My rihla fi talab al-ʿilm (educational journey) started in Lebanon at the American University of Beirut. After three years wandering in the wilderness (that is, majoring in Mathematics, B.S. 1990), I "saw the light" and joined the History Department to study Middle East History (B.A. 1991; M.A. 1996). I read Medieval, pre-Modern and Modern Middle East History with the late Kamal Salibi, Islamic Culture, History and Religious Thought with Tarif Khalidi, Social and Intellectual History, and the discipline of History with Samir Seikaly, Ottoman History and History of pre-Modern Lebanon with Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn, and Medieval Islamic Legal and Social History with Basim Musallam. In 1996, I came to the United States to work on the Ph.D. at Yale University, where I studied the basic curriculum in Arabic and Islamic Studies: Philosophy and Intellectual History with Dimitri Gutas; Arabic Language, Poetry and Grammar with Beatrice Gruendler; Qurʾan, Tafsir and Mysticism with Gerhard Bowering, and Islamic Law with Ann E. Mayer. I also ventured into Ancient Christianity and Early Christian Monasticism with Bentley Layton, audited Diaspora Christianity with Wayne Meeks, and studied Syriac with Paul-Alain Beaulieu, Syriac Historiography and Religious Texts with Walid Saleh, and Persian with Fereshteh Amanat-Kowssar. My professors and classmates at AUB and Yale were instrumental in my education. I owe a great deal to them for instilling in me the passion for intellectual curiosity and knowledge and helping me become a better scholar and teacher. The most fascinating thing about this educational journey is that it continues and benefits from many friends and colleagues whose work I find inspiring and who generously share their comments and advice about my own writing and research; they are too numerous to list here.
My research (Publications) is varied and reflects my broad educational formation and intellectual curiosities. As a historian of Islam, I am particularly interested in exploring how Muslims, from the days of the prophet Muhammad until today, have perceived their own past and religious tradition, and appropriated them in ways to engage the challenges of their own respective environments. In other words, what draws me to the study of Islamic history and thought is this dynamism, which unfortunately is little appreciated today by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, of a vast tradition that has constantly struggled to find meanings and interpretations, and even to reinvent itself, in light of physical, intellectual and imagined challenges. Thus my research interests span the periods from early Islam and its conceptual and ideological formation within the world of Late Antiquity, through the problematic Crusader period, and until today. I have written extensively on the Qurʾan and the history of its interpretation, the radicalization of Jihad ideology in the period of the Crusades and its subsequent impact on mainstream Sunni thought and the course of Middle Eastern history, early Arabic/Islamic historical writing, Jesus and Mary in the Qurʾan and Islamic literature, and Jerusalem and its Fadaʾil (religious merits) literature. I am also interested in the question of how Muslims have addressed and wrestled with the challenges of the ideas of the Enlightenment and Modernity and reformed their societies and restricted the Shariʿa legal system to a small realm. My objective from examining this wide array of topics is to determine the level of originality on the part of Muslim scholars in shaping the Islamic tradition, and how this has led to the formation of trends and beliefs that reflect, in the first place, the intellectual, social, political and religious environments of these scholars and movements, and, subsequently, their particular understanding of Islamic history, law and tradition and the way they have to be conceptualized and transmitted for later generations.
My research has benefitted over the years from major awards: a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2007-2008), a residential fellowship from the Institut d'Études Avancées de Nantes (Nantes Institute for Advanced Study), France (2012-2013, and 2018), an experienced researcher fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany (2013-2014), and a fellowship from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, Germany (2019-2020). I also received awards and grants from the American Philosophical Society, the Mellon Foundation, the Kahn Institute at Smith College, the Sams Fund at Smith College, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the American University of Beirut, Yale University, Middlebury College, and Smith College. I was also elected in 2018 as associate member at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study, where I spend several weeks every year for research and writing.
I am a co-editor (with Paul Cobb and Konrad Hirschler) of the book-series The Muslim World in the Age of the Crusades (published by Brill), and serve as well on the editorial board of The History of Christian-Muslim Relations book series (published by Brill). Past affiliations include research fellowships at the Institut für Islamwissenschaft (Institute for Islamic Studies) at theFreie Universität Berlin, Germany (2013–2014), Institut d'Études Avancées de Nantes, France (2012–2013, May-June 2015, and May-June 2018), the History Department at the American University of Beirut (1999–2000), and the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, Jordan (1995–1999). I was also Associate Researcher at the Institut du Pluralisme Religieux et de l’Athéisme, France, and advisor for the Science and Islam Videos Portal Project (Hampshire College, USA).
I have also been involved as historical advisor and consultant for, and appeared on several films and documentaries, such as the Sultan and the Saint (produced by Unity Productions Foundation for PBS and to be released on December 18, 2017), Jésus et l'islam / Jesus and Islam (produced by Jérôme Prieur and Gerard Mordillat for ARTE TV, 2015), Juifs et musulmans - si loin, si proches / Jews and Muslims: So Far, So Close (produced by Karim Miské for ARTE TV, 2013), and Jerusalem: Center of the World (produced by Two Cats Productions for PBS, 2009).
Besides, I have been active in scholarly circles and societies, as president (2010–2012) and vice-president (2008–2010) of Middle East Medievalists, and served on the executive board of the American Oriental Society (2013–2015).
CURRENT RESEARCH PROJECTS:
The major current research project that I am conducting studies the discourses of violence and nonviolence in Islam. The modern discussion of whether Islam promotes or prohibits violence is steeped in political and religious controversy, and has been shaping the public discussion of Islam in all its aspects. There is no point denying that Muslims who commit acts of religious and political violence find legitimacy and empowerment in a wide array of religious and historical texts and in the historical Muslim practice. There is also a tradition, which has existed throughout Islamic history, of nonviolence displayed in a rich legacy of religious, legal and ideological diversity and tolerance among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims. The two traditions have been seen as opposites and as reflecting different worldviews. The project avoids this binary compartmentalization of the issue: Islam is violent or Islam is nonviolent, this form of Islam is nonviolent and that form of Islam is violent, etc. Instead, the focus of this research project is to examine violence and nonviolence in Islam as reflective of unresolved struggle in the foundational texts (e.g., the Qurʾan, the Hadith of Muhammad, etc.) and the historical tradition and practice. The objective is to understand the nature and rationale of this struggle, and the way it has impacted Muslims’ practice of violence and nonviolence.
The project on violence and nonviolnce in Islam has several phases and themes. In the first phase, the focus is on two themes: the unresolved tension about violence and nonviolence in the Qurʾan, and the debate in the Islamic legal tradition about war, its rationale, conduct and objectives.
This project came out of a book that I co-authored with James E. Lindsay (Colorado State University), entitled The Intensification and Reorientation of Sunni Jihad Ideology in the Crusader Period: Ibn ʿAsakir (d. 1105–1176) of Damascus and His Age (Brill, 2013, paperback edition 2015). The book examines the radicalization of the ideology of jihad in mainstream Sunni thought during the Crusader period. The main focus was on the career and views of the famous medieval Damascene Hadith scholar and historian Ibn ʿAsakir (d. 571/1176) and his contribution to the jihad campaign of his political patron sultan Nur al-Din, as well as the impact of this radicalized jihad on later scholars and the course of Middle Eastern history. The book maps how Ibn ʿAsakir (re)defined the concept of Jihad as a religious obligation that emphasizes strict adherence to Sunnism as a necessary prerequisite for undertaking the military jihad against internal and external enemies. In this respect, the monograph underscores the social and political contexts of Ibn ʿAsakir and his work the Forty hadiths for inciting jihad as an example of the way certain intellectual and religious positions are generated by particular political environments and moods, and they draw on the authoritative religious sources, especially the Hadith or teachings of Muhammad, to endorse them and make them normative within Sunnism. It also helps us understand the textual canon that modern jihadists deploy to legitimize their violence.
The other major current research project relates to the Muʿtazila school of rational theology and its Qurʾanic exegesis. The significance of the Muʿtazila movement is largely linked to their rationalism which left its marks on several Islamic doctrines. I am finalizing a monograph The Muʿtazila and Qurʾanic Hermeneutics: A Study of al-Hakim al-Jishumi’s (d. 494/1101) Exegesis al-Tahdhib fi Tafsir al-Qurʾan. Al-Jishumi's Tahdhib has not been properly studied yet, and his work is only available in manuscripts scattered in libraries and private collections around the world. It is the earliest substantial and complete exegesis of the Qurʾan we possess that was written by a member of the Muʿtazila movement, and, given the emphasis early Muslim scholars placed on the “proper” interpretation of the Qurʾan, it includes a wide array of exegetical and legal glosses otherwise lost to us.
OTHER RESEARCH INTERESTS & PUBLICATIONS:
My research on Mary and Jesus focus on the Qurʾanic stories about their lives and careers, and their treatment in Islamic scholarship. Regarding the Qurʾanic material, I examine in one article the story of the birth of Jesus under a Palm-tree (in Qurʾan 19.22-26) which shares close similarity with the Hellenic myth of the birth of Apollo. In another article, I examine the two annunciation stories (in Qurʾan 19.2-33 and 3.35-39) which also closely correspond to the birth narratives found respectively in the Gospel of Luke 1.5-2.24 and the Protevagelium of James.
I published a critical edition and analytical study of the
biography of Jesus in Taʾrikh madinat Dimashq (History of Damascus) by Ibn
ʿAsakir (d. 571H/1176CE), which reflects his preoccupations with the
Crusaders' invasion of parts of the Near East and the Muslims' inability to
resist it. Ibn ʿAsakir presented Jesus as the ascetic prophet and the
Mahdi who will come to rescue the Muslims, lead them to triumph against their
internal and external enemies, and usher in the Day of Judgment.
My work on early Arabic/Islamic historical writing came as a fruition of my M.A. dissertation research with Tarif Khalidi, at the American University of Beirut . The particular case I examined was the Futuh al-Sham (Conquests of Syria) by Abu Ismaʿil al-Azdi al-Basri (d. ca. 190/805). The dissertation (out of which came the article published in JAOS) establishes that the text dates to the second century H/eighth century CE, and that it was based on the now lost work with the same title by the early chronicler Abu Mikhnaf al-Azdi (d. 157/774) who flourished in Kufa, Iraq; before my study, al-Azdi's Futuh was largely ignored in modern scholarship on the early Islamic conquests.
My monograph Early Islam between Myth and History: al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110 H/728 CE) and the Formation of His Legacy in Classical Islamic Scholarship (Brill, 2006), which is based on my dissertation completed under the supervision of Dimitri Gutas at Yale University, examines the way the early Muslim scholar al-Hasan al-Basri has been portrayed in medieval literature and how that shaped his perception in modern scholarship. I employ textual criticism and historical analysis to demonstrate the pseudepigraphal nature of the treatises attributed to him--more than ten in number that discuss topics like asceticism, mysticism and theology, including the two short epistles al-Risala ila ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwan fi al-qadar (Epistle to Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik Against the Predestinarians) and Risalat al-Zuhd ila ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz (Treatise on Asceticism to Caliph ʿUmar II). I also investigate how, when and why these works, along with several other sayings and anecdotes, came to be attributed to him over the centuries by a variety of religious groups and intellectual trends. I argue, with reference to compelling cases, that transfer of authorship (i.e. misattribution of sayings and anecdotes) and pseudepigraphy were essential tools for the legitimization of trends and beliefs that became popular in the third/ninth century onward; the groups involved (including Sunnis, Shiʿis, Muʿtazilas, and mystics) used such means to project their views and beliefs back to the generation of Islam's founding fathers (Muhammad, his Companions, and their Successors), enabling them, on the one hand, to claim adherence to the “true” teachings of Islam and, on the other hand, to refute the beliefs of their adversaries. In the particular case of al-Hasan al-Basri, the process of his mythicization was much more intense and widespread than modern scholars have expected. My findings corroborate with the results of a number of recent studies on early Islam, necessitating a radical reconsideration of our understanding of the formative period of Islamic religious thought and the way we read and use the classical sources.
In 2008, I co-edited (with Tamar Mayer) Jerusalem: Idea and Reality, a collection of 17 multi-disciplinary studies on Jerusalem that offer insights into the complexity and significance of the city's perception, representation and status at the historical, religious, social, artistic, and political levels from biblical to modern times. This book, which came out of the conference on Jerusalem that Timi and I organized at Middlebury College in April 2005, was published by Routledge in May 2008. More recently, I co-edited (with Naomi Koltun-Fromm and Bedross Der Matossian) the Routledge Handbook on Jerusalem, which came out in 2019. It contains 35 chapters on different themes relating to Jerusalem (religion, history, archaeology, politics, urban planning, art, architecture, etc.).
My interest in the significance of Jerusalem in Islam focuses on the period spanning from Muhammad to the end of the Crusades. I am particularly interested in the way Muslims first identified and acknowledged Jerusalem's historical and religious symbolism as stemming from its Biblical heritage (in particular the personalities and events associated with the presence of the Israelite Temple), and how and why it shifted through times to become primarily dependent on Muhammad's legendary Night Journey and Ascension to Heaven. My most recent publication in this respect is a book that examines the literatures that celebrate the religious isgnificance of Jerusalem in Islam; the book includes a critical reconstruction of the earliest text on the religious symbolism of Jerusalem known to have been authored by a Muslim scholar. It is entitled Fadaʾil Bayt al-Maqdis (The Merits of Jerusalem) by al-Walid b. Hammad al-Ramli (d. 300 H/912 CE), who lived in the town of Ramla, west of Jerusalem (published in October 2019 by the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut and the Khalidi Library in Jerusalem).
I am also becoming interested in projects directed to a broad and non-specialist audience. The Mosaic of Islam: A Conversation with Perry Anderson (Verso Books, 2016) is the fruit of one of those initiatives. The idea of the book started as a series of conversations with the great historian Perry Anderson while we were both fellows at the Institut d'Études Avancées de Nantes, and which were continued after that. The book takes the form of questions and answers; Perry poses the questions and I answer them. It covers the Qurʾan and the Muhammad movement, the spread of Islam and the formation of a rich diversity in beliefs and thought, all the way to modernity and the changes/challenges faced by modern Muslims, including the rise of conservative movements such as Wahhabism, Salafism, and militant Islam. The French edition--La mosaïque de l'islam: entertien sur le Coran et le djihadisme avec Perry Anderson--was published in August 2016 by Fayard (Paris) as part of the series Poids et Mesures du Monde edted by Alain Supiot (Institut d'Études Avancées de Nantes). The German edition--Das Mosaik des Islam--was published by Berenberg Verlag (Berlin) in March 2018. The Spanish edition -- El mosaico del islam: una conversación con Perry Anderson -- was published by Siglo XXI (Madrid) in April 2018. A special edition for South Asia was released by Three Essays Collective (2017).
Another book directed to a general audience is Islam between Violence and Nonviolence (in the final stage of composition). The objective of the book is to show that the foundational sources of Islam (the Qurʾan, the Sunna of Muhammad the teachings of imams and mystical saints), and the various legal traditions and schools of Shariʿa do not have a clear and emphatic voice on either of these issues. They offer conflicting positions, which reflect an unresolvable struggle about violence and nonviolence as both necessary, yet none can function exclusively. Since Islam is also defined by what Muslims say and do, the book delves as well into the Muslims' attitudes (historically and today) towards the issues of violence and nonviolence.
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