Study tour offers insight, immersion into Islam

View of Istanbul from Suleymaniye Mosque
A black and white image, taken by Elise Stephenson, shows the view of Istanbul from the Suleymaniye Mosque

by Elise Stephenson

Experiential learning is at the heart of Griffith University’s Muslim World Study Tour.

Travelling to Malaysia, Turkey, Spain and Morocco, meeting top-level politicians and media figures, and engaging in various cultural activities and traditions, I am entering new worlds.

Led by Associate Professor Halim Rane, our cohort for this month-long immersion into Muslim life comprises 10 undergraduate students and one post-graduate, all representing the School of Humanities.

Beginning in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, we observe a big city, modern and resplendent in steel and glass and with many successful businesses. Malaysia has a development-oriented Islamist government and a society that values harmony above all else.

Malays are born Muslim, a status they can never relinquish. Mosques seat thousands and the veil is worn by most women. It feels peaceful and the community bonds are strong, although the institutionalisation of religion is inescapable.

Here in Malaysia, is this the real Islam?

Elise Stephenson
Elise Stephenson

In Turkey, women have the opportunity to pray unseparated, albeit behind the men in centuries-old mosques. However, most choose to remain behind partitions off to the side or in the balconies.

This is a secular society with an Islamic party elected to lead. In a nation where choice is key, by giving people the option of religion and religiosity the Islam that emerges feels sincere and genuine.

Here in Turkey, is this the real Islam?

In Spain, nestled in an old quarter of Granada, a whitewashed and red-roofed mosque is built in the style of the quaint houses all around and refrains from the 6am call to prayer. This is a gesture of peace and goodwill for the neighbours.

Signal to a forgotten empire

The mosque encourages visitors and sits proudly opposite the famous Alhambra, the palace buildings and fortress walls of which are like a signal to a forgotten empire. The mosque is a community centre and feels right at home nestled in the Andalusian foothills.

Here in Spain, is this the real Islam?

In Morocco, while we are ensconced in our Marrakech inn, the 6am call to prayer rings out through the streets. It is haunting and beautiful. The sky is still dark as people shuffle through narrow alleyways towards the local mosque or prayer room.

By day the streets bustle with shoppers, tourists and locals mingling among stores full of leatherwork, vegetables and dried fruits. But atprayer time, shopkeepers lay sticks across their store entrances or use large objects to obstruct doorways. There is trust and familiarity as they head off to prayer, their stores and goods respectfully left be.

Here in Morocco, is this the real Islam?

Across the Muslim world, no mosque looks the same, no community is woven the same way and Islam is neither practised nor manifests identically. Islam is a common bond, not a series of carbon copies.

However, trying to pinpoint what Islam is, and what its effect has been on each country, is challenging. For while the more obvious elements feeding into a country’s religion act as a gateway, or a glimpse, they are never the full picture.

So, what am I really seeing when I study each of these countries and experience what they have to offer? Culture, I think.

In societies where Islam has been a part of the community for so long, cultural and religious traditions have mingled and mixed and, like two colours of paint, cannot be separated to return to their original states.

Religion is appropriated by society and adopted and practised in different ways. Accordingly, what I have absorbed on this study tour cannot be understood through anything other than experiential learning.

Greater depth of understanding

As a result, I feel I have a greater depth of understanding of Islam and Muslims, and not just with regard to cultural sensitivities. In my head I have smashed media-created stereotypes, generalisations and misconceptions.

I have spoken with a former Prime Minister of Malaysia to gain his opinion on what an Islamic state is, and where he thinks the future of gender equality rests.

In talking to the foreign minister of Turkey about regional issues, cultural problems and political futures, no reference to Islam needs to be made because it is so integral to life there.

I have met religious leaders, explored beautiful mosques and gained an insight into the intricacies of living Islam. I have participated in debates and discussions with students and academics about the future with regard to all religions, cultures and societies.

As for my future, that path is now considerably altered and, I believe, enhanced by new knowledge and understanding that I can apply to a range of options.

Furthermore, the fact that Associate Professor Halim Rane had the inspiration, motivation and dedication to create a program like the Muslim World Study Tour is another testament to the quality of education and experience I have gained at Griffith University.

I cannot state more strongly the importance of programs like this or the support for those students who undertake them.

This one has expanded my world and the worlds of others.

Elise Stephenson is studying a double degree in Asian Studies and Communications at Griffith University