Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville
by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 13, 2015:
(Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) History is a witness to the close relationship between Muslims and Jews. That was the message Profesor Mark R. Cohen delivered in two lectures at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last month on the Cairo Geniza and its importance for Islamic and Jewish history. The Geniza is a treasure trove of medieval Jewish documents housed in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt.
Cohen is Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, Emeritus at Princeton University. He was a visiting professor at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus during the Fall 2014 semester.
A professor at Princeton University from 1973-2013, Cohen is the author of Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2005), The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza (Princeton University Press, 2005), and Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 1994; revised edition, 2008). He was awarded the first Goldziher Prize in 2010 for his scholarship promoting a better understanding between Muslims and Jews.
In this exclusive interview conducted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mark R. Cohen discusses his visit to Saudi Arabia, his career at Princeton, and his views on Muslim-Jewish coexistence. While the interview was conducted in December, its publication closely following the attacks in Paris is particularly timely.
Welcome to Riyadh. You’ve been writing about Islam and in particular the Jews of the Islamic world for many decades. What is it like to come to Saudi Arabia for the first time?
Here and also in Abu Dhabi, where I’ve been a visiting professor at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus this past semester, it’s been an eye-opening experience. It’s one thing to study Islam and the Arab world from far away, and, while I’ve visited Egypt and Jordan, I’ve never lived in an Arab country before. Here in Riyadh I’m the guest of King Saud University, particularly the Department of History. I was invited by the wing of the department that teaches Islamic history. They’ve welcomed me with open arms. They know my work.
My host is Dr. Torki Fahad Abdullah Al Saud. He finished his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies at Boston University in 2008 and wrote his dissertation on Maimonides and one other Jewish thinker from that time peiod. We’ve been in correspondence over the years, and he sends me his publications in Arabic. He’s an excellent scholar and one of the very few historians in the Arab world writing about the Jews under Islam. Continue reading