Why My New Edited Volume Features Students of Vernon Schubel

More than any other factor, the reason why I became a professional scholar of Islam and Muslim cultures is because of my undergraduate adviser, Prof. Vernon Schubel of Kenyon College. As a first-year student at Kenyon in the fall of 1989, I enrolled in a course on classical Islam. Vernon, as he invited us to call him, used Marshall Hodgson’s magisterial Venture of Islam to introduce his students not only to the origins of Islamic religion, but also to the idea that Islamicate societies were part of an inter-connected Afro-Eurasian world of cultural exchange, economic networks, and political competition. Islam played an “irreplaceable” role in shaping the peoples of this shared world. This insight was revolutionary for me. Though I had an excellent high school education, not one of my classes had introduced me to the idea that the humanities were global, not Western, nor to the notion that my Arabic-speaking ancestors had been part of this shared world. I learned a lot more from Vernon as I continued to study with him, and as he supported my study of Arabic and my semester abroad in Palestine.

It turns out that I am not the only student of Schubel’s who found his teaching, for a variety of reasons, to be transformative. Across the Worlds of Islam (Columbia University Press, 2023) reflects Schubel’s inclusive approach to understanding Islam in chapters written by several of his former students, including Kathryn Blanchard, Henry Brill, Max Johnson Dugan, Holly Donahue Singh, and Tess Waggoner, and a former colleague, Michael Muhammad Knight. The only author in the volume not formally associated with Schubel is Farah Bakaari, whose analysis nevertheless fits beautifully with the overall purpose of the book.

What’s remarkable about Vernon’s legacy is that the volume contains the work of only some of his students. Others who have published important work in the field include Adam Bursi, author of the forthcoming, “Traces of the Prophets: Relics and Sacred Spaces in Early Islam”; Joel Lee, Deceptive Majority: Dalits, Hindus, and Underground Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021); Joshua Mabra, Princely Authority in the Early Marwānid State: The Life of ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz ibn Marwān (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2017); and Teena Purohit, Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslims Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023).

The hallmark of Schubel’s scholarship on Islam is to insist that a sectarian approach to Muslim cultures often obscures rather than explains Islamic history. For example, Schubel’s later work has delved into the cultures of Alevi Muslims, a marginalized community that often seeks to position itself as part of the global Islamic umma, or community. Schubel has also shown how Shia Muslims in Pakistan engage the figures, the stories, the themes, and the emotions at the heart of the same Islamic tradition sometimes assumed to be the exclusive property of the Sunni Muslim majority. His research has cut across sectarian division, explicating the allure of shared Islamic traditions far beyond the pillars of Islamic practice and faith. Humanistic values such as compassion, justice, and wonder are as important to Islam as particular ritual acts, he has claimed.

Though our shared history as students of Vernon Schubel is what brought us together to write this book, our methodological and theoretical approaches diverge from his in some of its chapters. One of the strengths of the volume is to show how different disciplinary perspectives, including those of religious studies, anthropology, English, and history, can be used to produce a more well-rounded view of Islam and Muslim history and life. Use “CUP20” for a 20 percent discount from the publisher’s website.

On October 20-22, 2023, the volume’s contributors will celebrate the publication of the book at Kenyon College’s Oden Center. The weekend will feature a welcome reception on Friday night, and presentations and discussions about the themes of the book as well as an evening performance on Saturday. Students, faculty, staff, alums, and community members are all welcome to attend! The Kenyon Inn currently has rooms available for the weekend.