Muslim Professor Displays Islam's Diversity

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri says Islam is shaped by culture and context--and a worldview is needed to understand the religion.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Kambiz GhaneaBassiri is a Muslim. He has a doctorate in Islamic studies from Harvard University and teaches at Reed College here.

He has one book to his credit and is halfway through writing his second, a history of Islam in the United States since Colonial times.

He is a Carnegie Scholar, one of his profession's highest honors. He is living, for the next year, in Morocco, where he is helping educate moderate Islamic leaders. He is the father of two children and has been married to his high school sweetheart for 13 years.


He is smart, articulate, thoughtful and innovative. His dark hair and goatee are perfectly trimmed. He seems born to button-down shirts and khaki slacks.

His is a career that many academics would envy. And he is all of 32 years old. GhaneaBassiri was born in Tehran, capital of Iran, and came to the Los Angeles area with his parents when he was 10. The older of his parents' two sons, he showed signs of being a teacher by the time he was in middle school. He'd assign his younger brother, Kamyar, to write essays to improve his writing skills.

"I'd always do it," said Kamyar, three years younger and a lawyer in Los Angeles. "There's just something in his presence that made me do it.

The tough questions and complex answers that GhaneaBassiri grapples with are the same ones that Americans wrestle with if they want to understand Islam and its place in the modern world.

"He was my best teacher, without a doubt," said Sam Kigar, a 2006 Reed graduate. "He taught me that there are simple answers out there. It's just that they rarely fit the questions.”

Americans often don't realize that Islam, like Christianity, is incredibly diverse in its expressions, GhaneaBassiri says. Christians across the world don't agree on every social issue, and neither do Muslims. When he teaches a class on Islam, this is his starting place.

He shows his classes slides of mosques, snapshots taken from around the world: The pencil-thin minarets of Turkey. Mosques made of mud that look like termite hills in West Africa. Rural areas in Saudi Arabia where simple markings on the ground outline a sacred space for prayer. After they see the slides, students such as Kigar begin to realize how culture and context shape expressions of Islam.

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