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Denise Spellberg Named 2009 Carnegie Scholar

History/MES professor earns grant to research Islam and the founding fathers

Posted: April 17, 2009

Denise Spellberg, associate professor of history and Middle Eastern Studies, has been awarded a two-year grant of up to $100,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York for a book project titled "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders." Spellberg, who is known for her research in Middle East and Islamic history, was one of 21 academics named to the Carnegie Corporation's highly competitive scholar program this year. The 2009 awardees are the fifth class to focus on Islam, bringing 117 Carnegie Scholars devoted to the topic since the program began in 2000.

In her new book, Spellberg will reveal the little known story of how Thomas Jefferson and several other founding fathers, including George Washington and Richard Henry Lee, opposed dominant negative views of Islam as a threat to the ideals underlying the new state they envisioned. Her work will bring to light how the rights of Muslims were part of broader national debates about religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

Spellberg said she hopes this work will challenge false dichotomies about Islam in America as 'un-American,' and instead, lead to wide understanding that the rights of Muslim citizens were at the heart of our founding history and part of our most cherished founding American ideals.

"It's an honor to receive the Carnegie scholarship," Spellberg said. "I look forward to dedicating next year to my project on Islam in America."

Spellberg teaches courses on Middle East history and religion, and gender in Islamic history. She also teaches seminars on "Islam in America" and was selected to teach the course as one of four lead instructors for the Ford Foundation's "Difficult Dialogues" undergraduate grant initiative at the university in 2006-08. She is the author of "Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A'isha Bint Abi Bakr."

"We are cultivating a diverse scholarly community spanning a range of disciplines with the expectation that their voices will help Americans develop a more complex understanding of Muslim societies here and throughout the world --revealing Islam's rich diversity," said Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. "Only through vibrant dialogue, guided by bold and nuanced scholarship, can we move public thinking into new territory."

Each year, nominations for Carnegie Scholars are invited from more than 500 nominators representing a broad range of disciplines and institutions, including academia, research institutes, non profit organizations, the media and foundations. Nominators are asked to identify original thinkers who have the ability --or promise- to spark academic and public debate, and whose work transcends academic boundaries.

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