Art & Art History

Thinking about Sacred Scripture and Scholarly Collaboration

  • Qur’ān, late-9th century, Abbasid Caliphate

    Qur’ān, late-9th century, Abbasid Caliphate

May 05, 2018
Prof. Ben Tilghman reflects on a recent collaboration in the humanities

By Ben Tilghman, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Art + Art History

About a year ago I received a very exciting invitation that came with an interesting twist. The invitation was to travel to the University of Oxford for a conference in conjunction with the fascinating exhibition Imagining the Divine at the Ashmolean Museum. The exhibition was part of a larger research project entitled Empires of Faith, which investigated changes in religious art across Europe, Africa, and Asia between the years 200 and 800. Since sacred scripture is an important part of the material culture of many religions, the organizers invited me to speak on my research on early medieval Christian manuscripts such as the St. Chad Gospels, on view in the exhibition. The twist, however, was that the organizers didn’t want to hear only from me: I would be paired up with a specialist in Islamic calligraphy of their choosing, and together we would develop a presentation. Basically, they were offering to set me up on something of a scholarly blind date.

Prof. Ben Tilghman, Washington College, and Umberto Bongianino, University of Oxford, co-presenting their work at the ‘Imaging the Divine' conferenceProf. Ben Tilghman, Washington College, and Umberto Bongianino, University of Oxford, co-presenting their work at the ‘Imaging the Divine' conference

I jumped at the chance. There was, of course, the attraction of a trip to England to participate in a fascinating research project. But the idea of the collaborative paper appealed to me right away. While collaboration has been the lifeblood of the arts throughout history and become standard in the modern sciences, in the humanities it is still very much the exception rather than the norm. There are a number of factors inhibiting collaboration in the humanities, ranging from mundane logistical challenges to larger issues such as the continuing emphasis in western culture on individual achievement over collective endeavor: we lavish praise on stars and heroes more than we do on teams. There are many problems with this attitude, especially insofar as it has tended to reward men–-particularly white men–-while neglecting the contributions of women and members of other socially disadvantaged groups. But the biggest error, I think, is that we sometimes end up focusing more on the author, researcher, or creator more than on the work itself. While it is right to recognize the good work that someone has done, what matters most is what that work has contributed to all of us in society. The Empires of Faith team recognizes this, and has made fostering collaboration an explicit part of the mission of the project,

Although I have worked collaboratively before-– I am a member of The Material Collective, which is dedicated to fostering innovative and humane modes of scholarship through cooperative projects-– I was a little nervous about this project because co-writing a presentation can be a delicate process. Like a regular blind date, there was a real chance for disaster. Happily, my co-author Umberto Bongianino and I quickly found that we shared many interests and very copacetic sensibilities about how to explore the topic. After getting to know each other a little bit (the awkward small-talk part of the date, to draw out the metaphor), we entered into a wonderful ongoing conversation about the nature of holy writ in Christianity and Islam, and how the early manuscripts of each religion manifested ideas about the text through calligraphy and decoration. We started out looking for parallels between the two traditions, but realized after a while that we were more interested in the points of diversion. We developed an argument that despite the outward similarities of beautifully decorated Qur’āns and Bibles, the ultimate aims of each are very different. Early medieval Christian manuscripts, generally speaking, are aiming to represent certain truths about God and humanity: they are signs pointing towards more ineffable divine truths. Early Qur’āns, on the other hand, are more broadly concerned with creating an experience for the beholder, to evoke a more affective encounter with the divine rather than communicate a specific idea.

Chad Gospels, Portrait of Mark and beginning of the Gospel of Mark, mid-8th century, Lichfield, EnglandChad Gospels, Portrait of Mark and beginning of the Gospel of Mark, mid-8th century, Lichfield, England

I don’t think either of us would ever have quite thought about our respective objects of study in this way without the benefit of our conversations. That, I think, is one of the great advantages of comparative projects such as this one: it sets the distinctive features of the different traditions into higher relief. This was most evident during my favorite part of the presentation, when we swapped subjects for a moment and had Umberto talk about a Gospel Book while I examined a Qur’ānic codex. In an effort to estrange ourselves a little bit from these works we knew well, we attempted to discuss each book from our respective positions as an Islamicist and a western medievalist. I imagined what it would be like to see the Qurʾān as a very unusual Gospel Book, and Umberto discussed the gospel book as an astonishingly whacked-out Qurʾān. What we found is that many of the things that we take for granted, such as the precise page design of Qur’āns and the practice of adding later notes into a Gospel Book, are actually rather strange when viewed from outside the respective traditions.

We enjoyed a spirited conversation with other conference participants after our presentation, offering up still more perspectives for us to consider. At its best, a conference is a collaboration, too: a chance for presenters and audiences to work together to refine our understanding of the material. Umberto and I are revising our presentation to be published, and contemplating expanding the project into a book, hopefully with a broader scope and more scholars of different traditions. We’re having so much fun, we’ve decided to invite more people to the party.


Last modified on May. 5th at 7:21am by Julie Wills.