Campus & Community

Noted Islamic scholar Mahdi dies at 81

3 min read

Muhsin S. Mahdi, the James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic Emeritus, died July 9 after a long series of illnesses. He was 81.

Mahdi, considered by many to be the world’s foremost scholar of medieval Arabic and Islamic political philosophy, taught at Harvard from 1969 until his retirement in 1996. He served as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies from 1970 to 1973 and from 1976 to 1981, and as chair of the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from 1981 to 1984.

“Muhsin was a brilliant scholar, convivial and collegial mentor, thoughtful and gracious friend, and serene and patient but unsentimental observer of the human condition,” said William Graham, the Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and dean of the Faculty of Divinity.

“I had the privilege of studying with him, working with him as a departmental colleague, and enjoying his support and friendship over some four decades from his arrival at Harvard until his death last month. His scholarship will stand as a lasting contribution to our understanding of European-Mediterranean thought and literature in the era of the Western Middle Ages, especially its Arabic manifestations in philosophy and literature.”

Born in 1926 in the Shiite pilgrimage city of Karbala, Iraq, Mahdi completed his primary and secondary schooling there and in Baghdad, then earned degrees in business administration and philosophy from the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1947.

He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1954, where he studied with Islamic scholar Nabia Abbott and political philosopher Leo Strauss. Mahdi’s dissertation on the 14th century Arabic historian and social scientist Ibn Khaldun was quickly recognized as a path-breaking study. It was published in 1957 as “Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophical Foundation of the Science of Culture.” Mahdi’s many published volumes also include “The Political Orientation of Islamic Philosophy” (1982), “Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy” (2001), and a definitive Arabic edition of “The Thousand and One Nights” (1984).

Thoroughly versed in ancient Greek and medieval Jewish and Christian philosophy, as well as in modern Western political philosophy, Mahdi sought to establish rigorous scholarly standards in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies. He was known for the discovery, translation, and editing of previously unknown manuscripts, including many by the Persian philosopher and scientist Alfarabi (872-950).

Remembered as an influential teacher who inspired great loyalty from his students, Mahdi designed and taught the Core course “Foreign Cultures 14,” an introduction to the economic, social, and cultural background of the Middle East.

Before coming to Harvard, Mahdi taught in the University of Chicago’s department of Oriental Languages and Civilizations from 1957 to 1969. He was a visiting professor or lecturer at the American University in Cairo; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Freiburg; the Central Institute of Islamic Research in Karachi, Pakistan; and the University of Baghdad.

He was president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, the American Research Center in Egypt, the International Society for the History of Arabic and Islamic Sciences and Philosophy, and the Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science, as well as a member of many other learned societies.

Mahdi is survived by his wife, Sarah Roche-Mahdi; two daughters, Fatima and Nadia, from a previous marriage to Cynthia Risner; and two stepdaughters, Rachel and Rebekah Gerstein. He is also survived by his first wife, Louise Carus Mahdi.