The Muslims of Harvard Research Project
It all started when...
The Muslims of Harvard is a book and exhibit research project nearly twenty years in the making, starting in the spring of 1999, during Precious's second semester of graduate school at Harvard. It all started when she came across a copy of the book The Jewish experience at Harvard and Radcliffe: an introduction to an exhibition presented by the Harvard Semitic Museum on the occasion of Harvard's 350th anniversary, September, 1986.
After reading through the book, she became fixated on the idea of doing a research project on the history of Muslims of Harvard that would produce deliverables of a book, exhibit, and perhaps even a discussion panel. To widen her perspective on approach, she also read through Finding God at Harvard: spiritual journeys of Christian thinkers and Blacks at Harvard: a documentary history of African-American experience at Harvard and Radcliffe.
Before leaving for break that summer, Precious visited the Harvard University Archives to see what might be accessible on the history of Muslims at the university and had them mail records to her parents home in Georgia where she would be staying for the summer.
Though she had only been at Harvard a year by then, she had learned enough about the history of the community to know there was a colorfully rich story to tell. Unfortunately, there wasn't much collected info to be found at the archives, though two things stood out that really piqued her interest: records of Muhammad Ali's—an honorary member of the class of 1975—visits to the campus and a newspaper clipping of a June 21, 1958, Boston Herald article that revealed how the Aga Khan IV—who had been a member of the class of 1958 before he took over as leader of the Ismaili community when his grandfather passed—had put forth finances to fund building a mosque in Cambridge, to be open to all Muslims in the city, with the plans being managed by the Harvard Islamic Society. These two finds stood out because Precious had grown up in the same national community of Muslims that Ali had been part of, and very publicly so at the time of his visits to Harvard, and some of her friends at Harvard were connected to the Shia Ismaili Muslim community, which she had only recently been exposed to the history of.
Though there was very little to be found in the archives at the time of Precious's 1999 search, she remained committed to seeing the project through—though she knew it would take a team, a lot of original research, and dedicated time. As the years passed, and other projects took precedence, she kept track of stories and documents she came across that she felt should be included in the project.
Now Precious is finally moving forward with the project, partnering with Milia Islam-Majeed and Hussein Rashid, PhD—two dear friends, the three of them all graduates of Harvard Divinity School, their stories, too, part of the greater story of Muslims at Harvard—to finally bring to fruition the vision for a publication, exhibit and discussion panel on the history of Muslims of Harvard.
It's a core team representing a broad cross section of the American Muslim community: Precious, the historian, a third generation African American Muslim, descendant of enslaved Africans in America, and raised in the Northeast, Midwest, and Deep South; Milia, a Sunni, Bangladesh-born immigrant who came to America at age seven, was raised in America's Bible Belt, her family the only Muslim one in a town of 10,000 in Missouri, and is now the executive director of the South Coast Interfaith Council (SCIC), the largest and oldest interfaith council in Southern California encompassing some 35 cities and approximately 1.8 million people; and Hussein, a born New Yorker, member of the Shia Ismaili community, religion scholar, and founder of islamicate, L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency.
A diverse team like this is bound to take an outside the box approach, not leaving anything of value out, and telling a rich story that builds community across divides. Stay tuned for the launch of the dedicated website for this project, and, for Harvard affiliates, information on how you can contribute to the research efforts.