The Israeli who's taken Abraham to Oxford

We talk to Oxford University’s first Professor of Abrahamic Faiths

By Simon Rocker, May 27, 2010
Making history at Oxford: former Hebrew University professor, Guy Stroumsa

Making history at Oxford: former Hebrew University professor, Guy Stroumsa

Oxford may have lost to Cambridge in this year's boat race, but in one pursuit Oxford has pipped its old rival to the post. Oxford's first Professor of Abrahamic Studies has been teaching there almost a year, while Cambridge is still in the process of recruiting one.

The holder of Oxford's new chair is a Parisian-born Jewish Israeli with a special interest in early Christian mysticism. Guy Stroumsa had been Martin Buber Professor of Comparative Religion at the Jerusalem's Hebrew University until his arrival here last autumn.

A decade ago the concept of "Abraham faiths", the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, would have seemed fairly novel even in academic circles. "I don't think it starts before the late 20th century," said Professor Stroumsa, who cannot think of a similar chair at another institution.

"My guess is that in the early 20th century, one still spoke our Christian tradition in Europe or in the United States. Later on it became the Judeo-Christian, or the Jewish-Christian tradition, mainly after the Second World War, as it were to atone for the Holocaust on the European Jews. The final stage was to speak about the Abrahamic traditions, or faiths, to make a place for the new Muslim citizens of Europe."

Exploring relations between the three Middle Eastern monotheisms "might strike you as something very obvious to do," he said, "but actually it is surprising how difficult it is in practice to implement. Part of the reason is technical. It involves knowledge of difficult languages. You cannot study Islam without Arabic and maybe either Turkish or Persian or both. And that takes time. You cannot study Judaism without at least Hebrew, and Aramaic, Greek, German,whatever. You can't study Christianity without Greek and Latin."

Maimonides’s family was forced to convert to Islam when he was a child

Specialists in each of the three religions would often plough their own furrow with little contact. "That's why interdisciplinary chairs and departments are so important to establish and very few exist," he said.

At the Hebrew University, as in many places elsewhere, Islam, Judaism and Christianity tended to be taught separately. Even though he established a centre for Christanity there in 1999, he said, it was only in his last year that he started an introductory seminar in comparative study of all three faiths . "I taught in Jerusalem for 31 years," he said. "Why it took me so long to think of it, I don't know."

In fact, he still spends every other weekend during term time in Jerusalem - "it's a schlep." His wife Sarah is rector of the Hebrew University and an expert on Islamic and Jewish philosophy. "She has just published a book on Maimonides where she shows that in many ways his patterns of thought are those of a Muslim," he said. "He converted to Islam as a child, his family were forced to convert by the Almohades. He grew up as a crypto-Jew but he studied Islam in a mosque. It's well-known but Jews prefer not to emphasise it."

Paul Joyce, chairman of Oxford's theology faculty, hoped that the new professor's appointment would "contribute to deepening friendship among these three great religions".

Universities, according to Professor Stroumsa, should naturally be places that foster understanding and respect for one another. "Anyone teaching in a university and not wanting to promote understanding should be demoted immediately," he said.

But he draws a distinction between distinterested academic inquiry and interfaith dialogue as such. "Usually interfaith is done by men of faith," he said. "You have a qadi [an Islamic judge], a rabbi and priest who want us not to murder one another, but to tolerate and respect one another and they establish a kind of dialogue. Interfaith organisations try to say what is similar in Judaism, Christianity and Islam - we share the same God, pray in same ways and so on. This is the unitarian way of comparative study. I am more of a trinitarian - I am interested in the differences."

Knowing where religions clash, as well as converge, can be helpful because "the only way to dismantle the mechanisms of religious intolerance is if you understand them."

His position shows how far traditional university theology departments, once largely seen as training grounds for Christian divines, have broadened out in recent years. "I think that anyone studying in the faculty of theology, whether or not for the priesthood, might be encouraged to take a course in the comparative study of the monotheistic religions," he said.

"The Prince of Wales speaks of becoming not Defender of the Faith, but Defender of Faith. If you are interested in religion in the UK today, it might not be a bad idea to know something about Judaism and something about Islam."

His Oxford chair was endowed by a donor whom he has met but who "doesn't want his name to be revealed, for good reasons".

But Professor Stroumsa would rather the Hebrew University have been able to boast of being the first. "I always wanted to implement comparative study of the monotheistic religions in Jersualem, which were taught in different departments," he said. "I thought maybe the way to have it happen in Jerusalem is to take the job in Oxford and then the people in Jerusalem will say actually it's a good idea. And that's what happened. My dean in Jerusalem said 'if you are successful in Oxford, we'll do it that way'. It's unfortunate, but that's life.

"More than Oxford, Jerusalem is the place in the world where the comparative study of the Abrahamic faiths should be developed. I hope to be able to help that."

'Maimonides in His World – A Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker', Sarah Stroumsa, is published by Princeton University Press at £27.95

Last updated: 3:07pm, May 27 2010