I was saddened just now to learn that one of my teachers in Cairo passed away slightly more than a year ago. I should have known it, but somehow I missed the news.
Bernard Weiss (10 August 1933 – 8 February 2018) was teaching at the American University in Cairo when I first came to know him, as a professor of Arabic history. He had earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary but then, after reconsidering his career preferences and interests, completed a doctorate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.
He was — I don’t mean to sound insulting, but it’s a simple fact — not a stirring lecturer. More than a few times, sitting in one of his classes, I would think to myself “This is a really important and interesting subject coming up; I need to pay close attention,” and then, five or ten minutes later, I would realize that my mind had drifted out the window and that I had missed much of what he had said. I’ve sometimes thought that it might have been his own realization that he would never be a spellbinder in the pulpit that caused him to have second thoughts about a career in the ministry, though he continued for many years after I first met him to preach the occasional guest sermon — including at Protestant churches in Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah.
But what he had to say was often very good, and he had a significant influence on me. He was, for one thing, the professor who introduced me to the work of Marshall G. S. Hodgson (1922-1968), a brilliant Anglo-American Quaker historian of Islam and Islamicate civilization at the University of Chicago who died much too young — Islamicate was one of Hodgson’s neologisms, and one that I’ve tended to adopt — through the unfinished three-volumes of Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. That exposure to Marshall Hodgson forever changed the way I’ve looked at the world of Islam and has deeply affected my view of religions worldwide.
Bernie Weiss was also — and this counts for a great deal, in my estimation — one of the kindest and most gentle people I’ve known. Moreover, he became a friend, even while I was a student there in Cairo. My wife taught his son at Cairo American College and, for about a year, I would walk over to his house in the Cairo suburb of Ma‘adi and catch a ride with him to the University. It was a heck of a lot better than riding the absurdly overcrowded commuter trains, and, anyway, the conversations were fascinating. He had a very great deal of insight to share, and, in conversation, he was quite engaging.
A few years later, rather surprisingly, he ended up at the University of Utah, teaching at its Middle East Center as a professor of languages and literature. It’s one of my regrets that, although we saw each other occasionally, I didn’t really keep up the relationship that we had begun in Cairo. Life happens, and we were both busy. My kids were young, I was just beginning my career, I had callings in the Church, etc., etc.
Bernie’s specialty was Islamic law and jurisprudence, as well as Islamic political thought and, to some extent, Islamic theology and philosophy, as well as the history of Arabic philology and Muslim speculations about the origin of language. His bread and butter, though, was the teaching of history. And he and my good friend Arnold Green, who also taught at the American University of Cairo (and served as the Cairo LDS Branch president) until he joined the history faculty at Brigham Young University (which he eventually chaired and from which, for a time, he departed to direct BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies), co-wrote a small but very good textbook for their classes in Cairo: A Survey of Arab History, for which Bernie did the pre-modern portions and Arnie the modern chapters:
Good men, both of them. And now Dr. Weiss is gone, and Dr. Green is facing severe health challenges. Time passes on, our losses mount, and my gratitude for the Gospel soars.
Posted from Richmond, Virginia