Ep. 2 | Looking Back on Islamic Studies at Harvard | Roy Mottahedeh, William Graham, and Ali Asani

Roy Mottahedeh William Graham Ali Asani

In this first episode in a four-part series, former Alwaleed Program directors, Professors Roy Mottahedeh, William Graham, and Ali Asani, share reflections on the development of Islamic studies over the course of their careers, first as students and then as faculty at Harvard. Professor Graham discusses the development of Islamic studies within religious studies in the 20th century, the importance of a comparative approach, and the legacy of Orientalism. He and Professor Mottahedeh also speak about the study of Islam within post-World War II area studies and Professor Mottahedeh comments on Islamic studies within the social sciences, including his field of history. Professor Asani, whose interests are primarily in Islam outside the Middle East and especially in South Asia, discusses his passion for the global study of Islam and studying it through literature and the arts. While they have worked with many great scholars, the professors highlight some of their most influential mentors including Sir Hamilton Gibb, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Annemarie Schimmel. We also discuss the institutional place of Islamic studies at Harvard, including in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Divinity School, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the broader university curriculum, and the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program. Finally, Professors Mottahedeh, Graham, and Asani share their hopes for the future of Islamic studies at Harvard. In the next three episodes, we will hear more from each of them about their scholarly journeys.   



Episode 2
Hosts: Meryum Kazmi and Harry Bastermajian 
Photo: Memorial Hall, Harvard University via Alamy
Transcription: Otter


Tarek Masoud  00:06
Greetings and welcome to Harvard Islamica, the podcast of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. I'm Tarek Masoud, the Faculty Director of the program and a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In this podcast, our executive director Harry Bastermajian, and our program coordinator, Meryum Kazmi, will bring to you the latest exciting developments in the field of Islamic studies from scholars at Harvard and beyond. We hope you'll subscribe to the podcast which you can find on SoundCloud, iTunes and Spotify. To learn more about our programs, follow us on Twitter @HarvardIslamic and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions and our email address Islamicstudies@harvard.edu Please enjoy this episode of Harvard Islamica.
Meryum Kazmi  01:10
Welcome to Harvard Islamica, I'm Meryum Kazmi. This episode is the first in a four-part series in which Harry and I speak with three former directors of the elite program about the history and future of Islamic studies, both at Harvard and more generally and their own experiences. This first episode consists of all three professors discussing the field more broadly. In the next three episodes, we'll hear more from each of them individually about their experiences as students and scholars.
Harry Bastermajian  01:47
I'm Harry Bastermajian. We are thrilled to be joined today by three former directors of the Alwaleed Program to share their experiences and reflections on Islamic studies at Harvard and as a field. Our guests are Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Research Professor of History; William Graham, A. Murray Albertson Research Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor; and Ali Asani, A. Murray Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures. Professor Graham, could you speak about the development of the study of Islam in the United States and, more specifically, the development of Islamic studies within in the history of the study of religion at Harvard, both in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and at the Harvard Divinity School?
William Graham  02:41
Well it did at the Divinity School going back to George Foote Moore coming to the Divinity School, and I think, I believe 1902, something like that, and he was here for about 26 years, till his retirement and then he died in 1931. So he was 80 when he died, so probably he retired before, before 26. But anyway, he was here for a long time. And George Foote Moore, of course, was also a Hebraist who worked both in Judaica and, in Biblical studies, and Christianity to some degree through Biblical studies, but really, he was a Hebraist. But he, of course, wrote on Islam in his comparative religion two-volume work on the History of Religions, and Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism, as at that time was typical, even up through Gibb's book, Mohammedanism, after World War II that was typically done and used, and so it wasn't unusual that you called it Mohammedanism. His second volume was devoted to those three traditions, the rest of the world having been dealt with in volume one. So that was much more the way in which - and he dealt quite widely with the rest of the world. I mean, he ranged into Sikh and things and, you know, sort of all over the place. Japanese, Chinese, I mean, he had a wide range, at least of general knowledge. But that was very much more typical, that Islamic studies, as we know, was often a corollary of, of simply Semitic studies. That of course, the core of which was always the Hebrew Bible in the Western world, really into the mid-20th century, I would say. And it's only really post-World War II, certainly in America. You certainly had Islamicists before that all over. You had the Noldekes and Fischers in Germany and so on, and in France you had certainly the dedicated Orientalists in the 19th century who were doing just Islamic and not Biblical studies. But in America, you really don't start getting many of these people until after World War II who are dedicated strictly to Islamic studies and not doing Islamic studies as part of their general Semitic studies and their Biblical studies in particular. That's probably a gross generalization but I think it's fair, by and large if you really look at the history. People like Philip Hitti coming to Princeton after the war and beginning to train the first real generation of dedicated Arabist Islamicists, and really Arabists at that point, in the states. But in any case, there were people like this, they were certainly there before the postwar period, but by and large, they were isolated individual scholars. You didn't have many programs. I think Princeton, may well have been almost the first to really begin to develop a sort of program under Hitti when he began, I think, to bring people in. And then a few years later in the 50s, Gibb began to do the same thing at Harvard, with the founding of the Middle East Center, and the hiring of people and so on. Gibb did not leave behind a large coterie of people. He may have brought Makdisi here, which would certainly have been a good thing. But at any rate, if you look at the Islamicists post-World War II, that's when we really began to get, develop Islamic studies. And even then, it's really most closely tied to Arabic and, to a lesser degree, Persian studies. It still is not the kind of studies that Smith wanted to do and went to McGill in 51 or 52, to McGill, to found the Islamic, Institute for Islamic Studies at McGill, on the basis of a global concept of Islamic studies which Smith himself had become dedicated to after five years in India during the war in Lahore. That was India, of course, at that time. And Smith done his early scholarship there, knew Persian and Urdu well, and really believed that Islamic studies should be global. So people like Smith and Hodgson were the exception rather than the rule. You mostly had Arabists or Iranists or Persianists or maybe Turkologists who did those things. But Islamic studies was necessary often as a part of that, and might even be a focus for them but it wasn't a global phenomenon they were interested in. They were interested in Turkish Islam, or Arab Islam, or Persian Islam, or maybe two of those three. Germany had a longer tradition of people more widely interested in Islamic studies but even there, if you look at the great Islamicists, Goldzihers and Noldekes, and so on, they were fundamentally Arabists, even though they knew Persian and knew Turkish and so on. They were fundamentally, they're most specifically Arabists and often worked on the classical period. So that was the pattern in Europe, in France, and everywhere else, I think. In Holland, certainly, and in Italy and in Spain and England, and so on. That was certainly the pattern, that you were a specialist in a particular language area and Islamicist almost second, or if you were an Islamicist you were very much most interested in a particular language area. That is one of the big changes, I think.
Meryum Kazmi  08:24
How did developments and area studies and philanthropy affect the study of Islam at Harvard?
William Graham  08:28
Area studies was where the Social Science Research Council was making available monies after the war in the 1950s to go particularly to the nations, the big nations that were marked out as important for US interests, political interests. So you had lots of fellowships for people. And you look at the people in the 50s and 60s that went to Indonesia, Geertz was one of the most illustrious, but there were a lot of them, because there was all this social science research money and government money available to go to places like that, because it was a what they call a high priority Oriental field or high priority, you know, non-Western field. And India was less-so, it's interesting. But you still had India with PL-480 money, as you had in Arabic and Persian and so on, you had PL-480 money. Of course, our Indologist here, Dan Ingalls, Dan turned down the PL-480 money for the library here for years, because he thought you should only do Sanskrit if you did Indian studies. But I mean, he knew a couple of Indian languages in addition, but he didn't believe that you're training to people in Bengali or Tamil or, you know, Urdu studies, I mean, or Hindi studies or whatever. You trained people in Sanskrit if you were going to be an Indologist, and he, of course, was a great Indologist, you know, a globally great Indologist and I expect it was very much the same in Chicago with van Buitenen, the great Indologist at Chicago. He and Ingalls were the two of their generation, the two great Indologists. But Sanskrit was what they did, just like Arabic and Persian were what the Islamicists did. But that is what I see is having changed since the war. That's a pretty amorphous set of ways of discussing it. But I just threw all that in to try to give some idea of how I see, one of the big impetuses for the development of Islamic studies, has, of course been that globalizing of the American view and even the European view to some degree, although it was always much more global than ours, after the war, when all of the European and American world had to be much more engaged with the non-Western world in the age of the end of colonialism, and the development of new principalities and new, you know, monarchies and democracies, etc, all over the world that had to be dealt with. The new United Nations was emblematic of this, obviously, after the war, but also in scholarship, I think this was very much true. And governments did give money for people to go and learn, you know, strategic languages. And that, frankly, in the end, had a big effect on fields that had nothing to do with strategic studies. And so, I mean, I even had an NDFL scholarship that I didn't even apply for my last year, when I came back from the year in England in Germany to write up my thesis, I just got a letter in the mail saying, you've been given an NDFL fellowship for your last year which the Danforth scholarship I was on would have paid for. But if you've got anything otherwise, because they pay for your whole graduate education, they asked you to take anything else you got. So I studied my, I did my write-up of my religion thesis on a National Defense Foreign Language fellowship, which they just gave to me because Harvard had more than they had students, evidently .I don't know why else they would have just given it to me out of the blue. So, you know, it was a different world, into the 70s. And then from area studies, of course, then things like Islamic studies as a religious, as a field, you know, as a cultural-religious field, began to differentiate itself. And it was not it was really a part of both I would say, of the traditional, linguistically-oriented, theologically-oriented studies on the one hand, and then area studies, on the other hand. I think that would be fair to say, wouldn't you, Roy?
Roy Mottahedeh  12:36
Yes, absolutely. One of the fellowships I got along the way was from the Ford Foundation and they wanted to know that I, as a social historian, I'm primarily a social historian, that I had studied sociology, and I had not. So they assigned me, just before starting, to spend the summer working with a sociologist, which I faithfully did. It was this, there was a sort of social science. There was an introduction of social science. Professor Gibb used to say, "I am an Orientalist," but he always used to be very polite to Bernard Lewis and said, "Bernard is a real historian." I don't think, I don't think Gibb's material and Lewis's material are so different. I think Gibb was as much an historian as Bernard Lewis, but it's absolutely true that, from my study of Byzantine and everything else, other kinds of history, I got a different orientation on to what, what a scholar does. And it was a little bit different from Orientalism, but it was living a half life. There were not many people who, I mean Ira Lapidus was an early example of somebody who tried to combine the social sciences with history in the Islamic field. He wrote one very nice book, very good book. And then wanted to write a general textbook about Islamic history everywhere through the ages. So it was very, very hard to plant people as historians or social scientists or anything in the field because we had to learn a lot of language and so much time was spent learning languages that it didn't leave as much time to learn any specific social science, including history.
The first director of the Center [for Middle Eastern Studies] was, the first director was William Langer, whose course I audited, by the way, brilliant historian of international affairs. He did from the Congress of Vienna until the Second World War, he was terrific. And he was the one, incidentally, who took so many Harvard historians into the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, to do information on countries relevant to their interests. Anyway, Langer was the first director, after that came Gibb, and one year after Gibb came, Roy came. And so then, separately, the Ford Foundation decided that area studies were weak throughout America. And they were right. They were absolutely right. So they started offering big money, as only the Ford Foundation could, big money for centers, for programs in Middle Eastern studies.
Meryum Kazmi  16:38
We asked Professor Mottahedeh to tell us about Sir Hamilton Gibb, the legendary Arabist and Islamicist, who inspired him to enter the field of Islamic history.
Roy Mottahedeh  16:48
Well, he's really the reason I'm in Islamic history. I wanted to, I thought I would be a comparative zoologist. First year at Harvard, I took comparative anatomy of vertebrates, thinking was my path forward, but I also took first year Arabic, and Gibb came in for the first two weeks. He was brilliant. He was terrific. I was impressed. But then at the same time, I took his course, no, the next year, I took his course in the history of the Islamic Middle East and it was magnificent. He spoke extremely well. He was very considerate in his choice of words. It was really a ra hoorah (?) performance. He had an enormous range, because, you know, he had worked, his very first published work was on the Arab conquest of Khorasan. He was a wonderful teacher and a wonderful lecturer. And he had a sort of large vision of what the whole thing was. So you know, he had written one of his poorer writings is his work on Ottoman civilization. But nevertheless, he had worked on the Ottomans. He knew Ottoman Turkish, he knew Persian well, and so he had a large view of Islamic civilization through those three sources. Maybe he didn't know quite as much about East Asian Islam or Indonesian Islam, but he knew the regular central subjects very well. He, he had a very great sense of the range of words of meanings for a word in Arabic. And he was very good at choosing the one appropriate to the context of the text we were reading. And he would discuss that sometimes in very enlightening discussions.
Harry Bastermajian  19:17
You touched on, well, two things. One is Gibb's range, and also, which is related, I guess, this large vision of history. And I think this is important for Islamic studies and the place of Islamic history in world history. Has maybe, I mean, I don't want to overstate this, but has there been over the years, a loss of that big vision or that large vision of history, you know, and Islamic history's place within global history?
Roy Mottahedeh  20:00
Right. Well, I think this is sort of natural in the development of a discipline. I mean, at the beginning, people try to have a large overview. And Gibb pointed us to some important 19th century German works which attempted a large overview of the Islamic world. But at the same time, I think there's a stage when people, you know, want to fully trace in the details. And so obviously, Gibb was strongest in those areas where he had worked. I was talking about the Crusades and the Mamluks, and Gibb had translated Ibn al-Qalanisi, one of the great chronicles for the crusades, Arab chronicles. And he had also written the article for the Cambridge not Cambridge, sorry, the history of the Crusades. I'm trying to remember now, what the publisher was. Anyway, he wrote the article on the Mamluks, very good article. He has a lot of very, very good articles. He attempted too many books, and really died without half of them being published. He insisted that he was first and foremost an Arabist. And, of course, his little history of Arabic literature, which he wrote, I don't know, in his late 20s or something, is a gorgeous book. It's a lovely book. Everybody can benefit from reading it now. And, of course, he was such a good Arabist that, for example, in his translation of Ibn al-Qalanisi, he made some emendations on the basis of a bad text and when a better text turned up, he turned out to be right for all those emendations. Let's see, he occasionally, I read Ibn Khaldun with Gibb. Gibb was a great admirer of Ibn Khaldun, I mean, just as a thinker, and thought he was more significant than just for his time. He wrote a famously critical review of the translation by Rosenthal, saintly, saintly, Franz Rosenthal, a friend of mine in his time. He wrote a critical review, and the second edition of the Rosenthal translation is much revised. Don't buy the first edition. He wanted people who had very sound philology but had some training in the social sciences. He was fascinated by the social sciences. And he fostered Robert Bellah, who was for some, well, no longer alive, but taught at the University of California, who was a Marxist in fact, but a Weberian Marxist. He wanted Robert Bellah, as a sociologist, to develop a sociology of Islam. He had Bellah teach a course on the sociology of Islam. I found it a little bit mixed up. But anyway, Gibb's desire was to have people who have some strong idea about social bonds and the composition of society and indeed, of course, the first book by Ira Lapidus, Ira didn't want to go on as an Arabist, but his first book for which he used Arabic a lot, it's very much cast in a Weberian mold. And Ira did, and probably does, know his social sciences well.
Meryum Kazmi  25:11
Annemarie Schimmel, Professor of Indo-Muslim Culture, was the first scholar of Islam in South Asia at Harvard. In 1970, she also became the fourth woman granted tenure in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. We asked Professor Asani about her appointment and how the professorship of Indo-Muslim Culture came to reside in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations rather than South Asian Studies.
Ali Asani  25:36
So the background to this professorship, it was really the bequest of an Afghan entrepreneur. His name was Ozai-Durrani, who, of course, came from Afghanistan, but then had studied in India, Aligarh Muslim University in the early decades of the 20th century, where he studied Urdu language and literature and so on, and then he moved to the United States. He was a scientist and he developed this whole process of instant rice. So the minute rice, you know, technology, and he made a lot of money, working with General Mills, you know, who bought the patent for that. So when he died, he left a bequest to his estate that a lot of his estate was to be given, was to be used for a professorship at a university that would specialize in teaching Urdu language and literature. And so the trustees of that first approached Columbia University, and Columbia University said no. So then they came to Harvard. And at Harvard, Richard Frye and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. So Richard Frye you know about. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, at that point, was teaching in religion at Harvard. And by training, he is of course a historian of religion, but he's done a lot of work on Islam in South Asia. He spent, actually, time teaching in well, India pre-partition and then also post-partition in Pakistan, in Lahore. So he was very familiar with the Subcontinent. And so he was already here on the faculty and so was Richard Frye, who was interested in Persian materials. So between the two of them, when this was Ozai-Durrani estate approached Harvard and the president's office got in touch with faculty they said, "Oh yeah, we have the exact, we should take it and we even have the person who should be given this chair," and that was Annemarie Schimmel. And she was identified because first of all, she's a specialist in Urdu language and literature. She had done a lot of work on Urdu poetry, particularly Sir Muhammad Iqbal. She had also done work on Urdu poetry of Ghalib and some other major Urdu points. And plus, she had a fantastic background in Arabic and Persian. So she had done work in Rumi, she knew Turkish, she had taught in Turkish, she had done research in Turkish. So this is why she, so she was invited to come here in 1967 initially as a lecturer but on this Indo-Muslim Culture chair and then I think in 1970, she became a full professor. But then when it came to where this is going to be placed in what department this is going to be placed, this is where the Sanskrit Indian Studies Department said, at that time Daniel Ingalls didn't consider anything Islamic to be really Indian. This is a perception in Indology, generally, you still find it among scholars who do Indian religions. They consider Islam in South Asia to be foreign to South Asia. And in a way they are picking up you know, this Hindu nationalist, you know, discourse that influences how they think about it. So this is why the chair actually ended up in Near Eastern Languages, but it also fit in because she also knew Persian, she knew Turkish, she was interested in Islamic calligraphy, and so on. So that's why the appointment made sense in a way. So that's how NELC became the home for the Indo-Muslim Culture Program. I know it was the first program in the United States to focus on Islam in South Asia. And it's remained there I think also because, if somebody wants to work in Islam in South Asia, they do need to know Persian really well, because Persian is an important language. So it's actually a field that straddles. It doesn't, you know, the Harvard department structures are total artificial creations. They don't reflect the reality on the ground. You know, the way you divide the world, this is South Asia, and this is the Near and Middle East? Bogus. It's all based on Western notions of where boundaries are, but when you look at it from the ground up, the boundaries don't lie that way at all. So what we now see as Afghanistan, the Mughals considered part of their territory. The Mughals in India thought their territory went all the way to what is Central Asia, Bukhara and Samarqand, which today, you know, colonialism and the boundaries, and the university is a product of those artificial boundaries that are created. So, unfortunately, in this case, the chair, it's in Near Eastern Languages and not in South Asian Studies.
Meryum Kazmi  31:44
Why is the global study of Islam that is comparative and interdisciplinary important for the development of Islamic studies?
William Graham  31:52
Well, I mean, obviously, there are a number of answers to that, because I think there are lots of reasons that it's important. But I do think this globalization of the study of Islam is really simply a rational development. If you're going to study that tradition, the Islamic tradition, you can't do it any way except globally, or it simply is just a very partial kind of study. Now, nobody's going to know all the languages you need to do it globally, but as a collectivity, we can do that. And I think even people with a specialization in one end of the Islamic world today have a need, frankly, to be very much aware of the scholarship going on in other ends of the world, even if they don't manage the languages. I mean, I read a fair amount of stuff about you know, Southeast Asian and South Asian, and even Chinese Islam over the years, I've read quite a bit, and African Islam, because I feel like I can't be an educated Islamicist even if my language abilities don't extend into those areas. I need to be reading the people who do have those abilities and who are writing the good books and the good articles on Islam in these areas, because it always opens up, I think, new questions in your own special corner of Islamic studies if you know something about what's going on in Islamic studies in other areas. I feel like that about comparative study of religion, comparative history of religion. I think the most fruitful things I've worked on sometimes in comparative work have come from my deeper work in Islamic studies where I developed some questions that I then take out of Islamic studies that people aren't asking in Indian studies, or in Chinese studies, or whatever else, and you bring the stuff there and start asking them there and vice versa. My reading more broadly outside of Islamic studies has often suggested to me questions that Islamicists really aren't asking in the same way that a Sinologist or a Japan specialist or an Africanist would be asking. So I think that in general, you know, comparative studies is is now simply is now simply a desideratum across the scholarly world, not because you just want to do comparative studies, but because all studies should be comparative. I mean, ideally, that's the way it should be. Again, I mean, I'll quote Wilfred Smith on this, he said, "Comparative studies is a ladder to get out of a hole into which the true scholar never falls." So that was his word on comparative religion in a sense, but on comparative studies, and that if you're going to be you know, a really first rate humanist or social scientific scholar, you need to have a comparative vision and viewpoint, even if you don't have all the expertise to do the primary work across borders. You need to be aware of what the people who do are doing. So that to my mind, is why it's so important for Islamic studies, and any Islamic studies center, to have people doing work in these different areas, because it's fructifying for each other to have this, you know, among a group of scholars, to have people working in different things and listening to each other. And seeing what so and so is working on in South African Islam is going to be an interesting question for what's happening in American Islam or in Chinese Islam, or at least it may enable you to ask questions about your own field that you hadn't thought of before because we do tend to follow in the footsteps laid out before us. And we often tend to get trained in a certain way, and you're asked certain kinds of questions and you forget that there are lots of other traditions of scholarly questioning. At core, that, for me, is the best rationale either for comparative studies beyond Islam or for comparative studies in the Islamic world, broadly speaking, rather than just in one corner. The other thing I think you mentioned before that Meryum, you mentioned Meryum, was, of course, the business of comparative religion and so on in the place of Islamic studies. It certainly is true that for various reasons, I think because sometimes scholars steeped first in Western, well not just in Western studies, but let's say in Judaic and Christian studies, they somehow feel that Islam is derivative, I think there were many, many decades and even centuries, perhaps of feeling that Islam was derivative of those two, and therefore worth a footnote of study, but not ready to be focused on. That's why Hindu studies, and Buddhist studies, and Zoroastrian studies, and so on and so forth, drew many more people, in many ways, than to Islamic Studies, because it was always studied as an adjunct, not always, but largely studied as an adjunct to Christian and Jewish studies. And you see that even in how Quranic studies in the West develop, because it still was seen, I mean, even by people as great as Noldeke and Goldziher, I think they still, there's an element of that, seeing it as a derivative tradition based on Biblical and Christian footing, which, of course, it is, I mean, historically. With them, it was less of a problem with scholars of their level, but for the average scholar, it was an excuse then to say that the tradition is derivative, and there's nothing new there. Whereas in fact, the Islamic tradition, like other traditions, all other traditions, is always in a sense, recreating things every day and doing new things with the old things. And so that's where I think, we can see that Islamic studies finally being recognized, again, I think, in the postwar period, at least in this country, as a legitimate focus within comparative religion has become almost equally important, if not equally important to any other tradition that the comparative religion world studies and in some ways, Judaism, and Christianity were always excluded from comparative religious studies. Comparative religion meant the traditions of Asia, almost, with Islam as a kind of addendum to that, and Christian and Jewish studies, not even as part of that. But I will say that that's where comparative study religion has changed a lot in 50 years too, in becoming a global-focused tradition where you can just as easily be studying Christian and Shinto rituals together, or Islamic and Chinese rituals together. You know, any one of these are now much more common, and possible things to look at comparatively because we think much more globally in the comparative study of religion than we were thinking even 40, 50 years ago. So I think that's been a development in comparative religion that is very parallel to the development within Islamic studies of a global Islamic studies, if that makes any sense.
Harry Bastermajian  39:08
No, it does. I mean, you,
William Graham  39:10
In both cases, I think it's helpful.
Harry Bastermajian  39:12
Yeah. And you know it's fascinating we see this. Meryum and I see this in the Harvard catalog from the late 19th century where on the same exact page, you have at the very top, you know, of course, on the history of world religions, which include Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, but excludes any mention of
William Graham  39:38
Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Harry Bastermajian  39:39
Yeah. It excludes any mention of Islam. And it's fascinating because just a few years later you see them the history department then puts a little footnote in that same catalog saying if you're interested in studying Islam, go take Semitics 14 with Professor Toy.
William Graham  40:00
Yeah. And I think this, here at Harvard, at least, this really only changed in the I think really in the 1960s and forward. I think Wilfred Smith coming did parts of that, because he taught a year-long comparative religion course. So the first course I ever took in religion, actually, was a year-long comparative religion course, where he included Judaism and Christianity and Islam as units alongside units on Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and everything else, you know, Japanese religion, etc. They were all treated on an equal basis, they all got three weeks and a year-long course. So it was hardly a deep dive, but it was seeing the world of religious traditions, comparatively, as a level playing field in a way that was would not have been the case 10 or 20 or 30 years earlier. That was in the 1960s, he arrived in 64.
Ali Asani  40:51
I think my experience coming to Harvard and actually getting into a comparative studies, you know, comparative religion program, and then working with someone like Annemarie Schimmel, who specialized in Islam in South Asia, had great interest in the languages and literature's of South Asia, became important. And I think, later on in my graduate career, Wilfred Cantwell Smith had come, he had been at Harvard and he came back at Harvard. And when he came back, I also had the opportunity to teach and work with him. And, of course, he was really delighted that I was doing all this work in Urdu and Sindhi and things like that. So I think there I had, you know, another sort of mentor who really believed in studying Islam outside the Middle East and especially in South Asia. But as a graduate student, I felt quite isolated because there were no, you know, most of the people who were studying Islam are just focused on the Middle East. You know, nobody was doing anything outside the Middle East in any of the programs. And I've always felt that Islamic studies at Harvard has actually just been fused with that, has been sort of merged with Middle Eastern studies, and just in the course offerings, and things like that. And so, when I started, eventually started teaching, I made sure that my courses in the Gen Ed, and things like that we're really presenting Islam as a world religion. And I would include material, not only from South Asia, but because of my background also in African studies, because I was raised in Kenya I knew Swahili, I got very interested in how Islam developed in Africa. And then I remember also, in high school for A-levels and things like that, we had taken West African history, East African history, and some of that touched on Islam. So I was able to read more, I taken courses on African history here as well. And so, I was able to bring those perspectives into my courses, to make them truly global courses in their scope, and really trying to disabuse students of the notion that Islam was just Middle Eastern, because that's the popular stereotype. So it's partly breaking that notion. And I think, in that regard, I've also been very interested in talking about Islam as a living tradition that is global, but it's also not just out there, but it's also American. So I've been able to, in my courses, I always end my courses on Islam by looking at Islam in America and I've been doing that for several decades now. So I always have a unit of, and within Islam in America, I've tended to sometimes, because it's a growing field, but I've tended to focus on African American traditions of Islam, like the Nation of Islam, and things like that. So I think being in the Study of Religion has actually encouraged that kind of perspective that I think Wilfred Cantwell Smith would totally approve of, you know, think about it as global, and not being in an area studies program. I think even though my doctorate was in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, but within that I was in the field of Indo-Muslim Culture and that was focused on South Asia. And I've always thought that, maybe this sort of also ties into the gift of the Alwaleed Program, this idea to globalize the study of Islam.
Roy Mottahedeh  44:52
Yes, very much.
Ali Asani  44:55
Yeah and I think that was a very interesting move. And, you know, I think we are, we're seeing at least with, with Ousmane Kane, we have, you know, Islam in Africa, and I think they're using one of the Alwaleed chairs now, to do Islam in America, it's going to be used for the study of Islam in America as well, which is going to be interesting. And fortunately, now also the Divinity School now has hired somebody who's a specialist in Islam in Southeast Asia. It's not on the Alwaleed fund, but it's on Divinity School, because I think the faculty there recognize that Islam in South Asia was important. And so I think for the first time, you know, Harvard is sort of poised to offer an Islamic studies program that is truly global, and having faculty in all these different areas. I think the one area that we're missing is Central Asia because we don't have anyone, but that's another whole story. But I think this idea of trying to globalize Islamic studies, is, has now become, I think, very much part of the Harvard, you know, picture the worldview at Harvard. But you know, what I do find is that, at least it's just my experience that even though we have these courses, now, I find that most of the students are still very much, maybe it's the factor of advising or maybe the fact of how they perceive the field, there's still a Middle Eastern focused. You know, so I'll have graduate students, you know, who come and teach my courses on Islam, and they know nothing about Islam in South Asia or Islam in Africa. So when we're teaching units of that course, I actually have to give them mini lessons.
Roy Mottahedeh  46:52
Bravo, bravo.
Ali Asani  46:55
To try to broaden their view. So that's what concerns me, is that the field itself, even though we have the resources at Harvard, but, you know, graduate advising is not encouraging students who are in Islamic studies to go global in their perspectives. And maybe because there's still people who are in the, still an area-studies mode. I think people who are in religion tend to think about it more globally. I'm more likely to get students in religion who see Islam globally and will take courses in South Asia and Southeast Asia and so on, but not so much in the area studies, you know, like NELC or Middle Eastern studies.
Harry Bastermajian  47:34
Yeah, there's this, thank you, Professor Asani. I mean, there's this interesting push and pull between area studies, Middle East studies and the direction, the increased internationalization, of Islamic studies. I mean, I remember one of the most influential, yeah influential is a good word, books reading as a graduate student was Richard Bulliet's Islam: The View from the Edge. I mean, it really, you know, I entered the field as well thinking about Islam and Islamic Studies and Islamic history from the Middle East perspective and Hodgson forced us to think more broadly and to look beyond just the central lands as the Cambridge History of Islam refers to it as, and focus on the flourishing that occurs in the outer lands of Islamdom.
Meryum Kazmi  48:52
What has been the place of Islamic studies in the wider university curriculum over the years?
William Graham  48:58
I'll never forget looking at a state university's catalog back in the 70s when I was writing an article on, was doing an article for a conference on humanistic studies and the modern university, American university, and really interested in the issue of non-Western studies in the curriculum over against the core, the old core of Western studies, which I had been trained in, of course, classics, German, French were the things I, and European history, those were my fields before I came to start graduate study. So I knew very well this sort of thing. But I remember looking at a catalog of a, you know, large state university, and seeing that there was humanities and then Oriental humanities. So the humanities were divided into these two different- and humanities meant, of course, classics, and European language studies, and history and Oriental studies was everything- Oriental humanities was everything else. And that to me, was simply a, you know, a signal of the sort of Western and American specifically myopia to a certain degree, or at least the historical burden we bore from previous scholarship at the, this was in the 1970s, the mid 70s. But it was still a vestige of a time when you really looked at well, there's humanistic studies of the West and then there's everything else. And you were making a big step in progress if you spoke about Oriental humanities, because otherwise, the Oriental studies was always just, you know, odd religious ideas out there and to speak about oriental humanities was an oddity that I'm sure was a big progressive step when this university did this. Today, it would seem odd, I think, I don't know that they're still doing it, I've never gone back to look. But in any case, I think this issue of the Western, of our undergraduate curriculum, in particular, has, of course, become much more diverse, and so on. And I'm still a believer that it's nice to have the classical Western fields there at the core of things. But I do think the integration of studies of Islam and of the Hindu or Buddhist world in particular, those three that had been so immensely influential, and the Chinese as well, I would say those four that have this had this wide influence, and still today have, in major portions of the globe and major portions of the world population, that to begin, to be integrating these into any core curriculum program, any general education program should be a sine qua non of having such a program today. That was not true in the past and it's only gradually become to be true in recent, really, fairly recent decades, or even recent years. So that's, I mean, I think that's something that we also need to think about, is integrating Islam as an important part of American undergraduate studies in some fashion, it may only be in one course, or even in one part of one course, but it should be part of that core knowledge of the world that you'd like to think a liberally-educated American undergraduate would have, when they get an AB or a BS degree. I just, you know, I really feel that very, very strongly. So that's all that I really have to say about that, is that I do think if we remember, we want to remember that we're not doing Islamic studies, just for the specialist on the non-Western world, or even on the global Islamic world, west and east, but we're doing it really to try to see Islam as part of the human story rather than just part of a Middle Eastern or even an Oriental world. And that I think is very important and I think Islamicists should keep trying to push for that kind of ideal within their own universities and their own undergraduate curriculum all the time.
Meryum Kazmi  53:26
We spoke with the professors about their thoughts on the legacy of Orientalism, both the field and the 1979 book by Edward Said.
Ali Asani  53:35
You know, Orientalism constructed Islam in one way, and it was very often through a Sunni discourse, and that was seen, and Shiism was a heresy. So that's part of the Orientalist legacy. But it's also been let's say, intensified by, you know, Sunni theological perspectives that are very often based on discourses of power, the theology of power of triumphalism, and so some of the Sunni polemics among students has also sort of fueled this kind of thing. So I think that's one point. And I think the other part of the Orientalist legacy is, of course, thinking about Islam is religion of empire. And so why is the story of Islam told in a certain way? And that, again, as we've talked about before, is that the academy was complicit with the state, but it's the colonial state or the post-colonial state, in determining discourses of Islam. And though obviously, on both counts, some of my work is, is trying to undermine those discourses, or highlighting where those discourses are coming from and why we need to challenge them.
William Graham  55:06
I think another thing about the studies of most of the, I think most of us that have been colleagues here at Harvard, has been and not all inspired by Wilfred Smith, certainly, I think I probably have been certainly, or by, for that matter, Marshall Hodgson, who was also a great inspiration to me, early in my teaching career, in reading, of course, he had died by that time, died tragically very young, but using his three volumes, and so forth, particularly his first one, but also his second and third volumes, certainly, I felt long before we had Orientalism by Said that we had in those two people, because Smith already in fact, I did an article about 15 years ago, I think it was only published maybe six or eight years ago, but I did an article for a conference on Smith, just looking at him over against Said and all the things that in the 50s and 60s, Smith had written against Orientalism, and not using that terminology that Said used, but using very much the same sets of arguments. And I, in that little article, parsed sort of four different things in which Smith really, I think, in his way, had already made the points that Said makes in Orientalism. And then Marshall Hodgson, whom I also mentioned in that article, I think Hodgson was the other person, the other Islamicist in this country, who long before Hodgson [correction: Said] was already making the kind of critique of Orientalist ways of thinking, to use Orientalism in a negative sense. And so, there I think we already had that. It's very interesting that Said knew nothing, so far as I was able to ascertain, from reading his book and other things he's written, knew nothing of either of those two scholars. So that's a case where, you know, two, I think, rather visionary in their own oddly different ways, very visionary Islamicists in America had already set some Islamic studies, a lot of Islamic Studies, if you look at the influence of Chicago and Harvard respectively, on Islamic Studies, I think you could say two very influential people. And Roy could say more about maybe people at Princeton. I mean, I feel that some of the people at Princeton as well have certainly not been Orientalist in the way Said was talking about. So I thought that his book was in a lot of ways, a little myopic, as brilliant as it was, and as much as it gave us a new kind of vocabulary that people have used not just in Islamic studies, but in Indian studies, and in East Asian studies, even but particularly in South Asian studies. Certainly Said did do that. An outsider could step in, an English professor could step in and see that very, very well. But it was also myopic, because he didn't know the full parameters. He didn't even pick the worst examples of Orientalism out of the European world because he didn't, I don't think he knew German, and I don't think he used any of the German scholars who were a lot more paradigmatically Orientalist in a few cases, in terms of government links, and in terms of their Orientalist attitudes that were the French or the or the English, or equally so at least. And the same thing with Dutch scholars. I mean, he could have done a lot much more, but naturally, he wasn't, you know, he wasn't on Orientalist himself. So one can forgive him that, certainly, and we're all grateful for the work, but I did feel like it was a myopic and one-sided work in a lot of ways. So that's, I'll close with that.
Harry Bastermajian  58:40
Thank you for that, because I mean, I think about Albert Hourani's wonderful review of Orientalism, "The Road to Morocco"
William Graham  58:49
He was very kind.
Harry Bastermajian  58:51
Yes, he was very kind but he points this out that part of the shortcomings of Said's work was his, basically, he looked over a lot of German scholarship. I mean, yeah, that really is.
Meryum Kazmi  59:20
We closed our discussion by asking the Alwaleed Program directors about the need for an Islamic studies program and their hopes for the future of Islamic studies at Harvard.
Harry Bastermajian  59:29
You know, the Center [for Middle Eastern Studies] was established, as you pointed out, 1952, or 54, sorry, but it was area studies, as you point out and come 2005 with the gift from Prince Alwaleed for the Islamic Studies Program, why the need for a separate Islamic Studies Program? Islamic studies had existed within the Center for Middle Eastern Studies for a while.
Roy Mottahedeh  59:55
Good point. Good point, I negotiated the whole thing with Prince Alwaleed, so I know quite a lot about it. Prince Alwaleed wanted to strengthen Islamic studies in American universities. He gave some money to Georgetown, without any kind of, he more or less left them to shape it. But in our case, he wanted to say, we should teach the Islamic world as a whole, which has always has been an ambition of mine. I mean, I'd love to have a colleague who did Indonesian Islamic studies. And so he said he would give four professorships and some money for library sources, and so on and so forth. But the grant also established a program and I was the first director of the program, and kind of wrote up its mission statement and things like that.
Harry Bastermajian  1:00:57
I'd like to hear a little bit about your hopes for Islamic studies. Where do you see the field going? Or where would you like to see the field?
Ali Asani  1:01:06
So for me, of course, I think that the globalization is important but for my own work I've been more conscious of the role that, to help people understand Islam is not all text based. You know, moving away from the written text and looking at the different ways in which people experience religion, you know, experiential. So you know, the role that the sound arts and the visual arts and the literary arts play in the day to day experience of Islam. So, for instance, many people experience the Quran as a recited text, you know, work that Bill Graham has done, and the discourse within the tradition of how the aesthetic of the text, the beauty of the text, you know, get connected with the sacred, but then how people see that as a way in which you relate to the transcendent is through aesthetics, and beauty and beauty is a sign of divine manifestation. And those kinds of notions, I think, are very important and very often underplayed. So if you look at like the stories of how narratives of how Islam became spread as a religion, you can see the discourses within the tradition itself always talk about aesthetics and beauty, like how could somebody resist not listening to and engaging with the text, so beautiful, and they don't talk about socio-economic reasons, or empire building or anything like that. So the narratives from within, which often are embedded in these, in this artistic discourse into the sound or to the poetic discourse, and how people understand religion through poetry, for example, like the Masnavi or Hafiz, and that this poetry is not just read, it's experienced, it's performed. And that, you know, those aspects of it, I think, are, at least for me, becoming more important. So, I started teaching a course, it's an introduction to Islam, totally done through that perspective. I've called it "Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam through the Arts," and it's really taking this notion of, "God is beautiful and loves beauty," and then see how this unfolds in different Muslim cultures around the world. So even that is global and I look at how it appears in the qawwali in South Asia or some verses of West African, genres of West African poetry or in Indonesia, and I bring it up to the modern period because I do feel, this is something that I picked up actually from some of the work of Mohammed Arkoun, where he talked about this notion of the silent Islam, the Islam of the believer that often is, he called it silent because it's not represented in the academy. It's not represented in the social media or the political media, which focuses so much on what he called, has been called the loud Islam, and that occupies the spaces, but these other forms and these other expressions of Islam which are embedded in forms that sometimes we wouldn't even think about looking at, this is where religion is located, but it is located there, not just in the text. But trying to introduce students to that way of thinking about Islam and then trying to get them to express their learning through engaging in art making, on their own part. So, you know, thinking about the arts as a form of knowledge, but also the arts as a form of learning. So, compose a poem, design, come up with a calligraphy and explain what you've done, things like that, for me, has become very important, at least in the way that I'm teaching. I think maybe the seeds that maybe Annemarie Schimmel sort of sowed in me about the importance of the arts and literature have actually started to really sort of, I don't know, I like to think maybe blossom now because I'm just so fascinated with this stuff. And what is interesting is seeing the students getting so excited about this because they're able to connect with religion in a very different way. And I know Muslim students, they were like, "Wow, we never knew that this was a whole discourse in Islam," because they have a very ideological perception of thinking of Islam just as identity, but they don't think about Islam as experienced and connected with aesthetics. So that's what I would say, for me, is that this is an interesting new trend in thinking about Islam.
Harry Bastermajian  1:05:58
Professor Graham, would you like to pick it up from there?
William Graham  1:06:01
Well there's probably just a couple things. I mean, Roy and I, from the time Roy came back to Harvard from Princeton, have been co-conspirators, or were co-conspirators, in trying to make Islamic studies, really some kind of reality, some kind of institutional reality at Harvard, along with Middle Eastern studies, and that's, of course, how we came to have the Islamic Studies Committee within the Middle East Center, because first Roy and then I were directors in the late 80s, early 90s, of the Middle East Center. And Roy, when I became director in 1990, Roy took over this, or really built, an Islamic Studies Committee and Program and so on that maybe he'll say something about, and I think for us, when we were asking, it was, I think probably just the two of us, basically, that did most of the consultation with the faculty group that came around for the Alwaleed Program, looking to see what universities would get the Alwaleed funding. And I know that we prepared, I looked back on the computer not too long ago, I still have four or five drafts of things from the from 2001, 2, 3, or whatever, in that period that Roy and I did on Islamic studies at Harvard. And I think the way we saw it even then, was that there were all these strengths, scattered across departments and scattered across fields at Harvard, but there was no sort of, the one thing an Islamic studies program might do would be to bring these together and also focus future appointments better in terms of filling gaps and making it really global and our first, one of the first descriptions, they've been altered a couple of times by, sometimes by provosts, or assistant provosts, and other people, but our first our first Alwaleed proposal certainly was approved of and done on the basis of our saying that we wanted to have fields like Islam in Africa, Islam in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Islam in South Asia, and so on, Islam even in America or in Europe, that these were all fields that we aspired to having represented at some point. And I guess if I had to look to the future, I would say that would be a certainly an aspiration I would hope that the Alwaleed Program eventually will help make a reality.
Roy Mottahedeh  1:08:28
I want to say that historians now write about everything. The history of crops, the history of music, the history of all kinds of things that were not considered proper history when I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the History Department. It was overwhelmingly both chronological history and institutional history. And I've learned about a lot about medieval English government, which I haven't used much in my work but I enjoyed learning. But it requires a lot of different hands to history for an Islamic studies person, one needs, well, the ideal combination would be somebody with both deep philology and not necessarily in Arabic, but in their areas other than Arabic, deep philology and an historical approach. Some people in the past achieved that. Adam Metz, The Civilization of Islam, is a beautiful book. It's not fully realized, because not all the texts and everything that he could use were published in his time, but it's a beautiful book. It's inspired, of course, by Burkhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance. But, so what? It's great. Wellhausen's The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall. Superb, old-fashioned kind of history. Very good, still, whatever it is, 120 years old. But those were people who had some kind of natural idea of what history was, and deep philology. There won't be so many people like that every generation. It's a long, long apprenticeship and hard work. There simply are so many kinds of history, as we understand it today. I mean, areas like women's history have just come into view for our field and a very good thing that is. I think that we have to have some teaching of Islamic studies through history departments, because an historian's approach, as varied as they are, an historian's approach is slightly different from a philologist's approach. It's wonderful to have people teach as Annemarie Schimmel did, but it's also wonderful that people give survey courses in Islamic history as a background. In fact, I think the historical background enriches you even if you're if you're doing literature. So, you know, may a thousand flowers bloom, may a thousand flowers bloom. And we need all kinds of Islamic studies. And in my field, history, we need more than one kind of history. There really are many kinds of history. Occasional geniuses in the past, like Wellhausen and Metz achieved real distinction but each of them, in our field, wrote only one book. Wellhausen, of course, wrote a lot more in Biblical studies and everything. I think that taking our people seriously, the people we study, is an important thing. So much was written by an older generation about, was Islam original? We were just talking about the teaching. Was Islam original? Was Islamic philosophy original? etc. was just misplaced interests. Partly, in the United States we're inclined to think about things, are they original or are they imitated? because we live in a strange position vis-a-vis European civilization. But I think what things are in themselves is a deep part of understanding human history. And Muslims are our fellow human beings. And we have to understand them in themselves, as they understood themselves, and we can understand them differently, of course, across a gap of time. Thank you.
Harry Bastermajian  1:13:02
That's great. I mean, Islam on its own terms, right? I think this is important to thinking about the field and its future.
Meryum Kazmi  1:13:18
That was selections from our conversation with former Alwaleed Program directors, Professors Roy Mottahedeh, William Graham, and Ali Asani about the field of Islamic studies at Harvard and beyond. Please join us in hearing more about their individual experiences in upcoming episodes of Harvard Islamica. Thanks for listening.