“Was the Round City of Baghdad an Islamic city?” reads a slide from the PowerPoint presentation in one of the lecture halls in Erasmus University College’s building on Nieuwemarkt. Students Astrid, Rowa and Julia just finished their presentation on the original city centre of Iraq’s capital Baghdad. Built in the eighth century by caliph al-Mansur, the Round City symbolised the transition from the Umayyaden caliphate to the Abbasid caliphate, as lecturer Ward Vloeberghs explains.
Before the start of the presentation, Vloeberghs provides a quick overview of the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’, the prophet Mohammed’s initial successors. After Muhammad’s death, three new dynasties emerged in the form of the Umayyads, Abbasids and Fatimids. These three dynasties would later become rivals. “Arabs were granted a lot of privileges during the Umayyad period. They didn’t care much about converts from other cultures,” the lecturer explains. “Al-Mansur of the Abbasid caliphate recognised this and decided to build the Round City as a statement: people from every culture are welcome here, this new capital is the symbol of the new Islam.”
Lecture: Islam, a Political History (Friday 9.00 a.m. in lecture hall B, EUC building)
Lecturer: Ward Vloeberghs
Subject: Characteristics and genesis of Islamic cities.
Audience: Fourteen enthusiastic, active third-year students, ranging from philosophy to economics and business students.
Reasons to attend: You get to explore the history of Islam while ‘travelling’ through different Islamic heritage sites. The presentations are colourful, the debates are engaging, the new perspectives are refreshing – or, as student Anna puts it: “Let’s get rid of that Orientalist attitude!”.
Fourteen students are seated on folding chairs, attentively listening to their fellow students’ presentations. The presentation on the Round City is followed by others on Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, and Al-Jama mosque in Cordoba, Spain.
The Al-Azhar was built by the Fatimids and originally functioned as the Shia’s learning centre. The Fatimids refused to recognise the Abbasids in Baghdad and established a counter-caliphate. “That’s why they built their own capital in Cairo,” as student Jessie explains during the presentation.
A student wearing a purple jumper raises her hand. “I’m really fascinated by the role of the ulama, the Islamic scholars. Could you tell us a bit more about them?” Lecturer Vloeberghs nods approvingly. “Good question! They served as spiritual leaders for the people, but they also advised political leaders. That dual role could lead to tensions between ulama and the government.”
A better understanding of Islam
Rowa Kordi is an exchange student taking International Relations and Business Administration. While she normally doesn’t attend lectures at EUC, she is making an exception for this course. “I’m a Muslim myself and I’d like to explore Islamic history in more depth. You can’t understand a religion if you don’t know its history.” The lecture has helped her gain a much better understanding of Islam, she says. “For example, I didn’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. Now I understand their origins and the difference between the two religious branches.”
Philosophy student Floris van Wijngaarden is attending the lecture because he enjoys learning about other cultures. “I realised my ideas were mainly based on a western Christian perspective. I get to learn about other belief systems here.” Political Science and International Relations student Anna Kiladze agrees. “The Western world tends to have this really Orientalist view of Islam and the Middle East. Learning about history from an Islamic perspective gives you a different perspective, though. For example, you learn that Muslims were more advanced than the Western world in the eighth century.”
But why is it so important to learn about Islam? Law student Willem Warmenhoven: “There are over one billion Muslims. It’s important to understand how the world’s second largest religion functions so that we can move away from all the stereotypes. You might have some preconceptions about Islam, but they’re probably wrong: the faith has so many different branches with their own specific guidelines.”
Interactive and practical
Willem also appreciates the lecture’s format. “It’s interactive and practical”, he explains. “Even though it’s about history, I’m not here to memorise dates. The lecture explores some of the ideas underlying important historical events. That makes it ten times more interesting and helps you retain the knowledge more easily.”
Anna likes the fact that students have to hold weekly presentations. “You really learn a lot because you have to explain everything to your classmates. You can’t just sit back and listen passively.” Floris adds: “The lecture is always really well-structured. The lecturer is great too, he’s really passionate about the subject. He knows a lot about Islam and always explains everything clearly.”
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Editor Feba Sukmana and illustrator Pauline Wiersema follow a lecture every month. Together they describe and depict how education is given, what happens in the lecture hall and what students think of the lecture.
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