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The seminar investigates the roles of literacy and writing in religious traditions.  Its goal is to serve as a research group for the comparative study of literacy and the uses of writing as a form of communication technology in world religions.  Approaching the relationship between religion and writing through the lenses of literacy and communication technology, the seminar strives to address all media – from inscriptions on stone and clay tablets to internet websites – and all literary genres – from myths and commentaries to divine revelations and hymns – as well as the theoretical and practical implications of the absence, or rejection, of writing.

Seminar Blog

Susan Boynton

Dagmar Riedel

Anya Wilkening

Meeting Schedule

09/29/2022 Hybrid: Faculty House + Zoom
5:00 PM
Literacy, Orality, and Translation: Samuel ibn Tibbon, Michael Scot, and Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed
Lucy K. Pick, University of Chicago


“Literacy, Orality, and Translation: Samuel ibn Tibbon, Michael Scot, and Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed”

Latin readers encountered the Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides (1138-1204 CE) earlier than has hitherto been supposed, leaving traces of their encounter with the text in Toledo before 1220, and forming a textual community that extended to Provence as well as Paris, Rome, and Naples and included both Jews and Christians. These readers constitute a textual community in the strong sense proposed by Brian Stock: Although they were all highly literate in the scholarly languages of their own traditions and produced original written texts of their own, orality was a key part of both their experience of the Guide, and their engagement with each other, especially across religious lines. Evidence for this encounter begins in the Liber de parabolis et mandatis (“Book of parables and commandments”), a Latin translation of one-fifth of the Guide on the commandments as well as an introductory treatise on the interpretation of parables that, I contend, was produced by Samuel ibn Tibbon (ca. 1165-1232), first translator of the Guide from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew, in collaboration with Michael Scot (ca. 1175-ca. 1235), first translator of Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) from Arabic into Latin and court astrologer to Frederick II (1194-1250). I will explore traces of the translation process used by Samuel and Michael, and evidence for their conversations about the text that remain within this work, and compare them to other translated texts of mutual interest to the pair, especially within the realm of natural philosophy, to discuss both the method and intent of their translations.

10/27/2022 Hybrid: Faculty House + Zoom
5:00 PM
Devotional Songs and Narratives in Iranian Khorasan
Ameneh Youssefzadeh, Independent Scholar


The corpus of devotional songs and narratives in Khorasan, a region in northeastern Iran, is very rich. It forms a substantial portion of the repertoire of sung poetry of contemporary Khorasani musicians who come from different ethnic and language groups, and from the two main branches of Islam, Shi’a and Sunni. In northern Khorasan, the languages of sung poetry are Khorasani Turkish, Kurmanji Kurdish, Persian, and Turkmen. In the rest of the region, Persian is mainly used. With the exception of the Sunni Turkmen, most northern Khorasanis are Shi’a Muslims. Eastern Khorasan has a large Sunni population, who form the only Persian-speaking Sunni minority in Iran.

Drawing on my ethnographic research, I will focus on two important genres in the sung poetry of Khorasan: monājāt (to whisper or talk confidentially with someone; a sung prayer) and me‘raj (ladder, ascent; especially referring to the Prophet Mohammad’s ascension to heaven). There are many different ways of performing and listening to monājāt and me‘raj in the Islamic world, and they have many social settings and ceremonial uses. I will discuss both genres in the sung poetry of eastern Khorasan and their importance in the zekr (“remembrance” of God) ceremonies of the Mojaddedi branch of the Naqshbandi order. In northern Khorasan, monājāt have a prominent role in narratives called dāstāns (tales) and performed by the bakhshis (bards). I will discuss the importance of writing in the cultivation and preservation of this repertoire, and we will listen to examples.

11/15/2022 Hybrid: Faculty House + Zoom
5:00 PM
Jewish Literary Eros: Between Poetry and Prose in the Medieval Mediterranean (book discussion)
Isabelle Levy, Columbia University


In Jewish Literary Eros, Isabelle Levy explores the originality and complexity of medieval Jewish writings. Examining medieval prosimetra (texts composed of alternating prose and verse), Levy demonstrates that secular love is the common theme across Arabic, Hebrew, French, and Italian texts. At the crossroads of these spheres of intellectual activity, Jews of the medieval Mediterranean composed texts that combined dominant cultures' literary stylings with biblical Hebrew and other elements from Jewish cultures. Levy explores Jewish authors' treatments of love in prosimetra and finds them creative, complex, and innovative.

Jewish Literary Eros compares the mixed-form compositions by Jewish authors of the medieval Mediterranean with their Arabic and European counterparts to find the particular moments of innovation among textual practices by Jewish authors. When viewed in the comparative context of the medieval Mediterranean, the evolving relationship between the mixed form and the theme of love in secular Jewish compositions refines our understanding of the ways in which the Jewish literature of the period negotiates the hermeneutic and theological underpinnings of Islamicate and Christian literary traditions.

01/30/2023 Hybrid: Faculty House + Zoom
5:00 PM
The Nonsense of your Farfetched Stories: Transmission between Armenian and Arabic in the Eighth Century
Alison Vacca, Columbia University


In the eighth century, Armenia was part of the early Islamic Caliphate. Ruled first by the Umayyads and then by the ʿAbbasids, the province sat on the edge of empires and faced both the Eastern Roman Empire and the Khazar Khaganate. Its position at the interstices offered Armenia a unique vantage point—far from a backwater province, it was on the front lines of world events. Over the past decades, many eminent Armenologists have worked to demonstrate how interconnected Armenian culture was with the broader storylines of the Near East. However, as a region with its own religious and historiographical traditions, Armenian history is still all too frequently set aside as “other” or “different.”

At the heart of this talk is a book of history written in the eighth century by an Armenian priest named Łewond. His history offers an instructive view of the extensive and complicated ties between Armenian, Arabic, and Greek sources of the early Islamic period as historical reports circulated between communities both textually and orally. The close study of Łewond’s text allows us to trace particular details and ideas as they crossed religious, political, and linguistic borders of the Near East. However, above and beyond the borrowing of reports or phrases across languages, the history also raises the broader question of shared concepts about genre.

02/27/2023 Hybrid: Faculty House + Zoom
5:00 PM
Rewriting Music, Rethinking Identity: Observant Reform, Liturgy, and Oral Learning among Nuns in the Southern Low Countries
John Glasenapp, St. Anselm College

04/25/2023 Hybrid: Faculty House + Zoom
5:00 PM
How Not to Read the Earliest Latin Life of Muhammad
Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Pomona College


The Istoria de Mahometh is arguably the earliest Latin “biography” of Muhammad, written in Iberia sometime between the end of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth centuries. As one would expect, it is pejorative from beginning to end. In 857 Eulogius of Córdoba copied the Istoria into his Liber apologeticus martyrum, the second of two works that he wrote in defense of the so-called “Córdoban Martyrs.” Because the author of the Istoria is unknown, Eulogius has borne the brunt of modern scholarly criticism for perpetrating such a “ignorant” account of Muhammad’s career. But such an assessment ignores the subtleties of the text and the context within which it was recycled by Eulogius. This micro-study of the Istoria de Mahometh suggests the need for more nuance across the board when approaching medieval Christian views of Islam.