2020 Regional Meetings

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An Interview with Shafique N. Virani, the 2014 AAR Excellence in Teaching Award Winner

Shafique ViraniThe Teaching and Learning Committee is pleased to announce Shafique N. Virani is the recipient of the 2014 Excellence in Teaching Award. Virani is Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies and chair of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto. Virani will make remarks and engage questions and answers during the Special Topics Forum at this year's Annual Meeting in San Diego, California.



Dr. Shafique N. Virani is Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto, director of the Centre for South Asian Civilizations, and past chair of the Department of Historical Studies. He was previously on the faculty of Harvard University and the head of world humanities at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. After earning a joint honors degree with distinction in religious studies and Middle East studies and a master’s degree in Islamic studies at McGill University in Montréal, he completed an AM and PhD at Harvard University in Near Eastern languages and civilizations.

Professor Virani’s research focuses on Islamic history, philosophy, Sufism, Shi‘ism (Twelver and Ismaili), and Islamic literatures in Arabic, Persian and South Asian languages. He has contributed articles to the Journal of the American Oriental Society, the Journal of Iranian Studies, Iran and the Caucasus, the Encyclopaedia of Religion, The Annual of Urdu Studies and several other academic journals and books. He also served on the board of editors for the Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review. In 2007 he published a book through Oxford University Press entitled The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation.

Professor Virani’s scholarly work has received awards from UNESCO, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Middle East Studies Association, the Foundation for Iranian Studies, Harvard University, the International Farabi Prize, and the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize. He is also the recipient of the International Book of the Year Award from the government of Iran, for which he was invited to Tehran as a guest of state. His writings have been translated into Albanian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Serbo-Croat-Bosnian, and Urdu. He has acted as a consultant for several cultural organizations, including Cirque du Soleil, Lord Cultural Resources, and the Ontario Science Centre. Professor Virani is also a member of the University of Toronto’s Teaching Academy, having received the university’s President’s Teaching Award.

In his spare time, Professor Virani loves doing volunteer work. He cofounded an Arabic summer camp for Syrian youth in the mountains of al-Khawabi and also sits on the governing board of the Madrasa Resource Centre of East Africa, which administers over 200 schools and reaches out to slum dwellers and other disadvantaged communities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zanzibar. He enjoys fiction, and cowrote and acted in a Gujarati comedy, “Sui Gayo Hashe” or “He Must Have Fallen Asleep,” which was performed in Vancouver, Edmonton and the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary.

Professor Virani was recently interview by the AAR's Teaching and Learning Committee chair, Lerone Martin.

Lerone Martin: When did you know you were gifted/called to the vocation of teaching? How would you describe your “teaching life”?

Shafique Virani: I’ve loved teaching for as long as I’ve loved learning. After all, the first person you ever teach is yourself. To me, a love of teaching and a love of learning go hand-in-hand. There’s a proverb in Latin that says, “Discendo docebis, docendo disces,”(By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn). Teaching and learning are all consuming. I’m currently translating a book called the Ethics of Muhtashim by the great medieval Muslim scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi, who writes, “There is nothing more elusive than knowledge, for knowledge does not give you aught of itself unless you give it all of yourself.” Teaching and learning are not just vocations, they are a way of life. I do not teach because it is what I do. I teach because it is who I am. I simply love teaching. My students become part of my life, and after close to two decades as a professional educator, I remain in regular contact with literally hundreds of my former students. I’m convinced that we don’t merely teach subjects and topics. We teach human beings—in all their complexity.

Lerone Martin: Is there a word or a phrase that captures your pedagogy? How or why?

Shafique Virani: I’m not sure if there’s a single word or phrase that captures my pedagogy, but the phrase “like captured fireflies” certainly comes close. This is the title of a rare, almost forgotten piece written by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, partially in response to the question of his eleven-year-old son Thomas, who asked “How much longer do I have to go to school?” It was originally written for the November 1955 California Teachers Association Journal and only twelve copies were ever published. Consoling his son, Steinbeck said, “if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher and that is a wonderful thing.” He then went on to tell of a teacher who forever changed his life:

In addition to the other things, she brought discovery.
She aroused us to shouting, bookwaving discussions.
Our speculation ranged the world.
She breathed curiosity into us
so that we brought in facts or truths
shielded in our hands
like captured fireflies.

She left a passion in us for the pure knowledge world
and me she inflamed with a curiosity
which has never left me.

When she was removed,
a sadness came over us but the light did not go out.
She left her signature on us,
the literature of the teacher who writes on minds.
I have had many teachers who told me soon-forgotten facts
but only three who created in me
a new thing, a new attitude and a new hunger.
I suppose that to a large extent
I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher.
What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.

I hope to develop the type of pedagogy that so inspired Steinbeck and to be a professor who arouses such curiosity in students that they want to bring back facts or truths shielded in their hands “like captured fireflies.”

Steinbeck mused:

I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artist. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. My three had these things in common—They all loved what they were doing. They did not tell—they catalyzed a burning desire to know. Under their influence, the horizons sprung wide and fear went away and the unknown became knowable. But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and very precious.

I fully concur with Steinbeck: Teaching may certainly be the greatest of the arts. Gifted teachers don’t just tell, but ignite in students a burning desire to know, and the ability to recognize, the beauty and value of truth. This is certainly not an easy thing to do.

A few years ago, The Age, an Australian newspaper, carried an article with the derisive charge, “Teaching is not rocket science.” Professor Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education responded with wisdom and wit: “Teaching is not rocket science. It is, in fact, far more complex and demanding work than rocket science.” As a professor of Islamic studies in a post-9/11 world, I can relate. It is a delicate and intricate task to teach about a pluralistic faith spanning over a thousand years of history, countless geographies, cultures, languages, and interpretations, with over a billion diverse adherents, which is so often caricatured beyond recognition in popular discourse. However, if we can generate genuine curiosity and inquisitiveness among students, all else will follow.

Lerone Martin: Your teaching statement detailed a beautiful story about a student who learned a great deal about writing thanks to you. Do you use any special skills or exercises to help students with their writing?

Shafique Virani: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the most translated of all books in the French language, Le Petit Prince, left an incomplete work, Citadelle, which was published after his passing. One version of this posthumous publication includes the following sentence: “Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large,” which means, “If you wish to build a ship, don’t start by gathering wood, cutting boards, and assigning tasks, but rather awaken within the hearts of men a longing for the vast and endless sea.” Writing is no different. The first thing we must do is awaken in our students a passion for the subject and a yearning to share their ideas with others. If that desire is sparked, students themselves will want to improve their writing skills and to communicate effectively, becoming open to all the writing tools we can provide them. They can then see a purpose for “gathering wood” and “cutting boards,” as it were. I’ve found one of the best ways to help them reach their potential as writers is to expose them to the work of outstanding authors and thinkers.

Sadly, many pieces of academic prose are notorious for being poorly written. In February of this year, Nicholas Kristof touched a raw nerve in academia with an article he wrote in the New York Times entitled “Professors, We Need You!” He argued that our graduate programs “have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility,” and that “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals—or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.” No doubt, there is much exaggeration in this charge, and it is also a fact that by its very nature, much of what we write will only speak to a small group of specialists. However, perhaps there is something we can learn from Kristof’s allegations.

A few years ago I organized a panel and a roundtable at the conferences of the American Academy of Religion and the Middle East Studies Association respectively, and edited the papers for a special section of the Review of Middle East Studies entitled “Speaking Truth Beyond the Tower: Academics of Islam Engaging in the Public Sphere.” In his contribution, “It’s Not Just Academic—Writing Public Scholarship in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies,” Carl Ernst addresses the very nuts and bolts of writing and how we present scholarly information. An accomplished writer himself (in both the academic and literary senses of that word), he argues that we must learn to communicate in clear and meaningful ways as the gap between academia and the general public is often the function of the arcane language and style that dominate our profession. While members of the public are thirsty for knowledge in our areas of specialization, they are often scared away by the abstruse forms, conventions, and highly technical vocabulary found in what Ernst refers to tongue-in-cheek as The Journal of Obscure Studies. Unable to access reliable information hidden under lock and key in the Ivory Tower, interested nonspecialists are left to sink or swim in the uncharted waters of often questionable standard media sources of information. This is particularly true in my own field, Islamic studies. Ernst traces the obscure and deadening writing style that dominates academia to the “dissertation-ese” painfully cultivated by doctoral students seeking to satisfy the tiny cabal of professors on their evaluation committees. He proposes an alternative model, dubbed “stealth analysis,” which he elaborates in detail in his article. I make Professor Ernst’s article required reading for all my graduate students when they begin writing their dissertations. If we can train a new generation of young scholars to present razor sharp analyses of their subjects while also delivering their arguments in an engaging, lucid style of writing, we will have done a huge service to our profession and to the public at large.

Lerone Martin: You mentioned in your teaching statement that you believe constant change is imperative to becoming a better teacher. What change are you currently undergoing/undertaking/exploring in your teaching?

Shafique Virani: A world of possibilities has opened up with the new interactive online tools now available to us. We can reach far more students than we ever could before, and equally importantly, we can facilitate conversations among our students after they’ve left the classroom. I’m currently learning a great deal designing new classes that try to marry the best of the intimate classroom experience with the immense potential of reaching broader publics through multimedia and the internet.

Lerone Martin: What, do you believe, has been your most effective tool in reaching students?

Shafique Virani: The vast majority of students in our classes are there because of their deep curiosity and interest in the area that we teach. Religion is inherently a fascinating subject. It was a sense of wonder that drew me to the study of religion in the first place, a feeling of overwhelming curiosity, particularly about questions posed by the great religions since the dawn of time—questions about justice, ethics, truth, history, and the purpose of human existence. The same search motivates our students today. The fact that students are there for the sake of learning, and not simply to fulfill some sort of academic requirement, is a huge asset. We can have no greater tool in reaching students than the fact that they are longing to learn.

Lerone Martin: What, do you believe, is your major contribution to the profession of teaching?

Shafique Virani: It’s perhaps easier to speak of what the profession has given to me, rather than the reverse. For those who love learning, it’s a privilege and an honor to teach, because we are blessed with the opportunity, with every new class and every new student, of learning and gaining a fresh and deeper understanding of our subject.

Lerone Martin: What, if any, advice do you give all your students and/or junior faculty just beginning their teaching careers?

Shafique Virani: Every year, immediately before the final exam, I share with my students the remarks made by His Highness the Aga Khan at the opening of a school in Kyrgyzstan, which have influenced me and reflect my own teaching philosophy:

What students know is no longer the most important measure of the quality of education. The true test is the ability to engage with what they do not know, and to work out a solution. The second dimension involves the ability to reach conclusions that constitute the basis for informed judgments. The ability to make judgments that are grounded in solid information, and employ careful analysis, should be one of the most important goals for any educational endeavor. As students develop this capacity, they can begin to grapple with the most important and difficult step: to learn to place such judgments in an ethical framework. Therein lies the formation of the kind of social consciousness that our world so desperately needs.

It is this last stage, so often celebrated in the lofty mission statements of universities, which is most commonly ignored and lost. In order to move students to help change our world for the better, we as teachers need to motivate them beyond simply clicking the “like” button on Facebook. Sound reasoning, cogent evidence and logic are, of course, essential; but they are not enough. In her 2012 Commonwealth Lecture, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells us “logic can convince but it is in fact emotion that leads us to act. Realist literature reminds us of this, that we are not a collection of logical bones and flesh. That we are emotional beings. That dignity and love matter as much as bread and water.” Inspiring students to greatness means touching both their heads and their hearts. Columbia University’s celebrated educationist Jack Mezirow posits that all learning is change, but not all change is transformation. I would add that all teaching is change, but not all change is transformative. Our goal in teaching should be to create a transformative experience that will stay with students for the rest of their lives.


You are invited to join in conversation with Shafique N. Virani at the Annual Meeting in San Diego on Sunday, November 23 from 1:00 PM–2:30 PM at the Hilton Bayfront, Room 520. View his teaching material on the AAR website at