“I would say that studying architecture at the American University of Beirut left the deepest mark on me.” – 5in10 with Nada Moumtaz
Nada Moumtaz is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University and currently Fellow of the program Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME). Her research focuses on Islamic law and charity practices and their modernization in today’s Beirut.
What was surprising to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
My family used to spend the summers in the mountains to escape the heat of Beirut. Because of the war, a lot of the houses, mansions, and farms around us were deserted. These abandoned buildings piqued my curiosity: what was going on in there? Were they haunted? Were people hiding there? With my cousins, we would go on “exploration” trips to these buildings, and I felt like I was in one of the adventure novels I used to devour. That was not a case of something surprising but it was intriguing…
I have been always interested in learning about different ways of living. Also since I was a child, I loved meeting and talking to strangers, particularly people with whom I did not usually interact, people of different class backgrounds, or who were older than me. It is a habit that has often stressed my parents out, and still does.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator („elevator pitch“)?
I work on Islamic charity and economics as aspects of the Islamic revival. These rarely make it to research agendas because certain other features of the revival, like the veiling of women or ‘political Islam,’ create a lot of anxiety for the West and monopolize discourse. Nonetheless, I am interested in them because they are essential to imagining a different way of thinking about the economy and to understanding the Islamic tradition today. While there is a revival of certain charitable practices that had to a certain degree disappeared in the modern world, these practices cannot be the same practices that existed beforehand, since the way we think about economy and charity has changed so much with the rise of capitalism. So this revival is also about the reinterpretation of Islamic tradition and key concepts in the tradition, to which I think that Muslims today and scholars of Islam should be more attuned.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
I would say that studying architecture at the American University of Beirut left the deepest mark on me. It really transformed my outlook and my interests, and it gave me the tools to pursue what I was interested in. The Department of Architecture and Design (ArD) in the mid-nineties and early two thousands was a vibrant intellectual, activist, and creative space, with amazing professors: debates about the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, campaigns around the classification of heritage buildings, a film club that was not afraid to take risks, people reading and discussing Lefebvre, Harvey, Bourdieu, and Foucault. Between design studio and research on the social dimensions of space, ArD allowed me to get out of my social milieu and explore spaces, meet people, and become much more aware of inequality and the limits of my own worldview.
How is it to do research in Germany?
The resources and the intellectual exchanges that EUME allows have been very inspiring to my writing. It has been quite interesting though to go to talks in Berlin because I enjoy being in a place where the distinction between academics and public intellectuals is not taken as a given.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
I wish that the anthropology of Islam showed a greater appreciation of the value of familiarity with the Islamic tradition, and that scholarship in Islamic studies was less empiricist, and more directly engaged the theoretical assumptions that always inform research. Perhaps that is a lot to ask in this time of proliferation and overabundance of information, but since we are wishing!