“Freie Universität is an ideal place for me.”
An interview with Arabic Studies professor Beatrice Gründler, recipient of the Leibniz Prize for 2017
Jan 26, 2017
It is the most important research prize awarded in Germany: the Leibniz Prize. Arabic Studies scholar Beatrice Gründler is one of the ten recipients of the award for 2017. She has been teaching and doing research as a professor at the Seminar for Semitic and Arabic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin since 2014.
Gründler is a member of the board of the Dahlem Humanities Center at Freie Universität and Principal Investigator at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies and the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies. Campus.leben reached her just after she had learned that she would be honored by the German Research Foundation (DFG).
Professor Gründler, what was your first reaction when you found out you would be receiving the Leibniz Prize?
I was actually surprised at first. I couldn’t believe it. I got the call during my seminar, and then my phone rang another three times right afterward. I stepped out to take each call. The interruptions actually fit the subject of the seminar because I’m teaching the story collection “One Thousand and One Nights” right now, and every night is followed by an interruption in the story to keep up the suspense. The students asked me if I had arranged the calls specifically to show the effects of an interruption. It was really funny!
The DFG is awarding the Leibniz Prize to you for your studies of the diversity of voices in Arabic poetry and culture – how would you describe what you study to an audience outside your field?
In the premodern period – from the seventh to the 19th centuries – Arabic was a scholarly language, and many people whose native language was not Arabic wrote in it: Persians, Jews, inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire, Berbers, Goths, and more. This meant that Arabic united the voices of many people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. All of them belonged to an Arabic and Islamic cultural community. In addition to the linguistic, religious, and ethnic variety and the sheer geographic scale involved, Arabic also displays linguistic and rhetorical diversity: Arabic literature not only extends over three continents and 14 centuries, but also covers various genres: biography, history, the heroic epic, legends of the prophets, love poems, and much more.
In choosing you for the prize, the panel said that you yourself “put into practice in an exemplary way the encounters between Arabic and European knowledge traditions” that you study in your work. What did they mean by that?
There is a work that was originally conceived as what we call a “mirror for princes,” or a text meant to instruct future rulers: Kalila and Dimna, a collection of fables. The book, which dates back to the sixth century, has been compared to the Bible in terms of the number of translations that have been prepared. It reached Europe in the eleventh century, with part of it originally from India. It spread across almost all European languages like wildfire at the time. It was translated into almost 40 languages in all, from Syriac to Javanese, but it is practically unknown today. And yet, Kalila and Dimna is a text that bridges the gap between India and Europe – and the cultural bridge is Arabic. I’m interested in telling the story of this book, which links multiple cultural communities together.
The Leibniz Prize is endowed with 2.5 million euros. How do you plan to use the money?
I will definitely use it to work on the multilingual fable text Kalila and Dimna. The prize money will allow me not only to work on the Arabic version, but also to obtain expertise in other languages, from Sanskrit to Yiddish and Icelandic to Mongolian. I think it’s important not only for specialists, but also the general public to learn how interlinked cultures were in the premodern period. Aside from Kalila and Dimna, there are other works that moved from India to Europe with Arabic as a bridge, and I’d like to include them in my work as well. Many of the texts have so many versions that they can only be depicted using digital media. I’d like to use the prize money for that, too.
What relationship does your research have to the present day?
People in Europe don’t know enough about the rich Arabic and Islamic cultures. The media provide current information, but it isn’t geared toward education. Instead, it is mainly about crises and events. I see it as my job to underpin the bits and pieces that the average person picks up along the way with knowledge about the long history of the Arabic and Islamic worlds.
The Leibniz Prize is the highest honor in Germany for researchers. What does it mean to you personally?
I am very pleased on a personal level that my research subject is included among those receiving distinction in the form of that prize. It’s wonderful that the committee saw that it isn’t just important to understand crises in the modern Near East or fundamentalism, but that we also need to understand how broad and deep the roots of Islamic and Arabic culture go. I believe my job is to help cultivate better understanding in this area.
It is a privilege to be a member of Freie Universität, where we have a wealth of disciplines in the field of cultural studies. I can connect my research with what my colleagues who are working on Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Akkadian, and other languages are studying. Freie Universität is an ideal place for me to carry out this kind of research project thanks to the Leibniz Prize.
The interview was conducted by Christine Boldt.
Another of the recipients of the Leibniz Prize is cognitive psychologist Dr. Ralph Hertwig, professor and director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, who is also an adjunct professor at Freie Universität.
Also see the presse release from Freie Universität Berlin dated December 8, 2016.