Interview with Luke Yarbrough

Published: November 5, 2018

With his vast knowledge in pre-modern Islamic societies, Luke Yarbrough (Ph.D. 2012, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University) brings a unique perspective to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Luke is our new Islamic Studies hire and will be teaching two classes in Winter quarter: a class called “Islamic Thought” for undergrads and a workshop for student research for grad students.

Luke has held post-doctoral fellowships at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania (2012) and the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and has been the Assistant Professor of HIstory at Saint Louis University since 2013. In this position, he received distinguished awards which included the annual Helen I. Mandeville Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in the Humanities (2018) and a university-wide graduate-mentorship award in 2014. We are very excited to welcome Luke to our department and to spark anticipation for his first classes in Winter quarter, we spoke with him about his research on forgotten medieval books and his excitement for teaching at UCLA.


How did you decide to pursue research in the history of pre-modern Islamic societies?

It’s been a long and circuitous path! Maybe it started in earnest when I was a sophomore in college and took up Arabic. Studying the language took me in short order to Egypt, where I encountered a culture of immense historical depth and complexity. I also experienced a great deal of kindness and encouragement from the Egyptians I met. I had always enjoyed losing myself in the worlds of the past, and talking and arguing with friends about them. So in devoting myself to engaging with the inexhaustible record of the pre-modern Islamic world, I was in a way bringing together these three preoccupations: first with the Middle East; second with distant, imagined worlds, foreign yet oddly familiar, that have left us only traces of themselves; and third with good-natured, critical discussion of things I love. And through it all was woven Islam, which was and continues to be of immeasurable importance and interest to hundreds of millions of people. I’m one of them.

At an almost tactile level, it’s immense fun to compare manuscripts—handwritten copies of a book—and to derive a coherent text from them and then to figure out what it means. It’s a giant mental puzzle that involves a half dozen different skills: reading old handwriting on decayed paper; following the gnarly Arabic of a medieval scribe; understanding concepts that mattered to people long ago (getting their jokes, for example); tracking down information on the author and other things going on at the time he was writing; scanning and unravelling tricky lines of poetry. Technically, the poetry was the hardest part by far. But in a different way, it was challenging to work with a text that in some ways is quite mean-spirited. The author was out of a job, and he was using the book to attack his rivals’ religions and upbringings as a way of getting his job back. How do we handle texts from the past that are interesting but distasteful to our ethical sensibilities? I’m still wrestling with that.

What research are you currently working on?

Lots. I have a couple more projects like The Sword of Ambition up my sleeve: forgotten medieval books that people nowadays might find interesting and that I hope to publish. My next big book project will hopefully take another look at the story of how Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims lived under Muslim rulers for more than a thousand years, and specifically at how Muslims thought and wrote about them during that time. This has usually been told as a story about Islamic law, but I’m hoping to broaden the discussion to other discourses. It’s related to my forthcoming book, which will be published with Cambridge next year, but will be much broader in scope.

Do you have any upcoming conferences or events you will be presenting or speaking at?

In January I’ll be speaking at the giant annual meeting of the American Historical Association about how polemics like The Sword of Ambition can actually tell us surprising, unintended things about the people they were attacking. In March, at the University of Oxford, I’ll be presenting my research on an Arab Christian magnate in ninth-century Egypt who was a renowned master of Arabic, a patron of famous Arab Muslim grammarians, and a close friend to his Muslim colleagues. And next July, in Jerusalem, I’m going to be talking about how one of the most infamous texts in the history of Muslim-Christian relations—the so-called ‘Pact of ʿUmar—got its start.

What classes will you be teaching at UCLA?

For undergrads, in the Winter quarter I’ll be teaching a class called “Islamic Thought” that will give us a chance to dig deeper into the riches of Islamic Studies, both historical and modern. On paper it will focus on the sensitive but important topic of “jihad,” but it’s really more about how people go about understanding Islam, and through it the human experience. In the Spring I’m offering a GE course called “Islam and Other Religions.” It zooms in on a few case studies and theorists that collectively show us snapshots of the numerous ways in which Muslims have interacted with people of other faiths across history. Then I’ll be doing a grad seminar each quarter, too: in the Winter a kind of workshop for student research, and in the Spring a course on books known as “mirrors for princes” in the Islamic tradition.

What are you the most excited about teaching at UCLA?

Where to begin? The research facilities for students are first-rate, the pedagogical support is excellent, and the existing academic offerings are extraordinarily rich. But I think I’m most excited to be teaching a diverse, hard-working, and highly talented body of students who, because of their interests or backgrounds, arrive with a stake in the issues we’re discussing. I think classes will be instructive for me as well as for them.