In recognition of the growing strength of Afghanistan Studies at UCLA, the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies cosponsored a recent conference of the UCLA Program on Central Asia. "From Sufis to Taliban: Trajectories of Islam in Afghanistan," held October 30–31 at the Young Research Library, explored the development of Islam in that country, a force that has paradoxically proven both unifying and destabilizing for the nation.
Cosponsored by UCLA's Asia Institute, the Center for the Study of Religion and the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the conference brought top experts on Afghanistan from across the country and the world together with graduate students whose research focuses on Afghanistan.
"Although Islam in Afghanistan may seem an obvious topic, it has been the focus of surprisingly little research," notes UCLA historian Nile Green, director of the Program on Central Asia. "The conference was dedicated to the question of 'trajectories' of Islam (or indeed, Islams) in Afghanistan: how different types of Muslim religiosity evolved, changed and competed in Afghan society from the early Islamic period to the present day.
"The speakers addressed such questions as the conversion of Afghanistan to Islam, the interaction of transnational and regional religious forms, the status of the Taliban as self-appointed "moral guardians," and the religious life of women and minorities, such as the Afghan Shi'ites."
"It's rare that these experts are ever in the same room and have the chance to speak with one another," said Nick Menzies, executive director of the Asia Institute, which houses the Program on Central Asia. "But what made the conference even more unique was that it enabled graduate students to discuss their research on Afghanistan with the top experts in the field and benefit from their advice."
In fact, the second day was devoted to presentations by graduate students from UCLA (see below), Boston University (Mohammed Omar Sharifi) and Yale (Waleed Ziad), with the latter two speakers addressing the social function of literature and the evolution of the Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood in Afghanistan, respectively.
"The visiting scholars all noted at the end of the graduate panels that it was exciting to see that the future of Afghanistan studies is in such good hands!" remarked Menzies.
An impressive array of scholars
Leading specialists in their respective disciplines, panel speakers at the conference included Arezou Azad (Universities of Oxford and Birmingham), an historian of medieval Central Asia and Afghanistan; Benjamin Hopkins (George Washington University), an historian of modern Afghanistan and British imperialism in the South Asian subcontinent; Robert McChesney (New York University), an expert on the early modern history of Iran and Central Asia; and Faridullah Bezhan (Monash University, Australia), an expert on modern Afghan fiction.
Other experts included Afghan writer and literary scholar Bashir Ansari (Southern Methodist University), a specialist in Afghan poetry; Mariam Abou Zahab (Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Paris), a sociologist whose research focuses on the interplay of politics and modern Islam in South Asia; Sonia Ahsan (Columbia University), a social anthropologist who studies gender violence in Afghanistan; andZaman Stanizai (Pacific Graduate Institute and California State University Dominguez Hills), a political scientist whose post-doctoral research has focused on Islamic mysticism.
The strong UCLA contingent at the conference included historian Nile Green, an expert on Islam in South Asia; Afghan journalist Nushin Arbabzadah, a lecturer in the UCLA Department of Communication Studies; Asma Sayeed, associate professor of Islamic Studies, who specializes in early and classical Muslim social history and education; and history Ph.D. candidates Sohaib Baig, Michael O'Sullivan and Marjan Wardaki, who addressed Afghan transnationalism by way of respective case studies on Afghanistan's intellectual and political connections with India, the Ottoman Empire and Germany in the early twentieth century.