Professor Barmash's Classroom

Understanding the Middle East beyond the headlines: Integrated studies for a global perspective

At Washington University, our integrated approach to teaching Jewish and Islamic studies helps students develop a holistic and nuanced understanding of complex global issues.

A liberal arts education ideally provides students with the tools for understanding social issues in all of their complexity, but in reality, this is easier said than done. In the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies (JIMES), we believe that an integral part of helping students develop this nuanced understanding is exposure to multiple cultures and historical and linguistic traditions.

Our courses provide excellent opportunities for students to develop this global perspective. JIMES brings together scholars from a range of fields to study the cultural, linguistic, and historical elements of Judaism and Islam, in the Middle East and throughout the world. This academic breadth and integrated approach stand out among peer institutions.

For Flora Cassen, chair of JIMES, this was a reason she was excited to join WashU last year. “I spent a number of years at the University of North Carolina, where Jewish studies was in one building and Islamic studies was in another one,” she says. “And I had no idea what my Islamic studies colleagues were working on. For me, it’s been very interesting to learn about this work at WashU.”

The diversity of perspectives in JIMES is reflected in the courses currently on offer, which include “Sacred Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent,” “Antisemitism: History, Causes, Consequences” and “Anthropological and Sociological Study of Muslim Societies.” Students can also encounter nuanced approaches to both Jewish and Islamic studies through the department’s distinctive capstone courses, which invite scholars to consider their own work in thematic and comparative terms.

In one capstone course, “Diaspora in the Jewish and Islamic Experience,” Hillel Kieval, the Gloria M. Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought, and his students investigate questions of geographic mobility and cultural identity. “These are themes that have had an impact on both Jewish and Muslim societies, and ones that encourage us to examine the commonalities and differences in their historical experiences,” said Kieval.

Another capstone, which Kieval developed in the years following 9/11, examines anti-Semitism and Islamophobia with a comparative perspective. By applying these kinds of comparative approaches to the study of religion and culture in the Middle East, JIMES offers both students and faculty a scholarly experience distinctive among universities.

“JIMES — in its various forms — has evolved over the years to be more capacious, more interdisciplinary, and inevitably more comparative,” said Kieval. “We promote solid linguistic training for our students as an entryway to the in-depth study of history, literature, religion, and society, require students to have exposure to both the Islamic and the Jewish historical experience, and teach capstone courses that approach specific issues from a comparative perspective.”

Want to explore the world with us? Please browse our courses or set up a time to speak with our Director of Undergraduate Studies.