Program History

UCLA’s Islamic Studies Program, dating to the late 1950s, ranks among the oldest of its kind in the Americas. Although the history of the program is typically said to have begun with the arrival of the famed Austrian orientalist Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum in 1957 and his establishment of the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the stage for the development of a flagship center for the study of the Islamic world was set several years before von Grunebaum joined the faculty.

In the midst of the Cold War, following then-President-Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pronouncement that “as far as the sheer value of territories is concerned, there is no more strategic area in the world than the Middle East,” a committee of UCLA scholars, chaired by Prof. R.E.G. Harris, was formed in 1952 to investigate the viability of establishing a center for the study of the Near East in Los Angeles. By 1954, the university Academic Senate approved Arabic language instruction, which would be taught for its first several years by Dr. Irfan Arif Shahîd, who would go on to an illustrious career at Georgetown University. One year later, Prof. Bernard Lewis, having been offered visiting professorships at no fewer than five universities, accepted UCLA’s offer and moved for the first time to the United States from Great Britain. Lewis would become one of the most famous modern historians of Islamic history.

As such, in 1957, when Gustave von Grunebaum arrived in Los Angeles after his prior employment at the University of Chicago, he appears to have found considerable resources already on the ground, and was therefore able to instantly commence his mission to establish the university as a premiere venue for the study of Islam. Within a year of his arrival on campus, the university had already begun to offer the degree of Master of Arts in Islamic Studies, and it granted its first PhD in Islamic Studies in 1961. Within one decade, the university produced three formidable scholars of Islamic history: Donald Little received his doctorate from UCLA for his thesis on the analysis of the historical sources of Mamluk Egypt before joining the faculty of McGill University. In 1970, Ismail Poonawala was granted his PhD for his research on the Shi‘i jurist al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, then joined UCLA’s faculty himself, and Muhammad Umar Memon completed his thesis on Ibn Taymiyya in the following year and entered the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Integral to von Grunebaum’s early efforts to establishing Islamic studies at UCLA was the creation of a comprehensive library collection of Near Eastern sources. Indeed, before even moving to Los Angeles, he wrote to Paul A. Dodd, the dean of the College of Letters and Science, that “it cannot be sufficiently stressed that the condition of the library in the Near Eastern field will have an incisive influence on UCLA’s ability to attract and retain” successful scholars and students, and that “adequate library holdings are the perquisite of any and all plans the Center may wish to carry out.” Within his first year on-campus, von Grunebaum dedicated significant time and funds to procuring the foundation of the modern library’s manuscript collection and holdings, which today comprise one of the largest collections of its kind on the continent.

Following von Grunebaum’s premature death in 1972, the university carried on his legacy through retaining a large and diverse faculty capable of training the following generations of leading scholars in the field, including Juan Cole (PhD, 1984), Andrew Newman (PhD, 1986) and Vincent Cornell (PhD, 1989), among many, many others. Over the past sixty years, UCLA has granted degrees in Islamic studies to over 100 students who have gone on to illustrious academic jobs as well as careers in such organizations as the State Department, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and many other venues.

Banner Image: Courtesy of Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Plate 22 from the Cihannüma (“World Atlas”) by Kâtip Çelebi (d. 1068 AH/1657 CE), one of the earliest printed books in Turkish, done by the press of İbrahim Müteferrika in Istanbul in 1732 CE. Hand-colored, illuminated depiction of the Americas, mentioning “the realms of California” and “the California Ocean.”