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The Beginnings of Shīʿī Studies in Germany

Rudolf Strothmann (b. 1877, d. 1960) played a pioneering role in the scholarly exploration of Shīʿī Islam in Western, especially German, scholarship. Between 1910 and 1923, he published many pathbreaking studies on the Zaydiyya, consulting primarily the recently purchased collections of Yemeni Zaydī manuscripts in Berlin.

At the same time, and to the extent that this was possible in view of the lack of relevant sources in Germany and the rest of Europe, Strothmann began to delve into Twelver Shīʿī literature, an endeavor that culminated in his 1926 monograph, Die Zwölfer-Schī ʿa: Zwei religionsgeschichtliche Charakterbilder aus der Mongolenzeit, a portrait of the two prominent seventh- and thirteenth-century Imāmī scholars Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274) and Raḍī al-Dīn ʿAlī b. Mūsā Ibn Ṭāwūs (d. 664/1266). Later in his life, Strothmann primarily focused on various strands of Ismāʿīlism. His rich published work testifies to his erudition and versatility and continues to form an important point of departure for scholars working on different aspects of Shīʿism in the early twenty-first century. In addition, Strothmann’s use of the manuscript treasures in the Berlin State Library between 1908 and 1926 reflects his evolution as a scholar over those years. This study examines the earlier decades of Strothmann’s life and his development as a theologian and a scholar of Semitic languages and Islamic culture. Moreover, it sheds light on his scholarly work during the 1910s through his correspondence with Carl Heinrich Becker, Ignaz Goldziher, Eugenio Griffini, and Cornelis van Arendonk, of which an annotated edition is provided.

Studying the historiography of one’s own discipline has many merits. It helps us to better understand our own work as scholars, to reflect on our methods and objectives, and to evaluate our own achievements in view of those of our predecessors, often bringing the realization that pro- gress in the humanities is an elusive concept. Our entrance into the fascinating world of our predecessors—separated from us by only a few generations while at the same time representing a world that has long passed and is at times hard to grasp is often prompted by chance finds—a letter, an image, an archival source, or just a small footnote. More often than not we are stumbling into lives that are nothing short of tragic, and we encounter gems of scholarship that never made it through the press.

Rudolf Strothmann (1877-1960) entered the discipline of Arabic and Islamic studies through unusual paths, and in some ways he chose to remain in the margins of mainstream schol- arship throughout his scholarly career. At the same time, the contributions he made to scholarship were cutting edge although they are (for no good reason) mostly forgotten today. My interest in Rudolf Strothmann arose from my own work on shi’i Islam and the fact that, with one intermediary, I am a student of Strothmann. At the same time, I was struck by the fact that virtually nothing is known about his life, with the exception of two brief obituaries that were published after his demise in 1960. Strothmann did not leave behind an ar- chive with personal papers, study notes, or (with few excep- tions) correspondence, and it is largely through the archives of others, containing letters sent by Strothmann himself, that his trajectory can be reconstructed. My initial point of depar- ture was his correspondence with Ignaz Goldziher, which is kept in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest and available in digital form through open access, but the discov- ery of his correspondence with Goldziher was only the first step to retrieving his epistolary exchanges with many other scholars and peers, each one of them covering different periods of his life. My admiration for Strothmann’s scholar- ship, which he pursued under often very difficult circum- stances, grew exponentially as I advanced in my quest to learn more about him. It also made me realize how much of Strothmann’s methodological approach I had learned myself through his last student, and my own teacher, Wilferd Made- lung, to whom this study is dedicated.

About the Author

Sabine Schmidtke is professor of Islamic intellectual history in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. She was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2017.

Bibliographic Information

Title: The Beginnings of Shīʿī Studies in Germany: Rudolf Strothmann and His Correspondence with Carl Heinrich Becker, Ignaz Goldziher, Eugenio Griffini, and Cornelis van Arendonk, 1910 through 1926

Author (s): Sabine Schmidtke

Publisher: American Philosophical Society

Length: 464 Pages

ISBN:‎ 78-1-60618-121-8

Pub. Date: February 13, 2023

The Beginnings of Shīʿī Studies in Germany

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