Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

The seminar was founded in the fall of 2011 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.

Seminar Meetings in 2015-2016

October 13, 2015 – Guy Burak (New York University): Mecca, its Descriptions, and the Political Reorganization of the Indian Ocean in the First Half of the Sixteenth Century

November 17, 2015 – Benjamin Harnett (The New York Times): The Birth of the Codex: Revisited

December 15, 2015 – Nerina Rustomji (St. John’s University): Digital Afterworlds: The Heavenly Virgins of Islam in Online Tours of Paradise

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

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.

March 22, 2016 – Robert Englund (UCLA): Does Early Cuneiform Tell Us Much about Babylonian Religion?

April 26, 2016 – Yigal Nizri (University of Toronto): “Appropriate to Sacrifice It on the Altar of Print”: Approbation and the Evolution of a Printed Canon in the Jewish Moroccan Diaspora in the Nineteenth Century 

The meetings of the Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing (#751) are usually held on Tuesdays in the Faculty House of Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive, New York, N.Y. 10027 (for directions, click here).  We will gather after 5.00 pm, so that the seminar will begin at 5.30 pm sharp; at 7 pm we will adjourn for dinner in the Skyline Dinning Room.

Columbia University encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities.  University Seminar participants with disabilities who anticipate needing accommodations or who have questions about physical access may contact the Office of Disability Services (tel. 212-854-2388, disability [at]  Disability accommodations, including sign-language interpreters, are available on request.  Requests for accommodations must be made two weeks in advance.  On campus, Seminar participants with disabilities should alert a Public Safety Officer that they need assistance accessing campus.

The abstracts of all talks since January 2012 are archived here.  Please do not hesitate to contact us for any further information.  If you wish to attend a seminar meeting, please email Deborah Shulevitz (dgs2016 [ at ]

Mahnaz Moazami & Dagmar Riedel, co-chairs
Columbia University
Center for Iranian Studies
mm1754 [at]
dar2111 [at]

Deborah Shulevitz, rapporteur
Columbia University
Department of History
dgs2016 [ at ]

Previous Rapporteur

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

Last updated, 1 February 2016