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Visiting Faculty Fellowship

2015/2016 Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Postdoctoral Fellowship 

"When the Fringe Dwarfs the Center: Vernacular Islam beyond the Arab World"
John E. Sawyer Seminar

Program co-directors: Tony K. Stewart (Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities, Religious Studies), David J. Wasserstein (Eugene Greener, Jr. Professor of Jewish Studies, History), and Samira Sheikh (Associate Professor of History)

The Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities will host a year-long interdisciplinary Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on the theme "When the Fringe Dwarfs the Center: Vernacular Islam beyond the Arab World" during the 2015/2016 academic year. Seminar participants will trace the historical processes that have led to the development of local or vernacular Islams.

The myriad forms of vernacular Islam often develop in uneasy relationship to the projected authority of the Arab center, and to those who propose that Islam is singular, exceptional, and inherently transnational. How and why these tensions develop will be the focus of the seminar. We argue that as most Muslims live in the "fringes," we need to problematize the notions of center and periphery, the relationship of the symbolic core to its ever-expanding outlying majority, and the latter's creative adaptations of Islam. Mapping and interrogating the growth of the huge variety of vernacular forms of Islam is the necessary first step towards determining what is deemed variable and what (if anything) essential in these formations. We have identified three critical interlocking factors that should allow us to trace more effectively the historical trajectories that have encouraged successful vernacularization: adaptation by the many and varied languages of Islam, the changing nature of authority in Islam, and the expanding material environments of Islam. Each of these three will be the focus of a six-week module, with each building on the previous one, and the series will culminate in a fourth and final module that should serve as a pragmatic test case by tracing the histories of these three interrelated factors into the current growing tensions in the fringe that parallel in significant ways, but also diverge from, the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa. This last module will also examine some of the surprisingly innovative strategies that have served to offset or mitigate that series of shocks. The decision to tease out the key threads of expanding linguistic variation, the changing nature of political authority, and the oft-neglected importance of material culture in the practices of Islam should enable us to understand better the new developments across the Islamic world that have caught many people by surprise. It is not clear if we will be able to discern a pattern or patterns to this sea change, but the three threads identified here, wound together, reflect that Islam is varied, that its variety comes both from within and from contact with the world outside, and that such contact continues in the post-colonial period to affect and help shape political and cultural change everywhere in the world of Islam. Examined systematically, the strategy should provide a reasonable and common framework by which vernacular forms of Islam can be fruitfully compared.

In addition to the three seminar co-directors, the seminar will consist of six Vanderbilt University faculty members, two Vanderbilt University graduate students, and one Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow from an institution other than Vanderbilt. Scholars selected for participation will also be appointed as Warren Center Fellows for the 2015/2016 year. Fellows will receive individual research funds for participation in the program. Funds will also be available to the seminar to host an array of visiting speakers during the year that the seminar is meeting as well as a follow up program that will be planned by members of the seminar for the next academic year.

We invite applications for the Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Postdoctoral Fellowship from young scholars in all disciplines whose lively presence will help to focus our work and stimulate discussions. An applicant's Ph.D. must have been awarded between December 30, 2009 and December 30, 2014. The seminar meets weekly and will allow the Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow ample time to pursue a major research project. The combined interests of the Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow and the Vanderbilt faculty fellows will determine the exact form and content of seminar discussions.

The Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow is provided with a spacious office within the Center's own building. The fellowship pays a stipend of $50,000 and provides a research fund of $3,000 for the academic year in residence. The fellowship also provides up to $1,500 in moving expenses. Complete applications must be submitted by January 14, 2015.




For more information please contact:

Mona Frederick, Executive Director,

Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities
VU Station B #351534, Nashville, TN 37235-1534
(615) 343-6060