Wilson Center Experts

Alexander Knysh

Fellow
Kennan Institute

Contact Information:
T (202) 691-4054 // F (202) 691-4000
Expertise:
Russia and Eurasia
Affiliation:
Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Michigan
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Islam and Empire in the Northern Caucasus"
Term:
Sep 01, 2007
-
May 01, 2008

Trained as an Arabist and historian of the Islamic Middle East in the former Soviet Union, I combine expertise in Arabic literature (both pre-modern and modern) with the knowledge of the history, religions, and cultures of the Middle East. I have been teaching and conducting research in all these fields of academic endeavor over the past twenty-five years. In 1994, I joined the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan as an Assistant Professor. In 1998, I was promoted to the rank of Professor of Islamic Studies. From 1998 until 2004, I served as chair of my department. In 1997-1998, I held the Sharjah Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Arabic and Middle East Studies, University of Exeter, UK. Although this was a permanent academic appointment, I chose to return to Michigan after one year in England. I came to the U.S. from Russia (at that time, the Soviet Union) in 1991. While there I held the post of a researcher at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Before I took up my current academic position at Michigan, I was awarded two research fellowships-one by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (1991-1992) and the other by the Rockefeller foundation at Washington University, St Louis (1992-1993). During my fellowship years I was working, among other projects, on a study of the long theological polemic over the legacy of the great Arab-Muslim mystical thinker Ibn [al-]'Arabi (1165-1240). This study, which was published by the SUNY Press in 1998, provided a detailed analysis of the fierce scholarly debates around Ibn 'Arabi's mystical and metaphysical ideas-debates that have had wide-ranging impact upon Islamic theology and mysticism. Two years later, in 2000, my second book in English, Islamic Mysticism: A Short History, was published by the E.J. Brill Publishers in Leiden. Unlike my study of Ibn 'Arabi's controversial legacy, this monograph was designed to serve as an accessible introduction to the historical evolution of Sufi movements in different areas of the Muslim world. More recently, I have been working on several other academic projects, including a book-size study of the cult of saints and pilgrimage centers in Yemen and a study of the changing representations of Islam and the Muslims in Russian academic and popular discourses and mass media following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. My latest project, "Islam and Empire in the Northern Caucasus," explores the history and ideological underpinnings of Muslim resistance to the Russian conquest and subsequent domination of the North Caucasus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Simultaneously, I continue to pursue my longstanding interest in the history of Sufi movement and thought in Islam. My annotated translation and study of al-Qushayri's manual on Sufism-a major monument of Sufi literature from the eleventh century C.E. which is still being studied by Sufis today-has been published by the Garnet Press, UK. I currently serve as the Section Editor for Sufism on the Editorial Board of the third edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the most authoritative reference in the field of Islamic Studies. Additionally, I have strong interest in and commitment to Qur'anic studies. I have written five major articles for the Encyclopedia of the Qur'an (E.J. Brill, Leiden) and contributed a chapter on Qur'anic influences on Islamic literature(s) and culture(s) to the recently published Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an. In addition to my specialty, I take serious interest in European and Russian history and culture and keep abreast of recent methodological advances in the fields of literary and textual criticism, religious studies, cultural anthropology and methods of historical research.


Education

B.A. and M.A. (1979) in Arabic studies, Leningrad State University; Ph.D. (1986) in Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Leningrad (St. Petersburg)


Subjects

Arabic and Islamic Studies,Islamic Movements,Muslim World


Experience


  • Co-director (with Andrew Shryock), Islamic Studies Initiative, interdisciplinary program funded for the Office of the Provost, the Dean of the LSA, and the International Institute, University of Michigan, 2006-present
  • Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Michigan, 1997-present
  • Co-Director, Program on Study in Religion, University of Michigan, 1998-2004
  • Chairman, The Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan, 1998-2004
  • Director, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan, 2000-01
  • The Sharjah Chair of Islamic Studies, The Department of Arabic and Middle East Studies, The University of Exeter, Devonshire, UK 1997-98
  • Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 1994-97





Expertise

Arabic and Islamic studies; political, social and religious history of the Muslim world

Project Summary

My study examines the fateful encounter between an expanding Russian Empire and the Muslim population of the Northern Caucasus which led to a bloody war that lasted throughout the 19th century. I seek to identify the causes of resistance to the Russian advance and to determine how Islamic religion was used by local Muslim leaders to unify the mutually hostile ethnic communities of the region and to rally them for a jihad against the Russian colonization. I seek to challenge the longstanding stereotypes about the so-called "Sufi roots" of mountaineer resistance and demonstrate that the continuity between the nineteenth-century Caucasus wars and the on-going "Islamist" resistance to Russian rule in Chechnya, Dagestan and the republics of the northwestern Caucasus exists mostly on the rhetorical and discursive level-in the minds and hearts of the present-day parties to these conflicts. To this end, I will provide a detailed analysis of the recent Russian policies in the region and the local responses that they have elicited.

Major Publications


  • Ibn 'Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval Islam. SUNY Press, Albany, 1998.
  • Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. E. J. Brill, Leiden, 2000.
  • Al-Qushayri's Epistle on Sufism. Garnet, Reading, 2007.


Upcoming Events

Putting the South Caucasus in Perspective

August 05, 2014 // 3:00pm4:30pm

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