March 2, 2010

Acclaimed Prof Brings Passion for Islamic Lit to C.U.

Print More

Each semester, Cornell invites one professor from another university to deliver three lectures in their specialization, as part of the University’s Messenger Lecture series. This spring’s lecturer, Gregor Schoeler, professor emeritus of early Islam and early Arabic literature at the University of Basel in Switzerland, may be the most significant scholar of early Islam and early Arabic literature in the world, according to Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, near eastern studies. Schoeler’s final lecture will be today at 4:30 p.m. at 165 McGraw Hall on the oral and written word in early Islam.

“Schoeler is, as a result of his meticulous research, a leading expert on the historiography of the life of Muhammad, on the nature of scholarship and transmission of learning in early Islam and in the literature and literary history of classical Arabic, especially poetry,” Toorawa said.

Until recently, English speakers hoping to read Schoeler’s work were out of luck, as the majority of his books were only available in German. After his books were published in English, Schoeler began to receive more recognition from Islamic studies scholars.

Schoeler hopes to foster in students the desire to learn more about the subject.

“There is not only one Islamic culture, but a lot of Islamic cultures. I want to make this known to people,” Schoeler said. “People think of Islam as only a religion, not as a sophisticated culture… there is a wide range of thoughts, not only a strict, fundamental Islam. [Islam] has a great impact on European culture from the Middle Ages to today.”

The titles of Schoeler’s lectures might suggest that they deal exclusively with specialized topics in Islamic studies. But the lectures actually aim to appeal to all members of the Cornell community, whether or not they have an interest in Islamic studies.

“Memory and literacy, [the topics] that Schoeler is interested in, also relate to how learning happens, how taking notes and the dissemination of knowledge work,” Toorawa said. “His studies illuminated the process of transmission of learning and books.”

Toorawa hopes that Schoeler’s exploration of past changes in communication methods will also shed light on the way new technologies impact our own exchanges.

“The shift from oral/aural to more writerly mode of transmission is analogous to going from not having a printing press to having a printing press,” Toorawa said. “There is a massive change in the way to deliver information. It’s pretty clear that Schoeler’s studies are relevant to how things are happening now.”

Schoeler also spoke to Islamic studies classes.

“Professor Schoeler was very informative. He came to our class to talk about Abu-Nuwas, one of the most spectacular Islamic poets. We went through his poems together in class. It was very nice because he had a lecture to give after our class and he didn’t have to come,” Robin Perelli ’13 said. “It was a valuable experience because we got an outside perspective. We don’t get someone to come from Switzerland to talk every day.”

The messenger series started with “Miracles in Islam” on Monday, followed by “The Arabic ‘Divine Comedy’: The Eleventh Century ‘The Epistle of Forgiveness’ of al Ma’arri” yesterday and “Memory and Literacy: The Oral and the Written Word in Early Islam (Eighth Century)” today. The lectures progress from general to more specific topics, with the intent of appealing to a wider range of interests.

In addition to Toorawa’s department of Near Eastern Studies, Schoeler received supporting nominations from the Society for the Humanities, the Department of Classics, the Department of Philosophy, the Graduate Program in Medieval Studies, the Committee of Comparative Muslim Societies and the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association.

Original Author: Jackie Lam