Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

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

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

The seminar’s meetings are usually held on Tuesdays in the Faculty House of Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive, New York, N.Y. 10027 (for directions, click here). The meeting begins at 5.00 pm, and around 6.45 pm we will adjourn for dinner in the Faculty House.

Schedule 2017-2018

September 18, 2017 – Rachel Fulton Brown (University of Chicago): The Annunciation: Behind the Scenes

October 17, 2017 – Philip Haberkern (Boston University): Writing a History of the First Reformation: Hussites and Protestants in the Sixteenth Century

January 23, 2018 – John H. Smith (UC Irvine): How Infinity Came to Be at Home in the World: The Contribution of Eighteenth-Century German Religious Poetry to a Modern Scientific and Theological Paradigm Shift

February 27, 2018 – Katie Terezakis (Rochester Institute of Technology): J. G. Hamann, Trojan Horse of the Enlightenment 

March 22, 2018 – Dagmar Anne Riedel (ILC-CSIC & Columbia University): Making Books Talk: The Reception of an Andalusian Biography of the Prophet 

In the medieval history of Islam in the western Mediterranean and Africa, Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (1083–1149 CE) is an important legal scholar during the transition from the Almoravids (1040–1147) to the Almohads (1121–1269).  His Kitāb al-shifāʾ, a treatise on the life of the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632) which has been preserved in hundreds of manuscripts, is to this day an extremely popular work with Muslim readers.  Scholars such as Delfina Serrano, Maribel Fierro, and Javier Albarran have suggested that the Almoravid partisan Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ composed the Kitāb al-shifāʾ—perhaps during a short and difficult tenure as judge in Granada in 1136—as a polemical rebuttal of the Almohad claims that their leader Ibn Tūmart (b. between 1078 and 1081, d. 1130) was the mahdī (Ar. “rightly guided”) whose rule would precede the end of the world.  But there is no evidence—whether documentary or anecdotal—about the origins of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ.  Against this backdrop, I am suggesting a change of perspective, from the lost story of the work’s composition to the remarkable success of its reception since the twelfth century.  My working hypothesis posits that a codicological analysis of Kitāb al-shifāʾ manuscripts yields material and historical evidence for how in the course of the work’s circulation Muslim approaches to Muḥammad’s life have evolved.

April 17, 2018 – Christine Helmer (Northwestern University): Theological Writing and Religious Experience

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 elizabethmpowers [at]

Mahnaz Moazami, co-chair
Columbia University
Center for Iranian Studies
mm1754 [at]

Elizabeth Powers, co-chair
Independent Scholar
elizabethmpowers [at]

Han Ling, rapporteur
Columbia University
School of International and Public Affairs
hl3004 [at]

Previous Co-Chair

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

Previous Rapporteurs

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

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

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

Last updated, 11 March 2018