The Columbia University Seminar on Religion and Writing

Schedule 2020

Because of Covid19 the meetings of the Columbia University Seminar 751 in Fall 2020 will be held on ZOOM.  Taking advantage of the digital format, we have invited speakers from outside the USA.  To accommodate different time zones, three meetings will be held midday, and only one in the early evening.  The first three meetings will take place on Thursdays, but in December we will convene on a Wednesday.  Arrangements may be subject to change because of the pandemic, and we apologize in advance for any inconvenience that this may cause.  If you wish to attend a meeting, please email our rapporteur Ms. Wilkening (abw2163 [at] 

Thursday, October 1, 2020, 12 pm noon (NYC) – Ute Falasch (Independent Scholar, Berlin, Germany) Creating a Sufi Hagiography in the Mughal World: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī’s Mirʾāt-i Madārī (1654)

Hagiographical works play a significant role in the formation of the narrative that constitutes a holy person, because they offer an interpretation of aspects of their life, such as biographical details, the expressions of their piety, teachings, or miraculous powers.  With regard to Sufi hagiographies in the Mughal period, these works contributed significantly to the local identity formation of Indian Muslims: they connected Indian Sufis with eminent Sufis in the larger Muslim world, while emphasizing the importance of a Sufi saint’s own local lineage.  Undoubtedly, the writing of such a work requires creativity on the part of its author.  

The seminar will focus on the Persian manuscript titled Mirʾāt-i Madārī (lit. “The mirror of Madār”) which is dated 1654 and was written by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī (d. 1683).  The Mirʾāt-i Madārī is the first hagiography, which deals exclusively with Badīʿ al-Dīn Shāh Madār (d. 1434), the founder of the Madāriyya Sufi brotherhood in North India. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī took the creative writing process to new heights by inventing a source that allowed him to attribute a Jewish lineage to Shāh Madār instead of his descent from the Prophet Muḥammad as transmitted among the Madāriyya.

We will examine both ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī’s reasoning for Shāh Madār’s Jewish lineage and his possible intentions as a member of the Chishtī brotherhood for writing a hagiography of the founder of another brotherhood. In order to better understand how ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī represents Shāh Madār as a holy man, we will discuss earlier sources for Shāh Madār and explore how his hagiography is shaped by the socio-cultural context of Islamicate South Asia during the Mughal period.  The question of how the assertion of Shāh Madār’s Jewish lineage was received by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī’s contemporaries and beyond will allow us to broaden the inquiry from historical Sufi communities to academic research about Sufism up to the twenty-first century.  With regard to the latter, the Mirʾāt-i Madārī offers an example for the analysis of the particular mechanisms of knowledge production in western academia.

Thursday, October 29, 2020, 12 pm noon (NYC) Adday Hernández López (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid, Spain)  A Late Manuscript, an Old Debate: A Juridical Question of Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī (d. 1388) about Economy, Society and Political Authority in the Premodern Islamic West

In Islamic jurisprudence (Ar. fiqh ) the concept of istighrāq al-dhimma (Ar. lit. “total negation of the legal personality”) has received little scholarly attention until now.  Those who were involved in illegal economic activities (Ar. sing. mustaghraq al-dhimma, lit. “someone whose legal personality has been negated by illegal activities”) have acquired debts and must use all their assets to pay them off.  The ultimate consequence, in legal theory, is that they lose their legal personality, without which a legal person cannot accept obligations and perform different economic transactions.  But some jurists have established exceptions to this general rule so that in certain situations it is permissible to engage again in legal economic transactions with a mustaghraq al-dhimma.

Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī (d. 1388) was a jurist of the Malikī legal school in al-Andalus.  He spent his life in Granada, the capital of the Nasrids (1232–1492), who were the last major Muslim dynasty to rule over parts of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa.  My current research project began with an undated late manuscript, probably copied in North Africa in the twentieth century, in which al-Shāṭibī posed a juridical question about the concept of istighrāq al-dhimma.  In my talk I will discuss the concept’s origin and development, apart from its implications for the economic, political and social life of the Islamic West. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020, * 5.30 pm * (NYC) – Jill Ross (University of Toronto, Canada) Words of a Desperate Man”: Poetics and Cultural Identity in a Late Medieval Hebrew Rhyming Dictionary from the Crown of Aragon  

* Wednesday *, December 9, 2020, 12 pm noon (NYC) – Judah Galinsky (Bar-Ilan University, Israel) – “Isaac of Corbeil’s Pillar of Exile: A Thirteenth Century Plan of Public Education through Liturgy and Law”

Columbia University encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities.  University Seminar participants with disabilities who anticipate needing accommodations may contact the Office of Disability Services at 212.854.2388 or Disability accommodations, including sign-language interpreters, are available on request. Requests for accommodations must be made two weeks in advance. 

The official page of the Columbia University Seminar 751 is available at  Please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Riedel (dar2111 [at], if you have any question about the seminar.  Information about its history is available at  The abstracts of all talks since January 2012 are archived at

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

Dagmar A. Riedel, co-chair
Columbia University
dar2111 [at]

Anya B. Wilkening, rapporteur
Columbia University
abw2163 [at]


Last updated, 18 September 2020