Medieval Programme

Medieval PpastedGraphic.pngrogramme: Professor Alan Williams (University of Manchester)

The principal theme of the Medieval Research Programme, ‘Interactions of Muslim intellectuals and Institutions with those of other faiths in the Medieval Persianate World’, three annual workshops are scheduled. The first took place on Wednesday September 7, 2016 at the British Academy in London.  The speakers and the abstracts of their papers appear below:

PROFESSOR ALBERT DE JONG, University of Leiden

No holds barred: the Zoroastrian attack on the Qur’an and Islam in the Dēnkard.

In his important translation of the third book of the Dēnkard, the most intellectually ambitious Zoroastrian text to have survived, J.P. de Menasce has highlighted the presence in that text of a surprisingly large number of chapters that debate, and reject, key Islamic beliefs, including passages from the Qurʾan. These chapters are interesting in themselves, but they are especially interesting in foregrounding an atmosphere of intellectual exchange and debate between Zoroastrians and Muslims. This paper discussed a select number of these chapters and attempt to interpret them both with regard to their content and with an eye to the question what the frankness of this polemical exchange can reveal about the interactions between the two dominant religions in the Iranian world in the ninth century.

DR SARAH STEWART, SOAS University of London 

When and how did Zoroastrians begin to engage with Persian literature and poetry? 

This offering is very much notes on questions prompted by my current work on contemporary Zoroastrianism in Iran, a project that encompasses the remaining Zoroastrian communities in 6 main centres: Tehran, Kerman, Yazd and villages, Shiraz, Esfahan and Ahwaz. The purpose of that study is to look at what has happened to the religious beliefs and practices of Zoroastrians since the Revolution – in other words an update on the in-depth studies carried out by Boyce and by Fischer in the 60s and 70s. Today my question is when did Zoroastrians become as devoted as their fellow Iranians to the poets Rudaki (858 – c. 941), Ferdowsi (b. 940), Bābā Ṭāher (d. 1019?), Rumi (b. 1207), Saʿdi (b. c. 1210), Ḥāfeẓ (b. 1315) among others? Scholars of Zoroastrianism tend to dwell on the persecution and marginalisation of Zoroastrians through the centuries from the time of the Arab conquest through to the Pahlavi period. The 9th century books are, in the main, treatises against Islam, aimed in part at least in stemming the tide of conversion away from Zoroastrianism. So what persuaded Zoroastrians to embrace the literature of Muslim authors, who appropriated their ancient narratives for themselves, often distorting or at least reorienting them, and how did this come about?

DR ERICA C. D. HUNTER, SOAS, University of London

Church of the East dioceses in Iran (5th – 11th Centuries)

The Church of the East maintained dioceses in the Iranian-speaking world already from the fifth century. These were under the patriarchate in Seleucia-Ctesiphon and later Baghdad, but were an important conduit for the transfer of Christianity throughout the Sassanid Empire and beyond its borders into Central Asia and China. The paper focussed on the dioceses that were established in Khorasan, notably at the city of Marv (which assumed a particular prominence), but also addressed the Christian presence at Nishapur and Tus.

DR RENATE SMITHUIS, University of Manchester

Donning borrowed clothes: Judah Halevi and Shi‘i theology

The celebrated Hebrew poet from Andalusia Judah Halevi (d. 1141 CE) also composed an intriguing and highly influential theological defence of Judaism in Judeo-Arabic – Kitāb al-radd wa’l-dalīl fi’l-dīn al-dhalīl (The Book of Refutation and Proof on the Despised Faith), known as the Kuzāri for short. Since the turn of the century, his poetry and thought have been subjected to some particularly fine and subtle analyses, most notably by Raymond Scheindlin (2007) and Diana Lobel (2000). Recently, Ehud Krinis (2014) has joined their ranks with an in-depth study of Halevi’s indebtedness to Shiʿi terminology and doctrine. In this short paper Dr Smithius introduced the audience to some of Halevi’s leading ideas in close conversation with Shiʿi thought. How puzzling or unusual is his recourse to the latter?

MS SEHRISH JAVID, SOAS, University of London

Cultural interactions in the Ghaznavid era and the Perso-Islamic legacy in India

The Ghaznavid era (998-1040) is one in which interactions between cultures occurred on the frontiers of the expanding state. This paper will consider the work of Masʿud-e Saʿd-e Salmān (1046-1121) in combining local Hindu and Vedic influences with an established Persianate poetic tradition. In doing so it is hoped that themes of interaction, assimilation and the ever-changing nature of culture through contact can be explored. Works such as Masʿud’s Persian barahmasa (Mahha-ye Farsi) is an example of the combination of cultures and influences. However, his work also provides detail on an individual level as to the poet’s concept of identity and themes surrounding belonging especially in his absiyyat works. This paper aimed to look very briefly at some historic contextual aspects and attitudes of notable figures such as Al-Biruni (973-1048) and Maḥmud (998-1030) in relation to the indigenous Hindu population. It is hoped this helped to avoid the tendency to generalise the attitudes a period based on an analysis of one figure.

MR STEPHEN HIRTENSTEIN, University of Oxford

The religion of love: Ibn al-ʿArabī on the nature of otherness, diversity and tolerance

The much-quoted poem by the Andalusian master Ibn al-ʿArabī (1165-1240) stating ‘I follow the religion of love’, as well as his teachings on unity and plurality, have often been taken as a basis for ecumenism within the Abrahamic traditions as well as a wider ecumenism that would embrace all religions. But what exactly did Ibn al-ʿArabī mean by ‘the religion of love’? Is there any evidence to suggest that he or any of his companions and students had specific contact with other traditions? What part did other theologies play in his teaching and what elements did he incorporate into his mystical world-view? And what insights did he bring to the nature of tolerance and the acceptance of the other? This paper investigated the evidence that might help us answer such questions.

DR LEONARD LEWISOHN, University of Exeter

Esoteric Christianity in Rumi’s Divān-e Shams-i Tabrizi

Rumi’s Sufi attitude towards Christianity in the Maṡnavi generally eschews sectarian partisanship. His view of Christian priests and monks in the poem wavers between semiparochialexclusivism and ecumenical understanding, on the one hand, and on the other apprehending that ultimately all differences between Christians, Muslims and Jews ecumenically dissolve when they turn to face the one God. Preliminary research indicates that in both Rumi’s Manavi and in the lyrical poetry of the Divān-e Shams-e Tabrizi, the poetic imagery and references to Christ and Christianity mostly belong within an Islamic and Qurʾanic context and that terms such as ‘Jesus’, the ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ in his mystical lexicon are nominally Muslim rather than denominationally Christian. Although most of the 156 references to Jesus in the Divān-e Shams relate to Christological imagery and symbolism of Qurʾanic derivation that were the stock-in-trade of every classical Persian poet, in this paper Dr Lewisohn aimed to assess whether the type of ecumenical ‘esoteric Christianity’ typical of Akbarian Persian Sufi poets such as Shabistari (d. after 1340) is also in evidence in Rumi’s lyrical poetry.


‘Queen of Islam’: Christian and Muslim Identities in the Sultanate of Rum

In his history of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, Ibn Bibi bestows the title ‘Queen of Islam’ on the princess Tamar, the daughter of the Georgian queen Rusudan. Her father was a Seljuk prince who became Christian in order to marry her mother. Although raised as a Christian herself, Tamar married the Seljuk sultan Ghiyāth al-Din Kaykhusraw II, arriving in Konya with a retenue of Orthodox clergy and a marriage contract stipulating that she would retain her faith. After the sultan died in 1246, she married Moʿin al-Din Parvāne, who governed the Sultanate for the Ilkhans. She therefore lived at the centre of two Muslim political establishments. According to Shamsoddin Aḥmad Aflāki, whose Manāqeb al-ʿĀrefin is the most important source for the life of Rumi and the early years of the Mevlevi tariqe, she was also very close to the centre of an emerging spiritual establishment that would be of immense importance throughout the Ottoman Empire. And yet, despite conversion being a subject that Aflāki discusses throughout the Manāqeb alʿĀrefin, he never refers to the conversion of Tamar. The circumstances of her life raise a number of intriguing questions about how the disparate and often contradictory sources written in Persian, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, and other languages should be understood. In particular, as a follower of Jalāloddin Rumi and as the wife and mother of Seljuk sultans, did she remain Christian or did she embrace Islam? The famous ‘Green Dome’ beneath which the body of Rumi lies in its sarcophagus was built with money that she provided. Can this be taken as proof of her conversion? Did other Christian women provide patronage of a similar sort and did they endow Muslim monuments without converting to Islam? Were the lines of demarcation between Islam and Christianity, or at least between the Islamic and Christian communities of Anatolia, drawn in a different way during the thirteenth century than we might expect in the twenty-first century? If they were different, can we explain why were they different and what might this mean for our understanding of the history of both communities?


Texts as Social Beings: Dialogues between Medieval Persian and European Romances

Europe has a long history of cultural interaction with the Near East, especially with Persia. One domain of cultural exchange is literature in which we can see an exchange of motifs, metaphors and stories. In this paper, I will hypothesize that texts are social beings, adapting themselves to time, place, and the audience. A study of common origin of a text, however, tantalizing, is less important than analyzing the ways a text behaves itself in a specific literary culture. Professor Gohrab explored the similarities and differences between Persian and early European romances, examining how a wide range of common literary motifs connect these stories. 


Composing an opera on Layli and Majnun: the theme of the night in Nizami and John of the Cross

The libretto for the opera Layli and Majnun by Rokus de Groot is composed out of two main text sources: Nizami’s epos (in translations by Gelpke/Mattin & Hill and Seyed-Gohrab) for the unfolding of the story, and John of the Cross’s En una noche oscura (‘In a dark night’) for the choruses. The presentation discussed this polyphonic composition of texts as engendering a dialogue about the symbol of the night as ‘a meeting place of unknowing’ between lover and Beloved. Also, the role of the opera’s music was involved in the discussion as the provider of polyphonic sensitivity.

Professor Williams had planned to hold his next workshop in June 2017, but was now considering to roll his last two workshops into one in order to be able to bring together attendees from further afield and maximise notice for the workshop.   This would probably be held in London at the Academy around Easter 2018.