With one foot in the mountains of Tajikistan and the other on TCNJ’s campus, history Professor Jo-Ann Gross sheds light on a region of the world that she says is often viewed only through the distorting prism of politics.
“Americans generally have a limited understanding of Islam based on popular media. I’m interested in the deeper, more complex religious traditions of Islam,” she says. “I feel very strongly about the teaching of my scholarship. I feel the obligation to share it today more than ever.”
Gross’s scholarship was sparked by a visit to Central Asia decades ago. It evolved as she delved into the study of Sufism—the mystical aspect of Islam—and its culture of shrines. Her research at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Uzbekistan led her eventually to Tajikistan, where her interest deepened. She recalls being swept off her feet at the sight of the shrine of Muhammad Bashara, who, according to oral tradition, is said to have brought Islam to the region at the urging of the Prophet himself.
In Tajikistan, Gross’s research took an ethnographic turn, as she interacted with people and places in order to, “understand the culture through people who are alive today as well as through historical documents,” she says. “The Tajik people are very open to that kind of research. I speak the language and they are honored and grateful for that.”
Though her forthcoming book, Muslim Shrines and Spiritual Culture in the Perso-Islamic World, is grounded in the country’s ancient shrine culture, Gross’s research comes alive through its multiple perspectives: the religious figures buried in the shrines, local shrine traditions, universal Islamic sacred history, political history, and her engagement with the Tajik people of today.
Gross illuminates this part of the world through other avenues, too. She introduces her students to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on ”Maymester” trips and inspires budding scholars, including Esther Tetruashvily ’11, now completing her master’s degree at Harvard, and Bryan Furman ’13, a Fulbright student scholar currently in Tajikistan. She has also developed a summer volunteer program in Tajikistan through America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, DC.
Gross recently was honored by the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan for her groundbreaking work on the nation’s “sacred geography” and her longstanding support for its scholars. She was voted a lifetime member of the academy.