Last year, Professor Abbas Amanat taught a survey course of Middle Eastern history with 120 enrolled students. Yesterday, at a class he designed after Sept. 11 because of a perceived heightened academic interest in the Islamic world, there were 75 leftover syllabi on a table at the front of Luce 101 and empty seats in every row.
Amanat’s course, “History 350b: Islamic Movements in the Middle East since 1773,” is the first Yale class to deal directly with the historical roots of Islamic fundamentalism with specific regard to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
More broadly, says Amanat, the class reflects a national trend of increased academic attention to Middle Eastern studies. The major schools, he said, are all offering similar classes this spring.
Amanat, who taught a seminar on Islamic revival in the Middle East since he came to Yale in 1983 until last year, originally intended to teach a course on modern Iran this semester. He said the new class, designed in October, will avoid using Sept. 11 as an “overwhelming theme.” What it will attempt to show, he said at the end of the first lecture’s introduction, is that Islam is a living tradition, “interacting with the outside world, not centuries apart from our world.”
Amanat attributed the lower-than-expected turnout in part to a lack of publicity for the class, which does not appear in this year’s Blue Book.
“Still not enough people know about the course,” he said, after counting 97 names, classes, e-mail addresses and majors on three stapled sign-up sheets. He said he imagines more people will hear about the course and more might come to the next lecture, scheduled for Thursday.
“I designed this course in part to answer a need for better understanding of the roots and consequences of September 11,” he said from a “Yale Center for International and Area Studies” podium as students were settling in their chairs at the beginning of the lecture.
“I felt somewhat of a personal obligation to try to share my perspective, ideas and knowledge to help answer some questions that are legitimately in our minds,” he continued, emphasizing “our.”
Saying the course will “demystify some of the myths of Islam in both directions,” Amanat emphasized a need to be critical of modern Islam, to avoid the inclination to not judge at all, to say everything is fine.
But students carried away 175 copies of the syllabus, Amanat wrote later in an e-mail, suggesting the not-packed lecture hall was underrepresentative.
He guessed also that interest may have peaked a month or two after the attacks and has now subsided, returned to levels satisfied in the past by the history department’s handful of standard Middle East seminars.
Many who shopped the course identified the recent events as one reason for taking the class, but many tacked on other motivations: graduation requirements, distributional groups within the history major, a lack of any other Middle Eastern history lecture offered.
Candace Chen, a senior majoring in history and concerned with filling the non-Western quota, said she wanted a general history of a region she knew little about, and Amanat’s class fit. And of course, she also had Sept. 11 in mind.
“Since the Middle East is certainly a mystery to me,” she said, “I figured it would be good to know more about the region, especially since it plays such a big part in current events.”
Abbas Mahvash ’05, who bought his books for the class this afternoon, said he was won over by Amanat’s effort to give a balanced explanation of the Muslim faith, both the good and bad. He said he appreciates that the course is tailor-made for the American student’s perspective, but added that he thinks it is late in coming.
“Now that this is in the media,” he said, “I think Yale realized there’s a lack of courses like that here. There was some kind of shortage of classes in that respect.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”20093″ ]