Carl Ernst

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Carl W. Ernst

Professor Emeritus & William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor
Co-Director, UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies
Co-Editor, Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks SeriesUniversity of North Carolina Press.


Ph.D., Harvard University, The Study of Religion, 1981
B.A., Stanford University, Humanities Honors/Religious Studies, 1973

 Research Interests

  • General and critical issues of Islamic studies
  • Premodern and contemporary Sufism
  • Indo-Muslim culture

Professional Biography

I am a specialist in Islamic studies, with a focus on West and South Asia. My published research, based on the study of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, has been mainly devoted to the study of three areas: general and critical issues of Islamic studies, premodern and contemporary Sufism, and Indo-Muslim culture. My most recent projects in Islamic studies have addressed issues of public scholarship relating to Islamophobia, the problem of reading the Qur’an, a critical rethinking of Islamic studies, and problems in understanding Islam. My studies of Sufism have engaged with the literary, historical, and contemporary aspects of Islamic mysticism, particularly in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent and the Persianate cultural sphere. I have also been pursuing a long-term study of Muslim interpretations of Indian religions, particularly with regard to the practice of yoga.

My current work includes the literary translation of the Arabic poetry of the early Sufi and martyr, al-Hallaj (executed in Baghdad in 922). This entails a re-examination of what is meant by Sufi poetry as well as the question of authorship in the case of an individual most of whose works were burned over 1000 years ago. I’m also embarking on a new project focusing on an illustrated Persian text describing the 48 different types of ascetics and yogis who were found in Benares in 1800. The fact that the author was a Hindu secretary, highly trained in Persian poetry and Sufism, who was commissioned by British colonial official, indicates the complex development of religious categories in the transition from the Mughal Empire to modern India and Pakistan. In this connection, I am a co-director of the Perso-Indica project, which proposes to document and analyze nine centuries of Persian translations of Sanskrit texts and Persian writings on Indian sciences and culture.


  • Global Humanities Translation Prize, Buffett Institute – Northwestern University, 2017, for Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr.
  • Mellon Distinguished Fellow, Arts@The Core Program, Carolina Performing Arts, 2016-17.
  • Fellow, Institute for the Arts and Humanities, University of North Carolina, Spring 2014.
  • Choice Outstanding Academic Title, for Islamophobia in America, 2013.
  • John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2010)
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow (2009)
  • Book awards for Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (Cairo, 2004; Istanbul, 2005; Shiraz, 2007); for Ruzbihan Baqli: Mystical Experience and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism (Tehran, 2008)
  • Fulbright Fellow (India, 1978-79; Pakistan, 1986; Spain, 2001; Malaysia, 2005)
  • Fellow, Institute for the Arts and Humanities, University of North Carolina, 2001.
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (Director, Summer Seminars for College Teachers, 1995, 1999; Research Fellowships, 1989-90, 1993)

 Courses Recently Taught

  • Reli. 180, “Introduction to Islamic Civilization to 1500″
  • Reli. 581, “Sufism”
  • Reli. 582, “Islam and Islamic Art in South Asia”
  • Reli. 583, “Religion and Culture in Iran, 1500-Present”
  • Reli. 584, “The Qur’an as Literature”
  • Reli. 785, “Genealogies of Middle East Studies”

Publication highlights


Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr. Translated by Carl W. Ernst (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2018).

It’s not just academic: Essays on Islamic studies and Sufism. New Delhi: Yoda Press/Sage, 2017.

Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga. New Delhi: Yoda Press/Sage, 2016.

How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide with Select Translations. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Sufism: An Introduction to Islamic Mysticism. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2010.

Edited Volumes

Co-Editor (with Fabrizio Speziale), Perso-Indica: A Critical Survey of Persian Works on Indian Learned Traditions (4 vols., forthcoming from E. J. Brill, 2020-25). Author of online publishing articles: “‘Ayn al-Ḥayāt,” “‘Ayn al-Ḥayāt (Ahmadnagar Recension),” “Baḥr al-Ḥayāt,”  “Bayān al-Adyān,”  “Ḥawż al-Ḥayāt,” “Kāmarūpančāšikā,”  “Mabda’-i Jahān,”  “Risāla-yi Wujūdiyya”; with Soraya Khodamoradi: “Risāla-yi Šaṭṭāriyya,”  “Rušd-Nāma.”  


“Persianate Islamic Studies in American Universities.” In Iranian Studies in America: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, ed. Franklin Lewis and Erica Ehrenberg (American Institute of Iranian Studies/Eisenbruns, 2019).  

“The Dabistān and Orientalist Views of Sufism.” In Sufism East and West: Mystical Islam and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Modern World, edited by Jamal Malik and Saeed Zarrabi-Zadeh, Studies on Sufism, 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2019), pp. 33–52.

“Proto-Orientalist Concepts of Sufism.” In Islamic Studies and the Study of Sufism in Academia: Rethinking Methodologies, Kyoto Kenan Rifai Sufi Studies, 3 (Kyoto: Kenan Rifai Center for Sufi Studies, Kyoto University, 2019), pp. 23–38.

“Wakened by the Dove’s Trill: Structure and Meaning in the Arabic Preface of Rumi’s Mathnawi, Book IV.” In The Philosophy of Ecstasy: Rumi and the Sufi Tradition, ed. Leonard Lewisohn (London: World Wisdom, 2014).

“‘A Little Indicates Much’: Structure and Meaning in the Prefaces of Rumi’s Mathnawi (Books I-III).” Mawlana Rumi Review V (2014), pp. 14-25.

“Disentangling the Persian Translations of Sanskrit Works on Yoga.” In L’espace Du Sens: Approches de La Philologie Indienne, edited by Silvia d’Intino and Sheldon Pollock, Publications de l’Institut de Civilisation Indienne, 84 (Paris: Collège de France. 2018), pp. 411–30.

“A Persian Philosophical Defense of Vedanta.” In Voices of Three Generations: Essays in Honor of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed. Mohammad H. Faghfoory and Katherine O’Brien (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2019).

“Tabaqat-i adyan-i Hind dar `ahd-i inglisiyan-i Hind (Anglo-Persian Taxonomies of Indian Religions) [in Persian].” Iran Namag 1/3 (Fall 2016), pp. 82-103.

“Muslim Interpreters of Yoga.” In Yoga: The Art of Transformation, ed. Debra Diamond (Smithsonian Books, 2013), pp. 59-68.

“Indian Lovers in Arabic and Persian Guise: Azad Bilgrami’s Depiction of nayikas.” The Journal of Hindu Studies (2013), pp. 1-15.

“Islamic Studies in U.S. Universities,” co-author with Charles Kurzman. Review of Middle East Studies 46/1 (Summer 2012), pp. 24-46.

“The Limits of Universalism in Islamic Thought: The Case of Indian Religions.” Muslim World 101 (January 2011), pp. 1-19.

“‘The West and Islam?’ Rethinking Orientalism and Occidentalism.” Ishraq: Islamic Philosophy Yearbook (Moscow/Tehran), vol. 1 (2010), pp. 23-34.

“Sufism, Islam, and Globalization in the Contemporary World: Methodological Reflections on a Changing Field of Study.” In Memoriam: The 4th Victor Danner Memorial Lecture. Bloomington, IN: Department of Near Eastern Languages, 2009.

“Situating Sufism and Yoga.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 15:1 (2005), pp. 15-43.