Two senior scholars of modern Islamic law will begin teaching at Princeton in the fall, as the Near Eastern studies department — perhaps best known for professors who focus on pre-modern subjects — is growing and expanding its exploration of the contemporary Middle East.

Muhammad Qasim Zaman, a scholar of modern Islamic movements and Islamic law, was hired at Princeton from Brown University in 2006 as the Robert H. Niehaus ’77 Professor of Eastern Studies and Religion, but spent the last academic year on leave. This year, the department hired Bernard Haykel, who specializes in Islamic law and political and social history, from New York University.

The department is broadening its reach in other ways, as well. Miriam Kunkler, a specialist in modern Iran who is completing her dissertation at Columbia University, will come to Princeton in the fall as a junior faculty member, according to Sükrü Hanioglu, chairman of the NES department. A new postdoctoral program, intended to attract bright young scholars who will teach one class per year while they conduct research, also begins in September, with two participants. And the number of faculty members from other departments — including the Woodrow Wilson School, politics, and history — who are associated with NES has doubled to eight within a year. “We are trying to establish bridges with other departments and programs,” Hanioglu explained.

Princeton’s Near Eastern studies department is one of the nation’s oldest, and according to one recent ranking, it houses the most productive faculty in the field. Interest in the department among undergraduates has grown considerably in recent years, though Near Eastern studies remains a small department. Undergraduate majors peaked at 10 in the Class of 2006. Five concentrators graduated this June, along with a record-tying 10 certificate students.

While that still pales in comparison to large departments like history, politics, and economics, it is a marked increase from 2000, when Near Eastern studies graduated just one concentrator and one student in its interdepartmental certificate program. Arabic classes have shown the most dramatic growth, drawing more than 130 students last fall compared with fewer than 30 in the fall of 2000, and Persian has become more popular as well.

Veteran professor Michael Cook noted that the reasons behind the increase in student interest are “not entirely pleasant” — curiosity about Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are among the driving forces. But newspaper headlines cannot explain all of the interest, says Hanioglu. His 500-level Ottoman diplomacy seminar attracted 16 students in the spring — a three-fold jump over recent years — though it touches only tangentially on the modern Middle East. “I’m not saying that Sept. 11, the discussions of political Islam, and the war in Iraq don’t play any role,” Hanioglu said, “but I think there must also be other reasons behind this increase.” A strong faculty, with expertise ranging from the medieval world to the modern, has been part of the department’s draw, he said.

Near Eastern studies concentrator Emma Harper ’08 said some students may be drawn to courses in the department because they are relevant to current events, but those who pursue the major or the certificate program “realize how amazing the resources are and how amazing the professors are.” Harper spent the summer after her sophomore year studying in Ankara, Turkey, where she was immersed in both Turkish language and culture. She lived with a host family, and the Near Eastern studies department paid her tuition.

The latest hires are likely to draw still more students. Both Zaman and Haykel are known as leaders in their areas of expertise. Each was among the 16 professors selected as Carnegie Scholars in 2005 and awarded up to $100,000 to pursue a two-year research project on Islam. (Two other Princeton professors, Amaney Jamal of the politics department and Lawrence Rosen of the anthropology department, also were named Carnegie Scholars.)

Zaman’s research interests include religious authority in classical, medieval, and modern Islam; the history of Islamic law; institutions and traditions of learning in Islam; Islamic political thought; and contemporary religious and political movements in the Muslim world. He is the author of The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, and is co-editor of Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education. His latest project, a book tentatively titled Internal Criticism and Religious Authority in Modern Islam, explores key debates among Muslims over social and political reform and religious authority.

Haykel, a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs on NPR and in The New York Times, is studying the Salafi movement, also known as the Wahhabiyya, in Saudi Arabia from the 1960s through today. (Osama bin Laden is a member of a radical fringe of the Salafi movement.) Haykel explores why the Salafis have become one of the most influential intellectual and political groups of the last half-century, and why Salafi thinking is appealing to Muslims around the world. He is the author of Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani.

The Near Eastern studies department this year has re-evaluated its curriculum and is taking new approaches to its thematic courses, using a broad interpretation of the Middle East to include classes on the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. The department tried to “think in market terms,” said Cook, condensing or eliminating some courses while adding or retitling others.