Delving into Diversity

At the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies, art historian Wendy Shaw looks at manifestations of Islam over time.

Jun 15, 2017

Art historian Wendy Shaw says about her work at the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies, “We are trying to uncover Islam’s rich diversity and its historical manifestations and bring them to the fore.”

Art historian Wendy Shaw says about her work at the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies, “We are trying to uncover Islam’s rich diversity and its historical manifestations and bring them to the fore.”
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

Be it the debate on dominant culture, terrorism, or cultural comparison of gender roles, the struggle to agree on what modernity means and Islam’s attitude toward it shapes public discourse in Germany. Western cultures often see Islam as a minority religion and lifestyle – one portrayed by some as the enemy of liberal, secularized society. The Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS) is thus working to put a different slant on what Islam is and what being Islam has meant and means within different societies over time. As part of a three-year degree program offered by Freie Universität in collaboration with Humboldt-Universität and the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, doctoral students explore the diversity and the mutability of Islamic societies and cultures.

Unique in Its Interdisciplinary and Multiethnic Approach

“It is often implied that Islam is something whole and complete, that it is easy to explain what Islam is,” says Wendy Shaw. But for the researcher at the BGSMCS, Islam is neither whole nor complete. She sees it as something that must be repeatedly negotiated anew. “We’re trying to uncover Islam’s rich diversity and its historical manifestations and bring them to the fore.” Shaw, a professor of art history in Islamic cultures, has taught at the Institute of Art History at Freie Universität Berlin since 2014 and is also a research teacher at BGSMCS. Following her studies in the U.S. and positions held in Ohio, Turkey, and Switzerland, she took up her post as a researcher at Freie Universität Berlin. “The graduate school is unique in its interdisciplinary and multiethnic approach,” says Shaw. “People from various backgrounds and countries come together here to explore Islam’s transculturalism and regional diversity. We have students from Mexico, Nigeria, India, Turkey, Holland, and Pakistan. I find it all hugely enriching.”

Graduate Schools

This is reflected in the wide variety of topics tackled by the doctoral students at the graduate school. These range from Turkish Sufism to gender stereotypes in Central Asia to Yemenite national identity and the Iranian film industry’s relationship with international film festivals. Apart from Islamic studies and social and cultural anthropology, the disciplines represented at BGSCMS also include political science and art history. “We believe it is important to take account of the multifaceted nature of Islam. Depending on the period in time and the society involved, it is seen and interpreted differently,” says Shaw. The research team thus views Islam not just as a religion, but – first and foremost – as a cultural phenomenon that has differing effects on the self-images and identities of Muslims and Muslim-based societies.

Toward a New Understanding of What Islam Is and Can Be

Reaching a different understanding of such a complex research subject like Islam calls for a multifaceted approach, says Shaw, adding that the perspective taken impacts significantly on how very different topics such as art, law, and gender types are viewed. “For example, in Turkey there is no such thing as Islamic art. There, one would perhaps look to the West and speak of “Christian art”, something we in Germany simply call art.”

According to Shaw, the vast range of the topics covered at BGSMCS is largely due to the excellent interdisciplinary collaboration between the institutes involved. Doctoral students benefit from the expertise at the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, from the specialist knowledge of the Zentrum Moderne Orient (a non-university research institute), and the political science and art history approaches taken at Freie Universität. “At the graduate school there are no clearly defined borders between the different disciplines. Instead, the various approaches and perspectives taken meet and overlap. This prevents self-referencing discourse, which in turn fosters a new understanding of what Islam is and can be.”