For a university with global aspirations, it is crucial that Harvard have a strong program on Islam that is as worldwide and interdisciplinary as Islam itself. To this end, we welcome and are grateful for Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal's $20 million gift to promote Islamic Studies at Harvard. This is as an opportunity to revive the discipline and improve upon what is already the largest single group of Islamic specialists in the English-speaking world.
The addition of new scholars would also add to course offerings at the College, which suffers from a distinct lack of classes focusing on contemporary politics as well as the sociology of Islam. Recent news that the new program will focus more on South Asia is especially heartening. Most Muslims live east of the Middle East, so a focus on South Asia will illuminate Islam in regions not immediately associated with the religion.
But along with other professors and students on campus, we share some concerns about the possible implications of the gift. One concern is the prince's background and a possible use of the academic bequest as a matter of Saudi foreign policy. Though Prince Alwaleed has major investments in the United States and is more pro-American than other members of the Saudi royal family, he is still the nephew of the late King Fahd and therefore a member of the monarchical government that preaches a reactionary brand of Islam. But as long as accepting this gift does not obligate the University—formally, informally, or by mere gratitude—to hire someone whose political beliefs reflect those of Prince Alwaleed, there is little to be concerned about. Until hiring decisions are made, however, we await notification of which four scholars shall be hired under this gift.
Another concern is how Saudi gifts to other academic departments across the country—understandably increasing during the post-9/11 charm offensive in recent years—may have changed the tenor of those departments away from scholarship concerns and towards pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli activism.
This has been especially true at Columbia, where the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department is notably prejudiced, and where the establishment of the Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies was steeped in allegations of everything from furtive donors to unscholarly candidates to unfair methods. This is not to assert the principle that professors should not be activists, but to lament a situation where an entire department falls into the uniformity of a similar worldview. For then students lose out from not being exposed to a proper diversity of perspectives. Columbia has been nicknamed the "Bir-Zeit on the Hudson," after the Palestinian educational institution. We are content enough with the "Kremlin on the Charles" nickname of yesteryear to prevent us from desiring a new epithet.
Islamic Studies as a field of scholarly inquiry is as virgin as it is significant. Textual analysis of important Islamic texts remains for the most part an untapped and sometimes even dangerous scholarly pursuit. Once given the resources it deserves, the field has the potential to facilitate a much-needed pluralism, one that would revolutionize how Muslims understand themselves as well as how others understand Islam. Therefore, to use Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth Wisse's distinction, it is imperative that the courses not become "congratulatory" but "critical"; the latter is meant in the best sense of the word.
So while we are concerned about what events and professors will be funded by the Prince's gift, we are genuinely excited and grateful at his attempt to improve American understanding of Islam. As long as Harvard has the independence to use the gift in the way that it chooses—and with conscious prudence required to avoid homogeneity—Prince Alwaleed will have the satisfaction of having breathed new life into the study of Islam at Harvard.