Eight years after he earned an undergraduate degree that focused on the vagaries and vicissitudes of financial markets, Muhammad Faruque, Ph.D., has set his sights somewhat higher: The very idea of what it is to be human.
Faruque, who was born in Bangladesh and whose interests skewed toward math and science as he was growing up, earned an undergraduate degree in Financial Economics from the University of London in 2011. But he headed back east to Iran shortly afterward, to Tehran University, where he earned an M.A. in Islamic philosophy in 2014. The worldwide financial crash of 2008 had given him pause and spurred him to think about big questions in life.
“The more I was exploring, the more I became convinced that I want to change my field,” he said.
Last year, he earned a Ph.D. in Islamic thought, philosophy, and mysticism (with an emphasis on comparative thought) from the University of California at Berkeley. Since September, he has been the Graduate School of Arts and Science’s (GSAS) first George Ames Postdoctoral Fellow.
A Joint Effort to Expand Recruitment
The fellowship was jointly created by GSAS, the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, and the Office of Research as a way to advance the recruitment of scholars from underrepresented communities and showcase the value of teaching and research at a Jesuit institution.
It is also partially funded by the George Ames Endowment for Junior Faculty at GSAS, which was created by Ames, a 1942 graduate of the School of Law, the Dean of Arts and Sciences Faculty, and the Office of the Provost.
As part of his two-year-long fellowship, Faruque is working on an expanded version of his Ph.D. dissertation that is forthcoming under the title The Labyrinth of Subjectivity: Islam, Modernity, and the Formation of the Self.
“I used to think, when it comes to things that happen in our life, we can very much control them. Not just what happens in the economic and political sphere, but also in your personal life. I was very confident that I could plan and control every single movement of my life, and progress towards achieving what I wanted to achieve,” he said.
“Eventually I came to realize that all of these matters (i.e. the existential questions) hang together on our conception of selfhood or who we are, which as one medieval philosopher rightly pointed out, is the knot of the universe. Unless we know or understand ourselves fully, we will not be able to understand or make sense of all the phenomena that we observe in the external world.”
A New Concept of the Self
In Labyrinth of Subjectivity, Faruque engages thinkers from Islamic and Western philosophies, as well as leading scholars of neuroscience, to ultimately arrive at a multidimensional conception of the self that is comprised of three degrees: bio-physiological, socio-cultural, and ethico-experiential.
In addition to Western philosophers such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, René Descartes, and Michel Foucault, he includes the contributions of Islamic thinkers such as Yahya ibn Habash Suhrawardi, Avicenna, Mulla Sadra, and Muhammad Iqbal. He tackles the works of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, Walter Freeman, and famed DNA researcher Francis Crick as well, to push back against any notion of the self that is reduced to a series of cognitive abilities such as sensory perception.
“That’s a very narrow conception of the self that ignores the moral dimension. This is because to think of myself as an “I” is to already think of others, as there cannot be an “I” without a “you,” he said.
“I put forward this multidimensional conception of the self that I think would bring new options to the table for addressing some of the central concerns in the modern world, such as the nature of happiness and suffering, transhumanism, and especially, the nature of the ethical life.”
Going Beyond Stereotypes of Islam
The Ames fellowship is open to all departments; J. Patrick Hornbeck II, Ph.D., chair of the theology department, said he was honored that his is the first to host it.
“It’s very clear that understanding Islamic thought is a key goal for many of our students. Many of them are Muslim themselves, others are pursuing majors like Middle Eastern studies or political science or international studies, where a knowledge of Islam that goes deeper than just stereotypes is absolutely essential in order to think about how to build a more peaceful and constructive world,” he said.
“What Muhammed is able to do is not just provide excellent teaching in classic Islamic texts, but also to think about ways in which Islam as a tradition has encountered modern thought in all of its complexity.”
After teaching Faith and Critical Reason last semester, Faruque’s teaching Classic Islamic Text: From the Quran to the Islamic Humanities this spring; next fall he’ll be teaching a course titled Religion and the Making of the Self.
“I really enjoyed teaching my first semester. The students were very engaging. It was very much a discussion-oriented class, and I’m someone who always enjoys dialogue rather than just lecturing,” he said.
Fordham’s Jesuit roots were appealing as well, Faruque said, as he had incorporated St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises into his dissertation. He also appreciates that the University’s approach to education is holistic, rather than fragmentary.
“Teaching does not just end in class or with a course that you teach. What’s much more important is the life that is about to come, and the skills that [a student]is supposed to acquire through her time in this kind of institution,” he said.
“You do address enduring questions of human experience, and equip students to think critically, to develop practical skills for constructive intellectual dialogue across religious, cultural, and political divide, and to know one’s place in the wider world, which is essential for engagement in shifting national and global contexts. As a critical educator, I have found that anchoring diverse intellectual thought promotes greater cross-cultural learning and understanding, in addition to helping develop a global consciousness in the classroom.”