Ali Asani Named Head of Islamic Studies Program

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department Chair Ali S. Asani ’77 will strive to promote religious literacy as the new director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard—more than 30 years after he first began to study Islam as a Harvard undergraduate.

As director of the program, which was founded from a gift in 2005, Asani said he hopes to promote innovation in teaching and attract renowned Muslim scholars, making Harvard the leader in all areas of Islamic studies.

“Harvard has world class faculty who are engaged in the study of many different aspects of Islam and Muslim societies but they are scattered among departments and schools,” said Asani. “This is something that I am hoping to work towards during my term as director ...When all four of the Prince Alwaleed professorships are filled, there will be no university that I know of that has such a breadth of programming in Islamic Studies.”

In addition to serving as NELC chair, Asani is also lauded as an innovative and dedicated professor.

Rebecca K. Gilmore ’12, who took both a freshman seminar and a Culture and Belief course taught by Asani, said he uses art and literature to illustrate the diversity of interpretations of Islam among different Muslim cultures,

“Religion has become so politicized and co-opted in discourses of nationalism,” Asani said. “But ... if you look at religion through other lenses like art and literature, they actually bring people together and promote understanding.”

Growing up in Kenya, Asani said he observed a discrepancy between how Islam was represented in Western sources and how he had personally come to understand the religion. He also noticed a lack of understanding of many of the large Muslim populations outside of the Middle East.

“There was so little representation of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa,” Asani said. “In fact, I put in my college essay that one of the things I was interested in doing was creating a better informed understanding of areas of Islam that are ignored.”

When Asani arrived in Cambridge, he joined nine students as the only undergraduates in the study of comparative religion, at the time an experimental concentration that had just been approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Among the group, Asani was the only one not studying Christianity, instead choosing to focus on Islam and Hinduism.He credits an introductory course on Islamic literature with putting him on the path towards teaching.

“The class was actually held in the professor’s office,” he recalled. “It turned out I was the only student in the class.”

After making sure no one else was coming, the late Professor of Indo-Muslim Culture Annemarie Schimmel closed her eyes and began speaking with encyclopedic knowledge, Asani said—and from then, he was hooked.

Schimmel later became a mentor for Asani, who graduated summa cum laude, received a Ph.D. from Harvard under Schimmel, and followed her into the world of academia.

“There is no university that matches the strength we can potentially have in Islamic Studies.,” Asani said. “We just need better collaboration and after filling in some pressing gaps in the curriculum, we could easily do it.”

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