AMME Seminar: Identity and Culture

This year’s first AMME Seminar took place on 28th of January in Zoom. The theme was Identity and Culture and the speakers were docent Raimo Hakola (University of Helsinki) and docent Ilkka Lindstedt (University of Helsinki).

Docent Raimo Hakola gave a speech titled Jewish Cultural Encounters with the Greco-Roman World. He discussed some ideas that he will present in an article that will be published in the forthcoming book Scriptures in the Making. For long time the consensus was that Judaism and Hellenism were mutually exclusive and the Jews willingly separated themselves from the Greek world. This idea of isolation of the Jews can be traced back all the way to Antiquity. Recent research has proved that this was not the case, instead the Jews and Greeks interacted, and exchanged ideas and cultural influences. Various architectural structures showing Greek influence have been found, such as the Beth Alpha synagogue.

Still many scholars do not agree how much the Jews integrated into the Greek world. Some have argued that while Jews were part of Hellenistic world, they did not compromise their distinctive heritage. Instead Jews found innovative ways to express their singularity and thus did not fully assimilate into the Greek society. The problem with these theories is that they assume that cultures have some starting point without any influences from other cultures. In reality cultures are in constant flux of adaptation. Cultures are constantly giving and taking influences from other cultures. So, Greek and Jewish cultures were not competing systems, but they were integrated systems. The boundaries of communities are socially constructed by the members of these communities.

Docent Ilkka Lindstedt focused on the question if Islam was born into a polytheist environment. He also discussed if Islam was an opposition to Judaism and Christianity. Many Arabic historiographies from 8th Century and later describe the early history of the area as being polytheist environment where people for example worshipped idols. However, in the light of material evidence, it seems that this was not the case. Instead it seems that polytheism was very marginal, and Judaism and Christianity were surprisingly popular. One of the examples that show this is the bilingual inscription UJadhNab 538 that contains writing in both Aramean and Arabic. There were some polytheist beliefs in South Arabia, but these were abandoned when the Himyarite dynasty adopted Judaism in the year 380. Also, the Abyssinian invasion brought a lot of Christian influences to South Arabia in the 6th Century. This means that the Prophet Mohammed was born into a monotheistic, rather than polytheistic environment. This then leads to a question if Islam was an opposition to other monotheistic groups.

Lindstedt approached this question from the perspective of recategorization model. The model means that there are several separate and distinct social categories in an area, but members of these categories are treated as members of common superordinate category. This model is different from the dual-identity model where there are separate categories under one larger superordinate category. When Mohammed began his mission, he considered the Jews and Christians as people of the Book, while disbelievers and polytheists, if there were any, were left out. Some years later in the so-called Constitution of Medina made a distinction between Jewish and gentile believers. The distinctive features of both groups were recognized, and sub-identities were accepted. The Jewish people were included in the Ummah while accepting their separate identity.