About

I am a historian of the multiple globalizations of Islam and Muslims.

In plain terms, this means looking at the many different ways in which Muslims have responded to the rise of the West and the modern world in general. My dozen or so books have traced little-known Muslim interactions with Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists that connect places like Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Islamic Africa with not only Europe but also America, China and Japan.

My work endeavors to bring global history into conversation with Islamic history, and to do so in a way that places individual humans and local environments at center stage. This attention to the particularities of people and places grew out of a quarter of a century spent traveling and researching in India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang), Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Myanmar, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the Caucasus, and Zanzibar.

Reviews of my books have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, The Literary Review, Prospect, Time Out, as well as major newspapers across the English-speaking world from the Toronto Star to the Sydney Morning Herald (as Pick of the Week), in addition to South Asia and the Middle East. My books have received the highest academic accolades, including the Middle East Studies Association’s Albert Hourani Book Award and the Association for Asian Studies’ Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Book Award, being the two main US academic book prizes in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies. My work has also been recognized by a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2018, I received the honor of becoming the inaugural holder of the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA.

Born and raised in Britain, my travels began as a seventeen-year-old escaping the English Midlands by boarding a train to Istanbul. Captivated by my first taste of the Islamic world, the day after I finished high school a year later I was back in Turkey, spending the summer roaming alone through its eastern highlands, stumbling over the mountainous border into Iran and into the civil war against the Kurds. I was hooked, and changed my initial ambitions to study English at Oxford by pursuing a degree in religious studies at King’s College London instead. Throughout my undergraduate years, I was constantly traveling, whether hitchhiking around Egypt and Morocco, or meeting Hindu gurus and Sufi shaykhs in the pilgrim towns of India.

By the time I graduated, spent another year on the road, then went on to Cambridge to take an MPhil in Middle Eastern Studies (and learn Persian), I had already traveled widely, but it wasn’t enough. After leaving Cambridge, where everyone seemed to think I was heading for the Foreign Office, I decided instead just to hit the road again.

On and off, I was away for three years. First came a six-month overland trip alone through the small towns of Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Egypt. Then came several years working as an adventure tour leader, guiding small groups of intrepid tourists around places like Yemen, Syria, Iran and India, by which time I had learned Urdu and Persian as well as Arabic. I led people on camel through the western Sahara and by jeep through the wadis of Yemen, where my tour group narrowly avoided kidnap. Another small convoy of Land Cruisers two minutes ahead of mine was less fortunate. They were taken by members of an organization no-one had heard of back in 1998. Its name was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular. Four of the kidnapped tourists were murdered. Over time, my moral and intellectual struggle to make sense of this event, and the many similar attacks in the twenty years that followed, led me to develop a professional and personal interest in the spread of political Islam.

During my subsequent years of travel, I came to know the Islamic world directly in all its variety. When I wasn’t leading tour groups, I was pursuing my own inquiries, traveling with some of the Middle East’s last nomads and joining underground groups of Sufis in Iran. Meanwhile, I pursued a PhD from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where I added Urdu to the more than half-a-dozen languages I can read.

Officially based back in Britain, I spent most of those years abroad again, living among the Muslims of India for nearly a year researching my dissertation on its Sufi traditions and spending more time in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. During those years I also met, and eventually married, an amazing woman who had fled Afghanistan as a teenage refugee, who taught me far more about the Muslim world than I learned in graduate school.

The air of respectability around my dissertation research let me continue roaming freely around the Middle East and Asia until September 11, 2001. That afternoon, I was sitting in the head office of another adventure tour company signing a contract to lead an expedition to Libya when a phone call came in about something happening in New York. Overnight, the Middle East travel industry keeled over and died. I needed another career and so segued from a life on the road to a career in academia by becoming research assistant to Britain’s most famous anthropologist, Sir Jack Goody. Still skipping out of Cambridge for fieldwork in West Africa into his eighties as soon as the term ended, Jack was an inspiration and a much-needed mentor.

A year later, I was elected Milburn Junior Research Fellow at Oxford University, where I spent the next four years making my name with a couple of dozen recondite articles and my first book. And, of course, returning to spend more time in places like India, North Africa and Syria. Just as my fellowship in Oxford was drawing to an end, I was contacted about a tenured position in Islamic history in Los Angeles. Over a decade later, I am still in California as an adopted Angeleno and naturalized American.

In the midst of making my name as a historian of the Islamic world at large, I have developed a few particular strands of expertise. One is geographical, taking in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, a region that is actually home to a far larger Muslim population than the Middle East. The other is thematic, taking in Sufi Islam, global Islam, and the competition between them.

My previous book, 'The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London,' was written as a flowing narrative telling the story of the first group of Muslims to ever study in Europe, some two centuries ago. Based around the forgotten Persian diary of the student Mirza Salih, I used his personal record to tell a larger story about the converging of two worlds, Muslim in Christian, in the London of 1815. A tale of five foreign students on their uppers, it peeped through the hedgerows of Pemberley to show a previously hidden side of Jane Austen’s England where evangelical missionaries and empire-builders studied Persian with Shiite Muslims. The book received positive reviews from newspapers, magazines and media worldwide.

I have just completed a new book, entitled 'A Very Short Introduction to Global Islam.' It provides the first overview of how Islam and globalization have come together over the past century and a half to spread new forms of Islam across much of the planet.

I am also writing a biography of the 1960s popularizer of Sufism, Idries Shah. A major but forgotten cultural middleman, Shah drew such literary heavyweights as Robert Graves and Doris Lessing into his circle of followers, before eventually dying, like his dream of a Muslim Shangri-La, in the year the Taliban seized control of his ancestral homeland. Around his life story, my book recounts how the cultured literary proponents of Sufism were quietly overtaken by the more activist promoters of Salafism.

Other Works

  • Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam

    2015
  • Sufism: A Global History

    2012

Awards and Recognition

  • John Simon Guggenheim Fellow Albert Hourani Book Prize for outstanding publishing in Middle East studies (Middle East Studies Association of North America) Ananda Coomaraswamy Book Prize for distinguished scholarship in South Asian Studies (Association for Asian Studies)