Dr. Carl W. Ernst, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leading scholar of Islam, received a major new prize from an Arab cultural organization in Cairo on July 4.
The Distinguished Prize in the Humanities, with a $30,000 cash award, was presented this year by the board of trustees of the Shaykh Muhammad Salih Bashrahil Prize for Outstanding Cultural Creativity.
The Bashrahil Prize program comprises several awards: four for literary creativity or humanistic studies, in juried competition; and distinguished prizes for an Arab recognized for accomplishment in Arab culture or "a notable figure, Arab or foreign, whose role has been effective and influential in the fields of social and humanistic activity."
Ernst, UNC's Zachary Smith Distinguished Term Professor, won for his recent book "Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World" (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). The book introduces readers to Islam's ethics, practices, spirituality and culture while clarifying diversity and debate within the tradition. It concludes with an overview of critical debates on important contemporary issues such as gender and veiling, state politics and science and religion.
Ernst was the only American among eight winners this year of the distinguished prizes and juried awards. Other winners included Amre Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League.
The prizes, established this year and just awarded for the first time, are intended to parallel the Pulitzer Prize in the United States or the Booker Prize in the United Kingdom as a recognition of literary and cultural achievement. The prizes honor the late Shaykh Muhammad Salih Bashrahil, a philanthropist in Mecca. Awards will be made every other year -- always in the four juried competitions and in the distinguished category when the trustees believe one or more applicants deserve such a prize.
"I am particularly encouraged by this honor conferred by an Arab cultural organization, especially at this time," Ernst said in a brief acceptance speech in Arabic. "This recognition of 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 such outstanding contributors to modern Arabic literature and culture."
Ernst's book addresses Euro-Americans and illuminates the diversity of Muslim societies and thought. It describes how Protestant definitions of religion and anti-Muslim prejudice have affected how Islam has come to be viewed in Europe and America. It also explores the contemporary importance of Islam in both its traditional locations and its new homes.
"My principal goal has been to change the focus of humanistic study in the American academy, so that Islamic culture and civilization are included as normal subjects of study, rather than as exotic and remote topics of interest only to specialists," Ernst said.
The UNC Press published "Following Muhammad," Ernst's eighth book, last October in hardcover and will release the paperback version on Aug. 30. The book is being translated into Arabic, Indonesian and Korean. Edinburgh University Press published the book in the United Kingdom, Europe and the Middle East under the title "Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World."
"Numerous publications repeat incessantly the charge that terrorism is inseparable from Islam," Ernst said. "I argue to the contrary that we must seek instead what others have called a dialogue among civilizations. Knowledge and respectful exchange should be our goals, rather than conflict. I am hopeful that my book, both in English and in translations into other languages, will help enable increased communication and dialogue between Americans, Europeans and Muslims around the world."