The Heights

Updated: March 09, 2017

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Foothill photo instructor awarded Fulbright to study Muslim sects in Africa

Last spring, photography instructor and department chair Ron Herman was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to research religious diversity in West Africa. Herman and 15 other scholars traveled to Senegal, a country that is 95 percent Muslim, to study how Islam is practiced there and how the Muslim majority peacefully coexists with the Christian minority. 

Most Senegalese belong to one of four Sufi Muslim brotherhoods, a mystical sect of Islam. Herman focused his research on the Muridiyyya, the most powerful brotherhood in Senegal, which blends African customs with traditional Islamic practices. For Herman, observing these practices offered an opportunity to bring more religious diversity into his classes and present a counter-narrative to the mainstream media's portrayal of Islam and Muslims.

“Because of what’s going on in our country and with the rise of Islamophobia, I felt a strong need to address this sooner rather than later,” he said. “The peaceful doctrine of the Muridyya and particularly the Baye Fall was something I felt my students should learn about to broaden their perspective of Islam and Muslims.”

Baye Fall is a subgroup of Muridyya Sufi whose main doctrines are pacifism, prayer and work. The Baye Fall’s long dreadlocks, patchwork clothing and large leather belts are symbolic of their dedication to their religion. Like many other Senegalese, they also have an aversion to the camera. Herman was allowed to photograph the brotherhood after gaining the trust of one of its members.

“When Senegal was colonized by the French, the camera played a critical role in the colonization process, the defining of the other,” Herman said. “Once I explained that photography could play a positive role in counteracting negative stereotypes, the wall came down and I was allowed access to the community and allowed to photograph freely.”

Herman’s photo exhibit, “Messengers of Peace,” will be on display in the Krause Center for Innovation (KCI) Gallery from Feb. 23 to March 30. He will give a lecture on Feb. 23 from 6-7 p.m. in Room 1501, followed by the exhibit's opening reception in the KCI Gallery. He will also host a screening of the film, “Touba,” on Feb. 28 from 2-4 p.m. in Room 1501 and a special Gallery Talk on March 8, 12-1 p.m. in the KCI.

“These kind of images shatter the preconceptions a lot of people have about Muslims,” Herman said. “What we’re learning about Islam is really only a small slice of this massive and diverse religion.” 

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