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

In 1542, a quarter century after the Ottoman conquest of the Arab lands, the famous Meccan jurist and chronicler Jār Allāh Muḥammad Ibn Fahd  (d. 1547 or 1548) completed a fairly short work devoted to the construction projects the Ottoman sultans, the new “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques,” undertook in Mecca since the Ottoman conquest of the city.  Ibn Fahd’s work is quite unique for two main reasons: (a) it is one of the very few works in the Arabic historiographical tradition (if not the only one) that is devoted to the construction projects of a specific dynasty; and (b), unlike most Arabic chronicles, it provides remarkably detailed description of the buildings and the Ottoman building techniques.  As such, it is the first comprehensive response by an Arab chronicler to the emergence of an Ottoman imperial aesthetic idiom in the sixteenth century.

Ibn Fahd, however, was not the only author who wrote about the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, known as Ḥaramayn, in that period.  In 1521, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Maḥmūd al-Iṣfahānī wrote a description of the Holy Mosques in Çagatay Turkish and dedicated it to the newly enthroned Ottoman sultan, Süleyman Kanuni (r. 1520-1566).  The renowned author Muḥyī’l-Dīn Lārī (d. c.1526) wrote about the pilgrimage (ḥajj) and the Ḥaramayn for the Gujarti sovereign Muẓaffar Shāh II (r. 1511-1526), and this work was copied regularly throughout the sixteenth century in the Holy Mosque in Mecca, the exact same place where Ibn Fahd wrote his chronicle.

By looking at these texts and their circulation, I will explore the interplay between political claims over the Ḥaramayn, the physical construction projects, and their representations across the Indian Ocean, from Istanbul to Gujarat, in the first half of the sixteenth century.  I will concentrate on the complex dynamics between the Ottomans, the Sharifs of Mecca, and the sultans of Gujarat in the decades following the Ottoman conquest of the Holy Cities.  The Ottoman conquerors, much like their Mamluk predecessors, preserved the rule of the Sharifs of Mecca in a system that may be described as layered sovereignty: the Sharifs maintained their own administration and issued coinages in their name, while recognizing the sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan.  At the same time, other rulers, primarily the sultans of Gujarat, maintained a strong presence in the city.  The Gujarati sultans built a madrasa in Mecca, gave to it manuscripts they had commissioned, and provided funds to the Sharif and scholars in residence, while considering Mecca a safe haven for their harem and treasury in the wake of the Mughal invasion of Gujarat.

Against this backdrop, I will argue that the circulation of the manuscripts of the different descriptions of Mecca and Medina reflects the ongoing dialog between the various Indian Ocean sovereigns.  For example, numerous copies of Lārī’s work found their way to the Ottoman capital, while Ibn Fahd dedicated works to the sultan of Gujarat and his vizier.  Furthermore, in addition to being immediate means through which sovereigns expressed and promoted their claims vis-a-vis their counterparts, the texts contributed to the emergence of shared pietistic sensibilities across the Indian Ocean around the Ḥaramayn and the Prophet Muḥammad.  These sensibilities lasted for centuries.

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): The Dialogue Between the Bookcase and the Torah Scroll: Writing Religion in Medieval Judaeo-Arabic Libraries

February 23, 2016 – Charles G. Häberl (Rutgers University): Incantation Texts as Witnesses to the Mandaean Scriptures

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, 21 September 2015