By Sara Patterson
Franklin D. Lewis, a distinguished scholar of Persian literature at the University of Chicago for nearly 20 years, passed away on Sept. 19 in Chicago after a long illness. He was 61 years old.
Throughout his prolific career, Lewis published multiple books and articles. According to his colleagues, his masterpiece was Rumi: Past and Present, East and West, The Life Teachings of Jalāl al-Din Rumi (2008), which reassesses all previous research on the life of Persian’s foremost Sufi poet and navigates the complex history of the poet’s later reception worldwide.
“The book will serve as a touchstone for any future research on Rumi and has been translated into Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Danish,” said Paul Losensky, professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. “Frank’s work, however, went beyond the mystical poets. His articles and chapters contribute to collected volumes and offer insights into other major figures in the classical tradition such as Ferdowski, Sa’di, and Hāfez.”
His scholarship in the field of Persian studies was wide-ranging, including about Persian literature and language; on medieval Islamic thought and literature; and on Islamic mysticism (sufism); on Baha’i Studies; on Iranian cinema; and one translation history and theory. Lewis was a remarkable translator for Rumi, Swallowing the Sun, 2008, and Zoya Pirzad’s novel Things We Left Unsaid (2012). He was known for his philological exactitude, sensitivity to nuance, clarity of thought, and critical insight.
In June 2022 for his final annual report as Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC), Lewis wrote, “It has been an honor to serve as the chair of NELC and to have held the trust of colleagues and the Division of the Humanities. I am proud to have been able to play this small role in support of the Division.”
According to Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities, “I know that those of you who knew Frank would join me in saying that it was our great privilege and joy to have known him and worked with him.”
Lewis was born on July 24, 1961, to Robert and Anne Lewis (nee White) in Lexington, Va. He began his study of Persian and Persian Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1983 before joining the PhD program at the University of Chicago. His dissertation on “Reading, Writing, and Recitation: Sanā’i and The Origins of the Persian Ghazal” in 1995, is still one of the most widely read dissertations in Persian literary studies.
After serving as a lecturer in Persian at UChicago, Lewis joined its faculty of Emory University in Atlanta before returning to his alma mater in 2005. He was the chair of the NELC Department from 2015–2018 and 2019–2022. Also, Lewis served as the president of the American Institute of Iranian Studies for 14 years from 2002-12 and from 2016-2020. He was dedicated to preserving and expanding Iranian studies in the U.S. especially in the wake of 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Lewis is survived by his wife, Foruzan Lewis, and his daughters, Sahar and Ava. The NELC Department will hold a memorial service for Lewis on Friday, Oct. 28, at 4:30 p.m. in the Oriental Institute.