Dr Omar Anchassi is part of the growing influx of students and staff pursuing Christian-Muslim Studies at Edinburgh. He joined the Christian-Muslim Studies Network beginning in the 2018-2019 academic year and brings to New College additional expertise in Islamic Studies.
Having cultivated interdisciplinary interests within Islamic Studies, and teaching courses titled ‘Islam Past and Present: Issues of Gender and Ethics’, and ‘Literary Classics of the Islamic World’, Dr Anchassi seems like an obvious addition to the field of Christian-Muslim Studies. His previous research project explored how the past is imagined and deployed in debates about Islamic law; this included work on the place of Christians and others in Islamic law historically, as well as broader issues of inter-confessional relations.
During undergraduate studies, he undertook a joint degree in English literature and History, then continuing to pursue graduate study in European intellectual history.
Like so many others, however, Dr Anchassi came to reconsider his trajectory in light of the Arab Spring protests that broke out in 2011.
The Arab Spring, heralding democracy inTunisia and civil war in Syria, would soon usher key discussions within Islam –not least in terms of its relationship to political power – to the forefront of worldwide debate. While Dr Anchassi felt his initial doctoral project on the development of the Malthusian Controversy was an important one, events led him to reassess his intellectual and personal priorities. What had been an interest in Islamic Studies pursued in his own time had moved to the forefront.
He started a PhD programme at Queen Mary University in November 2012, supervised by Dr Yossef Rapoport. His thesis title was ‘Fazlur Rahman (1919 – 1988) and the Reformulation of the Religious Sciences of Islam’, and his research focused on the work of Fazlur Rahman, a modernist scholar and an advocate ijtihad (contextual reasoning in Islamic law) from what is now Pakistan.
A two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Exeter University soon followed, until his appointment as an Early Career Fellow in Islamic Studies at the School of Divinity in Edinburgh.
This appointment marks Dr Anchassi’s first encounter with Islamic Studies in a Divinity context. His previous experiences were within a History department and an Arab and Islamic studies department. The University of Edinburgh, however, has made Islamic Studies a focus among other disciplines within Christian history and theology. It is an unusual approach, but one that Dr Anchassi appreciates.
‘Even though we don’t teach confessionally [at the School of Divinity], there is a great deal of space to be oneself in this environment,’ he said.
He notes already a number of advantages derived from the recent move to Edinburgh. The many library resources that come from Edinburgh’s historic role as a British centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies, for example, and the nearby Alwaleed Centre are significant.
‘I always say to my friends – it has all the amenities of a capital city, but without the drawbacks’, he said.
After a life spent mostly in London, he has embraced the unique charms of the Scottish capital.
‘It has to be said – Edinburgh really is a beautiful city, and it’s a pleasure to work here’, he said. ‘I think a multiplicity and diversity of experiences can be enriching, and I believe it is in the case of Edinburgh University’.
A full schedule of seminars, conferences, and a range of other activities where staff and students gather have contributed to a real – and in his estimation intensely valuable – sense of collegiality.
‘It’s not something I have always experienced, but at Edinburgh it’s there for the taking’, he said.
With a record number of postgraduate students this year, and a new permanent post set to open during the next academic year, Dr Anchassi sees his work as another one more step in offering a broader and more enriching teaching and research environment within Christian-Muslim Studies in Edinburgh.
The Christian-Muslim Studies Network aims to advance academic scholarship and improve public engagement with the scriptural, theological, political, and sociological aspects of Christian-Muslim relations. Students interested in applying for studies with the Christian-Muslim Studies Network should see the website for the School of Divinity or contact Dr Ralston directly.