• From left: Travis Zadeh, Susan Slyomovics, Michael Cooperson, Asma Sayeed, Marijn van Putten, Intisar Rabb, Alba Fedeli, Michael Cook, Petra Sijpesteijn, Sherman Jackson, Ahmad Al-Jallad, Kevan Harris, Luke Yarbrough, Maria Mavroudi, Ali Behdad, Mohsen Goudarzi and Hossein Modarressi.

  • Michael Cook delivers the first keynote speech.

  • Hossein Modarressi delivers the second keynote address.

  • Ahmad Al-Jallad.

  • Marijn van Putten.

  • Maria Mavroudi.

  • Petra Sijpesteijn.

  • Michael Cooperson.

  • Alba Fedeli.

  • Mohsen Goudarzi.

  • Khaled Abou El Fadl delivers his presentation remotely.

  • Intisar Rabb.

Della Vida Conference explores Arabic language and identity in early Islamic period

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

The conference featured keynote addresses by the joint winners of the 2024 Giorgio Levi Della Vida Awards: historian Michael Cook and Islamic law professor and jurist Hossein Modarressi, both of Princeton University.

UCLA International Institute, July 8, 2024 — The 2024 Giorgio Levi Della Vida Conference of the Center for Near Eastern Studies, held this past spring at UCLA, brought together a host of scholars to discuss recent scholarship on the early history and development of Arabic, Arab identity and early scriptural and legal discourses. 

Organized by associate professors Luke Yarbrough and Asma Sayeed of the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures and the Islamic Studies Program, the conference featured two keynote addresses by the joint winners of the 2024 Giorgio Levi Della Vida Awards, historian Michael Cook and Islamic law professor and jurist Hossein Modarressi, both of Princeton University.

In keeping with the tradition of encouraging Islamic studies research and honoring outstanding scholars in the field that was established by CNES Founding Director Gustave E. von Grunebaum (1909–1972), the two award winners chose the theme of the conference and selected its participants. Proceedings from the two-day scholarly event will be published in a future volume of the continuing Giorgio Levi Della Vida Series in Islamic Studies.

Conference organizers and 2024 Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award winners (from left): Hossein
Modarressi (Princeton), Michael Cook (Princeton), Ali Behdad (CNES, UCLA), Luke Yarbrough
(UCLA NELC) and Asma Sayeed (UCLA Islamic Studies Program).

Keynote speeches

Cook, Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies, and Modarressi, Bayard Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, are long-standing colleagues and scholarly collaborators at Princeton. The two celebrated, prolific scholars have trained generations of students.

In Cook’s address, “Arabs, Arabic and Arab Identity before the Rise of Islam,” the historian took issue with Peter Webb’s argument in "Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam" (Edinburgh, 2016) that Arab identity arose with Islam and did not precede it.

He conceded, however, that Webb’s argument for heterogeneity in the late pre-Islamic period was viable, based on the use of the ethnonym Ma‘add in Arabic poetry of the era. “Webb has a good case for saying Ma‘aad was a salient ethnic identity in late pre-Islamic poetry, but he can’t deny that an Arab ethnic identity also existed,” he said. “People were already calling themselves ‘Arab’ prior to the late pre-Islamic period.

“I believe we have underestimated ethnic identity in the ancient world,” said Cook. He made a case for the existence of an Arab society of some kind across the Arabian peninsula — with the exception of the deep south of that region — around the time of the Arab conquests (roughly 622 through 750 C.E.). In contrast, he said, evidence exists that languages other than Arabic were being spoken in the deep south at the time.

Cook identified Arabic dialects, personal names and tribal dīwāns as evidence of a shared Arab identity that pre-dated the Arab conquests. “I see no example where Arabs don’t understand one another in the early Islamic period,” he said. The historian pointed out that the very fact that collectors of poetry in Iraq were collecting poetry from many tribes presupposed that it was Arabic poetry, and that ethnic identification often accompanied the shared use of a language in the ancient world.

Attendees listen to Michael Cook's presentation.

Contrasting religious and ethnic differences, the scholar said, “If Arab identity was something imagined by Muslims for Muslims, and the population until [then] was a very heterogeneous one, I find it very hard to see why they should include Christian tribesmen as Arabs… The fact that the Christian Arabs are accepted as Arabs … surely presupposes that they satisfied some ethnic criterion, independent of Islam and that antedated Islam.”

“On balance, the case for Arab identity being old is stronger than the case for it being new… Now that’s a very unexciting conclusion in an exciting time,” he reflected.

“I'm saying that the old idea was right all along, but nevertheless, this comes in a very exciting context. The context being the explosion that we’ve seen in the last two decades in the study of early Arabic. It's exploded on two fronts. One is the pre-Islamic inscriptions, and the other is the early history of the Qurʾān.

“In both cases, we have rigorous philology, combined with the study of physical objects, many of them newly discovered — the objects being rocks in one case and codices or individual leaves in the other. All this makes for a very exciting scene.”

In Modarressi’s address, “Original Language in Early and Medieval Muslim Discourse,” the scholar discussed the thinking of early and medieval Muslim scholars about “the language of God, the language of revelation, the language of Adam as the first man and the language of Paradise.”

Muslim thinkers of these historical eras differed in their understanding of the language of God. For Muslims with a philosophical or mystical bent, said the scholar, “the language of God in His communication with human beings was unlike that of His creatures among themselves… one is talking about the language of the ‘heart,’ so to speak, the conversation between human soul and its origin and source, with the foundation of existence.”

Modarressi cited Ash‘arī theologian Saʿd al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī’s summary of these considerations:

… His speech does not consist of sounds and letters, but it is an eternal attribute that subsists in the essence of God (the Exalted) referred to by expression, writing, and signs. If it is referred to by words in Arabic, it is the Qur’ān; if in Syriac, it is the Gospel; and if in Hebrew, it is the Torah.

The disagreement is over how [the meaning] is put into words, not the meaning [itself]. All other groups disagreed with us on this idea, suggesting that speech means only that which is composed of audible letters that indicated intended meanings. The Mu‘tazila conclusively held that it is that which is composed of letters.

Shīʿa scholars, by contrast, held God’s speech indeed meant specific audible letters used for specific meanings, said Modarressi.

With respect to divine revelation, Ashʿarī thinkers held that it occurred without speech, whether from God to Gabriel to the Prophet, whereas Sunnis believed “God’s speech was sent down, but they disagree[d] regarding the meaning of ‘sending down’ [i.e., promulgation of the Qur’ān],” said Modarressi.

He noted that Hanafi scholar al-Samarqandī held open three equally plausible possibilities: divine revelation occurred in both word and meaning from God to Gabriel to the Prophet; Gabriel transmitted God’s meaning to the Prophet, who then expressed it in Arabic; or Gabriel expressed God’s meaning in the words of the Arabs and they are recited in Arabic in Paradise.

Participants listen to Hossein Modarressi's presentation.

Ideas on the language of revelation continued to evolve over time. Muslims of the second generation believed the word of God came down in every tongue, while those of the third generation “suggested that revelation was always in Arabic, but turned into other languages in the mind of the individual prophets or on the tongue of Gabriel,” related Modarressi.

As for the language of Adam (“the original language”), he observed, “Language … had a special significance in Muslims’ religious history and culture. In fact, Islam was a tradition that was firmly based on a language, that of its prophet: Arabic, with an explicitly privileged and applauded status ever since very early Islamic times.”

Modarressi cited two purported statements of the Prophet — which he said had been discounted by scholars of the ḥadīth, but often prevail in popular belief — that make a direct connection between Arabic and the language of Paradise: “I am an Arab, the Qurʾān is in Arabic and the language of the people of Paradise is Arabic” and “Love the Arabs for three reasons: because I am an Arab, the Qurʾān is in Arabic and the people of Paradise speak in Arabic.”

Muslim majority opinion holds that Arabic is the language of Eden (or Paradise), said the scholar. Yet many reports and their interpretation by early and medieval Muslim scholars held that Adam spoke Syriac, or different languages (Arabic and Syriac) at different times in his life, with Syriac spoken by Adam after the Fall. “Arabic and Hebrew, both of which had originated as local languages, took over from Syriac in the course of time,” added Modarressi.

In a similar fashion, ideas on the language of Paradise also came to be seen as dependent on three stages: the grave, the Day of Judgement and Paradise, alternating between Syriac and Arabic in the first two stages, and Arabic in Paradise. Some theologians advanced contending ideas that the angels spoke Persian to God or that Persian was spoken in Hell. Others believed such details unknowable because neither God nor the Prophet spoke of them.

Conference panels

Individual panels at the conference addressed the origins of Arabic, the use of Greek and Arabic in Islamic documentation, the religions and literary traditions of late antiquity, and Islamic scripture and law.

Marijn van Putten, assistant professor at Leiden University’s Center for Linguistics, sought to resolve the apparent conflict between literary sources and manuscript evidence of the written Qur’ān by positing the existence of a subtradition of the standard text that exhibits notable features that connected them with each other, as well as a clear influence of the non-Uthmanic Ibn Masʿūd text type.

“Several of these features are explicitly associated with codices of companions or even explicitly with Ibn Masʿūd’s codex,” said van Putten. “Manuscripts of this type may help resolve our conundrum of the late first-hand reports from Ibn Masʿūd codices. It seems likely that they were not looking at original companion codices, but rather were looking at manuscripts of the mixed ‘Ibn Masʿūdoid’ text type as attested in this group of manuscripts.”

In a talk that was given as part of the same panel but was not recorded, Sofia Chair in Arabic Studies Ahmad Al-Jallad of Ohio State University reviewed the evidence for determining when Arabia became Arabic speaking.

Petra Sijpesteijn, professor of Arabic at Leiden University, explored the interaction between Arabic and Greek in letters, legal documents, lists and other notes in the Egyptian province of the Islamic Caliphate over time, with a focus on how numbers for dates and amounts were written.

“The writing out of the date and amounts seems to have spread with the Arab conquerors,” said Sijpesteijn. “Writing dates and amounts out in words [was], moreover, systematically and exclusively applied, breaking with local practices that attest multiple systems being in place simultaneously.

“After the Arabs took control of the province, Greek documents using Greek letters for amounts and dates according to the indiction calendar continued to be produced by the Arab administration and for private purposes,” she stressed, citing unpublished papyri such as legal acts, commercial letters, orders of delivery and payment, and lists.

In a talk that was given as part of the same panel but was not recorded, Professor of History Maria Mavroudi of UC Berkeley discussed Arabic and Greek grammar in the pre-modern Islamic period.

Travis Zadeh, professor of religious studies and director of the program in Iranian studies at Yale University, discussed the Quranic use of asmā’ in light of divine epithets and angelic names in late antiquity, specifically ideas of asmā’ and nām-hā in early Arabic and Persian handbooks of incantations, which were used largely for controlling demons and jinn.

“The names revealed to Adam in the Quran came to be understood as providing a prophetic basis to writings on incantations (‘azāʾ’im) and spells (ruqā), where the asmā’ correspond to angelic names, divine theonyms, and prayers used to control demons and the like,” said Zadeh. “Early Muslims were not only aware of [Hebrew and Aramaic collections of incantations], but they clearly drew upon them, both as a resource for divine names and prayers, but also as a means of fashioning an entire field of Islamic incantations rooted above all in the authority of the Quran.”

Michael Cooperson, professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA, examined the revision of pre-Islamic poems following the Arab conquests and found them to be efforts to adapt the poems to specific audiences by, say, replacing the names of pagan gods with Allah, or deleting an ethnic group from a poem for an audience whose understanding of its history did not include another ethnic group.

“Rather than a conspiracy, we can posit a succession of performances geared to the expectations of various audiences, resulting in a text from which a major element has disappeared,” said Cooperson, who claimed that in some cases, it is possible to reconstruct a pagan rite even when the original language of a verse has been lost.

Alba Fedeli, principal investigator at the Center for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg, explored the early history and development of Arabic by tracing the vocalization of Qur’ānic Arabic, including its vowel system and vowel classification, the changing ways in which the vowel system was marked on manuscripts, and the agency and intentionality associated with the dotting system and ink analysis of early Qur’ānic manuscripts.

Mohsen Goudarzi, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Harvard Divinity School, discussed the conception of Qur’ānic law and its “legal philosophy” in relation to the bodies of law of other religious communities. “In the view of most scholars,” he said, “The Qur’ān espouses a philosophy that be termed ‘diachronic pluralism’… In particular, Judaism, Christianity and Islam embody three separate — if overlapping — legal systems.”

Goudarzi attempted to rethink this dominant interpretation of Qur’anic passage Q5:44–48. He argued that the passage did not present Judaism, Christianity and Islam as having three different legal systems, but as three communities that shared legal uniformity on criminal matters, while acknowledging and allowing a diversity of religious practice.

Intisar Rabb, professor of law and director of the Program in Islamic Law at Harvard University, explored the interplay between plain meaning canons and ordinary meaning canons when interpreting Islamic law. The first canons indicate that the plain meaning of a text should be adopted unless it is ambiguous, while the second recommend that in the event of ambiguity, a consideration of context may be called for to understand whether a meaning informed by custom or convention is more relevant.

The use of ordinary meaning as a form of conventional or cultural understandings of language is based on subcanons that require, Rabb specified, “a custom to be … consistent with [the] text, a continuous practice, and either a widespread or a known convention among a community of practitioners or between two individuals.

All of these canons and subcanons operate like a network of interpretive principles designed to guide an interpreter through a matrix of decision making. To target plain meaning interpretation requires consideration of ordinary meaning. And consideration of ordinary meaning requires consideration of context and convention.”

Khaled Abou El Fadl, Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA, participated remotely in the conference. Although his presentation was not recorded, his responses to several questions about his paper, “Legal Discourses on al-muhkam wa-al-mutashabih fi al-Qur’ān,”* were.

“I argue normatively,” said El Fadl. “Perhaps in Islamic studies, we’re not too accustomed to normative arguments, but to argue normatively … [means that] the systematic approach to law ought to go from principles to specifics. And so [one starts] from the essential moral commandments that formed the backbone of Islam to more derivative specifics. And the converse is true… Legal specifics that counter the muhkam, the specific moral commandments, would be a contradiction in Sharia terms and therefore are not legitimate.”

Rather than argue one can only be agnostic about the true meaning of the mutashabih, El Fadl said, “I think the mutashabih means what is changing. It’s the shadow of the specifics when applied in light of the generals.” He went on to compare the challenge of ascertaining how to correctly apply the mutashabih in light of the muhkam to the challenge of ijtihad [independent reasoning by an expert in Islamic law].

“I believe that my opinion is correct, but I can never exclude the possibility that your opinion might be the right one. [T]hat’s what we do with the ijtihad and that’s what we do with the mutashabih in light of the muhkam. Certitude in the application of the law is a dangerous thing,” concluded the Islamic legal scholar.

*The title of the paper refers to the difference between Qur’ānic verses that are clear or decisive [muhkam], and thus not open to interpretation, and verses that are ambiguous or allegorical [mutashabih], which require interpretation or reflection by “those firmly rooted in knowledge.”

All photos by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.