duke University in May 2015. My fondest memories from graduate school are connected to my cohort that included these brilliant friends: Azeen Khan, SherAli Tareen, Mashal Saif, Saadia Yaccob, Zaid Adhami, Sam Kigar, and Hunter Bandy. I miss the countless hours we spent reading texts, debating ideas, and generating affective communities.


What are your future research plans?

Currently, I am working on finishing two manuscripts as well as an edited volume. The first is a micro-historical project titled, Surviving Modernity: Ashraf ‘Alī Thānvī and the Genres of Muslim Selfhood in Colonial India. This book draws on multiple theoretical conversations to intervene in how we study a textual archive that is at once about everyday ethical formation and the scholarly traditions of Islamic theology, jurisprudence, and Sufi practice. The monograph will throw light on the relationship between textual genres and ambiguities of thought but also feeling, on the one hand, and alternative sovereignties that Muslim theologians such as Thānvī elaborated and embodied in order to survive colonial modernity, on the other hand. The broader analytical purchase of the project is to model a method of interpretation that uses close reading as a form of ethnography—textual ethnography to be precise—and how this approach reveals nuances of lived religion often overlooked in the scholarship on South Asian Islam in the colonial period.

My second manuscript-in-preparation is a macro-historical project, titled, Muslims in South Asia. This book will be released as a part of the New Edinburgh Islamic Surveys, edited by Dr. Carole Hillenbrand. It seeks to introduce the public readership, as well as undergraduate students, to the key themes, practices, and institutions of South Asian Islam in the modern period (inclusive of the colonial and the post-colonial experiences of South Asian Muslims). The book is organized according to spaces of religious formation, from mosques and Sufi shrines to courts and cinemas. The idea is to show how Muslims across the various regions of South Asia continue to inhabit overlapping assemblages of beliefs and rituals despite the territorial partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947.

The edited volume is The Bruce B. Lawrence Reader: Islam beyond Borders(contracted with Duke University Press). As you can tell from its title, this book will sample the work of Bruce Lawrence, a leading Islamicist and historian of religion. I use the following six thematic clusters to cover his wide-ranging scholarship: (1) Theorizing Islam in World History, (2) Revaluing Muslim Comparativists, (3) Translating Institutional Sufism, (4) Deconstructing Religious Modernity, (5) Networking Muslim Citizenship, and (6) Reflecting the Divine Other in Words and Images.


What are the promises and opportunities in the field? 

The central challenge, which is also a vital opportunity, for religious studies is to reimagine itself as an important site that validates the humanities and the interpretive social sciences. We have to get creative and advise our majors, as well as our grad students, to consider career paths outside academia. Moreover, we must communicate the relevance of our discipline in accessible prose and via new media. Yet, it is of vital importance that we address these needs of the field without sacrificing our commitment to academic rigor.


What is one book you would recommend to anyone interested in religious studies? 

I personally find much inspiration to think through religion in the work of Norman Brown, J.Z. Smith, Talal Asad, Amy Hollywood, Bob Orsi, Elliot Wolfson, Stefania Pandolfo, and Bruce Lawrence, among others. Yet, if I must recommend a single text about religion, it would be the late Jacques Derrida’s Acts of Religion, especially the essay, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.”


What in particular do you think the UF religion department has to offer? Why are you excited to come join the faculty? 

I am indeed very excited to join this department! I appreciate the strong research agenda of its faculty and their passion for teaching undergraduates as well as working with graduate students. I also value their unique combination of compassion and critique with reference to “religion.” Within the Islam track, I especially welcome the emphasis on the global, as this crucial focus enables us to explore the trans-regional and cosmopolitan networks in which Muslim thought and practice has often thrived. To approach Islam as an assemblage of doctrines, rituals, actors, and institutions also decenters several problematic framings, such as the reduction of Islam to the Middle East or to a theology that is untainted by late capital, globalization, and the transformations in human subjectivity and sociality occasioned by new media.


What is something most people probably would not know about you (hobbies, interesting story, experience, etc.)? 

I enjoy modern and contemporary art, Italian neorealist films, qawwālī, and the novels of Virginia Woolf.