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Professor Speaks on Muslim Storytellers at Prestigious French Institute

John Berkey
Jonathan Berkey

Jonathan Berkey, associate professor of history and humanities, served as a visiting professor of one of France's most prestigious research institutions recently.

Berkey, a specialist in medieval Islamic culture, was invited to spend a month at the ツole des Hautes フudes en Science Sociales in Paris, where he gave three lectures and consulted with students and scholars.

Berkey said, "As a graduate student, we always looked to the ツole as a Pantheon, a temple of historical research and writing. It's an idyllic environment for social scientists."

The ツole des Hautes フudes was established after World War II as France's premier graduate-level teaching and research institution in social science. Faculty members are all active researchers, and build seminars around their research topics.

Berkey's sponsor at the ツole was his long-time friend Professor Houari Touati, who was conducting a seminar on the use of books as windows to understanding the organization of learned Muslim society. Speaking in French, Berkey addressed two seminar sessions and a general colloquium about the problems that Medieval Muslim popular preachers and storytellers posed to the religious establishment of the era, known as the ulama.

He derived his lectures from his forthcoming book, Popular Preaching and Religious Authority in the Medieval Islamic Near East, which will be published by the University of Washington Press later this year.

Because Islam has no consecrated priesthood, Berkey explained that it has always struggled with transmission of the faith to the masses. During the Medieval era, the public often learned of Islam from people referred to as storytellers - street preachers who were not formally educated in the faith. The ulama feared that these storytellers were corrupting Islam by presenting unorthodox views on such questions as the attributes of God, and telling false hadith, tales of the life and sayings of Mohammed.

It has been assumed that the ulama universally objected to storytellers. However, Berkey found in the British Museum a unique treatise by a 15th century Sufi sheik who defended these street preachers.

Berkey used the treatise as the centerpiece of his book in reconstructing the debate between the ulama and popular preachers. He said, "It's essentially a debate over religious authority in Islam. The classic question is, 'Who speaks for Islam?'"

The sheik who wrote the treatise argued that since Islam has no formal religious establishment, popular preachers should be legitimate participants along with the ulama in establishing the consensus opinion on religious questions.

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