THE LEVANT NEWS –By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem —
The German researcher Sabine Schmidtke (born in 1964) is German scholar and Professor for Islamic Studies and Director of the Research Unit Intellectual History of the Islamicate World at Freie Universität Berlin. She has a BA (summa cum laude) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1986), an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (1987), and a D. Phil. from the University of Oxford (1990). She did her Habilitation at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn (1990). From 1991 to 1999 she was a diplomat at the German Foreign Office. After teaching Islamic Studies in Bonn (1997-1999) and Berlin (1999-2001), She held fellowships at the Institutes of Advanced Study in Princeton (2008-2009), Jerusalem (2002, 2003; 2005-2006) and Tel Aviv (2011), the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies in Philadelphia (2010) and the Scaliger Institute in Leiden (2007). She was the student of the famous German Orientalist Wilfred Madelung, who specialized in Islamic studies particularly Mu’tazilis and Shia Zaydi and Imami. She is one of the editors for theological and philosophical articles in the Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden edition), and Associate Director of the history of philosophy at the same Encylopedia.
Sabine Schmidtke had published about 34 books and 84 research papers. She published a lot of books, studies and manuscripts relating to the Islamic – Jewish theological debate and wrote a book about the Jewish philosopher of Baghdad, Ibn Kamona(683 AH), studying the influence of the Mu’tazilis on the Jewish theology. I had a chance to interview Professor Schmidtke to ask her about her current projects and thoughts.
Haytham Mouzahem: Can you tell us about the current research projects and activities of the Research Unit Intellectual History of the Islamicate World?
Sabine Schmidtke: The RESEARCH UNIT INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF THE ISLAMICATE WORLD (Freie Universität Berlin) and its team members are convinced that in a world in which borders increase in significance―be they cultural or religious, political or economic―academic research has the power to demonstrate that ideas and intellectual movements disregard any such border and that symbiosis is the norm rather than the exception. This held true for intellectual movements in one of today’s hottest conflict areas, the Middle East, cradle of the three monotheistic religions and for more than two millenia home to major strands of human culture. If we wish to establish lasting peaceful relations between leading cultures, religions and political entities, we require above all knowledge about our own intellectual heritage, about that of others, and about the ways they intersect. Such knowledge will not only foster mutual respect, but it will also prevent the spread of ideologically distorted perceptions of one another. An open mind in research, a readiness to widen the scope of scholarly investigation, and a willingness to share its results with a wider audience contribute significantly to the shaping of a public opinion that is less biased and more refined.
Departing from the customary academic approach with its (often exclusive) focus on either Muslim, Jewish or Christian authors and their writings, the RESEARCH UNIT INTELLECTUAL is unique in its three-dimensional appreciation of the region’s intellectual history. With its specific approach it strives to contribute to a peaceful atmosphere between Muslims and non-Muslims both in the Muslim world and in the global context. We are committed to groundbreaking research in a variety of aspects of the intellectual history of the Islamicate world in the medieval, pre-modern and early modern periods, and the results of our efforts are communicated not only to the scholarly community worldwide but also to a wider public in East and West.
The team working at the RESEARCH UNIT not only studies the centuries-old intellectual symbiosis between Islam, Judaism and Christianity, it also reflects that symbiosis. The team is international and multi-religious, with an almost equal number of Muslims and non-Muslims, comprising scholars from various Western countries and from the Middle East. While we are all experts in several disciplines of Islamic Studies, some of us are also specialized in Christian and Jewish Arabic literature with proficiency in related languages such as Syriac and Aramaic, Coptic, Judaeo-Arabic, Hebrew and Persian.
The Research Unit was formally established in 2011 and is exclusively funded through third-party funding but the various activities and some of the projects that are now under the umbrella of the RESEARCH UNIT have in fact been carried out since 2003.
The RESEARCH UNIT is focused right now on a number of projects in the fields of kalām and philosophy. In kalām, we are mainly concerned with the rich and in many ways largely unexplored literary heritage of the Muʿtazila. Over the past years, we were able to identify many of the writings of its representatives and to make them available through critical edition and/or in-depth studies. Another focus of our work in the field of kalām is the Ashʿarite tradition. A few years ago, I was able to trace two volumes of Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī’s most comprehensive theological summa, the Kitāb Hidāyat al-mustarshidīn, in St. Petersburg and in Tashkent, and we are about to complete a critical edition of all four known volumes of this important work (the other two volumes are known to be extant in Cairo and in Fez). Moreover, one member of our team is currently preparing a systematic study on al-Bāqillānī and his doctrinal views, and two of us are concerned with the reception of Ashʿarite kalām by Coptic theologians of the 13th and 14th centuries. Another project that is close to completion is the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology that I am currently editing for Oxford University Press.
Our current projects in the field of philosophy are primarily concerned with the post-Avicennan period. Various studies on Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, Ibn Kammūna and David ben Joshuʿa Maimonides are carried out to shed some light on the intertwinedness of Muslim and Jewish philosophy during the 13th through 15th centuries. Another major concern of our activities is the first generation of commentators of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī, i.e., apart from the above mentioned Ibn Kammūna, Shams al-Dīn al-Shahrazūrī and Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī. Some members of the RESEARCH UNITare concerned with a systematic study of the renaissance of Graeco-Arabica during the Safavid period (1502–1736) in Iran (and beyond).
Most recently, we initiated a close cooperation with the Berlin-based Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in order to integrate the history of science into our research activities, which of course constitutes an integral part of the intellectual history of the Islamicate world.
Another field of research we embarked upon most recently is the Bible in Arabic among Jews, Christians and Muslims. On the one hand, we are interested in the many translation enterprises and traditions among Jews, Christians and Samaritans. On the other hand, we are investigating the perceptions and receptions of the Bible among Muslim authors.
Apart from carrying out groundbreaking research, we alsotake careto communicate the results of our research as effectively as possible. To achieve the maximum outreach within the scholarly community and the wider public, the team members publish regularly in a variety of languages―English, French, German, Arabic and Persian―on the internet, in peer-reviewed journals and in well-established book series, both in the West and in the Islamic world. In addition to publications for an academic audience, the RESEARCH UNITalso issues a monthly eNewsletter and organizes regular public events aimed at the general public.
Haytham Mouzahem: What are your visions for the coming years?
Sabine Schmidtke: A centre such as the RESEARCH UNIT is unique in its kind, not only in Germany and in Europe but also globally. The positive echo to our activities on the national and international level and the enormous visibility we have achieved over the past years notwithstanding, securing the future of the RESEARCH UNIT is a major concern. This will depend primarily on whether we will able to raise the necessary funds to continue our work. My vision is to turn the RESEARCH UNIT into a research institution with a robust financial and personnel structure that serves as a focal point for scholars both from the Islamic world and from the West, who will work here jointly on preserving and analyzing the intellectual heritage of the Islamicate World; an institution where a new generation of scholars will be trained. Given the many glaring desiderata the focus of our research will continue to be on cutting-edge frontier research, and here we are constantly widening the profile of the RESEARCH UNIT through the identification of entirely new fields of investigation. To this end, the peer-reviewed journal Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, published by Brill, Leiden, has been established. The journal is theme-based and each issue addresses so far mostly neglected fields of research with the aim of putting these on the map. Volume One has appeared some few weeks ago and is dedicated to the topic of “The Bible in Arabic among Jews, Christians and Muslims”. The next volumes will be devoted to the themes of “Jewish and Christian reception(s) of Muslim theology”(2014),”New Horizons in Graeco-Arabic Studies” (2015) and “The histories of books in the Islamicate World: Their life, vagaries and death” (2016).
Haytham Mouzahem: There is a great necessity to edit and study the Islamic manuscripts neglected to help the historical research on the textual sources of the various systems of Islamic thought, what are your efforts in this context?
Sabine Schmidtke: Over the past decade or so, we can witness a slow but steady reorientation in Arabic and Islamic studies towards philology, a “Philological Turn” as I would call it, as a growing number of scholars―particularly younger ones―increasingly engage in working with manuscript materials, either as source materials for their studies or with the purpose of preparing first critical edition of hitherto mostly ignored textual sources. This development is mainly the result of the digital revolution and the growing concern of libraries and research institutions around the world to save their respective holdings through digitization and to make them available to the wider scholarly community. Today, scholars cannot ignore that there are still hundreds of thousands of manuscripts out there, in virtually all disciplines, many of which contain textual materials that have either been completely ignored until now or were at least not sufficiently taken into consideration. As a result, there is an increasing awareness of the fact that in many fields there will be major revisions of the state of the art, once the new sources will be made available and properly analyzed. It should be one of the prime tasks of contemporary scholarship―both in the West and in the Islamic world―to make these materials available, through reliable manuscript catalogues, scholarly editions and in-depth studies, and it is clear that it will take several decades until this will have been achieved. Moreover, since the manuscripts are scattered all over the world, we all face the difficulty of gaining access to the materials we need―apart from political frontiers, economic boundaries constitute a major impediment and need to be overcome in some way. The ideal way to avoid this dilemma is cooperation among scholars on a global level. If each one of us would be ready to share material freely and generouslyand to collaborate with his or her peers regardless where they are based, such boundaries could easily be overcome.
Focusing primarily on unexplored manuscript materials is certainly a primary focus of the work of the Research Unit, and I gratefully acknowledge the support we are enjoying in our endeavors from numerous scholars and institutions around the world. All of the above described research projects have in fact a large corpus of so far neglected manuscripts as a starting point. We are engaged in all levels of research concerning these materials―the preparation of inventories, of critical editions and facsimile publications, and of course analytical studies of the material at hand.
Haytham Mouzahem: Is there any cooperation between you and scholars or research institutions in the Islamic World? How do you assess the cooperation between Western institutions and Islamic ones in this regard?
Sabine Schmidtke: Close cooperation between scholars and institutions on a global level is an absolute must for any serious scholar, regardless where she or he is based. Unlike in other disciplines, there are no national scholarly traditions in the field of Islamic Studies, and each one of us is aware of―or rather should be―of the research being carried out elsewhere when relevant to one’s own work. Moreover, as I have mentioned before, the relevant manuscript materials are scattered in countless public and private libraries around the world. Apart from the important collections of manuscripts in the various traditional centres of learning within the Islamic world (e.g., Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran, or Yemen, to mention only some), the many collections in Europe, Russia and Central Asia, as well as North America are equally important. Close cooperation can help to share the relevant materials more easily among scholars. Moreover, to the extent possible the products of our respective research should be made available to our colleagues worldwide, ideally through open access platforms.
The RESEARCH UNIT cooperates closely with a number of research institutions and scholars in the Islamic world. Apart from various book series that we co-publish with some of the leading research institutions in Tehran, the members of the RESEARCH UNIT regularly publish in Arabic and Persian and are engaged in numerous research projects with colleagues in Yemen, Turkey, Oman, Morocco and Iran. On a regular basis the RESEARCH UNIT welcomes in Berlin visiting scholars from countries such as Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Turkey and we organize about once a year international conferences in which scholars from the Islamic world are widely represented.
Haytham Mouzahem: You have worked a lot on the Muʿtazila thought and their texts, can you tell us about your main work and the results of it?
Sabine Schmidtke: My work on the Muʿtazila has indeed been a major focus of my research over the past decade. The most important result of this endeavour, I believe, is the fact that many more primary texts of the movement that are available nowadays to scholarship than before. Among others, I have edited, together with several colleagues, the Kitāb al-Uṣūl of Ibn Khallād that has been preserved embedded in a super-commentary by a later Zaydī scholar, the extant portions of Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī’s Taṣaffuḥ al-adilla, or a commentary on the Kitāb al-Tadhkira fi l-jawāhir wa-l-aʿrāḍ of ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s student Ibn Mattawayh. Textual editions such as these are being complemented by numerous studies on the movement and its representatives, as well as inventories of Muʿtazilite manuscript sources. In addition, I have organized several conferences on the Muʿtazila over the past year and I have created, together with another colleague of mine, the “Muʿtazilite Manuscripts Project Group”. The most rewarding outcome of all these endeavors, in my view, is that an increasing number of especially younger scholars are studying the movement, as is indicated by the number of recent PhD dissertations devoted to it—a clear indication that the Muʿtazila is now on the map of scholarship.
Haytham Mouzahem: What about your work on the Karaites who were influenced by Mu’tazilite thought, can you explain more about them and their work?
Sabine Schmidtke: The reception of the doctrinal thought of the Muʿtazila by Jewish theologians is indeed a fascinating facet of the history of the movement. Unlike Christianity, Judaism proved receptive to basic Muslim doctrinal notions such as divine unicity, and it was Muʿtazilism in particular that was adopted to varying degrees from the 9th century onwards by both Rabbanite and Karaite authors, so that by the turn of the 11th century a “Jewish Muʿtazila” had emerged. Jewish scholars both composed original works along Muʿtazilite lines and produced copies of Muslim Muʿtazilite books, often transcribed into Hebrew characters. The influence of the Muʿtazila found its way to the very centres of Jewish religious and intellectual life in the East. The Karaites and several of the Heads of the ancient Rabbanite Academies (Yeshivot) of Sura and Pumbedita (located by the 10th century in Baghdad) adopted the Muʿtazilite worldview. By contrast, Ashʿarite works and authors were received among Jewish scholars to a significantly lesser degree and in a predominantly critical way.
It is fascinating to see how many fragments of Muslim Muʿtazilite texts can still be traced in the various Genizah collections around the world. Most important in this respect are the extensive findings of the manuscript material found in the Abraham-Firkovitch-Collection in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg, which has so far only partly been explored. The above-mentioned edition of Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī’s Taṣaffuḥ al-adilla, for example, is exclusively based on fragments that were found in the Firkovitch Collection (while the work is completely lost in the Islamic world).
Haytham Mouzahem: Have you found significant differences between Twelver Shīʿism and Muʿtazilism in their respective theological thought?
Sabine Schmidtke: The Shīʿī reception of Muʿtazilite thought is a well-known phenomenon and it is in fact here that the movement continued after it had virtually ceased to exist in Sunnī Islam from the 14th century onwards (although its impact continued to be immense also in Sunnī circles). However, while Zaydī theologians accepted all the tenets of Muʿtazilite doctrine and can often be counted as representatives of the school (think, for example, of the numerous Zaydī companions and students of Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Baṣrī and qāḍī l-quḍāt ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Hamadhānī in the 11th century), Twelver Shīʿī theologians drew clear boundaries between Imāmism and Muʿtazilism. As a result of the specifically Twelver Shīʿī notion of the imamate and the resulting doctrine of belief (īmān) that excludes works, Twelver Shīʿī theologians constantly rejected the Muʿtazilite tenets of the promise and the threat (al-waʿd wa-l-waʿīd) and the notion of the intermediary position of the grave sinner (fāsiq) between the believer and the unbeliever (al-manzila bayn al-manzilatayn).
Haytham Mouzahem: Do you believe that the main works of the Mu’tazila have been saved by the Zaydis or not? Please clarify this point.
Sabine Schmidtke: Indeed, had it not been for the Zaydī reception of Muʿtazilism and the fact that after the political unification of the two Zaydī communities in Northern Iran and Yemen from the 12th century onwards Muʿtazilī writings were systematically transcribed for the library of the Imām in Ẓafār (from where its holdings were transferred to the Mutawakkiliyya library in Ṣanʿāʾ during the 1920s) and for all the other smaller public and private libraries of Yemen, we would be ill-informed about the movement. However, despite the rich Muʿtazilite treasures that are preserved until today in the libraries of Yemen, we should recall that the Zaydīs at the time had a predilection for the writings of one particular branch of the movement: the Bahshamiyya. We have next to no works of rival strands of Muʿtazilism, such as the Ikhshīdiyya or the School of Baghdād, and for the doctrines of Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī the libraries of Yemen only possess the writings of his later follower Maḥmūd Ibn al-Malāḥimī al-Khwārazmī. Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī’s own theological writings (in addition to the above-mentioned Taṣaffuḥ al-adilla his shorter Ghurar al-adilla) did not reach Yemen, although his al-Muʿtamad fī uṣūl al-fiqh was extremely popular there as is indicated by the numerous manuscript copies and references to the work.
Haytham Mouzahem: Do you think that the suppression of the Muʿtazila has led to the dominance of the Salafi trend and the weakness of rationalism in contemporary Islamic thought?
Sabine Schmidtke: First of all, it is important to keep in mind that Muʿtazilism has retained its influence until today. As explained before, it has left its mark on Twelver Shīʿism and Zaydism as is evident even from contemporary theological literature, but also in the realm of Sunnism, where the Muʿtazila ceased to exist as a movement around the 14th century, many of the later intellectual developments, including the neo-Ḥanbalism of Ibn Taymiyya and his followers, are indebted to the legacy of the Muʿtazila. Moreover, the intellectual landscape of Islam always has been highly complex and variegated. The rational approach to doctrinal questions was by no means restricted to the Muʿtazila but was shared—to varying degrees of course—by most schools of thought. The dichotomy between rationalism on the one hand and Salafism on the other, as we have it today, is a very recent development that is characteristic of the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21th century. Thorough research of the Muslim heritage contributes significantly to enhancing the awareness among Muslims and non-Muslims alike of the rich and diversified intellectual achievements of Islamic civilization and helps defeat any kind of narrow-mindedness.