Asani shares Muslim perspective on faith, water


Jessica White | Staff Writer

A Lutheran, Hindu and Jew walk into Chautauqua and talk about water.

Thursday, Ali Asani will add a Muslim perspective to the discussion at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

He will discuss water as it appears in core Islamic texts, both as a physical element and as a symbol.

“Islam is a broad tradition with many different interpretations,” he said. “There’s so much material; it’s definitely like an ocean, so I hardly knew where to begin. I’m hoping to give people a flavor, a taste, of a small drop from that ocean.”

One popular water-themed story in the Quran is that of Moses and Pharaoh, Asani said. Pharaoh was very proud and thought he could control everything, including water. But all power belongs to God, and because Pharaoh refused to submit, he drowned in the very element he thought he could control.

“So there’s this metaphor of water and power,” Asani said.

He will also discuss water as a metaphor for knowledge, God and the human soul.

Asani is a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures at Harvard University. He went to Harvard as an undergraduate in 1973 from his native Nairobi, and has been there since.

Asani first concentrated in comparative religion and later pursued his doctorate work on Near Eastern languages. Fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Gujarati, Sindhi and Swahili, he is now a tenured professor in Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. His research, according to his faculty bio, “focuses on Shia and Sufi devotional traditions of Islam, as well as popular or folk forms of Muslim devotional life.”

Asani also combats ignorance about Islam and Muslim cultures by using art forms like poetry, music and calligraphy. He said he believes the arts help to humanize cultures, whereas political discourses based on nationalist ideologies tend to dehumanize.

“I think, generally speaking, knowledge about Islam is very poor in this country,” he said. “Part of what I’m trying to do, not only in this lecture but in my whole career, is try to teach people about many other aspects of Islam and Muslim devotional life that they do not get in the media, which have these sensationalized images of Islam and Muslim fanatics, and terrorists oppressing women and so on.”

People often see political manifestations of Islam that are not given fair context, Asani said. Like people of other faiths, Muslims are influenced by religion, but they are also influenced by politics, economics and social structures.

“I try to look at Muslim society in its human context,” he said.