Letter of Recommendation: The Life of Marshall Hodgson

Lydia Kiesling in The New York Times:

MagViewed in the least charitable terms, academia is a small fraternity of ambitious backbiters engaged in the production of work so dense that only other members of the order can hope to understand it. But some scholars arrive on the scene bearing such a combination of intellect, urgency and charisma that their achievements resonate long after the Festschrift is printed and the memorial lecture empties out. One of these was Marshall Hodgson, a great American scholar of Islam who died in 1968 while jogging on the University of Chicago campus. He was 46, and he left behind a manuscript that would become a magisterial three-volume book, “The Venture of Islam,” published posthumously through the efforts of his widow and colleagues.

In some parts of America today, “Muslim” is a slur. This is a grotesquely low bar by which to measure a non-Muslim’s engagement with Islam, but it is in fact the bar. Citizens in “Muslim garb” are attacked on American streets. One of our presidential candidates believes there is a “Muslim problem,” and he has plans to solve it. Self-styled experts analyze Shariah on right-wing talk shows. Toggling between Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and Hodgson’s “Venture,” it’s hard to believe they’re discussing the same religion. In Islam Hodgson found one of the most creative and the most excellent of our collective human enterprises. He was a committed Quaker, and his own religious beliefs allowed him to find deep resonance in both the unity and variety of Islamic experience. “Medieval” is a kind of slur now, too, but there was something medieval about Hodgson’s combination of study and belief. For much of history, Islamic and otherwise, the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of faith were a single project. This was likewise Hodgson’s motivation and his way of reckoning with the role of Islam in world history.

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