A native of the San Francisco area, Professor Brinner studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught Arabic and Islamic studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies from 1956 until his retirement in 1991, having served as Chair of the Department several times. Professor Brinner also served as a visiting professor at Harvard, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, University of Washington, and at three Israeli universities. In 1992-93 he was Acting Director of the Annenberg Research Institute in Philadelphia, and was head of the Academic Consortium of Jewish Studies Programs of the Bay Area (1989-2002).
Since 1950, Professor Brinner spent a number of years in the Middle East, carrying on research, teaching, or administering various academic programs. From 1966 to 1970 he was Director of the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, which he founded at the American University in Cairo, and from 1973 to 1975 he served as Director of the Overseas Study Center of the University of California at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Professor Brinner published extensively on subjects ranging from modern Arabic literature to medieval Islamic history and religion, as well as on medieval Jewish-Muslim cultural interaction. 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) both published by the State University of New York Press. His latest work, The Lives of the Prophets, was published in 2002.
He was an active commentator on contemporary political developments in the Middle East, both on radio and television, and in a number of publications. He was active nationally and internationally in various scholarly societies, as well as locally, in many community organizations, including the Judah L. Magnes Museum, where his assistance was pivotal in developing the holdings documenting the cultures and history of the Jews in North Africa and the Middle East, with a particular focus on the manuscripts from the Karaite synagogue in Cairo, Egypt.
Titles and dates of major publications:
ʻArāʻis al-majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā – Lives of the prophets as recounted by Abū Isḥāq Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Thaʻlabī ; translated and annotated by William M. Brinner. Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2002
Tārīkh al-rusul wa-al-mulūk – The children of Israel, translated and annotated by William M. Brinner. Albany : State University of New York Press, 1991
Like All the Nations? The Life and Legacy of Judah L. Magnes, edited by William M. Brinner and Moses Rischin, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987
An elegant composition concerning relief after adversity by Nissim ben Jacob ibn Shāhīn, translated from the Arabic with introduction and notes by William M. Brinner. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1977
A chronicle of Damascus, 1389-1397, by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ṣaṣrā. The unique Bodleian Library manuscript of al-Durra al-Mudīʼa fī l-Dawla al-Ẓāhirīya (Laud or. MS 112), Translated, edited, and annotated by William M. Brinner. Berkeley, University of California, 1963
Professor Brinner's papers are now part of the University Archives at The Bancroft Library.