Meet our faculty: Anna Bigelow

Anna Bigelow

Anna Bigelow joined Stanford in the 2019-20 academic year as an associate professor of religious studies specializing in Islamic Studies and the religions of South Asia and the Middle East. She is an affiliate of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Center for South Asia.

How did you become interested in studying Islamic Studies, and the religions of South Asia and the Middle East?

My first trip to India was in 1992, and I happened to be there during the tumultuous time that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid – a mosque believed by many Hindus to have been built on the site of the god Ram’s birthplace. Riots and civil unrest went on for more than a month in some places, but contrarily, I was struck by two quite different things. First, in many places there was no disturbance and, second, that the site had a deeper history that revealed a much more complex story than the simplistic narrative of Hindu-Muslim animosity. All of this made me acutely aware of the importance of studying less obvious things – such as how communities maintain peace in the face of serious challenges to the social fabric. Also, at the time, Islamic Studies was dominated by scholarship on the Middle East, and India was frequently characterized as a Hindu country. So, my interests were piqued by the size, influence, and diversity of Muslim India, particularly by the ways in which Muslim Indians live as minorities, coexist with non-Muslim majorities, and creatively adapt to and shape South Asian culture and history.

What are your current research interests?

My specific research has long been on sacred spaces that are visited by Muslims and non-Muslims, seeking to understand the numerous attachments and practices that enliven these spaces and make them meaningful to a wide cross-section of religions, classes, castes, genders, abilities, and ages. Currently, I am working on a comparative project that examines both contested and peacefully shared sites in India and Turkey, exploring what we can learn through spaces of encounter about how publics in both countries understand religious minorities within constitutionally secular (but rapidly desecularizing) states. I am also finalizing an edited volume called Islam through Objects (Bloomsbury) that features 12 chapters, each featuring a particular object or artifact and uncovering through these things 12 distinct Islamic cultures and traditions. I was delighted to bring the authors together last year at a workshop sponsored largely by the Abbasi Center.

What courses will you be teaching next year? How will you adapt your courses for online learning?

In winter quarter, I will be teaching an introductory course on Islam called RELIGST 61: Exploring Islam. I taught it for the first time at Stanford last fall in-person, and we used the Hajj as a through line to talk about Islamic history and diversity. I think this theme will adapt well for a virtual classroom as there are many rich audio-visual components that I was not able to take as much advantage of as I would have liked last term. I am optimistic that this transition could actually provide some opportunities and not just the frustrations and limitations of missing our students in-person.

In spring quarter, I am excited to teach RELIGST 118: Freedom Fighters, Terrorists, and Social Justice Warriors – Decolonization in South Asia. This should be really fun and lively with each week focusing on a different movement or activist whose life and work has shaped South Asia (for better and/or worse) through their work, art, militancy, advocacy, and determination. Besides obvious (though important) figures like M.K. Gandhi, the Quit India movement, and the LTTE, we will look at less internationally known people like Phoolan Devi, Soni Sori, V.D. Savarkar, A.G. Khan, and the Naxalites.

How do you approach the teaching of Islam?

My primary goal in teaching Islam is to illuminate the diversity, subtlety, and creativity of Muslims through time and space. I love to bring art, architecture, fiction, film, and oral histories into the classroom to complicate the texts and chronologies that often dominate the history of religions. I also try to empower students to seek out sources on topics of interest to them and help them to think critically about their sources and perceptions as they explore.

How may your work inform our understanding of Islamic history and the Muslim community?

Most contemporary news concerning Muslims is defined by conflict with Muslims as suffering victims or cruel perpetrators. My work complicates these portrayals as I am particularly interested in how Muslims and non-Muslims imagine and engender peaceful collective lives in most cases. These stories are often mundane and unremarkable, and therefore less newsworthy, but no less essential to our understandings of how plural societies work. Given that the humans on this planet are not likely to consolidate into a homogenous religious culture anytime soon, I find lessons from the past and present about how people find resilience and value in cultural diversity extremely interesting.

What inspires or motivates you in your work?

My inspirations and motivations most often come finding things that no one else seems interested in and trying to figure out why and what those things mean. I think a lot of extraordinary things are overlooked as they may appear so normal as to be unremarkable, simply the way things are. Critical theory teaches us that it is exactly those things that we don’t question that are most in need of investigation.