Islamic and Jewish Hermeneutics as Cultural Criticism

Research Project of the Working Group Modernity and Islam at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

1. Introduction

In recent years, critical thinking within the Islamic and Jewish academic world has engaged in new ways of thinking about its own respective religious traditions. Despite the disparity of the respective political, social, and intellectual contexts, a shared interest is apparent: the interest in a Jewish or Islamic secular hermeneutics that emerges from the work on the structures of religious and other canonical texts. The critique of the political appropriation of the religious sources evolves from the critical engagement with the tradition itself. This is true for contemporary Jewish as well as Muslim thought, at least within a religious avant garde.

A research project on Judeo-Islamic hermeneutics, in which leading scholars of Jewish Studies and Islamic Studies as well as Islamic and Jewish intellectuals combine their intellectual efforts to understand their own traditions in relation to the study of hermeneutics and cultural theory, could be the overture to a Jewish-Islamic cultural critique of politically motivated religious ideologies that for obvious reasons is a scholarly and political desideratum. A critical project in Judeo-Islamic hermeneutics that seeks to move out of the orbit of the European construction of the Judeo-Christian, it will be necessary to engage with scholars and scholarship of Eastern Christianities as well. Such cooperation at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin will not only signify a provocative innovation in scholarship, but also underscore the original significance of the Jewish and Islamic heritage for European culture itself.

2. The Plan

In recent works on the hermeneutic structures of the transmission, interpretation, and canonization of traditional texts in Judaism and in Islam, one can discern increasing criticism of the way in which these narratives have been politically and nationalistically instrumentalized since the end of the 19th century. In both scholarly and cultural-political terms, it will be an innovative step to invite leading scholars in Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, Philosophy, and Philology to work together on the hermeneutics of classical Jewish and Islamic texts in a place that is open to the formation of a new "Judeo-Islamic tradition". The aim is thereby to connect what has thus far been completely separated: research on Islam and Judaism critical of ideology, essential aspects of which are rooted in the same (Arabic-speaking) cultural realm, focusing on the diverse mutual relations, analogies, and differences between Jewish and Muslim traditions. It seems absurd that disciplines like Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, and the Study of the Christian Orient are strictly separated institutionally, while their subject matters belong to one shared geographical and cultural realm of discourse. As a result of an intellectually and politically outmoded scholarly agenda that continues to think within the antithetical patterns of "Abendland" and "Morgenland", of the Christian-Greek "West" and the Semitic "Orient", the contents of these disciplines are still excluded from the academic discussions in general Philosophy, Philology, and other "primary disciplines".

For various reasons, neither in Israel nor in countries of the Islamic world today does there exist a broader public awareness that essential strands of "one's own" tradition belong to the same cultural realm as the traditions of one's "hostile neighbor". A long-term project at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin could create an international academic platform for critical Jewish, Muslim and Eastern thought "against the grain" that currently cannot find any open space, particularly in the countries of the Middle East.

A critical and political impulse (though certainly not in the sense of following "current events") is thus essential to this plan. The project aims to go beyond the question of "influences" and mutual dependencies in the direction of the study of cultural mobilities and blurred boundaries. It takes up and attempts to strengthen a tendency that is recognizable among scholars of Jewish Studies as well as among Muslim intellectuals and scholars of Islamic Studies, namely the rethinking of old boundaries between one's own and the "other's" religious tradition. The project thereby aims to actively contribute to overcoming the antagonism between research "on" and research "by" Muslims and Jews respectively.

3. Background

In Israel today, there exists a critical public debate on Jewish culture that articulates itself, however, in dissociation from the religious institutions, which seem to have been dominated by a nationalist canon since the beginning of the European national movements in the middle of the 19th century. Israeli culture is thereby in the process of giving up the monolithic self-definitions of its nationalist founders, realizing that Jewish tradition itself is part of a much larger cultural realm. Within this scope, critical medievalists and scholars of antiquity (Israel Yuval, Amnon Raz-Krokotzkin, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Elhanan Reiner, Yossi Schwartz, Daniel Boyarin) read the literary cultures of the middle ages and of late antiquity as open spaces of discourse in which Jewish and Christian thinkers could cross the boundaries of their own literary traditions. This project wishes to extend this critical agenda to engage the realm of the Arabic world. The protagonists of this critique counter the nationalistic appropriation of their own religious tradition with a mode of discourse not tied to the confines of national or linguistic borders and thus more autonomous in its religious and political self-determination. The critical engagement with traditional religious literature thus throws a critical light on the political and cultural narrowness of modernism. In this discourse and its inherent critique of violence, the classical literary traditions are being advanced as an inspiration playing with the reminiscences of open boundaries between Jewish, Islamic, and Christian communities and traditions.

 A free critical discussion within which the political foundations of one's own religious and intellectual history are radically questioned does not exist in many parts of the Arabic and general Islamic world today. Nevertheless, partly because of political depression, one can discern an increasing willingness, even in theological circles, to question the rigidity in the politically ruling religious interpretation of the tradition. Philologists, theologians, and philosophers of culture are beginning to interpret the sources of Islam in opposition to ideological abuse and to question even the direct political usabilty of theological concepts as such, thus opening the way for the secularization of religious hermeneutics. Religious sources are no longer simply being reinterpreted - and be it for a politically progressive aim - in order to correspond with the needs and exigencies of the time, but, on the contrary, the very relationship between traditional thought patterns of religion and the cultural-political reality as a whole is critically and theoretically reflected. Thus, the work on traditional religious texts loses its apologetic impetus and distinguishes itself equally from fundamentalist and from earlier reformist thought: the aim is no longer to legitimate the texts in relation to the extra-textual demands of the hour, but to bring their intellectual, philosophical, and aesthetic richness into play, providing the general public with new access to the literary sources and with new ways of reading the tradition.

However, the readiness to perceive one's own cultural realm as one that includes others is still marginal in both Muslim and Jewish consciousness. The historical and political reasons for this neglect are obvious. They are due to the colonial past, the founding of the State of Israel, and, in case of the Arabic world, to the subsequent return to Islam as a way of constituting one's own political and national identity. This is to be seen as a reaction and protest against the early scholarly tradition of 19th-century Orientalism, which took religion to be the central force in the political history of Muslim countries, a circumstance that was understood as the cause of the weakness of Muslim countries and their inability to carry out structural reforms. In opposition, Muslim elites of the 19th and early 20th centuries likewise took recourse to religion in order to defend themselves ideologically and theologically: not Islam, but turning away from Islam, was declared the cause of their crisis. Thereafter, almost every thought of reform in the Islamic world had to make sure that its demands were "Islamic".

Only in recent years do we observe a shift of paradigm. Against entirely different social and intellectual backgrounds, authors like the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun (who teaches in Paris), the Egyptian Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, or the Iranian Abdolkarim Sorush are beginning to define the function of religion anew (in certain ways quite traditionally so) by seeking to disentangle the public realm and its intellectual and social life from theological determination. Democracy, for example, is no longer to be refused as being against or to be justified as being compatible with Islam; rather, the entire realm of the state constitution is to be removed from the purview of religion.

The project perceives itself as a platform of mutual learning about the structures and thought processes in Jewish and Islamic religious traditions. Jewish historiography itself at present no longer conceives of Judaism as the origin and center of the three "monotheistic" religions; in addition, the present critique of the religio-political discourse dominant in the Islamic world articulates itself as a reaction to the "Christian" Orientalism of the 19th century. One further antidote to the colonial gesture of Euro-Christian Orientalism will be the incorporation of voices from Eastern Churches.

The critique of 19th- and 20th-century modernism, formulated especially in German Critical Theory and the French philosophical critique of "universal reason" and its inherent colonial logic, finds important correspondences in contemporary scholarly work on the specific text traditions in Jewish and Muslim cultures. To release the power inherent in the texts in a reflective and critical manner will be the task of a "religious avant-garde". Religious fundamentalism thus becomes a component of modernism, situated within the larger socio-historical context of the 19th and 20th centuries, within the formation of nation-states, colonialism, totalitarianism, and fascism.

4. Goals

Taking another look at the multi-religious Arab culture will provide important impulses to Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies, Religious Studies, Philology, Philosophy, and above all to the cultural debate in the Jewish, Islamic and Eastern Christian world itself. Critical intellectuals and theologians, including those whose positions are controversial in their home countries, could find here a framework for cooperative work that currently has no place in the Middle East. In Berlin a platform could be established that will address Eastern Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions as part of Europe's own heritage, a platform that could thus have effects not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe and in the United States. Moreover, the German discussion of cultural theory, which is still bound to Greek-Christian premises, will be enriched by this kind of attention to Jewish and Islamic literary traditions in ways that could have long-term consequences for the academic disciplines of general philosophy, philology, and the humanities in general. A more distant goal of the project on Islamic and Jewish hermeneutics at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin would be the integration of these traditions in the general cultural studies and humanities curricula of the European universities.

5. Themen

Folgende Forschungsschwerpunkte zum Thema jüdische und islamische Hermeneutik bieten sich als Grundlage einer mehrjährigen wissenschaftlichen Zusammenarbeit zwischen Islamwissenschaftlern, Judaisten, Philosophen und Literaturwissenschaftlern an:

  • Schrift und Kanon
  • Liturgie, Gebet, Ikonographie, Poetik und musikalische Ästhetik
  • Traditionelle Exegese
  • Muslimische und Jüdische Theologie und Philosophie des Mittelalters
  • Halakha und Fiqh - Kanonisierung des Rechts
  • Sufismus und jüdische Mystik
  • Ausgang zur Moderne: Die Politik der Hermeneutik und die Hermeneutik der Politik

Im akademischen Jahr 2002/2003 nimmt das Projekt seine Arbeit zu den Themen Rezitation und Ästhetik sowie Schrift und Exegese auf.

6. Organisation

The project Jewish and Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique was initiated by Dr. Almut Sh. Bruckstein and Dr. Navid Kermani. It is currently directed by Dr. Bruckstein and Professor Dr. Angelika Neuwirth. The project is part of the programme of the Working Group Modernity and Islam of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and is supported by funds from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

Members of the project committee are:

- Professor Dr. Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid (Universiteit Utrecht; International Institute for the Study of Islam in The Modern World, Leiden
- Professor Dr. Daniel Boyarin (University of California at Berkeley)
- Dr. Almut Sh. Bruckstein (Humboldt-Universität Berlin)
- Professor Dr. Yehuda Elkana (Rector, Central European University, Budapest)
- Professor Dr. Moshe Halbertal (Hebrew University, Jerusalem)
- Dr. Navid Kermani (Cologne)
- Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. Wolf Lepenies (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin)
- Professor Dr. Christoph Markschies (University Heidelberg)
- Professor Dr. Tayob Abdelkader (International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden)
- Professor Dr. Angelika Neuwirth (Freie Universität Berlin)
- Professor Dr. Peter Schäfer (Princeton University)
- Professor Dr. Stefan Wild (University Bonn)

7. Workshop Reports

Report of the Workshop: Scripture beyond the Written Word
June 13-15, 2002 at the Orient-Institut der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft in Istanbul

Report of the Workshop Mysterium Tremendum: Horror and the Aesthetics of Religious Experience
Held at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 12 - 15 December 2002

Report of the Summer Academy: The Hermeneutics of Border. Canon and Community in Judaism, Christianity and Islam
Held at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 3 - 13 August 2003

Bericht des Symposiums: Historische Sondierungen und methodische Reflexionen zur Korangenese - Wege zur Rekonstruktion des vorkanonischen Koran
Berlin, 21. - 25. Januar 2004