HFC's Arab and Islamic art history courses teach heritage and dispel stereotypes

Henry Ford College is located in the hometown of the largest concentration of Arab Americans outside of the Middle East; and that is evident in a specialty of academic courses offered to its students. Arab American Fulbright scholar Dr. Hashim Al-Tawil continues to lead the Arab and art history departments with three developed courses that center on the history of the Arab people, their art, religions and culture. 

Al-Tawil, who has been at Henry Ford since 2000, also serves as a mentor and adviser to a diverse range of students at HFC. He is the advisor of the Arab Student Union (ASU) and acts as a counselor for students who wish to further their studies or transfer to other institutions. "Arab students come to me for advice and I try my best to help them carry on their educational goals," Al-Tawil said. 

"I also get many guest students who enroll from other universities, as well as graduate students who need help in their studies." Al-Tawil's specialty and scholarship focuses on the history of the Arabs as well as Islamic history, through artistic and socio-political lenses. He said he believes that through looking at the art, architecture and politics of different cultures, Arab students can discover a lot about the history of their heritage. 

"The Arab culture encompasses many religions, ethnic backgrounds and many social patterns," Al-Tawil said. "It is important that the students at Henry Ford have this depth of perspectives offered to them, which I believe these art history courses provide." 

The courses, which include the history of Arab art and architecture (art 227), history of medieval art (art 221) and the art of Islam (art 224), are especially unique because they are not always offered at other nearby institutions. One former student told The AANews that she had a unique educational experience during her time at HFC. 

"I went to Wayne State after my time at HFC and I was shocked that they didn't have any Arab or Islamic art history classes," the former student said. "I didn't realize how spoiled I was until I left. I made my brother sign up for Islamic art at HFC because I think it's important to know where you come from." Al-Tawil said his classes also draw in a large number of non-Arab and non-Muslim students. 

He noted that in recent years, students outside of the culture have flocked to his courses with a genuine interest to learn about the region. Many of them become fully invested in the courses as the semester progresses. Al-Tawil uses the opportunity to shred stereotypes about both Islam and the region, which is often misconstrued and misrepresented by the mainstream media. "I explain how Arab history is a Semitic history–encompassing all three major religious groups: Jewish, Christian and Muslim," Al-Tawil said. 

In the medieval art course, for example, students learn about the art and interactions between the three groups. Art of Islam, on the other hand, provides an overview of the formation and development of Islamic art and the relationship of the Islamic golden age to the European renaissance. "The Arab culture goes back to 1,000 BCE," Al-Tawil said. "Through certain groups, such as the Nabateans, South Arabians in Yemen and the pre-Islamic groups in Iraq and Syria, the Arab culture manifested a variety of artistic expressions and styles. 

These are the types of things students will learn in the courses." Recently, Al-Tawil developed a textbook that details the history of visual art and architecture of the Arabs, from the pre-Islamic times to the present. He said that the book, which is used in his classes, is a major step in the field of academia and research. 

It helps trace and explain the history of the Arabs, which is often misunderstood, misrepresented and overshadowed by other cultures. "The courses are aimed at shedding light on the history of Arab art and architecture and the contributions of the Arabs to the fields of visual arts, alongside other major cultures that coexisted in the region," he said. 

Enrollment for the new classes at HFC are open; visit my.hfcc.edu for more info or contact Dr. Al-Tawil at 313-845-6489 or at hal-tawil@hfcc.edu

By Samer Hijazi

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