Franklin College of Arts & Sciences The University of Georgia | Fall 2003 Edition
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Featured Stories

Out of Africa Out of Africa
Lioba Moshi's journey to Athens from the shadows of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Laser Sharp Laser Sharp
Michael Duncan's studies of gas-phase metals is drawing international attention.
Bioinformatics Bioinformatics
Jessica Kissinger's search for ways to use computers to study disease.
Surrendering to God Surrendering to God
Alan Godlas brings a new perspective on the rich heritage of Islam to students and internet pilgrims.

Other Facts

World’s most Muslim nations

The populations of the following countries are almost entirely Muslim. That is, about 99.5% or more of the native populations, and nearly all of the foreign workers, are Muslim.

Mayotte Morocco
Saudi Arabia
Tunisia United Arab Emirates
Western Sahara

Largest national Muslim populations

Indonesia 170,310,000
Pakistan 136,000,000
Bangladesh 106,050,000
India 103,000,000
Turkey 62,410,000
Iran 60,790,000
Egypt 53,730,000
Nigeria 47,720,000
China 37,108,000


Featured Story

Surrendering to God
Alan Godlas brings a new perspective on the rich heritage of Islam to students and internet pilgrims

By Philip Lee Williams

American music lovers in 1977 were surprised by an article that appeared in newspapers all over the world. Pop star Cat Stevens was converting to Islam and would be turning his back on fame and fortune for something he considered both necessary and more abiding: faith. Two years later, after changing his name to Yusuf Islam, he disappeared from the music scene, leaving behind forever such teen anthems as “Wild World” and “Hard Headed Woman.”

If one had asked most residents of the U. S. then exactly what Islam was, they might have said it was a religion practiced mostly in the Middle East, that it certainly was not close to Christianity in numbers of believers, and that there were few Muslims in the United States. They would have been wrong on all those counts.

In fact, today some 1.3 billion people—a fifth of all those on Earth—practice Islam. Less than 20 percent of Muslims are Arabs, and half of them live in South or Southeast Asia. Islam is second only to Christianity, which has an estimated 2 billion followers, in numbers of adherents, and in America, there are about 5.7 million Muslims, a number roughly equal to its Jewish population.

And yet, until September 11, 2001, many Americans barely gave Islam a second thought.

Dr. Alan Godlas sits in his over-stuffed office on the top floor of north campus’s Peabody Hall, munching hungrily on peanuts and sipping from a soft drink. He overflows with energy, speaking so rapidly a guest has to pay close attention to his carefully crafted sentences. This is a man, one will conclude, who thinks a great deal, a man who has a passion for ideas. Most of all, he wants to share a lifetime’s study of Islam and to communicate that this ancient and honored religion is not one represented by the fierce mugshots of the 9/11 terrorists.

He is a scholar-writer and teacher, of course, but in the past few years, his web site on Islam and Islamic Studies has captured international attention and drawn him into the middle of a cultural discussion that goes far deeper than the tenets of religious faith. An associate professor in the department of religion, Godlas found himself in the center of a storm, and from that center, his main goal has been to shed light.

“His is far and away the best web site for the study of Islam in North America,” Dr. Amir Hussain, an assistant professor of religious studies at California State University at Northridge, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, which did a story on Godlas less than two months after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, his website was nominated as one of five worldwide in the category of "spirituality" for the year 2002 Webby Awards, which are the equivalent of the Oscars for websites. Among the other nominees in the category were the Vatican's website and Beliefnet, a commercial interfaith website that won the award. The Webby Award nominees and winners are selected by members of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.

A faculty member at UGA since 1991, Godlas, through his website, teaching, and scholarship, has been increasingly involved in explaining Islam to others. In January 2003, he was chosen by the U. S. State Department to give two presentations on Islam for a bilateral conference in Nigeria between State Department officials and Northern Nigerian leaders. He has also delivered lectures on Islam to organizations all over the country and presented papers in Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, among many other venues. In short, Alan Godlas lives his life in anyplace but the ivory tower.

“Most web sites about Islam are heavily biased,” he says, chomping another handful of peanuts. “But I knew that for Muslims and the rest of the world to live together in peace in today’s global village, at the very least there needed to be somewhere on the web to which people would turn for information on Islam that was balanced and fair. After 9/11, people all over the world began wondering just what Islam is. The hits on the website rose dramatically, and it helped when President Bush said that Muslims are not our enemy—terrorists are.”

Godlas is an eastern European name whose derivation isn’t clear, but the name’s bearer on the UGA campus smiles when he admits that at least etymologically, “God” was never far away when he was growing up.

His journey from a boyhood in southern California is something of a pilgrimage itself. His father worked in the clothing business and his mother was a homemaker, and along with Alan’s younger sister, they made a standard middle-class family. From the beginning, though, Godlas felt an affinity for different things, and first among them was a profound love of nature. In the beginning, it was a typical boy’s passion for reptiles, and he even managed to upset his mother by bringing a snake home triumphantly one day. Maybe the life of a forest ranger would be perfect for him.

“But something else was going on with me in those days, too,” Godlas remembers, “and that was a fascination with the workings of the mind. It occurred to me that the human mind was a marvelous and mysterious thing, and I wanted very early to understand how it worked.”

More and more, during his trips into the fields on the outskirts of Long Beach, his time was spent in contemplation rather than the study of animals. Though his family was not particularly religious, he also began to think considerably about God but always through the lens of nature, similar to writers like Thoreau and Emerson. As he grew, his interest in reptiles changed, first to plants and then to insects and later to invertebrates and finally to birds, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the answers he sought were less in creatures and more in the human mind itself. He also developed a passion for photography, stoked by a lensman and junior high school teacher named Robert von Sternberg, who was documenting the new world of beach boys and girls for Surfer magazine and whose work is now found in the nation’s top art museums.

Still unsure which direction to follow, he went to the University of California at Davis after high school graduation in 1969, interested in science. Theory and hard facts, however, soon gave way to environmental activism that swept college campuses. He worked as a volunteer in the local ecology center in order to increase the public’s awareness of ecological problems, and he read deeply in ecological theory, including the work of Dr. Eugene Odum, who had by then turned the University of Georgia into a world center of holistic ecology.

What fascinated Godlas the most was the self-regulating character of ecosystems and how things fit together. The variable that was unbalancing ecosystems, he knew, was humankind, which focused on short-term gains at the expense of long-term ecosystem health. But why did people do this?

“It seemed to me that the main problem was reducible to the human ego, which tends to have a compulsion to satisfy its short-term interests,” he says.

He realized that most environmental activists, for all their passion, did not understand that the root of ecological problems such as water and air pollution lay in the uncontrolled action of the ego. This led him to design his own interdisciplinary degree at Davis that he called ecological psychology—a field that did not exist then but, in fact, does now. It gave him a holistic way to appreciate major problems that he never forgot.

While at Davis, he was drawn deeply into the relatively new area of student counseling, too, and became involved in Gestalt therapy through an innovative peer counseling center there. (He also maintained a lively interest, enjoyed since childhood, in music.) While studying methods of peer counseling, he became more and more interested in non-Western ideas on the nature of the self and its relation to the universe.

An incident at the end of his freshman year at Davis was a turning point, however, and one he has never forgotten. He went on a wilderness survey expedition to the Snake River country in Idaho, and while there, he experienced an epiphany.

“It was early summer, the snow was melting, we were in a mountain meadow, there were wildflowers in bloom, and the air was crystal clear,” remembers Godlas with a distant smile. “To me it seemed like heaven on Earth—I felt the familiar peace that I had known time and again whenever I was in a relatively natural environment. Yet this feeling was much more intense. I felt enveloped in the most amazing sense of complete well-being. Then, after a few minutes, my normal reality returned.”

Taking the idea more deeply, however, he realized that using the natural world to achieve such overwhelming happiness was a second-hand experience. Was there a more direct route to this sense of well-being?

During the long Thanksgiving weekend of his junior year, Godlas stayed alone in his dorm room, immersed in books dealing with psychology and Eastern religions, and he realized, finally and with conviction, that he would have to move away from ecology and focus not on nature, but on the nature of the self. He also realized that to make progress, he had to study with those who were specialists in ways of human growth and spirituality itself, not just in teaching it from books.

At that point, he was fortunate to be mentored by Joseph Lyons, a professor of humanistic psychology at Davis. Then, spurred on, he graduated from Davis and began studying at the Gestalt Institute in San Francisco while doing outpatient therapy with patients from the University of California Medical Center in Sacramento and continuing to do peer counseling in Davis. The work and study were satisfying, but in the end, he realized he needed to plump the depths of self more fully, so he began to study in Berkeley at the SAT Institute of Dr. Claudio Narajano. A Chilean psychiatrist, Narajano at that time was unique in having interests and expertise in Western forms of psychotherapy, Eastern religions, and Western mystical religious forms.

After being there for nine months, he met a Persian psychiatrist who happened to be traveling in Berkeley and who shed light for Godlas on the psychological and spiritual dimensions of Islam. He knew instinctively that this was the bridge between East and West, psychology and mysticism, that he had been seeking, and in short order he found out about the Program in Persian Literature for Foreign Students at the University of Tehran in Iran—a place where he could learn Persian and Arabic, read the texts he was looking for in their original languages, and thereby get to the roots of Islamic philosophy and psychology.

“Two problems, however, were that I knew very little about Islam, and that my courses were going to be taught only in Persian, which I did not know,” says Godlas, laughing. Nevertheless, he immediately obtained a passport, flew to Tehran, and in less than three months, before classes began, he taught himself enough of the language to understand his lectures.

After spending three formative years in Iran (during the last years of the Shah), he returned to the U. S., earning his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied under the eminent scholar of Islam, Dr. Hamid Algar, while spending extended periods of time in Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco, where he studied original manuscripts relating to Islam with the same passion he brought to environmental activism in his early years.

When a temporary teaching position opened at UGA, he accepted it, and when a tenure-track position became available later, he took it and has been on campus since then. It was only when driving around campus when he saw a sign for the Horseshew Bend research area, that he remembered that fabled ecologist Eugene Odum had done research there and had lived and taught in Athens. In a sense, Alan Godlas had come full circle.

The reason Alan Godlas is eating peanuts and drinking a Coke is that he’s been running since the moment he arose and hasn’t stopped to eat yet. His life is a sometimes chaotic mix of teaching, studying in manuscript libraries of the Near and Middle East, and writing about the Qu’ran, Islamic mysticism, and the relationship between Islam, modernism, and postmodernism. He reads and writes Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and can be found in such places as Uzbekistan, where he traveled on a Fulbright-Hayes fellowship in 1997 and in Morocco as co-director of the UGA-Morocco Summer program.

He recently developed a secondary web page called “Muslims, Islam, and the Iraq War,” which is the only web site devoted to the relationship between Islam and the conflict last spring. (One particularly interesting aspect of this web page is his survey of the reasons why leading experts on Islam in Iraq have been optimistic that the Iraqi Shi’ite Muslims will be able to establish themselves as a moderate political bloc that will be largely independent of the influence of Shi’ite Iran.)

Godlas has served on the editorial boards of the journals Sufi Illuminations and Sophia as well on the advisory boards for the Study of Mysticism and Study of Islam, sections of the American Academy of Religion, which is the primary scholarly body for the study of religion. He is also translating and editing the original Arabic of Ruzbihan al-Baqli's encyclopedic esoteric Sufi Qur'anic commentary, 'Ara'is al-bayan fi haqa’iq al-Qur-an (which will be titled in English, The Brides of the Qur'an). The translation, currently under contract, should amount to approximately 3,000-pages.

In addition, he is busy with another pet project, the development of the UGA Virtual Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of the Islamic World, which will bring together all UGA faculty members now working in areas that involve Islam and the Islamic world and make them and their work accessible on the Internet.

If 9/11 brought Americans a greater interest in Islam, Alan Godlas has made a point in making clear that, despite bombs of extremists on the one hand and Islam’s critics on the other, Islam is a world religion of more than a billion followers who in many ways lead spiritually centered lives similar to observant Jews and committed Christians. After the terrorists attacks, worldwide “hits” on his web site (you can check it out at reached 4,000 a day before settling down to more modest numbers.

The Arabic word islam, he notes on his web site, “literally means surrender, implying surrender to God. And a muslim, literally, is one who is surrendering; more specifically, one who is surrendering to God. Muslims believe both that islam is the quintessence of the spiritual impulse present in humans and that, as Islam, it is the name of the religious form revealed by God to Muhammad beginning in the year 610 CE [common or current era]. Those who follow this particular religion are called Muslims.”

From there, Godlas links readers to hundreds of sites that, with increasing complexity, give a fair and balanced picture of Islam and how it continues to be a major force, not only in the world of religion, but in culture and society as well.

Given the difficulty that people of different religions and cultures have in understanding one another, as well as the conflicts that arise from this, Godlas feels that one of his responsibilities as a scholar is to act as both a bridge between cultures and a miner of the resources of religions for the gems of understanding that can help people to transform their lives.

“The particular question that has fascinated me from the time of my early studies in ecology and psychology until today is the problem of self-transformation,” says Godlas. “The religions of the world are a rich source of knowledge for understanding how we can change. And the need to answer this question is becoming increasingly urgent in these times when we have the power to destroy or save our world. Our fate may depend on our ability to understand and change our selves.”

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