Ep. 5 | Establishing Islamic and Comparative Religious Studies at Harvard | Prof. William A. Graham

William GrahamProfessor William Graham talks about his scholarly journey and how he "stumbled" into Islamic studies after pursuing other subjects including Classics and Sanskrit and Indian studies. He also shares his memories of his advisors at Harvard, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Muhsin Mahdi, and other scholars who shaped Islamic studies including Josef van Ess, Abdelhamid Sabra, Harry Wolfson, Annemarie Schimmel, and George Makdisi.  Finally, Professor Graham reflects on his involvement across the different homes of Islamic studies at Harvard including Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Study of Religion, and Harvard Divinity School as well as his scholarly interest in the Qur'an as an oral scripture.

William A. Graham is Murray A. Albertson Research Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Emeritus, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus. During his 45 years of teaching at Harvard he served as chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on the Study of Religion, and the Core Curriculum Committee on Foreign Cultures; dean of the Harvard Divinity School; and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program.

Credits

Episode 4
Hosts: Meryum Kazmi and Harry Bastermajian 
Audio elements (in order of appearance): "Johann Pachelbel - Kanon in D Dur" by Aitua
Transcription: Otter

Transcript

Meryum Kazmi  00:05

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

 

Harry Bastermajian  00:09

and I'm Harry Bastermajian.

 

Meryum Kazmi  00:11

This is the third in a four-part series of interviews with former Alwaleed Program directors. In this episode, we hear from Professor William Graham, Murray A. Albertson Research Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus.

 

Harry Bastermajian  00:27

Professor Graham earned his bachelor's degree at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and went on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard under the supervision of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Muhsin Mahdi. He became a professor in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1973, and the Faculty of Divinity in 2002. Professor Graham's long commitment to the university is evident through his leadership as dean of the Harvard Divinity School, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies as well as the Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on the Study of Religion. His scholarship has focused on early Islamic religious history and textual traditions, especially the Qur'an and hadith, and on the global history of religion. His publications include Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam, which was awarded the American Council of Learned Societies History of Religions Prize in 1978; Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion; and Islamic and Comparative Religious Studies; as well as numerous articles and reviews.

 

Meryum Kazmi  01:45

We asked Professor Graham how he found his way into Islamic studies after spending his undergraduate career studying European history and classics and intending to pursue a career in medicine.

 

William Graham  01:56

I have to say I literally stumbled into Islamic studies. I really had no exposure to the Middle East or the Islamic world until I was in college. And I went to the University of North Carolina as an undergraduate, where I had a freshman honors seminar my first semester. It was a wonderful European intellectual history course taught by Herbert Bodman, whose field was actually Ottoman and Middle Eastern history. He had done his doctoral work at Princeton under Philip Hitti in the late '40s and early '50s. Bodman never published a great deal beyond his important study of the Janissaries of Aleppo, but he was one of the most brilliant teachers I ever had either at UNC, Harvard, or anywhere else, not least because he was gifted at asking questions. That experience led to my coming back in the fall of my junior year to do a course on the history of the Middle East with him. I would not have done that, I think, save for that freshman seminar experience and my having had the chance as well to spend the summer after my sophomore year in South India working in a hospital. While I loved the operating room work that I did there in India, I was by then more and more convinced that I wanted, rather than a medical career, to pursue some field of humanities and get into undergraduate education. After India, I also realized that I had, up to then, only been studying Western history, and some of its languages, Greek, Latin, French and German, and I needed to start to move beyond Europe somehow. In that summer in India, I dabbled even in Sanskrit with a local pundit and that gave me a glimpse of worlds of literature and history well beyond the Danube, so that helped me decide to do the Bodman course on Middle Eastern history as about the only Oriental studies, as they say, course going at that time, and that course ran up through the Abbasid period. And as it happened, I wasn't able to finish it that term. I had to interrupt all my courses in November when, thanks to cross-country running, I discovered very early indeed that I had picked up tuberculosis in India. So I was able to be treated aggressively with hospitalization and drugs in only two or three months from late November through January. Therefore, I ended up finishing some of my courses from my sick bed and the others in the spring along with my next term's work and one of those in the spring was the Middle East course was Bodman. And so he gave me a tutorial through the spring to let me finish up the course that ended up being much more important than the course itself had been. It introduced me in an exciting way to the Islamic world and under his tutelage, I read and discussed with him some of the standard introductory studies at that time, from Gibb and Hitti to Bernard Lewis and even Marshall Hodgson's major monograph on the Alamut Isma'ilis. It was eye popping, but I still had no idea that I would ever go further with anything Middle Eastern since I was still interested primarily in Europe and South Asia. That same junior year term, I ended up applying for and getting a UNC scholarship to spend the next year in Germany in order to get German into good shape. So I went between my junior and senior year on this two-person exchange to Goettingen. I did four months of intensive language in southern Germany to get ready for it and then, in October, started studying in Goettingen and doing German literature and language for the whole year, and returning to Chapel Hill for my delayed senior year, at least rather fluent in German, which was had been my intention. I'd already completed all my history major requirements and planned to do a history senior thesis. Specifically, I wanted to write a comparative intellectual history thesis, putting Thomas Mann and Euripides against the background of their respective eras, namely the Peloponnesian and European major wars and conflicts. Bodman was still my history advisor, but he advised me against trying to do the thesis in the department since, at that time, it was not very welcoming, he said, to work in intellectual history. He urged me instead to go and ask the chair of Comparative Literature if that department might take me on as a major since I had a number of languages and a lot of literature courses behind me. I followed his advice, and in my penultimate semester, became a Comp Lit major. I was approved to do my whole senior year with independent reading, working with five different professors in different fields of literature, which was a wonderful experience, and also enabled me to write my Mann and Euripides study.  By this time, I was sure I wanted to do graduate work in some kind of comparative cultural or intellectual history. So I began inquiring about doctoral study in comparative history, and particularly, I said, I thought I want might want to focus on Western European and South Asian Studies. But the departments I contacted, including, first of all, Harvard, said, basically that I should do European history for graduate study and leave comparative study for postdoctoral work. I wasn't very happy about that. So after further inquiries, and at the suggestion of, again, Herbert Bodman, who happened to have taught Ottoman history one year with Wilfred Smith at McGill, I wrote to Smith, who had recently moved to Harvard, to see if I could do comparative cultures under the comparative religion program he was directing there. He was very encouraging in his response and told me to apply. So in the end, I turned down other programs to come here in comparative religion. The program required that I, as a student with a Western Christian background, had to specialize in a non-Western tradition with any Western studies only as a secondary field. So Smith urged me, because of my background in classics, to take up the related language of Sanskrit. That's how I ended up starting in Indian studies. However, in the course of that first year, working in Sanskrit and Indian studies, both of which I liked very much, I still was becoming more and more uncertain about whether I really wanted to study religion as a lifelong field of specialization. I decided it might be good to take a year out and think about it, and I looked back to my German experience and decided that a good way to go and still do something positive while thinking would be to learn a modern language. So I decided that I could go and learn a modern language, perhaps in India, and then bring that back to Indian studies at Harvard. I was lucky to have a Danforth Fellowship that would take me through my entire graduate education, and of course, I didn't want to give that up. So I went to the foundation and asked the Danforth people if they might support a year of language study abroad since my program required an advanced Oriental language anyway. They said yes and they and the Harvard Traveling Fellowship supported my work that next year. However, I did not get to India, as it turned out. When I looked for programs in India, I couldn't find any that would let you start from ground zero with any Indian language that I could at least find. And then when that failed, I even went to programs in Chinese and Japanese, and the same thing was true, whether in Taiwan, or China, or Japan. And so at this point, I was really at an impasse. So I went back to Wilfred Smith and he said, "Look, there's a British Foreign Office school in the Lebanon [that] I think is still operating and they take private, non-governmental students from ground zero in Arabic. Why not study Arabic?" So that was a thought, and indeed, when he gave me the address, I wrote to them, and that's how I ended up doing Arabic at the Middle East Center for Arabic Studies in the mountains of Lebanon. Harvard, as I say, supported my travels, so I was able to do the whole year there. I did intensive modern Arabic that year and only then that I returned in September of '68 to begin work in Islamic studies. I began on Arabic with Annemarie Schimmel, which was jumping really way beyond my capacities, I think, since I had no classical Arabic at that point, but it meant I just simply had to do a lot of hard work and a lot of extra hours that year, which I'm sure was good for me. There were only four or five of us in the course reading Sufi texts, and the others were certainly much more advanced than I, so that gave me a real challenge to work towards all the time. That's when I first actually met my longtime colleague here in NELC, Wheeler Thackston, who himself was already very advanced in Arabic, and doing the reading course on Sufi texts with me. I also began studying Islam through a general course that I did with Wilfred Smith and, of course, went on to do reading courses of various kinds and other courses on Islam in India and things like Qur'an interpretation and a couple of kalam texts with Smith or others. I further did a reading course with Muhsin Mahdi on Ibn Khaldun. And I, by that time, was pretty well hooked on classical Islamic studies and ever since, I've stayed with Arabic as my primary area of focus. I did a little Persian and a little Turkish, and I went back and did some more Sanskrit and even a year of Buddhist Pali, but I've never really developed other languages like Arabic to the point where I could work with them with the kind of facility that makes it really easy to have them as a focal working language. So I remain an Arabist and Islamicist with a focus on classical studies, as well as a comparative historian of religion, where I've tried to work on topics involving traditions that I have some linguistic ability to look at primary text in, whether it's the Greco-Roman, or European Christian, the Buddhist or the Hindu tradition, particularly Southern Buddhist, where I had the Sanskrit and Pali. So I have done some comparative work in these areas. So I've kept, really, my early interest, I guess, in European and South Asian cultures and religious traditions, somehow, a little active alongside my major emphasis over these years on early Islam.

 

Meryum Kazmi  12:30

Professor Graham shared memories of scholars who shaped Islamic studies, both his mentors and colleagues, including Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Muhsin Mahdi, Josef van Ess, Abdelhamid Sabra, Harry Wolfson, Annemarie Schimmel, and George Makdisi.

 

William Graham  12:46

Well, I think Wilfred Smith, along with Marshall Hodgson, perhaps, has always represented for me, certainly, in the American context, at least, the important late 20th-century movement into a kind of Islamic studies that was in many ways, not there before. I mean, I'm sure there are certainly exceptions to that, but it's the sort of studies that I see as, I guess, three things. First of all, it's international or global, in its scope, that is, rather than limited to the Middle East. Second, it encompasses the entire length and breadth of the tradition. That is all 14 centuries of Islam, you need to know something about. And third, it is non-reductive and very sensitive in terms of the hermeneutical problems of interpreting Islam or, I suppose, any other world tradition, as an outsider, especially if you're coming from the Western academic and cultural world. So those three elements of Islamic studies as Smith, I think, understood it, and I think also Hodgson was very much very similar in this regard. I think Smith was exemplary with respect to these things and I'd like to feel those are the things that were the most important, I think, aspects of becoming an Islamicist for me. I've always been interested in the earliest period of Islamic history, which, of course, is the one that's been traditionally studied by Western specialists for a couple of centuries now. But nonetheless, I really believe that one had to think about the tradition as a whole at all times and, certainly, in teaching, I've always tried to teach from across the tradition globally and from the length of the tradition historically. And so even though most of my work has been with classical texts and sources, I'd like to think my perspective has been broader. At least, I've tried to make it so. Certainly, if you worked with Wilfred Smith, and I'm sure it was true of Hodgson as well from what I know of him from his students, you had to have some grasp, working with either of them I'm sure, of the length and breadth of Islamic life and thought. You needed to grasp, at least at a general level, the immense diversity of Muslims at any period of Islamic history, and also know something of the general history of Islam from origins to the present. I think this kind of approach to Islamic studies-- that is, again, first international, second, 14-centuries long, and third, a challenge to both reductive and what we now call post-colonial or even colonial thinking in the West-- it wasn't something entirely new, but it only really flourished, I think, over against more trendy post-war area studies with scholars like Smith and Hodgson in the '50s and '60s. They, in many ways, presaged and foreshadowed later, post-Orientalist, post-colonial and self-critical studies that are, I think, now very much basic and considered, I suppose, even rather unremarkable by new generations. Smith already the 1950s was arguing for a lot of this long before Said's Orientalism and Hodgson too, in his work, I think, would have agreed with this. Smith, in particular, wrote and spoke eloquently in the 1950s about an approach to Islam and to non-Western studies generally in the modern academy, that had to take seriously individual persons and religious and cultural traditions of all kinds, and take them on their own terms, in other words, not those of Western colonial discourse, or imperialist or racist preconceptions. I think also for all their specialization in Islamic studies, Smith and, like him, Hodgson, were concerned with how to get beyond Western secularist, or for that matter, Judeo-Christian biases and assumptions whenever you're dealing with non-Western cultures, histories, and peoples. Both of them, especially Smith, have to be seen, I think, as cultural and religious historians of the multinational and, I suppose you could say, the longue durée tradition of Islamic peoples, not primarily as area studies specialists. Smith felt that area studies was in some ways a kind of step backwards because it was isolating, rather than expansive and open to the massive history of interaction and influence from and on other traditions, and, of course, in multiple settings around the world. I remember he always started his lectures in his course on Islamic religion and culture by saying, "Islam began among the Arabs and non-Arabs made it great."

 

 

William Graham  17:26

So that was almost like the leitmotif for the course that he taught. This epitomized, certainly, his approach because, of course, after his own study of Arabic early on in his life, I think even as a teenager, he had developed an extensive knowledge of the Indo-Muslim world later and spent many years there. He knew Urdu and Persian both very well and he was an obvious scholar to push for more Islamic studies as opposed to Middle Eastern or other areas studies work to be done. And that was why it made sense that the center, for instance, that he founded at McGill was a center for Islamic studies, not Middle Eastern studies.  Smith brought also his interest in broad-gauged comparative religious and cultural traditions to his work at Harvard from 1964 on and he tried to see it instantiated in programs of study here. In the early '70s, before he left Harvard in '73, for five years back in Canada, only to return of course to finish his career back here at Harvard, he took the lead in lobbying the Arts and Sciences dean and the faculty there for a new undergraduate concentration in comparative religion, one to be administered by the then-Committee on Higher Degrees in the Study of Religion, which, of course, when the undergraduate concentration came, became the Committee just on the Study of Religion. In '72-'73, before he left, he was able to get a new junior faculty position in Arts and Sciences approved to help conceive and develop a proposal for such a program, and it was that position that I eventually took on when I completed my degree in '73, with a joint appointment for me between NELC and the Study of Religion. At the time, I had no notion of staying on here, but there was, in fact no other Islamic religion position on offer nationally, as I think I said in conversations earlier, so when I had the chance of finally having a full-time position, I took the post, and somehow I have ended up working here ever since. My first year was largely occupied with teaching and trying to help the new Study Religion chair, Richard Niebuhr, get the new comparative program designed and approved by the faculty, something that was successfully voted through in the spring of 1974. Even though Smith was back in Canada by that time, the program still was really his offspring. When he returned in '78 to chair again the Study Religion and work primarily in Arts and Sciences, I was fortunate enough to have an adjacent office to his for some five years and came to appreciate even more, I think, his insistence upon the necessity of approaching and understanding Islam, or for that matter any other tradition other than one's own, with openness, humility, and a refusal to let Western preconceptions and prejudices skew one's attempts to understand and interpret the tradition. And that of course, as I say, he felt was the case for Hindu, Buddhist, or any other tradition, as well as the Islamic.

 

William Graham  20:19

Of course, other Islamicists had also something of the same eclectic and broad-gauged mindset about studying Islam. He wasn't unique in this, but he had a unique way of going about it, and had perhaps a unique emphasis on it, but I don't think he was unique. For example, if I turn to Muhsin Mahdi, who was certainly known best, and remains known, as a brilliant and justly-renowned Arabist, was also a person who thought of Islamic studies, I think, in a broader context of ideas outside, certainly outside Arab Islam, since the Arab Islamic world was, after all, always a world in contact and conversation, as well as conflict, with other worlds such as Christian Europe, Jewish and Christian Middle Eastern communities within the Middle Eastern world, Zoroastrian Iran and, of course, Hindu and Buddhist South Asia. Consequently, in my doctoral studies, I was, I think, privileged to work with not one but two men who really understood both my own interest in comparative work on religion and culture and in doing Islamic studies in a broad comparative context. Mahdi came to Harvard while I was a student, a graduate student here. I remember when he arrived and not long after threw a big party for students doing Arabic courses with him. I think that was in '69 in his home out in Bedford. He had come in '68. Mahdi always seemed to draw students very naturally to him. He was a positive and very warm person, even though often, at least to me, somewhat inscrutable. I always called him the "smiling Buddha" because he would sit behind his desk, he was short and somewhat rotund, and he would smile his warm but very wry smile at you when you were talking with him or asking him about something. Then unexpectedly, he'd ask you a question that just seemed to come from, I don't know, left field, completely out of the blue. I often had no idea why the question came up, or sometimes even what it was about, but he would probe and eventually get you going on something that didn't seem to be relevant at first, but in the end turned out to be productive, and indeed, somehow very relevant-- if not to the work at hand, then at least to one's general edification. It was always a pleasure to talk with him, if sometimes a little disconcerting, and one of my happiest memories of long conversations with him was when we shared over a week together in Morocco, many years later, about the time of the first Gulf War. He was a polymath, and he knew the Islamic tradition backwards and forwards. His long years of work on the Thousand and One Nights, I think, exemplifies this. Anyone who went to his office would see the shelves of copies of manuscripts of the Nights that took up half of a room and the old CMES over at 1737 Cambridge Street, where all the area studies centers were located for many, many years. One whole wall of his very large scholarly library there was devoted to these copies of manuscripts and a whole generation of his students-- I was not one of those-- worked with him there on these myriad versions. From those years came his magisterial volume on the editions and paths of transmissions of the Nights. But that was only one of his many interests. Mahdi, of course, is possibly best known for his first great book, I think, on Ibn Khaldun's philosophy of history. I remember being blown away by reading that when I took his reading course on Ibn Khaldun in, I think, about 1969-70. The Muqaddima is not an easy text in a lot of ways, but to read good parts of it with Mahdi just made it come alive. It was a privilege. Still more, Mahdi had a magisterial command of Islamic intellectual history front to back, and he could bring in other works and diverse schools of thought on any topic imaginable. So he was a terrific person to read a text like the Muqaddima with. 

 

William Graham  24:01

Another notable Islamicist at Harvard in my years here was Abdelhamid "Bashi" Sabra. Bashi I never studied with, but he was a lovely human being and wonderful colleague whom I greatly admired in the years that we both were faculty together in NELC. He was a leading historian of medieval Islamic science, internationally known, especially, for his work on optics, and Ibn al-Haytham in particular. He was also very widely read in kalam more generally, and I first got to know him a bit from his contributions to two interesting conferences focused on kalam that were held here in the early '70s. One was an honor of Harry Wolfson who, even though he was not an Islamicist or Arabist, wrote a book about the theology of the kalam from his standpoint as an incredibly learned and widely-published specialist on Jewish and Christian theology and Western philosophy more generally. Wolfson even wrote a tome on Spinoza, for example. Wolfson was also a delightful personality himself, a slight, tiny man who was just an intellectual ball of fire right up to the time he died in 1974 after some five decades here at Harvard. I didn't know him well, but I knew a couple of his students, and the times I did meet him, he was an incredibly gracious and interesting man to talk with. Sabra also participated in a second conference on kalam and Christian theology held at a retreat center outside of Boston, where he was joined, among others, by Richard Frank, who later became a friend of mine, and whom I always admired greatly. He was probably the most knowledgeable American scholar of kalam at the time; Frank, that is. He had come up from Catholic University for the conference. Josef van Ess was also there and that was the first time I really got to know him. He, of course, was a great European scholar of kalam at Tubingen. And, of course, I should also mention that Harvard's John Murdoch, a great historian of medieval science on the European side, was in that conference as well, along with Mahdi. It was fascinating to see this group of Mahdi, Sabra, Frank, Murdoch, and van Ess, their parrying with each other about arcane matters of kalam and even Western philosophy and theology. And in that conference, one saw that all of them were capable of putting kalam in the context of both Jewish and Christian thought. And that still stands out for me today as a single aspect of that conference, even though I myself have never worked much in kalam beyond having read some texts with Smith and Mahdi when I was a student, and done a field of kalam with Mahdi for my general exams. Both these conferences were fascinating just because of these minds that got together and I digressed here, actually, because those were my first encounters with Sabra. And I also wanted to at least mention Wolfson as a major Jewish and Christian studies scholar who is also an interesting Harvard contributor to Islamic studies from an unusual angle. I think it's just worth remembering that studies here of Islam at Harvard have been enriched by some scholars whom we don't think of as Islamic specialists but who, in fact, had a lot to contribute. To return over to Sabra now, although he worked in the history of science, he also had a wide range of talent within Arab Islamic studies more generally. He was an Egyptian who knew, of course, Egyptian texts of all kinds exceedingly well, as well as the modern scene there. He had studied in Alexandria, before going, I believe, to France to study. He was a major figure, certainly in the study of Islamic thought, for more than two decades here at Harvard down to his retirement in '94 and he was someone who was always part of the conversations here and from whom one learned, even if you didn't take courses in history of science or reading courses in optics with him. He still was somebody that one learned from just by being a student or colleague here in Islamics. Personally, he was a true gentleman, a man of great sensitivity, and wonderfully supportive of colleagues and students. If you ever wrote or did anything, I found he seemed to have read it or heard about it and then write you a note or call you up and say he thought it was great, or that was great, or whatever. And he seemed to be just omnivorous in that regard but it was out of, I think, his great regard for his colleagues and being a good colleague. He and his wife were also wonderful parts of the wider community here in both History of Science and Near Eastern Languages for the 24, 25 years and even afterwards, because when he retired, they stayed here in their home in Lexington, and up until his death was certainly an active person that one saw quite often on campus. 

 

William Graham  28:56

I should probably turn and say something about Annemarie Schimmel. I could say a lot about her and probably will say too much but let me talk about her because I knew Annemarie really quite well even though I did not go on to do a lot of work with her because I didn't go on in Sufism after that initial course that I had done with her in Sufi texts. I was her colleague as well then, after being her student, and also then, as I say, became her friend over many years. She had a unique and rather miraculous kind of mind, what I think Germans might call Sammelgedächtnis, a mind that absorbed and retained virtually everything that came across her path. She had as close to a photographic memory, frankly, as anybody I've ever encountered. She just knew basically anything and everything about the Islamic world and much outside of it. And when she lectured, we always said she read off the back of her eyelids because she can just close her eyes and talk for 55 minutes about almost any subject that came to mind in the Islamic world. And she was like that about details. If you asked her for a birth and death date of an obscure Sufi saint in Sindh, or of a battle in early Islam, or a dynastic figure and later North Africa, she would give them to you just off the top of her head. I have to say, she really had not much interest in exploring persons or events historically and what I think of as historical exploration in terms of social context or historical intellectual development. She instead focused her interest on things poetic, religious, and aesthetic in Islam. She could write and teach almost intuitively about Sufi poetry and thought, about calligraphy. She even wrote a book about calligraphy, but then she wrote a book about a lot of things, I think well over 50 or 60 books in the course of her career. And reading a Sufi text with her was something special. She would give you loci classici for a technical term from a variety of works from all over the Islamic world in five or six languages, just off the top of her head again. She would close her eyes, again, as she did in lecturing, and give you examples of where a word was used in Urdu, Persian, Sindhi, Ottoman Turkish, whatever. She knew the language-- languages, really-- of Sufism, backwards and forwards, as well as anyone I think you'll ever meet. Beyond that, she really was most taken with the beauty of Sufism and the elegance of its ideas and its poetry. And yet again, she was not really very interested in the social context of the development of tariqas or individuals. If you look at one of the first books I ever read of hers, Gabriel's Wing, which was about the poetry and thought of Muhammad Iqbal, you have an appreciative work that explores his poetic sensibilities and ideas, not really a biographical study. Annemarie knew many, many languages to a workable level. She spent about an hour every morning, much of the years that I knew her, maybe from 6:30 to 7:30, I think, answering correspondence in an array of different languages from Swedish or Czech to Turkish or Punjabi. She had friends all over Europe and America and also the Muslim world, a staggering variety of often very interesting people, sometimes very eccentric people. As one example, she had a wonderful German correspondence with Hermann Hesse, which I was able to peruse in her apartment in Bonn once when I was there doing some research in the 1980s. His letters included several watercolors of his native Tess-- or, not his native, but where he settled-- in Tessin in Switzerland, which he had made especially for her at the bottom of each of his letters. She was a special resource here for students and colleagues for a long time. And Annemarie was here every spring term for many years, even a few times after her retirement, sometime around 1992. Of course, she died soon after the year 2000, I can't remember, 2002, I believe. 

 

William Graham  32:40

Finally, I should also mention one further scholar whom I knew less well, but someone important in Islamic studies at Harvard, namely George Makdisi, who was here from his initial instructor's appointment in the late '50s, I think 1959 actually through 10 years, as a professor up to his departure in 1973 for Pennsylvania. Since I never worked with him, I can't offer a great deal on his time at Harvard. I did get to know him later, after he was at UPenn. As you know, he was an outstanding Arabist and accomplished medievalist for whom Ibn Aqil and medieval kalam were of special interest. He's best known for his articles and his book on the madrasa and, of course, on its relation to the Western university. He also wrote a book on humanism in both Islamic and European contexts, and certainly in his time at Harvard, he trained a number of fine Islamic specialists. So those are some of the people that I think it's important not to forget, at least from those years of the '60s and '70s, and a little bit thereafter, here at Harvard.

 

Meryum Kazmi  33:51

When it came time to write his dissertation, Professor Graham ventured into the subfield of hadith studies under the guidance of Josef van Ess of the University of Tubingen. Professor Graham told us about how he chose and researched the topic of the hadith qudsi, or divine hadith, while working in London and Tubingen.

 

William Graham  34:08

After my general exams in January of 1971, I ended up the next September in the British Museum, still trying to find a dissertation topic. I was in London because my wife was working for the year on her dissertation in London archives. And I had by then already abandoned three months of work on Arabic accounts of other religions, thanks to a conversation with Josef van Ess when he visited Harvard earlier in that year in the spring. He persuaded me that I already had assembled the available sources, the Arabic sources available, on the topic and that they wouldn't be sufficient to make much of the subject. I rapidly looked into this and came to agree with him. Wilfred Smith, meantime and Muhsin Mahdi, my advisors, had been speaking to me about various possible topics, but I hadn't yet found anything that appealed, or for which I really had sufficient background, in my view. In any case, I went off to London that fall of 1971 without a thesis topic some seven months beyond my general exams. At the British Museum, I spent weeks in the Oriental students room, reading hadith texts and a variety of secondary works looking for a topic on early Islam that interested me. I stumbled on the hadith qudsi one day when looking up something in Nabia Abbott's book on Arabic papyri. She had a footnote that talked about the hadith qudsi, and I think in some way related to Umar ibn al-Khattab, and that sent me off to try to learn more about these odd texts that turned out, after all, when I began looking into it, not to be just late Sufi inventions, as many scholars before had said, but also a very early, if small, genre within the hadith corpus as a whole. I was already in the midst of educating myself about the hadith per se, since we had no one here at Harvard with whom I could have worked on hadith and I'd never had a course on the subject. I was just reading any and everything that came to hand, and hence the Abbot book. Based on her footnote, however, I began to ask questions that I couldn't find answers to in the literature. Why are these divine hadith there to begin with, these words of God reported on the authority of the Prophet? What is their function and importance? Why were they preserved? What was their status in legal or theological discourse? And so on. And about three weeks after I began to get interested in this, I ran into Josef van Ess at the Wellcome Institute near the Institute of Historical Studies at London University where I was attached. When he heard I was exploring the hadith qudsi, he said, "Look, I'm working on a book on hadith right now, and I'm interested in what you find out about the hadith qudsi. Why don't you come to Tubingen and I'll set you up with a good place to do your work for the next few months?" So I said, "Why not?" and left London at the beginning of March and went to Tubingen, where van Ess gave me a desk of my own, and a key to the library of the Orientalisches Seminar. So I was able to work days and most nights in a fine Islamics collection with nobody to disturb me. It was like heaven for doing thesis research. The library was in one very large room where reference works, primary texts, and secondary monographs and journals were already right to hand. So I was able to work very hard there for about five months and actually completed the major portion of the research for my dissertation. Van Ess was a great help too while I was there, and I could also consult with his colleague, Manfred Ullmann, who was immersed in his major Arabic lexicon, which has still never been finished, but he was working on the first two volumes at that time. And I even had a couple of meetings with the then-emeritus Qur'an specialist, Rudy Paret, as well. But it was van Ess I saw regularly, every week at least, and also took long woodland walks with him and his wife some Sunday afternoons. At these times, we discussed many things, including my thesis and his own developing book on hadith and theology. So van Ess was very important to me in my project, and without him, the thesis would have taken much longer, and I think probably been something pretty different from what it turned out to be. I had of course written to Smith and Mahdi about my proposed topic. Smith had been my longtime mentor in history of religions and I had done Arabic and two of my generals fields with Mahdi. So these were the scholars I wanted to have as thesis advisors. I knew neither had themselves ever worked on hadith but both had responded positively to the new topic when I wrote from London and both encouraged my decision to go and work in Tubingen. I have to say they both were always positive and ready to let you work on what you wanted to work on. Neither one, even once, suggested that I should do a topic close to their own special areas of interest. Neither did they suggest doing something in order to get a job when you're done, as was often said. Both were old-school humanists who wanted you to do the work you felt most interested in and simply flourish in it. The rest will take care of itself. For example, when I finished the thesis, both Mahdi and Smith were of course on my examining committee and said the thesis was excellent, congratulated me, and left it at that. I put the thesis away then and didn't ever want to see it again, basically, because I was so tired of it after pushing so intensively for 21 months that it took from start to finish. I started looking for a new subject to pursue, however, and I worked on my teaching and on building the new religion concentration I'd been hired to work on and no one said a word to me about publishing the dissertation. So I thought, "Well, this was just a warm up book anyway and I need to find something else." Then Annemarie Schimmel, to whom I'd given a copy as a matter of course, sent it along to a European Arabist and religion scholar, Jacques Waardenburg, in the Netherlands. Waardenburg was starting a book series in Islamics at that moment for Mouton publishers and he called me and said, "Look, I've got two books for this new Islamica series and I'd like a third. I've read your thesis, and I think it would fit well here." I was surprised by this and wondered if I should even consider publishing the thing at all, and briefly I did, but in the end I turned him down because I just didn't think it was probably publishable. However, a year or two later, he came back to me and asked if I would reconsider. So I went to Smith and Mahdi this time, which I should have done the first time, and both of them independently said, "You mean you haven't published it?" Neither had ever suggested it, but evidently assumed that I should and that I would publish the work. It turned out, they both had the same idea about that. I still had my doubts about it and didn't want to revise it to begin with but in the end, I accepted the renewed offer, saying, "Only if you'll take it just as it is, I'll do it." So Waardenburg took it as it was and published it and it actually got a book prize in the history religion here in the states the next year. So I was simply lucky, not very intelligent, about it. It could easily have sat instead on my shelf indefinitely. It's a flawed piece of work to begin with, I think, and at times, I have thought of reworking it, but I probably won't get to that. And it did turn out to be a fairly successful book that still seems to be cited in use, so I guess I'm glad I did get it out when I did. Not long ago, I was able to correct a few of the things in it that had bothered me and supplement others in a new long article on the hadith qudsi for the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Islam, so my conscience is fairly easy about it now.  All of that simply to say, of course, that my mentors at that time, were very encouraging, very supportive, and so forth, but not primarily worried about my job possibilities or publications. They wanted me or anyone else to become a good scholar and that was the goal. They assumed that if you were, you would do fine. Anything else from jobs to publications were simply to follow from your scholarly engagement. As an example, for instance, Smith tried to get me to consider, rather than taking the job I was offered here at Harvard, doing a two-year postdoc in order to learn Urdu and Persian well and be able to work also-- or, at least, I think he probably thought primarily-- in Indo-Muslim studies. Of course, I was turning 30 at the time and thought, "I'm so old, I don't want to spend any more time as a student. I better get on to teaching." So I did that instead, which in retrospect, was taking the short, not the long view. But I'm not unhappy I did that either in the end. It just made things obviously very different about my career trajectory. Actually, the year that I finished there, in '73, there were really only two good jobs in Islamic religion in the country, at UPenn and then here at Harvard, and in the end the dean at Penn canceled the one there after two of us had become finalists for it. So there was only one job and it was a good thing that I had that to fall back on. The times then were simply different. I remember also after being offered the Harvard post, that a professor in the history department here, a senior medievalist whom I had done some work with said to me, "You know, you really shouldn't take the job here at Harvard. You should go somewhere else for five or 10 years and we'll bring you back from the provinces as a full professor then." That was pretty much the idea, I think, for thinking, certainly in the history department, and maybe Harvard more broadly, at that time. Of course, I said, "Well, that's very nice, but I don't have any other job to go to so I'm taking the one here." And I did. Remember, this was 1973. It was in that transition period, when there was still a demand for a few scholars each year in a given field, particularly in non-Western studies of any kind, because there wasn't that huge a crop of people available and these studies were only beginning at that point to be more in demand. There were not a lot of positions but it was still very much unlike today, in that today, even if there are a number of positions open, there's still far too few positions to go around, given the greater number of highly-qualified Ph.D.s being produced today. I mentioned all of this only to highlight the fact that the scholars I worked with simply assumed that you would be doing publishable work and were not worried primarily so much about the publishing as they were about the scholarship and the writing itself. There was not a lot of talk about having to publish, perhaps because the idea of "publish or perish", however accurate it might have been even then, was still considered crude marching orders of some kind. It was assumed, I think in some ways, that if you were good you would publish, but it was something that was not supposed to be your goal. Smith also said, as I remember, that he thought the proper career path in academia would be that you should not be allowed to teach for your first five years after the doctorate. You will be allowed only to do your scholarship, that is your research, and only in your last five years as a teacher and scholar, before you retired-- you have to remember at that time, there was a mandatory retirement age, so you could actually decide when somebody's last five years was-- and so in the last five years, scholars should be required only to teach and not to publish anything, not even allowed to publish anything. So he said that partially in jest, but I think there was something of his own true feeling in it and Mahdi was a little bit like that as well. Such ideas were lovely expressions of scholarship as a noble pursuit of the mind more than a means to earn a living and it's not a bad thing to try to keep such ideas alive today, I think, when so much in the university world has become transactional and pragmatic. I think I was lucky to be trained by such scholars in the end.

 

Meryum Kazmi  46:11

You've mentioned in the past that you don't consider religion to be a discipline. And also over the course of your career, you've been affiliated with NELC, CMES, the Divinity School and the Study of Religion. So how would you say that your training as a scholar of Islam in the Study of Religion enabled you to work across different faculties and departments that have different goals and methods?

 

William Graham  45:57

Well, I don't know whether it's really enabled me to work effectively across all these units but it certainly did enable me to, I think, to be involved in each of them in somewhat different ways. Let me go back to your noting that I don't consider religion to be a discipline. I'm probably now in an increasing minority these days about that, because it seems that everyone wants their field to be a discipline of some kind. I've always considered religion, much as I consider something like classics, to be a subject, not a discipline, certainly not in the social scientific sense of having a disciplinary structure to it or disciplinary rules for it, in some fashion. I like to think that it's a subject to which you have to bring disciplinary studies of all kinds and I think that's the key thing for me about this notion of religion being a subject instead of a discipline. You need to read anthropology, you need to read philosophy or theology, to some degree, you need to read historical texts, and historians as well, to study religion. You need many of these things, sociology, even on occasion, which is my least favorite of the various approaches to religion. Nonetheless, you know, without Durkheim, I think a lot of the modern study of religion, you know, would be quite different. So, there certainly are lots of reasons why one needs to do disciplinary studies of religion but I think to consider it a special discipline of its own, often, to me suggests that people think somehow religion is different from other things and you've got to bring some sort of mystical special capabilities to it. One time, it was always thought you had to be a person of faith to study religion at all or particularly to study a given tradition. I don't even believe that. I really believe that it is another field of human endeavor, that if one can come at it sensitively and with awareness, that there are people, for any given religious tradition, who have their faith centered in that tradition and see the world through that lens, then you can work with that and talk about it and develop ideas about it. So I've never felt that it was too much of a problem to be working with Islam in a straight language and literature and history context, like NELC, for instance, or the CMES, because that's comfortable for me and I believe the work there is hugely important and that I actually can contribute to that on occasion. To go over to HDS was a little tougher, to go to the Divinity School, because I am a little uneasy about the notion of a theological school that, you know, that works totally out of one tradition. Fortunately, by the time I actually went over to the Divinity School as its dean, I had come to know very well over many years that one studied religion at HDS very much as you studied religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or anywhere else in the country and there were no special things. You happen to have some theologians there, which turned out to be an enriching thing, and certainly my years of working with Richard Niebuhr, a Christian theologian of major proportions, I came to learn so much from Dick Niebuhr about ways in which to approach the study of Islam or the study of Hindu traditions or anything else and read texts with him, not just Christian, but texts from all over the world with the undergraduates that we worked with. That was a great privilege. So I had lost my prejudice against divinity studies, by the time I went over, even though at first I turned down going over to the Divinity School as its dean, and only after a few months finally agreed to do it, because I did have, I think, some notions that I was not the right person to be involved in a school where theological studies of Christianity were at least major there, if not the only studies. And so in the end, I was very comfortable there, and found that the faculty was really quite ready to expand into Buddhist and Islamic-- and there were already a few scholars of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam there-- but we really expanded that number in the years that I was there and I think the multi-religious discourse there ever since has been even more powerful than it was before that, because there is such an inter-religious group of people, of scholars, working there, sometimes on their own traditions, sometimes on other traditions, but always having to be in colloquy with each other. And I'll have to go back again to my mentor in religion, Wilfred Smith. Wilfred, as you may know, when he as an Islamicist went up to found the institute, went from Princeton up to McGill, to found the Institute for Islamic Studies there, in 1951, I guess it was, Wilfred insisted that the faculty and the student body be composed of half Muslim students of Islam and half non-Muslim students in Islam, because he thought that both viewpoints were incredibly important if you were really going to make progress in trying to understand the Islamic tradition, both from a rigorously intellectual and, if you like, rationalist standpoint-- and Wilfred was very much a modern Western post-Enlightenment rationalist, if he was anything-- and he believed that, though, had to be tempered by listening to people who actually were Muslims and who could talk about their tradition as scholars and explain it both as scholars and as people of faith. So for him, that was always paramount. And I guess I certainly had been affected by some of that, even if I don't hold it quite so strongly as he did. So I think that probably my work with him was important for that, not to mention my work with Mahdi and with others here, Schimmel and others, so I don't know if that really answers the question, but I think it moves from my notion, I think it explains, maybe, my notion that religion is not a discipline but a subject.

 

Harry Bastermajian  52:54

Your scholarship on the Qur'an represents a departure from the focus on source criticism and philology, that characterizes much scholarship in the field. Why do you feel that an exploration of the oral experience of the Qur'an in the lives of Muslims and the content of the Qur'an on its own terms are important for Qur'anic studies as well as comparative religious studies?

 

William Graham  53:20

I do feel that this business of my stumbling on the topic of the oral experience of the Qur'an certainly came out of my experience in Egypt and in other places in the Middle East, I think particularly being in Egypt for one Ramadan, early on while I was doing my first Arabic study in Shemlan in the Lebanon. I went for three weeks at our language break over the holidays to Egypt and there it was certainly not the Christmas season, primarily. It was, in fact, Ramadan at that time and I heard recitation of the Qur'an in many different contexts there in those weeks and developed something of an appreciation for how powerful the recitation of the text itself is in people's experience and in celebrations like Ramadan and the nights of Ramadan and so on, as well as in religious piety. So that resonated for me, in part because I had grown up in a Southern American Protestant tradition, a Methodist tradition in the South, where there still were even a couple people I met, not just a preacher once but also even an elderly man in the church that my parents went to who really did what I later call speaking-- they just spoke scripture in the sense that they knew the text of the-- of course, in this case, it was the King James Version of the Bible-- but they knew the King James Bible so well that they almost couldn't talk about anything without somehow bringing in phrases, if not quotations, from somewhere in the either one of the two testaments of the Christian Bible. So I'd had some experience of this, the possibility of people really knowing texts by heart and preaching with sort of, you know, immediate ability to quote from anywhere within a text, and I saw this, of course, in spades in the Muslim world. And even when I first started learning Arabic, I, as well, started going to one of the Muslim teachers in the British Foreign Office school that I was learning Arabic in, and asked him for some extra time just memorizing portions of the Qur'an, something that I did later in my Qur'an courses at Harvard with my own students, because I feel like you get a different, I think, feeling for a text, particularly a text that has been so much memorized and recited, and almost sung if you like-- I mean, many Muslims say the Qur'an is not music, Qur'an recitation is not music, but of course, it's very musical-- and until you sort of understand and have a feeling, it's sort of like Methodist hymnody, if you like the, the Wesleyan tradition of hymnody in the Methodist Church, I think it's very analogous to a lot of the Qur'an recitation tradition. So even though I, you know, by the time I started studying Islam didn't really consider myself a very good Christian anymore, nonetheless, over the years, I had these two experiences, to sort of put together and that led me to start looking at the notion that I think scholars of religion in the western academy had really not taken enough and paid enough attention to, not just about the Qur'an but about religious texts from all over the world. We're such, you know, in the western academy, we are such scholars of the text, and we're so much bound to silent reading and study of texts and so on, that we forget that most religious texts were, by most people, known only as oral texts, because most people have been illiterate throughout history. And all of this began to come together for me in the book that I eventually wrote called Beyond the Written Word on the oral aspects of scripture in the history of religion, where I didn't just look at the Qur'an, but I looked at the Veda and I looked at Buddhist texts, and at Christian texts and so on. I, in the end, didn't write much on the Buddhist texts but in preparing for that I certainly did a lot of work on Buddhist textuality and recitation as well. But in the end, wrote on Christian, Indian, or Hindu, and Muslim things. So to come back now to your question as to why I think it's important, I think it's important because if we do forget, as historians, particularly when working with either cultures that are very different from ours in terms of their relationship to written texts and oral texts or cultures that are even, including our own from several centuries ago, when things were 95, or 99%, oral, rather than written, if we don't pay attention to things like that, as historians, to looking at how things might have looked from within a tradition that is so different in its relationship to the very spoken language and written language that we use, then I think we're distorting probably how the text has been lived with and used. I've always been interested, certainly, in reading about source criticism and philological issues with respect to the Qur'an and I've written some articles and things on Qur'anic passages and portions of the Qur'an where I've had to work with philological questions as well, but yes, my focus has probably been much more on the Qur'an as a living document, either historic-- well, always historically-- but either in the early period, or sometimes throughout the longue durée of the tradition, as I said before. I don't know whether that really answers the question entirely but I think for me, it's a way of shaking up my thinking as a silent reader of the 20th and 21st century, and a scholar who has done almost everything with the written page or the computer screen, to have to try to transpose myself into contexts and traditions where, frankly, the oral versions of the written word are much more important or have been much more important historically than the written words, I think, if you take it on balance.

 

Meryum Kazmi  59:57

That was selections from our interviews with William Graham, Murray A. Albertson Research Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus. Please join us for our final episode in this series with Professor Ali Asani on the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Meryum Kazmi, thanks for listening.