By Jess Dankenbring, ’17

When most people think about Islam, they leap to sharia law or the Middle East. Dreams and visions rarely enter the picture. But assistant professor of religious studies Mimi Hanaoka's First-Year Seminar, Dreaming of the Prophet, aims to help students understand the role of dreams and the impact of Islam in the world.

"Dreams and visions are a huge part of the religious life of Islam," Hanaoka says. "So we look at where these ideas about dreams and visions come from, why they have meaning, and what concrete consequences they have. Lots of concrete things happen in the world that people attribute to being spurred on by a dream. I think that's a really exciting way to look at something. We read parts of the Quran through that lens and look at traditions that the prophet Muhammad is believed to have said."

While the influence of dreams on religion and culture were a key subject of the class, First-Year Seminars are designed to introduce students to practices and expectations when delving into a subject with an academic perspective.

For example, on their first day, Hanaoka asked her students to consider the difference between religion and religious studies, an important factor in the class.

One of Hanaoka's students, Rachel Scoratow, '17, noticed that separation right away. "Everyone definitely brought their perspectives from their own religion when analyzing the passages we read," Scoratow says. "But the whole course had an emphasis on trying to remain as unbiased as possible. We're looking at this religion not to critique what the people believed, but to view it in the culture and the context that it should be."

Hanaoka also tries to get her students to recognize other perspectives and engage in active discussions. After reading about a TV call-in show mentioned in Dreams that Matter by Amira Mittermaier, Hanaoka asks her students to step into the role of the individuals from the reading while she plays the show's host, peppering them with questions.

"That's very challenging because you have to fully embrace the beliefs of that person," Scoratow says. "But it gives you a lot better of an understanding of what they believe in because you are no longer looking at just one single belief. You have to take that belief and apply it to the different situations that she, as a talk show host, poses. Then to contrast that with other peoples' beliefs that you're presented with, it gives you a better understanding of what the person that you're studying believes and how they would address different problems."

First-Year Seminars help students build skills in reading and writing at a higher academic level, but students like Omair Alam, '17, discovered other valuable insights, such as a better understanding of their place in the world and a new perspective on scholarship.

"There's the overarching understanding that you don't have to believe in something in order to understand it," Alam says. "I can now take a topic which I do not believe in at all, and still study it 100 percent and understand its benefits and positives. I think that's a very important skill that will help me in college."