March 13, 2006
La Salle Professor Shows That Studying Islam Supersedes Race, Religion or Gender
Vivienne Angeles, Ph.D., does not fit the prototype for an Islamic expert: most are Muslims and male. Angeles’ background reflects her atypical standing — as a Filipino, Catholic woman, she is a minority within the sphere of academia, but the La Salle University Religion professor possesses a vital quality that supersedes race, religion or gender — an insatiable desire to absorb the complexities of one of the world’s most prominent religions.
“Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today, and yet continues to be the most misunderstood,” said Angeles, who has taught fulltime at La Salle for five years. “Understanding Islam is a challenge for two major reasons: First, our view of Islam and the Muslims is mediated by media images, by centuries old stereotypes and prejudices, and by positions taken by governments.”
“Second, Islam does not have a monolithic structure that defines who is the official interpreter - or what is the official interpretation of religious texts. In addition to these two, there are myriad cultural variations that account for the diversity of Islam. But when we see the powerful images on TV, it gives the wrong impression that this is what Islam is all about. At the same time, the West is also misunderstood in the Muslim world. In these situations, we really need to exert more efforts in understanding and engaging each other, and I believe the academe has a big role in making this possible,” she said.
Angeles developed an interest in Islam early in her education. Born in the province of Rizal, she received a B.A. in political science from the University of the Philippines before coming to the United States to do graduate work at Kansas State University. She returned to her home country and soon began teaching at her alma mater’s Quezon City campus, teaching classes at the university’s Asian Center. “I indicated my interest in Islam, and my willingness to do further studies on the subject,” she said. Angeles subsequently earned her doctorate in religion from Temple University.
One of her motivations was rooted in the position itself — the teacher who previously held it resigned to organize the Moro National Liberation Front (MNFL), a militant group that sought to establish an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines (they have since signed a peace treaty with the government). While the Philippines is more than 80 percent Catholic, there is a small but prominent contingent of Muslims in the southern part of the country.
“I was curious about why (MNLF) was saying that they were engaged in a jihad,” said Angeles. “I wanted to find out the connection between politics and religion.”
Recently, more and more Filipino Catholics have been converting to Islam. This is of particular interest to Angeles, who has been published in academic journals and often gives speeches regarding Islam in Asia. She touches upon this issue, among others, in her courses. Many students are engaged by the multi-faceted qualities of the faith.
“Reactions vary, but there is an underlying curiosity about Islam,” Angeles said. “Over the years, a number of students have told me that my courses opened them up to a better understanding of Muslims.”
Despite her experience, Angeles has run into some problems in her studies. Some Muslims have been hesitant to speak with her.
“Whenever I do research in the Philippines, I encounter Muslims who find it difficult to believe that a Catholic is so involved in Islamic studies,” she said. “Some think that only a Muslim can teach Islam, in the way that some think only Catholics can teach Catholicism.” Regardless, most react positively after realizing her grasp of Islamic teachings. “[Many Muslims] said they were pleased to meet a Catholic who has made an effort to learn about their religion,” Angeles explained.
Islam is constantly changing, but Angeles’ dedication to understanding its often-controversial nature remains steadfast. “I prefer to call myself a student of Islam rather than an expert,” she said. “I see myself as a perennial student because there is always something to learn in the field.”
-- Drew Lazor