Abstracts of Presentations in the Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing since January 2012

November 8, 2023 – Andrew Dunning (University of Oxford)

Deploying Writing and Craft in the Twelfth-Century Cult of St. Frideswide

Anyone arriving to Oxford by train will pass through Frideswide Square. Visitors will quickly learn that Frideswide was an early English princess and abbess who became the patron saint of the city and university in the later Middle Ages. They are less likely to learn how this woman became a figurehead uniting Oxford’s town and exclusively male gown. The answer lies in a series of twelfth-century mishaps: a mismanaged foundation of a religious community, a Sicilian book-hunting expedition gone wrong, and an assassination. These seemingly unrelated threads come together in the journeys of a writer and regular canon, Robert of Cricklade, and his efforts to recreate a pilgrimage cult to an early English saint at St. Frideswide’s Priory, an Augustinian community founded around 1120 out of the remnants of earlier foundations.

October 19, 2023 – June McDaniel (College of Charleston)

Writing on Ecstasy in the Academy: Can It Be Done? Should It Be Done?

The topic of religious ecstasy has been largely suppressed in the academic study of religion, for the importance of religious and mystical ecstasy has declined in the modern West.  The search for ecstatic experience in modern society has migrated into such areas as war, politics, terrorism, transgression, sexuality, psychedelics, and anti-institutional forms of spirituality.  The loss of religious and mystical ecstasy, as both a religious goal and as a topic of academic study, has had wide-ranging negative effects.  Writing in the fields of religious studies, psychology and anthropology must go beyond criminalizing, trivializing and pathologizing ecstatic and mystical experiences.  Writers need to take these states seriously as important aspects of lived human experience.

April 25, 2023 – Kenneth Baxter Wolf (Pomona College)

How NOT to Read the Earliest Latin Life of Muhammad

The Istoria de Mahometh is arguably the earliest Latin “biography” of Muhammad, written in Iberia sometime between the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth centuries. As one would expect, it is pejorative from beginning to end. In 857 Eulogius of Córdoba copied the Istoria into his Liber apologeticus martyrum, the second of two works that he wrote in defense of the so-called “Córdoban Martyrs.” Because the author of the Istoria is unknown, Eulogius has borne the brunt of modern scholarly criticism for perpetrating such a “ignorant” account of Muhammad’s career. But such an assessment ignores the subtleties of the text and the context within which it was recycled by Eulogius. This micro-study of the Istoria de Mahometh suggests the need for more nuance across the board when approaching medieval Christian views of Islam.

February 27, 2023 – Br. John Glasenapp, O.S.B. (St. Anselm College)

Rewriting Music, Rethinking Identity: Observant Reform, Liturgy, and Oral Learning among Nuns in the Southern Low Countries

The reform of the Cistercian abbey of Beaupré in Grimminge in 1463 was a decisive moment in the history of the community still memorialized in archival documents approximately 250 years later. The particular movement that enveloped Beaupré and most other Cistercian women’s communities in the southern Low Countries during the fifteenth century spread from one community to another in a process that was overwhelmingly oral. No surviving sources describe what the reform of Beaupré entailed in practice. Nevertheless, subsequent revisions to the nuns’ liturgical books shed light on the religious values that motivated the reformers. Adherents of the so-called Observant movement believed that contemporary religious practice had drifted from the ideals and intentions of its founders and spiritual authorities expressed in key texts.

At Beaupré, reform of the liturgy first involved systematically excising any pages in their six-volume thirteenth-century antiphoner (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, W. 759-762) that differed from the standard Cistercian chants approved and promoted by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. So convinced had the nuns become of the superiority of the Cistercian exemplar that they instituted Cistercian chant in the neighboring Benedictine women’s community of Ghislenghien and initiated a cascade of surrounding male and female Benedictine monasteries adopting standard Cistercian use. This talk explores the renewed and heightened attention paid to authoritative texts among reformers in central Belgium in the late fifteenth century at the expense of longstanding local tradition.

* Digital surrogates of the Beaupré Antiphonary are available Open-Access at: https://www.thedigitalwalters.org/Data/WaltersManuscripts/html/W759/description.html etc.

* For information about some of its detached leaves, see Peter Kidd, “Unnoticed Leaves from the Beaupré Antiphonary,” Medieval Manuscripts Provenance (blog), 16 March 2019, https://mssprovenance.blogspot.com/2019/03/unnoticed-leaves-from-beaupre.html

January 30, 2023 – Alison Vacca (Columbia University)

The Nonsense of your Farfetched Stories”: Textual Transmission between Armenian and Arabic in the Eighth Century

In the eighth century, Armenia was part of the early Islamic Caliphate. Ruled first by the Umayyads and then by the ʿAbbasids, the province sat on the edge of empires and faced both the Eastern Roman Empire and the Khazar Khaganate. Its position at the interstices offered Armenia a unique vantage point—far from a backwater province, it was on the front lines of world events. Over the past decades, many eminent Armenologists have worked to demonstrate how interconnected Armenian culture was with the broader storylines of the Near East. However, as a region with its own religious and historiographical traditions, Armenian history is still all too frequently set aside as “other” or “different.”

At the heart of this talk is a book of history written in the eighth century by an Armenian priest named Łewond. His history offers an instructive view of the extensive and complicated ties between Armenian, Arabic, and Greek sources of the early Islamic period as historical reports circulated between communities both textually and orally. The close study of Łewond’s text allows us to trace particular details and ideas as they crossed religious, political, and linguistic borders of the Near East. However, above and beyond the borrowing of reports or phrases across languages, the history also raises the broader question of shared concepts about genre. 

November 15, 2022 – Isabelle Levy (Columbia University)

Jewish Literary Eros: Between Poetry and Prose in the Medieval Mediterranean

Dr. Levy will discuss her just published study of the originality and complexity of medieval Jewish literature in conversation with the seminar’s co-chair Susan Boynton.    Jewish Literary Eros (Bloomington, Ind. 2022) draws on prosimetra (that is, texts composed of alternating prose and verse) in order to demonstrate that secular love is a shared theme across Arabic, Hebrew, French, and Italian literatures.  Dr. Levy argues that in the medieval Mediterranean, the evolving relationship between prosimetra and the theme of secular love refines our understanding of how Jewish literature negotiated the hermeneutic and theological underpinnings of Islamic and Christian literary traditions.

October 27, 2022 – Ameneh Youssefzadeh (Independent Scholar)

Devotional Songs and Narratives in Iranian Khorasan

The corpus of devotional songs and narratives in Khorasan, a region in northeastern Iran, is very rich. It forms a substantial portion of the repertoire of sung poetry of contemporary Khorasani musicians who come from different ethnic and language groups, and from the two main branches of Islam, Shi’a and Sunni. In northern Khorasan, the languages of sung poetry are Khorasani Turkish, Kurmanji Kurdish, Persian, and Turkmen. In the rest of the region, Persian is mainly used. With the exception of the Sunni Turkmen, most northern Khorasanis are Shi’a Muslims. Eastern Khorasan has a large Sunni population, who form the only Persian-speaking Sunni minority in Iran.

Drawing on my ethnographic research, I will focus on two important genres in the sung poetry of Khorasan: monājāt (to whisper or talk confidentially with someone; a sung prayer) and me‘raj (ladder, ascent; especially referring to the Prophet Mohammad’s ascension to heaven). There are many different ways of performing and listening to monājāt and me‘raj in the Islamic world, and they have many social settings and ceremonial uses. I will discuss both genres in the sung poetry of eastern Khorasan and their importance in the zekr (“remembrance” of God) ceremonies of the Mojaddedi branch of the Naqshbandi order. In northern Khorasan, monājāt have a prominent role in narratives called dāstāns (tales) and performed by the bakhshis (bards). I will discuss the importance of writing in the cultivation and preservation of this repertoire, and we will listen to examples.

September 29, 2022 – Lucy K. Pick (University of Chicago)

Literacy, Orality, and Translation: Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Michael Scot, and Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed

Latin readers encountered the Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides (1138-1204 CE) earlier than has hitherto been supposed, leaving traces of their encounter with the text in Toledo before 1220, and forming a textual community that extended to Provence, Paris, Rome, and Naples and included both Jews and Christians.  These readers constitute a textual community in the strong sense proposed by Brian Stock: Although they were all highly literate in the scholarly languages of their own traditions and produced original written texts of their own, orality was a key part of both their experience of the Guide, and their engagement with each other, especially across religious lines.  Evidence for this encounter begins in the Liber de parabolis et mandatis (“Book of parables and commandments”), a Latin translation of one-fifth of the Guide on the commandments as well as an introductory treatise on the interpretation of parables that, I contend, was produced by Samuel Ibn Tibbon (ca. 1165-1232), first translator of the Guide from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew, in collaboration with Michael Scot (ca. 1175-ca. 1235), first translator of Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) from Arabic into Latin and court astrologer to Frederick II (1194-1250).  I will explore traces of the translation process used by Samuel and Michael, and evidence for their conversations about the text that remain within this work, and compare them to other translated texts of mutual interest to the pair, especially within the realm of natural philosophy, to discuss both the method and intent of their translations.

March 28, 2022 – Eve Krakowski (Princeton University)

Jewish Legal Documents between Antiquity and the Abbasids: From Regional to Religious Scribal Traditions 

The earliest medieval Jewish legal documents at historians’ disposal survive in the Cairo Geniza a small group of marriage contracts, private agreements, and property transfers from tenth-century Egypt, Syria, and Ifrīqiya. These documents reflect a remarkably coherent and well-developed writing culture that Jewish scribes employed throughout the Abbasid and post-Abbasid Middle East. Where had this scribal tradition come from, and how had Jews across such a wide stretch of territory come to adopt it? This talk will use the early Geniza legal documents as evidence for the evolution of Jewish documentary practices over the course of the first millennium.

February 28, 2022 – Henrike Lähnemann (University of Oxford)

Nuns and their Texts: Religious Writing from North German Medieval Convents

Religion and writing are closely linked in the late fifteenth-century reform movement which swept through North Germany, building on the earlier monastic tradition and expanding them with added colour, enthusiasm, and bilingual learning.  My paper looks at what can be learned from the material and textual culture surviving in a group of convents around Lüneburg, their devotional manuscripts, images, sculpture and the implements of their daily engagement with religious writing: from styli to parchment scraps sewn up as hem stiffeners into dresses for the statues.  My talk will survey the material culture of Wienhausen and link it with the textual evidence from two of my ongoing research projects: The Nuns’ Network (Letters by the Benedictine nuns of Kloster Lüne, http://diglib.hab.de/edoc/ed000248/start.htm) and Medingen Manuscripts (Devotional manuscripts by the Cistercian nuns of Kloster Medingen, http://medingen.seh.ox.ac.uk/).

For a short bibliography and more information about the discussed manuscripts, please see Professor Lähnemann’s post about this talk on her Medingen blog: http://medingen.seh.ox.ac.uk/index.php/2022/02/27/nuns-and-their-texts-religious-writing-from-north-german-medieval-convents/

February 1, 2022 – Brinkley Messick (Columbia University)

Sharīʿa Genres and their Writers in Imamic Yemen 

The historical instance in question comprises the twentieth-century decades of an imam-led polity in the uncolonized, late agrarian-age society of highland Yemen.  With the support of ethnographic photography, I survey the relations between the main roles in sharīʿa governance, and between the main types of sharīʿa writings in the textual formation of the period.  The perspectives are those of historical anthropology and Islamic Studies.

December 6, 2021 – Suzanne Wijsman (University of Western Australia)

Seeing the Sounds of Love: Visions of Women and Music in a Fifteenth-Century Jewish Prayer Book

The Oppenheimer Siddur is a richly illuminated, small format Ashkenazic book of daily prayers in the Oppenheim collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library (https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/e0e188d1-75b0-4309-a085-8cde913c9f3c/).  The manuscript’s colophon tells us that it was completed in 1471 by Asher ben Yitzḥaq for use by his children.  That Asher ben Yitzḥaq was not only the scribe, but also the artist of this manuscript has been confirmed in prior research by identification of common stylistic elements in the artwork and text embellishment, along with scientific imaging analysis of pigments and production process.  This means that the illuminated texts of the Oppenheimer Siddur reflect the singular, personal perspective of its creator as expressed throughout the manuscript in its scribal, material and artwork features.  Among the most notable of these is the pervasive musical theme that is woven through its many decorated pages, and three unusual illustrations that associate women with music, including two showing them in active performance.  Women playing musical instruments seldomly appear in medieval Hebrew manuscript art and, when they do, they are most often associated with a specific, archetypical narrative context, such as depictions of Miriam with her timbrel illustrating the Exodus story in Passover haggadot.  Rabbinic prohibitions against instrumental music in the synagogue mean that the presence of performing musicians—especially women playing musical instruments in a medieval Jewish prayer book that would likely to have been intended for use by men—is an intriguing anomaly in a Jewish liturgical manuscript. Relying on iconographical and textual evidence, this paper will explore the links between these three images in the Oppenheimer Siddur and topoi referencing music seen often in Northern European secular art of the late medieval period, but rarely in the art of Hebrew manuscripts, such as the allegory of the folly of love.  It will discuss how these images of women and music resonate with other musical iconography in this medieval Jewish prayer book, and how they relate to broader medieval Jewish iconographic traditions as well as to Jewish literary sources, such as midrashic commentaries on the biblical Song of Songs which, in Jewish tradition, is read as a love allegory.  Examination of this body of evidence may help to explain the raison d’être of this feminine musical imagery in the Oppenheimer Siddur and inform its interpretation as visual commentary on the liturgical texts where it occurs.

November 8, 2021 – Dagmara Budzioch (Hebrew University of Jerusalem/University of Wroclaw)

The Art of Oriental Esther Scrolls: Hebrew Manuscripts between Jewish and Muslim Worlds 

Esther scrolls (Heb. pl. megillot Esther) are manuscripts, written on parchment or leather, of the Book of Esther.  The story of the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of Haman, the highest official of the Persian King Ahasuerus, is read aloud every year on the festival of Purim, most commonly in the synagogue.  Decorated Esther scrolls first emerged in Italy in the 1560s, and gained their greatest popularity among Italian Jews during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  This creative endeavor spread gradually to other European Jewish communities, living mainly in Holland and Central Europe.  Only from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards were illustrated Esther scrolls produced in Muslim-ruled societies.

Illustrated Esther scrolls are very attractive and highly important Jewish artifacts, which emerge after the fifteenth-century adaptation of letterpress printing to the production of Hebrew books.  Although all Esther scrolls include the same text, they differ significantly in terms of the motifs, layout, and techniques used to adorn them.  These differences reflect the general tendency of Jewish art to adapt the artistic vocabulary of the dominant – Christian or Muslim – milieus.  Such influence is already visible in the decoration of the earliest extant Hebrew codices from the tenth century which feature the same motifs as manuscripts produced in the Islamic lands.  Extant oriental Esther scrolls, mainly from Morocco, Iraq, and Turkey, form a relatively small corpus of manuscripts, and they are rarely a subject of scholarly discussion.  Their ornamentation is strongly influenced by Islamic art, as it reflects the intense interest in architectonic and floral motifs, geometric and abstract ornaments, and calligraphy.  For the same reason, animals, human figures, or narrative scenes from the Book of Esther rarely appear in the decorative program.  Since most scrolls do not have colophons, their ornamentation – in particular their architectonic frames, large calligraphic letters, and carpet pages – is used for discerning their date and origin.  During the presentation, the main types of decorated oriental scrolls will be shown, and their ornamentation will be compared with that of manuscripts such as marriage contracts.  This will be a starting point for the discussion of the transmission of artistic traditions between the Jewish and Muslim worlds.

October 4, 2021 – Christopher Melchert (University of Oxford)

The Early Epitome (mukhtaṣar) of Islamic Law: Evolution of a Genre

The epitome (mukhtaṣar) is a succinct collection of the rules of Islamic law.  The earliest examples, considered part of the Mālikī tradition, actually present themselves as collecting the wisdom of a regional tradition.  Regional schools gave way to the personal across the ninth century CE, and the earliest Shāfi`ī epitomes, by al-Buwayṭī (d. 846?) and al-Muzanī (d. 877?), present the doctrine of a respected individual, the imam of the school.  By comparison with the classical epitomes to come, they include a good deal of the authors themselves, sometimes reinforcing or even disputing the imam’s doctrine.  The earliest Ḥanafi epitome, by al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 933), still expressly chooses among available options.  The earliest examples of the classical epitome, from the mid-tenth century, are by the Ḥanbalī al-Khiraqī (d. 945/6) and the Ḥanafī al-Marwazī (d. 945).  They presage the formation of guild schools, certifying who may or may not give opinions as an adherent.  The chief development to come after them is growing concern to identify the single best estimate of the rule for any given case, sidelining alternative rules attributed to the imam or to major followers. 

April 21, 2021 – Julie A. Harris (Independent Scholar, Glencoe, IL)

The Bible and the Banker’s Box: Ornament and Meaning in the Carpet Pages of Sephardic Codices

This study emerges out of a collision between two formidable strands of inquiry in the discipline of art history: the phenomenon known as the manuscript carpet page and the topic of nonfigural ornament.  In little of the eloquent writing devoted to these subjects does Jewish art figure prominently.  Nor, until recently, have specialists in Jewish art history been eager participants in theoretical or cross-cultural considerations of form that might shed light on their development and meaning in multi-confessional societies such as medieval Iberia.  Thus, the ornamental carpet pages of Iberian Hebrew Bibles (c.1260-c.1320) remain a relatively unexamined subject.  While the schemata found in these Bibles are Islamic in derivation, it remains challenging to isolate sources for particular patterns.  My paper will examine the close visual correspondence between a carpet page in a Bible associated with the workshop Joshua Ibn Gaon (BNF MS hébreu 21, Tudela c.1300; a digital surrogate of the entire codex is available Open-Access on Gallica at: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8538800c) and an ivory banker’s box – of unknown provenance – in Ourense Cathedral.  In so doing, it links investigations regarding the meaning of ornament and the development of the Hebrew Bible codex in Iberia.

March 17, 2021 Umberto Bongianino (University of Oxford, UK)

The Manuscript Tradition of the Islamic West: Maghribī Round Scripts and the Andalusī Identity

This seminar will explore the distinctive writing practices and bookhands of Iberia and North Africa between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, shedding some new light on a rich calligraphic tradition that was crucial for the creation of the Andalusī identity and its spread throughout the medieval Mediterranean.

February 11, 2021 – Kathryn A. Smith (NYU)

Found in Translation: The “Makers” and Making of the Welles-Ros Bible

My talk introduces the grand yet understudied multilingual manuscript that I call the Welles-Ros Bible (BNF MS français 1; a digital surrogate of the entire codex is available Open-Access on Gallica at: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b525072746)—the most complete surviving witness and sole extant illustrated copy of the Anglo-Norman Bible, the “first full prose vernacular Bible produced in England” (Delbert Russell).  Building on the work of biblical and literary scholars, and through analysis of key elements of the manuscript’s visual and textual programs, I argue that both the Bible and its revised, modernized translation were produced c.1365-c.1370 on the order of a lay woman: Maud de Ros (d. 1388), widow of John, 4th Baron Welles (d. 1361) of Welle, Lincolnshire and other estates; and that the book was intended to serve as a primer, mirror, family archive, and source of spiritual consolation for Maud’s adolescent son, John, 5th Baron Welles (d. 1421).  I discuss the circumstances of the commission, presenting evidence for Carmelite sponsorship and composition of the translation.  I further show that the manuscript’s main artist read the biblical text assiduously, carefully adapting his wide-ranging, trans-regional models in order to synchronize the illustrations with the particularities of the translation, as well as to personalize the biblical text for its intended reader-viewer.

My talk sheds new light on lay literate and religious aspiration; the history of Bible translation and reception; women’s cultural patronage; artists’ literacy and working methods; medieval ideas about gender, sexuality, health, and memory; and English art, society, and culture after the Black Death.  In addition, in illuminating some of the possible contours of the collaboration that fueled the “making” of the Welles-Ros Bible, my talk demonstrates what the methods and concerns of art history can contribute to literary and religious studies.

December 9, 2020 – Judah Galinsky (Bar-Ilan University, Israel)

Isaac of Corbeil’s Pillars of Exile: A Thirteenth-Century Plan of Public Education through Liturgy and Law

Isaac of Corbeil was a Jewish legal scholar active in northern France during the second half of the thirteenth century CE.  In his day he was a recognized local scholar, but Isaac was not a major authority who issued authoritative responsa.  However, his accessible handbook of Jewish law circulated widely from the late thirteenth until the end of the fifteenth century in Ashkenazi communities.  The work focused upon issues of religious law relevant to all Jews, showing less interest in judicial matters such as Jewish civil law.  He titled his work Amudei golah (“Pillars of exile”) because it treated the commandments that were relevant for Jews living outside of the land of Israel, “in exile.”  The work was divided into seven “pillars,” and structured as a list of commandments accompanied by a legal commentary.

In my talk I will explore the educational program that seemed to have been Isaac’s impetus for the work’s composition.  Two thirteenth-century documents provide insight into this program and Isaac’s motivation: his own introductory letter which he circulated to the communities of France; and an oral report by a certain Isaac of Strasbourg who transcribed what he had learned from Isaac’s students when visiting Corbeil.  While Isaac describes his program in a very detailed manner in his own letter, the report from his students does add some important information.

Isaac expected all Jews to recite daily a “pillar” from his list of commandments so that they would complete the entire list on a weekly basis.  He hoped to convince his audience that such an exercise was worth their time.  But he also wanted everyone to study every day a part of his legal commentary in order to improve their knowledge of Jewish law.  As he realized that the latter request would be far more difficult to implement, Isaac turned to the communal leaders and the communities’ more learned members to assist him in this endeavor. 

November 12, 2020 – Jill Ross (University of Toronto, Canada)

Words of a Desperate Man: Poetics and Cultural Identity in a Late Medieval Hebrew Rhyming Dictionary from the Crown of Aragon  

This seminar explores how the rhyming dictionary Sefer imrei no’ash (“Words of a desperate man”), written by the poet Solomon ben Meshullam de Piera in the late fourteenth-century Crown of Aragon, deploys linguistic formalism as a platform for cultural assertion, religious continuity and social cohesion in a period of intensifying religious persecution.  While Solomon’s dictionary is intended to encourage the vitality of Hebrew for the continuing composition of poetry, his engagement with rhyme is deeply indebted to the Romance, Occitan poetic culture in which he is steeped and whose influence he works hard to exclude or occlude.  I will situate the composition of the dictionary within the complex cultural matrix of literary theory and practice in the Crown of Aragon, demonstrating the degree to which De Piera’s appropriative adaptation draws on Occitan models, turning the poetries of “other peoples” to his own purpose of strengthening Jewish religious and cultural identity.

October 29, 2020 – Adday Hernández López ((ILC-CSIC) 

A Late Manuscript, an Old Debate: A Juridical Question of Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī (d. 1388) about Economy, Society and Political Authority in the Premodern Islamic West

In Islamic jurisprudence (Ar. fiqh ) the concept of istighrāq al-dhimma (Ar. lit. “total negation of the legal personality”) has received little scholarly attention until now.  Those who were involved in illegal economic activities (Ar. sing. mustaghraq al-dhimma, lit. “someone whose legal personality has been negated by illegal activities”) have acquired debts and must use all their assets to pay them off.  The ultimate consequence, in legal theory, is that they lose their legal personality, without which a legal person cannot accept obligations and perform different economic transactions.  But some jurists have established exceptions to this general rule so that in certain situations it is permissible to engage again in legal economic transactions with a mustaghraq al-dhimma.

Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī (d. 1388) was a jurist of the Malikī legal school in al-Andalus.  He spent his life in Granada, the capital of the Nasrids (1232–1492), who were the last major Muslim dynasty to rule over parts of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa.  My current research project began with an undated late manuscript, probably copied in North Africa in the twentieth century, in which al-Shāṭibī posed a juridical question about the concept of istighrāq al-dhimma.  In my talk I will discuss the concept’s origin and development, apart from its implications for the economic, political and social life of the Islamic West. 

October 1, 2020 – Ute Falasch (Independent Scholar, Berlin, Germany)

Creating a Sufi Hagiography in the Mughal World: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī’s Mirʾāt-i Madārī (1654)

Hagiographical works play a significant role in the formation of the narrative that constitutes a holy person, because they offer an interpretation of aspects of their life, such as biographical details, the expressions of their piety, teachings, or miraculous powers.  With regard to Sufi hagiographies in the Mughal period, these works contributed significantly to the local identity formation of Indian Muslims: they connected Indian Sufis with eminent Sufis in the larger Muslim world, while emphasizing the importance of a Sufi saint’s own local lineage.  Undoubtedly, the writing of such a work requires creativity on the part of its author.  

The seminar will focus on the Persian manuscript titled Mirʾāt-i Madārī (lit. “The mirror of Madār”) which is dated 1654 and was written by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī (d. 1683).  The Mirʾāt-i Madārī is the first hagiography, which deals exclusively with Badīʿ al-Dīn Shāh Madār (d. 1434), the founder of the Madāriyya Sufi brotherhood in North India. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī took the creative writing process to new heights by inventing a source that allowed him to attribute a Jewish lineage to Shāh Madār instead of his descent from the Prophet Muḥammad as transmitted among the Madāriyya.

We will examine both ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī’s reasoning for Shāh Madār’s Jewish lineage and his possible intentions as a member of the Chishtī brotherhood for writing a hagiography of the founder of another brotherhood. In order to better understand how ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī represents Shāh Madār as a holy man, we will discuss earlier sources for Shāh Madār and explore how his hagiography is shaped by the socio-cultural context of Islamicate South Asia during the Mughal period.  The question of how the assertion of Shāh Madār’s Jewish lineage was received by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī’s contemporaries and beyond will allow us to broaden the inquiry from historical Sufi communities to academic research about Sufism up to the twenty-first century.  With regard to the latter, the Mirʾāt-i Madārī offers an example for the analysis of the particular mechanisms of knowledge production in western academia.

April 30, 2019 – Martin Elsky (Brooklyn College & CUNY Graduate Center)

Erich Auerbach’s “Aufhebung”: Figural Interpretation and the Nazi Era Church

Erich Auerbach’s “figural interpretation,” or the interpretation of Christian scripture as the typological “fulfillment” of Hebrew scripture, first appeared in the 1938 essay “Figura,” written while Auerbach was in Turkish exile after his dismissal in 1935 from the University of Marburg under National Socialist racial laws. It has come to be seen as a defense of Jewish civilization within the European humanist tradition and has drawn attention to Auerbach as an intellectual writing from within the enormity of twentieth-century European cultural collapse. This presentation, however, suggests that the genesis of Auerbach’s writing on biblical typology took place earlier, during a burst of anti-Jewish writing about typology under National Socialism, when Auerbach was still in Germany. Auerbach would have witnessed the public discussion between his own university and the University of Erlangen in which theologians interlaced typology with their justification for dismissing Jewish officials, ironically, shortly before his own dismissal from Marburg. This presentation will challenge commonly held views about Auerbach by exploring figural interpretation in the context of typological exegesis as practiced by theologians under the National Socialist regime. The milieu in which Auerbach formulated typological criticism asks us to consider how we understand him as an intellectual in times of persecution.

March 12, 2019 – Rachel Zohn Mincer (JTS)

The Increasing Reliance on Ritual Handbooks in Late Medieval Ashkenaz

Liturgical custom books figure prominently among the works produced by German Jews from the thirteenth through the fifteenth century. Scholars have typically attributed the popularity of these handbooks to the desire to preserve customs and provide guidance in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the so-called post–Black Death period, a time of upheaval and decline for German Jewry. However, this explanation is insufficient, particularly since the earliest German Jewish custom books are from the thirteenth century. In this talk, I will link the emergence and continued flourishing of these works to two trends: (1) the geographic mobility of German Jewry, not only in the post–Black Death era but also during the century and a half preceding it, and (2) the increase in the production of written texts in Ashkenazic society, paralleling a similar trend in medieval Europe as a whole. Medieval Ashkenazic texts included a variety of liturgical genres and ritual guides, some of which were accessible to Jews who, though educated, were not rabbinic scholars. As a result of these developments, by the last centuries of the medieval period, even before the advent of print, there was a growing reliance on written works for the transmission of Jewish tradition.

October 2, 2018 – Richard Bulliet (Columbia University)

Arabic Script and Popular Islam in the Southern Philippines

In 1968, a violin appeared in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that carried seven lines of Arabic script on the inside of the backboard, invisible without disassembly of the instrument.  A half-century has passed without finding anyone who can read the inscription.  Twenty years ago, in Boston, a bundle of manuscripts and manuscript fragments pressed between two pieces of wood came to light.  Some fragments were in Arabic and some had Malay glosses, but one booklet seemed to be in the same language as that of the violin.  That language was tentatively identified a few years later as Maranao, which is spoken in the southern Philippines on the island of Mindanao, but I have yet to find someone who can read Maranao in Arabic script.  As I await the discovery of a proper Maranao scholar, I explore the organization of the text and of the several pages of symbols that are a part of it.  My exploration raises questions as to the role of Arabic script in Islamic ritual observance in an area that was otherwise largely illiterate.  At the seminar I will present and discuss the violin and the texts, their apparent provenance, and the conclusions I am exploring about Arabic script as a symbol system.

April 17, 2018 – Christine Helmer (Northwestern University) 

Theological Writing and Religious Experience

Until the early part of the twentieth century, Martin Luther had been read as a systematic theologian, his writings containing propositions that could be integrated into systematic presentations of Christian doctrine.  Karl Holl transformed this perception of Luther. From now on, Luther would be regarded—not as a thinker—but as a religious virtuoso, one whose experiences of God were so dramatic that they changed the course of Western history.  The talk will address the shift that took place during the “Luther Renaissance,” the intellectual movement at the turn of the twentieth century that came to regard Luther’s religious experience as generative of the doctrine of justification, and survey the historical reasons for this shift.  I also offer an analysis of how Holl, known as the initiator of the Luther Renaissance, reconstructed the psycho-spiritual steps of Luther’s experience of God and thereby established the religious parameters for the contemporary writing of the doctrine of justification.

March 22, 2018 – Dagmar Anne Riedel (ILC-CSIC & Columbia University)

Making Books Talk: The Reception of an Andalusian Biography of the Prophet 

In the medieval history of Islam in the western Mediterranean and Africa, Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (1083–1149 CE) is an important legal scholar during the transition from the Almoravids (1040–1147) to the Almohads (1121–1269).  His Kitāb al-shifāʾ, a treatise on the life of the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) which has been preserved in hundreds of manuscripts, is to this day an extremely popular work with Muslim readers.  Scholars such as Delfina Serrano, Maribel Fierro, and Javier Albarran have suggested that the Almoravid partisan Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ composed the Kitāb al-shifāʾ—perhaps during a short and difficult tenure as judge in Granada in 1136—as a polemical rebuttal of the Almohad claims that their leader Ibn Tūmart (b. between 1078 and 1081, d. 1130) was the mahdī (Ar. “rightly guided”) whose rule would precede the end of the world.  But there is no evidence—whether documentary or anecdotal—about the origins of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ.  Against this backdrop, I am suggesting a change of perspective, from the lost story of the work’s composition to the remarkable success of its reception since the twelfth century.  My working hypothesis posits that a codicological analysis of Kitāb al-shifāʾ manuscripts yields material and historical evidence for how in the course of the work’s circulation Muslim approaches to Muḥammad’s life have evolved.

February 27, 2018 – Katie Terezakis (Rochester Institute of Technology)

J. G. Hamann: Trojan Horse of the Enlightenment 

With the spread of Historical Criticism in the nineteenth century, Christian Scripture lost in religious authority at the same time that poetry and prosaic literature gained near deific status.  The consequences of this transference of expectation are significant, especially for the profane discourses that simultaneously drew on and severed themselves from a religious milieu.  In particular, philosophical idealism developed its most trenchant methodologies by appropriating from religious writing, while denying that the appropriation was significant for its more rigorous findings.  German Idealism’s first great dissenter, J.G. Hamann (1730-1788), reviewed why the lived experience of reading and writing was necessary for coming to terms with universal categories and formal judgments.  Following Hamann’s lead, I ask how profane writing relates to the ideas it presents as if they must supersede language.

January 23, 2018 – John H. Smith (UC Irvine)

How Infinity Came to Be at Home in the World: The Contribution of Eighteenth-Century German Religious Poetry to a Modern Scientific and Theological Paradigm Shift

There was a profound change in the conception of the divine over the long eighteenth century, which played out as a transformation of the notion of the infinite.  By around 1800 the infinite was no longer conceived of as transcendent, “out there,” and “overwhelming” (as in the Baroque) but, rather, a part of this world and to be experienced with a new sense of uplifting sublimity.  In Germany, this “paradigm shift” (which involves more than just “secularization”) was largely made possible not just by scientific discoveries (like calculus, telescope, microscope) but also, crucially, by the explosion of religious poetry and its extensive reception.  For example, Bartold Heinrich Brockes (1680–1747) published his celebrations of the “earthly pleasure in God” (Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott) in nine volumes amounting to some 5500 pages.  In endless variations, he wrote of the divine spirit that he found in the minutiae of nature.  Later in the century, Friedrich Klopstock (1724–1803) produced literal orgies of ecstatic feeling in his readers through his religious hymns and epic poem (The Messiah).  His aim was to show that poetry is worthy of capturing the divine in language and transmitting it through feelings.  Such writings prepared the reading public for a transformed vision and experience of the Divine–Infinite in nature.

October 17, 2017 – Philip Haberkern (Boston University) 

Writing a History of the First Reformation: Hussites and Protestants in the Sixteenth Century

A century before Martin Luther first protested the sale of indulgences, a religious reform movement in the city of Prague became radicalized after the execution of its leader, Jan Hus, at the Council of Constance.  This movement evolved into a revolution, which in turn gave rise to two dissident churches that flourished in the Czech lands throughout the 1400s.  But what happened when the leaders of these churches came face to face with the new movements for religious reform that emerged in Wittenberg, Zürich, and Geneva in the sixteenth century?  How did the leadership of the Bohemian reformation seek to end their religious isolation, on the one hand, while preserving their unique religious beliefs and practices, on the other?  This presentation will seek to answer these questions by looking at the texts produced by Czech authors for both domestic and international audiences in the era of the European Reformations, particularly the way the texts reinforced the Czechs’ distinctive religious legacies, while still leaving open the possibility that these legacies could be synthesized with emergent Protestant ideas and institutions.

September 18, 2017 – Rachel Fulton Brown (University of Chicago)

The Annunciation: Behind the Scenes

Open any Book of Hours, what do you see? The Virgin Mary in her chamber with a book open before her. She turns at the approach of the angel, who greets her, “Ave, Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum.” Throughout the later Middle Ages, medieval Christians sought to imagine themselves into this scene, wondering about what Mary must have thought and felt when the Word of God took flesh in her womb. In this presentation, we will explore some of the techniques they used to get inside Mary’s book.

May 2, 2017 – Debra Glasberg Gail (New York University)

Scientific Authority and Jewish Law in Eighteenth-Century Italy

Italian rabbi and physician Isaac Lampronti (1679–1756) produced both the first alphabetically organized encyclopedia (the Pahad Yitzhak) and the first periodical (the Bikurei kazir) of rabbinic law. He did so by applying the most innovative scholarly methodologies of his day to the study and adjudication of Jewish law. In the process, he refashioned the Jewish legal system according to early modern scientific methodologies and emerging Enlightenment ideas. This presentation will illuminate these innovations through examination of both the form and the content of the Pahad Yitzhak and also explore two topics of broader significance: (1) the composition process of early modern encyclopedias; (2) the intersections between scientific culture and religious study in early modern Italy.

April 4, 2017 – Matthew P. Canepa (University of Minnesota)

Historiographical and Archaeological Problems in Understanding Temples and Sacred Spaces in Ancient Iran

In contrast to many other religions in West Asia, Zoroastrianism in the Iranian world did not promote a unified tradition of temple architecture that evolved continuously through all periods.  The ancient Persian dynasties cultivated a vast array of ritual practices, which they staged both in the vicinity of their palaces and at sites of man-made and natural beauty.  In their provinces they engaged the sacred landscapes and structures of their subject peoples, offering sacrifices and patronage at a variety of sites, including temples.  However, they did not impose a tradition of fire temple architecture on their empire.

Throughout the last century scholars have repeatedly assumed – and often attempted to reconstruct – the existence of a trans-millennial tradition of Iranian temple architecture built to house a sacred, ever-burning fire in the manner of a late antique or medieval Zoroastrian fire temple, retrojecting their modern assumption on to the ancient evidence.  A more problematic tradition of scholarship sought the roots of a primordial “Aryan” architecture and religion in these imagined Iranian temple traditions.  I will explore these historiographical and evidentiary challenges of studying the temple traditions and sacred architecture in Iran, with an eye towards the warping effect of dominant scholarly and nationalistic discourses.

This seminar was generously sponsored by the American Institute of Iranian Studies.

February 28, 2017 – Roderick B. Campbell (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU)

Patterning the World: The Role of wen in the Shang Dynasty

The Shang dynasty is famous for both standing at the headwaters of the Chinese writing system and its anomalously violent religiosity. While the oracle-bone inscriptions are the first known corpus written in the Chinese script, they reveal an overriding concern for ritual – prominently including human sacrifice – a practice strikingly verified by archaeology. In this paper I will argue that the concept of wen (writing, patterns, civil/domesticated/pacified) links together Shang writing, sacrifice and culture in general.

I will make my argument by way of extracting the ontology of Shang visual culture, ritual and writing from patterns common to all three. I will claim that this ontology is fundamentally analogistic – relating bundles of qualities perceived in the world through analogies in order to evoke the outcomes desired. This evocative indexicality is central to understanding why, for instance, both writing system and visual culture ambivalently range from mimetic, naturalistic representation to abstraction: the purpose of Shang representation is to bring forth what is desired through its metaphoric or metonymic evocation. The patterns of wen, then, are the hidden patterns of the universe itself, its secret code of resemblances perceived and operationalized by a select few through writing, ritual and divination.

January 24, 2017 – Clémence Boulouque (Columbia University)

Betrayed Legacies? A Rabbi, his Christian Disciple and an Unfinished Manuscript: The Case of Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900) and Aimé Pallière (1868-1949) in Search of Religious Universalism

Elia Benamozegh – an Italian rabbi, kabbalist, publisher and thinker of Moroccan descent who lived in the Tuscan port city of Livorno and championed the Risorgimento – produced abundant writings encompassing exegesis, historical studies and various newspaper contributions in Hebrew, Italian and French.  Through his Christian disciple Aimé Pallière, who edited his posthumous masterwork Israel and Humanity (1914), Benamozegh significantly influenced the Christian-Jewish dialogue in twentieth-century Europe.  Pallière, however, has been criticized for christianizing Benamozegh’s manuscript.  A few authors have consistently asserted that Pallière’s edits misrepresent the integrity of Benamozegh’s thought, and this contention raises the broader question of discipleship across religions vis-à-vis faithful legacies.  By probing the editorial changes between Benamozegh’s manuscript and the Pallière edition, I will try to lift the cloud of suspicion over the true contents of this work without ignoring its possible tensions.  I will then reexamine Benamozegh’s legacy and assess its significance in its search for an elusive religious universalism.

December 6, 2016 – John W. Coakley (New Brunswick Theological Seminary)

A Metamorphosis in Christian Biography in the High Middle Ages: The Case of the Early Lives of Francis of Assisi

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the awakening of literary interest in human interiority and self-awareness had an important but as yet little-studied effect on the literature of hagiographical biography.  This was a literature that, from its late-antique origins, had been focused more on divine agency than on human agency; the inner life of the saint, and accordingly, the representation of change in that inner life, had been  absent—a remarkable fact given the precedent of New Testament stories of conversion and personal change.  It was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that, with the newly increased literary attentiveness to inner life as a matter of interest in its own right, the “natural contingency” of biographical subjects began to loom larger in the view of their biographers.  The sequence of early narratives of the “conversion” of Francis of Assisi—for present purposes understood as the formative events in Francis’s life that preceded the founding of the Franciscan brotherhood—stands as a prominent case of this increased interest in human agency on the part of the biographers.  A series of these narratives that appeared in the period 1328 to 1263 give us, through comparison, a glimpse of what choices biographers made and what was at stake in making them.  These are texts that have received much attention for their value as sources of biographical fact, in the controversies that have accompanied what is sometimes called the “Franciscan Question”—that is, the modern scholarly debate over the value of these sources for the historian.  Here I will argue that that, precisely in their attempts to present the historical Francis as the authors understood him, these texts show us another related though largely implicit debate, this one about the nature of hagiographical narrative itself, and by extension about any narrative of human formation: a debate about how and whether the acts of God are to be found in the very subjectivity of the saint.

November 17, 2016 – Daniel Purdy (Pennsylvania State University)

Publishing over Preaching: Jesuit Missionaries and Chinese Print Culture in the Seventeenth Century

Ming China (1368–1644) enjoyed a robust book culture.  Alongside the Confucian classics, inexpensive editions in many fields––poetry, literature, astronomy, agriculture, medicine–– were printed for an eager audience.  Jesuits stationed around the world were generally known for learning the local spoken vernacular, but Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), a founding figure of the Jesuits’ mission in China, concluded that circulating manuscripts and publishing books in the language and manner of the administrative elite, was a more effective conversion strategy than holding oral disputations before representative audiences of politicians and priests.  Because the book business was so widespread, the Jesuits were able to find craftsmen able to carve the woodblocks required for printing. European tomes were expensive and rare, whereas publishing Chinese translations was often a more economical means of distributing Christian texts.

The geographical reach of what linguist Charles A. Ferguson calls Chinese “diglossia”––a classical high language with a substantial body of literature that is differentiated from regional vernacular languages––suggested to the Jesuits analogy with the position Latin as a universal elite European language.  As highly educated humanists and scholastic clerics, the Jesuits quickly grasped the importance of integrating Christian teaching with classical Confucian literature.

The Jesuit understanding of Chinese reading practices—the intensive manner in which the administrative elites read and memorized Classical Confucian texts—encouraged missionaries to disseminate their arguments through writing rather than sermons. Ricci clearly had the intimate habits of the Mandarin elite in mind when he distributed his early compilations of European moral philosophy first among friends in manuscript form and then second to a wider audience as printed books. The Jesuit concentration on learning the Chinese script in addition to speaking the administrative language was motivated by what they considered to be China’s distinctive print culture.

October 25, 2016 – Roberto Tottoli (Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton)

Editing and Printing the Quran in Early-Modern Europe (16th-18th Centuries)

This talk will draw on newly discovered sources for the Quran versions prepared by Johann Zechendorff (d. 1662) and Ludovico Marracci (d. 1700) in order to explore the practical challenges of access to copies of the Arabic Quran in early modern Europe and to discuss the theoretical problems of editing the Quran’s text after the Protestant Reformation.  Starting with Peter the Venerable (d. 1156), Christian theologians were encouraged to read the Quran and, subsequently, it began to circulate in a Latin version in Christian Europe.  Renaissance Quran manuscripts which present the Arabic text together with a translation, whether on facing pages or on the same page, document that from the fifteenth century onwards there was a growing interest in the Quran’s Arabic text.  In the early sixteenth century, the recently invented letterpress printing technology offered new opportunities for meeting the European demand for access to the Arabic Quran, and in the 1530s the Venetian publisher Paganino Paganini (d. 1538) issued the first printed Arabic Quran.  At the same time, there were the first efforts to translate the Arabic Quran into European vernaculars.

September 20, 2016 – Shalom E. Holtz (Yeshiva University)

The Oral and the Textual in Mesopotamian and Biblical Law

Mesopotamian law provides a rich fund of data for analyzing questions of orality, textuality, power and authority.  One can draw not only on the well-known law collections, such as Hammurabi’s “Code,” but also on the myriads of cuneiform documents of legal practice from throughout the Fertile Crescent.  Both types of texts, even when viewed on their own, rather than as a basis for comparison with the Hebrew Bible, shed important light on the questions at hand.  The law collections stand precisely at the intersection between writing, royal authority and scribal tradition.  Documents of practice attest to the immediate interplay between scribal writing conventions and legal actions that were probably carried out orally.  Biblical legal traditions find important analogues to the Assyriological material at almost every turn.  The identification of legal performative utterances in Hebrew, often embedded in ostensibly non-legal written genres, can rely on similar Akkadian utterances in overtly legal contexts.  The incorporation of legal materials in prayers and prophecies suggests an interesting interplay between law and literature, written or oral.  The attestation of Akkadian formulations in post-biblical Aramaic documents raises interesting questions of transmission.  Similarly, and more generally, situating biblical law within the broader Near Eastern legal continuum requires addressing how this very continuum came to be. Orality and textuality are central to understanding this core topic.

April 26, 2016 – Yigal Shalom Nizri (University of Toronto)

“Appropriate to Sacrifice it on the Altar of Print”: The Evolution of a Printed Canon in the Jewish Moroccan Diaspora, 1860-1918

The last third of the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented effort to edit, anthologize, and circulate Moroccan halakhic works.  Authors, printers, and readers, many of whom belonged to different rabbinical circles, participated in the development of what I call “halakhic Morocco.”  In the seminar I will focus on one aspect of this process: how Moroccan rabbis constructed intellectual and biographical genealogies in order to establish an authoritative system of scholarly recognition and patronage through which a “halakhic Morocco” emerged.  We will examine rabbinic paratexts such as approbation letters (haskamot), publishers’ notes, and flattery poems, which accompanied the publication of Moroccan halakhic works between 1860 and 1918. These paratexts, I argue, became a public site for contested ideas about authority, credibility, and tradition, thereby linking approvers, financiers, authors, and readers. The approbation letters show that, in the late nineteenth century, Moroccan Jewish communities interacted in ways that gave rise to new definitions of the notion of “Moroccanness” which rabbis employed and drew on.  Study of the Moroccan paratexts, I suggest, along with research on the history of printing halakhic books in North Africa more generally, offers a new way to chronicle Moroccan rabbinic culture.

March 22, 2016 – Robert K. Englund (UCLA)

Does Early Cuneiform Tell Us Much about Babylonian Religion?

The Babylonian pantheon has been the focus of numerous studies that have accompanied the progress of the field of Assyriology since its beginnings in the mid-19th century. Indeed, the discovery, by the British Museum’s “Senior Assistant” George Smith, of the flood story in the 11th tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic occasioned a fairly rapturous debate over the various borrowings of intellectual content from Mesopotamian narratives by composers of the Old Testament. His portrayal of the Gilgamesh tale at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology on 3 December 1872, among others attended by Prime Minister Gladstone, may credibly be cited as the second major breakthrough of our small field of cuneiformists as partners in discussions of the history of knowledge in the ancient Middle East, of course following the famous cuneiform decipherment contest held in 1857. Four years after his death in 1876, Smith’s translation of the Babylonian Creation Myth and its praise of the hero-god Marduk was published. These were the heady days of the great British plunder of Nineveh and its Kuyunjik library of Assurbanipal, recently catalogued and made available online by a Mellon-funded cooperation between the British Museum and the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative at UCLA.

The 1st millennium BC records of Babylonian religious thought, while well removed in time from the earliest cuneiform documentation of gods and goddesses, of death and afterlife, still reflect much of a strand of theology throughout Mesopotamian history, even in the visual representation of the pantheon found in our inscriptions. The present seminar will focus, in an informal setting and without expectation of any expert knowledge of what is, after all, a pretty arcane subject matter, on the iconography of cult and religion in the literate south of the 3rd and 4th millennia BC. We will see that a number of cuneiform signs and sign combinations represent often pictographically straightforward designations of forces of nature, the observed heavens, and the divine players, for instance the sun rising over the eastern mountains for the sun-god Šamaš = Sumerian Utu, or the “pig-lady” Nin-šubur, but we could stumble trying to identify the referents of less obvious characters such as that of the goddess of war and peace Inanna/Ištar, whose name is thought to stand for “Lady of heaven,” alternatively “Lady of ladies,” or of the moon-god Nanna, where a simple lunar crescent might seem more appropriate to us. These latter, pictographically obscure designations will be described as representations of standards that stood before cult centers in archaic Babylonia, as well as, possibly, in ancient Iran. Just when they lost their pictographic significance and became wholly abstract characters is not clear, but likely not earlier than the end of the 3rd millennium, when many believe the great counterclockwise tilt of cuneiform writing occurred, resulting in horizontal depictions of what otherwise would have been understood to be decorated posts or flagpoles standing tall.

PS – The slides of the accompanying power point are available for download from the Academic Commons at: http://dx.doi.org/10.7916/D83F4PM9

PPS – The slides of Robert Englund’s studio@butler talk about the CDLI are available for download via the Academic Commons at: http://dx.doi.org/10.7916/D8KD1XWN

February 23, 2016 – Charles G. Häberl (Rutgers University)

Incantation Texts as Witnesses to the Mandaean Scriptures

The Aramaic incantation texts from Mesopotamia have been invoked as sources for the dialects of Late Aramaic, as well as sources on the religions of Late Antiquity.  Outside of the small cabal of scholars who work on these texts, however, they are seldom viewed as a legitimate source of information about either.  Often, they are deprecated as “defective” vernacular texts drawing upon a myriad of “hybrid” or heterodox folk religious traditions, rather than the normative orthodox religions from which they putatively derive.  In addressing them, we presuppose a set of dyads: the material within them has been categorized as “religious” or “magical” on the one hand, and “literary” or “oral” on the other.  These abstract categories, thus conceived, are then reified and sealed off from one another.  By consigning these texts to one or another arm of these dyads, we perpetuate this highly problematic categorization.  In this seminar, I hope to demonstrate that much could be obtained by setting aside the question of categorization and examining the ways in which these texts appear to be in dialog with one another.

PS – An article related to the seminar is available for download via academia.edu at: https://www.academia.edu/24370687/The_Aramaic_Incantation_Texts_as_Sources_for_the_Mandaic_Scriptures

January 26, 2016 – Sarah J. Pearce (New York University)

A Torah Scroll, Acephalous – A Copy of the Diwan of Samuel the Nagid, Complete: Literary Expressions and Religious Writing in the Documentary Records of Andalusi Libraries

A wide array of texts document and chronicle the contents, use, and fate of Jewish library collections twelfth-century al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) and more widely in Arabophone Jewish communities around the Mediterranean.  Many of the texts that relate to library collections are most immediately recognizable as documentary sources best suited for a social-historical exploration of the Andalusi library; however, upon closer examination, many of these documentary sources betray a much more literary approach to cataloguing a library.  Through an examination of some of the medieval Andalusi library texts that fall in the space between the documentary and the literary, this seminar will demonstrate that the library was an important locus of the particular kind of religious and cultural nationalism espoused by the Jews of al-Andalus in their religious and secular literary programs.

December 15, 2015 – Nerina Rustomji (St. John’s University)

Digital Afterworlds: The Heavenly Virgins of Islam in Online Tours of Paradise

In the space and time of life beyond the grave lies a promise, and Muslim religious authorities have drawn upon this promise in an attempt to reform Muslim behavior.  In edoing so, they have sometimes elaborated on the houri (Ar. pl. ḥūr ʿīn), the pure female companion rewarded to men in paradise (Ar. sing. al-jannah).

This presentation focuses on the contemporary promise of the houri.  Since the 1990s, houris were highlighted in eschatological manuals published in print in Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus.  With the advent of electronic media, discussions about houris also appear in digital afterworlds.  Unlike the printed eschatological manuals, the online tours of paradise do not just offer religious instruction.  Instead, localized Muslim reformers and globalized jihadis use the online tours as a form of twenty-first-century exhortation that articulates a concern about modernity, a focus on the salvation of humanity, and a desire for cosmic order.  Within these virtual paradises, the houri embodies an alternative world that can be experienced before the end of time.  By drawing upon viewers’ feelings and creating virtual symbols and rituals, the online productions offer the houri as a reason to reform behavior or to incite violent struggle.

November 17, 2015 – Benjamin Harnett (The New York Times)

The Birth of the Codex: Revisited

When Augustine, in AD 386, heard a voice in the garden calling him to pick up his book and read, the book he held in his hands was a codex of Christian works, which he was able to flip open, and take the passage he found as impetus for his conversion.  The codex is the format in which classical works survived the Middle Ages, and, despite the rise of e-readers today, continues to be its dominant format.  So strongly are the codex’s benefits entrenched that in the eighteenth century, when charred papyrus rolls were unearthed at Herculaneum, it was argued that they could not be works of literature, because, surely, the ancients were wiser than that!

For most of antiquity, the book roll (volumen, scroll) was the dominant format, and even in the fourth century of Augustine, codex and roll coexisted, with the former supplanting the latter only by the sixth century.  Descriptions of the codex first appear in epigrams of Martial (1st cent. AD), but a paucity of evidence and mentions thereafter have led scholars to dismiss his codex as a failed innovation.  A further complication was the discovery of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri in the 1930s, shocking because all the Christian manuscripts were codices and dated to the second century AD.

Further finds have ratified a Christian “addiction” to the codex, an addiction matched by what seems to be secular indifference to this format.  Though the idea of a Christian invention has been discarded, the timing of the wider adoption of the codex, achieving parity with the roll around AD 300, when the size and respectability of the Christian population was on the rise, has led to the conclusion that the codex – called the most momentous advance in book technology before the printing press – was a gift of Christianity.

Unfortunately, no one has come up with a satisfactory explanation for the near-universal Christian propensity for the codex and simultaneous secular aversion, whether based on practical or on religious or social explanations.  C. H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat’s 1983 work, The Birth of the Codex, remains, to this day, the starting point for serious discussion of the issue.  Additional finds have ratified the timelines laid out from the evidence they collated, though not their conclusions.

I take another look at this evidence, with help from an unlikely source.  Researchers in Iowa, in the 1940s, analyzing survey responses from farmers on the adoption of a new kind of hybrid seed-corn noticed an interesting pattern.  Their study became the basis for a research tradition which has resulted in “diffusion of innovations theory,” a framework that has been used to understand the diffusion of farming technologies, mobile phones, and healthcare practices in the developed and developing world.  Applying this framework to the codex, I have been able to reinterpret existing data, and show that the adoption of the codex was comprehensible, regular, and secular.

With the aid of “diffusion of innovations theory” we can get a fuller picture of early adopters, and non-adopters, and reconsider the codex in Martial, and its birth.

October 13, 2015Guy Burak (New York University)

Mecca, its Descriptions, and the Political Reorganization of the Indian Ocean in the First Half of the Sixteenth Century

In 1542, a quarter century after the Ottoman conquest of the Arab lands, the famous Meccan jurist and chronicler Jār Allāh Muḥammad Ibn Fahd  (d. 1547 or 1548) completed a fairly short work devoted to the construction projects the Ottoman sultans, the new “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques,” undertook in Mecca since the Ottoman conquest of the city.  Ibn Fahd’s work is quite unique for two main reasons: (a) it is one of the very few works in the Arabic historiographical tradition (if not the only one) that is devoted to the construction projects of a specific dynasty; and (b), unlike most Arabic chronicles, it provides remarkably detailed description of the buildings and the Ottoman building techniques.  As such, it is the first comprehensive response by an Arab chronicler to the emergence of an Ottoman imperial aesthetic idiom in the sixteenth century.

Ibn Fahd, however, was not the only author who wrote about the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, known as Ḥaramayn, in that period.  In 1521, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Maḥmūd al-Iṣfahānī wrote a description of the Holy Mosques in Çagatay Turkish and dedicated it to the newly enthroned Ottoman sultan, Süleyman Kanuni (r. 1520-1566).  The renowned author Muḥyī’l-Dīn Lārī (d. c.1526) wrote about the pilgrimage (ḥajj) and the Ḥaramayn for the Gujarti sovereign Muẓaffar Shāh II (r. 1511-1526), and this work was copied regularly throughout the sixteenth century in the Holy Mosque in Mecca, the exact same place where Ibn Fahd wrote his chronicle.

By looking at these texts and their circulation, I will explore the interplay between political claims over the Ḥaramayn, the physical construction projects, and their representations across the Indian Ocean, from Istanbul to Gujarat, in the first half of the sixteenth century.  I will concentrate on the complex dynamics between the Ottomans, the Sharifs of Mecca, and the sultans of Gujarat in the decades following the Ottoman conquest of the Holy Cities.  The Ottoman conquerors, much like their Mamluk predecessors, preserved the rule of the Sharifs of Mecca in a system that may be described as layered sovereignty: the Sharifs maintained their own administration and issued coinages in their name, while recognizing the sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan.  At the same time, other rulers, primarily the sultans of Gujarat, maintained a strong presence in the city.  The Gujarati sultans built a madrasa in Mecca, gave to it manuscripts they had commissioned, and provided funds to the Sharif and scholars in residence, while considering Mecca a safe haven for their harem and treasury in the wake of the Mughal invasion of Gujarat.

Against this backdrop, I will argue that the circulation of the manuscripts of the different descriptions of Mecca and Medina reflects the ongoing dialog between the various Indian Ocean sovereigns.  For example, numerous copies of Lārī’s work found their way to the Ottoman capital, while Ibn Fahd dedicated works to the sultan of Gujarat and his vizier.  Furthermore, in addition to being immediate means through which sovereigns expressed and promoted their claims vis-a-vis their counterparts, the texts contributed to the emergence of shared pietistic sensibilities across the Indian Ocean around the Ḥaramayn and the Prophet Muḥammad.  These sensibilities lasted for centuries.

April 28, 2015 – P. Oktor Skjaervo (Harvard University)

Writing and Reading the Words of Zarathustra

Since Zarathustra (Old Avestan Zaraθuštra-; Zoroaster) does not appear in the contemporary historical record of any time or place, it is hard to evaluate the words ascribed to him throughout history.
Five periods of reception must be distinguished:
(1) The first period begins with the Greek sources of Antiquity and ends with the magisterial account of the religion of the Persians and the Medes by Thomas Hyde (1636-1730), first published in 1700.
(2) The second period starts in 1771, when Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805) publishes genuine Zoroastrian texts, though the impact is diminished by the critique of the Zarathustra of Anquetil’s translations.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Indo-Iranian Studies are established and scholars realize that Avestan and Pahlavi are old Iranian languages.
(3) In 1862, Martin Haug (1827-1876) initiates the third period when he suggests that the previous critique of Zarathustra is based on the wrong texts, since only the Gathas contain the “words of Zarathustra.”
(4) The fourth period is characterized by the acceptance of Haug’s assumption, which is now applied to the entire Gathic corpus.  The “historical Zarathustra” is the object of numerous reconstructions and the Gathas are interpreted as “Zarathustra’s words” in as many ways as there are Gathic scholars.  This period comes to a close at the end of the 20th century.
(5) During the fifth and current period, scholars increasingly abandon the concept of a “historical Zarathustra” and investigate Zorostrian texts as an oral literature which comprises notably the Avestan Avesta as well as the Pahlavi Zand and the remaining Pahlavi literature.
At present a central question of Zoroastrian Studies is therefore where and when this oral literature was composed and redacted in order to be written down.

This seminar was generously sponsored by the American Institute of Iranian Studies.

March 24, 2015 – Michael Twomey (Ithaca College)

Peoples of the Book: Middle-Eastern Ethnology in Western Medieval Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias held an important place in the university, cathedral, and monastic libraries of the medieval West.  After an introduction to these encyclopedias, including the problem of their genre, this talk will briefly outline the educational use of encyclopedias before focusing on the question of how the two most widely-disseminated encyclopedias, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s On the Properties of Things, represented the Middle East, in particular the peoples of the lands now known as Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudia Arabia, Yemen, the Gulf states, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.  Although it is no surprise that encyclopedias dealt in book learning rather than empirical evidence, my thesis is specifically that encyclopedic ethnology served the study of biblical and classical texts.  What we will explore in this talk is the epistemology that encyclopedias apply to the lands and peoples of the Middle East.  Whereas encyclopedias have been considered repositories of medieval science, I will argue that their focus on the classical Mediterranean and the biblical Middle East also places encyclopedias in the field of literary study.  From an examination of key passages, we can discuss the role that encyclopedic ethnology may have played in shaping pre-modern Western thinking about the Middle East; and we can compare the encyclopedic view with that of other sources.

The meeting was held jointly with the Columbia University Seminar on Medieval Studies.

February 24, 2015 – David M. Stern (University of Pennsylvania)

The Monk’s Haggadah (Munich, BSB Cod. hebr. 200) and the Tale of its Modern Discovery

The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich owns an illustrated Passover Haggadah produced in southern Germany in the late fifteenth century  which was once part of the library of the Monastery of St. Quirinus at Tegernsee (Germany).  This Haggadah is remarkable both for its illustrations, and for a lengthy prologue, which was written by a contemporaneous Dominican friar.  The talk will tell the history of this manuscript as well  as the tale of how three modern scholars unraveled its complicated and astounding history.

A digital surrogate of the manuscript is available at: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00014964-6

February 2, 2015 – Avinoam Shalem (Columbia University)

Classicizing the New: The Publication of the Tarīkh al-Hind al-gharbī al-musammā bi-ḥadīth-i nuw (Istanbul, Ramaḍān 1142/1730)

The focus of this paper is the illustrated History of West India Known as the New Report, which was published as a printed book by Ibrahim Müteferrika in Istanbul, the Ottoman capital.  Between 1875 and 1876, the work was issued in a second edition, also in Istanbul.  Müteferrika (1672-1745), the founder of the first Turkish printing press, was born in Hungary and trained as a Calvinist minister.  Between 1692 and 1693, he fell into the hands of Ottoman troops, was enslaved, and then converted to Islam.  He quickly rose within the Ottoman administration, and Sultan Ahmet III (r. 1703-1730) promoted him to his personal corps of guards, which was called the Müteferrika.

The book includes two maps of the world, one diagram, and thirteen woodcuts depicting the New World’s flora and fauna and its exotica.  The decision to make news about the Americas accessible to a large audience demonstrates the sultan’s intention to accelerate the diffusion of knowledge about the New World.  Until the early eighteenth century, Ottoman readers could only consult a few manuscripts from the late sixteenth and seventeenth century whenever they were looking for scholarly information about the Americas.  In contrast, a print run of 500 copies and its comparatively low price made the Tarīkh al-Hind al-gharbī a much more affordable source of such information.  The eighteenth-century ‘democratization’ of knowledge and its nineteenth-century reproduction raise interesting questions about the consumption and classification of knowledge on the Americas in the Ottoman Empire, and the specific, or perhaps intentional, esthetics of the book’s illustrations, bears witness to this process.

As of January 2022, access to the digital surrogate of McGill’s copy is no longer available through its OCLC/WorldCat record: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/757089036, cf. https://mcgill.on.worldcat.org/oclc/757089036
The W.E.D. Allen collection of the Lillly Library includes a hand-illuminated copy (DR 403 .M825): http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/245542129

December 2, 2014 – Philip Hamburger (Columbia Law School)

The KKK and the Separation of Church and State

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the phrase “separation of church and state” came to be the standard interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  This talk focuses on the role of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to understand how the phrase acquired such prominence in constitutional law.  The Klan was a prominent nativist fraternal organization, and its role in idealizing the separation of church and state as an “American liberty” is revealing about the broader development of constitutional jurisprudence.

November 11, 2014 – Joseph A. Howley (Columbia University)

What Was Buried in Numa’s Tomb? Religion and Politics in Roman Book-Burning

For most of the twentieth century, scholars of Classical antiquity have pondered the nature and character of book-burning in ancient Rome, and its relationship to the religious and suppressive instances of that practice which subsequent periods of Western history inherited.  Some of the oldest and most obscure stories of book burning at Rome tie it closely to the religious practices of the state, yet Roman values of the book differed drastically from those of the Christians who inherited their state structures.  A “grand unified theory” of Roman book-burning that can encompass the broad and unusual range of practices implicated by that label remains elusive.  This paper will explore the murky tangle of evidence and categories underlying the problem and examine whether “religion” can help us understand this Roman practice.

October 21, 2014 – Julie Crawford (Columbia University) 

Reading Abroad: Women, Religion and Sociability in Early Modern England

Focusing on the diaries and papers of Margaret Hoby (1571-1633) and Anne Clifford (1590-1676), this paper argues not only that women “read for action” far more often than conventional wisdom allows, but that their public and insistently sociable reading was an intrinsic component of broader forms of regional, religious, and political activism.

September 9, 2014 – James G. Basker (Barnard College & Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

Christian Ethics in American Antislavery Writings, 1688–1865

Drawing largely on the recent collection of American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation (Library of America 233), this paper will offer an overview of the prominence, variety, and persistence of Christian ethics at the core of American abolitionism, from the first Quaker petitions of 1688 and the Puritan writings of Samuel Sewall in 1700, to the fiery rhetoric of Black writers such as David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet, and the more consciously literary works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott, and Emily Dickinson, in the nineteenth century.

April 22, 2014 – Ronald Wallenfels (New York University)

Canonicity and the Cuneiform Traditions

Cuneiform, the world’s oldest form of writing, first introduced towards the end of the fourth millennium BCE, appears to have finally expired by the third century CE. On the other hand, the Greek word κανών, not introduced until the fourth century CE by Christians as a technical term for a specific fixed body of sacred literature, represents a development of the special status accorded Jewish scripture termed “sacred writings” within the Rabbinic tradition. These traditions accepted divine authority, the morally binding nature of the texts comprising the Bible, and their fixed—that is unaltered and unalterable—nature. These are the fundamental notions of canonicity in its original sense and in this narrow sense it can be said categorically that there existed in the cuneiform traditions no single fixed set of religious texts that fit the narrow criteria warranting the label “canonical.” However, if we take the term canon to mean more generally any collection of texts that through a process of literary stabilization where older material is consciously maintained in a traditional form and new material is no longer being incorporated, then we most certainly can speak of “canonicity” within the cuneiform traditions. By examining the corpus of preserved cuneiform documents and the origin and characteristics of the cuneiform writing system this seminar will review the nature and history of canonicity in cuneiform literature as understood by modern Assyriologists.

March 25, 2014 – Zeynep Tüfekçi (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Who Tweets for the Ummah? From Clash of Civilizations to Bonds of Humor,
from Innocence of Muslims to #Muslimrage

The emergence of social media has been reconfiguring public spaces in many Muslim countries. This transition has been even more jarring than in Western societies, as many of these countries had, until recently, fairly closed and restrictive public spheres. This reconfiguration of public visibility also had jarring effects on Western perceptions of the Muslim world, since previously silent “subjects”, imagery of which oscillated from powerless victims to bloodthirsty savages, can now speak for themselves at a scale and reach that would have difficult to impossible without social media. In this seminar, I examine two intertwined cases: the spread of the “Innocence of Muslims” video which caused protests in a variety of Muslim countries as well as a portrayal of Muslims as savages irredeemably opposed to free speech in US mass media; and the global uptake of the #muslimrage hashtag as an ironical, humorous response by Muslim youth around the world to being stereotyped. My core thesis is that social media reveal a reconfiguration, rather than a clash, of civilizations as Muslim voices are increasingly represented in their actual diversity rather than typecast according to stereotypes and expectations. As the diversity of voices increases, orthodoxy in religion as well as orthodoxy in representations of a religion by the Western press are both under strain.

February 18, 2014 – David S. Powers (Cornell University)

BNF MS arabe 328a: Manipulation of Text and Meaning in an Early Quran Manuscript

We will examine several folios from a Quran codex written in the Hijazi script sometime in the third quarter of the 1st/7th century (BNF MS arabe 328a) with special attention to an erasure and re-writing of text on one folio page and to the removal of another folio from the manuscript as it was being produced.  On the basis of the surviving paleographic and codicological evidence – and with the assistance of infra-red photography – I will attempt to recover the original reading of one Quranic verse and to identify a “revelation” that was added to the text after the fact.  The results of this investigation suggest that the consonantal skeleton of the Quran remained open and fluid until the caliphate of ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān (r. 65-86/685-705).

January 28, 2014 – Aleksandr I. Naymark (Hofstra University)

Treating Images as Texts: A Reconstruction of the Sogdian Pantheon from the Images of Sogdian Ossuaries

One of the major challenges of the study of Sogdian religion during the Early Middle Ages (5th-8th centuries) is the incompatibility of its extant sources: the vast majority of Sogdian religious and literary texts originated in the colonies in Eastern Turkestan where Christianity, Manichaeism, and Buddhism dominated the confessional landscape, while most Sogdian art was Zoroastrian.  Pahlavi texts also provide rather limited insight into Sogdian iconography, because Sasanian Zoroastrism is dramatically different from the Sogdian religion with its highly developed worship of gods.  However, the study of the Sogdian pantheon can be advanced through an analysis of coherent groups of images whose formalized pictorial language can be systematically compared with other iconographic traditions and the limited preserved textual references.

The seminar will present results of a comprehensive study of the decoration of Sogdian ossuaries, undertaken by the author together with Tigran Mkrtychev (Moscow Museum of Oriental Art).  The focus of our attention will be the reliefs of slab-molded ossuaries from the seventh and eighth century.  While over 1200 ossuary fragments were found in more than 14 necropolises in the areas of Samarqand and Kesh, only 28 principal matrix types were used in their production.  Applying the methods of source criticism commonly used in the study of manuscripts and taking into consideration the particularities of the production of molded terracotta, we were able to build a stemma of the internal development of the ossuaries’ matrices.  We did not approach the ossuaries as individual objects whose imagery can be interpreted on the basis of a direct comparison with Pahlavi texts.  In contrast, we see a dynamically developing group of objects with its own internal history of iconographic development and transformation.

The earliest ossuaries of the sixth century reveal the attempt of a particular artist to create a new Sogdian iconography on the basis of pagan Hellenistic prototypes borrowed from a Bactrian replica of a classicizing Byzantine chest.  The new appearance of the Sogdian gods persisted on ossuaries for about a century, slowly drifting towards and finally conflating in the seventh and eighth century with the conventional Sogdian iconography, well known from Sogdian paintings.  The ossuaries provide further evidence for the multi-confessional nature of a Central Asian society in which individual artists could present their interpretation of the Sogdian pantheon unencumbered by concerns for any particular religious orthodoxy.

December 12, 2013 – Jessica Litman (University of Michigan)

Copyright and Churches

In the United States we envision the copyright system as promoting the progress of science and useful arts by encouraging authors to create new works and make them widely available. Copyright is said to offer an incentive that motivates creators to make new works of authorship and distribute them to the public because the law’s promise that an author may control the distribution of her work enables her to anticipate a financial reward. Congress has chosen to enact a general purpose copyright law that applies across the board to works of many sorts, even though a significant group of works (e.g., academic scholarship, advertising, shopping lists, diaries, doodles, class notes) are created without any attention to copyright incentives.

Most works created and distributed by churches and religious institutions are not primarily motivated by copyright: the authors seek to spread the truth rather than to make a buck. Churches need money to operate, of course, and one could imagine cases in which churches (like many contemporary learned societies) seek to preserve an income stream from selling copies of their works by suing an unlicensed distributor. There are a handful of such cases, but they have been rare. Copyright’s opportunity to control the use of protected works by enjoining their unlicensed distribution has instead been useful to religious institutions as a weapon to  silence their critics. I will tell stories of 20th and 21st century religious institutions’ uses of copyright as a tool for suppressing or avenging dissent.

November 19, 2013 – M. Rahim Shayegan (UCLA)

The King and his Audience: On the Composition and Reception
of Royal Inscriptions in Ancient Iran and the Iranian World

A reading of Iranian, in particular Achaemenid and Sasanian, epigraphy (6th century BCE – 3rd to 4th century CE), as well as of the royal inscriptions of the Irano-Hellenistic kingdom of Commagene (1st century BCE), reveals the dialectics at play between the inscriptions’ compositional strategies and the variegated target audiences, whose intellectual makeup, in terms of religious and mytho-epic affinities, the inscriptions must take into account, in order to secure the successful reception of their contents. This could mean that the political discourse of royal/central authorities may be either subject to re-compositions negotiating the mental sensibilities of different groups it targets; or may be directly composed for the benefit of a specific (aural) audience, whom the narrative deems a silent interlocutor.

This seminar was generously sponsored by the American Institute of Iranian Studies.

October 29, 2013 – Emile Schrijver (Universiteit van Amsterdam)

Natural and Unnatural Boundaries of the Jewish Book

The Jewish book has been the victim of censorship in different ways. The most obvious cases of censorship are external, such as the inquisitional censorship of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy, or the governmental influence on the publication of Jewish books claimed in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. Equally interesting is the internal censorship that Jews inflicted upon themselves. This internal censorship may be the result of the controversial content of a book, of the afore-mentioned external censorship and/or of other developments in Jewish cultural history. The seminar will discuss the various manifestations of external and internal censorship, with numerous examples, and will discuss the impact of censorship on the transmission of Jewish knowledge.

September 10, 2013 – David Greetham (CUNY Graduate Center)

Trial by Fire: Religion and Book-Burning

Pedro Berruguete (ca. 1445/1450-1503), St. Dominic Guzmán is burning books (tempera and oil on wood, 122 x 83 cm), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. 

The panel belongs to a cycle about the foundation of the Dominican Order in the early thirteenth century, painted for the sacristy of the Monastery of Santo Tomás in Avila between 1493 and 1499.

Book burning in Berlin’s Opera Place, Germany, 10 May 1933.

Photograph by Wide World Photo, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.

Book burning, all-too-frequently undertaken for religious purposes, has both a long history and a disturbing continuity, from the Athenian destruction of Protagoras’ agnostic On the Gods to Alexander’s destruction of Zoroastrian scriptures to the worldwide burning of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and on to Terry Jones’s burning of a Quran in March, 2011. And the burning of books has often been accompanied by an auto-da-fé for their authors, as in the burning of Servetus in Calvin’s Geneva in 1553, with his works tied around his waist, or Hadrian’s burning of both Rabbi ben Haninah and a Torah scroll. The religious motivation for such burnings is seen in Berruguete’s painting of Saint Dominic’s burning of Cathar books while his own were left unharmed. That this conflagration was only a prelude to the mass burnings of Cathars themselves is testimony that Heine’s prophetic admonition (“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings”) had already been experienced centuries before. This seminar will investigate why and how fire has been used as a religious purgative as well as punishment: flames seem to have an almost spiritual quality, and the book not just a phenomenological nature but an ontological as well.

April 23, 2013 – David Brodsky (New York University)

Writing and the Art of Talmudic Maintenance: How the Shift from Orality to Writing Concretized Talmud as Text rather than Process

Talmudic literature developed when orality was the dominant form of transmission of holy texts in Babylonia.  With the Muslim conquest, writing began to be privileged over orality. This presentation will argue that this shift had a major effect on the ossification of talmud as a text rather than a genre, a form, a process.  The first two chapters of Kallah Rabbati are the only extant text that derives from amoraic Babylonia, proving to be an older sister to the Babylonian Talmud, which also developed in amoraic Babylonia, but was not concretized until the post-amoraic period (indeed, David Weiss Halivni has recently pushed its redaction well into the Islamic Period).  Comparisons of parallel passages between Kallah Rabbati and the Babylonian Talmud reveal the talmudic passages to be a product of the oral transmitters, who were re-producing the text as they re-cited it.  Parallels with Geonic (i.e., early medieval) literature, once writing had begun to take hold, reveal a text that had ossified after a specific performative moment.  While errors and changes still arose, they no longer lent themselves to the kinds of re-creation of the passages that orality had once fostered.  Rather, writing seems to have marked the shift from talmud as genre to Talmud as a concretized text.

March 12, 2013 – Carole Slade (Columbia University)

Teresa of Avila’s Use of Writing for Self-Fashioning

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) wrote, mainly at the command of her confessors, in several official genres of the Catholic Church, including penitential confession, spiritual testimony, and mystical treatise.  Despite the constraints of these genres, Teresa produced a large corpus of writing in which she presented herself the way she wished to be known; she fashioned herself as a pious, obedient, orthodox Christian who had received visions and locutions from God, even as a prospective saint.  Although other versions of her experiences and activities circulated, among them Inquisitional accusations of heresy, her interpretation of her life prevailed in the proceedings for her canonization in 1622 and beyond.

February 26, 2013 – Courtney Bender (Columbia University)

Writing Religious Experience in the American Twentieth Century

Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans confronted new understandings of religious experiences and, conversely, new ways of imagining how to write them.  This paper will consider the links that Protestant and “metaphysical” Americans made between having and “writing” religious experiences, as these took shape around and through old and new practices of automatic writing, journaling, and diary keeping, each of which were (and are) simultaneously employed in secular contexts, pedagogies, and psychological fields as well.  The paper will explore the active role of writing in this milieu as a mode of articulating “new” American understandings of religious and non-religious authenticity and autonomy.

January 29, 2013 – Michael Cook (Princeton University)

The Roles of Written and Oral Transmission
in the Textual History of an Early Wahhābī Epistle

As everyone knows, Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792) condemned as polytheists many of his contemporaries who regarded themselves, and were regarded by others, as monotheists. One of the numerous compositions in which he makes this case is a short epistle organized in terms of four basic principles. The burden of the argument is that if we look at what the Koran—and in one instance a Hadith—have to tell us about the polytheists in the days of the Prophet, we see that those of our own day are just as bad or even worse. No authorities are cited apart from Koran and Hadith.
There are numerous texts of this epistle. If we bring them together and compare them, it
quickly becomes apparent that we cannot derive from them from a single textual archetype. Instead, we have to reckon with several distinct versions of the epistle that differ from each other in non-trivial ways.
I plan to discuss three questions that arise from this. The first is how, if at all, we
can develop an absolute or relative chronology of the different versions. The second is
what we can say about the roles of writing and orality in generating the textual
differentiation. The third is what we can say about their roles in the ways in which the
text was put to use. I will concentrate on the second and third questions, since they
relate directly to the concerns of the seminar.

December 11, 2012 – Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

The Mozarabic Rite from Manuscript to Print

This paper focuses on the role of manuscript production and printing in in the promotion of the Mozarabic rite around 1500 under Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo. Cisneros commissioned both new editions of the rite and manuscript choirbooks for use in the Mozarabic Chapel he endowed in his cathedral. The relationships among the editions, the choirbooks, and the medieval manuscript tradition are notoriously fraught with unanswered questions, throwing into relief the use of written media in the “restoration” of what had been a living tradition sustained by the Toledan Mozarabs.

November 13, 2012 – Roger Bagnall (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU)

Religious Graffiti from the Graeco-Roman East

Along with ships, gladiators, riddling numerical names of love interests, and sexual
organs, religion figures in a number of ways in the mass of Greek graffiti left behind on
the walls of the basement in the great basilica of Smyrna (modern Izmir). These religious writings by private individuals in a public space evoke in different ways the imperial cult, an otherwise unknown local divinity, and Christianity; in fact the graffiti include some of the earliest archaeological testimonies to Christian faith. As well as sketching the contents of the graffiti, I will set out some of the difficulties in dating and
interpreting them.

October 16, 2012 – Michael Witzel (Harvard University)

Literacy and Orality in Ancient Vedic Tradition

The strictly oral tradition of the four Vedas is unique in the world due to the strict maintenance of its phonetic, accentual and prosodic features over the past ca. 3000 years. It has been reinforced by an unbroken chain of teacher-student relationship and tools such as the Padapatha. After some initial, rather minute changes, a fixed text of the Rgveda has been established by Sakalya around 500 BCE. Nevertheless the introduction of writing in the northwest of the subcontinent under the Persians introduced some reactions that led to Panini’s grammar as well as to some attempts to write down Vedic and Buddhist texts around 50 BCE. Writing the sacred Vedas was however quickly condemned by the Epic and the Smrtis. Only around 1000 CE the first written Veda texts were reported (by Albiruni) and a little later the first extant  manuscripts  appeared. Even then, the oral tradition has been reinforced and carried out until today. It is only now that it is under serious threat and may have to be supported in print and, increasingly, by electronic means: a new “teacher” is emerging that will carry forward the tradition.

September 25, 2012 – Steve Farmer (The Cultural Modeling Research Group, Palo Alto, California)

Neurobiology and Manuscript Cultures:
The Evolution of Premodern Religious and Cosmological Systems

This talk reviews recent advances in neurobiology and philology that suggest novel approaches to studies of the evolution of premodern religious systems. The  talk begins by discussing neurodevelopmental models that help explain the ubiquity in early cultures of primitive anthropomorphic spirits and deities. It then reviews a list of predictable effects that centuries of repetitive exegetical methods imposed on the structural evolution of religious and cosmological systems in manuscript cultures. Neurobiology here again factors in by imposing limits on the exegetical methods of premodern reciters, scribes, and commentators, which cross-cultural studies in the 1990s showed were closely related in all parts of the world. The talk concludes with a discussion of cultural modeling software built by our group capable of constructing useful cross-cultural simulations of these processes and a review of practical applications of our model, which includes its ability to help date heavily stratified traditions, most dramatically in respect to problematic early Chinese and Indian sources.

May 1, 2012 – Najam Haider (Barnard College)

The Geography of the Isnād:
Possibilities for the Reconstruction of Localized Ritual Practice in the 2nd/8th Century

This talk will discuss how to utilize Sunni Muslim traditions (ḥadīth) concerned with issues of ritual law, namely the daily prayer, in an effort to reconstruct the dominant ritual practices in the major Muslim urban centers of Mecca, Medina, Basra, and Kufa during the early 2nd/8th century. The goal is to model the potential uses of traditions in early Islamic historiography.

March 27, 2012 – Yaakov Elman (Yeshiva University & Harvard University)

The Status of  (Oralized?) Text in Sixth-Century Zoroastrian Thought:
The Case of Zand i Fragard i Jud-dew-dad)

In the last decade it has become generally accepted among talmudists that while tannaitic literature (that is, rabbinic literature attributed to sages from the first through the beginning of the third century, ca. 220) was reduced to writing by the third century, amoraic literature (that is, the talmuds), remained in oral form for centuries to come, and even texts that were reduced to writing (the Mishnah and Tosefta) were not generally available in that form. One consequence of that “oralization” is the condensation and focusing of tannaitic texts when the later, talmudic form, is compared to the earlier, written form. I will attempt to apply this insight to Pahlavi texts of the fifth century and later, chiefly the Pahlavi Videvdad, the newly “re-discovered” sixth century ZFJ, and some later texts, the last of which almost certainly originated as written texts, in particular the Shayast ne Shayast and Rivayat i Emit i Ashawahistan. The result should help us understand the processes of both oralization and textualization in both rabbinic and Zoroastrian elite culture.

February 28, 2012 – Richard Hidary (Yeshiva University)

Letter Writing and Sectarianism in the Dead Sea Scrolls

The talk will discuss the Halakic Letter (MMT), composed ca. 150 BCE and preserved in the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran, as a written record of sectarian controversy between the Dead Sea Sect, the Pharisees, and the Hasmoneans. The letter’s confrontational style will be compared with the more conciliatory style of the Mishnah to explore how writing can be employed to opposite ends: creating dominant opinions through the written dissemination of dogma vis-à-vis the transmission of minority opinions to foster a critical examination of legal controversy.

January 31, 2012 – Richard W. Bulliet (Columbia University)

 Arab Dominion, Arabian Faith, Arabic Alphabet

How and why did the Arabic alphabet, as opposed to a specific icon or word, come to represent the Caliphate and Islam? The focus will be on the coinage reform of the Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik and the development of Persian as a language using the Arabic script.


First published, 29 March 2012
Last updated, 21 December 2023