Nerina Rustomji and her book, "The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture."About 6 years ago, I was taking an undergraduate class on the history of the Modern Middle East taught by Professor Nerina Rustomji of St. John's University. The class opened my eyes to the complexity of the region. She challenged us to look differently at the historic and ongoing conflicts in the area and America's intricate relationships with Middle Eastern countries before September 11th. It was a deeply fascinating course and broadened my own research interest in this field as well.
Today, Nerina Rustomji, an expert in Islamic eschatology, is a Wertheim Scholar at NYPL. She will be delivering a free presentation on her research entitled, "The Virgins of Islamic Paradise: A Global History" on Thursday, July 19th in The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in South Court Auditorium.
I had a chance to ask her some questions about her current research project:
How did you get into this research topic?
The reading public drove this project. My first book was about the history of heaven and hell in Islamic culture, and every time I gave a public lecture, I would be asked “do men really get virgins if they are in paradise" and "what do women get?” After a few times, I would answer the questions even before I began the substance of the lecture. Then one day, I picked up the New York Times and read a Nicolas Kristof op-ed column about the houris as white raisins. It stunned me. In graduate school, we read some of the most arcane Arabic texts, and it never occurred to me that a New York Times columnist would be parsing medieval Arabic grammar for his national column. On that day, I realized I needed to write this book. So I have many people and Nicolas Kristof to thank, really.
What has been the most fascinating discovery of your research so far?
In Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott refers to Rebecca the Jewess as a houri. We can understand this as a kind of vision of the Orient, but I think the depiction of Rebecca is more interesting than that. And that she was referred to a Muslim celestial being is fascinating. I don’t think anyone would conflate Jewish identity and Muslim theology today.
What type of materials have you perused to conduct your research and has it been difficult to access some of these resources?
There are three distinct kinds of texts in the project—contemporary media in English and Arabic, early modern and modern English and French literature, and classical Islamic theological manuals. The problem with the project is not access. The problem is that there is so much material to sift through. The houris are referred to in casual ways in newspaper articles and blogs, and making meaning of these sometimes fleeting references has been a daunting task. Also, I am still learning to be a good cataloguer of Internet sites. I read something one day, and it disappears the next.
What are you currently reading outside of your research field?
These days Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, but generally, I have two summer traditions—cheap mysteries and one Shakespearean play. Both are deeply satisfying, but in very different ways.
Have you encountered future project ideas that you'd like to work on after this one?
A history of September 11th.
Find other lectures from the Wertheim Study.
Call to Prayer
Additional Resources on Islam and Islamic Eschatology