Matt Hiller is a candidate in the joint Social Work and Anthropology doctoral program at the University of Michigan. His research looks at the integration of Islamic devotional healing and psychiatry in the Southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The focus of his work is on a dargah, or Islamic saint shrine, that is famed for the treatment of severe and chronic mental illness. Like many other Islamic shrines in India, the Dargah attracts visitors from a variety of religious backgrounds. 

Many visitors attribute mental illness to the effects of black magic or spirit possession, and they beseech the Saint buried at the shrine to combat these forces. For those who have lost connection with their families or other sources of support the shrine also often provides a sense of home and community.

A unique aspect of the shrine, according to Hiller, is that it contains a government-run psychiatric clinic and psychiatric hospital. These were established as part of the Indian government’s “Medicine and Prayers” program, which aims to provide psychiatric care at religious healing centers such as shrines and temples. In his research, Hiller looks at the ways that leadership from the shrine and hospital reconcile differing understandings about the causes and treatments of mental illness. Given the growing Islamophobia and anti-Islamic violence in India, Hiller is also examining how the “Medicine and Prayers Program” at the shrine serves as a site to negotiate broader questions about the Indian government’s relationship with Islamic communities and the place of pluralism in Indian society. 

While Hiller began his research in 2019, he has not been able to return to India due to COVID-19. With support from the Global Islamic Studies Center summer fellowship, Hiller was able to continue progressing with his research through taking an online class on Islamic theology at the Al-Hujjah Islamic Seminary in Dearborn, Michigan. Hiller noted that the seminary offered a very different experience of Islam than his time at the shrine. Many visitors to the shrine are Sunni Muslims who primarily speak Tamil or Malayalam. In comparison, stated Hiller, the Al-Hujjah Islamic Seminary is based on Shia traditions and focused on the study of the Quran and other Arabic texts, though classes are held in English. Despite these differences, Hiller states that it was a valuable opportunity to learn more about the diversity of approaches to Islam and deepen his engagement with Islamic thought.

Because issues of Islamophobia and questions of how to provide respectful care to religious communities are also pressing in the United States, Hiller notes that the summer fellowship helped him consider the broader relevance of his research.

Moving forward, he states that he hopes to connect with organizations in Dearborn such as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) to learn about how they are addressing these issues in their day-to-day work. 

Hiller credits the Global Islamic Studies Center with making his research possible. In addition to the summer fellowship, he states the classes with GISC faculty associates Farina Mir and Yasmin Moll have been central to his intellectual development. He credits Farina Mir’s class on the history of Islam in South Asia for helping him understand how trade networks between the Gulf and Southern India have shaped and continue to shape Islamic practice in Tamil Nadu. Likewise, he notes that Yasmin Moll’s class on the Anthropology of Islam helped him understand debates and conflicts about the place of Saint shrines in contemporary Islam.


Wondering how this can be you? All students currently enrolled at the University of Michigan in an undergraduate or graduate/professional degree program (master's or doctoral level) and are affiliated with the GISC are eligible to apply for the  2022 Summer Fellowship Funding. 

The GISC 2022 Summer Fellowship Funding may be used for the following:

  • Language training - to offset costs of program fees for language learning.
  • Research support - to offset costs for an original project supporting Senior, Master’s, or Doctoral thesis completion.
  • Travel expenses (graduate students only) - associated with conducting original research or language training

For more information, visit our undergraduate funding or graduate funding pages.