Fostering Transregional Research in the Humanities – an Interview with Islam Dayeh
Mr. Dayeh, your academic experiences seem to be truly exemplary for an international career in the humanities. You studied at the University of Jordan and received a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies and you earned a master’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Leiden. Then you went on to complete your PhD dissertation at the Freie Universität Berlin, did a second MA in Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford, and became academic coordinator and co-director of the research program “Zukunftsphilologie” at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. What drew you to Leiden, Oxford and then to Berlin?
After completing my undergraduate training in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Jordan, a curriculum which combines traditional theology and jurisprudence with modern disciplines from the humanities and social sciences, I became interested in the concepts and methods that shaped European knowledge about Islam. At Leiden I had my first encounter with the scientific study of religion (i. e. Religionswissenschaft). There I wrote a thesis on the impact of the Shabbatian messianic movement on the Jews of Yemen. At Oxford I followed courses in rabbinic and patristic literature as well as Biblical Hebrew. I was attracted to Berlin for two main reasons: the importance of German scholarship in the study of religion, language and history, and in order to work with my Doktormutter, Angelika Neuwirth, whose perspective of a late antique reading of the Qur’an has opened up promising avenues of research and reflection.
How would you explain what you are working on right now to an ordinary person?
I am completing a monograph on the impact of the messianic movement of Shabbatai Zewi (1626-1676), a native of the Ottoman empire, on the Jews of Yemen in the 17th and 18th century. The messianic movement was one of the most influential religious (and global) movements in the early modern world, whose influence reached places as remote as Scotland, Poland, Germany, Russia, Morocco and Yemen within a few years. My study focuses on the Yemeni episode and is based on a critical edition of several manuscripts documenting exchanges between Yemeni Muslim jurists over the legal status of contemporaneous Jews in the wake of the Sabbatian messianic disturbances in Yemen (17th-19th century).
Mr. Dayeh, you are not only academic coordinator in Berlin, you are also a fellow of the Max Weber Stiftung – last year, in 2012, you received a Gerald D. Feldman travel grant. Which host countries of the Max Weber Stiftung will you be visiting and why? Which projects do you want to realize in the future?
Thanks to the Gerald D. Feldman travel grant I will be able to visit important Arabic manuscript collections and archives in Istanbul and Cairo necessary for a comprehensive study of the life and works of a fifteenth-century polymath who lived in Cairo and Damascus. His name is Burhan al-Din al-Biqa’i (1406–1480) and his legacy, which includes works in exegesis, philology, geometry, logic and history, remains largely unexplored. A substantial part of my work involves research on unedited manuscripts of this extraordinary yet marginal figure. Central to the research is an examination of several controversies in which al-Biqa’i was directly involved, most notably, the controversy surrounding al-Biqa’i’s exegetical work on the Qur’an, in which he argued for the validity of citing the Bible in the exegesis of the Qur’an and which he also systematically carried out in his two commentaries, a position not dissimilar to the European Christian hebraists of his day.
In which way does the German scholarly tradition differ from academic culture in Jordan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom?
This question lies at the heart of transregional research and concerns many historians at the moment. It is an important question because it recognizes the inseparability of knowledge and power, and the cultural, political and institutional dimensions of knowledge production and transformation. In the case of the Arab world, modern academic disciplines
have found a home since the establishment of national universities in the early 20th century during the colonial era, yet their integration into local traditions and systems of knowledge has oscillated between contestation and full acceptance, a fate observed in
other regions of the world as well. I believe that the careful study of these scholarly encounters is one of the most promising and urgent areas of transregional research.
What are – from your perspective as a scholar – the advantages of academic organizations with such an international approach like the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung?
Organizations such as the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung are instrumental in fostering transregional research in the humanities and social sciences. As academic coordinator of the research program “Zukunftsphilologie” (www.zukunftsphilologie.de), I am interested in the question of whether philology, the art of reading slowly, can be studied from a transregional and global perspective. In the framework of the program, we host a lively series of workshops and lectures as well as international winter schools (so far in Cairo and Delhi). Five postdoctoral researchers, trained in a branch of the historical or philological disciplines, are invited annually to pursue their own research projects within the research group and to work together with Berlinbased research centres and universities in the area of philology. We seek to create a context of intellectual synergy, where scholars from various textual and philological traditions of the world work together comparatively to develop a common language necessary for an engagement in more fundamental political and cultural concerns.
Islam Dayeh is Academic Coordinator and co-director of the research program “Zukunftsphilologie”. Carried out by Forum Transregionale Studien, the program is associated with the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.
German version of the interview