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Students, Colleagues Fondly Remember a ‘Giant’ in Arabic Studies

By Natalia Wojcik, Crimson Staff Writer

A professor central to Harvard’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department and known for his wit, humility, and extensive knowledge of Arabic culture died Jan. 23. Wolfhart P. Heinrichs was 72 years old. He is survived by his wife Alma Giese-Heinrichs, three siblingsDietmar, Hilberg and Ortrud, who live in Germanyextended family, and many friends.

Yale professor Beatrice Gruendler, who was mentored by Heinrichs, said that his life and death could best be summarized by an old Arabic quotation from the writer Badi’ al-Zaman al-Hamadhani:

“He was the water and clay of knowledge, he was city and storehouse of erudition, and he died with treasures in his mind not yet unveiled.”

A former student, American University professor Erez Naaman, called Heinrichs a “giant figure” in the field of Arabic studies.

Born Oct. 3, 1941 in Cologne, Germany, Heinrichs was the son of a university professor of ancient Germanic studies and an Old Norse lecturer. As a young adult, Heinrichs studied English, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, learning and teaching in various European universities, particularly in Germany, until 1977, when he was offered a one-year position as visiting lecturer at Harvard.

Soon after, Heinrichs took on a full professorship of Arabic at Harvard, which he held from 1978 until 1995. In 1980, he married Alma Giese, a fellow accomplished scholar who received her doctorate from the University of Giessen the same year. “Both he and his beloved Alma shared in his love of language and literature, which surely was one of the greatest joys of his life,” said colleague William A. Graham, a professor and former dean at Harvard Divinity School.

Since 1989, Heinrichs wrote 50 academic articles on various topics such as literary criticism, and was co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Islam. In 1996, he became the James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic.

Heinrichs was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Classical Arabic language, culture, and literature, friends and colleagues said, as well as a variety of Neo-Aramaic languagessome near-extinctincluding Ṭūrōyo and Senāya.

In an email, Islamic Studies graduate student Gregory Halaby, a former student of Heinrichs’s, wrote that he was “above all genuine and honest,” possessing such traits as “brilliance, humor, humility, and eccentricity.”

Graham also emphasized Heinrichs’s exceptionally strong character.

“Wolfhart was the gentlest, kindest, and most generous friend and colleague whom one could wish for,” Graham wrote in an email. “His wide knowledge of seemingly everything was on prime display in his engagement with poetry.”

Many former students remembered Heinrichs’s passion for poetry. Heinrichs composed limericks for each of his graduate students upon completion of their dissertation. Former students said that his limericks were witty, perfectly capturing Heinrichs’s refined sense of humor. Gruendler recounted an incident when Heinrichs, who was correcting a paper, commented on a coffee stain, writing, “Cat spilled coffee and was severely reprimanded.”

NELC graduate student Avigail Noy said she remembered one of her first correspondences with the professor, which included his trademark sense of humor.

“He said, ‘Every year between zero and four people get in. But if you don’t try you won’t get in for sure,’” Noy said. “So even though he was ‘the’ Professor Heinrichs, it didn’t keep him from encouragingfrom the heartprospective students.”

Many noted the uncommon effect that Heinrichs’s precise teaching had on students, noting that he was focused on the growth of students without being patronizing. He would personalize exams for students in his philology class, choosing texts that they particularly would enjoy or be challenged by.

Noy said that perhaps one of the best examples of Heinrichs’s sense of humor was the impossible question that he put on every general exam as a reminder to students of what they did not know.

Students also remembered Heinrichs as someone who was never afraid to admit his faults. Another former student, Stanford assistant professor Alexander Key, said that it is extraordinary, “when you’re the global, number one authority in a field and you’re prepared to look your graduate students in the eye and say, ‘I’m going to have to look this word up in another five medieval dictionaries before I can decide what this text means,’” as Heinrichs did.

Gruendler said that when Heinrichs died he had even more knowledge left to offer the world, including unwritten books in his head. Though he had much left to give, friends and colleagues said they will remember him for his love of animals, his generous kindness, and his superb teaching ability.

—Staff writer Natalia Wojcik can be reached at

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 4, 2013

An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Heinrich's reason for including a single, impossibly difficult question on each general examination he gave. In fact, Noy said the questions were meant to demonstrate to students what they did not know.

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