I am a historian of the multiple globalizations of Islam and Muslims.
This involves examining the many different ways in which Muslims have responded to the rise of the West and the modern world in general. My fifteen books have traced little-known Muslim interactions with Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists that connect the Middle East, South Asia and Africa not only with Europe but also America, China and Japan.
My writings bring global history into conversation with Islamic history in ways that place individual humans and local environments at center stage. I am especially interested in stories and situations that capture the entanglement of particular people in larger historical forces.
This attention to the particularities of people and places grew from my travels among the Muslims of India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang), 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, in addition to South Asia and the Middle East. My work has also received such accolades as the Middle East Studies Association's Albert Hourani Book Award and the Association for Asian Studies' Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Book Award, the two leading US academic book prizes in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies, and been recognized by a Guggenheim Fellowship.
I first ventured to the Middle East on my own as a teenager, then spent several years in my twenties working as an adventure tour leader, guiding small groups of intrepid tourists around places like Yemen, Syria, Iran and India. I came to know the Islamic world close up, spending most of my time with ordinary people in provincial towns. Over the course of three decades of travels, my experiences have ranged from traveling with some of the Middle East's last nomads, to spending time with underground groups of Sufis, and observing the practical playing out of political Islam.
After gaining a PhD from London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, learning Urdu and Persian and to a lesser degree Arabic, I married an endlessly inspiring woman who had fled Afghanistan as a teenage refugee. I gradually segued from a life on the road to a career in academia after being elected Milburn Junior Research Fellow at Oxford University, where I spent four years and wrote my first book, Indian Sufism Since the Seventeenth Century. As my Oxford fellowship drew to an end, I was contacted about a professorship in Los Angeles, where I have now lived for twelve years. In 2018, I was honored to become the inaugural holder of the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA.
Within my larger role as a world historian of Islam, I have three specific areas of expertise. The first is geographic, taking in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, a region that is home to a far larger yet lesser known Muslim population than the Middle East. The second is doctrinal, taking in Sufi Islam, Global Islam, and the competition between them. The third is thematic, covering the complex interactions of Muslims with the West.
What drives my work is a commitment to promoting evidence-based, non-partisan understanding of the Islamic world in all its multiplicity.