Scholarship and teaching are both forms of human relationship. My purpose for both is to enable the development of further relationships characterized by integrity and by an ongoing process of coming to understand. Both must therefore be governed by the same principles.
The study of religions consists in listening to unfamiliar voices with sacrificial attention, constructing conceptual models that allow one to relate what one has heard to familiar categories, and then subjecting those models and categories to deconstruction through self-criticism and further acts of listening.
Teaching religions consists primarily of modeling and fostering the process of coming to understand unfamiliar primary texts and living voices through the practice of sacrificial listening.
Students should leave a course not with ‘talking knowledge’ – the ability to talk about religion – but with ‘listening knowledge’: a basic mental map, and the moral commitment and analytical ability to use and redraw that map as they strive to understand new religious voices and develop new relationships beyond the classroom.
Since teaching not only enables the development of new relationships, but is itself one form of human relationship, sacrificial listening must be a hallmark of student-teacher interaction in and outside the classroom. Students’ contributions must be given the same quality of attention as the voices being studied, so that they too may spark revisions in my ways of thinking and teaching.
The development of this pedagogy is explained in my essay “Sacrificial Listening: Christians, Muslims, and the Secular University.”
David Vishanoff, translator. “ʿAbd al‑Jabbār on Rational Interpretation of Scripture.” In Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader, ed. John Renard, 58–65. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014.
This published translation is an excerpt from `Abd al-Jabbar’s Mutashabih al-Qur’an. It explains why rational considerations necessarily govern the interpretation of scripture.
David Vishanoff, translator. “Suyūṭī on the Occasions of Revelation.” In Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader, ed. John Renard, 51–58. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014.
This published translation is an excerpt from al-Suyuti’s famous book on the Qur’anic Sciences, al-Itqan fi `ulum al-Qur’an. It assesses how knowing the “occasions of revelation” (asbab al-nuzul) affects the interpretation of Qur’anic verses.
In June 2014 I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in a Summer Institute for Scholars on “Sharia and Ethics” at the International Institute for Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia. The lively intellectual exchange was outdone only by the warmth and hospitality of the staff and participants, including Samy Ayoub and Ermin Sinanović, picture with me here at the closing picnic at the home of Yaqub Mirza. (Thanks to Sarra Tlili for the picture!)
My presentation, “The Ethical Structure of Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī’s uṣūl al-fiqh,” attempted to tease out some of the assumptions about the nature of ethics that are implicit in one short classical legal theory text, Kitāb al-Waraqāt fī uṣūl al-fiqh. It will be submitted for review and possible publication in a forthcoming volume of essays on Sharia and Ethics. It is part of my larger project A Critical Introduction to Islamic Legal Theory.
This event was a rare opportunity for me to participate not only in historical study of Islamic thought but also, as an outsider, in constructive Muslim discourse about the present and future of Islamic law and ethics. Being included in this conversation was a privilege, and perhaps also an indication that my historical studies have achieved some degree of sacrificial listening.
In 2011 the Comparative Studies in Religion section of the American Academy of Religion hosted a memorable panel on “Other Peoples’ Scriptures: The Use of Sacred Texts across Religious Boundaries,” to which I offered a response. Two of those papers, by Ryan Szpiech and Nate Hofer, along with a contribution from Gary Sparks, were then published in Numen 61.4 (2014) as a special issue on the theme of using scriptures across religious lines. I served as guest editor for that issue, and wrote the introduction, which reflects on how religious people reimagine religious others and their sacred texts when they read scriptures across religious lines:
“Other Peoples’ Scriptures: Mythical Texts of Imagined Communities.” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 61.4 (2014): 329–333.
Here is a pdf of the article text as accepted by Numen, but without the publisher’s formatting. It is posted here for personal use, following the publisher’s two-year embargo period. The published Version of Record of this article may be obtained at the journal’s web site.