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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

All seminars will continue to meet virtually through Fall 2021. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change.

Meeting Schedule

10/04/2021 Online Meeting
12:00 PM
The Early Epitome (mukhtaṣar) of Islamic Law: Evolution of a Genre
Christopher Melchert, University of Oxford (England, UK)


The epitome (mukhtaṣar) is a succinct collection of the rules of Islamic law. The earliest examples, considered part of the Mālikī tradition, actually present themselves as collecting the wisdom of a regional tradition. Regional schools gave way to the personal across the ninth century CE, and the earliest Shāfi`ī epitomes, by al-Buwayṭī (d. 846?) and al-Muzanī (d. 877?), present the doctrine of a respected individual, the imam of the school. By comparison with the classical epitomes to come, they include a good deal of the authors themselves, sometimes reinforcing or even disputing the imam’s doctrine. The earliest Ḥanafi epitome, by al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 933), still expressly chooses among available options. The earliest examples of the classical epitome, from the mid-tenth century, are by the Ḥanbalī al-Khiraqī (d. 945/6) and the Ḥanafī al-Marwazī (d. 945). They presage the formation of guild schools, certifying who may or may not give opinions as an adherent. The chief development to come after them is growing concern to identify the single best estimate of the rule for any given case, sidelining alternative rules attributed to the imam or to major followers.

11/08/2021 Online Meeting
12:00 PM
The Art of Oriental Esther Scrolls: Hebrew Manuscripts between Jewish and Muslim Worlds
Dagmara Budzioch, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) and University of Wrocław (Poland)


Esther scrolls (Heb. pl. megillot Esther) are parchment manuscripts of the Book of Esther. The story of the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of Haman, the highest official of the Persian King Ahasuerus, is read aloud every year on the festival of Purim, most commonly in the synagogue. Decorated Esther scrolls first emerged in Italy in the 1560s, and gained their greatest popularity among Italian Jews during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This creative endeavor spread gradually to other European Jewish communities, living mainly in Holland and Central Europe. Only from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards were illustrated Esther scrolls produced in Muslim-ruled societies.

Illustrated Esther scrolls are very attractive and highly important Jewish artifacts, which emerge after the fifteenth-century adaptation of letterpress printing to the production of Hebrew books. Although all Esther scrolls include the same text, they differ significantly in terms of the motifs, layout, and techniques used to adorn them. These differences reflect the general tendency of Jewish art to adapt the artistic vocabulary of the dominant – Christian or Muslim – milieus. Such influence is already visible in the decoration of the earliest extant Hebrew codices from the tenth century which feature the same motifs as manuscripts produced in the Islamic lands. Extant oriental Esther scrolls, mainly from Morocco, Iraq, and Turkey, form a relatively small corpus of manuscripts, and they are rarely a subject of scholarly discussion. Their ornamentation is strongly influenced by Islamic art, as it reflects the intense interest in architectonic and floral motifs, geometric and abstract ornaments, and calligraphy. For the same reason, animals, human figures, or narrative scenes from the Book of Esther rarely appear in the decorative program. Since most scrolls do not have colophons, their ornamentation – in particular their architectonic frames, large calligraphic letters, and carpet pages – is used for discerning their date and origin. During the presentation, the main types of decorated oriental scrolls will be shown, and their ornamentation will be compared with that of manuscripts such as marriage contracts. This will be a starting point for the discussion of the transmission of artistic traditions between the Jewish and Muslim worlds.

12/06/2021 Online Meeting
8:00 PM
Suzanne Wijsman, University of Western Australia (Australia)