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Teaching the politics of Islam

Muslim men pray

The DU course Modern Islamic Political Thought is helping students understand the philosophical underpinnings of Islam. Photo: Tan Kian Khoon/Shutterstock

When enrollments in University College’s non-credit course Modern Islamic Political Thought started to push the class cap of 30, the college had to up the limit to 35 to accommodate Denverites interested in the philosophical and political underpinnings of this major faith tradition.

Taught by Islamic studies Associate Professor Liyakat Takim, the course is part of University College’s Enrichment Program — a roster of short-format classes that allow adults to conveniently sample of-the-moment topics without making the financial or academic commitment to for-credit courses. Classes generally meet from two to six times for lectures and/or field experiences such as a concert or art exhibit, as was the case with Rocky Mountain News music writer Marc Shulgold’s Beethoven at the Extreme. Or they might be structured as an intensive weekend, which is how DU art Associate Professor Deborah Howard organized her drawing course.

Launched in fall 2003 with 28 courses, the Enrichment Program has since grown to a curriculum of more than 40 courses with enrollments hovering at about 700 students per term, according to Deb Olson, assistant manager of the program. DU alumni receive a 10 percent discount on Enrichment Program courses, she says.

Like wine-tastings for the mind, the classes are designed to give people an opportunity to explore current events, reinvigorate a talent that they’ve let languish or satisfy their curiosity about an unfamiliar topic. “What better way to explore some of these topics,” Olson asks, “than to talk to some of Denver’s best experts in the field?”

Prompting discussion has not been an issue with Takim’s politics of Islam course. Conversation has been so vigorous during the Tuesday night sessions, the religious studies professor decided to extend the course an extra week. “We’ve had a record number enroll,” Takim observes. “The topic is very interesting and controversial and current.”

The topic is an intricate and challenging one, but Olson, who is taking the class, says that while this course could continue indefinitely, Takim has conflated 1,400 years of history into an easily grasped narrative. “I am not a big history buff,” she says, “but he has made it so interesting and easy to understand. There are so many different aspects of Islam, along with the extreme factions, that you can’t just jump to conclusions. The huge majority of Muslims are not that way.”

To summarize, the clear separation of church and state is a relatively new construct, Takim says. During Muhammad’s time and the early days of Islam, the religious and political leader were one and the same. The caliphate, which existed from the post-Prophet era until 1924, when Turkey abolished it, balanced state concerns with upholding Islamic law under the watchful eyes of Islamic scholars. In the 19th and 20th centuries, he says, European colonialism and American foreign policy moves — including U.S. support of Middle Eastern dictators and the state of Israel — as well as government corruption in the Middle East served to foment anti-Western sentiment and generate a longing for the pure Islam of the past.

Takim, who learned about the fall of the first World Trade Center tower en route to teach his first DU class in September 2001, sees contemporary Islam in an enormous state of flux. “There is a silent revolution happening in the religious seminaries in Iran,” he says. “There is a lot of tension between the progressive ayatollahs and the conservative ayatollahs. I see a reformation occurring in the context of time and place.”

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