Harvard Scholar Ali Asani to Reexamine Islam’s Origins with Key Moments

Ali Asani

Harvard University has been home to Ali Asani since he moved to the United States. He originally came as an undergraduate from Kenya and then decided to earn his doctorate. After five years, Asani realized he wasn’t ready to leave his alma mater, so he stayed at the university to pursue his career there as well.

At 2 p.m. today, June27 in the Hall of Philosophy, Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures at Harvard, will continue the Week One Interfaith Lecture Series on “Religious Moments That Changed the World,” with his lecture “Encountering the Divine as Beauty: Rethinking Islamic Origins.”

“Basically, I came here as a freshman from Kenya and never left,” he said. “I have been here for over three decades now. I have been teaching courses related to Islam, but also to religion, literature, arts and also some languages from South Asia and Africa. I have been doing a range of different things here.”

Given the “polarized state of America,” Asani believes people no longer have the tools to understand and engage in difference.

“Teaching here has been very important because I aim to provide my students with the tools to become literate about other religions and cultures,” he said. “I think when people don’t have the ability to understand religious differences or cultural differences, it leads to fear. People fear something that is different than themselves.”

Literacy is important not only in personal relations, but also in cultural relations, Asani said.

“I think in the United States, for example, a country that is religiously and culturally diverse, being literate about the nature of these cultural, religious and ethnic differences is very important to the project of democracy,” he said. “Democracy can’t function if you’re afraid of your neighbors who are different than you. And the same goes for all over the world.”

For his lecture about the origins of Islam, Asani brings a perspective of the religion outside of the Middle East, due to growing up in Kenya with a family history in South Asia.

“Most people just associate Islam with the Middle East and the Arab world,” he said. “The fact is that the majority of the world’s Muslims live outside the Middle East. There are more Muslims in South Asia than in the Arab world. I think I bring in a perspective from parts of the world that have generally been marginalized in our understandings of Islam and Muslim society.”

In his lecture, Asani has decided to use this perspective to talk through the founding moments that became the religion of Islam.

“Part of the theme, I think, is embedded in this notion that religious traditions are constantly evolving and depending on historical, political, economic and social context,” he said. “The founding moments of this tradition, specifically, were based on a mystical experience of the Prophet Muhammad and to which he started receiving inspirations.”

The revelations of Prophet Muhammad were codified and became the Quran. Asani said he will focus on how Muhammad’s words affected the people who heard them.

“What I am going to try to talk about in the lecture is that these inspirations that he would get and recite in Arabic, were so beautiful and so moving that people would weep and cry,” he said. “People would hear them and wonder ‘Who was this man and how did he have such power with words?’ I am going to talk about how the aesthetics and beauty of what he transmitted came to actually be seen as the Divine.”

In addition to the founding of Islam, Asani is also going to discuss the moment it transitioned from an identity to a religion.

“Islam, as we are using it now, is literally the name of a religion, and Muslim is someone who follows that religion but in the earlier periods — the word ‘Islam’ meant submission to the one God, and Muslim was anyone who submitted to God,” Asani said. “Later on, the Islam becomes an identity. In the beginning, even if you were Jewish or Christian, you would have been Muslim as long as you submitted to the one God. The message at the time of the revelations was quite inclusive.”

While the tradition itself is founded in a spiritual moment, Asani said it is also “embedded in aesthetics.” This interpretation of the religion is vital to people understanding their link to a higher power.

“When experiencing these texts, when experiencing all Islam was, people could transcend themselves and feel they were connected to something larger,” he said. “It is not about building walls, but bridges to something more, something else.”
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The author Jamie Landers

Jamie Landers is entering her third season as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily, covering all things music-related within the online platform. Previously, she recapped the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2019 and the Interfaith Lecture Series in 2018. In addition, she is a rising senior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix, Arizona, where she most recently served as a breaking news reporter for The Arizona Republic, as well as a documentary producer for Arizona PBS.