School of Historical Studies

The Necessity of a Historical Approach to Islamic Theology

Hassan Ansari (right) with Sabine Schmidtke

When Sabine Schmidtke and Hassan Ansari, an Iranian national, met more than a decade ago in Tehran, Ansari was a ­student of the traditional religious system in Qum and Tehran (the “Hawza”). Ansari had read Schmidtke’s doctoral thesis The Theology of al-ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 726/1325), which was translated into Persian and published in Iran in 1999. Schmidtke’s scholarship changed Ansari’s approach to Islamic sources and was one of the reasons why he became ­interested in historical studies on Islamic theology. “The historical approach is not only useful, it is necessary,” says Ansari. “I talk now as a Muslim scholar. We need to have this kind of historical studies to change our approach to our own intellectual and legal tradition and its holy texts.”

What makes Ansari a particularly exceptional scholar is his combination of Western and traditionalist Islamic training. In the “Hawza” in Qum and Tehran, he successfully completed the very highest level of study for the rank of Ayatollah, in the Shi‘i ­clerical system. He also has studied Islamic and Western philosophy and Islamic intellectual history at universities in Tehran, Beirut, and Paris. “Hassan’s command of the sources is extremely wide-­ranging,” says Schmidtke, “and he combines this with the very best ­historical-critical approach to the subjects and texts he is dealing with. He is an intimate connoisseur of manuscripts, Arabic and Persian, and the spectrum he covers is immense.”

How Do You Say "Bastard" in Medieval Latin?

By Sara McDougall 

William of Normandy

The language of illegitimate birth reveals a rich, complex vocabulary.

Early this December, newspaper headlines made the sensational claim that recent DNA evidence had called into question the legitimacy of the British monarchy: scientists had identified what is known as a false-paternity event. Genetic analysis of the remains of King Richard III of England and his modern-day descendants indicated the possibility that Richard’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, or great-great-grandmother had a child with someone other than her husband and successfully passed that child off as her husband’s son and heir, thus corrupting the royal patriline with less-than-royal blood. 

If a scholar of medieval law can be permitted to reassure a reigning monarch and her family, I would like to suggest that their dynastic claim to the throne remains safe. Medieval England by the time of Richard III had developed strict rules against allowing illegitimate children to inherit from their fathers, particularly royal or noble titles, but English law also maintained quite a generous presumption of paternity.

As long as it was remotely possible that the mother’s husband could have conceived the child she presented as his, that child’s right as heir could not be challenged.

That does not mean that illegitimacy raised no problems in the Middle Ages. It most certainly did. But the various ideas of illegitimate birth held by people in the Middle Ages were not necessarily the sorts of problems that we think of today. This year, I have the privilege of investigating the history of ideas of illegitimate birth, and the exclusion of bastards from royal succession, in the former institution of the great scholar of kingship Ernst Kantorowicz, and in the company of brilliant friends and colleagues who have repeatedly challenged and inspired me since my arrival in September.

As I am finding, analysis of the language of illegitimate birth reveals a rich, complex vocabulary used to indicate something less than fully legitimate birth. Terminology included both new and old words, plucked from ancient sources or transliterated from medieval vernacular languages. We find this terminology in the widest range of medieval sources, used to describe contemporaries, ancestors, and biblical and even mythological figures. Definitions vary over time and space, but also depending on the context, the kind of source, and, of course, authorial intentions.

Islamic Law and Private International Law: The Case of International Child Abduction

by Anver M. Emon 

A scene from Not Without My Daughter, in which the mother plots to smuggle her daughter out of Iran. Muslim-majority countries, with few exceptions, have consistently refused to ratify the international Abduction Convention of the Hague Conference, which would require them to violate their understanding of Islamic legal requirements on child custody.

How can private international law reconcile differences between not only two parties, but two legal systems?

In the 1991 film Not Without My Daughter, Sally Field plays an American woman who has a daughter with her Iranian-born husband. When the family visits Iran, Field’s character learns that the husband plans to stay in Iran with their daughter. To escape Iran with her daughter, Field’s character must dupe her increasingly abusive husband, and hire a smuggler to help her and her daughter escape to Turkey. In the backdrop of the dramatic escape is an Iranian legal system premised on national laws of citizenship and Islamic legal doctrines on child custody and guard­ianship. That legal background informs a broad research question I am exploring while in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study concerning the relationship between Islamic law and international law. The issue of international child abduction offers a useful case study to put the stakes of this question into stark relief. 

International child abduction is a particular phenomenon that implicitly reflects the complex implications of a globalized economic environment. Generally, this form of ab­duc­­tion occurs in the context of marital breakdown, where one parent has dual nationality. For the sake of illustration, suppose the following example. Joseph and Maria meet in college and fall in love. Joseph is originally from Pakistan, but has dual citizenship. Maria was born and raised in New Hampshire, and now lives there with Joseph and their two children. After a few years, Joseph and Maria’s marriage begins to fall apart and they divorce. A court grants Maria full custody of their two children, while awarding Joseph visitation rights. Joseph is particularly upset about the custodial arrangement. One day, when the children are visiting him, Joseph goes to the airport where he and the children board an airplane to Pakistan, leaving Maria behind. Distraught, Maria contacts a lawyer to find out her legal options and how to get her children back. 

Music Theory’s Monstrous Chord

By Suzannah Clark 

How a lone theorist’s pursuit of symmetry shaped music history

On the second Sunday after Trinity in 1724, the congregation at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig heard Johann Sebastian Bach’s new cantata that began with the words Ach Gott. Bach set the word Gott to the most dissonant triad known at the time: the augmented triad. Bach’s own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, wrote in the second volume of his treatise of 1762 that the offending augmented fifth of this harmony requires careful preparation. His father did not prepare it at all. Acclimatized as we are today to all kinds of dissonances, this harmony might pass the modern listener by. But it would have disconcerted the ears of the eighteenth-century congregation, giving them a God-fearing shudder, while setting the scene for the biblical message of the day. Bach, after all, was setting the tune and words, Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, that Martin Luther had penned exactly two hundred years earlier, in 1524. Based on Psalm 12, Luther tells of a perilous world filled with those who shun God.

The augmented triad has long been a headache for music theorists, only partially on the basis of its harsh sound. Mostly they are perturbed by its construction and their inability to pinpoint a convincing origin for it. It would be no exaggeration to say that, just two years before Bach composed his cantata, the harmonic theory of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a towering figure in the history of music theory, brought about a paradigm shift in how chords were categorized and understood to have been constructed. Although much of Rameau’s theory still holds sway today, a now defunct aspect of his Traité de l’harmonie led him to deem the augmented triad “worthless.” It belonged to the rubbish heap of potential chords because it did not contain the right kind of fifth, and therefore it must be an incomplete chord. According to Rameau’s newly minted theory, all valid, complete chords must contain a perfect fifth; the augmented triad gets its name from the fact that its fifth is “augmented” (it is a semitone larger than the perfect fifth).

Panofsky’s Suppressed Treatise on Michelangelo

By Gerda Panofsky 

Situating Michelangelo within a long philosophical and religious tradition, extraneous to nation or race

In the Spring 2013 Institute Letter, Uta Nitschke-Joseph wrote “A Fortuitous Discovery: An Early Manuscript by Erwin Panofsky Reappears in Munich,” in which she reconstructed the convoluted fate of the lost, and in 2012 re-found, Habilitation thesis of Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968), one of the founding members of the School of Historical Studies and an eminent art historian of the twentieth century. After two years of transcribing, editing, and proofreading the manuscript, I am happy to report that the volume has been published by De Gruyter in October 2014. The release coincides with the centennial of Panofsky’s doctoral dissertation at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in 1914, printed by a predecessor of the same publishing house, and the eightieth anniversary of his forced emigration from Germany in 1934, after which point in time there had been no trace of the some 340 pages anymore (presumably left behind in the off-limits university office). Moreover, 2014 happened to be the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. An English translation of the book is being prepared by Princeton University Press.

The unfinished text of 1920, modified and enlarged over the following years, is a stylistic analysis of Michelangelo’s (1475–1564) paintings and sculptures, first in comparison with those of his peer Raphael, who, however, was not a sculptor and whom Michelangelo survived by more than four decades, thereby reaching into the periods of the so-called Mannerism and the Early Baroque, which Raphael did not live to see. According to Panofsky, Michelangelo found himself in an artistic conflict between cubic confinement and the dynamic movements of his figures. As his stylistic principles were idiosyncratic and outside the contemporary trends, his œuvre has to be defined against the art of Egypt, antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, as well as the later Baroque. Universal or macro history characterizes also other publications by Panofsky from the 1920s. It is important to note that he never doubted the continuity of Western civilization. While Oswald Spengler, in Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Decline of the West) of 1918, at the end of World War I, proclaimed the downfall of the Occident, Panofsky after his demobilization from the military service in January 1919 devoted himself to the epoch of the Renaissance (the “rebirth” of antiquity), from which lastly Michelangelo could not be extracted.