“Arabic helps me to understand cultural differences in very simple situations” – 5in10 with Hans-Peter Pökel
Hans-Peter Pökel joined the Orient-Institut Beirut as a research associate in 2014. Previously, he worked as a Junior Lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin where he taught Classical Arabic literature and Early Islamic history at the Seminar für Semitistik und Arabistik and was a research associate at the Research Centre “Epistemes in motion”. He obtained his PhD from the University of Jena with a thesis titled: Der unmännliche Mann. Zur Figuration des Eunuchen im Werk von al-Ǧāḥiẓ (gest. 869), (The unmanly man. On the figuration of the eunuch in the works of al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 869)).
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
Well, I have always been interested in why people act and think the way they do. I don’t remember exactly if I always have asked all my questions. But I remember that I was curious, and that I wanted to find answers by my own even if already someone has given it to me. In my teenager years I developed a strong interest in Oriental cultures. I became
very interested in the history of Oriental cultures, in their modern but much more in their ancient history. I was interested in Egypt, Iran and Mesopotamia and I tried to read about it as much as possible. I have also learned Armenian among close friends. Unfortunately, I have now forgotten most of it, but I have never forgotten to write my name in Armenian letters. I have refreshed it a bit during my study even if it was not very successful since I did not really have the energy and time to study it deeply. But I hope to succeed in it a bit better beside other languages I would like to learn.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?
In my current project I am interested in the history, the hermeneutics and the reception of Islamic theological knowledge in its context. I focus on Bagdad in the ʽAbbāsid period, especially in the ninth century which was an important time for the formation of scholarly disciplines in the Classical Islamic culture. Therefore, I am interested in the question how scholars of different backgrounds interacted and inspired each other concerning theological questions or questions in a broader sense related to theology. My sources are not only normative writings, I am also interested in inner- and interreligious discussions and debates found in Classical Arabic literature and which, I think, can show us that many important questions, whose answers sometimes appear very clear in normative works, have been discussed vitally across religious boundaries. I try to show this in the case of discussions about the nature of the Qurʼān and its inimitability. For the believers it is something self-evident that the Qurʼān is inimitable and incomparable within the framework of Arabic linguistic expression. It is even something which does not have to be explained to a believer. But what is interesting is the fact that Muslim scholars have been interested in developing rational arguments to express this self-perception which is only understandable if you take the specific context into mind and if you ask why scholars developed such arguments and why they have become so interested in expressing a religious experience which is fundamental for the Muslim community with rational arguments? One of my current questions which is closely connected to this field considers the historical discussion about the translatability of the Qurʼān, a phenomenon which was already important in early Islamic history.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
I actually think that each of my academic phases and each of my teachers was very formative and inspiring for me. I have studied in Marburg where I collected my first experience with Semitic languages and religious studies. I have started nearly simultaneously with the study of several religions and languages. Today, I am focusing on Arabic since most of my sources are written in it. My stay in Cairo where I have spent some time during my study was also forming and inspiring since it was the first time for me to become a bit more familiar to an Arabic environment. It was somehow a turning point for me because I noticed that Arabic is an important language with many facets and many challenges. I have known this before of course. You can make this experience among any place of the world where Arabic native speakers live and where you might have the possibility to talk a bit Arabic. But the experience what it really means and to get a feeling for that is only possible in an Arabic environment. To master this language will take decades. After more than fifteen years of studying and being in contact withArabic, I still feel like a beginner. A short stay in Damascus followed during my study also helped me to get some more sensitivity for the differences within the Arabic world. Finally, my experiences during my PhD in Bamberg and Jena and my academic work at the Freie Universität Berlin as lecturer and as a researcher was deeply inspiring since it opened my mind for a lot of new ideas, methods and questions I was not aware of before. Berlin was also the place where I had the great opportunity to become more familiar with the Qurʼān and important questions concerning its hermeneutics.
How is it, to do research in Lebanon?
I am happy to do my research in Lebanon since it is interesting and challenging in many ways. It is an inspiring place which offers the opportunity to work and do research in a fascinating and challenging environment. Arabic is becoming a part of my daily life as far as possible for me. Many people here expect that you articulate yourself as a European only in European languages but I actually prefer to do it in Arabic. Sometimes it is very helpful and sometimes it helps me to slither into funny and sometimes strange situations. But that is exactly what helps me to understand cultural differences sometimes in very simple situations. Living here also gives me the opportunity to become more familiar with the region and to deepen an understanding for its manifold aspects, aspects which are an expression of the same cultural, namely Near Eastern, context. What makes Beirut also interesting is that there are many possibilities for interaction and cooperation of researchers between Western and Arabic scholarly traditions and approaches across all boundaries, an interaction which helps much to understand the other. I think Beirut is a place which offers many opportunities in that field which should be realized. One hope is of course that Arabic as a language of scholarly expression should be taken more seriously. There are a lot of Arab scholars who have a Western education and who express themselves in a Western scientific language. But I am convinced that there is a high potential of scholars in the region who maybe do not express themselves in a Western language but who nevertheless have important questions to discuss, scholars who are neither taken seriously in their own nor in the Western context.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
I hope to discuss my questions with different scholars in the region and that it might be a contribution to a deeper understanding for the historical development of religions and theological knowledge, its negotiation and representation. Discussions between religious communities and their representatives even on sensitive theological questions have always been possible across boundaries in the history of Islamic thought. All my sources I use reflect this very clearly. Of course I focus in my project on a specific period. But I think that it even might be a contribution to show that in Classical Islamic history discussions and dialogues even on sensitive questions have been possible and essential. And I finally also hope to discuss on this topics (hopefully even in Arabic) with theologians or people who are interested in the topic. I actually do not believe in the fear that it is not possible to discuss Western scholarship on the Qurʼān with Muslims. I rather think that Muslims are very interested in this topic and that they even have the right for knowing it. But it should be clear that the questions might differ from questions others have. It does not mean that these questions are right; but I think it offers at least possibilities for interpretations which can be discussed.