When Peter Wright’s graduate advisor received his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Harvard in the early 1980s, there were two or three tenure-track positions available in the field. When Wright graduated in 2008, there were more than 40 such positions.
There was no way Wright could have predicted the sea change that crashed over the discipline. He entered graduate school in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in August 2001; the events of 9/11 occurred when he had been on campus less than a month.
Wright took the long road in becoming an Islamicist – he detoured through law school. A philosophy and classical languages double major at the University of Pittsburgh, he hoped someday to become a literary critic. But a pragmatic father persuaded him to go to law school, and Wright complied, earning his J.D. from the Duquesne University School of Law, getting married, and accumulating the accompanying law school debt. He then hung out a shingle to pay for it all.
As a practicing attorney, he spent about a third of his time on criminal defense work, and in that capacity visited clients in prison, where he encountered African-American inmates who had converted to Islam. He began researching, studying, writing, and eventually presenting papers at conferences on the topic of Islam in the American prison system. Academics at the conferences were impressed, and told Wright he should pursue the topic. “That was important to me; I needed someone to say I should do this.”
Wright contacted leading scholars in the field, and received positive feedback. “I knew I had to make the move,” he said. “I was 40 years old, and had been practicing law for 10 years. It was getting comfortable. I thought, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it.’ I didn’t want to be one of those people who gets to the end of his career and says, ‘I wish I had done what I really wanted to do.‘ ”
Wright, who by now had a toddler, told his wife that he wanted to leave the law practice to pursue graduate studies in Islam. His wife, pregnant with their second child, encouraged him to do so. The more difficult conversations, Wright says, were with his father, who said, “I thought we had you straightened out,” and with his law partner. “The first words out of his mouth were ‘You can’t do this.’ “ (The law partner has since come around and enjoys visiting Colorado on rock climbing trips. His father, who has passed away, visited Wright in North Carolina and saw how contented he was in his chosen field of study.)
Wright‘s M.A. thesis continued his work on Islam in American prisons through its focus on the rise of the Black Nationalist movement known as the “Nation of Islam.” His interest in literary criticism blossomed when he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation. A study of the Qur’an, Wright’s dissertation applies recent allusion theory to the text of the holy book in order to gain insight into the likely composition of its original audience. He is a historian of literature, and his mentor was the late Nasr Abu Zayd, a world-renowned Qur’anic scholar who held positions at Cairo University and the Universities of Utrecht and Leiden in Holland.
Wright applies literary and rhetorical theory to religious texts and is well aware of the objections raised to this approach by some who hold such texts sacred. “My position on this issue is the same as Nasr Abu Zayd’s,” he explains. “Every Holy Scripture is revealed in language that its original audience is capable of understanding; therefore, every Holy Scripture is subject to the laws by which language communicates meaning. The application of literary and rhetorical theory to sacred texts is simply one means of ascertaining how a given text has complied with (or transgressed) those laws.” He adds: “The earliest commentators on the Qur’an in the Islamic tradition were not only masters of Arabic grammar, they were steeped in the imagery and vocabulary of pre-Islamic Arab poetry. They made no apology for resorting to non-Muslim poets to explain obscure words or even passages of the Qur’an. In fact, the foundation of the Muslim exegetical tradition lies in such scholarly activities. The notion that what Nasr did or what I do somehow ‘reduces’ the Qur’an to ‘mere literature’ is a very recent one. Individuals who hold such views would do well to acquaint themselves with the history of Qur’anic interpretation.”
Wright says that he strives to teach his students to examine the ways in which human beings imagine the divine and their relationship to it. In doing this, he likes to invoke the “metaphysics of imagination” developed by the 13th-century Muslim polymath Ibn ‘Arabi. “Ibn ‘Arabi argued that every human being worships an idol – the image of the divine that makes sense to them. Everyone gets a glimpse of the truth; the truth that is available to them.” So much of that interpretation, he says, depends on context: where a person was born, how they were raised, what language they speak, his or her life experiences, etc.
Wright joined the CC faculty in the fall of 2008, after weighing offers from several other schools. “Timing never was my strong suit,” he says, “except in the matter of Islamic Studies.” Islam, he says, “was not on the radar of most Americans before 9/11, despite 20 percent of the world’s population being Muslim.” He chose CC over a prestigious public research university for a variety of reasons. “I believe in the importance of undergraduate education and was excited about meeting students at a critical time in their lives, where you can have a significant impact,” he said. He also liked the collegiality of CC’s religion department. “Overall, I felt that this was a better place for me,” he said.
Wright’s fields of expertise are Islamic sacred literature and its interpretation, Islam in the Americas, the history of religions, theory and method in religious studies, and religion and violence. He says that, in order to better understand the sacred texts of Islam, he spends a significant portion of his time studying the history and literature of both Judaism and Christianity.
There is no scale of justice in Wright’s office. Instead, one of the first things a visitor notices is a large, silver samovar surrounded by small Moroccan tea glasses. Islamic Studies are not just about texts, Wright says. There is an entire civilization built around the values of Muslim culture, and one of the preeminent values of that culture is hospitality.
Wright’s two sons, a toddler and newborn when he started out on his path toward Islamic Studies, are now 10 and 12 years old. His wife, an active member of the Pittsburgh theater community who wrote and directed plays, is currently a certified Pilates instructor and teaches Pilates and yoga as physical therapy.