How was the book nominated?
Very unexpectedly, I was contacted by Dr. Seham al-Freih, a professor of Arabic literature at Kuwait University, on May 7, when she called to ask me to accept the prize. I had never heard of the Bashrahil Prize, because this year is the first time it has been awarded. After making inquiries, I learned that the foundation established for the Bashrahil Prize is an organization dedicated to the support of literature and culture, and on that basis I was happy to accept the award.
How did Dr. Al-Freih become aware of the book, and why did she nominate it?
Dr. Al-Freih visited North Carolina in January 2004 to take part in the Muslim Networks Consortium meeting held at Duke University; she had been invited by Prof. miriam cooke (Duke) when the latter visited Kuwait to evaluate the Arabic program at the university there. The Muslim Networks Consortium, now consisting of nearly thirty universities in the US and a number of other countries, was created by a group of scholars at Duke and UNC, based on a series of seminars that began in 1999. The aim of the Muslim Networks Consortium is to create new models for Islamic studies, moving away from academic Orientalism, Middle East area studies, and inter-religious dialogue. By using analytical tools such as network analysis, and by embodying a new academic network that cuts across existing boundaries between academic disciplines and geographic regions, this group hopes to bring Islamic studies into the heart of the humanities and social sciences in the American university, instead of relegating them to the status of an exotic subject reserved for specialists. Literature and the arts are key elements for the Muslim Networks project. Among the fruits of the Muslim Networks Consortium is a new publication series called Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks, published by the University of North Carolina Press; my book Following Muhammad is the first book of the series, and its publication was one of the items discussed at the workshop.
Dr. Al-Freih was very impressed by what she saw of our efforts, and she expressed the wish to support this new initiative. As a member of the jury for the Bashrahil Prize, she was in a position to take action by nominating Following Muhammad for the prize at its board meeting in May; she did so with a 7-page letter in Arabic that summarized the contents of the book and highlighted its main features, especially the fact that it is written in a clear style that is accessible to non-specialist readers.. She particularly emphasized the point that my book makes regarding phenomena such as extremism and terrorism, as being the results of particular modern political mentalities rather than being somehow essentially part of Islam. She concludes, "Some cultivated Arabs believe that the author joins his voice to the voices of the elite thinkers (like Edward Said) in rejecting the notion of an absolute totalizing concept of Islam, which customarily appears in the form of fundamentalist groups, as Islam in the eyes of the West. Through the attempt to demonstrate that there is pluralism in Islam, this diversity reaches the difference of traditions in Muslim societies wherever they are. The author also calls for the need to recognize the importance of seeing these different kinds of pluralism within Islam."
Why was Following Muhammad nominated for this prize, rather than other books on Islam?
Muslims around the world have become acutely aware that, especially since the terrorist attacks against US targets in September 2001, there has been a spate of publications in America that have increasingly argued that terrorism is inextricably associated with Islam. These anti-Islamic publications range from the urbane and scholarly condemnations of modern Islamic countries by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis to the rabid denunciations of Islam emanating both from right-wing think tanks and fundamentalist Christian organizations. This stream of negativity causes considerable concern in majority Muslim countries, since these books offer, explicitly or implicitly, a justification for new military incursions that will inevitably be seen as a new colonial regime to the peoples of the Middle East.
Following Muhammad is not an apologetic defense of Islam, nor was it written by a Muslim; defenses of Islam based on Islamic ideals are indeed readily available, but they fail to address the questions raised by the conflicts of recent years. By offering a reasoned critique of colonialism as well as a critique of ideologies like fundamentalism, Following Muhammad demonstrates that it is possible for an American author to provide a fair-minded introduction to Islam for non-Muslims. The book also provides access to Islamic civilization and culture from aesthetic and ethical perspectives, which can be appreciated by readers of any background, and it makes clear how the Qur'an and especially the Prophet Muhammad function as centers for the values and aspirations of Muslims from many backgrounds. Moreover, by emphasizing the multiplicity and pluralism characteristic of Muslim societies throughout history, the book makes it possible to reconsider the phenomenon of Islam from a non-fundamentalist perspective (whether on the part of Muslims or non-Muslims).
What is the purpose of the prize, and who were the other winners?
The Bashrahil Prize for Outstanding Cultural Achievement was intended primarily as a recognition and encouragement of artistic creativity in the different areas of Arabic literature. In this respect it aspires to achieve what the Pulitzer Prize does in America, or the Booker Prize in the UK. While certain other major cultural prizes have existed previously in Arab countries (e.g., the King Faisal Prize offered by the Saudi government, and the Owais Prize awarded by the Arab Emirates), the Bashrahil Prize is distinctive in being offered by a private family foundation that is headed by an eminent contemporary Arab poet, Dr. Abdullah Bashrahil. With this award, Dr. Bashrahil and his family honor the memory of their father, the late Shaykh Muhammad Salih Bashrahil, who was an eminent philanthropist in Mecca (known particularly for his founding of an important hospital and also for an equestrian school there).
Juried prizes were offered to the following individuals in different fields of Arabic literature, each of whom received $25,000:
Poetry: Chawki Bazih (Lebanon)
Short story and novel: Nabil Sulayman (Syria)
Humanistic and progressive essays: Dr. Yumni Tarif al-Khuli (Egypt, the only woman to receive a prize this year)
Criticism and literary studies: Dr. Muhammad Lutfi al-Yusufi (Tunisia)
Although the board of trustees for the prize had initially decided to award one Distinguished Prize (to Amre Moussa), after discussion of additional nominations, they awarded three more Distinguished Prizes in different fields; all of these received $30,000. The by-laws of the prize describe the Distinguished Prizes as being given "to an Arab who stands out for his pioneering role and impressive accomplishment on the Arab cultural scene, or a notable figure, Arab or foreign, whose role has been effective and influential in the fields of social and humanistic activity."
Politics: Amre Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League
Literature: Adonis (Ali Ahmed Sa`id), the well-known Paris-based poet of Syrian background
Palestinian Figure: Poet Harun Hashim Rashid
Humanities: American writer, Professor Carl W. Ernst, for his book Following Muhammad.
Who is Dr. Abdullah Bashrahil?
Dr. Bashrahil belongs to a family of south Arabian origin (Yemen, Hadramaut) that has been in Mecca for many years. He also heads the Bashrahil Development Group, a large financial and trading conglomerate in Saudi Arabia. He has published 8 volumes of poetry since 1978, one of which (Sun Medals) is his poetic response to American writers reacting to the 9/11 attacks. His Arabic poetry combines both classical and modern forms, and his writing has been described as progressive and even as feminist in its portrayal of women. He also supports a number of philanthropic organizations, and is Chairman of the Board of the hospital established by his father.
What happened after you were nominated?
Dr. Bashrahil invited me and my wife, Judith Ernst, to come to Cairo for the ceremony on July 4. My acceptance initiated a sequence of communications leading up to our trip to Cairo in early July, and these were conducted largely through the medium of Arabic, by fax and phone. Since I use Arabic primarily for reading classical texts, and I'm not used to composing Arabic prose, this was a challenge, but with the editorial help of a couple of experienced Arabist friends, we were able to maintain communications. Throughout this whole experience, one of the most important things I have come to appreciate is the centrality of the Arabic language for the tasks of inter-cultural communication that lie before us.
As the time grew near for the trip, I had written out in advance the remarks I was asked to make as a brief acceptance speech (5 minutes). I also concluded that it would be important to translate them so I could deliver them in Arabic, both as a convenience for the largely Arabic-speaking audience expected in Cairo, and as a gesture to the fact that the Bashrahil Prize is largely focused on encouraging creative achievement in Arabic literature. It took me at least as long to translate the text as it did to write it. My translation fortunately received some polishing, thanks to the winner of the juried Bashrahil Prize in the poetry category, Lebanese poet Chawki Bazih; he very kindly went over it to improve the style and vocabulary as we sat together in the lobby of the El Gezirah Sheraton the day of the ceremony. The fact that I gave my remarks in Arabic was much appreciated (they had not expected this, and they in fact had arranged for someone to summarize my talk in Arabic – she and I joked about this afterwards).
What was the awards ceremony like?
In a dining room at the El Gezirah Sheraton in Cairo on the evening of July 4, about 300 invited guests plus dozens of reporters were present for the ceremony and following dinner. At the head table were Dr. Mufid Shahab (Egyptian Minister of Higher Education), Dr. Ghazi al-Aridi (Lebanese Minister of Culture), Amre Moussa, Dr. Abdullah Bashrahil, and Dr. Salah Fadl (former Director of the Egyptian National Library), all of whom made remarks, as did each of the awardees after the presentation of the prizes, in a ceremony of about two hours. It was especially well received when Amre Moussa announced that he was donating his prize money to the Arab representation at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, an amount which Dr. Bashrahil consequently doubled to the amount of $60,000.
What is your reaction to the prize?
It is of course a surprise to receive this kind of honor unexpectedly. Beyond that, I think any scholar who studies a foreign culture would be tremendously gratified by this kind of recognition, coming from a cultural organization in the region that he or she is concerned with. I am particularly encouraged by this honor conferred by an Arab cultural organization, at a time when unfortunately relations between the U.S. and Arab and Muslim countries are in such a difficult situation. The study of civilization and culture is concerned with the long view, and the award of this prize for my book is an important statement about shared humanistic values that transcend political boundaries. It is also a great honor for me to be recognized alongside of such outstanding contributors to modern Arabic literature and culture.
Has there been any controversy about the award of one of these prizes to an American writer?
No; far from it. There has in fact been controversy about two of the other Distinguished Prizes, however, for reasons both political and religious. There are a number of people in the Gulf countries (especially Kuwait) who criticized the award made to Amre Moussa, since they still object to the political stand he took against the 1991 Gulf War when he was Foreign Minister of Egypt. In addition, conservatives in Saudi Arabia have vociferously criticized the award to Adonis, since, as a poet who has embraced post-modernism, they regard him as having abandoned traditional Islam. Dr. Bashrahil vigorously defends the award made to Adonis, however, whom he admires as a pioneer and a revolutionary figure in modern Arabic literature, and he objects to the tendency to restrict freedom of thought revealed by this criticism. The nomination of Following Muhammad has, in contrast, been warmly received in the press and by many individuals.
What kind of publicity has the award to Following Muhammad generated?
A good deal of attention has been given to this award in the Arab press, and Dr. Bashrahil gave nonstop interviews for some days afterward. I was interviewed by at least a dozen TV, radio, and newspaper journalists in the first couple of days after the ceremony, both in English and in Arabic, including two interviews with major newspapers that lasted over an hour. An associate of Dr. Bashrahil, an eminent Egyptian poet named Ismael Okab, invited me and my wife to his home on the Mediterranean coast, and he interviewed me extensively over two days before writing his report for The Literary News (Akhbar al-Adab), a well-known weekly journal on Arabic literature that is distributed in the Middle East, Europe, and America. Dr. Seham Al-Freih will also write an article for the Kuwaiti press providing a precis of the contents of the book.
What's next after the prize?
We spent a fair amount of time with Dr. Bashrahil over the next few days. We discussed the publicity that is being prepared for the book by UNC Press and Knowledge Foundry, an advanced instructional unit dedicated to producing MediaBooks emerging from selected UNC faculty research projects. This initial publicity will include a dedicated website (www.FollowingMuhammad.net) that will give details about the book, the Bashrahil Prize, and the pedagogical philosophy underlying the multimedia extensions being planned for Following Muhammad.
Dr. Bashrahil also invited us to join him in Alexandria for an evening of celebration of Arabic poetry (his and others') hosted at the Alexandria Center for Artistic Creativity, a charming and beautifully restored 19th-century palace that includes a school of fine arts.
Dr. Bashrahil plans to commission an Arabic translation of Following Muhammad, and hopes to distribute it extensively in the Middle East. I will consult actively with the Arabic translator to ensure the highest quality in the translation, which I am also doing with translators of the text into French, Turkish, and Persian.
 Fatima Sadiqi, Images of Women in Abdullah Bashrahil's Poetry (Beirut: Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 2003).