Samer Ali is associate professor in the U-M Department of Middle East Studies, specialized in Arabic and Islamic studies. His current research draws on methodological insights from linguistic anthropology and race theory to rethink Orientalist and area studies paradigms, and from medieval studies, folklore, history, women's studies, and critical theory to ask discerning questions about Arabic and Islamic cultural history. In recent years, he has focused on the history and foundations of knowledge transmission, particularly the Arabic humanities (adabiyyat) and Islamic madrasa-college curriculum (islamiyyat), which facilitated social mobility and dignity for many on the margins of society. These were two centers of discursive authority -- sites for the production of epistemology and ontology in the Islamic Middle Ages -- that interacted with adjacent sites like the caliphate, chancery, falsafa, and Sufism. Against the grain of binaries, Samer writes about these sites as a multiplicity of positionalities and voices with worldviews that converge and diverge in a bustling market of ideas. Within this multiplicity, women's cultural productions in the humanities were abundant and significant, though neglected, both for the challenges they posed to the establishment in their time and to Western tropes about passive Arab women today. His award-winning scholarship has appeared in the Encyclopedia of Islam THREE, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Al-Qantara, Journal of Arabic Literature, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women, and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Islam and Women. He co-edited The CALICO Journal: Special Issue on Hebrew and Arabic and authored the monograph, Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages: Poets, Public Performance and the Presentation of the Past, a first in the study of Arabic-Islamic salon culture. The book puts performance studies in conversation with classical Arabic studies, demonstrating a rambunctious social life around poetry, music, flowers, and song as performers and audiences found refuge in sociability, venerated the holy, recast tradition, formed friendships, and fell in love. This novel approach to evidence recovers poetry from jaws of pedantic linguistics or dry social scientism and resituates it in a context of lyric, passion, and embodiment -- a bit more Beyoncé than the legacy of Victorian Orientalism would permit.
In program building, Samer has leveraged $3.8 million in grants received over the past two decades to promote equal access to opportunity, as well as diversity and inclusion in Middle Eastern/North African studies. Funding has supported programs, research, and language education at the Free University in Berlin, U of Texas at Austin, and now the U of Michigan. Grant makers have included a mix of public and private sources that have shown a vital commitment to the region's languages, arts, and the humanities, such as the American Institute of Maghreb Studies, The Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin, US Department of Education, and Fulbright Awards for archival research in Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Germany, and Spain. At the U of Texas at Austin, he led a team effort to rebuild a graduate program in Middle Eastern Studies by funding and recruiting 42 gifted students for MAs and PhDs in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian linguistics, literature and culture, with half a million dollars in grants. Among those students, 12 met UT Austin’s diversity criteria, meaning the numbers of underrepresented graduate students in the department rose from zero to 29% in four years. As CMENAS Director at U-M, Samer has continued to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in graduate student recruitment, admissions, and secured the Lois Aroian Scholarship fund, named in honor of a leading alumna. He teaches courses on both Arabo-Islamic literary and religious topics, such as Arabic Poetry and Discourses of Empire, The Arabian Nights (ie. 1001 Nights), Arab Women Poets, Islamic Law, and Peace/Nonviolence in Islamic Cultures.