Courtesy of Cornell University

Throughout her career, Prof. Chiara Formichi has researched the role of Islam in Asia and the influence of Asian cultures on the religion.

February 1, 2023

Prof. Chiara Formichi Explores Islam, Asian Cultures Through Research

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Throughout her time in academia, Prof. Chiara Formichi, Asian Studies, has researched the relationship between Asian cultures and Islam, primarily focusing on Indonesia.

Formichi began studying the topic as an undergraduate student, earning a B.A. in Islamic Studies from Sapienza University of Rome. Though she said she partly entered the field by chance, her ties to Indonesia made studying the role of Islam in the country an obvious choice. Formichi has visited Indonesia in the past, and as a Malay speaker, she mostly uses sources that are written in the Indonesian language.

Carrying with her knowledge from her undergraduate years, Formichi went on to earn an M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies and a Ph.D. in History of Southeast Asia from the University of London

“I explored the role of Islam in the nationalist movement that opposed Dutch colonialism and ​​ways in which Islam remained prominent politically after the establishment of an independent, post-colonial nation-state,” Formichi said. “So, this is what I really focused on for my Ph.D. work, and it kind of stayed with me. One of the big questions that I keep working on is, ‘what is the role of religion in the state and in society? Where do minorities fit in?’” 

After completing her Ph.D., Formichi spent several years in Singapore and Hong Kong before landing at Cornell. She continued her exploration of Islam and Asian cultures, finding her home within the Asian Studies department and religious studies program.

Formichi said that although the University does not house an official religious studies department, faculty in the program hail from different departments across campus, fostering an interdisciplinary environment.

Formichi published her most recent book, “Islam and Asia: A History,” in April 2020. In her text, she explored the influence of people from Asia in shaping Islam, as well as the role of the religion across the continent. 

“Instead of thinking about Islam as a Middle Eastern religion, I thought more broadly about the geography and the space of Asia — which really goes from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean — [and about] how people and ideas moved and how ideas and practices were shaped [through these exchanges],” Formichi said.

Through her research, Formichi delves into the lesser-known influences of Asian cultures on Islam. For instance, she highlighted the quintessential blue porcelain dishes of Song Dynasty China; Muslim merchants originally brought the blue pigment to China, where Chinese artisans used it to make plates for the Middle Eastern market.

“You have the Ming Dynasty, where, for the whole period, the highest, most prized porcelain items were blue and white,” Formichi said. “But nobody thinks about that as a reflection of Muslim influence on Chinese culture. These are the kinds of things that I find really fascinating.”

As her last book debuted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Formichi had to navigate pandemic restrictions as she embarked on her following research project. She took a sabbatical in the fall of 2019 to explore archives housed in the Netherlands, before moving to Singapore in January 2020 with hopes of working in Indonesia and Australia. 

Three years later, Formichi said she still has not been able to access the archives she had originally planned to visit, mainly due to existing public health and travel restrictions. Still, she expressed gratitude for the wealth of resources in Indonesian studies and the work she has done so far.

Formichi’s current project explores the role of everyday activities of care work in late-colonial and early post-independence Indonesia, which declared its independence in 1945. 

“‘Domestic work’ was not necessarily a space of marginalization or disciplining of women, but it also took shape as a space that encouraged women to reflect on their own role as a crucial contribution to the establishment of the nation-state and express that awareness in the public sphere through print publication,” Formichi wrote in an email to The Sun.

In addition to exploring some of the topics she finds most fascinating, Formichi named teaching as one of the most rewarding aspects of her field of study.

“My classes are always very diverse in terms of the students that come in… I have math students, engineering students, history students — it’s kind of the whole spectrum of the Cornell student body, and it’s great to be able to teach something different,” Formichi said. “That’s the rewarding part: The teaching.”

Formichi encouraged students interested in research in similar fields to explore Cornell’s diverse array of academic resources.

“The humanities is not really about new discoveries. It’s more [about] different ways of looking at something,” Formichi said. “Think differently about the sources you work with and spend time exposing yourself to as many different things as possible.”

This story is a part of the Professor Profiles series, which aims to highlight professors and their research across Cornell’s campus. Have a professor to recommend for this series? Email [email protected]!