Nermeen Mouftah, Ph.D, is an assistant professor specializing in Islam and the anthropology of religion at Butler University. She’s Canadian, but her parents are from Alexandria, Egypt. In this interview she discusses her research and teaching, and reflects on why she chose to become a professor. You can read some of her research here.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born and raised in Kingston, Ontario. It’s a small city of about 100,000 people. In Canada, it’s known to be a city of prisons and universities. It was the country’s first capital city, so the downtown has some beautiful old architecture. It’s on Lake Ontario. My parents are Alexandrians, so the water was always something we appreciated.
Q. How and why did you come to Indianapolis?
A. I moved to Indianapolis to take up a position at Butler University.
Q. What is your education?
A. I studied political science and literature for my BA at the University of Toronto. I went on to study for an MA in literature at University College London. I took a break from graduate school for a few years, first to teach and then later to work in international development. I took on an internship that led me to Cairo to work for the International Labor Organization. While in Egypt, I went back to school and did a graduate diploma in Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo. I fell in love with my subjects there and that led me back to the University of Toronto for my doctoral training.
Q. What classes do you teach? What are the most important lessons you teach?
A. The courses I most frequently teach are the general introduction to Islam; Islam, Gender, and Sexuality; and Modern Middle East and North Africa. I also teach a course on the intersections of religion, politics and economy called Moral Economies: Religion, Politics, and the Marketplace. I offer a first year seminar on questions of development, humanitarianism, and social inequality called Doing Good in the World: Human Responses to Social Inequality. This coming semester I will teach Religions of the World for the first time. In the past I have taught Quran as well as Islam in America and look forward to returning to those topics soon.
Q. What research do you do?
A. I’m interested in how Muslims grapple with questions of progress, care, and justice. I come at my questions anthropologically. That means I’m interested in what people do, which leads me to spend plenty of time observing my research subjects (what anthropologists call participant-observation) as well as conducting interviews, among other research practices. I write about how religious authorities, activists, and everyday people articulate “Islamic solutions” to problems of poverty and exclusion, and examine the sometimes contradictory effects of their efforts. Currently I’m at work on two projects. In the first I’m completing a book manuscript, Read in the Name of Your Lord: Islamic Literacy Activism between Reform and Revolution. It looks at the role of activism for basic literacy in Egypt’s January 25th uprising as it intersected with religious revival. The second project, Guardians of Faith: Orphans and the Remaking of the Muslim Family, asks how Islam shapes the legal, biological, and emotional negotiations involved in the care and abandonment of vulnerable children. This research led me to research in the US, Morocco, and Pakistan.
Q. What are the challenges and joys of being an Arab American professor in Indianapolis?
A. As far as I am aware, I am the only Arab professor in my College. That identity, along with being Canadian, and certainly the particularity of my academic training, mean that I often feel I can contribute a fresh perspective to the conversation. That is certainly a joy, but it can sometimes be a burden.
Similarly, in the classroom, I often introduce students to their first exposure to Islam, Muslims, Arabs, and the Middle East beyond Hollywood depictions or news headlines. I take that task seriously since I have seen it be transformative. The challenge is in treating our topics with the same complexity and nuance that students can allow for subjects more familiar to them.
Q. Why did you become a professor? Is it what you expected? Why or why not?
Ultimately, I think I became a professor because it was a job that allowed me to do my favorite things: reading, writing, and teaching. When I started my PhD, I don’t think I would have thought of it that way, but looking back, that’s what stands out. As I started my PhD, I did not yet think of academia as a career choice, so much as I thought of it as the path I had to take to (at least in a socially acceptable way) dedicate my time to thinking, study, and writing.
An academic life was something of a natural decision for me. I grew up in a university town where my father taught in the engineering department. At the time, Kingston didn’t have a mosque, so the Muslim community (a tight-knit and genuinely loving community) held all of their events on campus, from Friday prayers to potluck dinners. So between that and spending weekend afternoons at my dad’s office, the university campus was an exciting and nourishing place for me.
I am glad that I spent a few years in my twenties pursuing other jobs. I think that helped me decisively choose academia. The balance between researching, writing, and teaching is what makes the life of a professor so attractive to me. I love the ability I have in my work to be creative, and the space and time I have to teach courses and dedicate myself to projects that are meaningful to me. I’m genuinely grateful almost every day.