History of the Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

In Fall 2011 I founded the Columbia University Seminar 751 (for the official seminar website, see http://universityseminars.columbia.edu/seminars/religion-and-writing/) in order to create a research group dedicated to the investigation of literacy and writing in world religions.  Its focus is the comparative study of the roles of literacy vis-à-vis the uses of writing as a form of communication technology in religious traditions.  Approaching the relationship between religion and writing through the lenses of literacy and communication technology, the seminar strives to address all media – from inscriptions on stone and clay tablets to internet websites – and all literary genres – from myths and commentaries to divine revelations and hymns – as well as the theoretical and practical implications of the absence, or rejection, of writing.

The seminar title includes the word “religion,” as its starting point is the thesis that religions have an impact on whether and how societies approach writing and literacy.  At the moment the possibly most popular application of this thesis is the wrong, and yet persistent claim that Islamic theology is responsible for the fact that the diffusion of letterpress printing technology – coming during the medieval era from China and Korea and from northern Europe during the early modern era – halted at the borders of the Islamic civilization.  Since it is impossible to examine a negative, it is one of the aims of the seminar to provide an interdisciplinary context for the thesis’ further investigation.

The abstracts of all talks since January 2012 are archived at https://blogs.cuit.columbia.edu/islamicbooks/religionwriting/abstracts/

So far, the seminar has sponsored two public events.  The first was a one-day conference in New York City, held on 31 January 2013.  The conference explored the history of Islamic Studies in North America in general, and at Columbia University in particular: https://blogs.cuit.columbia.edu/islamicbooks/cumeishistory/conference/; selected documents are available in the Academic Commons of Columbia University (https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-kq4c-b797).  The second event was an international workshop in Madrid (Spain), convened on 22 and 23 February 2018.  The workshop examined religious literature that originated under the particular conditions of “convivencia” in the societies of medieval and early modern Iberia: https://blogs.cuit.columbia.edu/islamicbooks/mashqi/.

Since the summer of 2015 the seminar has its own dedicated gift account in order to support the costs of bringing in speakers from outside the tri-state area.  For more information, see https://blogs.cuit.columbia.edu/islamicbooks/religionwriting/giving/ 

During the academic year 2019-2020 the seminar was on hiatus. The seminar resumed its work in the fall of 2020, when we began to convene our meetings on ZOOM. 

Current Co-Chairs

Susan L. Boynton
Columbia University, Department of Music
slb184 [at] columbia.edu

Dagmar A. Riedel
Columbia University
dar2111 [at] columbia.edu

Current Rapporteur

Anya B. Wilkening
Columbia University, Department of Music
abw2631 [at] columbia.edu

Previous Co-Chairs

Elizabeth Powers, Independent Scholar, Feb. 2017 – June 2021

Mahnaz Moazami, Columbia University, Center for Iranian Studies, Fall 2011 – Feb. 2019

Dagmar A. Riedel, Columbia University, Center for Iranian Studies, Fall 2011 – Feb. 2017

Previous Rapporteurs

Han Ling, Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, February-May 2018

Carolyn J. Quijano, Columbia University, Department of History, March-April 2017

Deborah G. Shulevitz, Columbia University, Department of History, March 2014 – March 2017

Hannah K. Barker, Columbia University, Department of History, Fall 2011 – February 2014


First published, 20 September 2018
Last updated, 16 January 2022