A book about a 14th-century Iranian Shiiite scholar published by Bowdoin Associate Professor of Religion Robert G. Morrison recently brought him face-to-face with one of the most provocative figures of the day: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Morrison’s book, Islam and Science: The Intellectual Career of Nizam al-Din al-Nisaburi (Routledge, 2007) was selected as one of Iran’s 2009 International Books of the Year in Islamic Studies, an honor given to only several scholars worldwide. Morrison was the only American scholar selected. Morrison was awarded his prize by Ahmadinejad at a Feb. 7, 2009, awards ceremony in Tehran.
“It’s very gratifying to receive such an award for my first book,” remarked Morrison, a scholar whose research interests span a number of subjects, including Judaism and Islam, with a particular focus on medieval Islamic science. “I focused on a scholar who was both a Qur’an commentator and astronomer from the 13th and 14th centuries, drawing theoretical parallels between his scientific and religious thought.”
The overlap of science and religion continues to be a rich topic of discussion in Iran, noted Morrison. “Islamic philosophy is something they take very seriously in Iran,” he said. “One of the judges of the book awards was the chief justice of their Supreme Court, whom I met at the ceremony. He said he was struck by the ways in which al-Nisaburi wrote about Islamic law using concepts that paralleled processes of scientific reasoning. From afar, Islamic law tends to have the reputation that it is harsh and decisive, but in fact, the consideration of what God’s will may be requires a great deal of probabilistic reasoning.”
Other scholars whose books were recognized include Nigel Tallis and J.E. Curtis (Britain), Adel Theodor Khoury (Lebanon), Mohsen Reza Heidari (India), Vali Ahmadi (Afghanistan), Yasin Muhammad (South Africa), and Manuchehr Moshtaq Khorasani (Iran).
“Islamic studies is a big field and it was nice to meet other scholars within Iran and internationally,” said Morrison, adding: “In spite of differences many Americans may have with the constitution of the current government, international academic exchange is a safe space. A few of the winners wrote books that did not accept Islam’s account of its own origins. I thought it was quite impressive that they were awarding a full range of serious books on Islam, and it truly was an honor to be included among this group of outstanding scholars.”