Miriam Goldstein*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

1 Scopus citations


The individuals and communities that lived in the Arabo-Islamic world speak through their many and diverse literary creations with a variety of voices. Distinguishing among these voices and evaluating their interaction is a challenging and often elusive task. For this reason, students of this interaction have conceived of it in various ways, in terms that reveal their differing perspectives and approaches. Terms like "influence" and "reception" emphasize the agency of the "donor culture"; "appropriation" and "accommodation" emphasize the agency of the "adoptive" group or culture; biological metaphors such as "cross-pollination" and "symbiosis" emphasize mutual aspects of exchange; and terms like "diffusion" avoid specifying the means of transfer.1 All of these concepts, as well as the phrase "beyond religious borders," assume the existence of virtual "border lines" that establish the boundaries of identity between communities-their members, their compositions, and their ideas. In his book Border Lines, Daniel Boyarin compares cross-cultural exchange to a border patrolled by customs inspectors, who monitor and selectively control the crossing of merchandise. Boyarin explains how the border space serves as "a crossing point for people and religious practices," despite the control mechanisms set up by definitions of identity and belonging. He cites an anecdote about a man who crossed the Mexico-U.S. border daily with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Despite assiduous searches by a customs inspector in the dirt being transported, nothing illegal could be unearthed until on the day of the inspector's retirement it was revealed that the man had spent his life successfully smuggling wheelbarrows. Boyarin's anecdote is an example of the contrived and even humorous nature of such imposed partitionings. The anecdote further demonstrates that cultural goods crossed borders, and did so in unexpected ways, despite the efforts of customs inspectors or other such guards to create sealed boundaries based on considerations of identity. Indeed, Boyarin goes on to claim that the inspectors themselves in certain cases became prominent and unwitting agents of this interchange.2 Boyarin's work focuses on the border between Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries of their coexistence, when lines of identity were vague and unclear-and heresiographers were hell-bent on defining them once and for all. In contrast, during the period of Islamic rule, there is little question of who is a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Zoroastrian, a Manichaean, and so on.3 The borders of group identity, at least between religions, are significantly clearer and for the most part not subject to debate. Yet despite the relatively clear-cut nature of the individual's religious identity during the Islamic period, the religious identity of ideas and customs remained far from clear. Cultural boundaries were somewhere between semipermeable and nonexistent; for this reason, the analysis of religious borders is yet relevant in analyzing the relationships between religious groups living under Islamic rule. Numerous lines of affinity linked these groups. The religions of the Near East draw on a lengthy and complex common past and, furthermore, communities of a variety of religions dwelled side by side in various periods. This combination of diachronic kinship and synchronic contiguity led to a complex interrelationship, one in which it is quite difficult to identify and describe the interactions between religions, let alone trace the origins of particular institutions, customs, or scholarly approaches. Many of the specific questions raised by Boyarin's discussion of identity in the early centuries of the Christian era remain relevant in the Islamic milieu. One area of inquiry relates to the nature of the goods transferred and the reformulation of ideas, customs, or institutions as they traveled along and through communal borders. In what ways were boundaries permeable, and in what ways were they impermeable? In what ways did locally or temporally specific factors affect the nature of such interactions? Other questions relate to the individuals involved in the transfer: To what extent was the process of cultural exchange across communal boundaries conscious? That is, to what extent were members of communities aware that such exchange was taking place, and what was their evaluation of that activity? Furthermore, how did individuals involved in these interactions understand or choose to represent their own identity and that of ideas or institutions that originated on the foreign side of the border? Marshall G. S. Hodgson, implicitly responding to such questions of identity, proposed a view of the history of the civilization marked by Islamic rule that effectively removes such cultural borders or communal boundaries from consideration.4 Hodgson explained that non-Muslim groups formed an integral part of the social and intellectual systems that developed in areas of Islamic rule, and he coined the adjective "Islamicate" to replace "Islamic" or "Muslim" in describing these groups and systems. The word "Islamicate" could describe the creations of both orthodox Muslims and non-Muslims in addition to-as Hodgson put it-the decidedly "un- Islamic" creations of certain Muslims. This term, Hodgson argued, could more accurately characterize the variety of elements that contributed to the common civilization of the Near East and Mediterranean during the medieval period. It was Hodgson's broad perspective-geographic, religious, and chronological- That led him to remove the border lines between religious and ethnic groups alike by speaking instead of an Islamicate civilization. Hodgson viewed this civilization as an Irano-Semitic one dating as far back as Sumerian times yet evolving and developing thanks to overlays from later cultures. For this reason, Hodgson opposed labeling ideas as belonging to one religion or another; he saw them as part of the shared framework native to some degree or another to all the religions of the East and the Mediterranean. Hodgson's perspective leads to important conclusions regarding interactions across community lines. According to Hodgson's model, parallel ideas proposed by thinkers of different religions are a natural and even predictable occurrence. This predictability, however, does not preclude examination of the parallels. Even while acknowledging a common source for ideas and institutions, the student of such concepts may nevertheless examine their differing contexts and evaluate their transformation in each one, as did Hodgson in his work. Hodgson's model of interreligious relations was part of his more comprehensive aspiration to contextualize Islamic history in the broader framework of world history, and despite criticism of some of his terminological innovations,5 his broad vision of Islamic civilization was adopted and employed by many later historians.6 Shlomo D. Goitein, the great historian of the Cairo Genizah, affirmed like Hodgson that the religions of the Near East were shaped by a common origin, including a shared regional culture and intellectual tradition. Indeed, he called his study of the Jewish society that produced and preserved the documents of the Genizah A Mediterranean Society, emphasizing the organic establishment of these Jewish communities in surrounding cultures.7 In his studies of religious communities, however, Goitein nonetheless portrayed the impact of longstanding and internally transmitted tradition as more significant than that of adopted concepts or institutions.8 For him, the common origin of distinct religious communities was part of a distant and secondarily relevant past that could account only for a limited and definable number of similarities. Goitein viewed the traditional customs and methods of social organization transmitted over the years within each particular group as the most influential factor in shaping culture and creation. Despite his belief in the superior weight of internal tradition in shaping culture over and above contemporaneous interactions, Goitein is well-known, and perhaps best known, for the metaphor he coined to describe just this contemporaneous interaction in areas under Islamic rule: The metaphor of biological symbiosis. A similar term-the Romance cognate of symbiosis, "convivencia"-had already been adopted by certain scholars of the Andalusian context who chose to emphasize similar characteristics of the society they studied.9 In symbiosis or convivencia, two organisms coexist, each preserving its own identity, in a relationship that is either mutualistic or parasitic. This concept in and of itself emphasizes the existence of border lines between communities and the exchange across them. Goitein emphasized the mutual nature of such exchange and viewed the various phases of the relationship between Islam and Judaism with the broad lens-chronologically, in particular-that enabled him to adopt this approach. During the early development of Islam, importation was carried out from Judaism into Islam, while in later centuries, once Islam had become the ruling religion and the majority religion in many areas, the direction was reversed.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationBeyond Religious Borders
Subtitle of host publicationInteraction and Intellectual Exchange in The Medieval Islamic World
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)9780812243741
StatePublished - 2012


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