PROFESSOR OF INDO-MUSLIM AND ISLAMIC RELIGION AND CULTURES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
Ali Asani is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. He came to Harvard as an undergraduate in 1973 from his native Nairobi and has been there ever since. A concentrator in comparative religion, he later pursued his doctorate work on Near Eastern languages, developing his dissertation on the ginans, the religious texts of the Ismaili branch of Islam. Capitalizing on his multilingual fluency in Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Gujarati, Sindhi, and Swahili, he began teaching at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Today a tenured professor, his research focuses on Shia and Sufi devotional traditions of Islam, as well as popular or folk forms of Muslim devotional life.
Using art forms, such as poetry, music, and calligraphy, Ali Asani is combating ignorance about Islam and Muslim cultures. He believes that the arts help to humanize cultures, whereas political discourses based on nationalist ideologies tend to dehumanize. He sees the arts as wonderful pedagogic bridges that help to connect peoples who perceive those different from themselves as “the other.” In keeping with his mission of promoting religious literacy, Asani held workshops for educators following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to help them better understand Islam. He also recently developed a detailed historic and cultural curriculum for the study of Muslim societies for the Islamic Studies Initiative, an international professional development program for high school teachers in Kenya, Pakistan, and Texas.
Most recently, Professor Asani, who is also associate director of Harvard’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, has been working on incorporating the arts into his “Culture and Belief” course, which is offered as part of Harvard’s new Program in General Education.
Dr. Asani’s use of the arts as a teaching tool is just part of his broader effort to eradicate what he calls “religious illiteracy.” For more than 30 years, he has dedicated himself to helping others better understand the rich subtext and diverse influences that make religion — in particular, Islam — a complex cultural touchstone. “For me, religion is a cultural phenomenon that is complexly embedded in historical, political, economic, literary, and artistic contexts. As these contexts change, people’s interpretation of religion changes, so it’s never really something that is fixed.” He adds: “By studying and appreciating a piece of art or a piece of literature from a different culture and then attempting to re-create that artistic or literary form within their own cultural framework, students participate in learning processes that are intimate and bear the imprint of their own personalities. In this manner, education can truly become personally transformative.”