Ep. 3 | The Making of an Islamic Historian | Prof. Roy Mottahedeh

Roy Mottahedeh

Professor Roy Mottahedeh shares with the Alwaleed Program team how he entered the field of Islamic studies as an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1950s and his development and career as a historian. Originally interested in studying Persian after growing up hearing the language from his father, Professor Mottahedeh pursued the study of both Persian and Arabic at Harvard and, inspired by Sir Hamilton Gibb, chose to pursue a career in Islamic history. Professor Mottahedeh shares his memories of studying Arabic, Persian, and other languages; traveling in the Middle East and Central Asia after college, studying with Sir Hamilton Gibb, Richard Frye, Annemarie Schimmel, and others; and the state of Islamic studies when he returned to Harvard as a professor in 1986. He also answers our questions about some of his best-known works, Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society (1980), The Mantle of the Prophet (1985), Lessons in Islamic Jurisprudence (2005), and “The Clash of Civilizations: An Islamicist’s Critique” (1993).

Roy Mottahedeh is Gurney Research Professor of History, the former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University.


Episode 3
Hosts: Meryum Kazmi and Harry Bastermajian 
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 at our email address, Islamicstudies@harvard.edu. Please enjoy this episode of Harvard Islamica.


Meryum Kazmi  01:04

Hello, and welcome to the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Meryum Kazmi,


Harry Bastermajian  01:07

and I'm Harry Bastermajian.


Meryum Kazmi  01:10

This is the second in a series of four interviews with former directors of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. In this episode, we hear from Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Research Professor of History, about how he began studying Arabic and Persian at Harvard College, his career as a historian, his memories of his mentors, and his reflections on some of his best-known publications.


Harry Bastermajian  01:33

Roy Parviz Mottahedeh was born in New York City in 1940. He graduated from Harvard College with an A.B. in history in 1960, and earned a second B.A. in Persian and Arabic from Cambridge University. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard under Sir Hamilton Gibb and Richard Frye and was elected a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. Professor Mottahedeh began his teaching career at Princeton, where he earned tenure and was one of the first MacArthur Fellows. He returned to Harvard in 1986 as Professor of Islamic History, where his many accomplishments have included directing the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, founding the Harvard Middle East and Islamic Review, and founding the Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program.


Meryum Kazmi  02:19

We began by asking Professor Mottahedeh how he entered Islamic studies and about his experiences, first as an undergraduate, and later as a graduate student at Harvard.


Roy Mottahedeh  02:33

Okay, well, my father was Iranian by origin and, as a child, I always heard him joking and laughing with his Iranian friends. And I very much wanted to learn Persian. And my father told me if you do medieval Persian, you must have very good Arabic. So I came to Harvard, intending to learn both Persian and Arabic. So, uncertain that I would make it my central interest. I started my first year at Harvard doing an advanced course on the comparative anatomy of vertebrates, because I sort of wanted to be a biologist and I also started on first-year Arabic. I have to admit that it was much easier, much easier to study Arabic with a single book than to go to the laboratory and dissect animals. So I drifted, really, into Arabic and Persian study. And I loved Arabic, I still love Arabic. But Arabic teaching was crazy. The first year of Arabic, well, the first year of Arabic we had an old-fashioned grammar. And the teacher, who was William Polk, was not the slightest bit interested in the subject. We met three times a week and he said, "Any questions about that chapter?" and then he said, "Read the next chapter." So theoretically, we finished quite a good introduction to Arabic before Christmas, before the winter holidays. And he said, "Well, now you have Arabic. We will read, in the next semester, some of the Thousand and One Nights and one of the Mu'allaqat," these enormously difficult problems, pre-Islamic poems. And we did indeed go through it, but the Mu'allaqat are full of what are called hapax legomenon, words that don't occur anywhere else. So we had to memorize, more or less, the translation in order to pass the exam. But somehow or another, I learned classical Arabic sufficiently. But I was so shy, and that was terrible. I should have gone-- over and over again, I was told that I should go abroad and study with people. And I was too shy, I really was too shy. I knew I could pass my courses at Harvard and I was very lacking in foreign experience. I loved history. So I became a history major. But that meant that I was a student of Sir Hamilton Gibb, who would come just a year before me, or two years before me, to Harvard. He was a magnificent scholar, but very forbidding. Gibb was a sort of Olympian figure and I was enormously impressed by him. And he was kind to me, but I think he had a certain suspicion of Iranians, or partial Iranians, like me. So while he invited almost all of his students for tea at his house, I was never invited.


Meryum Kazmi  06:59

Oh wow.


Roy Mottahedeh  07:00

I don't know why. But anyway, and then my second year at Harvard, I started Persian. And of course, it was Richard Frye who was my teacher. And Richard Frye thought he should teach several Iranian languages together. So the first year Persian was a very strange mixture of references to ancient Iranian languages and contemporary Persian. I must say, I was fortunate enough to take a summer course in spoken Persian at Columbia, where I really learned to speak Persian although my Persian remains, to this day, not fully native. Anyway, Frye and Gibb, unfortunately, did not get on terribly well, and each of them would ask me where my loyalties lay. This embarrassed me. Anyway, I studied for a long time with both of them. I wrote my-- I was a history student. I did the required number of courses in history with great pleasure. I loved, for example, English history I enjoyed so much. But in the end, I wrote a senior thesis under William Polk, P-O-L-K, who later went to the University of Chicago. The thesis was about a medieval Persian Sufi and how the biography of this Sufi showed a lot about the social structure of Iran in the late 10th and early 11th century, in the province of Fars where Shiraz is, and this man's shrine is still there in Shiraz. Anyway, I enjoyed it thoroughly but I realized I was learning Persian and Arabic too slowly. So first I was sent on a year to travel and do nothing, the last assignment I ever fulfilled, and then I went to Cambridge in England and did part two, the final part of the tripos in Arabic and Persian, and got a very respectable grade.


Harry Bastermajian  10:04

So you went to Cambridge. Was this before or after you-- because you spent some time in Afghanistan too. So that's the other thing that's really interesting here. All three of you have this sort of Central/South Asian connection here.


Roy Mottahedeh  10:22

I graduated a little bit young, I was 19, so I was fortunate enough to get this lovely fellowship to travel and do nothing called the Shaw Traveling Fellowship. And so I decided I wanted to spend some time in the Middle East. I'd never seen the Middle East. So I went to Egypt for a couple of months and then I went to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a remarkable. So was Egypt, but Afghanistan was remarkable. It was really in the 19th century. The roads kept washing out. I remember standing at the edge of a road, as I was trying to travel down to Kabul from Bamyan, and the road had washed out and people were standing by the side throwing stones in a rather unorganized way until they would make enough high land for the bus to go through. It was incredible. It was incredible. I mean, there were scenes that looked exactly out of a Persian miniature of the 16th or 17th century. Let's see, I graduated from Harvard in 1960. And this was '60-'61. Anyway, I sort of bonded with the Middle East more strongly after that experience. I felt, you know, that this was a lost world that I liked. So I met Afghan mullahs, I met Afghan sheep shearers, all kinds of people in different professions. I spoke my baby Persian, and God bless them, Afghans understand Iranian Persian well, so I had lots of interesting personal interactions. When I got back to Harvard, as I said, when I got back to Harvard,


Meryum Kazmi  12:55

I have a question. You didn't go to Iran? 


Roy Mottahedeh  12:58

No, according to Iranian law, I'm an Iranian citizen. And I was the age to be drafted, and so I couldn't go to Iran. I only went to Iran when I was in my late 30s, too old to be of any use as a soldier. Anyway, so no, I wanted to go to Iran. No, I was very interested in all of the Middle East. I went to Karbala in Iraq and I did the pilgrimage. Anyway, this was a wonderful year, I went a lot of places. And then I came back and started, as I said, as a history-- I have no degrees in anything except history. Then I went-- I'm sorry-- for a year to Cambridge where I did the part two of the tripos in Persian and Arabic. And that was really, really good for me. I had to do an Arabic and a Persian composition every week, although my teachers were not up to correcting it. I mean, one of them once said to me, "Not quite the style of Jahiz." I don't know how I could write an essay in a style equal to Jahiz, but anyway.


Harry Bastermajian  14:47

They had they had high expectations.


Roy Mottahedeh  14:51

I worked like a dog, I loved it. I loved my year in Cambridge. But anyway, I got a first on the exam, a prize, the E. G. Brown Prize. Then I went back to Harvard and, in the history department, did a Ph.D. and did four fields of history. Sometimes people do three fields of history and an Oriental language, but I did four fields of history, including Byzantine, early modern England, ancient Iran, and ancient Near East. Anyway. And, of course, Islamic history. I liked history. I loved it, actually. I feel myself to be more an historian than anything else. But as I said, I was pulled between Professor Gibb and Professor Frye. And at one point, I took several obscure Iranian languages with Professor Frye. Sogdian, and so on, so forth. I still have my Sogdian grammar. I don't understand a word of it now. Anyway, but I realized that for a lot of these languages, all that we had were, sort of, religious literature and about enough to fill a single volume. I was really an historian. I wanted to understand society and people and so on and you couldn't do that from this kind of material. So at the end of my second year, I did Pahlavi, I did a lot of Pahlavi, I still retained some Pahlavi. At the end of my second year, Frye said, "I've arranged for you to go to Holland, and work with Gonda. Gonda was the greatest Sanskritist of his time, according to some people, I don't know.


William Graham  16:56

Oh, he was one of the greatest. Jan Gonda.


Roy Mottahedeh  16:58

Yeah, Gonda, sorry.


William Graham  17:01

Gonda, yeah.


Roy Mottahedeh  17:02

Gonda, Gonda. Dutch is full of those. And he gave me an application I was supposed to fill and then disappear for two years in Holland. And I took the application and did not fill it. I took it from him and did not fill it.


William Graham  17:27

He was an Indologist.


Roy Mottahedeh  17:31

Indologist, that's right. Yeah well, Frye was of the traditional Iranian studies field where you had to master Sanskrit in order to understand all later Indo-European languages and religions and so forth. Anyway, so after doing obscure Iranian languages with Frye, I more or less declared that I was going to be a specialist in the Islamic period. And I did a lot, as I said, on ancient Iran, for my Ph.D., qualifying exams and everything. Anyway, so studying with Gibb was a challenging business because he knew Arabic so well and he was such a learned man. And he was also forbidding a little bit in his manner, not that he intended to be off putting, but he was forbidding in his manner. And then suddenly, after two and a half years studying with him, he had a stroke. And I was more or less thrown on the mercy of what remained of Middle Eastern studies. I have to explain to you, things like language laboratories, when I first started, didn't exist. There were,


William Graham  19:14

Even later.


Roy Mottahedeh  19:15

Yeah. There was a building next to the supermarket in Harvard, the Broadway Supermarket, where they had a tape recorder and they had some tapes of Persian and Arabic, but nobody ever went there. Not the least reason because nobody was taking care of the place, nobody could give you tapes appropriate for your level of study. So I learned Persian and Arabic really as dead languages. Fortunately, thanks to my Iranian friends and so on, so forth, I was able to learn spoken Persian to some extent. Still at 80 years old, I'm still far from perfect. Anyway, but Arabic was very challenging and I liked the way it was taught. And so I also studied with Annemarie Schimmel her first years here and, in fact, she sort of seconded me to be her, kind of, assistant. And I helped her with her shopping and paying her electric bill and all sorts of things until Wheeler Thackston appeared. And then I said to Wheeler, "You're Annemarie Schimmel's official chaperone. I have to write by thesis." So I wrote my thesis. I was elected to something called the Society of Fellows and that made me relatively comfortable. It's a good fellowship. For three years of my graduate career, I wrote my thesis and I wrote the article on the Abbasids for the Cambridge History of Iran. That was in 68 or something. So I was really too young to be given that assignment, but I did my best. Anyway. So then at a certain point, they said to me, I was co-teaching a course, and they said to me, "You're going to be given an assistant professorship." But then suddenly, at the last year of my junior fellowship, they said, "Well, we're going to appoint both you and Richard Bulliet and at the end, we'll choose between you." And I said, "No, thank you." I immediately called up a friend, Carl Brown, who taught at Princeton University, and said, "Carl, do you have a job for me?" and he said, "Sure." So I then went to Princeton for 16 years.


Meryum Kazmi  22:36

Professor Mottahedeh told us more about his advisors and how he came to establish himself as a historian while working with an Arabist, Sir Hamilton Gibb, and a Persianist, Richard Frye. He began by talking about Professor Gibb.


Roy Mottahedeh  22:48

Well, he was very interested in Saladin for a long time, and one of his last books is on Saladin, whom he admired as a chivalric, medieval gentlemen, very much. I always wonder if his fellow Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott, might have influenced his fascination with Saladin, because Sir Walter Scott also admired Saladin. Anyway, he was an Olympian in stature. He was an enormously tall man. I mean, for me, who is rather slight in height, he seemed enormously tall, and he was sort of pillar like. And I was just terribly shy around him, I think, as all his students were except Ira Lapidus and Mary Katherine Bateson, the daughter of Margaret Mead, who went on to write her thesis under him. They, for some reason, were able to talk to him and he loved it. I was too shy by far, by far. But he appreciated my good efforts. And as we went on and on up in years of Arabic, he saw that I was really dedicated to the subject. I took his seminar in Arabic poetry three times because I had so much to learn from it. He was a deeply moral man. Reading what he writes, you see this moral element. One of the things he liked about Saladin was that Saladin seems to have kept his word all the time. He never made a false promise or anything. And Gibb saw that sort of moral dimension of history. Perhaps it would be a little bit less in fashion today, but never mind. I mean, if you understand it, it still doesn't make it bad history. 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 it reading it now.


Harry Bastermajian  25:29

I mean, so that's important. I mean, that Gibb, first and foremost, viewed himself as an Arabist. You first and foremost, I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but from what I understand, you think of yourself first and foremost as a historian.


Roy Mottahedeh  25:45

Yes, that's right.  And so I guess, as his student, how did you see yourself sort of delineating yourself from him? Right. Right. Well, I took-- you were allowed, if you did Arabic seriously, to do only three fields of history for your generals. I insisted on doing four fields like a regular history student. But you have to have a strong philological basis to work properly with these pre-modern texts.

After he had a stroke, I went to see him and it was tragic. Here, this man who had such a wonderful feeling both for the English language and for Arabic, was just barely understandable. He was understandable. And he, in fact, did finish his Saladin book at that time. But a lot of his learning was beyond reach to him, tragically. Very sad. But it gave me a standard for the study of Arabic and history-- he didn't claim to be an historian-- and history that is very hard to live up to, and I treasure it.

One has to give credit to Frye, the pioneer. He wanted to study Iran but they told him, "Well, we don't have proper Iranian studies here, so study Sanskrit," which she did for a couple of years. And then they told him to go to London and study Persian in London, which he did. So he bounced around. He was enthusiastic and he was interested in the Iranian heritage as a whole, knew all sorts of ancient languages, which I studied with him, in part. And so, of course, Iranian studies is a philological field, as well as a historical field. And he was more of a philologist than a historian, but he did write some good history. Richard Frye wanted me to turn into a Persianist and at a certain point said, "You cannot go on as an Iranist unless you have very sound Sanskrit and here is a scholarship to study with a Dutch Sanskritist for two years in Amsterdam." And I said, "No thank you, sir." I mean, for a lot of these languages, there isn't enough to fill the first two pages of the New York Times, the fragments that are preserved from them. I really was an historian.

I benefited from some of his courses. He, for one year, taught a course on Sassanian history, which is not taught, I think, anywhere in the world. And anyway, so I learned a great deal about Persian studies, Iranian Studies, through Richard Frye. The most organized lecture course I've ever taken was the one in Byzantine history. Robert Lee Wolff taught it. I gained a good idea of what an historian does from Wolff's excellent course in Byzantine history. As I say, one of the fields for my generals was Byzantine history. I benefited a lot from the introduction to philosophy course that I took at Harvard, which has made reading philosophy, not at a professional level, but in Arabic and Persian, somewhat easier for me. Especially as we did Aristotle and Plato and all that stuff, which is so reflected in Islamic philosophy.


Meryum Kazmi  31:16

After teaching at Princeton for 16 years, Professor Mottahedeh returned to Harvard as Professor of Islamic History in 1986, and soon thereafter became the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. We asked him about the state of Islamic studies at Harvard at that time.


Roy Mottahedeh  31:32

Islamic studies was at a very low end, really. First they had, of course, Gibb had a stroke. And then Nadav Safran, who was an intelligent man, but-- he did modern Middle East-- he was not quite of the large capacity that Gibb had. And so, in a way, there was a vacuum for Islamic history concerns at Harvard. And so I came at a time when I could build up the department and some of the people who now teach at Harvard were people put forward by me. Gibb, at first, wanted Nadav to be a heavyweight at Harvard and he worked hard for Nadav's tenure. And Nadav did not write as much, after his first book, about the Arab world, though he did write some. And Gibb was a little disappointed. He wanted somebody who did the Arab world. Gibb, by the way, was a little bit prejudiced. He thought the Arab world was by far the most important part of the Islamic world. And he once, in front of me in a class, made fun of Persian poetry, which I didn't like. Professor Sir Hamilton Gibb. Anyway, and the center wandered. And, as you say, one of these wanderings was caused by a fair amount of inattention to the department by-- to the Center of Middle Eastern Studies-- by one director, and then a little malfeasance on the part of Nadav. Well, it wasn't malfeasance, it was a little bit of deception. And so when I came, I said, "I do not want to be director of the Middle East Center. Please, no." So after one year, they assembled a room of senior administrators who said, "We need you to be director." And for the first two years of my directorship, I said, "We're having no lectures on contemporary politics." And I enforced that and it worked. People, large numbers of people, came, including large numbers of people from neighboring universes like BU, and Tufts, etc. And I had them give speeches at the Center and form study groups. We had a big movement of study groups to read on more particular topics. Anyway, it worked out. The Center really revived. I was very happy about that. I don't think anybody remembers.


Meryum Kazmi  35:33

We spoke to Professor Mottahedeh about some of his best-known publications, Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society, which was his first monograph on the social bonds that created the structure of Buyid society in the 10th and 11th centuries; The Mantle of the Prophet, an account of the 1979 Iranian Revolution based on eyewitness testimony; Lessons in Islamic Jurisprudence, a translation of Durus fi ilm al-usul by Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr; and his article, "The Clash of Civilizations: An Islamicist's Critique" in response to Samuel Huntington's famous "Clash of Civilizations" thesis.


Harry Bastermajian  36:10

I remember once you mentioning that Jacob Burckhardt's The History of the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, was one of one of the most influential books.


Roy Mottahedeh  36:28

For me?


Harry Bastermajian  36:29

Yeah, for you. Could you tell us a little bit more about that, especially in light of your first monograph, Loyalty and Leadership?


Roy Mottahedeh  36:41

Right. Well, of course, I think that, first of all, one has to study the emotions that people report about events. And so you have to understand those emotions in the languages in which they're expressed. And there's never 100% correspondence from an English word to a Persian or Arabic word, so the kind of emotional resonance of what you hear has to be sort of accounted for. But beyond that, of course, we wouldn't be able to understand anything if we didn't believe there's some kind of universals that we have, as human beings, so that you can empathize with people who are in a very different situation, different cultural mix, and so on, and so forth. So I think it's terrifically important, first of all, to report how people are viewing events from their own perspective. And so when I read the chronicles, and they're very rich for the 10th century, you know, including this Islamic philosopher, Miskawayh, who was a considerable intellectual figure, they're very rich and Miskawayh tells you, he has detail about people which gives you some idea of what kind of people they are. And I try to both give the widespread terminology from the primary sources, and also, to some extent, to translate that into our own terminology. So it is indeed, a history of a specific dynasty, but more particularly, as perceived through the ideas expressed by people in the period as recorded by historians. Now we, you know, always would like to get beyond the historian, but it's hard to do that. So, I try to talk about such subjects as a great change of character as understood in perhaps a Sufi sense and other things that are attested to in the texts. It's sort of, perhaps more a history, or a history scene, with emphasis on mores, on customs, and customary ways of speaking and expressing certain kinds of emotion. I don't say that's the end of the historian's quest, but it's the place you have to start with because that's what the primary sources tell you.


Harry Bastermajian  40:24

And so was Loyalty and Leadership then a-- did you hope that the audience for Loyalty and Leadership would be more outside of Islamic history?


Roy Mottahedeh  40:38

Yeah, I did. I did. I did. I don't think I succeed in that arena, but yes, I did. Yeah. I thought it was an interesting way of writing history.


Harry Bastermajian  40:56

Yeah, I mean, one of the things that strikes me about Loyalty and Leadership is that you take meticulous care to provide your reader with clear and relatable definitions for Islamic terms, like ummah. You know, that's what I suspected. It's pretty clear that you're trying to reach out to the, perhaps, students of European history or students of Asian and American history who are maybe not familiar with Islamic civilization.


Roy Mottahedeh  41:40

I first started-- I wrote my thesis on the administrative history of the Buyid kingdom of Ray. Ray is where Tehran is now. But I realized after that I had in no way explained how such an administration could work without understanding the social terms, and to some extent psychological terms, of the people involved. So I made this very ambitious attempt. And I've never published the administrative history. Terrible.


Harry Bastermajian  42:21

Well, Loyalty and Leadership certainly won you enough praise, and a wonderful prize too.


Roy Mottahedeh  42:31

Yes, that's true.


Meryum Kazmi  42:35

Thank you. So yeah, I would love to ask more about The Mantle of the Prophet.


Roy Mottahedeh  42:40



Meryum Kazmi  42:41

I was wondering, what inspired you especially as a professor of Islamic history to write this book, that is often considered to be like a novel and especially at that time, after the 1979 revolution?


Roy Mottahedeh  42:55

Yeah, well, I was driving back from New York to Princeton, where I was teaching at the time. And I heard, they announced-- this is the time of the Iranian Revolution-- they announced the arrest of the doctor of the Shah. And I knew who he was, I didn't know him personally, and I suddenly realized this is an amazing sort of movement. And something, a lot of things are going on that have to do with long-term trends in Iranian culture. So I sat down. I was lucky enough to be friends with a very, very kindly mullah, who helped me put in the mullah background throughout. Really, a lot of educated Iranian engineers, and so on and so forth, did not have the slightest idea what the religious tradition was, and it was clear to me that I had to write a book that somehow explained this long-term development of Iranian culture.


Harry Bastermajian  44:32

Yeah, I think, you know, two observations there. One is, you know, a central focus of Mantle the Prophet is Qom, you know, and the story of Ali Hashemi's sort of coming of age and into adulthood, around this life that exists, this world, really, that exists around Qom.


Roy Mottahedeh  44:59

Right. That's correct.


Harry Bastermajian  45:00

And for many students of, you know, of Middle Eastern history and even Iranian history, I mean, you know, such focus is placed on the the great sort of other imperial cities of Iran, you know, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Qom plays this critical role in the story of Ali Hashemi and how you unfold Iranian history in The Mantle of the Prophet. I think that's really important to understand that intersection between religion and politics in Iran. You mentioned hearing of the revolution on on the radio yourself and that's how the story begins.


Roy Mottahedeh  45:48

That's right


Harry Bastermajian  45:49

In The Mantle of the Prophet, it begins with Ali Hashemi hearing of the students taking over the radio station and announcing and asking for direction from Ayatollah Khomeini. And so I guess my question is, you know, it's a creative work. Right. It's historical fiction. And you know, kind of to Meryum's point, you know, it's a different way of telling a very important story. Was the the vehicle of the story of Ali Hashimi, is that to make it more relatable and to reach a broader audience?


Roy Mottahedeh  46:38

Yes, in part, but it's also in part, I think, a legitimate way to write history. The-- is it three volumes? There's a trilogy by Dos Passos called USA, and as a teenager, I was very impressed by it. He's using different voices of different people of different persuasions. Communists, Christians, whatever. And I think there is an attempt to recreate the voices of people of different persuasions. I have to say, nothing in it is entirely made up. It's all based on the interviews I did with people. My spoken Persian used to be pretty good and I spoke a lot with Iranians who lived through these events. And from that, was able to construct people who have participated.


Harry Bastermajian  47:50

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it was 2003 when you published Lessons in Islamic Jurisprudence.


Roy Mottahedeh  47:58

Right. Right.


Harry Bastermajian  47:59

You know, you've always worked in the subfield, I guess we could call it, of Shi'i studies or Shiite studies. 


Roy Mottahedeh  48:07

Right. Right. 


Harry Bastermajian  48:08

What brought you to to publish Lessons in Islamic Jurisprudence?


Roy Mottahedeh  48:14

Well, I've always been interested in the question of what I'm going to call comparative scholasticism. I think that there is a resemblance between, say, European scholasticism in the Middle Ages, late Middle Ages, Islamic scholasticism, perhaps even Chinese scholasticism and Buddhist scholasticism in some other places. It's a faithful yet strongly interpretive way of presenting high religious belief, making, of course, use of things like logic, and so on, so forth. As a boy, I read-- probably pushed myself beyond my understanding-- I read a wonderful book on scholasticism in Gothic architecture by a very famous scholar, I can't remember his name. Anyway, it always interested me how fine-spun, intricate versions of belief are related to the rest of culture and how coherent they are in themselves, and so on, so forth. So I was immensely attracted by the higher learning among Shi'is. And the core of it, really, was the jurisprudence of Islamic law. The Shiite development of jurisprudence in Islamic law is particularly interesting and not well known in the West. So I decided to get one of the core texts used to train mullahs in it. Now, of course, this is a text for people like, you know, 12 to 15, or something like that. They go on, scholasticism deepens as you get older, and who knows, maybe before I die I'll translate a more advanced book of the same nature. I think they're important to understand certain aspects of culture. And they're sort of interesting as intellectual exercises in themselves. What do you do with a revealed law? Obviously, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, everybody has to deal with this question, somehow. Buddhists may not entirely fit in. But anyway, there is Buddhist scholasticism.


Harry Bastermajian  50:08

I'm excited to ask you this question Roy in sort of this capacity of, you know, this podcast, because I also teach your "Clash of Civilizations: An Islamicist's Critique," this article published in the Harvard Middle East and Islamic Review, I think, in 1993, is when it was published. It's one of your most-downloaded articles from academia.edu, and, I guess, I mean, this might seem like a simple, straightforward question, but I really want to know what you have to say. Why did you write it?


Roy Mottahedeh  51:51

The dean of the Divinity School-- this is the story behind it-- the dean of the Divinity School invited us-- this was before Bill Graham was dean-- it was the previous dean. So they invited us to a luncheon at his house, in which there was Sam Huntington and the senior fellows of, not the Society of Fellows, but


Harry Bastermajian  52:25

Is it the Junior Fellows?


Roy Mottahedeh  52:27

I was a Junior Fellow, yeah. At that time I was not. Anyway, the senior fellows of some organization that was run by my my friend, the then dean. And just arbitrarily they assigned me to make a comment after Huntington gave his exposition on the "Clash of Civilizations." And I knew Huntington slightly, not very well, and we'd never had a cross word. But I did work hard on thinking about the paper. I delivered my critique and I said, "These are only superficial things." And Huntington is a brilliant man and all of that, but Sam Huntington immediately smelled there might be more trouble here. And he said, "If those are just minor objections, I don't know what to say." And he got very angry. And then, because he was so angry, I typed up a final version of the thing as an article and I took it to Sam's office and said, "Sam, this is what I wrote. And if you disagree, please tell me." And Sam called me up and said, "Who would publish such garbage?" He was furious. And gradually, through my later life at Harvard, Sam and I got reconciled. But he really-- he said, "There's only one place where you corrected me where I was wrong." He, I guess, was rather thin skinned, and so I was sorry about that. I mean, he was a great figure in the social sciences and all that, but the the critique was not something that sort of came out of fantasy. It was all very, very, based on what Huntington said and it was in no way rude. In no way, whatsoever, rude. So I don't know what to say. Sam, I guess, was a little thin skinned, yes. Yeah, please.


Harry Bastermajian  55:17

So I mean-- that's a great story. I didn't know about that. But you know, I have to say, having taught, in concert, Huntington's article version, and then your response to my students, my students are always sort of amazed at how polite you are in your critique.


Roy Mottahedeh  55:52

I'm glad that comes across.


Harry Bastermajian  55:54

In the sense that, you know, you really take him to task. I mean, because you bring solid, you know, empirical evidence, right? You know, you even say that you very much hope he remains an empiricist. And you bring important theorists of not just the social sciences, but even the sciences into the conversation like Thomas Kuhn. And I think that that's really important for sort of understanding the time and place of the "Clash of Civilizations" and your particular response to it. And I guess that sort of leads me to a follow up. Looking back now, you know, 30 years, on the "Clash of Civilizations," is there anything different you would say, in terms of your critique? Or does it still hold the same title?


Roy Mottahedeh  56:59

I don't think Huntington's analysis about there being civilizational groupings-- it's true in a way, I've never said it was entirely wrong, there certainly are civilizational groupings-- but what he outlined has not proved to be largely correct. There was a foreign policy aspect of this, which, of course, in Huntington you expect. He thought the United States was too involved overseas. And he had been a big supporter of the Vietnam War. Then he decided the United States was too involved overseas. And he was backing down by saying, you know, the only important relations are with European countries who are like us and not with this 'Third World,' which is not like us. And there's some truth to that, but it's not the overall picture of foreign policy since particularly, I mean, things like the rise of China, make it absurd to talk about, we should only have relations with European countries.


Meryum Kazmi  58:29

That was selections from our conversations with Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Research Professor of History, former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and founding director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University, as he looked back on his development and career as a scholar of Islamic history. Please join us for subsequent episodes with professors William Graham and Ali Asani on the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Meryum Kazmi, thanks for listening.