Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 06 December 2023

Wilfred Cantwell Smith and the Study of Islamlocked

Wilfred Cantwell Smith and the Study of Islamlocked

  • Suzanne SmithSuzanne SmithJohn A. Paulson School of Engineering, Harvard University


Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s formative contributions to the study of Islam were made mostly in the mid- to late 20th century, beginning with the 1943 publication of his dissertation Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis in Lahore. His later achievements were integrated with his pedagogical and administrative innovations to the point that he influenced the study of Islam in North America by shaping his students and the settings in which they were educated as much as by his published works. All these efforts were informed by a larger mission: to foster recognition that the understanding of Islam in the past, present, and future required knowledge and awareness of the role it plays and has played in the hearts, minds, and lives of Muslims; to do justice to Islam by forging a critical and empathetic historical understanding of the Islamic tradition; and to create a new approach to the study of religion grounded in the difference between personal faith and cumulative tradition. Smith’s scholarly ethos was an outgrowth of his Weltaanschauung, the hallmark of which was what he referred to as participation in reality. One participated in reality, he suggested, through the loving exercise of reason and justice in the pursuit of truth. With respect to the study of Islam, truth was not to be mastered solely through the accumulation and interpretation of data but also through personal knowledge of and, ideally, friendship with modern Muslims. Smith was an all but uncategorizable figure, having been early on a materialist, Marxist, existentialist, Presbyterian minister and missionary, and later a rationalist thinker with conspicuous debts to German idealism and classical Greek metaphysics, as well as a visionary administrator and teacher of Islamic and comparative religious history.


  • Comparative Religions
  • Islamic Studies

You do not currently have access to this article


Please login to access the full content.


Access to the full content requires a subscription