WATCH ABOVE: A poetry reading and contextualization of the Islamic Mystic Ibn Al-Arabi by Professor Michael Sells, John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature, University of Chicago Divinity School. (Introduction to Sells by Ellen McLarney, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture)


An Interview with University of Chicago Islamic History & Literature Professor Michael Sells

by ABDUL LATIF for ISLAMiCommentary on NOVEMBER 3, 2015:

Michael Sells holds a workshop at Duke University on the Qu'ran and it's listeners.
Michael Sells holds a workshop at Duke University on the Qu’ran and it’s listeners.

In early October the University of Chicago’s John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature Michael Sells visited Duke University for two talks; “Translator of Desires” — a poetry reading of the Islamic mystic Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi; and a workshop on the Qur’an and its listeners.

Sells studies and teaches in the areas of Qur’anic studies, Sufism, Arabic and Islamic love poetry, mystical literature (Greek, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish), and religion and violence.

I had the opportunity to sit down with him on October 2 to talk about his research.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

QUESTION: What brought you to the study of Islam and Arabic poetry?

SELLS: In college, I was a student abroad in Italy and we had vacations. In one vacation I went to Tunis. I walked from the French part of the city into the old city and saw the different textures and intricacies of life, and I thought, “This is a culture and a world I want to be involved in.” I subsequently went back to Tunis, and later went to Cairo for a year. There I became fascinated with the pervasiveness of the Qur’an recitation. And Cairo of course was the center of the explosion of the use of radio and cassettes. The great Egyptian reciters played on television, radio. People were reciting in the streets on different occasions, and I became convinced that this was a central aspect of the Qur’an.

QUESTION: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how you helped the field of Islamic Studies transition from this primarily textual focus to a more multilayered focus on the aural and oral tradition?

SELLS: Well, it began as a lot of my writings did when I was trying to present Arabic texts and literature to students at an undergraduate college who didn’t know Arabic. And so, in discussing the Qur’an I would present them different translations and yet I felt that something was really missing. I started bringing in recordings of reciters and made line by line glosses in transliteration so that I could explain how the sounds fit the meaning. And that kind of technique ultimately was used in my book Approaching the Qur’an, and in earlier academic articles. So that was the beginning, and then for many years I worked on the Meccan passages. Most recently I’ve been working on the Middle Meccan period where one starts to see these prophetic yearnings — but still in the case of Surah Taha (a chapter of the Qur’an) especially — still merged with a lot of the intensely incantatory aspects of the Qur’an.

QUESTION: Could you talk a little more about your current projects, both on the poetic side and on the Qur’an?

SELLS: Well the poetic project that is about to appear is a co-edited volume with Angelika Neuwirth called Quranic Studies Today. That includes 11 essays, one by myself, one by Professor Neuwirth, and nine other essays by really fine senior and junior scholars approaching different aspects of the Qur’an. My essay is a long essay on Surah Taha. Ultimately I would like to write a book on the early Musa narratives in the Qur’an, focusing on the contrasts between the way story is told in (chapters of the Qur’an) Surah Taha, Surah Shuara, and others.

QUESTION: Sufi poetry, particularly in these creative translations by people like Coleman Barks, have become very popular today. What are your thoughts on such works?

SELLS: I celebrate Coleman Barks for what he is doing; although It does turn Rumi from his specificities into a kind of generic spiritual master. In order to translate in the way he does he has to leave out all the specificities of a lot of the allusions, a lot of the time, a lot of the place. And I think that it is the same for any popularizing form. Jazz popularizers are criticized for watering down the jazz. At the same time many have become interested in learning Persian, or Arabic, or really getting involved in classical jazz after being introduced by popularizers. I saw Coleman Barks at an event three years ago and I have to say he was a generous, open, thoughtful, and deep presence. I don’t use his translations in my courses. But on the other hand, I don’t find many translations of Rumi that work. So in my courses I ask people who work in the Persian tradition to give transliterations to explain the meters, recite the poetry, teach us some of the vocabulary, and bring us through the poems.

QUESTION: What is your favorite piece of poetry?

SELLS: That’s like asking “what is your favorite child?”

I think that the Mu’allaqat of Labid is one the greatest pieces of poetry in world literature. Several of the poems from Ibn al-`Arabi’s Tarjuman al-Ashwaq that I read last night, depending on my mood, are my favorite. And I am not a Persianist, but there are number of poems of Hafiz, or of Rumi as recited by Abdolkarim Soroush, that I use as study aids so I can follow and put together the Persian, are astounding.

QUESTION: Your book Approaching the Quran faced considerable controversy back in 2002 when it was selected as UNC-CH’s Freshmen Summer reading and a court case was brought against its use. In the light of banned books this week, how would you reflect on it?

SELLS: I want to note that students didn’t really oppose it, it was a social Christian conservative group related to Jerry Falwell that sent a representative to UNC and looked for students to find, because they couldn’t sue. The Chapel Hill community and the university responded with great courage. I think these negotiations are always in place in society about any book that is assigned. Universities have a little more leeway.  The tragic part of American education is in high schools where nothing could really be said much about religion because the sensitivities are so high and basically school districts have become very nervous about offending anybody. I would also pay tribute to great scholars like Nasr Abu Zayd who was attacked in Egypt and called a Kafir (a disbeliever) and his marriage was threatened with dissolution since he was deemed an apostate. That’s a great loss for the Arabic world in Quranic studies.

The same things of course are happening in Pakistan, and there are absolutely extraordinary Mulim scholars that I didn’t mention when I gave an outline in Quranic studies… It’s not that these scholars don’t exist, that people aren’t asking these kinds of questions, but that the unleashing of Takfirism (declaring someone a unbeliever) these years has basically meant that many of these scholars are either ostracized, or they are killed, or end up in North America or Europe.

And many of these people are mistakenly accused of being Westerners. They are actually Muslim scholars, reflecting on the Islamic tradition as much as they are reflecting on anything from the West. They have many penetrating insights. There is no dichotomy of Western scholarship and Muslim scholarship around the basic issues of how the Quran gives meaning.

QUESTION: Could you reflect briefly on the Birmingham Quran?

SELLS: There is a fascination with finding the oldest Qur’an. They actually had this in a collection for many years but it was misidentified. There are many manuscripts from Yemen. This pretty much ended one aspect that there is no evidence that the Quran wasn’t created in the 7th century but in the 9th century. This pretty much proved that there was at least a skeleton of the Quran by the 6th or the 7th century. A lot of this depends on how you judge a palimpsest. The carbon dating can show the age of the parchment but it can’t tell. Is the text there the old text? Was there earlier text that had been erased well enough so that it is noticeable? I was talking to scholars in Byzantine studies, and I asked, can you always know that this is the first text on the papyrus? And the answer was no, that’s an issue. So my view is very likely, very early, and there will always be excitement to find the first. But like all beginnings of all religions,  one never gets back to the primordial perfectly. It’s like looking for the historical Jesus or the historical Buddha. One can get very close but one can never totally recover it exactly.

QUESTION: The Birmingham Quran’s extract is from Surah Taha.

SELLS: Since I am writing on Surah Taha, I thought of requesting part of it for an illustration. But since all of the articles in the book and my article are addressing other issues aside from it, I thought people might see that and think they will find out about the science of parchment studies. But I had that thought. And I am very interested in that.


Abdul Latif is a senior at Duke University majoring in religious studies and minoring in linguistics and evolutionary anthropology.

Dr. Sells’ visit was sponsored by the Duke University Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, the Duke Islamic Studies Center, the Duke University Middle East Studies Center,  the Duke University Department of Religious Studies, and a grant from the Mellon Foundation. 


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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