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An In-Depth Interview with William Graham, Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Professor of Middle Eastern Studies

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Recently, I sat down with Professor William A. Graham, Dean of Harvard Divinity School since 2002 and a member of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 1973. Among his many previous positions at Harvard, Dean Graham has served as Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. His scholarly work has focused on early Islamic religious history and textual traditions, and problems in the history of world religion. Dean Graham spoke of HDS' recent evolution, the study of religion, collaborations across Harvard, bridging research to practice, and the need integrate the study of major world cultural and religious traditions into the basic fabric of undergraduate education.

The following is an excerpt, while the full interview can be found here.

Rahim Kanani: I recently spoke to Larry Bacow, President of Tufts University, and he stated that collectively, we've underinvested in the study of religion, not to encourage people to become religious, but to understand the religious dimension of domestic and international affairs, where many debates therein are rooted in some kind of belief system or another, often based in religious text.

Dean Graham: Absolutely, and if they're not rooted in religion, they often have a religious expression. So whether it's religious motivation or utilization of religion out of other motivation I don't have an answer to that, because I think it varies a lot, but I couldn't agree more. I'm an historian and I work particularly in the Islamic world, but I've also studied Indian traditions and western traditions at various times and written about them, so I do what is often called comparative work. What I realize is that my actual books and articles reach frankly a fairly limited audience when you look at the scholarly world in which they circulate. It's very hard to disseminate some of the work that is being done by scholars in the various fields that are relevant here. Probably most of us studying religion in the academy have been less good than we should be. I would like to think that we are teaching our students to change the world's ignorance about religion from their diverse standpoints, but that may not be enough. I am proudest in some ways of being part of a world history team for the last 26 years with a college text that is going into its 9th edition next month. There are 5 of us, 2 at Yale and 3 here at Harvard and the fact that I am an historian of religion means that at least that in putting this together the publishing company thought it important enough to see religion as somehow critical. That book may be one place in which I'm able to reach a wider audience because thousands of students read this book, but it's sad that we don't have greater distribution of the wide range of work that tries to talk about what the good and the bad in the history of religion have looked like.

Religion has not been a good thing in world history, my own mentor used to say, but it's been a great thing. In other words, for good and evil, it has been an important element in human experience, and remains so. I think people don't understand enough about it, and people ought to have a little sophistication in dealing with religious pluralism if nothing else, because they're going to live in America or anywhere else alongside people of 6 or 7, if not 30 different religious persuasions just in their own neighborhoods and certainly in their towns and cities.

Rahim Kanani: Recently, His Highness the Aga Khan stated that in the West, the definition of an educated person does not include any knowledge of the Islamic world. As you sit atop Harvard Divinity School, how do we redefine the notion of what it means to be educated in the 21st century?

Dean Graham: It's hard to know. We now have four Islamic specialists here at HDS, which is at least three more than ever before, but whether this means we are educating most of our students about Islam is another question, largely because our graduate students are doing so many different things. For me, it is more important that non-Western studies generally need to be more regularly integrated into undergraduate curricula around the country. They are much more available in colleges nationwide than they were in, say, 1960s or 70s, but we still have a ways to go. For 30 years I taught basic Islam courses in the College here, and let's say I might average 100 undergraduates a year in those courses. We have over 6000 undergrads in the college, so it's still a pretty small percentage of those, even with 1 or 2 of my Islamics colleagues teaching similarly general undergraduate courses. Let's say we reach 200 people a year. You're only reaching a small percentage even of the Harvard population. What is really needed is to integrate the study of major world cultural and religious traditions into the basic fabric of undergraduate education, into the general education required of all students for an A.B. degree. It is important to educate as wide a swath as we can of our citizenry about not only Islam but religious traditions more widely. General education in particular ought to include at least an introductory level of awareness of the history of religion and culture globally, including that of the Islamic tradition. That was the reason I joined the aforementioned world civilization textbook team in 1984; but we don't have enough of such education yet in almost any American curriculum I have seen.

We are especially ignorant in this country of the Islamic tradition. What the average American knows of Islam comes from hearing about terrorists who have identified with Islam and in a way co-opted the name of Muslim and the name of Islam for their own purposes. As I indicated earlier, they have indeed gotten some support in portions of the Muslim world, but that does not make the terrorists representative of world Muslims. As in the Christian world the great majority of people are probably pretty silent about their faith and about what they think. It's a very private thing for a lot of people and so it's just very hard, given the media, for people to factor in the degree of distortion involved in what one reads about Islam. I do think the study of other traditions like the Islamic for people who are not Muslim gives one some sense both of the breadth of the tradition, its diversity, and some appreciation for the fact that extremists and fanatics exist in all traditions, but no great tradition in the world has ever been made up of largely of extremists and fanatics...continue reading

The full interview can be found here.

Future interviews include Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, Drew Faust, President of Harvard University, Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and many more. Please follow me on Twitter to be notified of their publication.