Provost Peggy Agouris sent the following message to the campus community on Jan. 17, 2023. – Ed.
I write to share that news that John Alden Williams, William R. Kenan Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religion, Emeritus, died peacefully on November 30, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. He was born in Ft. Smith, Arkansas on September 6, 1928, the eldest child of Ray and Elizabeth Blair Williams. His lifelong resourcefulness, practicality and resilience were shaped by his Depression-era childhood. His early travels were through the books he read, and his first opportunity to live abroad came in 1946, when he spent two years as a Private in Japan and Korea, touring those countries as a member of the US Army’s Special Services entertainment division.
Professor Williams graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Arkansas in 1953, after spending his sophomore year at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon and his junior year in Munich, Germany. His initial interest in medieval Eastern Christendom was modified by the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the realization that not only were new winds blowing in the Middle East but that Americans understood little about this region. It became his goal to work towards an understanding of the newly vibrant Arab world.
He attended graduate school at Princeton University (MA, 1955, and PhD, 1957). In 1954, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in the Nile Delta of Egypt, where he lived in a village and polished his conversational Arabic. From 1957-59 he was the Assistant Director of the newly formed American Research Center in Egypt, while also doing post-doctoral research on Islamic Art and Architecture. He visited and photographed the leading centers of Islamic civilization from Spain to India and Central Asia on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. The experience revealed to him the marvelous richness and diversity of this great civilization.
His teaching career began in 1959-66 at the Islamic Institute at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He returned to Egypt from 1966-70 as the Director of the Center for Arabic Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC). It was there that he met his wife, Caroline. They were married in the middle of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and during their 55-year marriage they shared a love of Cairo, art, architecture and travel.
Between 1970 and 1984 Professor Williams was tenured faculty at both the University of Texas (UT), Austin and AUC, so the family moved annually between the two countries. From 1984 to 1988 he was affiliated with both UT’s Center for Middle East Studies and its Art department. In 1988 he became the William R. Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and Religion at William & Mary. He was an accomplished teacher, who delivered his lectures without notes and spoke in neatly organized paragraphs, making erudite connections between seemingly disparate points and sprinkling his disquisitions with puns. He retired from William & Mary in 1999.
He loved traveling and eagerly tried new traditions, foods, and experiences. He was a gifted storyteller and often regaled people with witty poems he wrote for their birthdays. He also loved to sing and was a much appreciated member of the Byzantine Catholic Church’s choir in Williamsburg. In addition to speaking near perfect classical and colloquial Arabic, he was also fluent in German and French, and was proficient in Japanese, Persian, Turkish and Latin. Learning languages was one of his greatest gifts and he used it to make friends and communicate with people from all over the world.
Professor Williams as a scholar of Islam enthusiastically acted as a bridge in interpreting this great world civilization for the West. He believed in the centrality of the texts in the original language and that religion was the key to an understanding of Islamic society. His book The Word of Islam has been regarded as the definitive introduction to Islam through its own texts, while Themes of Islamic Civilizations discusses the leading themes which have made up the movements of Islamic history. His translations of al-Tabari’s history of the ‘Abbasid Revolution (C.E. 743-750) and of al-Tabari’s history of the ‘Abbasi Empire from C.E. 754-808 were published in the Bibliotheca Persica series, and by Cambridge University Press. He collaborated with James A. Bill, Professor of Government, Emeritus, on Roman Catholics and Shi’i Muslims in 2002. In 2005 his l963 translation from the French of Father Henry H. Ayrout’s The Egyptian Peasant was reissued by the American University in Cairo Press.
He is survived by his wife Caroline Hoffmann Williams, his three daughters (Emily Williams in Durham, England; Hilary Wang in Hamburg, Germany; and Felicity Turner in Baltimore); his two sons-in-law (David Wang and Bradley Turner); his four grandchildren (Henry Turner, Ruby Turner, Julian Wang and Felicity “Nutmeg” Wang); his two brothers, (James and Ray), and many nieces, nephews and godchildren. He was predeceased by his sister Nancy King.
A memorial celebration in virtual form, to facilitate participation from his far-flung friends and family, is planned for 2023.