The Transformation of Jewish Literature in Arabic in the Islamicate World

Principal Investigator:

Ronny Vollandt

Funded by:

European Research Council



This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 101002243).

Nathan Gibson, Friederike Schmidt, Gregor Schwarb, Ronny Vollandt (c) LMU/ Manu Theobald

Around the turn of the first millennium CE, up to ninety percent of the Jewish population lived in territories under Muslim sovereignty. In Arabic-speaking regions, most Jews embraced spoken Arabic in everyday communication. Jews, moreover, integrated Arabic into their written communication and literate culture, adopting literary concepts and techniques from their intellectual environment. This process gave rise to one of the most extraordinary periods of literary creativity in all of Jewish history.

MAJLIS investigates the surge of Jewish literature in Arabic through the prism of a single, concrete social and institutional context, the Qaraite dār al-ʿilm (“compound of knowledge”) in 10th–11th century Jerusalem. This institution provides an unparalleled vantage point for understanding a profound cultural paradigm shift that included the emergence of new modes of producing, organising, and disseminating knowledge, and new kinds of textual practices, literary genres, and disciplines. Far from being passive bystanders of this cultural transformation, the Qaraite scholars at the Compound of Knowledge were one of its important driving forces.

Nadine Urbiczek, Friederike Schmidt (c) LMU/ Manu Theobald

From the 9th century onwards, Qaraite Judaism established itself as a momentous pietistic and intellectual network of Jewish communities and scholars with a particularly strong foothold in areas of the former sasanian Empire. Towards the end of the 9th century, a messianic and ascetic movement known as the Mourners of Zion or the Lillies emerged from this Millieu. It called upon its followers to settle in Palestine and to establish Jerusalem as their new centre of spiritual and intellectual nenewal. Over the course of the 10th century, Jerusalem thus emerged as the hub of wide-ranging and flourishing Qaraite scholarly activity. In the latter part of the 10th century, these scholarly activities coalesced around the residence of the Qaraite scholar Abū Yūsuf ibn Nūh. It was this residence that became known, over time, as the dār al-ʿilm of the Qaraite community in Jerusalem.

Through fortunate historical circumstances, several hundreds of original manuscript documents that were produced or held at the dār al-ʿilm have come down to us. On the eve of the First Crusade, these documents were moved to Cairo, where they were kept until 1864, when Abraham Firkovitch transferred them to the Crimean peninsula and later sold them to the Imperial Public Library in St Petersburg. In MAJLIS, these documents take centre stage and enter the limelight of systematic scholarly scrutiny.

Based on an in-depth analysis and description of the core corpus of 10th- and 11th-century manuscripts, the project strives to reconstruct:

  1. The functions and structure of the dār al-ʿilm and its relation to Muslim and Christian institutions of the same name under Būyid and Fāṭimid dominion.
  2. The scholars affiliated with the dār al-ʿilm and their respective functions, activities, and biographies, including information about their geographical origins and relationships with larger transregional networks.
  3. The holdings of the library of the dār al-ʿilm, the provenance of its codices, and the copying and reading practices manifested in them. The reconstruction of the library will help us to better understand how the physical availability of certain texts formed the institution’s concrete intellectual environment.
  4. The core curriculum of instruction as well as the teaching methods and teaching materials employed.
  5. Literary production, literary genres, textual practices, and disciplines, and the taxonomies of knowledge.

The overall goal of MAJLIS is to comprehensively explore for the first time the fundamental ways in which the adoption of Arabic transformed Jewish literature and the disciplines of learning from the 9th to the 11th century, and to assess how it departed from earlier Late Antique models of composition.

All data assembled during the project will be stored in a Digital Handbook of Jewish Authors Writing in Arabic, which will constitute a major stepping-stone towards assembling a new, highly accessible guide to Judeo-Arabic texts that will enable users to identify, locate, and cite any work, with full documentation. By doing so, it will also contribute to a more integrated view of Jewish and Arabic intellectual history that challenges many modern narratives of enmity.

Team members