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Modern Jewish Scholarship on Islam in Context

Modern Jewish Scholarship on Islam in Context. Rationality, European Borders, and the Search for Belonging

Modern Jewish Scholarship on Islam in Context
  • Book Title:
 Modern Jewish Scholarship On Islam In Context
  • Book Author:
Ottfried Fraisse
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Modern Jewish Scholarship on Islam in Context: Rationality, European Borders, and the Search for Belonging

The following collection of articles—with two exceptions—originates from a conference “Beyond the Myth of Golden Spain” held at Frankfurt University in July 2014.The imagery of “Golden Spain” was extensively evoked—although not in-vented—by those West European Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who wanted to gain more political and social recognition in Western societies.

They promoted the imagery of “Golden Spain” in order to distance themselves from the traditional Ashkenazic educational system, rabbinic leadership, and mode of worship as then especially prevalent in Eastern Europe.¹ By highlighting the poetic, architectural, and scientific dynamics in Jewish cultures of Muslim Spain the image of a quasi-modern Sephardic Jew was nurtured by enlightened Ashkenazic intellectuals in order to display cultural openness, appreciation for the aesthetic, and acquaintance with philosophical knowledge.

The ingenuity of this image of “Golden Spain” was to enable both the assimilation of the Ashkenazim within the borders of (West) European societies and assist in an-choring their rebellion in Jewish soil. However, when historical research at the end of the twentieth century observed that those European Jews of the eighteenth and nine teenth centuries who upheld the imagery of “Golden Spain” were not genuinely interested in the relationship between Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain but in “a usable past,” the modern discourse of “Sephardic supremacy” was rightly labelled amyth.²

But how do the scholars of Jewish origin who about between 1830 and 1930 researched Islam in quite great number, and in an exceptionally profound and sustainable manner, fit into this research narrative?

By aiming beyond the “Myth of Golden Spain,” the Frankfurt conference sought to go a step further and tried to understand the fact that most of these scholars were silent or even critical of the imagery of “Golden Spain.”³ Did these scholars still accept the European borders as their implicit frame of reference and tacit subject of research or did they, in the wake of their research on Islam, develop an awareness of the epistemic and power-political implications of the European borders (of course a question highly indebted to Edward Said)? If so, what did those researchers of Jewish origin learn about the impact of the European borders on their scholarship when dealing with their non-Euro-pean objects of study?

It would be highly topical to come to know more about their experiences with the changing epistemological presuppositions depending on whether living within or outside the European borders, because in a global perspective the urgency of recognizing the mechanisms of their, from a European point of view, highly self-interested ways of representation is evident.

Inthe following introduction, I would like to substantiate the claim that the research on Islam by those scholars of Jewish origin is an enlightening body of texts providing different strategies for dealing with the epistemological and power-political properties of the European borders depending on the—real or imagined—direction of gaze.

The research field of Western study of the East (“the Orient”) in general and Islam in particular has received growing attention in the last 75 years. Especially in recent decades, amounting number of studies have appeared that offer multi-form surveys of this research field with either biographical, disciplinary or institutional outlines.⁴ The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, howev-

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