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July 21, 2008

Medieval Studies student awarded Fulbright scholarship

Ali Asgar Alibhai, who will earn a master's degree in medieval studies from SMU in August, has received a prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student scholarship to study art and architectural history in Morocco in 2009. He also has been admitted with full funding to Harvard University's Ph.D. program in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for the fall.

Fulbright scholar Ali Asgar Alibhai of SMU
Ali Asgar Alibhai

In Morocco, Alibhai intends to study religious lamps and the evolution of lighting in medieval Islamic societies. In particular, he hopes to examine and catalog the few surviving church bells captured by Muslims during the Middle Ages and transformed into lamps for mosques, where they still hang.

Alibhai, who lives in DeSoto, Texas, says little research exists about these bells, which have Latin and Arabic inscriptions and are encased by rings of candles or, in modern times, electric bulbs.

By studying "the transformation of one culture's sacred object of sound into another's sacred object of light," he says, "I hope to learn more about how Christians and Muslims interacted in medieval Spain and exchanged ideas and cultures."

Alibhai was introduced to mosque lamps during his graduate studies at SMU, where his brother Mustafa ('04) earned a Bachelor's in biology and his brother Shabbir ('06) earned an M.B.A. "The Medieval Studies program offered an unbounded path of study — everything from Byzantine to Islamic to the European Middle Ages," Alibhai says.

Alibhai's thesis adviser, Pamela Patton, associate professor of art history in the Meadows School of the Arts, says, "Ali's unquenchable curiosity and broadly interdisciplinary training allowed him to approach this project at a depth unusual for a graduate student in any field. He was able to open an authentically new window on the mutual understandings — and misunderstandings — between Muslims and Christians in medieval Spain."

Alibhai, a New York City native who grew up in Abilene, Texas, earned his bachelor's degree in Arabic and Islamic studies in Karachi, Pakistan, from Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah academy. He is one of 1,450 U.S. citizens selected to travel abroad for 2008-09 through the U.S. State Department's Fulbright U.S. Student Program, and one of 39 SMU students who have been awarded the scholarship in the last 35 years.

During his graduate studies at Harvard, Alibhai intends to study Islamic history and artistic traditions of medieval Sicily and North Africa.

"Since I was young I have wanted to travel, learn and write about fascinating cultures and civilizations," he says. "By exploring positive exchanges between medieval Islamic and Western civilizations, it's my hope that we can better understand and even overcome today's cultural borders."

Learn more about SMU's Medieval Studies program at smu.edu/medievalstudies. Learn more about the Fulbright Program at fulbright.state.gov.


A private university located in the heart of Dallas, SMU is building on the vision of its founders, who imagined a distinguished center for learning emerging from the spirit of the city. Today, nearly 11,000 students benefit from the national opportunities and international reach afforded by the quality of SMU's seven degree-granting schools.

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