The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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History professor to study Islam abroad

Assistant Professor of History, Dr. Nerina Rustomji, has received a fellowship grant from American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).

This $30,000 grant will help her to research her project on the concept of “houri” in Islam, and its contemporary representation.

According to Rustomji, a houri is “a being of Paradise promised to believers [of Islam] in the Qur’an.”

In Arabic, the term “hur” refers to a part in the human eye and is interpreted as “feminine beings with beautiful eyes.”
She said the ‘houri’ and her companionship is a reward for men in Paradise.

Mauricio Borrero, chair of the History department, is proud of Rustomji’s hard work.

“We are really honored and impressed because this grant is difficult to get.
“It is a prestigious grant and it reflects very well on her work as well as the department.”

Rustomji, who joined the department in the Fall 2006 semester, applied for the ACLS grant in September in addition to developing a grant proposal for her project to study in Amman, Jordan.

“This grant will give her access to materials to help her teach and can incorporate what she learned into the classroom,” Borrero added.

Her project will look into “intellectual history from medieval text and onwards, contemporary Arab and Muslim discussions about the houri, and analyze contemporary American and European media … reflections of the houri,” according to a university press release.

Rustomji’s idea for this project came about after reading an op-ed article in The New York Times by Nicolas Kristoff.

“I was so intrigued by the ways that classical Arabic philology were being highlighted in the political press,” Rustomji said.

“I wanted to study more deeply how contemporary polemics about Islam are fashioned around medieval tropes.”

Rustomji said that in America and Europe, there are misconceptions that the term ‘houri’ means the same as the term ‘virgin.’

“I think that translation distorts the spiritual purity that is inherent of the image of the houri and replaces the wider meaning with a reference to sexual opportunity with a feminine being who has not had sex,” Rustomji said.

She plans to argue this misconception through her book, The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture, which will be about the history of heaven and hell from the seventh century to the thirteenth century. The book is set to be published next year.

Rustomji, a native of Pakistan, has traveled to places like London, Paris and Syria to supplement her research.

“It has been a wonderful experience to work in different places,” she said.

“Each library, research center, city has its own opportunities and limitations, and being well versed in those environments only helps bring perspective to research,” she said.

Rustomji thinks she will “probably dive back into the medieval period” once she is finished with her project and comes back to teach at St. John’s.

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