Professor Leif Stenberg is the Dean of the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC). His latest research has been on the various intersections between football, religion and social identities. He recently organised an AKU-ISMC conference on the topic in May 2022, with an edited volume forthcoming in 2023. Professor Stenberg has recently published a co-edited a volume with Professor Philip Wood on the politics of studying Islam entitled What is Islamic Studies? He is also the author of AKU-ISMC’s new book, Poet and Businessman: Abd al-Aziz al-Babtain and the Formation of Modern Kuwait.
What led to your interest in Islamic history and pursuing a career in academia?
I grew up in a family who shared an interest in world politics. My upbringing cultivated an interest in world politics, people in countries far away from my own, travelling, and an openness to various cultures and religions. After finishing school, I worked for several years, before beginning university. I began my studies in a programme devoted to the study of the Arab world in past and present, including the Arabic language. To these studies I added Sociology, more Arabic, and History of religions.
How did you embark on your role as Dean of Aga Khan University International-Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations?
I became the founding director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Lund University, Sweden, in 2007. In 2009, we received a large grant to build a research centre focusing on the contemporary Middle East. We were a very small centre at the start but expanded quickly. We had strong support from the university leadership until 2015, and very quickly became an internationally recognised, strong research and teaching environment. A new university leadership, appearing in 2015, reduced their support of the CMES. They also had new ideas concerning the structuring the CMES that my colleagues and I simply thought was the wrong way forward.
In the middle of the turmoil at Lund University, I got a phone call from a recruitment agency asking if I was interested in applying for the job at Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC). I consulted my wife, I also had one of my sons studying in London at the time, and we decided to take the opportunity if I was appointed. It was a long process (which included many interviews); however, I successfully got the position and began my work at AKU-ISMC in April 2017.
Read full interview at Bayt Al Fann