Centre College Assistant Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce was recently honored with the Iran World Award for Book of the Year for “Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shi’ism,” published in 2016 by Harvard University Press.
More than 2,500 books in the areas of Islamic and Iranian studies were considered, which were then narrowed down to 179 titles. Pierce’s book was one of 10 selected as winners, and he joins scholars from England, Finland, France, Germany, Malaysia, Romania, Spain and Turkey whose books were published by equally impressive publishers, including Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton and Yale university presses.
“Twelve Infallible Men” addresses biographies of the imams that emerged around the tenth century, forming a kind of sacred history about those seen as the successors of the Prophet Muhammad in Shi’a Islam.
As explained in our own review of the book in June 2016, “The division between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims is often traced to a historical dispute over religious authority after the death of Muhammad, the final prophet of Islam, in 632 CE.” Pierce argues, however, “that historical events in the wake of the prophet’s death ultimately had less impact on Islam than stories about these events written centuries after the fact.”
In addition to this area of study in his recent book, Pierce is interested in medieval Arabic and Persian biographies.
No stranger to Iran, Pierce spent three years there, from 2003 to 2006, participating in an interfaith dialogue program in Qom, Iran’s eighth-largest city and the worldwide center for the study of Shi’a Islam. While he looked forward to returning to Iran to accept his award, the timing of the Feb. 6 ceremony prevented Pierce from making the trip.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., helped overcome an initial hurdle by providing assistance to secure an official permit from the Department of Treasury for Pierce to receive the award, which includes a monetary component.
However, the two White House executive orders banning U.S. entry by citizens of several Muslim-majority countries included Iran, which prompted that government to suspend American applications for visas.
While the Iranian Ministry of Culture is committed to bringing Pierce to Tehran, the timetable for such a trip remains uncertain.
Whether or not he is able to accept the award in person, colleagues are delighted with Pierce’s honor.
Lori Hartmann, the Frank B. and Virginia B. Hower Professor of International Studies and current faculty president, calls the award “a celebration of excellent scholarship and an example of how academics build bridges around the world.”
She adds that despite the current geopolitical tensions, “this kind of scholarly collegiality can be seen as an important place for renewed diplomatic relations to flourish.”
Among his various courses in the religion program, Pierce teaches a popular class during the College’s three-week CentreTerm in January called “Islam in America” that includes a 10-day road trip across America to meet Muslim leaders and scholars. He also regularly teaches “Sufism and Islamic Spirituality,” “Women and Gender in Islam” and “Western Religious Traditions.”
After earning his undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, Pierce traveled to Yemen as a Fulbright Scholar. He then completed his Ph.D. at Boston University in Islamic Studies. Since coming to Centre in 2011, Pierce was named a Centre Scholar in 2016, and he just returned from England, where he co-directed the Centre-in-London program.
by Michael Strysick
May 18, 2017