‘Even Ancient and Medieval Ideas Can Help Modern World’

Ahab Bdaiwi, assistant professor of Islamic history, religion and philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy since 2016, was the first to receive the Faculty Impact Award 2020 at the end of January. His interest lies in ‘everything that has to do with antiquity’, especially the religious and philosophical ideas that arose at that time. “They can move people. And many of those ideas as we know them today have influenced Islam.”

With his research, Bdaiwi tries to show that early Islam was part of the late antiquity by finding links between them. For example, the translations of Arabic texts into Latin re-introduced Europe to a new, repackaged Arabic version of the Greek philosophers. The history of Islam in Leiden in the 16th century is another example of such a link. “The Flemish professor Van Ravelingen, who taught Hebrew here in the late 16th century, wrote the first Latin-Arabic dictionary and Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje was the first Dutch expert on Islam.”

Bdaiwi also wants to add an academic perspective to the so often fraught Islam debate. That is still an issue in Leiden, he emphasizes. “There is still racism and bigotry in Islam research here. I never thought I had to convince students that the Quran does not teach you terrorism. As an academic you have to commit yourself to this and respond to it.”

Impact prize

In 2017, he founded the Leiden University Shi’i Studies Initiative (LUSSI) for additional research of Shi’i studies. At the end of January, Bdaiwi received the first Impact Prize from the Faculty of Humanities for his efforts these past few years. He thinks it is an enormous honor and recognition.

He converts that recognition into action. For example, for the past year he has been part of a sounding board within the university to address diversity and inclusivity. “It was not easy to have to deal with colleagues you respect, but with whom you disagree at the same time.”

And there is still much to improve, he says. Until March 2018, there were no portraits of female professors in the Senate Chamber. And he is waiting for other minorities to be added: “Or does inclusion and diversity only apply to white people? Where is the Surinamese chancellor that Leiden had in 1938, Paul Christiaan Flu?

According to Bdaiwi, researchers can be impactful by making themselves relevant to society. “I couldn’t have become the researcher I am today without the universities that in turn invested in me. That is why I like to teach governments, such as diplomats at the ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I inform journalists.”

According to him, it doesn’t matter what kind of research you do, you can always make it relevant. “But you have to learn how to talk to people who don’t have your training and insight. Sometimes you have to explain things that you already know. Because there was also a time when you didn’t know them.”

“Social media helps blur boundaries”

According to Bdaiwi, social media helps with that and is one of the best ways to blur the boundaries between cultures. “There is currently a lot of interest in the Arab and Islamic world, especially after the terror attacks. I don’t know how many times students have already said they want to study Arabic because they want to work in government or study terrorism.”

“That is also why I am on Twitter”, he says. It is precisely there that he tries to make his research accessible in less scientific language. “Once you present people with an idea or fact, it can stay with them forever. Do what works for you”, he recommends his fellow researchers. “But”, he stresses, “take part in the public debate and give lectures or make videos.”

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