Following a trimester-long comprehensive study of medieval Islamic society, eighth grade students demonstrated what they learned at Ross’s annual Islamic Banquet. For the past 12 years, Ross School has held this event, allowing students to experience and share the culture they’ve studied with the student body.
The Golden Age of Islam unit guides students through the medieval Islamic achievements in art, science, the humanities, and technology, as well as the culture’s lasting influence and contemporary issues related to Islam. “Understanding Islam, especially as an American, is very important, said Visual Arts instructor Jon Mulhern. “They have the opportunity to learn about a culture that is extremely important to world history, which is significant because many people don’t get the opportunity to study that culture until college.”
In Cultural History, students learned about pre-Islamic tribal society, religion, and sociopolitical and economic structures. They explored the life of Muhammad, the birth of Islam and Muhammad’s successors, and the schism that created the Sunni–Shi’a split, as well as contemporary events in the Islamic world and issues facing Muslims. During the Islamic Banquet, students demonstrated their knowledge by engaging in an interactive learning experience. Each assumed the identity of an influential Muslim leader, and they simulated a series of press conferences in character, sharing details about their lives and contributions.
In their Visual Arts courses, students became familiar with the work of famed contemporary artist Shirin Neshat, whose works explore social contrasts through topics like geography and gender. The Iranian native’s 1993 portrait series Women of Allah considers the female experience through the lens of Islamic fundamentalism in Shirin’s home country. As part of an intensely personal and illuminating learning experience, each year Ross eighth graders stage their own black-and-white photographic statements using Women of Allah as an inspiration.
After identifying 30 quotes representative of their life or personally meaningful to them, the students edit their collections to 10 and develop concepts for each, paying attention to art fundamentals like effective composition and form. Once the students select their final quote, they help each other to transcribe the Arabic translations onto their skin and participate in a photo shoot. The final collection of this year’s images was unveiled during Friday’s Islamic banquet.
“This was their chance to share something about their personal growth or any aspect of their personality they want to accentuate through their portrait,” Jon said. First year boarding student Ana Sofia Gonzalez illustrated the phrase “victims of our own feelings,” with her torso wrapped in yellow caution tape. “It was hard to choose a quote because I had so many good ones,” she said. “But I felt like this one spoke to me the most right now.”
Students also spent time during the celebration engaged in enduring leisure activities from the Golden Age of Islam with tournaments of games like checkers, chess, and backgammon. The afternoon ended with an incredible feast that included popular Middle Eastern dishes like harira, a Moroccan lamb stew; falafel; koshary, Egypt’s national dish; semolina honey cake; and baklava.