Carl Ernst

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Carl W. Ernst is William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor (2005- ) and Director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. On the faculty of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1992, he has been department chair (1995-2000) and Zachary Smith Professor (2000-2005). He and Bruce Lawrence are co-editors of the Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks Series at the University of North Carolina Press. He is a specialist in Islamic studies, with a focus on West and South Asia.

His published research, based on the study of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, has been mainly devoted to the study of Islam and Sufism. His current research projects include Muslim interpretations of Indian religions, the literary interpretation of the Qur'an, and the poetry of al-Hallaj.

Academic experience

  • University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, Advisory Panel (2008-2010); Academy of Islamic Studies, External Assessor (2008-2011); Visiting Scholar and Research Fellow (Jan.-May 2005)
  • Boston University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations: Board of Academic Advisers (2007- )
  • École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris: Professeur Invité, (May, 2003); Maitre de Conference (May-June 1991)
  • University of Seville, Spain, Department of Integrated Philologies, Area of Arabic Studies: Visiting Scholar (September-December, 2001)
  • National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan, Graduate Program in Communications and Cultural Studies: External Examiner (2000-8)
  • Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California, Department of Religion: Graduate Faculty of the Claremont Colleges (1984-92)


He is a critic of Robert Spencer, an anti-Islam activist, termed by many as an Islamophobe, who heads Dhimmi Watch.[1] Specifically, he says of Spencer,
This information is significant because these books are not scholarly, and they do not pass the review of blind refereed evaluation practiced by university presses. They are instead supported by specific political and ideological interests ... In particular, the lectures given by authors such as Spencer on college campuses may be misunderstood as being equivalent to scholarly research. While it certainly may be acknowledged that scholarship has political implications, independent research needs to be distinguished from hired polemics.

The publications of Spencer belong to the class of Islamophobic extremism that is promoted and supported by right-wing organizations, who are perpetuating a type of bigotry similar to anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. They are to be viewed with great suspicion by anyone who wishes to find reliable and scholarly information on the subject of Islam. I make these remarks because Spencer was invited to speak at UNC-Chapel Hill in the spring of 2004; I shared these observations with UNC students at the time to indicate that his views have no basis in scholarship (he has no academic training in Islamic studies whatever; his M.A. degree was in the field of early Christianity).
Jihad Watch responded,

Since Carl Ernst refuses to debate Robert Spencer, instead of a debate, why not a specific question that deserves to be answered?

A few years ago, entering freshman at the University of North Carolina were required to read Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells. This bowdlerized version of the Qur'an, turning it into some kind of cross between Rumi and Omar Khayyam, conveyed absolutely nothing to those hapless freshman about what Islam, or about what the Qur'an, is all about.[2]

Fellowships and education

  • Fellowships from the Fulbright, NEH, and Guggenheim programs
  • Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • A. B., comparative religion, Stanford University (1973)
  • Ph.D., Study of Religion, special field Comparative Religion, with major in Islamic Studies, minor in Greek Philosophy; Harvard University (1981)
  • Research tours in India (1978-79, 1981), Pakistan (1986, 2000, 2005), and Turkey (1991), and has also visited Iran, Egypt, the Gulf, and Uzbekistan.