Interview with Professor Jonathan Brown

Professor Jonathan Brown received his BA in History from Georgetown University in 2000 and his doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Dr. Brown has studied and conducted research in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, India and Iran. Recently, he published a book entitled Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy. In this interview, he discusses how he came to be a professor, the challenges of doing research abroad, and the process of writing his book.

Why did you go into research? Have you always wanted to pursue a career in academia?
That’s an interesting way to put it because most of the time people don’t associate being a professor with doing research. Professors often associate it with research, and that’s why I became one, but I think students usually associate it with teaching. I never really thought of myself as a teacher, although oddly looking back on my life, I think actually I was maybe more inclined to be a teacher than I thought.

When I was an undergraduate here at Georgetown, I just happened to take a class on Islamic civilization and I really enjoyed it. I started taking as many classes as I could on Islamic history, Middle East history, and Arabic. After college, I went to Cairo and studied Arabic. I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to keep studying Islamic history and Islamic law, so I applied for Ph.D. programs. I never really thought I would be a professor until very late in my Ph.D. program when it was time to apply for jobs. Then I realized I wanted to be a professor because I wanted to keep doing research, exploring issues, and reading and writing about them. Later I discovered how useful and enjoyable teaching was and how much it helped with research as well. As a professor at Georgetown, you have to be really committed to teaching in addition to your research. It’s been good to come here and focus more on being with students in smaller classes.

What is the central question or theme of your research that you are trying to shed light upon?
Overall, my research focuses on authority in Islamic tradition: what makes somebody have the authority to speak on behalf of the religion, how do you construct arguments that people find convincing, how has the Islamic tradition produced these features, how have they changed especially with the advent of modernity, what are the issues that affect Muslims today in terms of understanding their religion and formulating their identity. These are the big issues I focus on.

How did the focus of your research change as your academic career progressed?
Earlier on, I was interested in manifestations of the issue of authority in Islamic tradition. I would pick topics that looked at one little aspect of that or one question that had to be answered in order to understand authority, but as I got older I started to think about the question more generally and more comparatively. It was more just a process of stepping back from the details to look at the larger picture. There are three ways that one could think about these things. One is that someone just focuses on the details and never cares about the big picture. One is that somebody starts with the big picture and then gets interested in the details. And then the other one is someone starts with the details and then steps back and looks at the big picture, and I think the last one is probably the best approach and probably more accurate.

Your latest book, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, is coming out in 2014. Can you talk about this book and what your motivations were in writing it?
I want it to be a voyage into the way that Muslim scholars have dealt with the challenge of understanding their religion: how they use the sources of their religion to answer questions, solve problems, and as they face political or cultural challenges, such as colonialism or modernity, how they use the tools in their tradition to face those challenges. I want this to be very accessible to the general intelligent reader because the Islamic tradition is fascinating and there’s a lot of interest there for people who enjoy seeing how human beings bring their intellectual heritage to bear on new problems. Additionally, many of the problems that Muslims face intellectually and religiously are the same problems that other religious, philosophical traditions or even civilizations have faced. For example, how do you define truth, how do you know when it’s okay to lie–Muslims deal with the same issues and they’re contributing to bigger global conversations. I also wanted that to come out to the reader.

How does the inspiration for a book project come to you?
So far, the books I’ve written have come about because I end up reading and start to realize over time that all the materials I’m interested in are different sides of the same object, I’m feeling around the edges of one particular idea. You start to realize that this random article here and this other idea that I was reading about and this concept that I was talking about and interested in–they are actually all aspects of one singular topic that you’re interested in. So take notes on things you read and things that interest you, and it’ll be a lot easier to come to a topic you want to research.

You have extensive experience conducting research in the Middle East and Islamic countries. What are some of the key insights you’ve gained about conducting research in a foreign country?
The less expensive your project is, the better–and this kind of research doesn’t require a lot of money if you’re just using your brain and pen and paper. It’s usually best to try and be as informal as possible, because the more formal you are, the more governments you have to deal with, the more difficult life gets. Also take really good notes. Always take notes of anything that interests you. Record as much as you can about what you experience, because it can all end up being very useful. Having a good system of note taking is important. Finally, in theological research, language is the most important. You need to have a real understanding of the perspective of other traditions–what their internal logic is. But you also have to be able to step outside that and look at the tradition from the outside and how to describe its structures and features and how it compares to other traditions.

You’ve authored several articles, books, and papers on different topics. Can you highlight some of your favorite or most meaningful works for you?
The thing that I wrote that I’m most proud of is probably what people would be least interested in. I wrote an article on Arabic lexical theory and the change in sounds in Arabic alphabet in pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods. That one I really liked because I used a lot of the skills that I had built up, like looking at manuscripts and using ancient pre-Islamic Arabian languages which I’ve learned to read. It made me feel like I brought a lot of tools together in one article.

What is your favorite part of your job as a researcher and a professor?
I’m most excited about the fact that it is my job to read, talk, learn, and teach about the things that I love. It’s a lifelong license to indulge my intellectual curiosity and that’s as much as I can imagine asking from a career.

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