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Research Unit at Freie Universität Berlin Studies Intellectual History of the Islamicate World

Prof. Dr. Peter-André Alt: Forward-looking Step in Times of Social Upheaval

№ 287/2011 from Sep 13, 2011

With a ceremony at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum on Tuesday evening, a new center for research into the history of ideas in the world of Islam was officially opened. Founded at Freie Universität, the Research Unit Intellectual History in the Islamicate World investigates intellectual history in the world of Islam from a new perspective. Instead of approaching the topic from one of the classic disciplines such as Islamic studies, Jewish studies, or Christian Orientalism, the researchers in the group headed by Prof. Dr. Sabine Schmidtke, will take an interdisciplinary approach.

The German Federal Education Minister Prof. Dr. Annette Schavan stated at the opening that she expects the new research unit will give momentum to the development of a rational perception of Islam and will contribute to a “comprehensive view of Islam from the Middle Ages to the modern.” Such a comprehensive view is crucial “for the self-understanding of Islam as well as for the perception of Islam in the West and the relationship between the two.”

The president of Freie Universität Berlin, Prof. Dr. Peter-André Alt, called the establishment of the research unit in times of great social upheaval and transformation processes a “forward-looking step.” He emphasized that a new thorough evaluation of the intellectual history of Islam and knowledge about the possibilities of a productive, peaceful coexistence of religions are “essential for the future of the globalized world.” He added that Islamic studies with its international reputation is “clearly one of the treasures of Freie Universität.” Scholars in this discipline contributed to the university’s success in the German Excellence Initiative, for example, in the excellence cluster entitled “Topoi – The Formation and Transformation of Space and Knowledge in Ancient Civilizations” and in Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies.

The director of the new research unit, Prof. Dr. Sabine Schmidtke, stressed that, particularly in light of the often seemingly hopeless political situation in the Middle East and in the face of an increasing narrowing of the pluralistic Muslim history of ideas, both from Muslim and non-Muslim perspectives, it is important to be reminded that historically Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thought were intellectually “in perpetually close symbiosis.” This did not go hand in hand with a modern sense of tolerance in all periods of history, but this knowledge has always been the basis for mutual respect and thus “the foundation for peaceful dealings with each other.”

The scholars involved in this research unit aim to overcome disciplinary boundaries and to utilize unconventional collaborations to replace old patterns of thinking. For this project, therefore, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars from various disciplines and cultural backgrounds have joined forces and will work closely with colleagues and research institutions in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. This interdisciplinary approach takes into account the plurality of rational thought and the cross-border nature of philosophical and theological scholarship that lasted for centuries. Viewed historically, this phenomenon is based on interactions between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, which fascinate even from today’s perspective. For centuries, members of all three religions shared a common language, namely Arabic, by which they exchanged ideas, concepts, and texts.

Further Information

Prof. Dr. Sabine Schmidtke, Director, Research Unit Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 838-52487, Cell: +49 (0)172 / 9377248, Email: