Marilyn Robinson Waldman: April 13, 1943 - July 8, 1996

by Steve M. Wasserstrom
Marilyn Robinson Waldman: April 13, 1943 - July 8, 1996
Steve M. Wasserstrom
History of Religions
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April 13, 1943-July 8, 1996

It was not until years later that I realized that my first teacher of Islam- gray-haired, poised, confidently learned-was all of thirty-four, and three years out of graduate school, when we first met at The Ohio State Uni- versity in 1977. The focus and caring Marilyn lavished on a mere under- graduate were stunning to such a student. I happily wrote my senior honor's thesis with her: not only did she seem to have unlimited time for me, but she retranslated some of the odes of Rumi for me to use, com- prehensively critiqued my drafts, and helped me to find an appropriate graduate school. Little did I realize that this was not only typical of her generosity, but it was only a tiny fraction of the comparable acts she rou- tinely performed. As those who know her well can attest, she seemed to do everything well, right down to the subtly deployed spiciness of her bottomless supply of jokes.

But in the short space available here, I want to emphasize what for us, as scholars of Islam and of religion, may be most significant: Marilyn Robinson Waldman was an exemplary intellectual. This stature is not en- compassed only in the globalizing range of her activities-the fact, for example, that she was a prominent figure in the American Institute of Iranian Studies, Middle East Studies Association, World History Associ- ation, and the American Academy of Religion-and it even transcends her vast activities as a public intellectual, on behalf of interreligious di- alogue, multicultural perspectives in liberal education, and understanding religion in global terms. She seemed always tireless and unstoppable: between 1971 and the early 1990s, Marilyn made nearly five hundred public presentations to clubs, church groups, public schools, colleges, universities, the military, and radio and television audiences. In some primary sense, Marilyn, drawing from the perfectly natural core of her personality, was a spontaneously creative, openly thinking, deeply en- gaged intellectual. As a result, her stimulating effect on so many of us


simply cannot be gauged from her curriculum vitae. She was the author of Toward a Theory of Historical Narrative: A Case Study in Perso- Islamicate Historiography and was the editor or coeditor of seven other volumes. Several of her other achievements at least suggest her intellec- tual range and direction. She pioneered both religious studies and com- parative studies at Ohio State, inviting and publishing an impressive array of thinkers from around the country in her Papers in Comparative Stud- ies. The titles that emerged sketch the trajectory of her visionary mind: Changing Tradition: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Women, The Univer- sity of the Future, Rethinking Patterns of Knowledge, and Religion in thr Modern World.

Sadly, so much that she did is found neither in print nor even in her curriculum vitae. In the late 1980s she co-organized (with Charles Long) a series of small, invitational symposia on the origins of Islam in the history of religions. These (unpublished) events were an important stimu- lus for many of the participants, who cherish them for the tone of open- ness and intensity, not to say irreproducible charisma, set and sustained by Marilyn. Many remember her authoritative article on Islam for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which has taken on the status of an under- ground classic, suggestive of what she had yet to accomplish in publica- tion. And so it is with particularly heavy sadness that they cannot know Prophets and Power: A Comparative Study of Prophethood, which did not see print, although it absorbed her for the last decade of her short, concentrated life. Her unpublished papers, fortunately, are to be edited by her devoted Ohio State University colleagues, Lindsay Jones and Thomas Kasulis, in cooperation with her husband, Loren Waldman.

STEVE M. w~~~~~~~~~~

Reed College

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