The Beginnings of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

By Milson, Menahem | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

The Beginnings of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Milson, Menahem, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The story of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University can be told in a number of ways: as an account of four generations of ever-expanding and increasingly specialized research; as the history of an important academic institution; and as part of the dramatic story of Jewish scholars who left Europe for Palestine and established the first Hebrew university in history.(1)

Arabic and Islamic Studies is one of the academic areas in which the Hebrew University excels, and for which it is justly famous. The institute devoted to this area of study was one of the first components of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: the School of Oriental Studies was founded in 1926, and, in the field of Humanities, was preceded only by the Institute of Jewish Studies, which opened its doors in December 1924.(2)

The pace of development of Arabic and Islamic studies in Jerusalem can be appreciated if we look at the increase in the number of scholars engaged in study in this field over the years. In 1926 when the School of Oriental Studies was founded it comprised five scholars.(3) Today at the Hebrew University 32 scholars are engaged in the study of Arabic language and literature, and Islamic history and civilization.(4)

That the Hebrew University excels in Arabic and Islamic Studies should come as no surprise. Ever since Arabic and Islamic Studies became part of the program of universities in the nineteenth century, Jews have been among the most prominent in the field. As Bernard Lewis notes, the Jews played a special role in the development of Arabic and Islamic Studies:

During the nineteenth century European scholarship on Islam received a tremendous new impetus. Several new developments contributed to this great growth. One of these was the application to Islamic studies of the critical historical method which was being developed by European and especially German scholars for the study of Greek, Roman, and European history. . . . A second important development was the emancipation of the European Jews and the consequent entry of Jewish scholars into the European universities. From the first, Jewish scholars made a major contribution to the development of Arabic and Islamic studies - a contribution which continues to the present day, as far as politically-minded administrators and benefactors permit. Like their Christian colleagues, most of them had a theological background, transferring from the Rabbinical schools and seminaries where they had studied Hebrew and Talmud to the study of Arabic and Islam. They differed, however, in several important respects from their Christian colleagues. The Jewish scholar, unlike many of his Christian colleagues had no missionary ambitions, no nostalgia for the Crusades, no concern with the Eastern question. He was free from the inherited fears, prejudices and inhibitions that had often marred Christian scholarship.

On the contrary, in two important respects he was favorably inclined to the object of his studies. One of these was practical and real. Hebrew and Arabic are cognate languages; Judaism and Islam are sister religions, with many important resemblances between them. A Jew, particularly a learned Jew, had a head start over his Christian colleagues in the study of Islam, and an immediacy of understanding which they could not easily attain."(5)

Professor Lewis analyzes this striking phenomenon in greater detail in his earlier article, published in Judaism in 1968, "The Pro-Islamic Jews."(6) His analysis serves us well when we try to understand the background to the relatively rapid development of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University. Bernard Lewis stresses the importance of the German philological method in the development of Arabic and Islamic studies in Europe - a philological tradition which significantly shaped the character of Arabic and Islamic studies in Jerusalem.

For the founders of the Hebrew University there was yet another incentive for cultivating Arabic and Islamic Studies: the desire to establish bridges of understanding with their Arab neighbors. …

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