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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Wordly professor insists his true passion is teaching

Published: November 9, 2012
Section: Features

Professor Joseph Lumbard (IMES) has held prestigious positions throughout his career, including serving as an advisor to the Jordanian Royal Court, but he insists his true passion has always been teaching.

Born in Washington D.C., he admits that in his youth he was “one of those kids who wanted to be a sports star.” As he aged, he acknowledges, “By the time I started realizing something that I wanted to be that was a realistic possibility, I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

Interestingly, Lumbard did not even want to attend college. “I took a year off after high school, I worked construction and traveled around Montana and Colorado and such. Then after having worked jobs, I realized that the lives of my co-workers were ones they found frustrating and decided I would try college.”

Lumbard attended George Washington University, drawn by the free tuition that resulted from his mother’s employment at the institution. While he may not have been invested in academia to start, Lumbard concedes, “Once I started I have not left. I got my B.A. rather quickly, then an M.A., then I went to Yale for my Ph.D. and I started teaching.”

Lumbard’s specialty is Classical Islam. While Lumbard insists he finds all religion fascinating, he enjoys studying Islam in particular partially due to its history.

“When it comes to medieval civilization, Islam was the one truly multicultural civilization. It bordered on every other major known civilization,” he said.

Lumbard also finds strong appeal in the concept and study of Sufism. “Sufism is for those who yearn for God so deeply that they cannot wait to witness God in the hereafter, it is the desire to be with God and witness God in this life.” Describing how Sufis have called Sufism “dying before you die,” Lumbard insists that it is “more than a feeling, instead an intense yearning that encompasses all of one’s feelings.”

Lumbard started off working at the American University at Cairo, but soon found a position as an Advisor for Interfaith Affairs to the Jordanian Royal Court.

“I worked with the court in advising the King [King Abdullah II of Jordan] pertaining to matters of interfaith dialogue. I would write memos that they might give to other world leaders,” Lumbard said.

Lumbard wrote speeches for the King and was present with him when he met with other religious leaders. During these meetings Lumbard would speak “if something needed to be said about a particular area of religion or interfaith dialogue where the King wanted to turn it over to somebody who had more in-depth knowledge of it.” Lumbard left this prestigious position because of his drive to be a teacher.

Lumbard describes teaching’s ability to make an impact on students in regard to the effect it can have on those who are still exploring different paths and faiths. “Most of the people that you work with [that are adults] have already made up their mind about certain things, but when working with students they are more interested in exploring new directions.”

Lumbard believes that Brandeis in particular has an invested student body. “Students are engaged and they are very respectful. You can usually get Brandeis students to think about important questions on a very deep level.” This engagement serves to profit the student body, as Lumbard asserts, “You can actually see students take a whole new interesting direction with their lives, both here in the university and sometimes afterward. It is a great community in that respect.” While Lumbard founded The Islamic Research Institute in the aftermath of 9/11, the group has since been dissolved in order to allow him time to pursue teaching and academia.

Meant to be a place where people could study the issues pertaining to Islamic teachings, it was disbanded due to Lumbard’s dislike of fundraising. “I didn’t want to be a fundraiser. I wanted to research, write and teach. Fundraising is almost a full time job, so I didn’t want to be involved in that game.”

The university setting has given Lumbard and opportunity to write. He has two books to date, “Islam, Fundamentalism and the Betrayal of Tradition” as well as “Submission, Faith and Beauty: The Religion of Islam.” The first book discusses the misconceptions related to Western attitudes about Islam. The second Lumbard describes as “Islam in one or two sittings, the essential outlook or worldview of Islam based on the Quran and the teachings of the prophet in a very quick and accessible manner.”

Lumbard has also continued his work through the mode of research. He is currently one of the general editors for the HarperCollins Study Quran. Lumbard describes how “this will be the first Study Quran to ever appear in any European language.”

A lengthy project, the final product will be a “new translation of the Quran that I have prepared with the other editors and about 900,000 words of commentary based upon the history of commentary on the Quran.”