This Day in Jewish History / Jewish Pioneer of Islamic Studies in the West Dies

Ignaz Goldziher, who died this day in 1921, was drawn to Islam and spent a year in the Levant - but never forgot he was Jew.

November 13, 1921, is the day on which Ignaz Goldziher, the Jewish-Hungarian scholar who pioneered the study of Islam in the West, died at the age of 71.

Ignaz Goldziher (his Hebrew given name was Yitzhak Yehuda) was born on June 22, 1850 in the city of Szekesfehervar, southwest of Budapest. His father was a leather merchant. By age 5, the precocious Goldziher had mastered biblical Hebrew, and by 8 he was studying the Talmud. After gymnasium (high school), where he had a secular education, Goldziher studied philology at the universities of Budapest, Berlin, Leipzig (from which he received his Ph.D in 1870) and Leyden. In 1872 he set off, with the sponsorship of the Hungarian government, on a year-long tour of the Levant: Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

As a Jew, Goldziher found himself powerfully drawn to Islam. When he was in Cairo he even participated in Muslim prayer at Al-Azhar mosque, writing that “In the midst of the thousands of the pious, I rubbed my forehead against the floor of the mosque. Never in my life was I more devout, more truly devout, than on that exalted Friday.”

Goldziher was in general disdainful of superstitious or magical elements in religions, and he was convinced that Islam, even in its orthodox expression, was the only religion that looked down upon such elements. It was, he wrote, his desire to be able “to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level.”

On his return, however, Goldziher, as a Jew, was not eligible for a paid teaching position at Budapest University until he was 44. In the interim, he supported himself working as the secretary of the city’s Jewish community, and also as an instructor at the Neolog (Reform) rabbinical seminary there.

Middle East scholar Martin Kramer has written that it was Goldziher’s firm grounding in Jewish law that made Islam so accessible to him. In the introduction he wrote in 1999 to the book “The Jewish Discovery of Islam,” which he edited, Kramer noted that after the end of his year of travels as a young man, Goldziher never returned to a Muslim land for more than a few days. How, he asks, did the scholar attain “such an intimate understanding of Islam without sustained contact with its living expression?” Kramer attributes it to “his intimate familiarity with another religion of law, in constant tension with actual practice, and formulated in a Semitic language: Judaism.”

His studies of Islamic civilization were sweeping, including hadith (post-Koranic traditions about Mohammed and his companions that served as the basis for Islamic law) and the subject of Islamic law in general; poetry and tradition.

As a Hungarian nationalist who viewed Judaism solely on religious grounds, Goldziher did not identify with Zionism and responded to his friend Max Nordau’s invitation in 1920 to be part of the Hebrew University when it was being organized by declining to depart the “fatherland,” as he referred to Hungary.

Of course, in 1920 Goldziher was already 70 years old, and had only another year to live.

A few days before his death, he was visited at his home by a student, Bernard Heller. It was Shabbat eve, and Heller found him studying both a Bible and a book in Arabic. “I don’t know,” he said to Heller, “whether it is right that I should delve into Arabic literature when tomorrow I shall stand there where they will ask me, Nasata v’natata be’emuna (Did you conduct yourself faithfully)?

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