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She gripped the edge of her desk.

Her heart was yanking her body forward to help her ears listen and her eyes see clearly. Nothing could take her focus off the front of the room.

At that moment, it happened.

Her pupils constricted, her eyes widened. Her lips separated to let out an almost inaudible gasp. She tuned out every single sound but the words of her professor, Dr. Dennis Hudson.

Anna Bigelow, who has a doctorate in religious studies, was a freshman at Smith College and she was sitting in her Religious History of India class.

“You get this kind of – almost a physical jolt – when you feel like you have insight into something that seemed at once almost impenetrable,” she said, recalling that moment of enlightenment.

It would be her first religious studies course, but not her last.

Bigelow, 45, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University where she specializes in Islam.

“Well actually in college – I – for four years, I never took a class on Islam, so it was kind of happenstance that I ended up studying Islam for the long term,” she admits, spouts of chuckles in between phrases.

She sat there rocking in her black swivel chair, smiling. Her eyes bright pools of blue and her blonde waves half pulled back. Her dress was modest. She had on a brown cardigan over an off-white shirt, brown bottoms, and minimal jewelry. Her elbows rested on the arms of her chair, hands clasped in front of her.

The cozy room has Islamic prayer rugs of burgundy, sapphire, and gold draped across the walls. A small desk lamp and the natural light pouring in from the single window in the back corner of the room illuminate the collage of artwork and photographs hanging above her workspace.

One piece stands out – a black and white painting, showing two black lumps leaning against each other, sitting on the ground under Arabic calligraphy, the word “Allah.”

Bookcases bursting with books filled the remaining space on the walls.

Stacks of books and papers were neatly strewn about her desk. The background on her Mac computer was black with white Islamic calligraphy. Allah the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.

After college, Bigelow traveled to study in India on a Buddhist studies program. She spent three months in Bodhgaya in the fall of 1992.

“While we were there,” she said, “… this incident took place that changed the direction of my interest.”

Babri Masjid was a mosque in Ayodhya, India that was built by one of the first Mughal emperors, Babur, in the early 1500s. This mosque had been built on what Hindus identified to be “the birthplace of the god Ram,” she said.

In the 1980’s, a movement of Hindu nationalism was growing in India that ultimately led to “tens of thousands” of Hindus taking apart the mosque and destroying it in December 1992.

Whereas several places in India were in riot, “in Bodhgaya, there was nothing,” she said. She became interested in how Hindus and Muslims, before this incident and in the town she was staying, had always gotten along and shared these types of sacred spaces.

Although Muslims are a minority in India at only 14%, what also interested her was “this large population of Muslims that nobody was talking about.”

Bigelow’s grandmother, Alice Whiting Ellis, inspired her commitment and passion for other cultures. Ellis studied ancient Greek and was particularly interested in archaeology.

Ellis obtained her doctorate in Classics from Harvard in 1936, a male-dominated field at that time, and “she was a force to be reckoned with.”

“We read Greek myths all the time,” Bigelow said. She recalled being read The Iliad and The Odyssey as a child and the bond that grew between her and her grandmother.

Ellis took Bigelow, her sister, and two of her cousins to Greece one summer to visit all the places they had read about.

Bigelow dedicated her book to Ellis with the line, “Though much is taken, much abides.” It is a verse in a poem by Albert Tennyson, Ulysses, which was read at her funeral.

“Unfortunately she died while I was still in graduate school, so she never got to read this,” she said, motioning at her book.

She pulled up the poem on her computer and read it aloud, part from the screen and part from memory. She reclined back in chair, hands clasped. Her expression softened.

The poem “in so many ways, encapsulates her personality,” she said at the end.

Although her grandmother never taught, Bigelow’s goals were always to become a professor and fire that interest in different cultures in others. She teaches her classes with passion and her students see that.

“I’ve taken three of her classes and she oversees the Academic Study of Religion Club, of which I’m president,” said Courtney Smith, a student of hers at N.C. State and her advisee in religious studies. “She’s super amazing and so helpful. I’m a single mom, and Dr. Bigelow is so understanding when I have to bring my daughter to campus with me. She always has things for her to do, like finger puppets or blue books with crayons for her to draw. Sometimes she brings her dog Zoe to play with her.”

Bigelow teaches Introduction to Islam, South Asian Religions, and Islamic History.

She pulls out a small clear bag from the large, single-strap purse on her desk.

“Trail mix?”

 

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© 2016, Karina Gomez