The 2014 Holberg Symposium: "Ancient Religions, Modern Dissent"

The symposium "Ancient Religions, Modern Dissent" was held in honour of Michael Cook, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and the Holberg Laureate of 2014.


Welcome by Prof Sigmund Grønmo, Chair, Holberg International Memorial Prize Board

Panel 1: Why Monotheism?

Varieties of Monotheism in Late Antiquity

Guy Stroumsa, Professor Emeritus of the Study of Abrahamic Religions, University of Oxford. While many religious and intellectual movements referred to the One God in Late Antiquity, they did so in a number of ways, with vastly different implications. In itself, "monotheism" may not be enough to characterize Muhammad’s religious revolution. A brief survey of religious and philosophical approaches to the unity of the Divinity in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern intercultural system might help us to better understand the emergence and nature of Quranic monotheism. Guy G. Stroumsa is Martin Buber Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Professor Emeritus of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, and Emeritus Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

The People of Justice and Monotheism: Muʿtazilism in Islam and Judaism

Sabine Schmidtke, Professor of Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin The Islamic theological movement of the so-called Muʿtazila, the “People of Justice and Monotheism” as they called themselves, flourished between the Eigth and Thirteenth Century CE. While the methodological tools of discursive theology had left their mark on Jewish (mainly Karaite) thinkers writing in Arabic since the early Ninth Century, there emerged a “Jewish Muʿtazila” around the turn of the Eleventh Century that dominated Jewish theological thinking for centuries to come. The paper will discuss some aspects of this reception process. Sabine Schmidtke is Professor of Islamic Studies and Founding Director, Research Unit Intellectual History of the Islamicate World at Freie Universität Berlin.

The Prophets of Monotheism in al-Andalus

Maribel Fierro, Research Professor CSIC, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Madrid The noted Cordoban scholar Ibn Hazm (d. 1056) had no patience with the Biblical story of Loth because of the many shameful things it attributes to prophets. The protection of prophecy (tahsin al-nubuwwa) was a major concern for him and for other Andalusi and Maghrebi scholars. One of them, Qadi Iyad of Ceuta (d. 1149), produced a work in praise of the prophet Muhammad that enjoyed huge and lasting success in the Islamic world. In order to understand Ibn Hazm's and Iyad's defence of prophecy and prophets, the views of those who took different views need to be analyzed, since they indicate that the Muslims' understanding of prophecy—and more specifically, of the last Prophet, Muhammad—has been more complex than current treatments often indicate. Maribel Fierro is Research Professor at the Centre of Human and Social Sciences at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC—Spain).

Moderator Panel 1: Sarah Stroumsa, Alice and Jack Ormut Professor Emerita of Arabic Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Holberg Lecture: Monotheism and the Rise of Islam

Michael A. Cook, Holberg International Memorial Prize Laureate, 2014, Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University The success of monotheism in world history is clearly related to power—but power of what kind? Is it the intrinsic power of the monotheist idea, for example an unusual capacity to focus the energies of large numbers of people in pursuit of a common purpose? Or is the power extrinsic, the result rather of historical contingencies that have forged an adventitious link between monotheism and powerful states? Or does the truth lie in some combination of the two—and if so, just what combination would that be? In my lecture I plan to review the extensive historical record of the rise and spread of Islam—the process by which it became a world religion—to see what light it can shed on these questions. The issue is one that I have been aware of for a long time, but this lecture will be my first attempt to grapple with it. Michael Cook is Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University. Respondent: Robert Hoyland, Professor of Middle East History, Institute for Study of the Ancient World, NYU.

Moderator: Professor Sigmund Grønmo, Chair of the Holberg International Memorial Prize Board.

Panel 2: Law and Dissent in Islamic Thought

Shaving Hair and Beards in early Islamic Egypt: An Innovation or a universal Punishment?

Petra Sijpesteijn, Professor of Arabic Language and Culture, University of Leiden. Arabic narrative sources abound in references to the punishment of shaving beards and hair, both in an official juridical context and in more popular descriptions of public chastisements and shaming ceremonies. Papyrological evidence dating from the first 80 years after the Arab conquest of Egypt record the Arab authorities in Egypt imposing a punishment by shaving hair and beards on some Egyptian Christians. But there are no attestations of a systematic use of this punishment from pre-Islamic Egypt, nor does the context fit later narrative accounts. In this paper I want to examine two questions about early Islamic Egypt: (1) what does this practice come from? (2) Why is it deemed an effective punishment? For what crimes was it used, how did it function for the Arab authorities who imposed it and for the Christian Egyptians who underwent it? Petra Sijpesteijn holds the chair of Arabic language and culture at Leiden University.

The Sovereignty of God in Modern Islamic Thought

Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Niehaus Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Religion, Princeton University The sovereignty of God and related ideas have had a prominent place in Islamist discourses. In influential formulations, twentieth-century Islamist ideologues like Mawdudi of Pakistan and Qutb of Egypt argued that anything less than exclusive submission to God's law and all that it entailed in religious and political terms was idolatry. Yet the idea of the sovereignty of God has resonated with many more people than the Islamists, and it has meant quite different things in different quarters. This paper seeks to shed some light on the provenance of this idea, on how and to what purpose it has been invoked in religious and political argument, and what the contestations over it might tell us about competing conceptions of Islam in the modern world. Muhammad Qasim Zaman is Robert H. Niehaus Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Religion at Princeton University.

From Classical Law to Lawyer's Law

Mona Siddiqui,Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies, University of Edinburgh. The Islamic juristic tradition remains the most contentious area of Islamic thought today. This paper explores how the pluralist landscape in many European countries has led to a renewed and contested interest in shari`a and Islamic thought more broadly, creating various definitions of shari`a and the place of classical jurisprudence, which is more strictly the domain of fiqh. How do the two words differ or connect in Islamic thought? While some scholars argue that the place of classical law is dead, whether as a discursive intellectual exercise or as a normative living tradition, it is clear that Muslims use the word shari`a in all kinds of ways, but always to mean a connection to God. When the word shari`a is used as part of the legal process in western countries, in civil, family, and criminal cases, the complex relationship between law as an intellectual exercise, law as a living tradition, and law as a mode of difference and source of suspicion between communities becomes clearer. Mona Siddiqui joined the University of Edinburgh’s Divinity school in 2011 as the first Muslim chair in Islamic and Interreligious Studies where she also serves as Assistant Principal for Religion and Society.

Moderator: Knut S. Vikør, Professor of Middle Eastern History, University of Bergen.

15.15-15.30: Closing discussion

Final remarks: Professor Ivar Bleiklie, Director of the Holberg International Memorial Prize.


to 13:00, CEST.
Auditorium A, Studentsenteret, Parkveien 1, Universitetet i Bergen
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