Carl Ernst

Increase font size
Decrease font size

Carl W. Ernst

William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor
Co-Director, Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations
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.


  • UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Fellow (2001, 2014)
  • John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2010)
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow (2009)
  • Fulbright Fellow (India, 1978-79; Pakistan, 1986; Spain, 2001; Malaysia, 2005)
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (Director, Summer Seminars for College Teachers, 1995, 1999; Research Fellowships, 1989-90, 1993)
  • 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)

 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


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.


“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.