Monday, August 8, 2011

Conference on "Origins of Islam."

On the personal level, I'm not feeling so apocalyptic - I just spent the last two days at a wonderful conference at Dartmouth on "The Origins of Islam: Narratives of History and the Historiography of Narratives." It was organized by Susannah Heschel (at Dartmouth) and David Powers (Cornell).

From the description of the conference:
This conference will bring together historians of the field of Islamic Studies with scholars working today on new paradigms for understanding the emergence of Islam. Until perhaps the last quarter of the 20th century, the approach to the formation of Islam emphasized borrowing and dependence. This scholarship was Arabo-centered, treating the key religious doctrines and institutions of Islam as products of the experience of one man living in the Arabia between 610 and 632 CE, and it was unidirectional. During the past twenty-five years, Islamicists have returned to the question of origins, armed with new perspectives, languages, and methodological tools. In place of borrowing and dependence, they focus on the dynamic interaction between early Islam and its cultural environment. Without denying the importance of Arabia, they examine the formation of Islam in the context of the wider Near East in late antiquity, using not only Arabic sources but also sources written in Greek, Syriac, Aramaic, Hebrew, and other languages. In place of borrowing and dependence, the current generation of scholars highlights the complex, back-and-forth processes of transmission, reception, and adaptation that account for the incorporation of biblical and post-biblical materials into Islamic sources. Our conference will investigate continuities and changes in 19th/20th century and contemporary orientalisms, asking about the intellectual politics that both enable and derive from the highly significant shifts in political, economic, and geographic relations, including the partition of India and Palestine, the rise of oil interests in the Middle East, and the transfer of Oriental Studies from Germany to the United States, Britain, and Israel during the 1930s and 40s. By placing the contemporary in the context of the history of Islamic Studies, we would like to provide present-day scholars with critical tools to understand the origins of their own explanatory frameworks.
Some of the talks that I found the most interesting were: Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Problem with Reading the Qur’an Chronologically"; Lawrence Conrad, University of Hamburg, "'Wonderboy': the Childhood Formation of the Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher"; and Michael Pregill, Elon University, "Remaking the Legacy of Israel: Tafsir and Midrash as Imperial Literatures."

I've recently gotten interested in the question of the origins of Islam and I've been doing some reading about it. I was particularly fascinated by Reynolds' talk in this respect, as he is challenging the traditional Muslim and modern Orientalist chronology of the Qur'an, which tries to figure out which suras are early and late by relating them to incidents in the life of Muhammad.  Conrad told the fascinating story of the early life of Ignaz Goldziher, who was a child prodigy who wrote his first book at age 12, and got into a lot of trouble for it. Pregill challenged the paradigm that goes back to Abraham Geiger's book, "Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?"which sought to trace the influences of Judaism (or Christianity) upon nascent Islam. He proposes instead a model that sees the Qur'anic texts as responding more directly to the biblical stories (rather than being constructed of later midrashic texts), and as coming out of a common Middle Eastern cultural koine.

I took pretty detailed notes on all of the talks, and will post more detailed comments on them later.

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