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Munir Shaikh, Islamic Studies

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Patricia Jordan
  • Published Jun 1, 2002 8:00 AM

Munir Shaikh's master's degree in Islamic Studies has already led to some interesting jobs. The flashiest was tutoring the cast of a movie about boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Shaikh showed actor Will Smith, who plays the title role, how to perform prayers and recite Arabic.

But a job with greater impact was teaching assistant for a UCLA summer program on Islamic Iberia. The subject had long interested Shaikh because medieval Spain carried an important part of his Muslim heritage. Islamic governments are often divided into two categories: those in which the ruler is a caliph, or political and religious leader, and those in which sultans, military rulers, "appease the religious leadership in exchange for legitimacy," Shaikh says. The Nasrid dynasty, which ruled the last Islamic kingdom in Iberia from 1240 to 1492, is usually put in the second group.

With time to spend in the dynasty's Alhambra palace, Shaikh couldn't help but notice the Nasrid slogan, inscribed on columns and tiles and ceiling borders: "There is no victor except God." Islam may have played a more significant role in Granada's political ideology than previous scholars have noted, Shaikh believes. His dissertation research will look at how the Nasrids maintained their kingdom while caught between the Christian states in the north of Spain and the Muslim states of North Africa.

"They had a very precarious existence," Shaikh says. "The people in power at the time were playing a very careful game of religious legitimacy, along with protecting their geographic boundaries." A history of Granada written by its vizier is an important resource; Shaikh will also look at the vizier's writings on administrative practice, some of which are available only in manuscript.

His adviser, Professor of History Michael Morony, says Shaikh's work is "superb" in terms of quality. "What impresses me most about him is his quiet seriousness, his objectivity, the intellectual honesty, and his ability to look at old issues in new ways and to identify new issues," Morony says.

Shaikh's parents, from the state of Gujarat in India, were in the first wave of Muslim immigrants to the U.S., shortly after World War II. That generation established the first neighborhoods and Muslim houses of worship in America. Shaikh's generation is moving out into the mainstream, seeking a truly Muslim American identity, he says.

The subject of Muslim America is not incompatible with his interest in Granada. In the Islamic kingdoms of Spain during the Middle Ages, "Muslims, Christians, and Jews created a common culture and high civilization," Shaikh says. "It seemed an epitome of a pluralistic society."

"It's important to recognize that there is no absolutely defined political structure to which Muslims have to adhere," he says. The Qur'an's vision is large enough to embrace a society that features democracy, pluralistic religious practice, and gender egalitarianism. In the years ahead, Shaikh believes it will be important for mainstream Muslims to "speak up and say this is the consensus of the majority."