Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique

Report of the Summer Academy
"The Hermeneutics of Border: Canon and Community in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam"

Berlin, 3 - 13 August 2003

1. General remarks

The eighth international summer academy of the Working Group Modernity and Islam was organized in the context of the project "Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique" on the theme "The Hermeneutics of Border: Canon and Community in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam". The academy was directed by Professors Nasr H. Abu Zaid (Leiden University / Utrecht University), Daniel Boyarin (UC Berkeley), and Christoph Markschies (University of Heidelberg) and took place from August 3 - 13, 2003, in Berlin. The summer academy was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation. 

2. Academic report

Underlying the Summer Academy as a whole was the assumption that cultural borders ought not primarily to be viewed as an explanation for other cultural phenomena, but rather as something that itself stands in need of explanation. Cultural and religious boundaries are fundamentally ephemeral and require constant re-drawing and re-assertion; they do not merely constitute pre-given and nature-like constraints on the ways individuals act and express themselves, but are fashioned by these individuals' actions and choices. This shift from envisaging religious boundaries as an explanans towards treating them as an explanandum has been applied by Daniel Boyarin (UC Berkeley) to the study of the Judaeo-Christian interface in Late Antiquity, and the Academy extended the field of analysis to medieval Islamic culture as well. The specific focus of the Academy then consisted in drawing attention to one specific set of devices through which religious boundaries are established and upheld, namely textual interpretation in all its forms, including commentary, translation, paraphrasis, rewriting, allusion, and refutation.

If religious borders are shown to be articifial constructs that supervene on specific strategies of communal self-demarcation, rather than part and parcel of the natural make-up of things, then they will almost certainly lose much of their plausibility. Within the framework of the Working Group Modernity and Islam's project "Jewish and Islamic Hermeneutics as Cultural Critique", such a 'deconstructionist' side effect of scholarly analysis is explicitly acknowledged. The myth of self-contained and culturally autonomous national or religious traditions has political implications that feed into contemporary Islamic fundamentalism as well as right-wing Zionism. Challenging this myth with the tools of solid historical research may thus provide starting points for the elaboration of less exclusive ways of articulating cultural and religious identity.

By their very nature, therefore, the questions asked in the Summer Academy cut across academic curricula. The problem of how significant a role Syriac Christianity played for the emergence of Islam as an autonomous confessional identity, for example, fits almost nowhere on the current map of academic disciplines. This is partly due to the fact that Arabists frequently do not receive sufficient language training in Syriac (but rather learn Persian and Turkish, since they are considered 'Islamic languages'), while - at least according to some of the participants - students of Syriac literature often tend to leave research on formative Islam to the Arabists. The project presentations given by Michael Marx (FU Berlin), Barbara Roggema (University of Groningen), and Clare Wild (Catholic University of America) highlighted the opportunities as well as the methodological challenges that are consequent upon such an interdisciplinary perspective on early Islam. A similar point could be made with respect to medieval Judaism: As the presentation of Shamma Boyarin (UC Berkeley) highlighted, an adequate appraisal of Yehuda al-Harizi's (fl. 1200?) Tahkemoni requires placing it against the background of Arabic literature and theology. Besides the thematical focus of the Academy (see above), its other primary objective was thus to provide a shared discursive forum for representatives of institutionally separate disciplines, as well as for scholars from 'within' and from 'without' the religious traditions under discussion.

Although the participant's reseach projects did not all specifically address the use of textual interpretation for the construction of religious borders, a large number of them dealt with various instances of intercultural exchange and borrowing, as well as polemics. Besides Shamma Boyarin's presentation, other cases in point are Elisha Fishbane's (Harvard University) attempt to pinpoint Sufi elements in the work of the Jewish pietist Bahya b. Paquda, Dirk Hartwig's (FU Berlin) survey of the way Islam and Judaism mutually shaped each others way of re-telling prophetic legends, Lejla Demiri's (Gregorian University of Rome) analysis of Muslim polemics against the Divinity of Christ, and Marianne Klar's (SOAS, London) psycho-analytical 'close reading' of al-Tha'labî's reworking of biblical narratives. In addition, in one of the working groups the Greek Letter of Aristeas was read, which purports to describe how the canonical Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) came into being. In some of these cases the observation was made that cultural borrowing and assimilation, far from automatically leading to the obliteration of religious boundaries, frequently was used as a powerful tool for articulating and justifying (and thus maintaining) difference. The assumption that cultural homogeneity as such advances an irenic attitude between different religious communities therefore appears highly questionable.

Even though some of the research projects did not foreground exegesis as a means of border construction, the prominent place accorded to scripture in all three of the religions discussed secures for textual interpretation an important role within other strategies of self-demarcation. For example, David Freidenreich (Columbia University) addressed the significance of commensality as a 'border marker' and the role of food in general for the maintenance of collective identities. Yet even in this case, exegetical discussion of various Scriptural food regulations (such as Qur'ân, 5: 5) occupied a central position. Similarly, Islam Dayeh's (University of Leiden) discussion of anti-Jewish measures in seventeenth century Yemen dealt with the Quranic requirement of 'humility' (saghar) on the part of non-Muslim subjects, and the significance it took on within one particular local and temporal context. The issue of local appropriations and redefinitions of religious traditions as a means of communal self-definition was also raised by Mabrouk Mansouri (University of Sousse, Tunisia), who highlighted the adaptation of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic motives by the Berber prophet Sâlih b. Tarif.

The wide spectrum of research interests and scholarly expertise, tightly clustered as it was around the two focal points "canon" and "communal identity", encouraged a comparative and methodologically reflective perspective on the source material. One of the issues raised in this respect was what one might call the 'teleological fallacy': As Katja Vehlow (New York University) argued in her presentation, much of the contemporary historiography of Andalusian Judaism is implicitly encumbered with a 'lacrymose' vision of Jewish history as a vicious cycle of persecution that with inexorable logic leads up to the Holocaust. She then went on to show how this perceived end point (presaged by the expulsion of 1492) structured a messianic interpretation of Abraham b. Daud's Chronicles, of which she is currently preparing an edition. The danger of teleological 'backshadowing' is of course most tangible in the study of religious origins: The lecture given by Christoph Markschies (University of Heidelberg), for example, forcefully contended that Gnosticism can be understood as an alternative elaboration of Christianity, rather than an alien heresy threatening the doctrinal purity of the Church from without. However, retrojection of the endpoint of the development of Antique Christianity creates a temptation to accept as genuinely Christian only those beliefs and practices sanctified by the consensus of later clergymen. The culture-critical impetus of such a 'historicist' challenge of teleology was spelt out by Galit Hasan-Rokem (Hebrew University Jerusalem), who posed the question as to what historical trajectories religious and national narratives construct: "Are the Jews of Antique Galilee more 'my past' than Muslims living there centuries later? Are not Muslim women more of my past than male Rabbis?". Furthermore, an illuminating example for the way such diachronic trajectories are generated was offered by Betul Avci (Gregorian University of Rome) in her analysis of Augustine's philosophy of history.

Markschies' lecture raised another crucial point for the overall topic of the Academy and for the way the analytical category of 'canon' is applied in general: What are the functions and uses which we are presupposing when we call a book 'canonical'? Is a canon something which is commented upon, something used for liturgical purposes, something cited in theological treatises, or something with which people have themselves buried? Against a narrow interest in what he called "great theologians and their lists of canonical books", Markschies argued that the horizon of inquiry ought to be expanded to include questions such as the following: What are the functions which the books of the New Testament played in liturgy and in private and public life? Who actually possessed a Bible? Where could one buy one, and what did one do with it?

While it is clear that canonization in the sense of selecting the corpus of authoritative books precedes interpretation, it was remarked that the latter itself is subject to a kind of canonization, too - namely, definition of the repertoire of acceptable exegetical devices and, perhaps even more importantly, of the context within which the text can be legitimately understood. In the Islamic case, for example, this is done by emphasizing the Qur'ân's background in pagan Arabia and reducing Christian and Jewish protagonists to the role of witnesses to the truth of Muhammad's claim to prophethood. In setting out his research on hermeneutical issues in Islamic legal theory, David Vishanoff (Emory University) illustrated how such a choice of context is often accompanied by full-fledged theologies of language: As the Ash'arite theologian al-Bâqillânî (d. 1013) argued, the Qur'ânic text in its literal shape cannot be identified with God's eternal speech, which implies a certain degree of obscurity and indeterminacy. This in turn provides theological justification for interpreting the Qur'ân in the light of additional evidence external to the text, such as strictly rational considerations.

The extent to which commitment to a specific interpretative context controls the results of any hermeneutic endeavor can also be seen to underly contemporary discussions in the Muslim world on this issue. The hermeneutical implications of the claim to return to the pristine doctrine of the 'righteous forbears' (al-salaf al-sâlih), for example, were spelled out by Birgit Krawietz (University of Tübingen). From an internal point of view, both the presentations of Mohammad Mojahedi (Research Institute for Curriculum and Innovation, Teheran) and Hassan Rezaei (Max Planck Institute for Criminal Law, Freiburg) put forward alternative ways of access to Islamic scripture - the former by probing the possibility of drawing on general religious experience as an interpretive context for the Qur'ân, and the latter by insisting on the theological justifiability of setting up human rights as a framework for the reconsideration of Islamic criminal justice. These discussions were complemented by Katayun Amirpur's (Cologne) survey of contemporary Iranian exegesis, and Andrea Haist's (University of Bonn) research on tafsîr adabî, i. e. interpretation of the Qur'ân in the context of Arabic literary studies rather than Islamic theology and law -- a tradition of thought also represented by one of the Academy's conveners, namely Nasr H. Abu Zaid (University of Utrecht). Against the assumption that such 'reformist' re-readings of scripture are limited to modern Islamic thought, where they are frequently seen as exclusively resulting from cultural challenges posed by the West, Ulrika Martensson (Dalarna University, Sweden) insisted that the notion of reform is applicable to pre-modern Islamic exegetes such as al-Tabari as well.

Although the interdisciplinary nature of the Academy encouraged application of a paradigm of 'cultural exchange', where e. g. Jewish and Christian converts to Islam are seen as enriching their new religion with concepts, narratives, and practices taken from their former one, it was observed that such a perspective presupposes solid and clear-cut cultural borders - the very artificiality of which was precisely one of the Academy's foci. Instead, Hasan-Rokem emphasized the shared cultural milieu of Christianity and Judaism in Late Antique Galilee. As another participant remarked, however, this latter approach runs the risk of downplaying the fact that members of this shared milieu themselves very strongly accentuated certain borders between them. Such an insistence on self-demarcation, which was addressed on a general level by Sevket Yavuz (Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Turkey), can already be observed in the respective traditions' foundational texts: The presentations by Mohamad Setiawan (University of Bonn) and Süleyman Derin (Marmara University, Turkey) explored the Qur'ân's complex dialectics of asserting continuity with, and distinguishing itself from, Judaism and Christianity. As Friedmann Eißler (University of Tübingen) showed, this tension crystallizes in particular around the personality of Moses, who figures as a lodestar for the possibility and nature of revelation in all three major monotheistic religions.

The Academy was structured in a way as to balance discussion of the general topic and of more specific subtopics. At the end of each day, a plenary session was held that provided an opportunity for presenting problems raised in the smaller working groups to the other participants as well. Besides the participants' presentations of their current research projects, thematical working groups were held that among others addressed the following issues: Functions and characteristics of narratives of origins (such as the Letter of Aristeas mentioned above), theological presuppositions of allegorical exegesis, and the possibility of applying ethnographic methodology to the study of ancient sources, and the possibility of extracting from those texts the voices of marginalized social groups such as women. In this context, the presentation given by Sa'diyya Shaikh (University of Cape Town) explored the possibility and the limits of distilling an indigenous Islamic feminism from Sufi literature in spite of its frequent association of women with the baser, material spheres of existence. Moreover, a gender-sensitive reading of religious texts brings out the fact that boundaries are not only constructed between different communities, but also within these communities themselves, where they regulate access to political power no less than to the exegetical discourse of the scribes.

Since participants (with the exception of the tutors) were asked not to present conventional academic lectures, but rather offer research reports of a work-in-progress kind, with an emphasis on methodological problems and unresolved issues, a publication of the proceedings does not appear practicable. The Academy's objective consisted above all in providing an impetus towards interdisciplinary research for the participants' further academic career, and to bring about a conceptual and methodological cross-pollination between academic disciplines. Many of the questions raised above can fruitfully be applied to other historical phenomena than the ones from which they were originally inspired. It is hoped that the participants' various research projects (most of whom were at the level of preparing a Ph. D. thesis) will draw on this pool of concepts and perspectives. In addition, the relationship between cultural and religious homogeneity, on the one hand, and the desire to create and emphasize alterity, on the other hand (as mentioned above in connection with the Letter of Aristeas), will receive additional attention in an upcoming workshop to be convened by Professors Daniel Boyarin and Angelika Neuwirth in April.

3. Participants

- Professor Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd (Leiden University), Re-reading the Qur'ân: New Hermeneutic Approaches in the Islamic World
- Dr. Katajun Amirpur (Cologne), Who can be the Shepherd? Contemporary Defenders of the Velayat-e faqih
- Betül Avci (Pontifical University Rome), Idea of Revelation in Christianity: Revelation as Progressive
- Professor Daniel Boyarin (University of California), Allegory and the Question of Identity
- Shamma Boyarin (UC Berkeley), Judah al-Harizi's Tahkemoni
- Islam Dayeh (University of Leiden), A Hermeneutics of Saghar (Humiliation): An understanding of the "Other" in 18th and 19th century Yemen
- Lejla Demiri (Pontifical University Rome), Muslim Theologians' Views about the Divinity of Jesus
- Dr. Süleyman Derin (Marmara University), The Divinity of Jesus in Muslim Polemics
- Dr. Friedmann Eißler (University of  Tübingen), "...as a Man Speaks to his Friend" - Revelation and its Transmission to Moses in Biblical-Jewish and in Qur'anic-Islamic Tradition
- Elisha Fishbane (Harvard University), Worldly Wisdom in Bahya ibn Paquda: Between Mu'tazilism and Sufism
- Dr. David Freidenreich (Columbia University), Foreign Food: Restrictions on the Food for Members of Other Religions within Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law
- Dr. Andrea Haist (University of Bonn), The Origin and Development of Literary Interpretation of the Qur'an in Egypt
- Dirk Hartwig (Free University Berlin), The Legends of the Prophets Between Judaism an Islam: An Exegetical Example of Crossing Religious Borders in the Middle Ages
- Professor Galit Hasan-Rokem (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Neighbours as an Idiom for Inter-Religious Relations and other Ethnographic Readings of Rabbinic Literature
- Dr. Navid Kermani (Cologne), The Unimitability of the Qur'an. The Canonization of Aesthetic Experience
- Dr. Marianna Klar (SOAS, London), Temptation, Responsibility and Loss in Tha'labi's Tales of the Prophets: An Exploration of the Human Condition as Manifested in the Islamic Job, Saul, David, Solomon and Noah Stories
- Dr. PD Birgit Krawietz (University of Tübingen), Between Restauration and Reform: The Hermeneutics of Salafi Islam
- Mabrouk Mansouri (University of Sousse Tunisia), Hermeneutics in Islamic Thought and Modernity: the Global, the Local and the Marginal
- Professor Dr. Christoph Markschies (University of Heidelberg), The Canon of the Christian Bible in Antiquity. Some New Horizons for Future Research
Dr. Ulrika Martensson (Högskolan Dalarna), Divine Truth and Human Knowledge: The Hermeneutics of Covenant and Reform in al-Tabarî, al-Ghazzâlî, Ibn Taymiyya, and Jean Calvin
- Michael Marx (Free University Berlin), The Problem of Syro-Aramaic Influences on the Language of the Qur'ân.
- Dr. Mohammad Mahdi Mojahedi (Research Institute for Curriculum and Innovation Teheran), A Comparative Interdisciplinary Study on Hermeneutical Criteria of Distinguishing between "Core" and "Margin" in Mystical-Experience-Oriented Interpretations of the Holy Qur'an
- Dr. Hassan Rezaei (Max-Planck Institut für Strafrecht Freiburg), The Immutable and the Mutable in Islamic Criminal Justice Theory and Iranian Post-revolutionary Practice
- Barbara Hjördis Roggema (University of Groningen, Netherlands), The Legend of Sergius-Bahira and Christian Readings of the Qur'an
- Mohamad N. Kholis Setiawan (University of Bonn), The Scriptures before the Qur'an; A View of its Self-Referentiality and Intertextuality
- Sa'diyya Shaikh (University of Cape Town), Discoursing Gender: Sexuality and Gender in Sufi texts
- Nicolai Sinai (Free University Berlin), Text and Canonization: The Status of the Qur'an in Early Muslim Exegesis
- Katja Vehlow (New York University), Abraham ibn Daud's "Chronicles of Rome" and the "Chronicles of the Kings of Israel" as Examples of Jewish Historiography in 12th Century Iberia"
- David Vishanoff (Emory University), Early Islamic Hermeneutics: The Nature and Interpretation of Revealed Language in pre-Classical Legal Theory
- Clare Wilde (The Catholic University of America), An Islamic Reworking of Syriac Christianity
- Dr. Sevket Yavuz (Canakkale Onsekiz Mart Üniversitesi), Hermeneutics as New Textual Exegesis or Realignment of "Canonized" Readings / "Consecrated" Archetypal Interpretations

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