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Michael Gilsenan

David B. Kriser Professor in the Humanities; Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies , Anthropology

D.Phil. 1967 (social anthropology), Dip.Anth. 1964, B.A. 1963 (Arabic), Oxford.

Office Address: 

Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 50 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012


(212) 998-8875


(212) 995-4689

Courses Taught:

Sociology of Islam
Cities of the Middle East
Problems and Methods in the Middle East

Areas of Research/Interest: 

Anthropology and sociology of Islam, history and anthropology, narrative theory, anthropology of power and violence, urban studies, cultural representation

External Affiliations:

Middle Eastern Studies Association, European Association of Social Anthropologists, Association of Social Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association.


I took a B. A. in Oriental Studies and then a D. Phil. in Social Anthropology, both at Oxford University. A key personal influence was my tutor, Albert Hourani, who first encouraged me to become a social anthropologist (with a strong historical interest.) My doctoral research on Sufi Order in Cairo in 1964-66, focused on the nature of ‘miracles’, acts of grace, personal religious authority and group formation in a context of considerable state hostility and surveillance. I finished the D.Phil. in 1967.

The second project (1971-72) was more intensely ethnographically based. I did research in a large village in north Lebanon and working on different dimensions of violence, status and power. Returning to England and a post at University College London, where I taught from 1973-1985, I embarked on the writing of a book about what it might mean as an anthropologist to say that I studied forms of Islam in the world.

I moved to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1985 and stayed eleven years, teaching and finishing my book on religion while trying to find the best way to frame my work on the Lebanon, a country by then in the middle of vicious wars. The invitation to come to NYU in 1995 to found essentially a new department in Middle Eastern Studies was too challenging to refuse.

That move also made possible a major shift in research interests. I now focus on the Hadhrami Arab diaspora in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. My special concern is with the study of law, inheritance, property and family over four or five generations in colonial and post-colonial contexts. I am also exploring the politics of imperial translations in Britain and China around the period 1880-1914.

Selected Publications: 

Possessed of Documents: Hybrid Laws and Translated Texts in the Hadhrami Diaspora’, in Dupret, B. et al. (eds) Ethnographies of Islam: Ritual Performances and Everyday Practices, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012, pp.181-193, 2012

‘Translating Colonial Fortunes: Dilemmas of Inheritance in Muslim and English Laws across a Nineteenth Century Diaspora’. In Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, pp.355-371, 2011

Review and Introduction to Catalogue of the Holdings on the Hadhrami Diaspora in the National Library of Singapore (the catalogue is 300 pp. in length and incorporates documents from new collections of papers), 2010

Topics and Queries for a History of Arab Families and Inheritance in Southeast Asia: Some Preliminary Thoughts’ in Eric Tagliacozzo (ed.) Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement, and the Longue Duree’, Stanford UP/Nat.Univ.of SG Press, pp.199-234, 2009

Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in a Lebanese Society. London: I. B. Tauris Press, 1996

Recognizing Islam: An Anthropologist's Introduction. London: Croom Helm; New York: Pantheon Press, March 1983

Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973


Emeritus Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford; Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, 1979-1980; Conseil de Direction, European Science Union Project of Islam and the Individual, 1990-1994; Conseil de Direction, Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur le Moyen-Orient Contemporain (CERMOC), Beirut/Amman, 1992-present; Advisory Board, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the modern world, Leiden, Holland.

Updated on 09/11/2015