Muslim communities have created many cultures over the past fifteen centuries and represent a significant part of the human experience. Many of these cultures look back to the Bible and Aristotle as do Western cultures. Their study increases our understanding both of ourselves and of others. As one of the world’s great religious and cultural traditions, Islam has spread far beyond its historical roots in the Middle East to the wider world of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
Roughly one-fifth of the world’s people identify themselves as Muslims. They make up a majority of the populations in more than thirty countries, and their numbers continue to grow. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and populations move, a sophisticated understanding of the major world traditions of religion and culture is critical to education in the 21st century. As one of the major traditions Islam unequivocally deserves such a sophisticated understanding.
Harvard has offered courses in the history of the Ottoman Empire and Arabic language since the nineteenth century. An endowed chair in Arabic has existed for nearly a century. Chairs in Islamic art and architecture, as well as staff and resources in these fields, were created in the 1960s. Several faculties at Harvard have devoted their resources to create additional junior and senior positions in fields of Islamic studies. The generous gift from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud in 2005 will provide, when complete, four new endowed chairs, graduate fellowships, and research facilities, such as a library portal that will make rare Islamic textual sources and maps available online.
The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program enhances Harvard’s ability to keep pace with increasing demands for knowledge and understanding of the Islamic tradition. By bringing together faculty, students, and researchers from across the University and coordinating their activities through one Program housed within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences–and in close cooperation with the Divinity School and other faculties–the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program demonstrates Harvard’s strong commitment to the study of the religious traditions of the world.