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Samer Ali

Associate FacultyPh.D, Indiana University

Associate Professor in the College of Liberal Arts
Samer Ali


  • Phone: 512-475-6467
  • Office: CAL 408
  • Office Hours: Fall 2013: TW 330p-500p
  • Campus Mail Code: F9400


Islamic kingship, court literature and patronage, classical historiography, modern and medieval folklore and folklife, Arab women poets, oral performance of Homeric epic, literary criticism


College: Liberal Arts

Home Department: Middle Eastern Studies

Additional department affiliations: Religious Studies, Comparative Literature

Education: PhD, Indiana University

Research interests:

Arabic Literature and culture: Abbasid culture (750-1258), Andalusian  (711-1492), Arabic Sicily (652-1189), Arabian Nights, women of the court, Arab women poets, folklore

Historiography of Early Islam: The oral performance of ancestral stories, the intersections of literature and history, narrative patterns in historical tales, performance and communication theories

Religion and Mythology: Pre- and early Islamic religion and mythology, the Qur’an, sacred kingship, cults of the hero

Educational and Cultural Exchange: I moderate several email lists that support study and scholarship in the Middle East, including Cairo Scholars


Courses taught:

Undergraduate: Intro to Arabic Literature (lecture), The Arabian Nights (lecture), The Pursuit of Happiness (lecture)

Graduate Seminars (in Arabic): Arabo Women Poets, Arabic Culture in Sicily 652-1189, Arabo-Islamic Ode, Classical Arabic Akhbar, Politics of Court Literature


WGS S340 • The Qur'An

89471 • Summer 2011
Meets MTWTHF 100pm-230pm SAC 5.102
(also listed as ARA S372, ISL S340, MES S320, R S S325G)

In this course, we will study the religion of Islam through its sacred text, the Qur’an. To this end, this course will entail extensive reading of the Qur’an itself, as well as of other texts. In our studies, we will focus on the following themes of the Qur’an: cosmology (eg God, human nature, satan, and the afterlife), ethical principles, ritual prescriptions, and legal injunctions. We will also examine some of the prominent symbols, images and rhetorical structures of the Qur’an. Through reading the prophetic narratives, we will have an opportunity to compare Qur’anic and Biblical accounts of the major prophets shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The syllabus also includes an inquiry into role of the Qur’an in Muslim devotion and as a medium for artistic expression. We will also discuss the tradition of interpretation (or “exegesis”), especially as it pertains to those verses that engender the most debate today: those surrounding politics, intercommunal (i.e. interreligious) relations, and gender. Prior knowledge of Islam is helpful but not required for this course.


Ali.S. 2008.

The Rise of the Abbasid Public Sphere: The Case of al-Mutanabbi and Three Middle Ranking Patrons. Al-Qantara: Special Issue on Patronage in Islamic History. Vol. 29, no. 2. Edited by Esperanza Alfonso Carro. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Instituto "Miguel Asín," pp. 467-494.


The tenth century in Iraq and Syria saw an unprecedented rise in the number of canonical poets who were delivering glorious praise hymns (madih) to middling members of society. Scholars have posed many theories in the past 30 years to explain the function and purpose of praise hymns for royalty and rulers, but why would ordinary men who had no hope of rulership pay painful sums to commission praise hymns in their favor? This article examines the emergence of a new kind of sociability and patronage in the tenth century that enabled middling people to form alliances and exercise influence in shaping ideals of government, leadership and manhood. Examples are given of poems to patrons of middle rank who gain glory and influence via the artistic endorsement of al-Mutanabbi (d. 965): The first ode restores the public dignity of a nineteen-year-old soldier who lost his face in battle; in the second ode, the poet glorifies and defends a state clerk who had little-known Sufi leanings; in the third ode, the poet vindicates an unmasked pseudo- Muslim who was in private a Christian. Using J. Habermas’s theory of the “Public Sphere,” I show the way these odes illustrate how middling members of society gained influence in a public sphere of participation and took measures to preserve that influence.


Ali.S. 2008.

Early Islam-Monotheism or Henotheism? A View from the Court. Journal of Arabic Literature. Vol. 39, no. 1. Leiden: E. J. Brill, pp. 14-37


This article employs sources produced by people who worked at the Abbasid court in order to expose a tension in early Islamic society between two systems of sacrility. An emerging monotheism was promoted by pious elders (mashāyikh) and ascetics (nussāk), which gave power and authority to one absolute deity, Allāh. Th e court, and most members of society, favored an older system, henotheism, which championed the sacrility of leadership archetypes, the king, sultan, saint, and master-teacher, while tolerating the emerging new sacredness of the One. The latter system enjoyed familiarity since ancient times in the Near East and vested nearly all leadership roles in society with a measure of sacred power and authority, hence adding to the stability of Abbasid hierarchy. Here, I examine three major practices at the court for generating sacrility, including praise hymns (madīḥ) in honor of great men, palace space-usage and architecture, as well as bacchic culture, which all privileged the caliph and his subordinates. The implications of symbol usage extend far beyond the court since underlings appropriated it in seeking rank and status by emulating their superiors.


Ali.S. 2006.

Singing Samarra (861-956): Poetry and the Burgeoning of Historiography upon the Murder of al-Mutawakkil. Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies. Vol. 6. Edinburgh University Press, pp. 1-23


Historiography on the patricide/regicide of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861) developed from a stage of simple description to a burgeoning of mytho-historical narrative. It would appear that what began as a palace scandal—profaning to a putatively sacral community already torn by civil war—developed into a redemptive tragedy with perennial appeal. In a patronage society governed by loyalty to one’s patron or father, this transformation should count as nothing less than conspicuous. This article examines the role of a major Abbasid poet, al-Buḥturī (d. 897), in shaping public perception by cultivating genuine sympathy for the Abbasids and planting the seeds of questions that would be addressed in historical narratives. In particular, I discuss the importance of literary salons or gatherings as a social institution where poetry and historical narratives were recited orally as a means of transmitting knowledge to future generations. These gatherings provide a likely forum where mythic questions of poetry could inspire narrative.


Ali.S. 2006.

Reinterpreting al-Buhturi's Iwan Kisra Ode: Tears of Affection for the Cycles of History. Journal of Arabic Literature. Vol. 37, no. 1. Leiden: E. J. Brill, pp. 46-67


The poet al-Buhturi (d. 897) composed a deeply disturbing ode in mid-career, dubbed the Iwan Kisra Ode. Scholars have conventionally interpreted the Iwan Kisra Ode as an anti-imperial ode critical of the Abbasids in a time of decline evinced by the murder of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 861) and the emerging power of the Turkic guards at Samarra. This article re-examines al-Buhturi’s own motives to demonstrate that an anti-imperial ode would be anathema to his interests and posits an alternative interpretation. The analysis is based on extensive Abbasid lore and a close reading of the ode. It suggests that the ode had the effect of redeeming the Abbasids in order to avoid civil strife in a time of danger.


Ali.S. 2004.

            Praise for Murder?: Two Odes by al-Buhturi surrounding an Abbasid Patricide. In Writers

            and Rulers: Perspectives on Their Relation from Abbasid to Safavid Times (Vol. 16 in Series

            Literaturen im Kontext: Arabisch - Persisch – Turkisch). Ed. Beatrice Gruendler and Louise

            Marlow. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert, pp. 1-38


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