Despite his enormous 6-foot-4-inch frame, Professor Gerhard Bowering seems gentle enough to be your grandfather.
Unlike your grandfather, Bowering refuses to romanticize the wanderlust that has taken him through the slums of Cairo to a tiny office on Temple Street. An ordained Jesuit priest since 1970 and Yale professor of Islamic Studies since 1984, Bowering began hitchhiking across Europe at age 15, and hasn’t stopped traveling since. Now 61 years old, he has roamed through more than 50 countries.
When pressed, Bowering admits to having “half a dozen” languages under his belt.
His curriculum vitae lists Classical Arabic, Colloquial Egyptian, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, French, German, Spanish, Greek, and Latin. It neglects to include the obvious, English. Total: at least 11.
Although he has plenty of stories, Bowering dismisses the idea of writing a memoir about his journeys.
“I’ve never felt I should present myself as a document,” Bowering said. “I don’t feel myself significant enough to do that for others.”
Where others might post mementos of their travels as trophies, the walls of Bowering’s office are bare, reluctant as Bowering himself to spin tales.
One of the world’s foremost experts on Islamic mysticism, Bowering was born in Germany during World War II. Bowering’s first encounter with Islamic culture came during a solo trip to Morocco and southern Spain.
“The attraction was the discovery of another culture, how to communicate with that culture,” said Bowering, a devout Catholic from an early age.
Bowering began pursuing the priesthood in 1959 but said he retained a fascination with the Koran and “the rhythm” of Islamic culture. After years of travel in the Islamic world, Bowering got a Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal and began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1975.
Bowering muses at the disparate Islamic worlds in which he has immersed himself. He tries to stay in the poorer quarters of the countries he frequents but admits that completely living at the poverty level when he travels is impossible.
Despite State Department warnings, Bowering has traveled in the Middle East in the midst of tense situations. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Bowering was walking along the Nile with a handkerchief on his head which some overzealous Egyptian officials mistook for a yarmulke, the traditional Jewish head-covering. Suspecting that Bowering was an Israeli spy, they brought him in for a brief interrogation but quickly released him.
Bowering downplayed the incident, saying that he has never felt his life threatened.
Without a family, Bowering said, he had more freedom to maneuver in potentially dangerous situations. He also made efforts to avoid unnecessary risks. “I’m not attracted by danger,” he said.
“I’m six-foot-four. Not just anybody can take me on,” said Bowering, who speculates that divine protection may have preserved him from harm.
Bowering said he has to be willing to “swim” in the places he encounters. Friends who have accompanied him in his travels tell him that he almost transforms into another person to suit his new environment.
“You don’t go to another culture as a reformer,” Bowering said. “You’re not going to Pakistan to tell people to drive on the right side of the road.”
Despite his immersion in Islamic culture, he holds fast to his Catholic roots in his role as Jesuit priest, performing two services each Sunday morning in Redding, Conn.
“My Catholic make-up has been transformed by the encounter with Islam but the identity has remained,” Bowering said. “When you study zoology you don’t become the animal you study.”
Bowering said Islam and Catholicism “live in symbiosis” within him.
“I’ve re-examined the basic tenets of my faith, the way in which I’ve practiced prayer, the way in which I have experienced God’s presence, learned to live and trust in God,” Bowering said.