Between February 8-10, Delhi will have the privilege of hosting Arth — India's premier Arts and Culture Fest where artisans and authors from different corners of the country will be showcasing their works and thoughts. So, we celebrate the countdown to the festival with interviews of selected authors who will be participating in the event. Today, Yoshita Rao interviews Carl Ernst, who is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic studies at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, on the need of understanding Islamic culture in the current environment. Excerpts of the interview.
What got you interested in Islamic studies and the Muslim culture?
Two things. First, long ago I asked myself, what is the subject that Americans know least about? The answer is Islam, and that is still the case. Second, I became attracted to the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. These two factors led me to complete a PhD in religious studies at Harvard University in 1981, and I have been analysing these problems ever since.
You've done a lot of work on literary translation of the Qur'an. What drew you into it?
The Qur'an is obviously an important part of Muslim culture, and that is a good reason to study it. But after proposing its translation as the 2002 UNC summer reading selection, I realised from the reaction how much anxiety there is about the very existence of Qur'an. That's why I wrote a book about it.
Why do you feel it necessary in this day and age to know the Muslim interpretations of Hinduism?
People tend to focus on contemporary encounters between cultures, which are often rigid and exclusive, based on nationalist and other narrow agendas. They forget that there have been deeper and broader engagements between Muslims and Hindus, and to document those cultural meetings is an important corrective.
Can you comment on diversity in India as compared to your hometown?
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a very small town, so it can only offer a glimpse of the remarkable diversity that is found in India. Still, the University of North Carolina is globally prominent and benefits tremendously from the presence of people from around the world.
Is this your first art and culture fest in India? What do you think the objective behind culture fests should be?
I have twice been a speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is a wonderfully enjoyable experience. These festivals are great for exposing people to cultural experiences that they have not previously imagined. The breadth of human possibility is always much greater than we have thought about in our own minds.
What is the one book that has changed your life after reading it?
Reading Henry Corbin's Avicenna opened me to the possibility of pursuing scholarship on the inner world of consciousness.
Any work in the pipeline you can elaborate on?
I am getting close to finishing my translation of the principal Arabic treatise on yoga, The Pool of Nectar, and it's Persian translation, The Ocean of Life. I I think people will be quite amazed at the contents of these texts.