Carl Ernst, a UNC-Chapel Hill religion professor, is no stranger to awards. He has received close to a dozen over the years.
But when he was told he would be the recipient of the Farabi International Award given by the Islamic Republic of Iran, he paused.
The Farabi Award, named for a 10th-century Persian philosopher, is awarded to scholars by none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although the Iranian president has no hand in selecting the winners -- they are chosen by a committee within the government ministry of science, research and technology -- he does hand out the plaques.
Ernst is a scholar of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, and has traveled widely in Iran. But he has never met the president and, like most Americans, cringes at some of his policies.
So when he was notified that he was one of three Americans to win the award this year, he felt he needed to clear it with the university's top brass.
"I didn't want anyone to be surprised by this," Ernst said.
UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp understood the dilemma.
"He said, 'This looks like an academic honor. Politics inserts itself into these things, and we understand that,' " Ernst said.
So on Tuesday night, Ernst left for Tehran. It will be his second trip this month.
When he was there at a conference earlier in December, he made a strong plea for improved academic and cultural relations between Iran and the United States.
"There was an incredibly enthusiastic response," Ernst said. "So it would have looked strange if I declined an academic award."
Ernst will be honored for a book he wrote in 1996 on Ruzbihan Baqli, a 12th-century Sufi poet born in what is now Iran. The book, which has been translated twice into Persian, is widely used in university courses there.
Saturday's award banquet is expected to last three hours. Ernst will share the stage with two other U.S. academics, William Chittick, a religion scholar at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Miriam Galston, a lawyer at George Washington University.