Interview with Dr. Y. Tzvi Langermann on Islamic Studies and Islam in Israel
Interview with Dr. Y. Tzvi Langermann on Islamic Studies and Islam in Israel
By Tugrul Keskin and Najm al-Din Yousefi
Dr. Langermann was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. He received his degrees from Boston and Harvard Universities. Dr. Langermann has published extensively on Science and Philosophy in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Cultures, Islamic Astronomy, Jews in Medieval Islam, and Jews in Yemen. He also teaches “the Thought of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi” and “Greek Wisdom in Islamic Civilization.” He is married to Dina Zilberman, an organizational psychologist; and is the father of Netanel, Michal, and Amos, all three children born a few minutes apart from each other in 2000. Dr. Langermann is the chair of Arabic Studies at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel.
For more information about Dr. Langermann’s recent work, please visit his website: http://www.biu.ac.il/faculty/ytlangermann/
Tugrul Keskin and Najm al-Din Yousefi: Dr. Langermann, thank you for accepting this interview with the Sociology of Islam and Muslim Societies newsletter. First of all, would you please tell us about yourself and your research and how you developed your interest in Islamic Studies?
Dr. Tzvi Langermann: Well, I learned Arabic because of my interest in the history of science; however, I became increasingly interested in the interface between science, philosophy and religious thought in the medieval period, and this led me to explore Islamic thought. When I took up the job at Bar Ilan, I was asked to teach Qur'an, and that really motivated me; it quickly became not just a teaching assignment, but a very serious interest.
Keskin and Yousefi: Would you please tell us why you decided to move to Israel and why you are interested in studying Islam?
Dr. Langermann: I moved to Israel out of a sincere feeling that I am returning to my ancestral homeland. I also want to live in a place where Jewish customs are integrated into the rhythm of life, so that I don't have to constantly make special arrangements in order to observe the Sabbath and holidays, as I had to do in the States. Finally, I also wanted to live in a place with some "oriental" ambiance.
I study Islam for a number of reasons, personal and professional. I began to study Islam by way of my studies in the history of science, which led me to learn Arabic, and which in turn opened up new worlds for me (as learning a new language always does); my studies on Muslim scientists, some of whom (e.g. Ibn Sina) were major religious thinkers, as well as Jewish writers who drew upon Muslim writings, led me to study Islam more deeply. But I must also confess that, for whatever reason or reasons, I have never looked upon Islam as something totally alien.
Keskin and Yousefi: Given the vibrant intellectual exchange between Jewish and Islamic cultures, what do you make of the modern-era tension between the two cultures that have culminated in the Arab-Israeli conflict? Are the ongoing conflicts likely to have a negative impact on studies of Islamic culture and history in Israel?
Dr. Langermann: The study of Islamic cultures and history developed in Israel in the course of the ongoing and unending conflicts. I would only add this: in the USA and (maybe less so) in Europe, Islam is a new thing, at least in the public sphere, and for that reason many people are interested in learning about it, so the opportunities are growing. In Israel that is not the case. Unfortunately we are suffering now due to the general neglect of the humanities; perhaps I should say devaluation of or even scorn for the humanities. It is that attitude, rather than any negative feelings coming out of the conflicts, that is already having a negative impact.
Keskin and Yousefi: Would you please give us a brief overview of Islamic Studies in Israeli universities? How many Islamic Studies centers are there in Israel, and what are they like? Do you think that there is enough independent academic research in Islamic Studies and Islam within Israeli Universities?
Dr. Langermann: There are no centers that I know of, nor even departments, that are devoted to Islamic studies. Our department is simply called "Arabic". Some people look upon us simply as the university's Berlitz, and I work hard to let them know that we are strong in our offerings in Islamic thought, as well as the Judaeo-Arabic Cultural Heritage and, of course, Arabic language and literature. I know that experts in Islam in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv also teach in departments of Arabic. There are also departments and centers devoted to Middle Eastern Studies. It's hard to say if there is "enough" research. Can one say if it is enough to meet the demand, the way one can judge whether there are enough Toyotas? Obviously we would like to have more resources at our disposal. But I really should return to a point made earlier. What we really would like to see is a higher appreciation of the humanities—Islamic studies, yes, but also literature of all sorts, and history. In Israel's formative years, under far more difficult economic and other circumstances, the leadership did appreciate the humanities; they realized that that's what it's all about, that's why we sweat and bleed to build a country.
Keskin and Yousefi: In your research you have dealt with Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides who flourished in the cultural milieu of medieval Islam. In light of your research, how do you assess the general attitude of Islamic civilization towards the Jewish contribution?
Dr. Langermann: Overall, Islamic thinkers were receptive to Jewish contributions to medicine and the other sciences, but displayed very little interest in Jewish writings on theology and philosophy; but one should remember, that Jewish writers did not publish religious writings—that means, in the medieval period, deliberately initiate diffusion—the way they did in the sciences. Islamic writers tended to view contributions to the sciences as individual—that is, the contribution of an Isaac Israeli, or, for that matter a Majusi, Masihi, or Ibn Rushd—rather than the contribution of a religious or ethnic group.
Keskin and Yousefi: Do you think that the general attitude of Islamic civilization toward the Jewish contribution has varied significantly in different time-periods and localities?
Dr. Langermann: Again, we must speak more of the receptivity towards the work of Jews, rather than the "Jewish contribution". From the Islamic point of view, the Jewish contribution to civilization, if it can be called that, certainly ended with the Prophet, if not before. However, the contribution of Jews as individuals was acknowledged, as you say, in different degrees depending on the locale and time-period.
Keskin and Yousefi: How have Islamic traditions in theology, philosophy and science shaped medieval Jewish thought?
Dr. Langermann: Enormously. Basically, Jews living in Islamic lands participated in the same enterprise, the same discourse, as Muslim thinkers and scientists did. The key point is an uncompromising insistence upon tawhid. Knowing just what tawhid means, and the related (Maimonides would say the identical) task of avoiding tajsim, requires a lifetime of study and reflection. One is constantly engaged in a process of purifying one’s thoughts about the divine.
Keskin and Yousefi: It is curious that, historically speaking, many Jewish scholars have taken a keen interest in studying various aspects of Islamic civilization, whereas very few Muslim scholars have actively engaged in the examination of Jewish theological and philosophical thought. How could we make sense of this asymmetrical interest?
Dr. Langermann: I think that in large measure this is due to the absence of any real tradition of the humanities in Islamic cultures; I mean, the evaluation of the study of other cultures, their language, history, religions, arts, and so forth as a worthwhile and valuable field of knowledge in its own right. A work like al-Biruni's book on India stands out, not only because of its wonderful observations and insights, but also because of the rarity of books of that sort.
Keskin and Yousefi: Do you think that Israeli scholars, who work on Islamic Studies and Islam, have any prejudice against Islam, or hold Islamophobic attitudes?
Dr. Langermann: I am sure that some do. Don't forget that Israel, like Turkey, has been ruled for the most part by avowed secularists; some have a fanatical revulsion towards all religions.
Keskin and Yousefi: Dr. Langermann, I would like to ask you a question that is not directly related with academia, but I think it is important to elaborate on and understand the problem that Jewish people have faced over centuries in Europe. As a Muslim, over the last thirty years, I think Muslims in general have sometimes been accused of using anti-Semitic overtones in their language when they criticize Israeli foreign policies. However, I personally believe that we must not mix two different concepts; criticizing the Israeli Foreign Policy, and racism/anti-Semitism. As a Jew, what is your definition of racism/anti-Semitism, and where do you think that Muslims should draw the line between these two completely different concepts? Do you think anti-Semitism exists in Muslim populated societies the same way it exists in Europe and America?
Dr. Langermann: Well, that's a tall order. Generally, I think there is a big difference between speaking about, or criticizing, or lambasting, "the Israelis" and doing the same to "the Jews"; that's the main difference. Don't forget that powerful elements in Israeli society and politics reject the idea of a "Jewish state". I also don't know exactly how to measure anti-Semitism. I'm sure that if you polled some groups of Muslims about their perceptions of Jews, you would find a lot of negativity (that's an Americanism, I'm not sure if it's in the dictionary). However, just how all of this comes into play in the public sphere is, at least I imagine it to be, a different question, and certainly the more pressing issue. I do want to end by saying that I've had a wonderful experience teaching classes on Qura'n, Sufism, and religious philosophy to classes where Muslims range between one-third to two-thirds of the participants; and I'm pleased that on the whole, my Muslim students realize that I am a believer, a muwahhid, and at least aim towards ibada; and that means that we have in common the most important beliefs. We all belong to ma'shar al-muwahhidin.