The International Trade with Manuscripts in Arabic Script: From Commercial Commodity to Cultural Heritage

In 2021, after more than a decade of public acknowledgements of the growing inequality between the poor and the wealthy, the concepts of illegitimate and legitimate ownership of any particular culture, however intangible, has acquired visceral ethical implications in everyday life which transcends academic research on cultural appropriation in postcolonial studies and related fields.  Ownership of a particular culture has been essentialized to protect at least the possession of our immaterial property, that is: intangible cultural heritage, against the absolute logic of market capitalism in the neoliberal age.  Against this backdrop, any investigation of the border-crossing mobility of manuscripts in Arabic script raises the question how contemporary best practices for acquisition and collection management inform our interpretation of the available evidence whether past acquisitions were spoils of war, stolen goods, gift giving, or legitimate commercial transactions.

The question is particularly acute for manuscripts in Arabic script which are nowadays held in private collections and public memory institutions outside Muslim majority societies.  The depth of the historical collections of manuscripts in Arabic script in the former imperial capitals of Paris, London, or Vienna is well known.  Even regional European libraries hold small, though important Islamic collections, like those in Hamburg, Munich, and Bologna which were acquired as part of the private libraries of Albrecht Widmanstetter (1506–1557), Abraham Hinckelmann (1652–1695), and Luigi Marsili (1658-1730), respectively.  At the same time, the border-crossing mobility of manuscripts in Arabic script also occurred within the Islamic lands, between South Asia and North Africa, between the Balkans and Central Asia.  Their circulation across the Islamic lands forces scholars to search for codicological and literary evidence that the manuscripts themselves were moving, and not the artisans.  Art historians vigorously debate whether certain Persian bibliophilic codices were – despite the Safavid style of their calligraphy, illumination, figurative paintings, and bindings – the work of Ottoman or Mughal workshops.  In contrast, the circulation of manuscripts in Arabic script outside the Islamic lands has turned into the proverbial elephant in the room.  In the early 1870s, when traveling in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921) bought for the just founded Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest only printed books because the foreign demand for manuscripts – as Goldziher had learned from his Arab colleagues – had made them too expensive on the book markets in Damascus and Cairo.  About a century later, Edward Said (1935–2003) presented in Orientalism the steady flow of manuscripts from the Islamic lands to Paris and London – the beginning of which he dated to about 1800 – as evidence for the indebtedness of modern European philology to this displaced Arab-Islamic treasure trove of knowledge.

The international trade with manuscripts in Arabic script can be documented from the sixteenth century onwards with the historical holdings which have survived – against considerable odds – in contemporary collections in Europe and North America.  I argue that the work of book dealers like Abraham Yahuda (1877–1951) has to be understood within this long tradition of highly educated middle men selling manuscripts in Arabic script to foreigners in order to make a living.  However, at the current state of descriptive cataloguing, codicological evidence for the international book trade is often omitted from manuscript descriptions as research continues to focus on the manuscripts’ contents as well as on workshops, patrons, or owners.  In other words, the agency of sellers and dealers has received much less attention.  Taking advantage of the less charged research about commercial transactions with “western” books as hard-nosed, unsentimental business, it becomes possible to recognize the codicological evidence of the international trade with manuscripts in Arabic script and its impact on Middle Eastern and Islamic studies as practiced outside the Islamic lands since the Renaissance.

* Abstract of my contribution to the online symposium about A.S Yahuda and Islamic Manuscripts, scheduled for 1-3 June 2021 and sponsored by Princeton University and The College of Charleston; for more information about the organizing committee, see the symposium’s website https://web.archive.org/save/https://yahuda.princeton.edu/symposium-2021/speakersandsponsors/.  

Corrected, 15 May 2021     

Provenance as Interdisciplinary Research Challenge

In August 2020 Emma Hagström Molin organized a two-day ZOOM workshop about provenance with the support of the Centre for Integrated Research on Culture and Society (CIRCUS) of Uppsala University (Sweden).  Her current research on the material conditions for historical research during the nineteenth century is funded by an international postdoctoral fellowship of the Swedish Research Council, and she had convened a diverse and lively group of presenters and listeners.  As the ZOOM workshop was not open to the public, it does not have a website with detailed information about its program and presenters. 

On the second day the workshop effectively closed with a question posed by Claes-Fredik Helgesson, the director of CIRCUS.  Helgesson ruminated whether mapping could help with organizing the bits and pieces of our collective knowledge of the various aspects of provenance, thereby analyzing and elucidating how the concept’s meaning and its epistemological status in classification schemes has evolved in diachronic and synchronic perspectives, over time and across space.  Helgesson’s use of the word “mapping” was intriguing. It made me wonder about the viability of a future Digital Humanities (DH) project which would employ visualization tools for constructing a history of the concept of provenance, while tracking changing practices of provenance research in a range of disciplines in the Humanities and the Sciences.

Hagström Molin had opened her introduction to the workshop with a reflection on the history and etymology of the word “provenance,” bringing into the discussion how Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist define the word in their introduction to Provenance: An Alternative History of Art (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2012, 1 and 4 n.1).  Feigenbaum and Reist state that in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the first documented use of provenance occurred in 1785, when the word served as shorthand for “history of ownership,” with the extended meaning of “documented record.” Unfortunately, Feigenbaum and Reist do not identify date and format (that is, printed or digital) of the consulted OED version.  More important, though, is their astute observation that “[o]n the face of it, we all know what provenance means” (p. 1).  A short survey of recent English-language scholarship confirms that the word’s meaning is indeed perceived as being self-evident – which usually is a red flag that things are more complicated than we would like them to be. Nick Pearce and Jane C. Milosch open their introduction to Provenance and Collecting (London: Rowan & Littlefield, 2019) with this breezy statement: “The most basic definition of the word provenance is ‘place of origin’ from the French provenir, ‘to come from,’ and before this, the Latin provenire: pro, ‘forth’ and venire ‘come.’  Increasingly, the word has come to be closely associated with the history of creation and ownership of a specimen, artifact, or work of art” (p. xv). Unlike Feigenbaum and Reist, Pearce and Milosch do not provide a reference for these etymological and historical details, and yet they draw attention to the word and its meaning. Victoria Reid does not comment on the word itself in her entry on “Provenance” in Grove Art Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, updated 2016, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T069868), and neither does David Pearson in his handbook about Provenance Research in Book History (2d ed., Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019).

My own reading of the entry on provenance in the current version of the OED Online, which provides the text of the third revised edition of 2007, differs from that offered by Feigenbaum and Reist, but they may have consulted an earlier edition of the OED.

NB – The entry’s remainder is not shown as it merely provides more citations for the word’s third meaning.

The note on provenance’s origin includes a warning: “A borrowing from French. Perhaps also partly formed within English, by derivation.”  The first identified meaning draws on a 1918 article for the citation of a 1628 source to conclude that in the early modern era the word provenance was used in business transactions to indicate “the source of profit.” This first meaning, though, is marked as rare and nowadays obsolete. As regards the documented use in 1785, highlighted by Feigenbaum and Reist, the citation is presented as evidence for the second meaning: “[t]he fact of coming from some particular source or quarter; origin, derivation.” But the OED editors add the disclaimer that the 1785 citation may represent a slightly different usage than that illustrated by the following citations for the nineteenth and twentieth century. The oldest given citation for the third meaning, which represents the word’s contemporary usage by art historians as contextualized by Feigenbaum and Reist, was published in 1860. 

I draw three conclusions from this linguistic evidence. The first is that it offers a timely reminder about the importance of French as one the languages of medieval and early modern England.  A word that looks like a borrowing from French does not automatically point to Franco-British contacts in the late eighteenth century.  The second conclusion is that it directs attention to the close relation between provenance’s meaning in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. While the seventeenth-century meaning was narrow and precise, the eighteenth-century meaning had broadened and became more general. The third conclusion is that it presents the evolution of provenance’s meaning as metonymy, if its history is read backwards, from the present to the past: an object acquires value when authenticity is confirmed and owners are known, thereby becoming a source of profit.

Against this backdrop I offer the working hypothesis that the concept of provenance – defined as the chain of ownership, whether legal or illegal, through which a mobile or immobile object was transferred between people – is present in every society whose members can own private property and whose economy supports markets and a practice of individual collecting. While more comparative research would be necessary to identify the role of conspicuous consumption for practices of individual collecting, I hasten to add that I am not arguing that owning individual property is an anthropological constant.  In order to facilitate a comparative approach based on a range of disciplines from the Humanities and the Sciences, I would suggest to employ a heuristics that draws on semiotics to distinguish between word (signifier), meaning (signified), and concept (referent).  This heuristic strategy would allow for investigating changes and differences between languages, eras, and locations, thereby revealing developments over longer stretches of time.  The concept of provenance is posited to be stable, but words and meanings change, be it in conjunction or be it separately.  On the one hand, a word remains in use, but its meaning is new; an example would be looting.  On the other hand, the meaning is retained, although it is now attached to a different word; e.g., we approve of national heritage but shun the common good.  One of the possible outcomes of this heuristic approach could be a representation of the different aspects of the concept of provenance, for example, through three different maps visualizing words, meanings, and the changing relations between them.

Last updated, 29 August 2020

Owning Books in Arabic Script inside and outside Muslim Communities

In all literate societies, the vast majority of books are utilitarian commodities whose most important feature is their reproducibility, be it in the same medium (e.g., manuscript to manuscript) or be it in a new medium (e.g., manuscript to digital surrogate).  The technology of writing allows for the manufacture of new copies, irrespective of a book’s format (that is: tablet, scroll, roll, codex, e-book), whenever it seems opportune or necessary to replace an old copy with a new copy.  At the same time, books and their contents are continually destroyed in the course of natural disasters, warfare, censorship, deaccession, or wear and tear.  Between these extreme poles of unlimited reproducibility and pending permanent disappearance, we can recognize the contours of two different book cultures: utilitarian books with texts for readers and rare or bibliophilic books regarded as valuable.  But what we think about particular texts and artifacts changes over time, and thus books move back and forth between these two cultures.

In their introduction to Provenance: An Alternate History of Art (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2012), Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist conceive of provenance as “a kind of shadow social history of art” (p. 3).  Books, though, are different from works of art – if we are disregarding livres d’artistes.  While works of art nowadays require provenance records as documentation of legal ownership, David Pearson observes in the introduction to his handbook about Provenance Research in Book History (2d ed. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019) that the complete absence of any information about earlier owners is as common as the preservation of some details indicating a book’s social history (pp. 9–10).

It is against this backdrop that I will draw on selected holdings of Columbia University Libraries in order to explore how the officially available information about the provenance of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script provides new insight into changing perceptions of their international trade and their value.  The investigation of their provenance and sale cannot be separated from the interrogation of the legitimacy of their ownership, because their social history inside and outside Muslim communities is linked to contemporary debates about Orientalism and Islamophobia.  I argue that the dual nature of books – they can be cultural heritage and run-of-the-mill cheap copies – necessitates a reflection about different concepts of individual and collective ownership vis-à-vis representations of power and historical responsibility.  

Note 1. With regard to the methodological challenge which is posed by the economic reality that books are commodities, and this economic reality comprises even rare luxury volumes which are manufactured to order for wealthy patrons or religious institutions, I find it useful to contrast the heritage value of mobile commodities such as old books to the heritage value of old buildings which can be neither replaced by a new copy nor picked up and whisked away; see Jaume Franquesa, “On Keeping and Selling: The Political Economy of Heritage Making in Contemporary Spain, Current Anthropology 54.3 (June 2013): 346-369; DOI: 10.1086/670620.

Note 2. While scholars investigate an artefact’s provenance when determining its authenticity or its legal owner, antiquarian book dealers explore the associations which form a book’s web of human relations in order to possibly enhance its emotional or intellectual value in the eyes of its customers. Three contemporary glossaries on book collecting, western codicology, and bookselling illustrate different perceptions of provenance vis-à-vis association, documenting that in the world of books provenance and association are complementary concepts.

John Carter and Nicolas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors, 8th ed. with corrections, Newcastle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 2006. 1t ed. in the UK, London: R. Hart-Davis, 1952.

Michelle P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, London: BL, 1994.

Glossary on the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), available at: https://ilab.org/glossary

* Abstract of my talk at the workshop about Provenance: Interdisciplinary Conversations, organized by Emma Hagström Molin at the Centre for Integrated Research on Culture and Society (Circus) of Uppsala University (Sweden). The ZOOM workshop will take place on 20-21 August 2020.

Enlarged, 16 August 2020

The Public Accountability of a Marie Curie Fellowship

On 31 January 2019, my Marie Curie Fellowship ended after twenty-four months.  The Horizon2020 rules for the MSCA Individual Fellowships stipulate that after sixty days the host institution and its Marie Curie Fellow have to submit a final report to the European Commission. This report comprises a public summary, eventually to be published on CORDIS (https://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/206308/factsheet/en), and a confidential technical account, the financial part of which is inaccessible to the fellow.  The grant’s final installment will only be released to the host institution, if it is decided, on the basis of this final report, that the fellowship was successful.  Below follows an advanced draft of the public summary, which is not yet structured in accordance with the public summary’s checklist. For the time being, scholars can apply for a Marie Curie Fellowship at any point of their career.  In keeping with the terminological conventions of Horizon2020 and the MSCA, Marie Curie Fellows are called Experienced Researcher (ER), even if they are less than seven years after the receipt of their degree (cf. the NEH distinction between junior and senior scholars).  However, a Marie Curie Fellow cannot be the Principal Investigator (PI) of her grant, since the fellowship is awarded to the host institution where her sponsor is responsible for the budget.  

Making Books Talk: The Material Evidence of Manuscripts of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ by Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ for the Reception of an Andalusian Biography of the Prophet between 1100 and 1900  

The project explored the transformation of an early twelfth-century Arabic treatise on Islamic dogma (Ar. ʿaqīda), which was written in the Islamic West, probably in the port city of Ceuta (Ar. Sabta), North Africa, into a work of pious literature that today is studied by Sunni Muslims all over the world.  The Kitāb al-shifāʾ bi-taʿrīf huqūq al-Muṣṭafā (“The book of healing concerning the recognition of the true facts about the Chosen One”) was composed by ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā al-Ḥāfiẓ Abū’l-Faḍl al-Yaḥṣubī al-Sabtī (1083–1149 CE), also known as Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ.  Serving as a judge (Ar. qāḍī) in his hometown Ceuta between 1121 to 1147, as well as for less than a year, between 1135 and 1136, as a judge in Granada, Spain, Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ was a celebrated jurist of the Maliki school of law with a particular interest in historical accounts (Ar. ḥadīth “story, tradition”) about the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632). 

Societal Relevance.  The project’s publications provide concrete historical context for the current debates on religious diversity and Islamophobia in western societies.  On the one hand, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ is associated with Iberia before 1500, when Jews, Christians, and Muslims were still living, mostly peacefully, next to each other in societies with a high degree of religious and linguistic diversity.  Consequently, the project used a comparative approach to situate the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, as a biography of the prophet Muḥammad, in interdenominational discussions about false and true prophets, because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three monotheistic religions, agree that prophecy is one means of divine revelation.  On the other hand, the project traced the diffusion of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in a long-term perspective, from the twelfth century to the present.  The focus on the work’s reception allowed the project to refute the widely repeated claim of Islam’s essentially unchanging and unchangeable “medieval nature,” commonly adduced as the reason as to why Islam and modernity are irreconcilable, by documenting how over time Muslim readers changed their approaches to and their understanding of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ.  

Scholarly Relevance.  The project selected the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, because it is an important twelfth-century source for the history of the Islamic West which never dropped out of circulation.  In publications on the legal and political history of Iberia and North Africa during the transition from the rule of the Almoravids (1061–1147) to that of the Almohads (1130–1269), scholars of Islam in Iberia—among others, Maribel Fierro, Cristina de la Puente, Delfina Serrano, Camilo Gómez-Rivas, and Javier Albarrán—draw on the work.  To this day Malikis continue to teach the book as a work of hadith scholarship and theology (Ar.ʿilm al-kalām), and yet, it has also transcended its historical and regional origins.  As documented by dated manuscript evidence, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ circulated widely in the Islamic East, outside Maliki circles, from the thirteenth century onwards, and became—in the words of  Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003), a renowned scholar of Islam on the Indian Subcontinent—“perhaps the most frequently used and commented-upon handbook in which the Prophet’s life, his qualities, and his miracles are described in every detail” (And Muḥammad is his Messenger, 1985, p. 33).  Muslim publishers continually issue new printed versions, ranging from various editions of the Arabic text to translations into English, French, German, Spanish, Urdu, or Malay, while the number of digital surrogates of manuscripts and nineteenth-century printed versions available in digital depositories on the Internet is steadily increasing. 

Feasibility.  For some of the most important works of Islamic literature that were written in the Islamic West, just a single manuscript has been preserved.  Famous examples are the only known Arabic translation (ed. ʿA. al-Badawī, Beirut, 1982; and ed. M. Penelas, Madrid, 2001) of the Latin universal history Historiae adversum paganos (“History against the pagans”) by the Christian historian Orosius (active early 5th century); the love story of Bayāḍ and Riyāḍ (ed. A. d’Ottone, Vatican City, 2013); and the Ṭawq al-ḥamāma (“The ring of the dove”), a treatise on love by the philosopher Ibn Ḥazm (994–1064; cf. J. J. Witkam, “Establishing the stemma,” Manuscripts of the Middle East 3, 1988, pp. 88–101).  In contrast, hundreds of Kitāb al-shifāʾ manuscripts are preserved in accessible collections worldwide.  The rich manuscript tradition offers the invaluable opportunity to study the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s diffusion in a long-term perspective.

State of the Art.  The Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s enduring popularity with Muslim readers from the thirteenth century onwards had not yet received any attention from scholars in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.  On the one hand, popularity is often mistaken as an indication that a literary work has already been comprehensively studied.  But so far, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ has been primarily valued as a source, which seems so well-known that nothing really new or original could be said about it.  On the other hand, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ is a comparatively late addition to the already substantial corpus of literature about the prophet’s life (Ar. sīra), of which the oldest known works were compiled in the late seventh century.  Even though Middle East historians are nowadays firmly committed to overcoming the Orientalist paradigm according to which “the West” generated knowledge about “the East” in order to perpetuate its global economic and political power, the contemporary western discourse on Islam and Muslim societies has remained anchored to the premise that the intellectual decline of the Islamic civilization from the thirteenth century onwards is one of the root causes for the undeniable socio-economic and political problems of twenty-first century Muslim societies in Eurasia and Africa.  The negative view of the Islamic civilization between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries has ensured that these centuries are perceived as a middling period and attract fewer scholars so that much less is known about them.

Objective.  Taking as a starting point the observation that the Kitāb al-shifāʾ is effectively invisible in scholarship as a work in its own right, the project adopted a change of perspective.  The work’s rich manuscript tradition was approached as a hitherto neglected opportunity to review established notions about the work and its author.  On its most general level, the project is designed as a proof-of-concept study.  Its main objective was to demonstrate that even for a well-known work like the Kitāb al-shifāʾ examining accessible manuscripts will generate fresh insights which, in turn, significantly advance our understanding of the intellectual and cultural history of the Islamic civilization, since they challenge, and often outright refute, received opinion.  In addition, the project highlights that manuscripts of popular works in accessible collections in Europe and North America are an underused “hidden” resource with great research potential.

Methodological Contributions.  The project’s methodological approach was based on the hermeneutic principle that historical facts about a work’s origins cannot be deduced from historical evidence for its later circulation, as composition and reception are different stages in a work’s life cycle.  But historical facts about a work’s circulation can, in a second step, support conjectures about its origins, thereby opening new avenues for further research.  With regard to the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, the project confronted two diametrically opposed challenges: on the one hand, the complete lack of internal or external evidence for the concrete circumstances in which Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ wrote the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in the first half of the twelfth century, and, on the other hand, a rich manuscript tradition for the book’s diffusion from the thirteenth century onwards.  In order to address both challenges simultaneously, the project combined the methodologies of manuscript studies with those from the Digital Humanities.  New concrete facts for the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s diffusion were gleaned through the hands-on examination of its manuscripts, in particular dates and places for the production of manuscripts, or proper names and places for owners or readers.  With the help of a cataloguing template and a Data Management Plan (DMP), these diverse historical facts were systematically recorded as “data” so that they can be preserved in online repositories for future reuse (e.g., computational semantic analysis).

Historical Contributions.  The project has yielded surprising new insights into the evolution of pious literature, reading practice, and religious education in connection with the veneration of the prophet Muḥammad from the twelfth-century onwards.  The diffusion of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ was plurilinear, since the work could accommodate orthodox Maliki as well as more fluid Sufi readings.  In other words, the general Sunni reverence for the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, which is so richly documented from the fifteenth century onwards, was independent from the work’s Maliki origins in the Islamic West.  But the recent attention paid to possible connections between the Kitāb al-shifāʾ and Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s tenure as a judge in Granada—the city which thanks to the Alhambra is perhaps most vividly associated with the flowering of the Islamic civilization in Iberia—marks a new stage in the work’s reception, as it reflects the active appropriation of “al-Andalus” as a central site of communal memory for Muslims in Europe and North America in the twenty-first century.

Work and Dissemination.  The Experienced Researcher (ER) and her sponsor worked on the project.  In consultation with the Digital.CSIC, the ER wrote a cataloguing template and a DMP to organize and standardize the manuscript descriptions for a future online database, which will supplement the project’s publications about the Kitāb al-shifāʾ and can be analyzed with computational tools (e.g., mapping, visualization).  In collaboration with a colleague from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the ER organized in Madrid a two-day international workshop about the comparative study of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim literatures about prophets and saints from Iberia between 600 and 1600.  They are now preparing for publication in 2020 a co-edited collective monograph with articles based on selected presentations.  The ER examined Kitāb al-shifāʾ manuscripts in Spanish, German, American, Dutch, and British libraries.  She participated in six conferences in Spain, Germany and the USA; in four workshops in Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands; in two seminars in the USA and in Spain; and in one panel discussion in Germany.  As regards outreach and dissemination, the ER wrote about the project on her research blog, and selected posts are available in the Digital.CSIC and the Academic Commons of Columbia University (USA).  She completed one article about the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in Ottoman book culture, which is in press and will be published later this year, and is currently completing two more articles; the three articles will be made available in Green Open-Access.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 706611.

Budapest, 7 February 2019: Presentation of the Marie Curie Fellowship Project

Center for Religious Studies, CEU – 15:30

Pious Reading as Spiritual Practice:
A Biography of the Prophet Muḥammad from Twelfth-Century Iberia


al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ, Kitāb al-shifāʾ. University of Michigan Library, Isl. MS 209, p. 640, detail. MS arab. h = 21 cm, dated 1269/1852

Individual or communal reading of revelation and other sacred literature is a spiritual practice across faith traditions in literate societies. The Kitāb al-shifāʾ bi-taʿrīf huqūq al-Muṣṭafā (“The book of healing concerning the recognition of the true facts about the Chosen One”) has been a bestseller of devotional literature with Muslim audiences for centuries, all over the world.  Its author ʿIyād b. Mūsā (1083–1149) was an important Maliki jurist who spent most of his professional life as a judge (qāḍī)  in Ceuta.  A loyal partisan of the Almoravid dynasty (1040–1147), Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ died in exile in Marrakesh, and became one of the saints of the city.  Drawing on the evidence of manuscripts and printed versions, this lecture will use the Shifāʾ to explore different modes of pious reading in Muslim societies since the twelfth century.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 706611.

Madrid, 22-23 February 2018: Workshop on Prophets and Saints in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia

Updated, 18 February 2018

Prophets in Medieval Iberia

One goal of my Marie Curie research project is to situate the Kitāb al-shifāʾ bi-taʿrīf huqūq al-Muṣṭafā (“The book of healing concerning the recognition of the true facts about the chosen one”), a work about the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) compiled by the Maliki jurist Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (1083-1149), within the context of medieval Iberian literature.  Taking as starting point the observation that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all three faith traditions have literature about prophets, I am co-organizing an international workshop with Benito Rial Costas, a specialist of the book in early modern Spain who teaches at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.  The workshop Of Prophets and Saints: Literary Traditions and “convivencia” in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia will take place in Madrid on February 22 and 23, 2018.  In the next weeks detailed information about the workshop’s program will be posted on its website.  Below follow some thoughts on the workshop’s rationale.  


Plate with Jonah and the whale
Tin-glazed earthenware, d = 41 cm, Talavera de la Reina, Toledo, c.1600, HSA LE2407
Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

The international workshop will explore religious literature that originated under the particular conditions of “convivencia” in the societies of medieval and early modern Iberia.  It has twenty participants, eighteen invited colleagues and the two organizers, and will be open to the public.  It most general aim is to promote exchange and discussion between academics from Spain with scholars from other parts of Europe and North America.  The participants will employ comparative and interdisciplinary approaches to open new perspectives on how the coexistence of Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities on the Iberian Peninsula is reflected in their respective literary traditions.  The primary focus will be on works concerning prophets and saints.  Both are figures of spiritual authority, since each of the three religions acknowledges prophecy (Heb. nəb̲ūʾa, Lat. prophetia, Ar. nubuwwa) and holiness (cf. Heb. ẓaddik, Lat. sanctus, Ar. walī).  The workshop’s starting point is the hypothesis that literature about prophets and saints also reflected changing modes of religious coexistence, because in premodern societies every contact between religions was haunted by the fear that one’s own religion might have followed a false prophet.  The long experience of religious coexistence on the Iberian Peninsula—beginning with the Islamic invasion of the Visigothic kingdom (418–c.721 CE) in 711 and changing after the rise of the Almoravid dynasty (1040–1147), the Christian edict of conversion in 1391 and the anti-Jewish riots of 1392—also challenges contemporary notions of the roles of both Judaism and Islam in European societies.  Since the Holocaust, there has been a growing recognition of two millennia of Judeo-Christian civilization in Europe and North America.  Islam, however, is still seen as “other” and defined as being outside, if not incompatible with, western civilization (Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, New York City 2004).

The Historiographical Debate on “convivencia”

In research on medieval and early modern Iberia, the term “convivencia” serves as a shorthand for the fact that in the societies of medieval and early modern Iberia, at least until the fall of the Nasrid emirate of Granada (1230–1492), ruling elites of Muslims or Christians lived cheek to jowl with substantial minority communities of Christians, Muslims, or Jews.  Relations between these three communities were complicated, and included many forms of violence.  Boundaries between religious communities were nonetheless regularly crossed since the three communities were connected in myriad ways in the realms of politics and economics (e.g., Robert Burns, Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Crusader Kingdom of Valencia, Cambridge 1984; Thomas Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, 2d rev. ed., Leiden 2005).  Moreover, the relative demographic strength of minority communities vis-à-vis their respective ruling elites was unavoidably accompanied by at least some degree of personal acquaintance with neighbors who belonged to other faith communities (David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence, 2d printing with corrections, Princeton 1996, pp. 21-30).

Whenever Iberian societies are considered together with other Mediterranean societies in Asia Minor, the Levant, and North Africa, the Iberian experiences with “convivencia” appear as ordinary.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims were living next to or with each other under varying degrees of asymmetric violence since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century (Gil Anidjar, “Medieval Spain and the Integration of Memory,” in Islam and Public Controversy, ed. Nilüfer Göle, Farnham, Surrey 2013, pp. 217–226, esp. 218).  It is only from the vantage point of northwest Europe that the coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in medieval and early modern Iberia continues to be perceived as exceptional, since from France to the British Isles Christians were far less likely to live with or next to Jewish or Muslim neighbors.  Small Jewish communities were few and far between, and most Christians only encountered fictional Muslims in Church teachings and vernacular literature (for the best recent survey of the images of Islam in medieval European Christendom, see John Tolan, Saracens, New York City 2002).

It is therefore salient, though not surprising, that at the beginning of the twenty-first century the meaning of “convivencia” in medieval and early modern Iberia has remained fiercely contested (Manuela Marín, “Historical Images of al-Andalus and Andalusians,” in Myths, Historical Archetypes, and Symbolic Figures in Arabic Literature, eds. Anglika Neuwirth et al., Beirut 1999, pp. 409–421; Kenneth Baxter Wolf, “Convivencia in Medieval Spain,” Religion Compass 3/1, 2009, pp. 72–85).  The term most likely first entered Iberian studies in 1918, when Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1869–1968), a pioneer of comparative philology and literary history, used the phrase “la convivencia del hispano y el sajón que se reparten, con América, uno de los hemisferios del planeta” (pp. 13–14) in an article about “La lengua española,” written for the first issue of Hispania, the new journal of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.  But it was his use of “convivencia” in Los orígenes del español (Madrid 1926) that introduced the term into the twentieth-century continuation of the much older debate about the emergence of the modern Spanish language in a multilingual and religiously diverse medieval Iberia and its import for a Roman-Catholic Spanish identity at the core of twentieth-century Spanish nationalism (e.g., Arndt Brendecke, Imperium und Empirie, Cologne 2009; Patricia Hertel, Der erinnerte Halbmond, Berlin 2012).

In contrast, the debates on “convivencia” in Jewish and Middle Eastern studies are deeply informed by historical experiences of persecution and loss, in particular after 1492.  In Jewish studies, the term “convivencia” is linked to debates about the limits of acculturation despite the celebration of a thriving Sephardic culture, in particular between the eighth and the twelfth century (e.g., Yitzhak Fritz Baer, History of the Jews in Christian Spain, trans. from the Hebrew by Louis Schoffman, 2 vols., Philadelphia 1961–1966; Seth Kimmel, Parables of Coercion, Chicago 2015).  In Middle Eastern studies, “convivencia” under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty of Cordoba (756–1031) is cherished as one of the highpoints of medieval Islamic civilization (e.g., María Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World, Boston 2002; cf. Bruno Soravia, “Al-Andalus au miroir du multiculturalisme,” in Al-Andalus/España, ed. Manuela Marín, Madrid 2009, pp. 351–365).

Material Evidence of Acculturation

That “convivencia” was accompanied by varying degrees and forms of acculturation is well attested in the arts and literature of medieval and early modern Iberia.  Art historians discuss the traditional distinctions between “mozárabe” and “mudéjar” when probing how Christians or Muslims, as well as Jews, under Muslim or Christian rule responded to the cultural norms of their respective ruling elites (cf. exhibition catalogs such as Convivencia, Jewish Museum in New York City, 1992; Caliphs and Kings, Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC 2004).  With regard to the uses of language and literacy, extant Romance documents written in the Hebrew or the Arabic script (i.e., Aljamiado) have prompted reflections about diglossia and bilingualism (e.g., Federico Corriente, Diccionario de arabismos, Madrid 1999; David Wacks, Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature, Bloomington, Ind. 2015; Olivier Brisville-Fertin, “¿Aljamía o aljamiado?,” Atalaya, no. 16, 2016, available at:  http://atalaya.revues.org/1791).  Stanzaic poetry (e.g., Otto Zwartjes, Love Songs from al-Andalus, Leiden 1997) and frametale narrative (e.g., Karla Nielsen, “Sewing on the Frame,” PhD diss., University of California Berkeley 2010) demonstrate the diffusion of literary genres across the boundaries of religious communities.

The Fear of False Prophets

Religious coexistence, however, presented serious theological and spiritual challenges, as in medieval and early modern societies there was no religious tolerance in the modern sense of the term.  The legal concept of a secular society in which the full privileges of citizenship are independent of private religious belief did first become law in the French Civil Code of 1804.  In medieval and early modern Iberia, Jews, Christians, and Muslims considered themselves followers of a true prophet who had revealed God’s will, which, in turn, was demonstrated in the well-being of God’s chosen community on earth.  Since in all three religious communities prophets were recognized as instruments of divine revelation, there was considerable anxiety about proving the truth of one’s own prophet when exposing the falsehood of rival prophets.  Apologetic and polemic works from medieval and early modern Iberia vividly illustrate how the experience of oppression on earth added spiritual insult to physical injury, as it raised the specter that a community’s defeat had been preordained because they were following a false, and not a true prophet (e.g., Mercedes García-Arenal and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, Un oriente español, Madrid 2010; Paola Tartakoff, Between Christian and Jew, Philadelphia 2012; Ryan Szpiech, Conversion and Narrative, Philadelphia 2013).  To minorities at the receiving end, hagiographic literature about the lives of prophets and saints was therefore of great practical value, since it provided guidance and consolation whenever a religious community was ruled by those whom they regarded as followers of a false prophet.  By the middle of the thirteenth century, the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Portugal, and Navarre controlled most of the Iberian Pensinsula, while the Nasrid emirate in Granada only held the coastal lands along the southern Mediterranean.  Among Iberian Muslims, the demand for works about the life of the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) went hand in hand with an exploration of literature about jihad (Ar. jihād lit. “struggle, striving”), and there was intense scholarly debate how hadith ascribed to the prophet Muḥammad (Ar. ḥadīth lit. “narrative, talk”) foretold the fate of their community (Maribel Fierro, “Doctrinas y movimientos de tipo mesiánico en al-Andalus,” in Milenarismos y milenaristas en la Europa medieval, ed. José Ignacio de la Iglesia Duarte, Logroño 1999, pp. 159–175, here p. 160; cf. Javier Albarrán, Veneración y polémica, Madrid 2015).  Conversely, the rich Sephardic literature about the Messiah provided its Jewish readers with much sought affirmation of a positive Jewish identity (Benjamin Gampel, “A Letter to a Wayward Teacher,” in Cultures of the Jews, ed. David Biale, New York City 2002, pp. 388–447, here p. 421; cf. Howard Kreisel, Prophecy, Dordrecht 2001).

Comparison and Specificity

It is against this background that the workshop will use literature about prophets and saints from Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities to explore “convivencia” in medieval and early modern Iberia.  Its methodological approach is the assumption that context-specific investigations will build strong foundations for a fresh interdisciplinary discussion, since concrete literary examples necessitate terminological precision.  This specificity will, in turn, serve as safeguard against the hermeneutic pitfall of projecting any particular meaning of “convivencia” unto the interpretation of these sources about important figures of religious authority, since the “problem is not so much the designations themselves, but rather the generalizations that have arisen in their usage.” (María Judith Feliciano and Leyla Rouhi, “Interrogating Iberian Frontiers,” Medieval Encounters 12, 2006, p. 323).

 

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 706611.

Taking Measure of a Forest with too Many Trees

Sampling problems often tell researchers about the topic they are studying.

Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin, Edging Women Out, 1989

All categories of evidence available to scholars are heavily dependent on patterns of recording and publication.

Christopher Howgego, Ancient History from Coins, 1995

For the next twenty-three months I will use this blog to report regularly on MASHQI (http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/206308_en.html), the research project of my Marie Curie Fellowship at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) in Madrid.  At the Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas del Mediterráneo y Oriente Próximo (ILC) of the Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales (CCHS) I will be working on the transmission and reception of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ bi-taʿrīf huqūq al-Muṣṭafā (“The book of healing concerning the recognition of the true facts about the chosen one”) by ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā Abū’l-Faḍl al-Yaḥṣubī al-Sabtī (1083-1149), a highly regarded authority of Maliki Islam, also known as Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ.  At the CSIC, the project is sponsored by Professor Maribel Fierro, and its origins are our shared interest in the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s continuing popularity with Muslim readers in the early twenty-first century.

In Middle Eastern and Islamic studies there is a marked preference for works for which at most a few copies have been preserved.  The situation reflects in part the pragmatism of a field with fewer scholars than fields such as history or English studies.  We do know that there are still too many texts in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish, as well as in the languages of Muslim communities in Africa, Central Asia, China, and the Pacific Rim, which have not yet received any scholarly attention at all.  While the discovery of new texts and unknown authors will make an obvious contribution to the human knowledge base, the focus on the not yet discovered is not without drawbacks.  Familiar works and authors are deeply integrated into our research infrastructure, because they constitute the foundations of our knowledge of the history of Muslim societies.  Consequently, the assumptions upon which this received disciplinary consensus rests is rarely questioned.  On the one hand, it is difficult to be critical of that which is familiar.  There is simply not enough distance to see the rough edges and contradictions that are so obvious from afar.  On the other hand, time and funding are always limited.  In order to complete research projects on a tight schedule, it is important to be careful about the battles we pick.  Not every fight is worth having – whatever the whisperings of our heroic id.

Against this backdrop, my project tries to accomplish two goals.  The first is to use the Kitāb al-shifāʾ as a test case for the practical challenges of how to study a work with an extraordinarily rich transmission history.  Luckily, these practical challenges are not unique to the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, and I can draw on research in quantitative codicology, enumerative bibliography, and the digital humanities in order to design my own approach.  The second goal is to explore the reception of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ outside the Islamic West and the strongholds of Maliki Islam.  My working assumption is that the diachronic study of a work’s reception provides insights into changing interpretations of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ which, in turn, serve as indispensable safeguards against any facile explanation for the enduring popularity of a twelfth-century work of hadith scholarship in the early twenty-first century.  In this context I will also explore questions about the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s literary genre.  How does the Kitāb al-shifāʾ fit into the system of learned Islamic literature in the early twelfth century?  I am furthermore keen to consider the Kitāb al-shifāʾ within the larger context of comparative hagiography, as literature about the lives of exceptionally holy men and women can be found in most religious traditions.

The Marie Curie Fellowship will allow me to conduct this research at one of the most important centers for the study of Islam in Iberia and Africa.  Having arrived at the CCHS on 31 January 2017, for the last month I was very much preoccupied with getting settled in a new environment.  At the end of March, the project has to pass its first milestone: the cataloguing template of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ‘s online database.  One of the methodological challenges of any quantitative, cliometric approach is how to account for the truism that each corpus is also the outcome of chance and serendipity, although their importance varies from case to case.  At the same time, the complimentary risk of missing the forest for the trees is equally grave.  Nonetheless, the definition of the fields of the cataloguing template must happen at the beginning of the project, as the online database will unite the circa two-hundred references to manuscript copies and printed versions of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, which Maribel Fierro and I have collected independently for years.  The template’s fields will determine how the database can be sorted, and thus their definitions will predetermine how this corpus can be examined and analyzed.

To illustrate these abstract considerations with a concrete example, in October 2015 Madrasa Editorial published in Granada the first Spanish translation of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, which had been prepared by the prolific translator Abdelghani Melara Navío.  Since I am focused on the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s reception before 1900, the logical conclusion would be to exclude all printed versions, in whatever language, from the corpus published after 1900.  Unfortunately, at this point it is difficult to assess the downside of excluding the continuing publication of new versions of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in Arabic, as well as in new English and French translations since 1900.  How important are these contemporary versions for a deeper understanding of the roles of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in the spiritual and intellectual lives of earlier generations of Muslim readers?

The record of the first Spanish translation in the online catalogue of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE) indicates that the library owns not just one, but two copies:

The visual teaser that accompanied Abdelghani Melara Navío’s announcement of his new translation, posted on 30 October 2015 on the blog Islam Hoy, stresses that Spanish reading Muslims have now access to the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in their own language:

One of three images that accompanies the listing of the Spanish translation on AMAZON’s Spanish website shows the book against the backdrop of the Alhambra, one of the important lieux de memoires of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula which is connected with the biography of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ:

One of the images in the banner of the translation’s publisher Madrasa Editorial, which is located in Granada, indicates which exalted company Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ and his Kitāb al-shifāʾ are keeping:

NB – I would like to thank Javier Albarrán Iruela for bringing the Spanish translation to my attention.

 

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 706611.