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Q&A with Islamic studies scholar John L. Esposito

Islamic studies scholar John L. Esposito, a recent keynote speaker for an Oklahoma City event, discusses his career and interest in Islamic studies..
By Carla Hinton, Religion Editor Published: April 12, 2014

John L. Esposito set out to be a Catholic priest but instead became an internationally recognized Islamic studies scholar who has traveled the world.

Esposito, 73, gave the keynote speech at the annual dinner hosted by the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In a question-and-answer format (edited for clarity and space), Esposito discusses his background, how he became interested in Islam, plus his concern about the anti-Muslim tone — also called “Islamophobia” — in some U.S. communities.

Q: Talk about your religious background.

A: I was born and raised Roman Catholic, and at the age of 14, I went away to become a Capuchin Franciscan. I left at the age of 24 before becoming ordained as a priest. I wanted to be a priest, but something told me that it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t really quite sure what that meant. ... I ended up teaching Catholic theology at a women’s Catholic school for six years. Eventually, I got a Ph.D., and my major was Islam and my minor was Hinduism and Buddhism.

Q: How did you become interested in Islam?

A: I was teaching at a Catholic college, and you need to get a Ph.D. The normal thing in those days, this would have been the late ’60s, early ’70s, would be that I would go to a Catholic university to do a Ph.D. in Catholic studies. The school that I was at had a doctoral program where you could major in one area of study and minor in two. A professor encouraged me to take Islamic studies and minor in Hinduism and Buddhism. I was older than most graduate students and married. I wanted to finish a degree quickly, so I was very, very reluctant but ... I agreed to take one course in Islamic studies. I was just stunned ... because in those days people always put Christianity and Judaism on one side and all the other religions on the other side — they were known as world religions or Eastern religions. So Hinduism and Buddhism were grouped with Islam, but when I studied Islam, I realized that no, they’re in the wrong family. They are part of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic family. That got me to discovering a whole history that I didn’t know and that we were never taught in school. Most Americans in my time even then didn’t realize that Islam is the second-largest religion and had no sense of the early centuries of Islam and the connections both structurally and historically.

Q: How did you become known for your knowledge of Islam and the Middle East?

A: I discovered when I finished (degree program) in 1974 that no one else was that interested. There were no jobs to teach Islam. But the unique thing was because I was trained in three religions as most of us were, I was ideal. It was right around that time that colleges and universities were developing religion departments and offering world religion courses. Then the Iranian revolution came and that was a sea change. I jokingly say I owe my career and my first Lexus to that. It put Islam, the Middle East, Muslim-West relations on the front burner and before it wasn’t even on the back burner — it was off the stove. From 1974 to 1979, I had four articles (about Islam) published. From 1980 to today, I have something like 45 books in 35 languages, and that would have never happened at that early pace.

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