MSU Library Facilitates Conversations about Islam in Mid-Michigan

Participants discuss the Muslim Journeys program
  • Deborah Margolis, M.L.S., M.A.
  • Middle East Studies and Anthropology Librarian
  • Michigan State University Library
  • Mohammad Khalil, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies
  • College of Arts and Letters
  • Director, Muslim Studies Program
  • International Studies and Programs
  • Adjunct Professor, MSU College of Law

The National Endowment for the Humanities created the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys project to give libraries and other institutions a set of resources that can be used to explore the Muslim world.

Structured as a grant, the Bookshelf is a collection of 25 books and three films "curated to present to the American public new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, practices, and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world" (from the Bridging Cultures website). The Bookshelf includes familiar works, such as The Arabian Nights and the poetry of Rúmí, as well as personal memoirs, histories, a graphic novel, and books that explore the Qur'an, the hajj, and Islamic art.

The Middle East Studies and Anthropology librarian successfully applied for the Bridging Cultures Bookshelf and followed that up by obtaining a more competitive grant from the NEH to create programming based on the American Library Association's "Let's Talk About It" model for scholar-led discussion groups.

"The American Library Association's public programming office administered this grant," Margolis said. "They provided a lot of the resources but also the ‘Let's Talk About It' model, where there are five sessions, ideally two weeks apart. It's a somewhat intensive experience."

Early on, Margolis talked with librarians at the Capitol Area District Library (CADL) and the East Lansing Public Library (ELPL) about the grant. Subsequently, both libraries applied for and received the Bookshelf, and Margolis has held Muslim Journeys events at those libraries.

Aside from the book or film being discussed, the most distinctive characteristic of these discussion groups is the involvement of a scholar. "We always have a scholar, usually an MSU professor but it could be someone else, explaining the film or book, either introducing it or leading discussion afterwards," Margolis explained. "Everyone who comes is able to interact with that MSU scholar and learn more through the discussion."

2017-2018 Great Michigan Read

This October, a new round of Muslim Journeys scholar-led book discussions gets underway with a discussion of X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon. "The book is this year's Great Michigan Read from the Michigan Humanities Council," Margolis said. "That's another partnership."

According to the Michigan Humanities Council, it is an effort that aims to connect and deepen the understanding of our state, our society, and humanity. A statewide panel of teachers, librarians, community leaders, and book lovers select the Great Michigan Read every two years, and then provide several opportunities to meet the authors, partner, present, and attend book-related programs.

"The title looks at Malcolm X's adolescent years. It's written by one of Malcolm X's daughters along with a young adult writer. It's about his early life, a lot of which is based in Lansing," said Margolis.

For more information, visit Muslim Journeys, available through the MSU Libraries website.

Since 2014, the library has held one event near the end of the fall semester, as a teaser, and the remaining four sessions during the spring semester. Margolis explained that each evening program begins with a short welcome and then a 25- to 30-minute lecture from a scholar. A book discussion group follows, organized around guided questions. (If there are more than 30 participants, they are divided out into smaller discussion groups.) Then the event ends with a reconvening of the whole group, questions with the scholar, and a wrap-up.

One of the resources participants have drawn upon is the Michigan eLibrary, known as MeLCat. Book clubs often lead to a run on books, but MSU Library's small number of copies has not limited participant access to the Bookshelf. Many people will buy copies of their own—the library coordinated with local independent bookstores (Schuler's and Everybody Reads) to make sure the book was in stock—and other people borrow them from the nearby CADL and ELPL, which also carry the book. The rest can request copies online through MeLCat, which will find available titles at libraries throughout the state and deliver them to the patron's home institution, at no charge to patrons.

Margolis has been very satisfied to see a diverse group in attendance over the years. "One thing that makes me proud about all this programming is that it attracts both a campus and community audience, really wide range of age," she said. "This last series of book discussions attracted participants from age 12 to over 100 years."

The Academics

Mohammad Khalil, the director of MSU's Muslim Studies Program, has worked with Margolis from the start to develop the program. Khalil and Margolis—with a group of Muslim Studies faculty who advised on books and films—choose media for the book club. The first year, they chose a list that had been assembled by the NEH called "Pathways of Faith." Since then, Khalil has worked with Margolis to create their own lists based on themes they think will attract participants.

Early on, Khalil was also the scholar leading the discussions. Since then they have found others with different areas of expertise to present at the gatherings. They also find graduate students with a connection to Muslim studies to facilitate the breakout groups. Following the "Let's Talk About It" model, Margolis trains them on using guiding questions to create meaningful discussion.

"It's amazing. We bring together scholars, students, and community members, and everybody benefits from it in their own way," Khalil explained. "As a professor, I benefit from, first of all, just learning about these books. And then, I also learn from the conversations that we have. You have so many different people, and they each have something interesting to share, and you get different perspectives."

The Community

Thasin Sardar is the outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of East Lansing. He became involved in the project when Margolis reached out to ask if the Islamic Center would help promote the project. As a result, he has attended events from the start.

"Pew research polls show that people who have met a Muslim have overcome any misconceptions or even fears that they may have had," Sardar said. "As a Muslim, I feel the program helps in dispelling the fear of the unknown."

From that standpoint, Sardar said that Muslim Journeys provides a lot of valuable information—through interaction with others and the sharing of firsthand experiences—for people who may not have been exposed to accurate and well-considered information about Islam and Muslims. And it's not just non-Muslims who learn from the program's books and films and the conversations that follow.

"Islam is one, but Muslims come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and countries," Sardar said. "Muslim Journeys has brought in various authors and musicians and poets—people who have written or spoken about Islam and Muslims, some of whom may not necessarily be Muslims but are experts on Islam by virtue of writing books and their research. This has opened quite an expanse of knowledge for Muslims too."

  • Written by Matt Forster, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of Louis Villafranca, MSU Libraries

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