Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World

Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World

Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World

Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World


The medieval Islamic world comprised a wide variety of religions. While individuals and communities in this world identified themselves with particular faiths, boundaries between these groups were vague and in some cases nonexistent. Rather than simply borrowing or lending customs, goods, and notions to one another, the peoples of the Mediterranean region interacted within a common culture. Beyond Religious Borders presents sophisticated and often revolutionary studies of the ways Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers drew ideas and inspiration from outside the bounds of their own religious communities.

Each essay in this collection covers a key aspect of interreligious relationships in Mediterranean lands during the first six centuries of Islam. These studies focus on the cultural context of exchange, the impact of exchange, and the factors motivating exchange between adherents of different religions. Essays address the influence of the shared Arabic language on the transfer of knowledge, reconsider the restrictions imposed by Muslim rulers on Christian and Jewish subjects, and demonstrate the need to consider both Jewish and Muslim works in the study of Andalusian philosophy. Case studies on the impact of exchange examine specific literary, religious, and philosophical concepts that crossed religious borders. In each case, elements native to one religious group and originally foreign to another became fully at home in both. The volume concludes by considering why certain ideas crossed religious lines while others did not, and how specific figures involved in such processes understood their own roles in the transfer of ideas.


Miriam Goldstein

The individuals and communities that lived in the Arabo-Islamic world speak through their many and diverse literary creations with a variety of voices. Distinguishing among these voices and evaluating their interaction is a challenging and often elusive task. For this reason, students of this interaction have conceived of it in various ways, in terms that reveal their differing perspectives and approaches. Terms like “influence” and “reception” emphasize the agency of the “donor culture”; “appropriation” and “accommodation” emphasize the agency of the “adoptive” group or culture; biological metaphors such as “cross-pollination” and “symbiosis” emphasize mutual aspects of exchange; and terms like “diffusion” avoid specifying the means of transfer.

All of these concepts, as well as the phrase “beyond religious borders,” assume the existence of virtual “border lines” that establish the boundaries of identity between communities—their members, their compositions, and their ideas. in his book Border Lines, Daniel Boyarin compares cross-cultural exchange to a border patrolled by customs inspectors, who monitor and selectively control the crossing of merchandise. Boyarin explains how the border space serves as “a crossing point for people and religious practices,” despite the control mechanisms set up by definitions of identity and belonging. He cites an anecdote about a man who crossed the Mexico-U.S. border daily with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Despite assiduous searches by a customs inspector in the dirt being transported, nothing illegal could be unearthed until on the day of the inspector’s retirement it was revealed that the man had spent his life successfully smuggling wheelbarrows. Boyarin’s anecdote is an example of the contrived and even humorous nature of such imposed partitionings. the anecdote further demonstrates that cultural goods crossed borders, and did so in unexpected ways, despite the efforts of customs inspectors or other such guards to create sealed boundaries based on considerations of . . .

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