In this interview, Ahmad Dallal traces his intellectual and personal journey from Lebanon to the United Sates and back, while addressing his research trajectory, American University in Beirut provost experience, and future research plans.
Dallal’s academic training and research focus is on the intellectual, historical, and institutional contexts of the disciplines of learning in medieval and early modern Islamic societies, covering both the exact and the traditional sciences. His first book, An Islamic Response to Greek Astronomy; Kitab Ta‘dil Hay’at al-Aflak of Sadr al-Shari‘a (E.J. Brill, 1995), examines the astronomical work of the fourteenth-century scientist and religious scholar Sadr al-Shari‘a al-Bukhari. Al-Bukhari produced several renowned works on traditional religious sciences, and wrote an Islamic critique and reconstruction of Ptolemaic astronomy. In his second Book, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, Professor Dallal examines the significance of scientific knowledge and situates the culture of science in relation to other cultural forces in Muslim societies. Between 2000 and 2003, he was an associate professor at the Department of History at Stanford Universit. And from 2003 to 2009, he served as the chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. Between 2009 and 2015, he served as the provost of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. He is currently professor of history at the American University of Beirut.
The interview below includes five parts that you can click on separately. Please find a transcript of the interview below the player.
Bassam Haddad (BH): Good evening. We are here in Beirut with Professor Ahmed Dallal, the former provost of the American University of Beirut conducting an Intellectual Journey interview with him. He was gracious enough to give us time on the weekend to share with us some of the narratives that have animated his intellectual life, and beyond. This is for Status Hour, my name is Bassam Haddad and we would like to start by asking Professor Dallal, but I will call you Ahmad, if you can share with us a very basic, brief bio if you will, before we get into your intellectual journey.
Ahmad Dallal (AD): Good evening Bassam and thank you for this interview. I was born here in Beirut. I studied in Beirut. I did my undergraduate education and received a degree in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut. I practiced engineering for four and a half years before I went to Columbia University for Islamic studies. I did Islamic studies and I started in 1984. I got my degree in 1990 and I taught in the US until 2009. In 2009 I came back to assume the position of provost at the American University of Beirut which I did for six years until this last June. In the interim, for almost twenty years, I taught first at Smith College, then at Yale, and then at Stanford. The last position I occupied was at Georgetown University as the Chairman of the Arabic and Islamic Studies Department.
BH: Would you mind starting by sharing with us a little bit about your early life and how you got into academics? What were the influences once you embarked on a more higher learning level of education. What were the influences that propelled you into and beyond graduate studies?
AD: I was, like most people from my generation, good at school, so the expectation was that I would go to a professional school and that I would receive a professional degree either in medicine or mechanical engineering. If you have the grades, that is what you do. I actually studied mechanical engineering and enjoyed mechanical engineering. I worked with Middle Eastern airlines fixing airplanes. I received many licenses; I actually received all of the FAA licenses in all mechanical systems before I quit.
I enjoyed my engineering practice, but during my studies here at AUB, I took many electives. My history professor at AUB had an influence on me and I got into studying history. I also read quite a bit of history on my own. I received my degree in mechanical engineering in February 1980 and worked until the end of the summer of 1984. I was here [in Lebanon] during the 1982 invasion. There was a lot of turmoil both professionally on the one hand, given my general interests, and also the country’s situation. I was propelled to think of alternatives. You know, I thought I needed to continue my education, so I made a decision to continue it. Although at that point I decided to continue my education in a field I would really like to pursue, which is history, as opposed to doing engineering. One of the reasons is that working for an airline is pretty much as high up [as you can go] in technological standards. The technological standards are very strict because if you do not apply them there are people’s lives at risk.
I worked for almost five years and accumulated all the licenses that were possible within the framework and context that we operated within in Lebanon. I had a feeling that I reached a ceiling in engineering. Had I continued within a professional framework, I probably would have done what many people do: a combination of engineering and business. I really was not interested in that. So the situation in Lebanon and my passion for history, those are the factors that made me opt for a degree in history. I studied at Columbia and did not know if I would be staying in the US or coming back after finishing my degree or -- as a matter of fact, I initially thought that I would be coming back to work here in Lebanon at AUB, but at the end of 1990, the year I finished my degree, I got married. So I decided to extend my stay in the US. I applied for jobs late in the cycle. My first job was at Smith College and I took it from there.
BH: In relation to your intellectual trajectory, what were the early influences that animated your thoughts and ideas? What influences propelled you into an academic career in terms of writers, authors, or even experiences, whether it was your experience as an engineer or civil war in Lebanon or things of the sort?
AD: During my engineering study here, I took many history electives. History was related to social developments. This was an era with a lot of change and therefore activism and history. So history was informative as it were, but also in terms of taking a stand on social issues.
There is a professor of mathematics who taught at AUB. I did not know him as a student during my years of study. His name is Edward Kennedy. He is the last senior American professor to leave AUB. He actually spent the last year of his stay in Lebanon [during the year that] many Americans were kidnapped and killed and so on, so he was pretty much under house arrest. He could not leave the house for many reasons, yet he did not want to leave Lebanon. He wanted to stay as long as he could because Lebanon was his adopted home. This is a professor of mathematics that, for every sabbatical, he went to Brown University to pursue a degree in the history of Islamic Science. [He] eventually received a second degree and was a leading historian of science. After I finished [my degree], one of the topics I was interested in was the history of science and the relationship between science and religion. I would actually read semi-cultic works [because] I did not have the ability to scrutinize. Anyway I heard about Kennedy so I looked him up and I went to him. He was very happy to have someone interested in the subject whom he could teach because he was sitting at home. When I first met him he was not stuck at home, but for a whole year he could not leave his apartment. His wife would go do the shopping. So I used to go once or twice every week and sit with him for several hours and he would very generously teach me what he knew. I published two pieces while working with him before I decide to apply for graduate school. [The publishing] encouraged me to apply for graduate school and to look for specific programs. There were only a handful, three or four in the US, which do the history of science. He [Kennedy] had a great influence on me.
I also took courses with Kaman Salibi. I was especially impressed by Salibi’s ability to rethink his own intellectual trajectory and change course as a result of what he found through his research. He was in a particular political camp and eventually the research he did on the history of Lebanon made him change his mind. I do not know if he shifted positions completely, politically or not, but that made him have a change of heart I thought that was quite impressive.
These are some people who had significant influence on my career. At Columbia, I broadly studied Islam and disciplines of learning, but I wrote my dissertation on the history of science. I thought I would take advantage of my knowledge of the sciences and apply that - which I do not regret doing. I do other things related to Islamic studies as well.
BH: Thank you. When you went to the States, did you know that you were going to stay there for some time?
AD: No I did not, actually.
BH: How did it happen?
AD: My initial plan, as I told you a minute ago, was to return [to Beirut]. But in 1990 I got married. At the time, my wife was in the US and was still studying, so I decided to extend my stay and apply for jobs. I got my first job and then four years later I applied to Yale and got my second job at Yale. I stayed there for six years. Then I went to Stanford for three years then one thing led to another.
BH: And after Stanford?
AD: After Stanford the last position in the US was at Georgetown.
BH: This is where we met.
AD: This is where we met, yeah. But maybe we met before?
BH: Before we go back to the other part of your life, which is basically coming back to Beirut, I would like to discuss your intellectual production, specifically the two books that you have written in addition to the articles. Can you tell us about these works and how you got to write them and what got you interested in them? They have different titles, as I am sure you will be sharing with us, and it would be nice if you would tell us what connects them and what motivated you to shift gears. Perhaps you did not shift gears, but from what I see in the titles, they look a bit different even though they probably swim in the same larger realm.
AD: Indeed. I mean, they are very different topics but there are some common threads that I will tell you about in a minute. My field of study at Columbia was the disciplines of learning. I was interested in disciplines of learning within Islamic culture, the historical evolution of both the exact sciences and the traditional sciences. That dissertation on astronomy and planetary theory was eventually turned into a book that was titled An Islamic Response to Greek Astronomy. I also edited and studied an encyclopedic work on Planetary Theory in the fourteenth-century.
My approach, which I of course developed gradually, began by reading books that verged on the cultic. I mean, they were not exactly cultic but they were not very academic or scholarly. I only realized that later on when I started my formal studies. Actually, now in retrospect, I remember Kennedy telling me, but very politely and indirectly. Although he could be blunt, he did not want to make me feel bad. Unfortunately I did not pick up on his signals regarding the problems in these types of works that I was influenced by.
Eventually the approach I ended up taking was one that questions, first of all, the standard periodization schemes that exist in our field, in our discipline. As an anecdote or counter to some major problematics in the field of Islamic studies, the approach that I ended up taking and applying in the various studies was looking at traditions, [specifically] the evolution of traditions. Whether they are exact sciences or traditional sciences, I was looking at and trying to understand their evolution in time. This included the changes in the traditions in light of historical factors. So I looked at the continuities and ruptures and I tried to situate these continuities and ruptures.
One major problematic that occupied me in my research is the problematic of periodization including the whole notion of decline, what defines decline, and whether a certain period is a period of decline. In the history of science this is a very acute issue. It is a very acute problematic but I think it is an acute problematic in the field of Islamic studies in general. In [the] history of science, the traditional historians of science or rather culture – they did not really know science that much, they were general, cultural historians who talked about science – the traditional, standard Orientalist view is that all the sciences started because of factors which are external to Islamic culture. There were remnants and pockets of Greek knowledge and these gave rights to scientific culture in Islamic political domain. Eventually they ran their course. Then when Islamic religious culture matured, it realized it is in conflict with rational thinking so these rational disciplines declined and after the eleventh-century specifically after Ghazali, the sciences started to decline and it was a downward spiral from that point onwards.
The first thing that I have learned from historians of science [is that they] actually works on mathematical problems. They work on astronomical models. They work on mathematics. They work on medicine. They work on you name it, on any of the mechanics and so on. The first thing I learned is that this notion of decline after the eleventh-century is completely bogus. Completely nonsense. The Golden Age, if there is a Golden Age of the Islamic sciences is probably in the thirteenth or fourteenth-century and there is a very vibrant scientific activity past that century. This means past the thirteenth, fourteenth, and into the sixteenth at least. Now we are even discovering things in the seventeenth-century. So, these sheer, simple facts told us, everyone who is a serious historian. And again there are not that many there are only a handful of people and their numbers are decreasing. The sheer figures show that this periodization is problematic. Now you start looking at the assumptions behind this periodization and where it fits into this larger grand narrative about Islam and so on an so forth. You start asking questions that are significantly broader. A similar problematic actually applies in other disciplines as well. In other traditions whether it is the traditional sciences or the exact sciences. And the whole question of decline and periodization is very important. When does modernity start in the Muslim World? What proceeds modernity? What is the eighteenth-century, for example?
My second important field is the eighteenth-century. I began working on the eighteenth-century in either 1993 or 1994. I think my first article was in 1993. I thought that I would write this one article and that would be the end of it. [I was] looking at reform movements, again intellectual thoughts, in the eighteenth-century, a particular period that is often considered to be a period of decline.
I did not know the whole intellectual landscape at the time. That was the beginning of a very serious exploration of this landscape and I thought that article would be a one-time thing. I found out two things. By the way, this was actually the beginning of long-term research, which continues today. What I found out is that first of all, the eighteenth-century unlike what is posited in the scholarship is a very vibrant century. And in fact I argue in my forthcoming book that it is one of the most vibrant centuries in all of Islamic studies.
The second thing that I found out is that the prototype, which is often invoked [as] the representative of Islamic thought in the eighteenth-century, which is Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabi thought, is in fact an exception rather than the rule. So, periodization here is important. Then I realized there are many more things I did not know and there I was studying them and working on them and so on. There are many other findings that have come up since. So this became a long-term research project and is the subject of the book [I hope to finish this year]. I actually started working on it but I had to stop the work when I assumed the position of provost here at AUB because it is not easy to do research when you do full-time administration.
Another topic that I work on is the relationship between the rational and the traditional. The whole notion of the caqel/neqil dichotomy and so on. And this is the subject of my second book Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. There I look at social, historical contextual issues as well as some logical issues between science and philosophy as well as science and hierarchy. And again my topic, the notion of precedent, usually occupies historians of science. There is precedent in the Islamic scientific tradition, which had great influence on later scientific developments in Europe and so on.
But beyond this question of precedence and origins and beginnings, I was actually interested in the seven or eight centuries themselves. The cultural context in which these sciences developed and if there are legacies that were imported, how were they transformed? How were they naturalized? What shape did they take? What was the social, cultural, environment, and epistomoglical environment in which these disciplines thrived? How did they develop and how were they cultivated? What were the tranformations that happned within these traditions? What was their transformation in their own immediate context irrespective of the perspective of where they came from or where they ended? So these are common threads despite the fact that the subject matter and my study of the history of sciences differ from the subject matter of study of Islamic reform movements. These are subjects that have common threads that run through both of these kinds of research.
BH: In your work you emphasis the importance of counter narratives. In producing counter narratives, do you focus on your intellectual production being itself a counter narrative?
AD: I mentioned the subject of periodization. Periodization is at the heart of orientalist scholarship. There are high periods and there are low periods and so on and so forth. There are also many problematic notions in the earlier scholarship on Islam. I think the fundamental critique is valid, despite the fact that Orientalism of course brought a lot of useful theological work. There is a lot of knowledge that was generated by Orientalist scholarship, perpetrated as well. But there are problematics also. There are serious problematics and my work on the history of science identifies many of those. My work on early reform movement tries to engage and provide alternative views on these issues.
In the wake of the critique of Orientalism, there is a generation of revisionist historians that emerged. However most of these revisionist historians tend to work on the modern period. They do not tend to work on specific historical periods. They work on archives and on periods in which there is documentary evidence, such as archival materials and other material evidence. They focus on shorter periods of time. They focus on specific locales, and all of that is extremely important and understandable. In a way they refuse to produce these general essentialist generalizations about Islam. For example in Islam there is x and y - you come up with a formula and then you start reading history through the prism of that formula. The revisionist historians who produced very important work in the last few decades, in the last three decades I would say or maybe a little more, they actually tended to do specialized work. They tended to focus on documentary evidence. They tended to focus on period and place and so on.
There is a drawback however to this refusal to engage the grand narrative that was generated by the Orientalists because if you do not produce a counter narrative, then that grand narrative will continue to have influence and it in fact does today. You have critiques of this reference material, but the reference material that is invoked even by the revisionist historians who work on modern topics, on the modern period of the Muslim World, they probably would not call their histories histories of Islam, they would call it the history of this country or this region or this city. When they need to invoke references of the classical period of religion, they quite often going back to the work of Orientalists although they are in principle opposed to these works. Of course they pick and choose, it is eclectic. I think there is a lacuna, there is a gap. I think it is important to produce counter narratives. Counter narratives do not have to be static. They do not have to be essentialist. They could be situated. You could generate a narrative about a process and it could be a grand narrative, but to simply turn your back to it and move forward. There is a lot of knowledge that was generated through Orientalism and one needs to engage it and say, “these are the problematic aspects of it and this is not problematic.”
I think it is important also to provide counter narrative. I will give you an example: My work on the eighteenth-century was actually influenced by a number of revisionist historians. The stories, the narratives that they produced, were quite attractive. There was this network theory, a theory of an intellectual network for people travel during pilgrimage and the like. They went around and shared ideas and Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab and Shah Waliullah Dehlawi and all of these people they were a part of this larger intellectual network although they may have not been organizationally connected but there was a family connection between them.
When I started working on the eighteenth-century I was actually influenced by this line of thought but I found out that it does not work. You have a great historian like Reinheart Schultz who has done his own research on the twentieth-century, but then he moved backwards. He was also intrigued by this thesis and came up with a very interesting theoretical construct in connection to the eighteenth-century. The problem is that when you look at the details, it is not enough, as I often tell my students in class. It is not enough for something to be logical, to be correct. You have to have evidence that it actually happned in history for it be historical. You do not construct a theoretical model because it sounds nice and it has internal logic and internal coherence. You have to have evidence that these things actually happened in history. And when you look at this narrative about the eighteenth-century, the revisionist narrative mind you, the Orientalist narrative is extremely problematic and extremely uninformed. But the revisionist narrative, and in fact there was a critique by Orientalist of the revisionist historians of the eighteenth-century, which was devastating and accurate. It is correct, because these orientalists went back to the sources and said, “What are you talking about?” This is what the sources say. What are your sources? What is your evidence? That is why it is important to generate a counter, even grand narrative to some extent while also trying your best to avoid essentialism and to contextualize to the extent possible. By the way another important thing: there are material historians and there are historians of ideas. Now of course the most difficult kind of history if cultural history and cultural history combines both. But it is not easy to do cultural history and its not easy for me it is not easy for anyone. It is very easy to claim to be a cultural historian but usually what people do, people are either material historians and they sprinkle a little bit of culture, or alternately, they are historians of ideas and they pretend to be looking at context and whatever. You know balancing the two is quite difficult but I think it is important and when cultural history is done properly I think it is great. It is wonderful. I think it is possible, to get back to that question, to go back to cultural history and to generate grand narratives which are situated, which engage both intellectual traditions as well as intellectual discursive traditions as well as historical context.
BH: Before we get to other matters, can you tell us about your tenure in the United States and how being in the United States or whether being the United States affected your scholarship or your interests in the some way? Is this a factor or did it really not have an effect?
AD: Well, I studied in the US and that study shaped career professionally. The fact that I am from the region. The fact that I have better familiarity with some religious sources although I did not receive traditional religious education of course, except at school, simple rudimentary. I have better exposure and I am comfortable with traditional sources, which helps. Not only does that help but also I think with some luck it gave me a critical perspective, which helped me as I pursued my studies in the US.
Again, I worked in four different universities. In each university I was in a different department. In Smith College I was based in a religious studies department and I actually got exposed to methodology of religious studies departments. At Yale I was in the Oriental/Near East studies department, which of course is a traditional orientalist approach to the philological approach and I also have a very strong dose of philological training.
At Stanford, I was in the history department and at Georgetown I actually created the PhD in Islamic studies and transformed the Arabic department into an Arabic and Islamic studies department. So there are four different departments and really four different models for different kinds of curricula in each of these departments.
Again, in our field as you know very well, until recently in many universities, there are not many people who teach. I mean you do not have the luxury of teaching one century at a time, or one specific topic at a time. Quite often you are expected to teach pretty much everything. Introductory courses to the history of Islam and to the Islamic Religion and combine a variety of different methodologies. Work on the classical period and the modern period. Work on philosophy. Work on sectarianism and so on and so forth. That is a drawback in a way, but also having been forced to do that, I was forced to familiarize myself with multiple intellectual traditions and I felt that that was quite helpful to me in my intellectual formation. So I learned a variety of approaches and also having to teach many different things. I studied and taught and actually published historiography, at least one piece on historiography and historiography figures an other pieces as well. I worked on science and religion. I worked on very detailed exact sciences. I worked on Islamic reform movements and so on. I worked on religious issues and Islamic law and so on. That actually although it could be draining, could cause at times a loss of focus, but eventually with the passage of time and as you continue to work on this it enriches your knowledge of a broad rang of topics and that could have a positive effect as well. If you are interested to know, each of the places I worked at, I learned from actually. You know, moving between universities, I learned about different institutional set-ups and structures and approaches, but it was also an incremental process. And in each of these places I learned and I grew and I gained valuable experience. If I am to identitfy one place that is the most rewarding intellectually I would say Stanford. There is a very particular reason for that. At Stanford I was in the history department but within the history department and beyond the history department there was a huge number of scholars at Stanford who met every other week. They had a seminar and the topic that we studied was called “Empires and Cultures.” A number of colleagues in the history department but other scholars as well from other departments. We sat together; we read materials together about different regions you know. The general organizing theme was “Empires and Culture.” You know, culture is sort of a manifestation of imperial set-ups. So we read about different periods, different regions, different cultural formations and so on and so forth. There was a very lively intellectual debate. So intellectually, this to my mind was the most rewarding experience. At Georgetown the greatest advantage was the number of scholars in our field. On the other hand as you know there were a very large number of graduate students who actually had full command of Arabic who could read Arabic sources. I would say larger than any other program in the US. Either students who are doing a masters degree in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies or doing PhD degrees in the history department and the religious studies department and the Arabic and Islamic studies department. So I had the luxury as it were, and I have not had that in any other place. I do not think I will have that here at AUB either. I had the luxury of teaching a very large number of graduate students who are very seriously interested in pursuing studies in the Middle East.
BH: Thank you for this. I was actually going to ask you about the experience with students and the, if you will, non-curricular aspects, including activism in the US and your experience with that, as well as how you handled the backlash or responses or the shock of 9/11, as somebody who teaches the topic that was made to be related and as somebody who is an Arab in the United States.
AD: Well, I grew up here in a period of transition. A period of intense political activism. No one was immune from that. I was influenced by currents and debates and so on and so forth. I carried that with me as a student when I went to Columbia. I was quite active culturally. But you know as an academic, as is the case today, we are called upon to not only be experts in the history and culture, but also to be political commentators. There are not too many of us in many places, but you know the Middle East is always in the news and it is only getting more and more unfortunately. I wish there was less focus on the Middle East in the news. Of course, the big turning point was 9/11. I was at Stanford at the time and there are not many people in the Bay Area. I mean there was my colleague Joel Beinin and a couple of other people - there were not many people who had the expertise to talk about the region and developments in the region. I actually, post 9/11, for the span of about twenty years I think I gave about eighty public talks. There were teach-ins, I spoke in synagogues, in public events, and I was at the home of the Hoover Institute. I debated many fellows at the Hoover Institute who were actually quite instrumental.
BH: Fellows of yours or fellows as the title?
AD: Fellows as in the title. Scholars and whatever - [there were] very lively debates and discussions. That was probably the peak in particular in which I was most active and engaged. But you know, in the US, scholars of the Middle East and Islam are often called upon to discuss issues of the political nature and I did not shy away. I felt it was a responsibility to do that. If anything I did it too often.
BH: In doing so, and moving on with your work, did this experience, which affected all of us who lived in the United States and who were engaged with this issues, did it effect your research and writings and scholarship at all in the sense that it pushed it one way or another?
AD: I wrote just a little bit on the subject. I wrote my talks of course, but this was not the subject of my research per se. It was still the issues that I told you about. I mean I had a few pieces on the subject. I wrote a piece in [academia]. I wrote a piece, which by the way some people criticized at the time. It was not well received outside the field. I wrote a few pieces here and there, but it did not become a research topic for me it is sort of an extra curricular service as it were. But it was quite intense certainly, the year after 9/11. You know 9/11 was a shock to all of us and of course the events that followed were quite momentous and influential. They influenced our lives in significant ways. I was actually in New York when 9/11 happened. My daughter was in a school in Chinatown. We had to rush to get her from school. She saw the towers collapsing and so on. So that was a very vivid experience for us as a family, but beyond that I felt it unleashed a series of events which were in many instances unfortunate and we are still paying for these events.
BH: So let us now discuss your move back to Lebanon, where we are now. Back to Beirut and back to AUB. If you do not mind, could you tell us how this took place, whether it was planned or not, what happened when you actually moved, and your experience at AUB.
AD: Sure. You know it actually was not planned. I was invested in my career at Georgetown and I just built a PhD program. We were recruiting graduate students. I actually still have two PhD students at Georgetown who are finishing now. They started sort of late. I was quite settled in my career at Georgetown. I was not thinking [about moving], but I was nominated for the position of provost and the search firm contacted me. I actually did not feel, when contacted by the search firm, any hesitation. When I realized this is a serious issue, I did not hesitate to apply because partly I did not feel the right to turn my back to a place like AUB. This is a very important institution of higher education. One of the leading and I would say one of the two or three best institutions in the Arab world. Certainly it is oldest. It has the biggest legacy. My feeling is that I have a responsibility to try to the biggest extent that I can to help build the educational and research culture of one of the leading institutions of higher education in the region. Of course it helped that I am from Lebanon, or maybe it did not help that I am from Lebanon, I do not know about that, but I have family here. I belong. I am not moving to a foreign country. My initial intention was not to go into administration. I was into my academic career, but I did not feel that I had the right to turn my back to an opportunity to make a difference in higher education. Which is why when I was offered the job I did not hesitate for a minute. I knew that an administrative job in a place which has, in additional to the challenges it faces as an institution of higher education, would have additional regional challenges [because of] endemic instability. I knew that the challenges would be high, and actually they turned out to be even higher than I thought they would be, but I do not at all regret giving it my best. I hope I was able to make a difference. I certainly tried.
BH: Can you tell us, once you accepted the position of provost, what were some of the aspirations you had? Maybe specific goals or what you would like to accomplish in more specific terms. In terms of the potentinal, place, and position of AUB itself, and whether you feel you have been able to influence the standing academically in terms of knowledge production of AUB while you were here. Was there enough time for you to accomplish this?
AD: I served for six years. Many of the challenges faced by AUB or by other institutions in the region are peculiar in the region but many are shared with institutions of higher education all over the world. There are financial challenges that all institutions of higher education are facing. There is the whole question of the professional outcome and how do you measure that. The question of accountability to the parents who are paying the tuition, to the students, and to the funding agencies. On this particular question you are probably familiar that the funding is dwindling and all sorts of questions are being asked before funding: What purpose does it serve? What would be the employment of the graduates of the program? And there are also compliance requirements, which by the way are not bad, but they add a burden. It is important to look at these compliance requirements. Then in the region, there are several additional [issues]. There is the whole challenge of endemic instability. How do you operate an institution like AUB within this context? I think on the intellectual side the two major challenges are that of not having a meaningful liberal arts education as opposed to a professional degree. There are not many institutions that are comprehensive universities in the region. Even in their origins. At the time AUB was founded, the only other universities that were comprehensive universities were professional universities. They were founded by the state in Turkey, I think it was called the Bridges and something university. It is an engineering school.
So the challenge of having a meaningful liberal arts education is one thing, and the other major challenge is the challenge of research. How do you have an institution, which is not just an institution where quality education is provided but knowledge is generated? Again, the region does not have many institutions like this. Institutions that produce knowledge. There is abundant evidence to show that the quality of education is lower if you do not produce knowledge. That research and quality of education go hand-in-hand. In addition to that, I think both the region and the world need local sites for the production of knowledge. So those are some of the challenges that were always on my mind and I tried to the best of my ability to mobilize the appropriate resources to work on these [issues].
I can tell you that the accumulative output by AUB as measured by Scopus and others through the standard international metrics; the cumulative output of AUB in the last seven years was more than doubled. So in the last seven years, the production was higher than the previous ninety something years. So yes of course the production increased significantly at AUB. There was a very vibrant intellectual atmosphere. We continued the work of the previous administration to rebuild the faculty. There were many good scholars that joined the university and the ranks expanded. We had for several years in a row a very successful record of recruiting, where prior to that it was difficult to actually recruit and retain scholars. There were many searches that failed. I think AUB did well in the last few years at the research level. The financial challenge remains. As you might have heard there were some student protests and there continue to be student protests about increase in tuition and so on and so forth. Quality education is expensive. The challenge on one hand is to have enough resources and funds to support this quality education but on the other hand to mobilize resources to be able to fund students who cannot afford this education but who are qualified. And we tried to work very hard on that. We revamped our financial aid program. We have a much more rigorous financial aid program now in place. Also, in addition to the internal financial aid program which is probably one of the largest in the region, we were able to raise external funds (grants and the like) to the tune of forty-seven million dollars over five or six years. Just this last June we submitted another grant proposal for eighteen million dollars and it was approved. So we raised close to seventy million dollars in financial aid to fully support a cohort of students who would otherwise not be able to study at AUB. But these are ongoing challenges Bassam, they do not stop. It is not a one-time thing that you do and it will change everything. You need to continue to mobilize the resources. You need to continue to work on bolstering whatever it takes to bolster academic programs. Rethinking academic programs. Rethinking your general education programs so that the students that you are training are not narrow minded and only knows their particular discipline and knows nothing else about everything else in life. To mobilize in a meaningful way support for research and I think we have created more than thirty new programs in the last six years. They are all new programs thinking about the new needs of the region. We focused on impact and we have developed programs that serve the region. Beyond pure education, we actually focused on research and as I told you, we more than doubled the whole cumulative research output of the university. The AUB has by far, in the Arab world, the highest research publication record per faculty member in the internationally referenced journals. Our ranking also in 2007, we were outside the charts and we gradually reduced our ranking in the QS ranking system. Although the ranking is problematic, it is still an indicator and it is an indicator that everyone wants to score in. You know we were outside the charts. We went down to 249; we were ahead of George Washington University in our ranking I think, which is a fairly good record I think. So yeah I think there were serious achievements and there are also other challenges that continue and will continue into the future anyway many of the solutions are not one-time solutions. They require permanence and sustainability and so on. But I think there were serious achievements. This university has potential mainly because of its location. The region and the world need institutions of higher education and there are not many places of higher education [in the region] that produce knowledge and there are not many places that can produce knowledge. There are very few places. There are only a handful of places and AUB is one of these leading places in the region. So we have a responsibility to work on that. Work on our research profile.
BH: Thank you very much Ahmad for this thorough treatment. Are there any other challenges that you faced here at AUB that are of a different nature, dealing with the fact that a new leadership like yourself came in and wanted to improve standards across the boards? Have you had to deal with gatekeepers and things of the sort? These are things that you are probably expecting. Are there any things you want to address?
AD: I do not think there is anything different from what any new administration would face. Any new administration will face resistance and so on, but nothing unusual. Nothing unexpected. Administration is taxing. It takes a lot of time and it is not always dealing with strategic issues. Most of the time you are dealing with daily details like any other university. That is not the pleasant part - that is the necessary part. Someone has to do that work. On the other hand there were strategic issues that we addressed and I think that there were positive outcomes. I think there were significant achievements and I hope those achievements will continue into the future.
BH: I have been really waiting to get to this point because we have had some discussion on your work now. Over the years, I heard you speak about how you have these research agendas on hold and I am assuming that you are fired up to enter this realm, the land of research, and I know that you are interested in reform movements of the eighteenth-century and beyond. Now that you are going back to your post at the history department and your desk as a researcher, what are you planning? What are you looking forward to? And what is your research agenda?
AD: Right now there are a few smaller projects, but I have three major ones. One is almost done. I am giving a keynote speech next week at McGill University in a conference of science education. That paper is finished. I am putting the last touches on it. I basically combined my research in the history of Arab Islamic science on the one hand and also my experience in one of the leading institutions in the region of higher education where there is a serious research agenda. I am also building a meaningful research agenda in connection. It is an opportunity for me to reflect a little bit on my experience here but also draw on my research of history of science. This is one project and it is pretty much done.
The other two are continuing. You know I have other projects in the history of science and so on, but I am finishing a book on eighteenth-century Islamic reform movements. Again, I told you a few things about my work on the eighteenth-century, the importance of the eighteenth-century is that these reform movements were not triggered by the encounter with Europe. They are completely indigenous; they are triggered by internal forces. They are, if you will, authentic to the point that anything can be authentic anywhere. But they are authentic reform movements; they are not reactions to an encounter with Europe. In a sense they provide a repertoire of indigenous forms of reform. That could be informative and useful even in the modern period, and in many ways I dare say it provides an antidote to some of the craziness that is happening in the modern period.
There is a big book project and I am revising it light of recent events and so on and recent scholarship and I want to do the research on the last chapter and finish that book. The other project is an essay. I am working on an essay on the current radical Islamic movements, specifically on Dacsh. I am reading the literature on Dacsh and there is a lot that was written on Dacsh. You know, there is a lot of material that comes out from them and I am trying to read that material. My purpose here…I sense, I feel that there is a lacuna despite the huge amount of literature on Dacsh. There is quite a bit about their organizational structures, their constituencies, and you name it, this and that. My feeling is that one thing which is missing is work that engages their ideology and tries to crack that ideology and pin it down. So my work specifically, again without ignoring the social and economic context and what have you, and the historical context, my primary focus is on their political theology and I am trying to understand their political theology. I am in the middle of reading and I have a few ideas. That is my other project for this year: an essay on Dacsh, which hopefully would contribute to understanding this phenomenon, which is a very potent phenomenon that cannot be ignored.
BH: How do you connect and incorporate your eighteenth-century work with contemporary movements like Dacsh?
AD: You know a primary element in my work is revisiting Wahhabi thought. The traditional literature used Wahhabism as the prototype of the intellectual activity in the eighteenth-century. When you talk about what is happening in the eighteenth-century you talk about Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. What I found through my research is that Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab is, if anything, an exception in the eighteenth-century, rather than the rule. There were many other, very significant intellectual movements and reform movements that actually are very different from Wahhabism. So already there is a diversity of intellectual trends in the eighteenth-century. Now, the Wahhabi though has a lot of influence on the current radical movements. Of course they are a product of their time. They are a product of occupations and invasions and corrupt states and so on and so forth, you name it. The continuous failure is what precipitates their rise, and many scholars have already illustrated the rise of this particular ideology. But when they draw on a particular ideology strain they draw quite a bit on Wahhabi thought, and you already have in the eighteenth-century the antidote to Wahhabi thought. You have multiple other reform trends that are very different from Wahhabism, so the Wahhabi model is not the only model. And already in the eighteenth-century you see alternative models. Again, you cannot copy paste from the eighteenth-century to the modern period. There is a very different context today. As a matter of fact there are probably specific historical reasons why a particular ideological strain lends itself to be deployed within a particular historical context. So you could actually engage their ideology. You could understand it. Understand its roots. You could probably engage it if you have a better understanding of the range of possibilities that are out there and there is a very wide range of possibilities out there aside from the Wahhabi alternative.
BH: You do not want to talk about the intellectual continuity in any further detail?
AD: You know, one of the reasons that I think one needs to study ISIS, the Islamic State, they would not like me if I called them Dacsh, although I still somehow like to call them Dacsh. There is always the assumption that this is a reaction and this is something that will not last and it will not survive. However, when you start digging and reading the material, there is a lot of intellectual continuity. This is not a movement that was created yesterday. There is a strain of thought. There is an ideology that is thought and rethought and is has been perpetuated for a significantly long period of time. The adherents to this ideology were defeated, they were underground, and they resurfaced. So it is not even defeating them politically that will make the ideology disappear and that to me signals to me there is an intellectual continuity. They are not just a bunch of crazies going around killing people, which they are doing of course, but there is a very consistent ideology at work. It is something that needs to be understood.
BH: And this is something that you will be publishing, at least a paper.
AD: My intention is to write an essay on their political theology, yes.
BH: You might want to hurry up. Just in case they are here.
AD: Before they arrive?
BH: The Muslims are coming [laughs]. Ok, we will be looking forward to this and I am very happy that we went full-circle back to your research. I am sure that we had to cut corners and there are probably many issues, insights, books, authors, influences, experiences that I have missed or you have missed, or chose to miss. Is there anything that comes to mind that you think would merit recollection right now? Perhaps even an anecdote from your time in the US or your time here that comes to mind? It does not even have to be meaningful or serious.
AD: No. [laughs]
BH: Oh, that is fair.
AD: There are many of course. You know, 9/11, when my daughter Sheza was at public school in Chinatown, which is the closest location that was not directly hit and it was in fact the closest school to Ground Zero to reopen after the attacks. Her mom rushed to bring her from school and then when she got home and I saw her, she looked at me, she was six or seven years old, born in Newhaven, raised in New York, I mean complete New Yorker. She spoke English with us and would not respond to us when we spoke in Arabic. She turned to me and said: “I hope it is not one of us.”
BH: One of your family members?
AD: [laughs] No, she knew it was not one of her family members. That is a very important moment for a child to feel that she is implicated because of the environment, a little child already feeling at that young age as though she has to distance herself. She feels that she is implicated, that she is on the defensive. That feels horrific. That is a formative moment I remember vividly. I will never forget when she said that to me.
BH: So could this be why you did about eighty talks that year?
AD: It certainly was a factor, yes.
BH: Before I let you go, I know it is late, do you have any thoughts, concerns, or hopes about what has been happening in Lebanon in the last several months with sort of a new energy by various kinds of movements that are not all necessarily on the same page? Or is this something that is going to pass by and the sectarian/confessional system is going to move forward?
AD: The sectarian system is powerful in Lebanon, but the concerns are legitimate. Quite often this is how activism starts. It starts with people fed up with forms of injustice and corruption and so on and so forth. Where exactly will this lead? It is hard to tell. We do operate in a place where things are very tightly controlled by the sectarian distribution of power. That does not make for a very healthy sort of environment for political change. On the other hand, the concerns of the people are genuine. There are many good people who are expressing these concerns and they mean well. I hope this will lead to change. Do I know exactly how and whether it is guaranteed? I really do not know. You know there are many other popular movements that were thwarted so the risks are high and the challenges are big, but the concerns are genuine concerns regarding a political system that is really corrupt and not responsive to everyone’s demands and needs. Certainly needs change.
BH: Ahmad, this was a pleasure. I promised you we would be done within an hour and I think we went a little over. I really appreciate the time you gave us and we would really love to talk to you again after you produce your scholarship on these projects discussed.
AD: In Sha’ Allah. Thank you, Bassam, and good luck. Thank you for the interview.
BH: This was Professor Ahmed Dallal at AUB with us on a special segment called Intellectual Journey and we are doing this for Status. Shukran.