Scholarly Pursuits: Joseph Lumbard, classical Islam professor

From the "palace" to Brandeis, Lumbard seeks to reinstate the truth

Brandeis classical Islam professor Joseph Lumbard knows firsthand the important role luck and timing can play in landing a new job — even when you’re not looking. Several years ago, Lumbard had both on his side, and found himself working for royalty in Jordan. He became the first adviser of interfaith affairs for King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein through word of mouth.

“A prince (a cousin of the King) asked his friends who they would recommend and two of them happened to know me,” Lumbard said. “So it was kind of a case of being in the right place at the right time.”

Lumbard, who is originally from Washington, D.C., and was awarded degrees from George Washington University and Yale, left his job at the University of Cairo for a Jordanian palace. It was there, where he used his passion for researching religion to advise King Abdullah II about intra-Islamic relations and relations among Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

I helped the court be aware of potential, theological pitfalls when the King went to meet with the Pope, for example, or when he was receiving heads from different denominations,” Lumbard said. “I’d explain to them what this denomination’s position is on particular aspects of Christian theology and how that relates to Islamic theology and sometimes I’d have to be in the room if trickier issues came up so the king could refer to me.”

During his 18 months in the position, Lumbard had several opportunities to hop private jets and meet with members of the royal family ordignitaries from other countries. However, to his delight, he spent most of his time in his office conducting research. His drive to study Islam and Sufism is what brought him to Brandeis a little more than a year ago.

“I knew I didn’t want a job that involved politics for a very long time,” he said. “In a sense, while I was in Jordan, I borrowed somebody else’s life for a while and now I’m back to the profession for which I am trained.”

Lumbard has been researching Sufism, which he described as a form of Islamic mysticism and the heart of Islamic tradition, since he was a student at GW. While there, he also converted to Islam. Sufis, he said, believe that all religions, not just Islam, have been revealed for one purpose — the “purification of the heart.” Lumbard said Sufism isn’t as popular as it used to be, but there are still sections of the world where it’s practiced.

“I personally think that reinstating many of the principles of Sufism is one of the most important things to do to in a sense recapture Islam from the extremists,” he said.

According to Lumbard, there is plenty of false information surrounding Islam throughout the world, and the way to counteract this is to reinstate the truth.

“There is an extensive propaganda campaign against Islam,”he said. “You have some try to tell you they are people who used to worship the moon god called ‘Allah’ and things like this, which is not only an insult to Muslims but also an insult to Arab Christians who use the name ‘Allah’ for God.”

Lumbard is counteracting what he believes to be false information through teaching courses surrounding Islamic philosophy and Sufism at Brandeis. However, he’s also reaching out beyond the Waltham campus. This fall, he became one of more than 130 of the world’s Islamic authorities to sign a letter to Christian leaders calling for peace and a “common constitution” between all faiths.

In addition, Lumbard has been given a grant by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis to write a book about the research he conducted while in Jordan. He will spend the spring semester working on this book, and is very happy to conduct this work at the university.

“It’s one of the places where a better understanding of Islam will help America to better interact with the Islamic world in the future,” he said.

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