John L. Esposito Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islam and the West: Conversation 
    with John L. Esposito, University Professor of Religion and International 
    Affairs, Georgetown University, March 13, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 1 of 6

Background

Professor Esposito, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Where were you born and raised?

I was raised in Brooklyn, New York.

In looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My parents gave me an appreciation for education and a sense of being curious. They didn't so much get me into the area of international affairs; that came much later in my life. My first track was to go off to a monastery for ten years. That was part of my background; it was only later that I got on with my real life. I should mention, parenthetically, I've been married thirty-seven years. So there are two sides to my life.

So what did turn you on to international affairs?

I was finishing what I thought was a degree in world religions with a focus on Hinduism and Buddhism. I had already done graduate work in Catholic theology and was teaching that at the college, and the chairman of the department, a man named Bernard Phillips, said to me, "You really should do a course on Islam. We're hiring Muslim scholars." I politely declined. This was 1967. I had very little interest in the Arab world and Muslims. In many ways, I typified a lot of Americans: what I did know was a group of stereotypes. But he convinced me to take one course with a Muslim scholar, and it turned me on to the whole area. That led me into my interest in the Muslim world, relations between the West and the Muslim world, and international affairs in general.

Where were you at school then?

Temple University, in Philadelphia.

Did you have any educational mentors, in addition to the one that you just mentioned?

Yes, my main mentor was Ishmael al Furuqi, who was a Palestinian Muslim scholar. We also had, during that time, an Egyptian, Hasan Hanafi, who is back teaching at Cairo University. Those were the people in my formative years, I would say.

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