"Know your own stories": Introducing Islamic Studies Major Saad Shafiq

February 9, 2022 by Siri Hansen

The DSR undergraduate experience: The latest in our Q&A with a student series

Saad Shafiq graduated in the fall with a major in Islamic Studies in the Department for the Study of Religion (DSR). Along the way, he combined this major with a specialist in Philosophy, a second major in Critical Studies in Equity and Solidarity, and a minor in Indigenous Studies. Like many DSR students, Saad found inspiration across Arts & Science programs.

What brought you to the DSR?

First came Critical Studies in Equity and Solidarity courses, then I began taking Philosophy courses, and it became so clear how everything is connected. “Islamic Philosophy” (PHL336H1) leads to the study of religion; and religion is necessarily integral to “Indigenous Spiritualities and Religions” (RLG201H1, Kevin White), for instance, and to the study of Islam – and these are intertwined with ideas around gender (e.g. RLG235H1 “Religion, Gender, and Sexuality”). All of which circle back to the Critical Studies in Equity Program courses. 

In one of those courses, a professor said, “Know your own stories and your own identity.” That really struck me. ‘What do I really know about Islam?’, I thought. ‘Okay, if I’m going to be the narrator of my own story, I should first know that story.’

How is studying religion useful?

In courses with Professor Kevin O’Neill and David Perley, both emphasized that your identity and values are rooted in religion and your culture. You don’t have to be religious, of course, but, as an example: laws and understanding of justice, which are derived from a culture’s most influential religion, permeate our communities and our stories. Another example: Christian identity is so integrated into the culture of the United States that the majority of its people are essentially unaware of it. This is true not just for the U.S., but also for most G-8  countries that have a highly influential Christian identity.

Figures like Donald Trump and comparable political movements make the study of religion even more relevant. Religion is such a huge part of the identity of so many people, and that affects us all. Developing an understanding of one’s identity is crucial to the understanding of the multiple cultures of the world.

What impact has studying religion had on you?

As I mentioned, immersion in a particular religious tradition can make it harder to see its inconsistencies clearly. I am a Muslim, for example, and the Qu’ran says that heaven is under your mother’s feet, so respect her three times more than your father. Yet women are often not well treated in Islamic socio-economic systems. These kinds of contradictions and how they came about are worthy of examination.

Studying with Professor Kevin White and the late Professor Lee Maracle was also eye-opening, providing the opportunity to compare and contrast Indigenous nations’ ways of being and spirituality to those of other faiths, as a large percent of scholarly work is mostly done in a male, Caucasian viewpoint, especially of the colonized academia. Studying different points of view is an expansion of one’s mind.

Why do you recommend the study of religion to students from disciplines that might seem unrelated?

Because religion is so much more than just a religion – it’s an identity that influences all facets of a person’s life. If you are studying medicine, for example, and you’re treating an Indigenous person, then you need to be aware that medicine is very different across cultures. An appreciation of that background will certainly be helpful. Examining culture through a religious studies lens broadens your understanding of the many factors potentially at play.

Having successfully completed your degree, what advice do you have for students just beginning their path through university?

Two things come to mind. Firstly: Be prepared to question your assumptions about your goals in university and in life. If you limit your field, that will limit your mind. Diversifying your understanding will be invaluable to you in your work life and in the opportunities that arise.

Secondly: Don’t be afraid to ask advice from the DSR about its courses. The undergraduate coordinator, Professor Simon Coleman, is very approachable. Without his help, the last year would have been very difficult for me and I am very grateful for his help, especially in these difficult times.

What’s next for you?

I would like to go into social work, specifically involving solutions related to immigration and equity. I think we are at a tipping point in Canada for addressing the inequality that has been laid bare by the pandemic. In fact, worldwide, this is a crucial time.