Middle East Teachings Come to Mid West
For the first time, Oberlin students have the opportunity to take courses in the newly inaugurated Middle Eastern and North African Studies department. A region of the world politically and culturally important in modern global affairs, the Middle East has attracted the attention of many Oberlin students, who have the new course options of Introduction to MENA Studies and Religion and Politics in the Modern Middle East, both taught by one of the most eminent scholars in the field, Dr. Mohammad Jafar Mahallati.
Mahallati received his PhD in Islamic Studies from McGill University, writing his dissertation on the ethics of war in Muslim cultures. More than an academic, he served as the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations from 1987-1989, where he was instrumental in bringing the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran to a close. Since then, he has taught at several institutions, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
The genesis of the MENA Studies department began in the fall semester of 2006. Mahallati recalled, “I was invited by Oberlin’s Religion department to give a lecture on the ethics of war in Muslim cultures. My visit to Oberlin coincided with the leave of two Oberlin professors who taught in the field of MENA and Islamic studies.” This led to Dr. Mahallati teaching two courses at Oberlin in the spring of 2007, and being invited to be a Visiting Professor of MENA Studies for this year.
According to Mahallati, knowledge about the MENA region is of crucial importance for students today, as “many scholars now agree that the past and even the present unsuccessful and sometimes catastrophic policies of the Western countries related to the MENA region have been caused by ignorance about the region’s cultures and history.”
Senior religion major Shannon McGilly has taken two courses with Mahallati and agrees with his assessment, stating, “Studying Islamic ethics is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to have even a vague understanding of the culture and what’s going on over there and why. If the decision makers [of the US] had a better understanding of Islamic ethics, religion and culture, I can’t believe that the situation in the Middle East would look like it does today.”
She described Mahallati: “[He’s] very passionate and knowledgeable.” She noted, “He includes things like Persian poetry and traditional anecdotes that help liven up a topic that could easily be too dry and distant.”
This new academic option has proven quite popular with Oberlin students. Mahallati cites the waiting list for one of his courses, which was double the size of the class itself, as showing the urgent need to expand the new program. Fortunately he sees Oberlin’s new president and the Board of Trustees as having “shown keen interest and attention to this need,” as demonstrated by the creation of the MENA studies department.
McGilly agrees with the need for the program to be expanded, though she cautions, “The courses must be varied and possible to get into, and we must continue to attract ­­­­­­­— and retain — top-notch professors like Dr. Mahallati. Oberlin has a tendency to have great ideas that are executed terribly, but I have faith in MENA.”
Mahallati had only positive words about Oberlin. “I have taught graduate students in most Ivy League universities. However, thanks to the quality of Oberlin students, I’ve never had as much job satisfaction as I do now. Oberlin is indeed special.”