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A Middle Eastern Calling

by Mardy Fones No Comment

Leor Halevi exercises his imagination and love of history in the study of Islam.


Leor Halevi is writing. The associate professor of history is tucked away in his office, once a hallway on the first floor of Benson Hall. The tidy, narrow space is lined floor to ceiling with books in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and other languages. Neat piles of notes and tagged volumes surround the computer illuminated by a tall window that draws in the late afternoon sun.

As a scholar and teacher, Halevi focuses on the history of Islam. He has published on the role of medieval Islamic death rituals and is at work on his second book, which focuses on Muslim trade with the West in the modern period.

“You could say I cast my net broadly,” he says with a slow smile. His background is also broad, an intense and diverse blend of cultural and linguistic elements. Born in Montreal to Israeli parents of Moroccan and Hungarian descent, Halevi grew up in Puebla, Mexico, where his father was a college professor and his mother taught Hebrew part time.

“When I was in 10th grade, I spent time on a kibbutz in Israel,” he says. “The American kids there were already motivated about college. That’s when I realized I wanted to go to an American university, too.”

Make that three American universities: Princeton, Yale and Harvard. As an undergraduate, he envisioned himself following in the footsteps of his father, a physicist. While taking a history class, he found a calling—Middle Eastern history—and stumbled onto a unique opportunity to study it. “At that time, no one wanted to major in Islamic studies; it was one of the smallest departments at Princeton,” he says. “I did the math and saw I could get a student-to-faculty ratio of one to seven.”

“I spent several years thinking about how Muslims experienced death a millennium ago. My work forced me to step outside myself . . . ”

That pragmatic decision, strengthened by the fluency in Hebrew he brought from home and a family keen on Middle Eastern politics, led to his life’s work. Halevi found rich, uncharted ground to work in medieval Islam, which led to penning the acclaimed Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society, published by Columbia University Press in 2007.

Imagination and History

“Part of what I try to do as a historian is bring texts to life. For me personally, it’s fulfilling to approach history imaginatively, to picture another world,” Halevi says. “History allows us to envision people and times that are different from our own. I like the discipline it gives me in exercising my imagination. That disciplined approach is the difference between a work of history and historical fiction.”

Halevi’s work stretches beyond uncovering the details of the past to writing that humanizes the actions, people and forces that forge historical events. “I’m not a Muslim and I haven’t died yet,” Halevi jokes, “but I spent several years thinking about how Muslims experienced death a millennium ago. My work forced me to step outside myself and exercise my historical imagination, to bring the practices, and debates, and sentiments that I researched to life.”

Muhammad’s Grave has garnered considerable attention. The book won the 2008 Ralph Waldo Emerson award given by the Phi Beta Kappa academic society to nonfiction books that have made the most significant contributions to the humanities. The American Academy of Religion honored it with the 2008 Award of Excellence in the Study of Religion, and in 2007, it received the top book prize in Middle Eastern studies, the Albert Hourani Prize awarded by the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America.

While adamantly insisting that his work does not serve as a broad survey or general guidebook into the intricacies of Middle Eastern culture and politics, Halevi admits he sometimes acts as a reference librarian for those wanting to know more about Islam. Always willing to guide others in pursuit of knowledge, he’s happy to suggest titles to read about the Middle East.

An Easy Place to Live

Halevi started his academic teaching career at Texas A&M in 2002, so he’s comfortable in the South, describing Middle Tennessee as gracious and welcoming to him and his family. “We like the weather and the people. They’re friendly here and they make eye contact when they say hello,” he says. “This is an easy place to live.”

The family lives near the university, and Halevi and his wife, Lauren Clay, assistant professor of history, ride their bicycles to campus. Walks to a nearby coffeehouse or Mexican popsicle shop are frequent family sojourns. Their elder son attends a public Spanish immersion grade school; the younger is in preschool. “At home, I talk to the boys in Hebrew and they answer in English,” he laughs. Halevi is fluent in Hebrew, Spanish and English, and proficient in Arabic, Latin and French. Clay is fluent in French and English, and proficient in Spanish. The couple are raising their boys to be multilingual, too.

When not hiking on nearby trails with his kids or partaking of Nashville’s cultural offerings, Halevi writes, does research and perfects his squash game. “I consider my work great fun. I enjoy reading and learning new things,” he says. He has a taste for modernist fiction and he confesses to enjoying detective novels, too. His reading list is eclectic. He just read—for fun—John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 treatise on modern consumption, The Affluent Society.

Halevi spent 2008–2009, his first year at the College of Arts and Science, on sabbatical to work on a new book about Muslim fatwas (legal opinions based in part on the teachings of the Quran). Entitled Forbidden Goods: The Consumption of Western Things and the Search for Modern Islam, it explores fatwas on new technology and objects that have to do with religious imagination, modernity and materialism, he says. Halevi received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to research and write this second book.

Quirky Introduction

In August, he returned to the classroom to teach undergraduate classes, including the History of Islam. Forgoing the traditional survey course approach, the class delves deeply into four significant points in the evolution of Islam, such as the formation of the Quran and early-20th century Muslim modernism.

“Cramming the political history of a major dynasty into one semester is boring and useless, so I’ve divided the course into chronological snapshots,” Halevi says. “My objective is to give students a quirky introduction to Islam that will serve to stimulate more study and open doors that will allow them to take more classes on the topic.”

Using his in-progress book as a springboard, his second class, Religion, Culture and Commerce, takes an economic and anthropological view across cultures and countries. “The focus here is not to be exclusively Islam. Far from it. In class, we’ll explore the ways that various religions responded to capitalism,” he says. “It’s a look across disciplines at what consumer goods mean through the lens of religion and what economic exchange means through the lens of culture.”

photo credit: John Russell

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