October 13, 2011

Emory Profile

Florian Pohl: Broadening perspectives

Florian Pohl

Florian Pohl, assistant professor of religion at Oxford College since 2007, teaches courses including an introduction to the academic study of religion, Western religious traditions, Islam and sacred texts.  He also teaches elementary Arabic. 

A native of Hamburg, Germany, Pohl received his master's degree in theology  from the Universitaet Hamburg and his PhD in religious studies from Temple University. His research interests have focused largely on Islam but also on the pedagogy of religion and religion in the public sphere.  In 2010, he was named an Emory Distinguished Teaching Scholar.

Pohl talks with Emory Report about Islam, Indonesia and inquiry.

How did your path bring you to teaching religion?

I actually started out as an undergraduate engineering student.  In Germany, engineering education is structured so that students spend half of their study working in the field, in my case, with a large international petroleum company, and half time in a university.  The more I worked in the engineering field, the more I realized it was not the profession for me.  However, during my studies at the Universitaet Hamburg, I took some courses in Christian theology and decided to turn my academic focus toward religion. 

How did you become interested in the study of Islam?

While I was working on my diplom theologe (German master's degree), I received a teaching assistantship with the university's department of education. In Germany, religion is taught in state schools—there is not the kind of separation of church and state that there is in the U.S.—and universities are responsible for the training of teachers of religion... While I was in the assistantship, there was a movement toward making the teaching of religion in the schools less about confessional religion, the study of basic beliefs, and more about dialogue and the consideration of other religions. The second largest religious group in Hamburg was the Muslim community, and I began to study it and make contacts there. By the time I came to Temple University for my PhD, these experiences influenced me to focus my research on Islam, religion in the public sphere and religious education. 

Your research has focused primarily on Islam in Indonesia.  Why there?

Indonesia was ideal for my study of the intersection of religious education and religion in the public arena ... A predominantly Muslim country, Indonesia was considering how it could combine political change with the expression of Islam after the departure of President Suharto. I studied how this was carried out in pesantren, Muslim boarding schools that traditionally have focused exclusively on the study of Islam. This was near Yogyakarta, and I still am affiliated with the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University, also in Yogyakarta.

You received Oxford's Rackley-Gregory Grant for Faculty Development and used it to return to Indonesia last summer.  What did you do while you were there?

I studied tajwid, the recitation of the Qur'an, at a pesantren on the island of Java, where my doctoral research was done. I concentrated on increasing my technical skills and memorization. It was a challenge, but it was very rewarding as a teacher, scholar, and fellow human seeking to understand a religion other than my own. The Muslim view of the Qur'an is that its power and sacredness are connected to its sounds, its recitation.  That is very different from the Christian, especially the Protestant, view of the Bible.  The reading of the Qur'an is for Muslims a taking in of God, much like communion is for Christians. I wanted to understand that better. My time there offered rich opportunities for what some scholars of religion have termed a "passing over" into another's religious experience and then coming back broadened.

As a non-Muslim, what do you bring to the study of Islam in the classroom?

I believe that I can be a kind of translator for my students; I can help bring to them both the insider and outsider perspective. One of the biggest tasks is trying to make the strange more familiar. The goal is to help students reach a point at which they say, "I understand this better." That is true of any kind of scholarship. 

You have been instrumental in implementing Oxford's new inquiry-based (INQ) curriculum. Why is it important for Oxford?

This is an important expression of Oxford's commitment to liberal-art intensive education. By the time this year's freshmen finish their general education requirements at Oxford and continue to Emory College or the professional programs on the Atlanta campus, they will have taken a minimum of three INQ courses. These are designed to introduce students to the specific ways knowledge is pursued in each discipline through active engagement in the discipline's methods of analysis. INQ courses start with questions, are student-centered and often collaborative, and they place increasing responsibility on students for their own learning.  Students not only experience each discipline's distinctiveness but also move beyond its boundaries to understand connections with other disciplines and fields.  It is exciting to participate in this enriching new direction for our curriculum.

File Options

  • Print Icon Print

Related Information