Undergraduate and Doctoral Thesis Prizes

2021 Thesis Prize Winners Announcement

May 26, 2021

After reviewing many outstanding undergraduate theses and Ph.D. dissertations, the Selection Committee has chosen the following winners: 

Undergraduate Thesis Prize

Isabel KendallThe Selection Committee is pleased to announce Isabel Kendall as the winner of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for Best Undergraduate Thesis in Islamic Studies for her dissertation entitled, “I Know How the Caged Bird Tweets: Online Dissent and Physical Repression in Saudi Arabia, 2015-2020.”

Isabel (Zizi) studies how the Saudi Arabian regime has stifled criticism expressed on Twitter, a platform used by more than 40% of the country's population. She finds that this repression is indiscriminate of movement affiliation or popularity and rather due to an individual's deep engagement with three topics: religion, economic prosperity, and political reform. In targeting individuals who are not necessarily well-known and who produce deep criticism, the regime is able to eliminate dissent while avoiding significant public backlash. Isabel collected and analyzed 691,592 Arabic Twitter posts from 153 Saudi activists between 2015 and 2020 and employed the Structural Topic Modeling method of quantitative analysis, demonstrating a particularly good straddling of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Government departments. Through her analysis of this Twitter data and engagement with secondary literature, Isabel makes an important contribution to the underdeveloped scholarship on censorship in Saudi Arabia.

Ph.D. Dissertation Prize

Rushain AbbasiThe Selection Committee is pleased to announce Dr. Rushain Abbasi as the winner of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies for his dissertation, “Beyond the Realm of Religion: The Idea of the Secular in Premodern Islam.”

Rushain embarks on a genealogical excavation of the diverse and intricate ways in which the religious and secular interacted in the premodern Islamic world and the impact that this dialectic had on Islamic thought and life. In doing so, he challenges the prevailing view inside and outside the academy that maintains that premodern Muslims did not distinguish between the religious and the secular and that this distinction only emerged with the invention of these categories in the modern West. Rushain demonstrates how numerous Muslim thinkers from the medieval to early modern period (1000-1750) regularly differentiated between the religious and the secular in their analyses of subjects ranging from politics to prophethood. His reconstruction of this history is two-tiered: one level is the longue durée study of the transmission, reception, and repurposing of the Islamic concept of the secular across eight centuries and the other is contextualizing how the Islamic understanding of the secular was used within these texts to legitimize, promote, and challenge certain social groups and their intellectual and cultural projects. Rushain's dissertation reconstitutes a radically different conception of secularity, one that, far from being opposed to the religious, was based on a desire to bring religion to its best and fullest expression. In doing so, this study brings a crucial non-European and premodern historical perspective to the question of the origins and development of the secular. Rushain’s dissertation was selected as the prize winner due to being a valuable contribution to a number of fields, including the social sciences.

Caitlyn OlsonThe Selection Committee would also like to recognize Dr. Caitlyn Olson as honorable mention for her dissertation, “Creed, Belief, and the Common Folk: Disputes in the Early Modern Maghrib (9th/15th - 11th/17th c.).”

Caitlyn examines the attitudes and arguments of Muslim scholars in the early modern Maghrib toward the credal convictions of the broader, non-elite populace. In particular, she examines the career and legacy of the Ash'ari theologian of Tlemcen, Muhammad b. Yusuf al-Sanusi (d. 895/1490) who insisted that each and every Muslim must learn the logical proofs that undergird the main points of creed in order to be of sound standing in the afterlife. These debates are important because they belie generalizations about the centrality of law and orthopraxy in Islam and call to attention that the long-standing debate about imitation (taqlid) was not limited to law and ijtihad but also applied to creed (aqida). Caitlyn's work is based on extensive research of unpublished manuscripts, many of which were only accessible after extensive travel in Morocco and Algeria to smaller, out-of-the-way manuscript libraries and she unearths fascinating episodes of the social ramifications of these scholarly controversies. Caitlyn's dissertation combines intellectual and social history and focuses on the understudied Islamic religious history in Islamic Africa.

Congratulations Isabel, Rushain, and Caitlyn! 

2020 Thesis Prize Winners Announcement

May 27, 2020

Undergraduate Thesis Prize

MuratThe Selection Committee is pleased to announce Murat Eczacıbaşı as the winner of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for Best Undergraduate Thesis in Islamic Studies for his thesis, “Reflections on the Imperial Past: The Evolution of Early High School History Textbooks in the Republic of Turkey.”

Murat Eczacıbaşı, a history concentrator, has conducted an extensive study of the evolution of republican Turkish political ideology regarding national identity through a rigorous textual analysis of state-approved high school history textbooks. While other studies have examined textbooks published in specific periods and their presentation of modern and late medieval history, Murat’s study is unique in its broad perspective of examining nine textbooks from different periods and their presentation of ancient and early medieval history. His advisor, Professor Cemal Kafadar, has praised Murat’s work as “a brilliant analysis that sharpens and deepens our understanding of the most significant political, ideological, and cultural ruptures in the history of the Turkish Republic” and worth publishing as an article due to its originality and being of great interest to scholars researching post-Ottoman societies and nationalism.

Ph.D. Dissertation Prize

Mary ElstonThe Committee has also chosen Dr. Mary Elston as winner of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies for her dissertation, “Reviving Turāth: Islamic Education in Modern Egypt.”

Mary analyzes the intellectual and pedagogical movement of ʿulamāʾ who seek to revive what they call the “Islamic heritage” (turāth), which Mary describes as referring to a temporal, ethical, and epistemological configuration that the ʿulamāʾ allege existed before the beginning of the modernizing reforms of al-Azhar at the end of the 19th century. The turāth revival is an attempt to counter modern reformism (the project of rationalizing institutions in order to catch up with the West) and Islamism (the project to reinforce the place of Islam in the state and public sphere). She shows how the ʿulamāʾ’s understanding of modern Islamic intellectual history is mobilized to build their own religious authority and how the turāth constitutes a recent alternative to modern reformism and Islamism, thereby enriching our understanding of modern Islamic intellectual history and what modern reformism and Islamism have in common. This work is based on two years of ethnographic research at al-Azhar and analysis of the writings of reformers including Muhammad Abduh, Mahmud Shaltut and Ali Gomaa. Mary’s dissertation makes a particularly important contribution to Islamic studies due to its exploration of the issue of reform of Islamic education at al-Azhar in the modern period with an innovative methodological combination of historical textual analysis and ethnography, an eye to historical continuities, and a focus on epistemic changes in conceptions of Islamic knowledge and their relation to the politics of reform. Mary’s dissertation was chosen by the Committee for its clarity, innovative methodological combination and impressive findings.

Mira Xenia SchwerdaThe Committee would also like to recognize Dr. Mira Xenia Schwerda as honorable mention for her dissertation, “How Photography Changed Politics: The Case of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911)” Through her dissertation that reconceptualizes the Iranian Constitutional period (1905-1911) as one of spectacle in which photography played a central role in defining, mobilizing, and memorializing political movements and their leaders, Mira has made innovative contributions to the study of the economy of image in revolutionary thought, a nascent area particularly in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.

Congratulations to Murat, Mary, and Mira!  


2019 Undergraduate Thesis Prize Winner Announcement

May 17, 2019

Anwar OmeishThe Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program at Harvard is delighted to recognize Anwar Omeish ’19 for her outstanding thesis entitled, “Toward the Modern Revolution: Frantz Fanon, Secularity, and the Horizons of Political Possibility in Revolutionary Algeria,” winner of the of the 2019 Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Prize for Best Undergraduate Thesis in Islamic Studies.

Anwar, who is concentrating in Social Studies with a secondary concentration in Statistics, wrote a thesis that spans postcolonial theory, African studies, the history of black political thought and Islamic studies to offer an original critique of Frantz Fanon’s political theory. She not only interrogates the influences on Fanon’s concept of the problem of colonialism but also demonstrates that the assumptions underlying his anti-colonial project reinforce the very colonial structures he seeks to dismantle and sideline the Islamic discourses of Algerian revolutionaries. Anwar draws on primary sources in Arabic, French and English and critical social theory to argue that Fanon fails to acknowledge his theoretical commitments and how they are inherently problematic, instead focusing on particular forms of domination such as colonialism and capitalism that rest on those commitments.

Anwar’s primary thesis advisor, Oludamini Ogunnaike, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary, has called her thesis “a stunning work of political philosophy for an undergraduate to produce” and “arguably the most significant contribution to the study of Frantz Fanon’s work in the last decade, offering both an original and comprehensive critique of Fanon’s political theory, the epistemological commitments his politics presupposes, and the roughly seven decades of activist and scholarly commentary that has failed to properly interrogate the limits of Fanon’s approach.”

Hannah HessWe would also like to recognize, as honorable mention, Hannah Hess ’19 for her excellent thesis entitled, “Debating Misyār: Temporary Marriage in Contemporary Saudi Arabia” in which she analyzes both Arabic and English sources to explore why temporary marriage became socially desirable in Saudi Arabia, the legal discourse surrounding it and the evolution of the debate amid political and social pressures in the kingdom.

Congratulations to Anwar and Hannah! We were thrilled to receive many strong submissions but were particularly impressed by the rigorous scholarship they produced. The Alwaleed Program looks forward to continuing to support first-rate undergraduate research in Islamic Studies at Harvard in the years to come.