Campus & Community

Divinity School establishes new Islamic studies chair

4 min read

Harvard Divinity School has announced the establishment of the Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan Professorship in Islamic Religious Studies. The new chair, whose title honors the family of His Highness Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is intended as the cornerstone for an expanded program in the study of Islam at Harvard, promoting a deeper understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim peoples.

“This new Islamic Religious Studies professorship is a major contribution to the scholarly life of the Divinity School,” said J. Bryan Hehir, Chair of HDS’s Executive Committee. “The Divinity School has a long and vital tradition of promoting scholarship and teaching of the major religious traditions of the world. Contemporary developments in politics, economics, science, and culture highlight the need for in-depth scholarship in the rich traditions of the Islamic world. We are deeply grateful for Sheikh Zayed’s gift and we are committed to using it to its full potential.”

Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, director-general of the Office of His Highness the President, recently signed the terms for the professorship after considerable discussion. According to the terms, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, a devout Muslim, is supporting the professorship “in recognition of the desire by the United Arab Emirates to promote a better understanding of Islam among the non-Muslim peoples of the world and to foster dialogue among the world’s great religions.” The holder of the chair is to provide “broad teachings on the history, tenets, and practice of the Islamic faith and their implications for local and global societies,” and is also to provide “leadership and direction for the wider, interdisciplinary program of Islamic Studies.”

In the spirit of exchange and cooperation, the terms of the professorship also call for Harvard to designate a “liaison officer” who will advise UAE students on procedures relating to application and admission to the University, and who will encourage relations with the UAE in other areas of research and development.

“This endowment is a most welcome gift, since it helps fill a gap in our otherwise substantial strength in Islamic studies at Harvard,” said William A. Graham, professor of the history of religion and Islamic studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “The study of Islamic religious thought and history is growing internationally, and it is important that we have someone here in the future to deal with the contemporary Islamic religious world. Not only at the Divinity School but in the wider University, this position will meet a growing need. We are all delighted with this encouraging development and will await the first appointment with anticipation.”

In the fall, Hehir will appoint a committee to conduct a “worldwide search for a distinguished, universally recognized scholar and teacher.” That new person will join other renowned scholars of Islam at Harvard, including Graham; Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of History; and Leila Ahmed, professor of women’s studies in religion at the Divinity School. In addition, next spring, Ahmed Toufiq, who is director of the Moroccan National Library, will be a visiting professor in Islam at the Divinity School, affiliated with its Center for the Study of World Religions.

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, who has been president of the United Arab Emirates since 1971, has been recognized for supporting economic development and social programs. He has promoted Arab unity, and a deeper understanding of Islam among people of the UAE. “Islamic social justice asks every Muslim to respect others,” he says in information on the UAE’s Web site. “A Muslim is he who does not inflict harm upon others. Islam is the religion of tolerance and forgiveness, of advice and not of war, of dialogue and understanding.”

The UAE has supported other academic efforts to promote understanding of the Muslim faith, including a significant gift to Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies for a chair in Arab studies there. Sheikh Zayed has been quoted as saying “a true dialogue between religions is the real deterrent and a strong defense against fundamentalism and extremism.”

Endorsing this perspective, Hehir noted the importance of scholarly dialogue not only for the religious traditions involved but also for national and international society.