Sadaf Jaffer is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University.
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I’ve always had a passion for the arts. As a child growing up on the north side of Chicago, I loved the beautiful street murals that decorated my neighborhood. My proudest achievement in high school was playing the part of Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After I started college at Georgetown University, my artistic bent manifested itself as an interest in learning and performing South Asian and Persian dance.
I suppose it’s no surprise then that my research and teaching also focus on the arts. In my college literature and history courses, I was exposed to voices from Muslim societies I had never heard before. Even Rumi, who is well known in the US, is usually divorced from his context as a Muslim poet. It is odd that of all the religious traditions of the world, Islam is singled out and defined by what Muslims purportedly can and cannot do, as if the religion and its history is simply a list of dos and don’ts. To be honest, I feel like I was deprived of knowledge about the artistic and literary heritage of Islamic civilizations. I believe that this heritage calls into question the bland, authoritarian vision of Islam that both fundamentalists and Islamophobes promote.
Inspired by teachers and professors who opened my eyes to the diverse voices and experiences of Muslims, I decided to follow in their footsteps and pursue an academic career. I’ve had the privilege of pursuing a PhD at Harvard and teaching as a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford and now Princeton University. This past semester I taught a course at Princeton on Islam in South Asia through literature. What made this teaching experience especially powerful for me was engaging with my students as they reflected on poetry. One day, we read a ghazal by the poet Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) and my students were struck by this couplet: “Whose Kaaba? What prayer-niche? Where is the sacred space? Which pilgrimage robe? / From here in our beloved’s lane, we have bid farewell to them all.”
Are Muslims even allowed to say such things? Is it okay to be so passionately in love that you reject outward signs of religion? Could love itself be seen as the ultimate form of worship? Actually, yes. In their exploration of the human experience Muslim writers and artists have expressed all sorts of ideas that some might now see as contradicting their impoverished understanding of Islam. In premodern literature these were very common themes. In fact, it was through literary texts that most Muslims throughout history received their moral education.
In addition to teaching, I’m currently writing a book about Urdu writer and Indian cultural critic Ismat Chughtai. She is now best known for writing the 1942 short story “The Quilt” which featured a sexual relationship between two women. My goal is to understand Chughtai as a secular Muslim thinker, someone who can help us question our assumptions about authority and the limits of thought in modern Muslim societies. Rather than only listening to the voices of rigidly defined religious leaders and texts, I encourage readers to engage with voices in the arts and literature to truly understand Muslim and South Asian societies more broadly.
This semester I’ll be teaching a course on South Asian American literature and film. I hope that the stories my students encounter will cause them to question and enrich their understanding of what it means to be American. And here I am, sharing a bit of my story as a South Asian American Muslim woman. The story of every Muslim woman in the US will be different. Perhaps if we get to know each other as individuals rather than speaking in terms of generalities, we will better appreciate the unruly, diverse, empowering worlds of women in the USA.