In 2009, the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association in Istanbul, represented by Cemalnur Sargut, launched a campaign to establish an endowed professorship to attract or retain a teacher and scholar of Islamic studies in the department of religious studies.  The professorship is named after Kenan Rifai, a Sufi master, writer and translator who was recognized as a prominent intellectual among his contemporaries. Rifai, who died in 1950, encouraged the education and professional development of women in Turkey in the early 20th century, when women were denied involvement in public life.

The department of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences began to cultivate an Islamic studies curriculum in 1992 with the appointment of Carl Ernst as the first professor of Islamic studies.     A second position was filled in 2002 by Edward Curtis and then assumed in 2006 by Omid Safi.  In 2003, Ernst established and served as founding director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations.  In 2006, the College appointed Canguzel Zulfikar as the center’s associate director and provided office space in the FedEx Global Education Center.

Ernst first began working with the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association in 2001, when Sargut brought her students to Chapel Hill for a festival.  Safi and Ernst have both received frequent invitations to give lectures at academic conferences in Turkey sponsored by the association, which is a nonprofit organization led by women with a strong commitment to social service and education.  It draws upon the tradition of ethical and spiritual teachings associated with Sufism, particularly as transmitted by Rifai, who promoted spiritual and intellectual equality for women.

In her remarks at the launch for the professorship campaign, religious studies professor and then department chair Laurie Maffly-Kipp said the professorship “marks a milestone in the history of our department, which has grown from a small group of scholars of the Bible to a faculty that researches the history and traditions of many religions throughout the world…with this gift, we hope not only to teach and communicate more broadly about Islam, but also hope to further our mission to study religion comparatively and globally.”

Kenan Rifai Distinguished Professor

2011 – Present:  Juliane Hammer