Mashal Saif, assistant professor of religion, is standing near a field.

Mashal Saif’s scholarship explores the intersection of politics and the Islamic faith. Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Students often walk into Mashal Saif’s introductory Islam class at Clemson University with misconceptions, but also open minds.

Some may arrive with a litany of stereotypes. Saif, an assistant professor of religion, lists some common assumptions to which students may have been exposed: “that Muslims are terrorists, that they’re terrible to women, that they live in undeveloped countries.”

Saif disrupts that narrative. “It’s incredibly important to me that students recognize that Muslims are a highly diverse group,” she said. “I want students to recognize their humanity and realize that Muslims are everywhere, including right here in Clemson.”

Saif’s courses explore Islam through writings and textbooks, but her students also visit a local mosque and chat informally with Muslim guest speakers.

She exposes the class to a variety of different individuals: Some are recent converts, others come from families that have been Muslim for generations. Students also visit her class to discuss their experiences of being Muslim in America.

“Students get to connect with Muslims on a human level, finding similarities and recognizing differences, but respectfully and thoughtfully,” she said. “They’re happily surprised, for instance, that the mosque always has snacks for them, surprised by the hospitality they experience.

“I want them to know that Islam is not something that is far away, somewhere else, but right here,” she added. “It furthers their understanding of Islam’s diversity.”

Saif, who was born in Pakistan and came to the United States at age 17 for college, is the only professor at Clemson who teaches courses on the Islamic faith, though some other instructors touch on Islam indirectly.

In addition to her introductory course on Islam, Saif teaches a course on the Quran. Here, too, Saif introduces the students to multiple interpretations of Islam and its scripture.

“We look at the debate over how to understand a religious text,” Saif said. “You see the same thing with Christianity. Understandings of Christianity have shifted so much in the past 200 years. Two hundred years ago, slavery was being justified using the Bible. Now, we’ve moved to a point where it’s just the exact opposite.

“That sort of debate is also true for Muslims. Muslims contest what the Quran means,” she added. “The individuals whose interpretations of the Quran we read in class consider themselves incredibly devout Muslims and close-readers of the Quran, but they have very different understandings of what it is – as is true of any religious tradition.”

Beyond her teaching and scholarly work, Saif has spoken frequently about Islam to academic audiences at venues such as Columbia University and the University of Notre Dame and local audiences at Clemson-area churches and the Alliance Theater in Atlanta.

Saif began teaching at Clemson in 2014, shortly after receiving her Ph.D. in Islamic studies at Duke University. She earned a master’s degree, also at Duke, in Islamic studies after earning a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, Asian studies and international studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Courses focusing on religion are housed within the department of philosophy and religion at Clemson.

“While they often adopt very different approaches, philosophy and religious studies share a deep and abiding interest in the big questions that other disciplines don’t address directly,” said Kelly Smith, interim chair of the philosophy and religion department. “What is the point of life? How should we treat one another? How can we find ultimate truth?”

Exploring religion and the state

Saif’s research centers on the intersection of politics and religion, with a focus on Pakistan.

Saif is a strong believer in fieldwork. Just as she has students visit a mosque, Saif often talks with Muslim clerics on-site in Pakistan.

“I spent two years at various religious seminaries,” she said. “I have had frequent conversations with clerics to supplement my analysis of their writings because a text only conveys so much about a group of individuals.”

Her first monograph, “The ‘Ulama in Contemporary Pakistan: Contesting and Cultivating an Islamic Republic,” explores how traditional Muslim clerics (the ‘ulama) work cooperatively – but also antagonistically – with the nation-state. The book is forthcoming.

Though her book focuses on Pakistan, most nations and religions grapple with similar issues, she said.

“The birth of self-declared Islamic nation-states is one of the most significant events in recent Islamic history,” Saif said. “It radically alters the relationship of ‘ulama with political entities and marks the emergence of an actor that demands sovereignty, commands religious authority and presents its own version of Islam to the citizenry.

“Given the ‘ulama’s centuries-old role as religio-legal experts, most ‘ulama view an Islamic nation-state as a competing religious actor; however, many simultaneously view it as a religious obligation. This is the first book that studies how contemporary ‘ulama – navigating between idealism and their lived realities – engage with the currently most populated Islamic nation-state: Pakistan.

Global phenomenon

“This is a global phenomenon – how religious individuals wrestle with the nation-state,” Saif said. “It’s a question one can ask of Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. Religious leaders recognize there’s something incredibly powerful about the nation-state, which designs the education system, makes laws and deeply impacts the citizenry in numerous ways.”

Saif began the book as far back as 2006 but adds that, “It’s a book that I’ve been working on my whole life in some ways.”

She has returned to Pakistan, her chief subject, for 15 of the past 18 summers. Her strong ties with the country are not only for professional reasons; her parents and many other relatives still live there.

Saif speaks three languages — English, Urdu and Arabic — as well as a bit of Punjabi.

Her scholarly articles have appeared in a variety of journals: Modern Asian Studies, The Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies, Islamic Studies, Fieldwork in Religion, Annali and Thinking About Religion. She also authored several book chapters, book reviews and encyclopedia articles.

At Clemson University, Saif has received multiple research awards this year, including a CU SEED Grant and a Lightsey Fellowship. And within the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, she was the sole recipient of the Dean’s Excellence in Research Award and was the CAAH nominee for the University’s Junior Researcher of the Year.

Saif’s teaching at Clemson has includes specialized topics such as Islamic law, and Islam and the West.

All of her classes emphasize the richness of the Islamic faith.

“Just as in Christianity, there are so many different strands of Islam,” she said. “Students are not coming out of my classes with one single version of what Islam is.”