2019 Balzan Prize for Islamic Studies
Acceptance Speech, Bern 15.11.2019 (Video + Text)
Ladies and gentlemen,
Members of the Balzan Foundation, Prize Committee, fellow Prizewinners,
President of the National Council,
I would like to thank the Balzan Foundation and the Balzan Prize Committee from the bottom of my heart for the extraordinary honour they have done me. It is an immense pleasure for me, as it is for any academic, to accept so prestigious a prize.
For us academics, as we all know, certain goods are important: a permanent position at a robust institution, an adequate salary, a pleasant office in a reasonably convenient location, colleagues who are both fine scholars and decent people, and good students in sufficient numbers. But there is also a less tangible good to which we are highly sensitive, namely recognition. We all, I think, have some kind of sense, however subjective, of the degree to which what we do is recognised in the academy at large, not to mention outside it, and we tend to have definite feelings about this. To speak personally, there were times back in the twentieth century when I felt under-recognised. Frankly it was a comfortable feeling: I felt that the world owed me and not the other way around, which placed the ball firmly in the world’s court. Since then the world has responded by putting the ball in my court, and today I feel considerably over-recognised. Frankly that’s a feeling that can make one more than a little anxious.
In this context, something I particularly appreciate about the Balzan Prize is the wisdom of those who designed it. It is as though they anticipated my predicament and built into it the means of assuaging my anxiety. I refer, of course, to the second half of the prize funds, the part allocated to nurturing the new generation of scholars. If I may be permitted an anecdote that made a deep impression on me when I heard it, long ago I remember a conversation with Janina Issawi, the wife and now widow of the economic historian Charles Issawi. She told me that in the 1950s they had an Iraqi PhD student at Columbia. In 1958 this student’s family lost everything in the revolution that overthrew the Hashimite monarchy, including the funds that were earmarked to enable him to complete his studies. So the Issawis stepped in with a substantial sum of money, and when the student protested that he could never repay them, they told him, “You don’t repay it to us; you repay it by doing the same thing one day for someone else.” In the same way, I can never hope to repay my teachers and those I learnt from, but I am now well-placed to help the new generation of scholars on a scale that I could not have hoped to achieve on my own.
This is not just a question of my own personal comfort. Islam matters tremendously in the world today – far more than we thought it mattered half a century ago. And yet Islamic studies are not a field with a clear-cut institutional form and location in the academy. Instead they intersect in a broad and ill-defined way with many different disciplines and with the study of many different areas of the world. So it means a lot for this field that the Balzan Foundation and the Balzan Prize Committee have bestowed their recognition on it, and not for the first time. The honour you have done me is also a welcome honour for my field, and the opportunity you have given me can significantly advance it. For both the honour and the opportunity I am deeply grateful.