This year, the university has honored Arabic studies professor Angelika Neuwirth with the prize. Her scholarly body of work includes fundamental works on the Quran and Quranic exegesis, analysis of modern Arabic literature of the Levant, and research on Palestinian poetry and the literature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Campus.leben spoke with the internationally renowned scholar about the award..
Professor Neuwirth, what does this award mean to you?
This prize is unique because it comes from a family that was subjected to unspeakable injustice in Germany during the Nazi era, but still feels bound to the German Jewish tradition. In the projects I am heading, we study the role of the German Jewish scholars who in the 19th century discovered Islam and the Quran as part of the cultural history extending not only to the Middle East, but also to Europe. Dr. Leopold Lucas, whose memory this prize honors, was one of the last great scholars of what was called Wissenschaft des Judentums, or Jewish studies, in Germany.
This Jewish reform movement focused on adapting the new reading of the Bible as a historical document, a revolutionary concept in Christian theology at the time, and for Judaism as well. In the process, however, the Quran was also subjected to the same kind of historical reading for the first time. Abraham Geiger’s groundbreaking work from 1833 can be seen as the founding document in a modern, critical approach to research on the Quran, putting an end to centuries of denigration of the Quran.
The scholars had almost exactly 100 years – until the tradition was forcibly severed by the violent elimination of Jewish scholars from German universities, in 1933 – to champion the close relationship they had noticed between the Quran and the Jewish and Christian tradition in academia. What we have here is a piece of buried intellectual history that deserves to finally be unearthed.
The award recognizes your role in the dialogue between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. How do you make a connection among these three religions?
The Quran arose in a geographically remote area, the Arabian Peninsula, but we now know that this area, like others, was the site of extensive cultural exchange. Jews and Christians were re-reading the Bible in the light of Greek philosophy and ancient Middle Eastern teachings, and Arabs were revising the tribal values archived in their tribal poetry to create new kinds of poems. Muhammad’s teachings fit into this process, offering their own answers to the big questions of the time and thereby making another new contribution to reflections on religious and pagan heritage.
Views of the Quran – in both research and the general public – are still very diverse and hotly debated. It is easy to overlook the fact that the Quran addresses a nascent community right from the start, that it is not primarily a book, but rather a contemporary record of a historical drama as it was unfolding. It cannot be separated from the event of the prophet’s preachings in the 7th century. That is why it is not permissible to take verses out of context at will – as both Islamic fundamentalists and Western critics of the Quran do – and hold them up as evidence of a way of thinking that is directly binding today.
It is naturally senseless to read a text from the 7th century with an eye to its “political correctness” as it applies to the present day. Like other holy scriptures, the Quran deserves to be understood not according to the letter of the text, but according to its deeper meaning. This calls for methods of literary studies to be used. The Quran must be set in context as a text dating to Late Antiquity, alongside the foundational texts of the two other religions that belong to the same period, the New Testament and rabbinic literature.We can’t avoid acknowledging that there is a Jewish-Christian-Islamic culture.
You have been a professor emerita since 2014. You have also headed the subproject “From Logos to Kalām: Figurations and Transformations of Knowledge in Near Eastern Late Antiquity” as part of collaborative research center 980, “Episteme in Motion,” at Freie Universität since 2012 and, since 2007, the research project “Corpus Coranicum” at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. What exactly do you investigate?
The CRC project traces various processes of knowledge transfer in pre-modern Arabic-language culture. The “Corpus Coranicum” project, by contrast, focuses on the Quran as the oldest Arabic text, which should be studied and documented electronically using modern methods. At the same time, and to complement these efforts we are creating a database regarding the post-Biblical Jewish, Christian, and pagan texts that were in circulation at the time of inception of the Quran and are echoed in the Quran. On this basis, a historical literary studies commentary is being crafted to interpret the text for the first time against the background of the theological context in which it arose.
At the same time, we are also shining a light on the new religious community that changed the cultural and also the political map of the Middle East in just a short time. We want to show that the Quran, no differently from the foundational texts in Jewish and Christian culture, formed out of the cross-religious culture of debate in Late Antiquity, and that in consequence, it answers the same big theological questions that also concerned the other religions.
We also want to open up access to the Quranic answers to those interested in religion today. At the same time, we understand the Quran as a document of a historical event that took place in the 7th century and triggered revolutionary changes in Arab society. This dual perspective on the Quran has not been adopted in past research on the Quran. Our long-term, multilayered project has the best chances of finally filling the gap. We are publishing the results successively in electronic form on a website that can already be viewed.
Interviewer: Marina Kosmalla