Why Study Religion? with Alumna Kati Fitzgerald

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Dr. Kati Fitzgerald, a Comparative Studies alumna, think it’s important to study religion? Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate interviewed Dr. Fitzgerald to find out. Watch the video below for her response!


Shurouq: Why should people study religion academically?


Dr. Kati Fitzgerald: 

That’s a good question. We had a faculty panel recently [at Wittenberg] where the question was: Why go to college, or why get a liberal arts degree? And I think that my answer to both of those questions is quite similar, so there are maybe three things I can say on that.

One is that in order for us to live peacefully in the world…we come into contact with foreign others all of the time, with people that we don’t understand, with people we don’t agree with, with people who look different than us, who speak differently than us, who eat food or dress or act in the world differently than us, and in order for us to be able to live peacefully in the world we have to have some sort of common vocabulary. We have to be able to just feel comfortable having conversations and asking questions and engaging in the world. And I think the most fundamental benefit to a liberal arts education especially one in religion and religious studies or philosophy is that it just allows us to develop this vocabulary necessary for peaceful communication in the world.

The second reason is that part of, again, this drive towards peaceful coexistence is the need to develop the skill of compassion. And compassion isn’t just, “Oh, I feel sorry for somebody else who has experienced suffering,” but it’s really the practice of “taking off” my own point of view. I think some things, or I think I think some things, and if I practice, all of the time, not thinking those things — what if I just take off that hat and I allow myself to see and experience things from somebody else’s point of view? Then I’m able to not only feel empathy and connection with other human beings, but also, I become more flexible in my own thinking. I’m able to see — “actually, I’m mostly not right, mostly I’m wrong about almost everything. And therefore, I should have a sort of broad-minded approach and curiosity when I encounter other human beings.” Courses in religious studies, courses in religion and philosophy, are really good at doing that — sort of digging at your core understandings…So that practice, just doing that over and over again, creates a sort of countenance towards understanding others.

And then the third reason is that we are not just trying to replicate…or create better more efficient workers for a particular system. We’re not just trying to reinvent or repopulate the kind of working class for another generation, but really, we want to be thinking about new paradigms of justice. We live in a world that is violent, we live in a world that is unequal, we live in a world that is deeply unjust, and so we have to be thinking about — all the time — how do we really not just break down or criticize those systems but then build back up different kinds of understandings of ethics and morality and justice in the world? And so I think also that studying religion, thinking about these things deeply, breaking down our own understandings of what is right and wrong, and up and down, and black and white, allows us to creatively produce different forms of social justice in the world. Whether they are effective or not, I don’t know, but at least, I think, the study of religion allows to be thinking innovatively about the kinds of societies we want to build in the future.


Dr. Kati Fitzgerald received her Ph.D in Comparative Studies from OSU. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University. Her work centers on the lives and religious experiences of Tibetan lay women. She uses primarily ethnographic methods in contemporary Tibet to understand the religious theories of everyday Buddhists. She is also interested in the intersection between artistic production and religious practice, lineage, oral transmission and bodily forms of liberation. 

Why Study Religion? with Ph.D Candidate Zari Mahmoudi

Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.

Why does Zari Mahmoud, a Ph.D student in Near Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, think it’s important to study religion? Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate, sat down with Zari to find out! Watch the video below for Zari’s response!


Shurouq: Zari, why did you choose to study religion? And why should others study religion?


Zari: That is a really interesting question. Thank you for asking. For me, it was because I was always interested in…reading mystical literature, mystical texts, mostly Sufism, because I studied Persian language and literature. And for me, it was important to know…what is the cosmology — what is the reason to get to know the universe rather than just the mundane life that we have.  How can a human being be connected to God and be unified [with God] as those Sufis going through those journeys and ’ahwāl and maqāmāt? It started off with my mother reading Mawlānā poetry for me. Later on, I did so many other studies like reading Mathnawi myself, Shams’ lyrics, Attār’s works and Jāmi’s works and so many other Sufis. And right now, I’m really interested in working on women and female mystics in other religions like Christianity, Kabbalism, and also Islam. So, I think it’s important to study religion as a human being to know other reasons — rather than just biological reasons — why we [humans] are here [on earth], and [ask] what is the origin of the universe, or what is one of the reasons for the origin of the universe? It just always soothes me to study about it and learn more about it. This is my reason for why I study religion.*

*Note on terms:

  • Ahwāl pl. Hāāl: a temporary state of consciousness, generally as a product of spiritual practice that a Sufi reaches.
  • Maqāmāt pl. Maqām: literally meaning “spiritual station” that a Sufi must pass through to reach one of two outcomes: annihilation or unity with God.
  • Mawlānā (Rumi/ Balkhi) was a 13th century Sufi, poet, and Islamic scholar who is famous for his Mathnawi, which is an extensive poem written in Persian and one of the most influential works in Sufism scholarship.
  • Jāmi was a 15th century poet and Sufi scholar known for his great works in Sufi literature.

Zari Mahmoudi is a Ph.D candidate from the NESA department at OSU. She is currently researching female mystics and Chivalric spirituality in 13th century and 15th century Persian literature.  

Interview with 2023 Iles Award Winner Evan DeCarlo

Congratulations to CSR’s latest Iles Award winner, Evan DeCarlo!

Evan is a doctoral fellow in the interdisciplinary Folklore Program of The Ohio State University’s English Department. His research interests cover the legendry genre, digital narrative, and the intersection between folklore and Web 2.0 era vernacular spaces and modes. Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’S Graduate Research Associate, sat down with Evan to see what the CSR’s Iles Award means for his research!

Shurouq: Can you tell me about your research as a graduate student at OSU?

Evan: I am a Ph.D student of the English department but, also, as a person with their focus in folklore, half my research is also involved in Comparative Studies which is how the folklore program works. My research, as a folklorist, focuses primarily on the legend genre, which is an interesting term. Legend. It has a particular meaning to folklorists and one that I’ll talk about a little bit; it has a kind of all-over-the-place meaning. But it also has a more exoteric definition in the broader — we can say, the Anglophone world — particularly North America. And I have looked at legend from a lot of different angles for a lot of my research career as a grad student…But for my dissertation, I wanted to take a look at what I have decided to call “hoax-lore”— manufactured legend — legend we wouldn’t, by a conventional, sort of traditional, definition of legend…recognize as necessarily belonging in that genre because of their authorial provenance. The full title of the dissertation, which is kind of a mouthful, is “Hoax-Lore: The Aestheticization of Truth through Fabricated Legend,” which is a lot, but [it] gives you the components of what’s going on…The big two things that stick in addition to legends being localized are these two other factors that really oscillate a lot: truth and belief in the way that — throughout the twentieth century — trying to define legend has a lot to do with what different scholars have to say about truth and belief…Going into mid-century folkloristics and beyond, we have this idea that when we use the term “legend” out and about and in our daily lives, I think what we tend to mean is: it’s fiction, that’s just a legend; it’s just made up, it’s not real, it’s not true. Folklorists have been using a — not identical — but in many ways similar definition for legend especially  as a way to delineate or delimit, or even demarcate, the genre from its sister genres of something like tale, or fairy tale, and then myth, on the other hand. The way legend has been variously defined then floats around these two factors: truth and belief.

Shurouq: Right. And this brings me to my second question: How does your research intersect at all with the study of religion?

Evan: Sure. Certainly, nominally, I am not studying religion at all, but what I am definitely studying is belief, which certainly has quite a lot to do with religion. There’s been a lot of talk in folkloristics about the rhetoric of believability, and I think to some extent my research really embraces this. It says: What are we learning about what it takes to believe something? Another way of phrasing that question would be: What does it take to understand something as true, as potentially believed, or as truly believed? And to that end, I think what looking at hoax-lore and the way it moves (and legend in general) has taught me is that truth has a lot less to do…with a platonic sense of truth than it might with…believability…This really interesting idea of truth as collectively and culturally instantiated via repetition and consensus, and then the sort of simulation of that process is very interesting to me at least in the way it’s been expressed in…hoax-legends. Now I don’t know how much you might be able to move this into the world of the study of religion, but I certainly think there is application especially just via the ritualization of a lot of these factors — the traditionality of them as well.

Shurouq: Nice! And what did the Iles Award mean for your research? How did it advance your research in any way?

Evan: Well, I think building on what I just said, that was the idea that my research could have some cachet, some legs, in a field nominally other than folkloristics was really inspiring to me. A group of people who were working for the Center for the Study of Religion and participating in all these other different disciplines could still look at it and say, “I think there’s something here worth talking about” — outside the primary context of folkloristics — was definitely [important]. Other than just the monetary aid of the award…maybe there is some utility to what I am looking at here….That’s a really nice way for a graduate student to be inspired to keep working. Maybe what I’ve considered as a very esoteric little niche [interest] isn’t so squirreled away after all. And then over the summer, I took my project to an interdisciplinary conference in Serbia, of all places, which was primarily an international relations conference and got some political scientists to comment on it. And it turns out there may be applications there too. When you take a concept like the “fake,” the “hoax”…and you give yourself permission to not think about it that way…you get a lot of mileage out of it. And I think that the Iles Award, for me, was sort of like a permission to start examining this from other perspectives. That there was a hospitality to this kind of thinking in disciplines other than my own sub-sub-sub field, which was really encouraging. And then, of course, just being able to have some money as a graduate student has been extremely helpful.

Shurouq: Wonderful! Thank you for this, Evan!

Interview with 2022 Iles Award Winner Ishmael Konney

Ishmael Konney is an OSU alumnus who earned his M.A degree in International Studies from Ohio University and his MFA degree in Dance from Ohio State University. Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate, interviewed Ishmael to ask what the Iles Award meant to him!

Shurouq: Could you tell me about your research as a graduate student/alumnus of OSU?

Ishmael: Thank you for this opportunity. My larger research interest focuses on the promotion of the Ghanaian cultural identity and every project I embark on is under the auspices of this  research. My immediate research explores the intersectionality between Ghanaian cultural practices and contemporary dance.Looking at ways that I can share my Ghanaian values in the work I make on and off stage. Currently the cultural practice I work with is traditional Ghanaian storytelling. Ghanaian storytelling encompasses music, dance, theatre, other visual arts and dissolves any division between the performers and the audience, creating a participatory environment in which every person involved is important. With my training in music, theatre and dance, storytelling becomes a conglomerate and a medium for me to share my artistic expertise while fostering a communal experience for the audience and performers. So, you can think of my research as a pyramid scheme, where the main idea at the top births multiple interests but every new interest is tethered to the main idea at the top.

Shurouq: How does your research intersect with the study of myth and religion, if at all? Why do you think the study of religion is important?

Ishmael: The research that got me the [Iles] award “W)gb3j3k3” was investigating the migration of the Ga people. History has it that the Ga people migrated from Israel to their present location. Most of the Ghanaian stories are embedded in our oral traditions and these stories are passed on from generation to generation through folktales, legends, and myths. My culture is preserved through myths and folktales so my history cannot be accessed without talking about and honoring  these oral traditions. According to Paschal Younge in his book I Am a Ghanaian Cultural Ambassador: A Manual for Traditional Drumming and Dance Groups of Ghana, “there were no tangible or reliable documentary sources on Ga history before the 1600’s. Most of the history can be found in folktales, songs, legends, myths, poems, and other traditional oral sources” (2016, 135). The study of religion aids in understanding the people that are being studied, their beliefs and their way of life. This becomes a bedrock to understand how these histories exist and are embedded in the culture of the people. It is essential to examine the religion of a group of people while studying their history.

Shurouq: How did you hear about the Iles Award offered through the Center for the Study of Religion?

Ishmael: Faculty in the dance department at OSU always share funding resources to the grad students. Similarly, an email was shared about this funding opportunity, and I did not hesitate to apply because my research project was a perfect fit.

Shurouq: And how did the Iles Award contribute to the advancement of your research?

Ishmael: Firstly, it was and is still expensive to travel to Ghana from the US and this award defrayed majority of the travel cost. I was able to have conversations around the traditions of the La people and that developed into a documentary which was not part of my initial plans. The initial goal was to record the conversation about the migration so I could generate movements and build the concept for my final piece. The conversations were educative, and I wanted to share the information with other people and the world so I scheduled with the religious leader to have another interview that developed into a documentary about the history of the La people.

Ishmael Konney in traditional Ghanian dress.

Shurouq: Where are you currently? And what are your current projects? 

Ishmael: I am currently an Assistant Teaching Professor of Dance in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Ball State University, located in Muncie, Indiana. I also serve as a dance faculty at Kentucky Governors School for the Arts ummer program. My recent project was a collaborative piece choreographed by myself and  Jenn Meckley (dance faculty at Ball State) titled “Fusion”. It was a piece that celebrated community through various cultures, identities, movement, and music, and emphasized the dynamic interweaving of traditional West African forms, American house dance, Afro-house dance, dancehall, Afrobeats, and Hip-hop.

Shurouq Ibrahim: Thank you!

To watch Ishmael’s documentary, click here.

Interview with 2022 Iles Award Winner Zahra Abedinezhad

Zahra Abedinezhad is a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Studies and Folklore at OSU. Having backgrounds in Law (TMU, Iran) and in Folk Studies (Western Kentucky University), she is interested in exploring intersections between religious practices and social regulations/codes. She is currently working on mourning performances of Iranian women. Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’S Graduate Research Associate, sat down with Zahra to see what the CSR’s Iles Award means for her research!

Shurouq: Hi, Zahra. Thanks for doing this interview with the Center for the Study of Religion. Would you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your research?

Zahra: Sure. I’m Zahra Abedinezhad. I’m a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Studies with a GIS in folklore. It’s my fourth year of the Ph.D, and my research is called “Resisting Mourning: Vernacular Ta’ziyeh in Iran.” The focal point of my research is a myth that [is] called the “Karbala” event. Some people [call it] an event; some people say it [is] a story…but it’s a sacred story, and based on our definition in folklore and religious studies, we call this a myth. So, I am trying to understand how this myth is interpreted and used by people and how this [clashes] with an understanding of religious authorities in power. At different times, throughout history, this myth becomes a source for people to perform a vernacular religious theatre that is called Ta’ziyeh, and I have that in the title [of my dissertation]. As I said, Ta’ziyeh literally means mourning. So, people reenact that story via Ta’ziyeh. Throughout history, sometimes [Ta’ziyeh] was complicated; it was forbidden, [but] sometimes it was a national symbol of the country [Iran] —  we have a Karbala vernacular folkloristic theatre…

But I, as a folklore researcher/researcher who is interested in religious studies, (because this is a ritual, this a sacred story that ritual is based on that), I am trying to understand at this current time in Iran specifically because of different critical, social, cultural circumstances, how different groups, different communities interpret this story to perform their resistance. There is a sub-group that I discovered so far, that I identified, that [says] the way that [the Karbala myth] is performed or should be performed is really trying to challenge [those in] power. But, this is the way that [only one] group of Iranians claim it. But the way that the state treats this performance is very complicated. Sometimes they say, this is good and we accept this because it helps the proliferation of [the] Shia movement (because the majority of the Iranians are Shia and they stake claims to the Islamic Republic). But for those groups [that mentioned before], they say, “We are religious; we like to perform religion but the way that this performance should be performed is really challenging whoever is [in] power.” Shiism was supposed to be a band of rebels against tyranny and now because tyranny is happening and is implement[ed] by the Islamic authorities and power in Iran, they are saying: “What if we interpret this Ta’ziyeh, this performance, as a performance of resistance and just try to learn some lessons from this performance. It is not enough to just perform it; it is a resource for learning ethical and religious principles and one is: resisting tyranny — resistance mandatory rules. I am more interested in these kinds of interpretations, and I want to know how Ta’ziyeh and the Karbala myth is used as a means of resistance in current times in Iran.

Shurouq: I think you’ve already touched on how your research is relevant to the study of religion. You previously won the Center for the Study of Religion’s Iles Award. Could you tell us how the Iles Award advanced your research or what the award means to your research?

Zahra: First of all, it’s the validity that the award can give to my research. It is good to be connected with different centers, specifically when your primary themes [are] related to their subjects of study. Again, this is a vernacular religious theatre that is performed in Iran. This is focal to the system also, because the system (the Islamic Republic of Iran) is a religious system. First, and the most important thing for me was the validity — the prestige of winning an award.

Second, of course, financially, because my topic is a bit sensitive and I have to be cautious about the way that I talk and the way that I publicize my research so I cannot really save the data that I collect in [the] cloud or free spaces. I have to, for example, buy hard drives to save a lot pictures, a lot videos, and a lot of tweets, because I have to take screenshots of a lot of tweets. I have to save them in equipment, right? So, this award helped me to buy those kinds of research equipment. Before, I was planning to go to Iran to do my fieldwork in person. Unfortunately, so far, I [have not been] able to do it, it’s not possible to go there — to make it possible. But I am still waiting, so I saved some of this money for my trip in the future, but also [the] archive is one of the other research methods that I use and I was able, for example, to go to the archive of film studies in New York to collect some data there. Also, in D.C., I was able to collect some archival materials in the summer about Ta’ziyeh and how this was performed in different historical periods. Besides the legitimacy and besides the “fame” of the award, I am using that as a kind of source to overcome the financial barriers, you know, the fiscal barriers that I encounter during my research…what else? And equipment, really, equipment. And you know, we, as Ph.D students, always need books, right? Of course, borrowing from libraries is an option, but sometimes you really want to have those books. For example, during summer, I needed to have those books with [me] when I was traveling, so it was easier to buy the books…I think that’s it!

Shurouq: Well, thank you. I appreciate you answering my questions. Those were all the questions I had for you today.