Professor John Esposito – Muslim Scholar
You are a 13-year-old boy, wide-eyed and beaming with energy. You live in a semi-enclave of middle-class Italian neighbourhoods tucked comfortably within Brooklyn New York. Neither of your parents made it past a high school education. The question starts to cross your mind – what is it that I want to do with my life?
As was the dilemma of a young John Esposito, who unbeknownst to him, would later go on to become one of the biggest authorities on Islamic Studies in the modern world. Leaving home at the tender age of 14, Professor Esposito spent 10 years with Capuchin Franciscan Church Order in training. At this point, you would be forgiven in thinking the good professor was on the path to becoming a priest.
After leaving the seminary, however, John Esposito took on a master’s program and later a PhD – specialising in a strange and unpopular subfield of a subfield – Islam. To contextualise, during the 1960s, Islam wasn’t a hot-button topic like it is now. Frankly, a specialisation in Islam as an academic was little more than a bad career move. On the first episode of The Transit Lounge – a podcast from Toledo Society – the professor grapples with this paradox. Always a practical person and ‘street smart’ as others eruditely pin him to be, his choice to specialise in Islam is one which the professor still cannot explain.
So, the silence of a niche academic field overtook him, but only for so long.
In 1979, an event in the Middle East transpired; its’ shockwaves would bring Islam to the fore of robust political discussion for many years to come; The Iranian Revolution. From here on, the Professor signed 3 book contracts to start with and went on to publish over 50 more. Quickly gaining momentum in the global Islamic discourse, the Professor became a senior member of the UN Alliance of Civilisations, began lecturing Islamic studies at the esteemed Georgetown University and is now the director of the Bridge Initiative combatting Islamophobia.
Professor Esposito describes his success as a combination of two things: hard work and luck. Part of it is putting in the hours and part of it is ‘being in the right place at the right time’. But how much of it could really be luck? On the episode, we uncover some astonishing coincidences that made Professor Esposito’s career (including a funny story involving an unlikely donor). But there seemed to be something deeper than these two factors at play; an ingredient only uncovered after much contemplation and probing.
In the podcast, we reflect over what this ingredient is, in between the tears and laughter we share with Professor Esposito. Tune in to hear more about the name you’ve heard but the story you don’t yet know in episode 1 of our Transit Lounge podcast.