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Leor Halevi

Professor of History

As a historian of Islam, Leor Halevi explores the interrelationship between religious laws and social practices in various contexts medieval and modern. He is the author of Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865-1935 (Columbia University Press, 2019).

Muhammad's Grave examines the role that funerary rituals and beliefs about the afterlife played in shaping the earliest Islamic societies. Playing prescriptive texts against material culture, it advances new ways of interpreting the origins of Islam. It shows how religious scholars produced codes of funerary law to create new social patterns in the cities of Arabia, Mesopotamia, and the eastern Mediterranean. These scholars distinguished Islamic from Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian rites; and they changed the way men and women interacted publicly and privately. Each chapter explores a different layer of human interaction, following the movement of the corpse from the deathbed to the grave. Highlighting economic and political factors, as well as key religious and sexual divisions, the book forges a link between the development of death rites and the efforts of an emerging religion to carve its own distinct identity. It is through this prism a history of the rise of Islam that also uncovers the roots of contemporary Muslim attitudes toward the body and society. {Selection of Reviews}

Modern Things on Trial analyzes Muslim responses to modern goods—from the toothbrush to the telegraph—in cities awakening to global exchange during Europe’s final imperial expansion. It focuses on religious and legal debates about toilet paper, gramophones, photographs, railway projects, hats, tailored pants, banknotes, lottery tickets, and other strange and wonderful things. Why did Muslims debate whether to legalize or outlaw these technological and commercial objects? Not because their religion made them wary of “Western” innovations but because they recognized that interactions with these things were changing their practices, norms, and values, in fundamental ways. Early adopters and enthusiastic consumers were convinced that the changes were for the better. But they lacked the knowledge and the authority to defend their choices effectively against conservative rivals, so they appealed to reformers such as Rashid Rida, the Syrian-Egyptian publisher of an “enlightened” Islamic magazine, for advice. Modern Things on Trial argues that their entanglement with new commodities and technologies was the driving force behind local and global projects to rediscover Islam’s foundational spirit and realize modernity’s religious and secular promises.

In addition to Muhammad’s Grave and Modern Things on Trial, Halevi has co-edited a book, Religion and Trade: Cross-Cultural Exchanges in World History, 1000-1900 (Oxford University Press, 2014), and written many scholarly and popular articles. His articles have appeared in Past & PresentThe Journal of the History of Ideas, Speculum, The International Journal of Middle East StudiesHistory of Religions, Die Welt des Islams, and other journals. He has also published op-eds for The International Herald TribuneThe Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Halevi is currently at work on a third book, under contract with Harvard University Press. It will deal with the tension in Islamic law between an economic interest in trade and a religious interest in social exclusivity, while focusing historically on the transformation of Saudi Arabia in the late twentieth century.

His work has received multiple awards and grants. Muhammad’s Grave won The Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, given by Phi Beta Kappa for a notable scholarly contribution to our understanding of the cultural and intellectual condition of humanity; the Albert Hourani Award given by the Middle East Studies Association for year’s best book in the field; the Medieval Academy of America’s John Nicholas Brown Prize; and the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Category of Analytical-Descriptive Studies.

The John. W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, the Institut d'études avancées de Paris, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, and the Guggenheim Foundation have supported his research projects with grants and fellowships.

Halevi received his Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, and he began his professional career at Texas A&M University. At Vanderbilt University, he teaches a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, including “A History of Islam,”  “Muhammad and Early Islam,” “Religion, Culture and Commerce: The World Economy in Historical Perspective,” and "Islamic Law in the Modern Age."

He lives in Nashville with his wife, who is also a historian, and their three children.