IU professor honored by Iran's president for her scholarly book on new understanding of jihad

  • Feb. 17, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University professor Asma Afsaruddin has just returned from Iran, where she was presented one of the country's top awards by its president, Hassan Rouhani.

Afsaruddin, a faculty member in the School of Global and International Studies, traveled to Iran's capital of Tehran to accept the Jayezeh Jahani -- more commonly known as the World Book Prize. She and nine other scholars from around the world were honored Feb. 8 at the Summit Conference Hall.

Her recent book, "Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought" (Oxford University Press, 2013), was honored as the best new book in Islamic studies.

Other recipients of the World Book Prize this year included scholars from Yale and Harvard universities. They were chosen from more than 1,700 nominees from around the world.

In past years, the event has been held in the national parliament chambers. Rouhani gave a speech about the value of education and academic exchanges and used the podium to denounce religious extremism, she said. Several hundred invited guests attended the ceremony.

"Someone else nominated me. I wasn't even aware of this award, frankly speaking," said Afsaruddin, chair and professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at IU Bloomington. She learned in mid-January about the award when she was invited to the awards ceremony.

"This was an eye-opener in many ways," she said. "I was very happy to see how receptive they were to my book, the ideas it represented and their willingness to engage them. "

Through her research and public efforts, Afsaruddin strives to counter anti-Islamic sentiment across the United States and improve public understanding of Muslims and their faith. She seeks to show that historical contexts are important to consider when discussing the various interpretations of "jihad." Such contextualizations help to challenge exclusively militant understandings of the concept. 

Afsaruddin's research was recognized by the awards committee for uncovering new understandings of the term "jihad" through detailed study of a broad range of sources that typically aren't consulted.

While most scholars look at the topic from only a legal perspective, she drew upon other classical sources that have not received the same amount of sustained attention.

The day after receiving the award, Afsaruddin met with a panel of leading academic scholars of Islamic studies at the Encyclopaedia Islamica Foundation.

"I think I helped them to realize that there are many more aspects to jihad to consider," said Afsaruddin, also an adjunct professor of religious studies. "Most people look at it through a legal lens and in the context of international relations, where jihad has a very specific meaning.

"But we discussed, for example, some of the Quranic verses that are treated in great detail in my book. They said that it helped them become aware of the various contested interpretations that sprang up over time," she added.

"In other words, there is no single, monolithic understanding of the concept, and there's a multiplicity of ways to engage this concept based on foundational texts within Islam. That can generate new understandings in our own time."

Afsaruddin said the term jihad also suggests promoting social reform and can represent an inner struggle to better one's self.

Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance awarded the World Book Prize. Her book also was a runner-up for the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society Book Prize in 2014.

Since returning to IU, Afsaruddin has started looking into having her book republished in Arabic and Persian translations, which could contribute to a better, more historically nuanced understanding of what jihad means.

"I would like for this book to become better known in other Muslim countries as well, but to do that, the book would have to be available in the indigenous languages," she said.

She was in Iran for three days and visited the ornate Golestan Palace, the residential palace of the Qajar dynasty in the 19th century as well as the city's bazaar. 

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Asma Afsaruddin, right, receiving the World Book Prize from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Asma Afsaruddin, right, receiving the World Book Prize from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, center, and a prize committee representative

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Asma Afsaruddin

Asma Afsaruddin

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