Religious study crosses cultures, disciplines
By Lisa Pevtzow
Photo by Jason Smith
The diversity of disciplines at the Divinity School makes it possible for me to study how tales traveled from India to Spain.”
Once, a blind man and a lame man were assigned to guard a king’s orchard. So begins a Hindu parable that has passed through Jewish and Muslim cultures, as told by Shatha Almutawa, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
“The blind man carried the lame man on his shoulders, and the lame man served as the blind man’s eyes,” says Almutawa. Working together they raided the orchard, destroying the trees and fruits, and later denied their crime.
The widely shared parable, which illustrates the unity of the body and soul in moral choices, also shows how different cultures often come back to similar religious themes, says Almutawa, who is concentrating on Jewish and Muslim philosophy. An Arab from Dubai, Almutawa is part of a small but growing number of scholars from the Arab and Islamic world who are venturing across traditions by studying Hebrew and Jewish thought.
It is a phenomenon that James Robinson, Assistant Professor in the History of Judaism and Almutawa’s advisor, considers “the maturing of our field.”
At the Divinity School, faculty and students like Almutawa are encouraged to cross disciplines and open conversations across fields. One student learned Sanskrit and Latin to compare Medieval Catholic and Buddhist philosophers, while another compared devout Modern Iranian and Catholic women within patriarchal traditions.
Almutawa is looking at how a group of little-studied Medieval Muslim philosophers from Basra, Iraq, influenced Jewish thought. Because of her native fluency in Arabic and background in the Quran and classical Arabic and Islamic literature, Almutawa is uniquely situated to puzzle out the texts and decipher their meanings, her professors say.
“I love these books,” says Almutawa. “I love their languages. I love thinking about the history behind them—why they were written and how they were transmitted to us.”
Almutawa came to the subject of Jewish and Muslim philosophy while studying the Hebrew language, which she began learning at the Divinity School.
Since its founding, the Divinity School has been fundamentally devoted to the scholarly understanding of religion, and its place in the context of society, economics and culture, says Dean Richard Rosengarten. About two-thirds of the faculty hold appointments in other departments or schools of the University.
It is the only Divinity School in the country that has a single faculty and curriculum educating both for the professoriate and the ministry. “And from there, freedom of thought comes,” Rosengarten says.
The school’s basic assumption is that religion can be seen in many different ways, says William Schweiker, Professor of Theological Ethics and the Director of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. Some students become religious leaders as pastors or rabbis. Others pursue paths of pure scholarship, whether digging up pottery shards from first-century Palestine or studying Buddhist meditation. Almutawa tapped into the school’s diversity of expertise, tracing ideas among medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophers.
“The diversity of disciplines at the Divinity School makes it possible for me to study how such tales traveled from India, to Greece, to Jerusalem, to Iraq, and finally to Spain,” says Almutawa, “why they were told and retold, and what they mean to the people who received them in the 10th century.”
Almutawa studies a group of Muslim scholars and philosophers called Ikhwan al-Safa or the Brethren of Purity. They compiled a four-volume philosophical encyclopedia in 10th-century Basra, including sections on math, science, poetry, psychology, and religion.
“They believed they could reach God by understanding the world around them,” says Almutawa, “that learning was a form of worship.” They thought that the more learned they became, the more elevated their souls, and the more they were able to understand God.
She is especially interested in the many stories, narratives, and dialogues that run through the Ikhwan’s writings, and comparing them to Jewish texts—how these tales were told, their roles in philosophical texts, and how they changed from one tradition to another.
“I’m always amazed how liberal and open and creative the medieval thinkers were,” says Almutawa.
The Ikhwan wrote at the beginning of the Golden Age of the Arab and Jewish worlds. In the courts of the rulers, Muslims and Jews together discussed philosophy and the sciences. They were extremely creative in how they defined religion and interpreted divine scriptures.
The theologians’ and philosophers’ opinions in these centuries also were diverse and often shocking to a modern reader, Almutawa says. But what is most exciting is that the Muslim and Jewish philosophers learned about God from each other—and sharing the same deity allowed them to share other aspects of life, she says.
“In our highly Balkanized society, we’re told that all religions are warring against each other and we can’t study them academically and they have nothing to say because religion is just about emotions,” Schweiker says. “At the Divinity School, we’re doing something very different that is unique and important.”
Originally published on March 22, 2010.