William Brinner, scholar of Near Eastern studies, dies at 86

William “Ze’ev” Brinner, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who was known for his commitment to fostering understanding between Muslims and Jews, died at his Berkeley home on Feb. 3 after a lengthy illness. He was 86.

William Brinner

William Brinner

Brinner, who taught Arabic and Islamic studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies from 1956 until retiring in 1991, published extensively on subjects ranging from modern Arabic literature and medieval Islamic history and religion to medieval Jewish-Muslim cultural interaction.

He spent several years in the Middle East conducting research, teaching and administering academic programs. From 1966 to 1970, he was director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which he founded at the American University in Cairo. Beginning with the period of Israel’s Yom Kippur War in 1973 until 1975, Brinner served as director of the Overseas Study Center of the University of California, located at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Brinner was a commentator about contemporary political developments in the Middle East, both on radio and television, and in a number of print publications. He also critiqued the Israeli and Arabic press on National Educational Television’s weekly “World Press” program, along with other UC Berkeley faculty.

In a 1988 campus talk about “The Political Role of the Middle East,” Brinner noted that religious zeal, especially religious fundamentalism, was gaining traction as a powerful political force in the Middle East. “We need to be sensitive to the area’s religious sensibilities,” he cautioned. “We cannot expect Middle Easterners to think and act the same way we would.”

Marc Bernstein, an associate professor of Judaic and Islamic culture at Michigan State University who was a student of Brinner’s, called him a “true humanist and Renaissance man, a gentleman and a scholar who excelled in so many areas of life – family, community, and the academic profession.”

He commended Brinner for research contributions of lasting value to the study of Jewish and Muslim civilizations. “In focusing on their points of contact and shared achievement, he did much to enrich our understanding of their intricate cultural interactions and parallel development,” said Bernstein. “A rigorously trained scholar of Near Eastern cultures and civilization and philologist, he always sought to bring out an appreciation for complexity and nuance that transcended polemics and apologetics.”

Born Oct. 6, 1924, in Alameda, Calif., Brinner earned a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies at UC Berkeley in 1948, 1950 and 1956, respectively. He chaired UC Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department, the Committee for Middle Eastern Studies and the Religious Studies Program at different times.

Carol Redmount, current chair of UC Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department, said Brinner is widely credited for building the department into what it is today, and for “introducing generations of students to the general history of the Middle East.” The introductory course he developed, she said, remains one of the department’s most popular.

Brinner also was president of the Middle East Studies Association of America in 1970, and in1976 headed the American Oriental Society.

Brinner was a visiting professor at Harvard University, UCLA, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Washington, and Israeli universities in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. From 1992-1993, he served as acting director of the Annenberg Research Institute in Philadelphia, and headed the Academic Consortium of Jewish Studies Programs of the Bay Area from 1989 to 2002.

He was the recipient, along with three other faculty members, of the first Distinguished Teaching Award issued by UC Berkeley. In addition, Brinner earned a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1965-1966, a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Study Award for 1970-1971, and in 1991 he was awarded the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor. Brinner was the honoree of “Bridging the Worlds of Judaism and Islam,” an international, interdisciplinary conference at UC Berkeley in 1993.

Among his publications are two volumes of translations of Islamic Arabic stories about the lives of the Biblical prophets: “Prophets and Patriarchs” (1987) and “The Children of Israel “(1991). His English translation of “An Elegant Composition Concerning Relief After Adversity,” by Nissim ben Jacob ibn Shāhīn, won the Rabbi Jacob Friedman Award for an English translation of a Jewish classic in 1979. Brinner’s latest work, “The Lives of the Prophets,” was published in 2002.

Funeral services were held Monday (Feb. 7) in Oakland.

Brinner is survived by his wife, Lisa J. Brinner, of Berkeley; sons Benjamin Brinner of Berkeley and Rafael Brinner of Oakland; daughter Leyla Brinner Sulema of Ramat Hasharon, Israel; a sister, Claire Krauthamer of Las Vegas, Nevada; and eight grandchildren.

His family has asked that memorial gifts be made to the UC Berkeley Foundation for the William Ze’ev Brinner Memorial Fund to support graduate research in the areas in which he worked. Contributions can be sent to the UC Berkeley College of Letters & Science, Attention: Tara McCulloch, 114 Durant Hall, MC 2930, Berkeley, CA 94720-2930.