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Vanderbilt scholar of Islam awarded third major book prize

Jan. 12, 2009, 2:29 PM

Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of History Leor Halevi has received the 2008 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society (Columbia University Press).

The $10,000 award by the Phi Beta Kappa Society is the third major book prize for Halevi, who has done extensive research on death rites and their role in everyday practices at the rise of Islam. Tracing the movement of a corpse from the deathbed to the grave, the book offers a unique perspective on the making of Islam.

The Emerson Award was established in 1960 by the nation’s oldest academic honor society to recognize comprehensive studies that contribute significantly to historical, philosophical or religious interpretations of the human condition. Previous winners have included Peter Brown, John Rawls, Caroline Walker Bynum, Robert Nozick and Gordon Wood.

Linda Zagzebski, the George Lynn Cross Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the award committee, praised Halevi’s research. “This remarkable book not only shows us how much we can learn about the development of early Islamic society through a study of their death rites, but since the absence of ritual and law is as revealing as its presence, I think it tells us much about our own society,” she said.

In the awards ceremony Don Wyatt, professor of history at Middlebury College, described the book as “magisterial” and “nothing less than a tour de force.” “In his ostensibly unassuming book,” he remarked, “Leor Halevi has scratched very deeply beneath the surface and exposed the profound significance of what may well be the defining markers of every great civilization — and these are not so much the rituals and ceremonies associated with how we live, but instead those associated with how we die.” He continued, “Halevi employs the phenomenon of death as touchstone and bridge to almost every conceivable area of social enterprise, especially law and the various cultural practices that came to hinge upon it.”

Halevi said that he was grateful for the award and the increased public attention to his research.

“The challenge that I set before myself, as a historian, was to write a book that would focus closely on early Muslim rituals—rituals that took place over a millennium ago—yet in such a way as to enable readers from a different religion or culture, from a different era, to relate to the material at a human level,” he said. “They would relate to it, not because they shared the same rituals or beliefs, but because they would recognize (sometimes even discover) that they shared many of the same preoccupations.” He noted that his book has prompted remarkably personal stories from many people.

Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society received a 2008 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion. In addition, it was honored in 2007 with the Albert Hourani Prize from the Middle Eastern Studies Association.

Halevi recently joined the Vanderbilt Department of History after teaching at Texas A&M University for six years. He graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern studies. He received his master’s at Yale before earning a doctorate in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard.

Halevi is on leave this year with a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for his book project, Forbidden Good: Cross-Cultural Trade in the History of Islam. He has previously received fellowships from the Library of Congress and the American Council of Learned Societies.

For more information on Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society, visit

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS