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

In the space and time of life beyond the grave lies a promise, and Muslim religious authorities have drawn upon this promise in an attempt to reform Muslim behavior.  In edoing so, they have sometimes elaborated on the houri (Ar. pl. ḥūr ʿīn), the pure female companion rewarded to men in paradise (Ar. sing. al-jannah).

This presentation focuses on the contemporary promise of the houri.  Since the 1990s, houris were highlighted in eschatological manuals published in print in Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus.  With the advent of electronic media, discussions about houris also appear in digital afterworlds.  Unlike the printed eschatological manuals, the online tours of paradise do not just offer religious instruction.  Instead, localized Muslim reformers and globalized jihadis use the online tours as a form of twenty-first-century exhortation that articulates a concern about modernity, a focus on the salvation of humanity, and a desire for cosmic order.  Within these virtual paradises, the houri embodies an alternative world that can be experienced before the end of time.  By drawing upon viewers’ feelings and creating virtual symbols and rituals, the online productions offer the houri as a reason to reform behavior or to incite violent struggle.

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, 23 November 2015