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Islamic, Arabic and Turkish Studies at the Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
Angelika Hartmann

The city of Giessen is located in the German federal state of Hessen, about half an hour journey by car from Frankfurt. Among the four universities of Hessen, the University of Giessen comes second in many respects. Founded in 1607 by Landlord Ludwig V. of Hessen-Darmstadt, it was named after him “Ludwigs-University” (Ludoviciana). It is the second oldest and with a number of 22,000 students today also the second largest university in Hessen.

The University of Giessen belongs to the old “Schools of Higher Learning” of the German-speaking territories. It derives from the second Central European Movement of University Foundations (“Gründungszeitalter”), the so-called “Post- Reformation Movement”, that was initiated by the University of Marburg (founded 1527). Marburg and Giessen are neighbour –universities and as such they have to differ in terms of orientation. Nonetheless, they play complementary roles in the intellectual life of the region.

Since Marburg became Calvinist after the partition of Hessen, Giessen was set up as a Lutheran establishment. In the 17th and 18th centuries Giessen was a typical minor Protestant regional university. It was made up of four faculties: theology, jurisprudence, medicine and philosophy. At the end of the 18th century, a faculty of economics was established. In the 19th century the University of Giessen was considered to be liberal, even modern. Until today it attempts to live up to this reputation.

Since 1736 the university bears in its coat of arms a “T” –a symbol, in blue and silver on a golden ground. This sign represents the cross of the Antonites, a hospice-order that owned a leading monastery in the 13th century which was located close to Giessen. The monastery enjoyed high respect and was considered to be one of the richest in Hessen. In the 17th century, its real estates came to be part of the University of Giessen. That is why the present Institute of Oriental Studies bears the old cross of the Antonites in its seal.

Oriental languages and Oriental Studies (“morgenländische studien”) have a long history in Giessen. A chair of Oriental languages was first established in 1670. The first to hold the chair was the judaist, theologian and Orientalist David Claudius (1644-1687). Henceforth, the orientalists of Giessen put their interest in Oriental languages – as it was the case at other universities – almost exclusively to the service of theology. This did not change until 1833 when the chair was offered to Johann August Vullers (1803-1881). Vullers had emerged from the school of Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the acknowledged founder of scientific Arabic Studies in Europe. Vullers regarded Oriental Studies as a science of its own. He made it his task to study culture and history of the peoples of the Orient (“morgenländische völker”) for their own sake. Vullers developed manifold teaching activities for nearly half a century. His main interest was in Persian language and literature. His best known work is the monumental Lexicon Persico-Latinum (II Vol. and Suppl., Giessae 1855-1867), an indispensable reference work to this day. The work was photo-mechanically reprinted in 1962.

After Vullers’ death in 1881, the chair remained vacant for 20 years, until it was transformed into a chair for Semitic languages and was filled by Friedrich Zacharias Schwally. In 1909 and 1919 Schwally (1863-1919), a disciple of Theodor Noeldeke (1836-1930), published the first two volumes of Noeldeke’s celebrated Geschichte des Qorans in a completely revised edition. He also contributed to the Berlin edition the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa‘d. His interests were mainly in the Arabic and Aramaic languages.

Another Semitic language, the Ethiopian, was cultivated in Giessen at the faculty of theology and not at the faculty of philosophy. We can even say that Ethiopian Studies in Germany were revived in Giessen. This happened in the middle of the 19th century, 1864-69, due to the efforts of August Dillmann (1823-94) who connected studies in the Old Testament with Oriental Studies.

At the beginning of this century, the fields of research in Oriental Studies were extended: Paul Ernst Kahle (1875-1964), a scholar with an extensive knowledge, came to Giessen in 1914. His interests were mainly Hebrew, Arabic and Ottoman Studies. In Hebrew, he studied the history of the Hebrew text of the Bible and its different systems of vocalisation, in Arabic he wrote treatises on the history of Egypt, Egyptian popular religion and on shadow play (the latter was edited by Derek Hopwood in 1994). In Ottoman Studies his special interest was nautical literature. Among other things he rediscovered the missing map of Columbus of 1498 in a Turkish map of the world of the year 1513.

Kahle was followed by Rudolf Strothmann (1877-1960) whose main field of interest was the study of Muslim minorities and sects.

The broad development of Oriental Studies in Giessen was put at a temporary halt in 1933. The then holder of the chair, Julius Lewy (1895-1963), a distinguished expert on Accadian and the history of the Old Orient – who worked, amongst other subjects, on the Cappadocian-Accadian clay tablets of Kültepe – was expelled for “racial” reasons and had to emigrate. Until the end of World War II Oriental Studies in Giessen was more or less inactive.

In summary, it may be said that during its first 160 years of existence, 1670-1830, Oriental Studies in Giessen was not more than an auxiliary science to the study of the Old Testament. A second step of developing Oriental Studies started with Vullers whose era marked the beginning of a new perspective in Oriental scholarship. The new generation “saw in the Oriental languages, literatures and religions and in the history of the Orient objects whose exploration should serve the general knowledge of the human culture”1. With “every new holder of the chair, a new course of research was developed”: Persian, Ethiopian, general Semitics, Hebrew, Arabic, Accadian2.

After World War II, the third period of the history of Oriental Studies at Giessen university began. At first, all academic subjects were abolished in 1946 except for agriculture, veterinary medicine, the most essential natural sciences and later human medicine. The old “Ludoviciana” was by request of the Allies transformed into the “Justus-Liebig-University” at which only these subjects were taught. It was only in 1957 that the full status of the university was re-established. For almost twenty years then Oriental Studies had not existed and it was not until 1964 that this discipline was revitalised under a new name and with a new regional focus. It was called “Seminar for the Languages and Cultures of North Africa.” “This part of Africa was chosen because the University of Giessen made it its task to promote the study of the tropical and subtropical countries.”3 Therefore, the emphasis of research was on Africa. For Oriental Studies this meant, however, an overlap of three fields of studies, namely Semitic Studies, including language and culture of Christian Ethiopia, Islamic Studies and African Studies. “The Giessen experiment should therefore facilitate new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration in research and teaching, and this is particularly manifest in the intellectual cooperation with the Institute for Tropical Diseases and the Institute of Geography.” 4

So much for the theoretical concept, but putting this into practice was much more difficult. After many years of trying to obtain a chair for African Studies, the plan was finally given up in the seventies. African Studies was then extended at another Hessian university. The Giessen seminar was renamed “Institute for Oriental Studies.” As far as Semitic Studies is concerned, particular attention has been devoted to South Semitic languages (North Arabic, South Arabic, Ethiopian Semitic languages) in Giessen until 1992. The neighbouring university at Marburg, on the other hand, has concentrated largely on North Semitic languages. Within Islamic Studies, Marburg University focuses on the region of Iran, so that Giessen is able to place its emphasis on Turkish Studies. The section for Turkish Studies cooperates with the larger section for East European Studies. The cooperation with Marburg University includes “the exchange of library catalogues and lending services between the two seminars as well as a mutual exchange of language teachers.”5

The third phase of the history of the Giessen Institute for Oriental Studies is closely connected with the name of Ewald Wagner. Wagner (born August 8, 1927) was offered a chair at Justus-Liebig-University in 1964, the year the seminar was founded. He occupied the chair up to 1992. Wagner’s research focuses on one aspect of classical Arabic, i.e. the history of Arabic literature during the Abbasid period - his edition of the poetry of Abu Nuwas (Wiesbaden, 1958) is internationally renowned as is also his work on classical Arabic poetry (Darmstadt, 1987/88). Within the framework of cataloguing Oriental manuscripts in Germany, Wagner is working on Arabic manuscripts from Ethiopia and he was head of the project “Cataloguing Arabic Manuscripts” which was seated in Giessen up to 1996. From 1997 onwards the whole project is to be continued at the University of Jena (Thüringen) since there had been no manuscripts to be found in Giessen itself. The same applies to the cataloguing of Old-Turkic (Old-Uiguric) manuscripts. All of the Old-Turkic material to be catalogued is kept in Berlin. Since 1992 when the head of the project “Cataloguing Old-Turkic Manuscripts”, Klaus Röhrborn, left Giessen, this project is to be found in Göttingen and Marburg.

Let us return to teaching at the Institute for Oriental Studies in Giessen. Arabic was introduced in 1978 as a minor course of study in the “Modern Languages Programme” which combines modern European and Arabic languages with economic subjects. With this innovative programme the university hopes to enrich the job market through the combination of business administration, culture studies and foreign languages, and to work against all forms of eurocentrism. A similar approach was applied 1984 when Turkish was included as a minor subject in the supplementary post-graduate programme “German as a foreign language”. Thus the way has gradually been paved in Giessen for Oriental research devoted to the present-day as well as to the conventional philological and literary studies in these areas.

When Angelika Hartmann (b. 1944) from the Department of Near Eastern History and Culture at Hamburg University was offered the chair for Islamic Studies at Giessen April 1, 1993, new priorities were set up7. Semitic Studies had been withdrawn from the programme of Oriental Studies the previous year. The professorship for Turkish Studies is held by Mark Kirchner (b. 1960) since October 1, 2003. Both, Islamic and Turkish Studies, are to be made available for direct cooperative work with Islamic countries concerning their economies, foreign policies, media, social and education policies.

In order to reach these goals, reforms of the programmes of study are necessary. For this reason, the possibilities of interdisciplinary research are being practised as well as developing integrative programmes for law, political science, business administration, economics, geography, computer science, history, and social sciences. The traditional methods of Oriental research and teaching can no longer explain the effects of acculturation in societies dominated by Islamic influence. Islamic Studies – in Giessen as elsewhere –  must rely on the methodology of integrative supplementary subjects.

Among the current projects are studies on the religious and ideological reference systems of contemporary Islamic societies and civilisations.

With the support of the Hessian Research Programme “Developing of a World Society”, in 1994 the documentation and research project “Fundamentalism and Civil Society in the Middle East” was established. Material on the different theological currents and secular movements in the Islamic Middle East are collected. The collection consists mainly of Arabic materials, but there are also others in Turkish, Persian and European languages. The textual materials are mainly monographs, periodicals, learned journals, brochures, jury statements, sermons, articles, press statements and official declarations of Islamic movements and establishments. This kind of documentation is a novelty at the Hessian universities. It has been established with the aim to assisting not only in academic pursuits, but also to improving the state of information of interested members of the public, especially those working in the media and the economic sector.

Projects on the history of Medieval Islam, for example, in collaboration with the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, Paris, intend to examine: The period of the Crusades in Arabic historiography; The history of East Mediterranean States, especially Sicily, Asia Minor, as portrayed by the 13th century Islamic sources; A critical analysis and translation of a Syrian historical work from Hamat in a unique St. Petersburg manuscript will be undertaken; Polemics against philosophy in Islam; Critical edition and analysis of Arabic texts illustrating the views of Sunni scholars and Sufis against various theories of the philosophers concerning the concepts of God, creation, application of reason and testimony; Orthodoxy and heresy in Islam – this project will describe the background to pluralism and polarity in Islamic theological movements of the Middle Ages; Sermons and mysticism; The wudjud of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi; Islamic Identities in the context of global medias.”

In summary, teaching and research in Giessen is concerned with traditional Islamic mediaeval studies as well as contemporary questions.













1. Ewald Wagner, Das Seminar für Sprachen und Kulturen Nordafrikas an der Justus-Liebig-Universität zu Giessen in: Giessener Hochschulblätter, 12th year, No. 3, 1965, 28.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid, 29.

4. Klaus Röhrborn, Orientalistik an der Giessener Universität von 1833 bis 1889 in: Kashkul. Festschrift zum 25. Jahrestag der Wiederbegründung des Instituts für Orientalistik an der Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, ed. E. Wagner and K. Röhrborn, Wiesbaden 1989,6.

5. Ewald Wagner, Das Seminar für Sprachen und Kulturen Nordafrikas an der Justus-Liebig-Universität zu Giessen in: Giessener Hochschulblätter, 12th year, No. 3, 1965, 28.

6. Uni-Forum der Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, from October 27th, 1993, 10.

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