For Edward E. Curtis IV ’93, studying Islam wasn’t always the plan. But when he arrived at Kenyon and took a class with Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel, something clicked. “This was not some small field affecting just a few people,” Curtis remembered realizing. “This was as important as any other subject in human knowledge. And that passion certainly transferred from him to me.”
Now a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, Indianapolis, Curtis is the author of 14 books and the recipient of two Emmy awards for his work on “Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History” (2022). And he’s far from the only former student of Schubel’s finding success in the field of Islamic studies.
This past weekend, eight scholars in the field — all Kenyon alumni — returned to campus to celebrate the publication of “Across the Worlds of Islam” (Columbia University Press, 2023), a text edited by Curtis as a way to celebrate his former professor. “It started as a way to honor Vernon Schubel,” said Curtis. “And we decided that the best way to honor him would be to invite him to join us in an edited volume that he would anchor.”
The conclusion of the book, penned by Schubel, is titled “Let the Margins Be the Center” — a sentiment that feels indicative of his teaching legacy. “Rather than focusing on the majority, (Schubel) tried to take a holistic approach to the worldwide community of Muslims,” said Curtis. “And that is a defining characteristic of this work and of the work of many of his students.”
Schubel, who joined the Kenyon faculty in 1988, was most looking forward to reconnecting with former students during the weekend’s festivities, in addition to playing music with his son Mehmet Ali. (The duo can often be found playing folk rock sets in Mount Vernon and Gambier.) “My students are my intellectual legacy, and they make me feel like my career here has been indeed worthwhile,” said Schubel.
The alumni who contributed to “Across the Worlds of Islam” are diverse in age and experience — their graduation years range from 1992 to 2019 — yet the ethos of spotlighting minoritized and marginalized populations is apparent throughout the scholarship. The book, initially titled “Loving the Margins of Islam,” spans a variety of undersung topics, all connecting back to a central thread of Schubel’s teaching: centering the edges of a diasporic population.
“I find myself in a chain of transmission, in Arabic a silsilah, connecting me both to my teachers, who include Azim Nanji, Abdulaziz Sachedina and Victor Turner, and my students,” said Schubel. “I am incredibly proud to have been some small part of their development.”
In Saturday’s keynote lecture, Curtis delved into the importance of spotlighting communities throughout the Islamic diaspora. A Midwesterner, he focuses much of his work around Muslim communities in middle America. “The most popular question of my youth was: What are you? Not who are you. What are you?,” he told the Oden Hall audience, referencing his childhood in southern Illinois. “One of the ways that we can fight against a narrative that looks back on the Midwestern rural past and sees some sort of white nationalist utopia is to claim the stories that are right there buried underneath just the surface level of the soil on which we are living.”
Though Curtis was used to collaborating with the alumni contributors online, this was the first time many of them, all connected by their former instructor, were meeting in person. “These ties that link Vernon’s students across three decades, two or three decades of work,” said Curtis, “that's a remarkable kind of community making.”