So Close and Yet So Far: Academic Gatherings in the Times of Corona

Published January 08, 2021 by Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner

One of the most intriguing aspects of intellectual life and of interfaith relations in the Middle East and Muslim Spain, especially in the great cities and urban centres of the various empires were the intellectual salons held at the court and in private houses. These salons were called majlis and were often funded by wealthy patron or dignitaries. They drew members from all religious communities, and publicly discussed theological, scientific or philosophical matter, dabbled in poetry, and disputed matters of public interest.

In Abbasid Baghdad during the 8th- and 9th-centuries, these intellectual salons were meeting places for Muslim, Jewish and Christian intellectual elites. In 10th-century Cairo, the Armenian vizier Ibn Killis brought together intellectuals of all faiths, with the vizier himself, according to legend, personally preparing the rooms and tables for the meetings. The salons of Muslim Spain are still celebrated in nostalgic accounts of the 'Golden Age' of Iberia.

Reading about the past places of encounter is bittersweet in our present time, where the usual intellectual exchanges have been disrupted by the pandemic. Instead of going to our modern equivalents of the majlis – conferences – we find ourselves stuck at home and without those stimulating gatherings which to many academics is one of the things that still make our harassed profession rewarding.

Attempts have been made to create virtual conferences, but in my experience with little success. One of the secrets of conferences is that you go to a particular place (ideally a nice place) and you take time out to dedicate yourself to the gathering, living and breathing the scholarly atmosphere from early morning coffee, through the talks of the day, until the late night after dinner drinks with chosen colleagues. This is impossible to replicate online, not only because of the lack of physical presence, but also because most academics find it nigh impossible to take the time required to attend a conference fully while being in their normal working environment.

So day-long conferences seem impossible or are severely altered. However, for short gatherings, such as seminars of an hour or an hour and a half, the pandemic has really brought amazing possibility in our sudden almost universal discovery and adoption of technology that allows us to bring together people from across the globe, at no expense.

One such undertaking we are organising throughout this year is a Reading group on Qur'an and Bible. This idea arose from a project that Rick Sopher, a longstanding supporter of the Institute and convenor of this group, has been working on for a number of years. Rick has worked on a book in which he relates the weekly parashah – the section of the Torah assigned for weekly reading in synagogue worship – to the Qur'an.

In the context of discussions that we had with Rick about his book, we repeatedly discussed the gap that exists between academic scholarship and practitioners. One of the shortcomings of the academic world can be the obsession to give extreme nuance to topics, and this often comes at the sacrifice of clarity and accessibility. Rick talked of his frustration in trying to get communicable answers from academics that would help his teaching in a community setting.

We thought of ways to remedy this, and to facilitate contacts between academics and practitioners. With this in mind, we started to organise a virtual reading group on Bible and Qur'an over the course of this academic year 2020-21. The seed group consists mainly of academics including theologians and historians, among them some of the most prominent Professors of Religion and Inter-Religious Encounter in the world, but also with a number of stellar younger scholars and students. We have also invited practitioners with an interest in grass root Muslim-Jewish relations. The participants hail from the American West and East Coasts, the UAE, Lebanon, Israel, and all over the UK. Due to the time differences, some participants bring their morning coffee, while others are closer to midnight.

It is certainly the best reading group I personally have ever attended, and the closest to what I imagine a medieval majlis to have been like (of course, today they include women). We have set reading, which is introduced by the author, followed by grounded questions, posited by Rick. This is followed by an informed, multi-perspective discussion, always good-humoured, which leaves the participants more informed, and indeed enlivened, enthused and stimulated. We have been discussing contentious issues and sometimes, rather unusual for academic circles, our debates even reach a consensus on a matter of importance, which could become useful in the practice of fostering better interfaith understanding.

I hope that such high-quality virtual groups will remain a feature of academic life after the pandemic, even when we are again able to conduct in real life seminars and conferences. The fact that no travel is required means that even very busy scholars can take the time and attend and communicate with chosen audiences across the globe. It will also continue to allow scholars from the global south without large travel budgets to stay as an integral part of our academic landscape, leading to much more varied and diverse perspectives.

Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner is Executive Director of the Woolf Institute.

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