Last fall, when the University of Calgary's Faculty of Arts introduced classes in Arabic Language and Muslim Cultures for the first time, there was an expectation that the new program would prove popular with students. After all, it was the student body that had been requesting such courses for a number of years.
Now, as the 2013-'14 school year is drawing to a close, Florentine Strzelczyk, the new vice-dean of the Faculty of Arts – who was instrumental in launching the three-year pilot program – can happily report that Arabic Language and Muslim Cultureshas not only lived up to expectations, but it has also exceeded them.
"This year has been a great success," says Strzelczyk. "We started out with four courses and had to add a fifth because there was so much demand. Now, for 2014-'15 we've added six new courses."
These include one class in classical Arabic and two intermediate Arabic courses, as well as individual classes dedicated to literature, film and civilization.
Integration with Calgary Muslim community a key goal
A primary focus of the program from its inception, in line with the Eyes High strategy, has been community outreach, with the integration of the Calgary Muslim community seen as a key component in the success of the pilot project.
An event held this month to commemorate Milad un Nabi (the birth of the Prophet Muhammad) reflected the University of Calgary's partnership with the Ismaili Muslim Council for the Prairies. Leaders from across Calgary's Muslim community attended the April 9 event, featuring keynote speaker, Prof. Ruba Kana'an, head of education and scholarly programs for the soon to be opened Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Kana'an gave a talk entitled Islamic Art, Architecture and Society.
Kana'an's prestigious academic career has included the posts of dean and research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and visiting fellow at the Aga Khan Programme for Art and Architecture at Harvard University. She was also appointed as the Noor Chair in Islamic Studies at York University.
Toronto's Aga Khan Museum will be the first museum in North America dedicated to Islamic arts and cultures.
Muslim art tells a cultural story of everyday life
Kana'an's lecture focused on what Islamic art can tell us about Islam and Muslim societies. "Showcasing and presenting Islamic art is not necessarily only a presentation of Islam as a faith," said Kana'an in an interview prior to the lecture. "Rather, it's about examining how Muslims expressed the ethics derived from their faith in their everyday life through artistic and aesthetic creations. It is exploring what art tells us about the people who created it, and what it tells us about their interaction with different cultures."
Kana'ans lecture also focused on the way in which, over the course of history, Islamic art has influenced other cultures it has touched, while also being shaped by the different cultures it's come into contact with.
Edmonton's Al-Rashid Mosque was cited as an example of this cultural exchange. Built in 1938 as Canada's first mosque, its aesthetic had more in common with a Ukrainian-Orthodox church, in keeping with Edmonton's heavy Ukrainian-Canadian population.
Art as an exchange between cultures
"Art is always expressed from the cultural context of where it's created," says Kana'an. "It's never a closed system. There's always an exchange and dialogue between cultures. When we study the art and architecture, this becomes evident."
The Kana'an lecture was exactly the sort of event the Arabic Language and Muslim Cultures program will continue to strive for, says Strzelczyk. "Community outreach is an important part of this program," she stresses. "We want to be putting on academic events that will speak to the broadness and diversity of the Muslim community."
Another Eyes High focus of the Arabic Language and Muslim Cultures program has been on internationalization. In keeping with this, the program is looking into inviting Muslim writers and filmmakers of international repute to future events.