Asma Afsaruddin, professor of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures in the Hamilton Lugar School (HLS) has been named the Class of 1950 Herman B Wells Endowed Professor by Indiana University in recognition of her extraordinary scholarship and teaching, her deep concern for the well-being of students and her devotion to diversity, inclusion, and academic excellence.
Afsaruddin earned her A.B. at Oberlin College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Before joining Indiana University (IU) in 2008, she taught at Harvard, then Notre Dame. Her primary research interests include pre-modern and modern Islamic religious and political thought, Islamic intellectual history, gender issues in Islam, interfaith relations, and issues related to war and peacemaking within Islam.
When reflecting on her career trajectory, Afsaruddin says, “I think most of us who enter academia happily accept the fact that we are going to be in our ivory tower: We’ll write our dense academic books that 10, 15, 20 people in our field will read, and the rest of the world will be blissfully unaware. That just comes with the territory, right?”
However, the terrorist attacks in 2001 ended up altering the course of Afsaruddin’s career and expanding the audience for her work. She says, “After September 11, whenever I gave public lectures, I could count on members of the audience to ask about the relationship between religion and violence, particularly from an Islamic perspective. ‘What does jihad mean? How has the term played out historically?’”
These questions led Afsaruddin to a new area of exploration. She says, “I thought, ‘You know, I’ve never actually done an in-depth research project into this.’ So that kind of encouraged me to go down that path. I wrote my 2013 book, Striving in the Path of God, in response to that interest that I perceived on the part of the public. And then my most recent book, “Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know” draws from a lot of that information in the 2013 book but tries to distill it in a way to make it much more accessible to a much broader public.”
As interest in Islam continued to grow, Afsaruddin found the public aspect of her career expanded as well. In the past two decades, she has become a leading authority on Islam throughout the English-speaking world and is frequently invited to give lectures in Europe and the Middle East. Her public-facing essays have appeared in a wide range of publications including The Conversation, Religion Dispatches, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Patheos and more. She has been sought out for expert commentary for articles in the New York Times, Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and others.
In addition, Afsaruddin authored and edited eight books which have reached a broad audience. Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought (Oxford University Press, 2013), recently translated into Indonesian, won the World Book Prize in Islamic Studies awarded by the Ministry of Culture in Iran in 2015 and was a runner-up for the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society Book Prize in 2014. The First Muslims: History and Memory (Oneworld Publications, 2008) was awarded the Dost award from TURKKAD (the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association) in Turkey in 2013 and has been translated into Turkish and Bahasa Malaysian. Two of her books, The First Muslims and Contemporary Issues in Islam (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) are often adopted as a textbook for courses on Islam and Islamic history.
As for her own classroom, Afsaruddin feels that writing books for a general audience has helped her to become a better teacher. “I think it’s helped me to be much clearer in the classroom, particularly for the undergraduates,” she says.
Afsaruddin values the opportunity to teach courses which are closely related to her area of research. She says, “One of my two favorite courses to teach is Islam and Modernity which I teach every other year. Another course that I recently developed is Islam in the Eyes of the West.” She continues, “Both courses address contemporary issues of belonging and citizenship in our rapidly modernizing and globalizing world and highlight issues such as secularization, gendered identities, and the fraught relationship between religion and politics in the modern world.”
Afsaruddin says she has found the environment at IU and HLS to be “highly congenial for nurturing faculty research and teaching.” She continues, “Since HLS, by definition, is interdisciplinary, it serves as a facilitator of rich conversations among faculty and students from different perspectives, allowing us to appreciate the benefits of this cross-fertilization of ideas that, typically, does not happen in less diverse units. In a large institution like IU, it is not easy to meet people from other departments and units. HLS, however, makes that happen, allowing for the possibility of doing collaborative projects together and to think outside of our disciplinary silos and regional specializations – in, other words, to be more global.”
In addition to the prestige affiliated with the award, the Wells professorship provides $10,000 per year for five years. Afsaruddin is already anticipating ways this support may enhance her research and teaching. “As I contemplate my next projects, I will start doing research online to look at manuscript collections around the world. Although much of it has been digitized, there are still certain manuscripts that are handwritten that are very fragile and cannot be digitized. This award would allow me to travel there and study them in person.”
As she reflects upon the work she has done, and the attention it has received, Afsaruddin says, says, “I feel greatly honored by this recognition but at the same time feel humbled by it. It is always nice to be recognized by your peers for your work; at the same time, it also spurs you to continue to do your best and not rest on your laurels. I feel that there is so much more that I can do in my professional life to actually feel worthy of this honor!”