Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Asani is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and also Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. After completing his high school education in Kenya, he attended Harvard College, with a concentration in the Comparative Study of Religion, graduating summa cum laude in 1977. He continued his graduate work at Harvard in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC), receiving his Ph.D. in 1984. Prof. Asani holds a joint appointment between the Committee on the Study of Religion and NELC. He also serves on the faculty of the Departments of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and African and African-American Studies. He has taught at Harvard since 1983, offering instruction in a variety of languages such as Urdu/Hindi, Sindhi, Gujarati and Swahili as well as courses on various aspects of the Islamic tradition. Besides his various language courses, he teaches Foreign Cultures 70: Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies; Culture and Belief 12: For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature and the Arts in Muslim Cultures; Religion 1802: An introduction to Islamic mysticism: the Sufi tradition; Religion 1820: Islam in South Asia: Religion, Culture and Identity in South Asian Muslim Societies; Freshman Seminar 37y: Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures. He currently directs NELC's doctoral program in Indo-Muslim Culture.
A scholar of Islam in South Asia, Prof Asani's research focuses on Shia and Sufi devotional traditions in the region. In addition, he is interested in popular or folk forms of Muslim devotional life, and Muslim communities in the West.
His books include The Bujh Niranjan: An Ismaili Mystical Poem; The Harvard Collection of Ismaili Literature in Indic Literatures: A Descriptive Catalog and Finding Aid; Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Muslim Devotional Poetry (co-author); Al-Ummah: A Handbook for an Identity Development Program for North American Muslim Youth; Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literatures of South Asia, and Let's Study Urdu: An Introduction to the Urdu Script and Let's Study Urdu: An Introductory Course.
In addition, he has published numerous articles in journals and encyclopedias including The Encylopedia of Religion, The Oxford Encylopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Encylopedia of South Asian Folklore, and the Muslim Almanac. He also serves on the editorial advisory board of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World and the Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States. He is a member of the board of directors of the American Islamic Congress as well as the Academic Council of Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University
Professor Asani has been particularly active post-Sept 11 in improving the understanding of Islam and its role in Muslim societies by conducting workshops for high school and college educators as well as making presentations at various public forums. More recently, he has been involved in the Islamic Cultural Studies Initiative, an international professional development program for high school teachers in Kenya, Pakistan and Texas intended to promote a culturally and historically based approach to the study of Islam and Muslim societies. He has also served on the American Academy of Religion's Task Force on the teaching of religion in schools. In 2002, he was awarded the Harvard Foundation medal for his outstanding contributions to improving intercultural and race relations at Harvard and in the nation.