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Stanford Report, September 24, 2003

University receives $9 million for new Islamic studies program, professorship Student demand for courses on Islam soars after 9/11; program will support lectures, research, visiting scholars


The university has received $9 million to endow a new program and professorship in Islamic studies to help increase knowledge of the Muslim world, which encompasses a quarter of the planet's population.

"Despite its growing importance in the world, Islam is poorly and inadequately understood in our country," President John Hennessy said. "To serve our educational mission in the 21st century, we must expand our program in Islamic studies."

A search is already under way for a senior scholar to fill the new professorship in Islamic studies in the Department of Religious Studies, said Rob Franklin, associate dean for development in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Fundraising to establish a second faculty position in a field related to Islam also is in progress, he added.

Sohaib Abbasi, a former Oracle Corp. executive and native of Pakistan, and his wife, Sara, have endowed the program in the School of Humanities and Sciences with a $2.5 million gift matched by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The $5 million core endowment will be used to support public lectures, library acquisitions, visiting scholars, language instruction and faculty and student research, Franklin said. The program's inaugural public event will bring to campus Professor John Esposito, vice chair of Georgetown University's Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. His talk, scheduled for Nov. 17, will be titled the "Future of Islam."

According to Abbasi, establishing such a program will help foster a better understanding of Islam, Muslims and Islamic civilization. "We look forward to Stanford becoming one of the preeminent institutions for Islamic studies in North America," he said.

Stanford's program will have a global focus, said Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. Islam is the dominant religious culture across a region stretching from West Africa to Indonesia, she explained, and it is growing in importance in Europe and North America. The new program, which will not grant degrees, will be organized to provide students with a wide geopolitical lens and a multidisciplinary perspective encompassing literature, history, politics, religion, law, sociology and anthropology, she said.

Robert Gregg, the Teresa Hihn Moore Professor in Religious Studies, is the program's inaugural director. "This is not the first time Islam has been taught at Stanford, but now we're trying to coordinate it," he said. "The importance of strengthening and expanding Stanford's educational opportunities in Islamic studies is underscored by the fact that Islam is reported to be second largest religion in the world and one of the world's fastest growing faiths."

Interest in Islam and related subjects soared campuswide following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Today, courses are consistently overenrolled, Gregg said.

The new professorship, endowed with a $2 million gift from alumna Lysbeth Warren, also is matched with funds from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

"We are in the midst of a search for a senior scholar in Islam," Gregg said. "We envision this person will be a leader in the program." A second faculty position, if it is funded, would be used to attract an Islamic scholar in a field such as political science, history or anthropology, he added.

Gregg explained that Abbasi funded the program because "he cares deeply about the education of American society and about the character of Islam and its breadth. He recognizes the study of Islam as a major component of a university education." Franklin said initial contact with Abbasi, an Atherton resident and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, came through business connections with William Landreth, a trustee and founding director of the Stanford Management Company. "They know that Stanford has a chance to become a superior force in Islamic study," Gregg said of the Abbasis. "They back that hope with financial support. We couldn't be luckier."


Robert Gregg