Prof Alan WilliamsProfessor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion

Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion

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Research interests

My research interests span several fields: Iranian Studies, ancient, medieval and modern, and the History of Religions/Comparative Religion. As a historian, I do not see faith traditions as limiting boundaries of my work, and I move between Zoroastrian, Islamic, Jewish and Christian studies, publishing mainly in the first two. My teaching and research career has followed interdisciplinary lines. Having begun with studies in Classics, then Persian and Arabic at the University of Oxford, I did my doctoral studies in Old and Middle Iranian languages at SOAS, University of London, but my first teaching post was in Religious Studies (African and Asian Studies) at the University of Sussex (1979-1985), and then in Comparative Religion / Religions & Theology at the University of Manchester since 1985.

Other Publications

My earliest research was on the texts and traditions of the Zoroastrian religion of ancient and medieval Iran and my first book was an edition and translation of the Pahlavi Rivāyat (Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 1990, 2 vols. 738pp.) This is a compendious text in late 9-10 C. Middle Persian, on a wide range of subjects relating to ritual, doctrine, religious law, myth and eschatological themes. Chapters on kinship, marriage and purity fostered a long-term interest in these subjects. I also developed an interest in structuralist and other, post-structuralist types of analysis of texts.

  

    

At the same time I became interested -- through working with social scientists at Sussex and SOAS, in issues of method and theory in the study of religion -- an interest that has been marinading in the richly collegial environment of Jewish and Biblical Studies at the University of Manchester, and tenderized by the intellectually stimulating atmosphere of Religions and Theology in the 35 years since I arrived in the erstwhile Faculty of Theology. 

Several articles about rituals of purity in Zoroastrianism followed publication of my doctoral thesis, considering application of anthropological theory to the study of religion. Later, my 2009 study of the 16th cent. Persian poem the Qeṣṣe-ye Sanjān, an epic, mythical narrative about the Zoroastrian émigrés from Iran to India (8th cent.), brought together many of my interests in editing, translating and interpreting texts in the light of historical, anthropological and literary theories.

 

Several articles about rituals of purity in Zoroastrianism followed, considering application of anthropological theory. My 2009 study of the 16th cent. Persian poem the Qeṣṣe-ye Sanjān, an epic, mythical narrative about the Zoroastrian émigrés from Iran to India, (8th cent.) brought together many of my interests in editing, translating and interpreting texts in the light of historical, anthropological and literary theories.

 

 

Resulting from the teaching I did here at the Univesity of Manchester, on the Sufi mystical literature of 12-13th century Iran, I published a preliminary translation of the first of six volumes of the Masnavi into English blank verse in 2006. The experience of translating Rumi transformed my understanding of academic work, that it is possible -- nay, even necessary --  working in poetry translation, to aspire to a level of creativity and musicality. This fact had never dawned on me when translating the hieratic style of theological prose of Zoroastrian priests (with the obvious exception of Bahman Kaikobad Sanjana, the author of the poetic Qesse-ye Sanjan).

 

                                                                                                        

 

While looking for a publisher for the remaining five volumes of the Maasnavi, I published several other books, including the Qesse-ye Sanjan, and editing the translations of the modern Iranian poet Shafi’i Kadkani, who had once taught me at the University of Oxford, by the Canadian Iranian Pari Azarm Motamedi.

 

                                                                                       

 

I continue to work in the study of the pre-Islamic religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism, and have recently published a major collection of papers (The Zoroastrian Flame: Exploring Religion History and Tradition, edited with Sarah SteIB Tauris, March 2016),