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Muʿtazilism within Islam and Judaism

[RG #101] Muʿtazilism within Islam and Judaism

September 1, 2005 - August 31, 2006


Wilferd Madelung (University of Oxford)
Sabine Schmidtke (Free University of Berlin)

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The Muʿtazila was a rationalist school of Islamic theology and one of the important currents of Islamic thought. Muʿtazilīs stressed the primacy of reason and free will and maintained that good and evil can be known solely through human reason. The beginnings of the Muʿtazila were in the 8th century, and their classic period of development was from the 9th until the middle of the 11th century. While it briefly enjoyed the status of an official theology, over the centuries the Muʿtazila fell out of favour in Sunnī Islam and had largely disappeared by the 14th century. Their influence, however, continued to be felt in two groups: Shīʿī Islam and Karaite Judaism. There has been a trend in the 20th century to revive Muʿtazilī thought, particularly in Egypt. The Neo-Muʿtazilīs are attracted by the Muʿtazilī affirmation of reason and free will, which they see as a basis for intellectual liberty and modernity. Muʿtazilī thought also had a major impact on Jewish theologians, both Rabbanite and Karaite, from the 10th through the 12th centuries.

Muʿtazilī works were evidently not widely copied, and few manuscripts have survived. So little authentic Muʿtazilī literature was available that until the publication of some texts in the 1960s, Muʿtazilī doctrine was known mostly through the works of its opponents. While Muʿtazilī manuscripts have not been preserved in large quantities, most of the material that has survived has not yet been utilized or published. Muʿtazilī manuscripts have survived largely by two means: Yeminite public and private libraries, and the Firkovitch Collections in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg, which came mostly from the manuscript storeroom of the Karaite synagogue in Cairo. In the early 1950s numerous manuscripts were discovered in Yemen that included the works of various representatives of the Muʿtazilī school of Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʾī (d.933), the Bahshamiyya, which were subequently edited in Egypt during the 1960s.

The goal of our study group is to examine, identify and edit as many as possible of the Muʿtazilī writings and fragments scattered in the various Muslim and Jewish repositories around the world, in order to broaden our understanding of rational theology in Islam and its reception among Rabbanite and particularly Karaite Jews.


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Ruth Glasner

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Ruth is a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of the Sciences at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Transmission and Appropriation of the Secular Sciences and Philosophy in Medieval Judaism: Comparative Perspectives, Universal and National Aspects

[RG #108] Transmission and Appropriation of the Secular Sciences and Philosophy in Medieval Judaism: Comparative Perspectives, Universal and National Aspects

March 1 - August 31, 2007


Gad Freudenthal (CNRS, Paris)
Ruth Glasner (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

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Our project will focus on the study of the patterns of transmission to, and appropriation by, medieval Jewish cultures of Greek-Arabic thought, with special emphasis on a comparison with the parallel processes in the Muslim-Arabic and Christian-Latin cultures. The group will study different aspects of the absorption of originally Greek knowledge (mainly but not only scientific and philosophical ideas) within the different medieval Jewish cultures in the Mediterranean between the 8th and the 15th centuries, and examine the role played by Jews in knowledge transfer from Europe to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. These processes are worthy of study, not only in and of themselves, but also as a reexamination, comparatively speaking, of the varying accounts offered for the Muslim-Arabic and Christian-Latin cases, based on the role of institutions of learning. The absence of similar institutions in Jewish cultures affords the possibility of "controlling" the thesis that what allowed Western Europe to lead the way from medieval science to the scientific revolution was the institutionalization of learning within that society.


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