Roy Mottahedeh becomes first Professor of Islamic History

Area studies to Islamic studies 1986

Roy Mottahedeh Becomes First Professor of Islamic History

Roy Parviz Mottahedeh was born in New York City in 1940. He graduated from Harvard College with an A.B. in history in 1960 and earned a second B.A. in Persian and Arabic from Cambridge University. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard under Sir Hamilton Gibb and Richard Frye and was elected a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. Professor Mottahedeh began his teaching career at Princeton where he earned tenure and was one of the first MacArthur Fellows. He returned to Harvard in 1986 as Professor of Islamic History, where his many accomplishments have included directing CMES, founding the Harvard Middle East and Islamic Review, and founding the Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program. He is well-known for his many publications including his books, Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society (1980) and The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (1985), and his article, “The Clash of Civilizations: An Islamicist’s Critique” (1995).


The Importance of History in Islamic Studies

Roy Mottahedeh

It requires a lot of different hands to history. For an Islamic studies person, one needs, well, the ideal combination would be somebody with both deep philology, and not necessarily in Arabic but in their areas other than Arabic, deep philology, and an historical approach. We have to have some teaching of Islamic studies through history departments, because an historian's approach, as varied as they are, an historian's approach is slightly different from a philologist's approach. It's wonderful to have people teach as Annemarie Schimmel did, but it's also wonderful to have people give survey courses in Islamic history as a background. In fact, I think the historical background enriches you even if you're doing literature. So, may a thousand flowers bloom, may a thousand flowers bloom. And we need all kinds of Islamic studies. And in my field, history, we need more than one kind of history. There really are many kinds of history. Occasional geniuses in the past, like Wellhausen and Metz, achieved real distinction but each of them, in our field, wrote only one book. Wellhausen, of course, wrote a lot more in Biblical studies and everything. I think that taking our people seriously, the people we study, is an important thing. So much was written by an older generation about, 'Was Islam original?' We were just talking about this. Was Islam original, was Islamic philosophy original, etc. was just misplaced interests. I think partly in the United States, we're inclined to think about things, are they original or are they imitated, because we live in a strange position vis-a-vis European civilization, but I think what things are in themselves is a deep part of understanding human history. And Muslims are our fellow human beings. And we have to understand them in themselves, as they understood themselves and, we can understand them differently, of course, across a gap of time.
Roy Mottahedeh
Roy Mottahedeh