Goldziher Ignác: Vázlatok az emberről és a tudósról

TitleGoldziher Ignác: Vázlatok az emberről és a tudósról
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialSimon, Róbert
Title in EnglishIgnác Goldziher: Sketches about the Man and the Scholar


PublisherBudapest: Osiris Kiadó
ISBN Number963 379 783 7
Review year


Full Text

Next to an introductory piece, this collection by Róbert Simon, eminent scholar of the life and works of Ignác Goldziher (1850-1921) and of the Orient in his own right (whose work as a translator and interpreter has also been invaluable, most significantly he is responsible for the best Hungarian version of the Quran to date), includes four of his longer articles dealing with the towering figure of Goldziher and seven other pieces each introducing and discussing one of Goldziher’s most important writings. In Simon’s assessment, the gap between the scholarly achievements and international recognition on the one hand (though his major contributions have been criticized since the 1970s) and local/national appreciation on the other is greatest in the case of Goldziher (p.21). Goldziher has not only been neglected and almost forgotten (his local reception hardly existed until the 1980s in the absence of his works' availability, even though more than a few of them were originally written in Hungarian; this neglect no doubt contributed to the marginalization and peripheralization of Hungarian Oriental studies), but also often misunderstood (influential claims to his “spiritual Zionism” and his understanding of Islam “through a Judaic analogy” are such typical misconceptions). Moreover, Goldziher is certainly not treated sufficiently in Said’s massively influential Orientalism, which Simon sees as an “ideologically fundamentalist” work. (It is evident that Goldziher’s work cannot be made to fit Said’s model at all – besides the fact that he was writing mostly in German and Hungarian and therefore remained outside the horizon of Said’s work.) 

Simon claims that to write an account of the ouevre of Goldziher and its context, one requires profound and diverse expertise: one needs to be well acquainted not only with the scholarly situation and developments of Goldziher’s times, Arabistic and the study of Islam, but also with Hungarian history of the Dualist times and specifically with the problematic of Jewry in East Central Europe (p.14). The combined possession of such expertise is indeed extremely rare, making the comprehensive monographic treatment of Goldziher almost unattainable. Simon is in the best position to take on this formidable and many-sided challenge in the present – my modest review will almost exclusively focus on the East Central European aspects of this volume, in other words, on the man rather than the scholar.
While Hourani stressed the importance of three factors in the development of Goldziher [a) “modern” German science and philosophy, Biblical criticism and Protestant theology, b) the Jewish Enlightenment, and c) the impact of his stay in the Orient in his twenties], Simon adds as an “at least equally important one” the multiple antinomian being of a would be Hungarian Jewish citizen (“would be magyar zsidó polgár” in the original) living in the Monarchy (pp.236-7) whose utopia was a kind of popular national unification, whereby his Oriental studies would have fulfilled the mission of contributing to this new culture on the highest level. In Simon’s view, because of these basic determinations Goldziher could see problems differently and at times more profoundly than his “more fortunate Western colleagues” (p.238).
On the pages of this volume, Simon aims to pose the most important questions. Next to the profound discussion of Goldziher's writings as well as predecessors, influences, contemporary contexts and relevance and later reception, two central themes running through the studies collected in Goldziher Ignác are: how could a would be Hungarian citizen of Jewish origins establish the scholarly study of Islam and (as "a historical problem and that of his epoch") how could someone be (or rather, could someone be at all) a Hungarian Jewish citizen (magyar zsidó polgár) (p.15)? Simon sees Goldziher’s case as typical of a transitory age, when hopes could (already and still) be formulated about national-citizenly assimilation/emancipation. In this perspective, Goldziher’s problems are connected to that of uneven development, when all the essential dilemmas of national and bourgeois development were raised (p.32). In Simon’s view, Goldziher’s central problem was the unity of the socially committed scholar (consistently relating facts and values) and the ethically religious private person (p.29). Moreover, Goldziher’s worldview included a stress on the transindividual nature of societal phenomena, instead of individual rationalism, in this way “intellectually anticipating bourgeois rationalism” (p.46) and being reflexive of the East Central European bourgeois liberal worldview of his times (p.57).
Simon’s answer to the first question is that this semi-peripheral position of Goldziher could be helpful, since through it he was connected to the burning questions of the age in a thousand ways, and some of his main ideas were formed not in spite of the circumstances, but exactly because of the special historical circumstances of his societal surrounding (p.16). Simon claims that the work of Goldziher, known as a towering figure in the scholarly study of Islam (which, in the 20th century has been typically included in the category of religion, not at all uncontroversially) could become a science-establishing paradigm since his ambition was the cultivation of a comprehensive cultural history (p.10). This ambitious and extremely promising beginning took place “under the sign” of the cultural policies of Eötvös.
More specifically, Goldziher’s exploration of how diverse elements could lead to the emergence of the organic Islamic community (umma), a theocratic community of “secondary nature” and with an integrative scheme, of enormous significance and power also over the state and institutions, and how its hegemony was formed (in the contest of what forces? how did this hegemony relate to and regulate societal practice?) proved fruitful. These directions of exploration were rooted in the Habsburg experience, without this fact diminishing the proper historicity of Goldziher’s scholarship. At his best, Goldziher was exploring the social system (Islamic orthodoxy) and the social dynamic (the attempts to legitimate social practice) in their dialectic interrelation (p.114), paying attention to the principle of repristinatio  – enabling a (seemingly) static understanding of dynamism, which has misled all too many observers of Islam.
Among the significant influences on Goldziher, Simon discusses those of Nöldeke, von Kremer, Steinthal, Geiger, Kármán and Renan (whose views Goldziher rejected so vehemently), and also several others outside the field of Arabistic that attests to the wide intellectual horizons of Goldziher. On the other hand, Goldziher was lacking a supportive community of scholars in his home country (to this also the existence of close to 14 000 letters attests, which in Simon's view worked as evident compensation for his isolation). Not being properly recognized and having to sacrifice too much of his time (as secretary of the Jewish community of Budapest), he gradually became resigned and gave up on his comprehensive, world historical ambitions of a comparative Kulturgeschichte (a type of “Hegelianized enlightened rationalism,” combining historical models with viewing phenomena from within and presenting them as immanent evolution, to thereby also counter widespread prejudiced views concerning "the static nature of Islam"), confining himself to more specialized, philological works in the study of religion [of Islam, the limiting categorization of which as religion he was ready to employ later in his life, though still occupying a middle position on the matter, primarily focusing on the Islamic community (pp.143-5)] and the writing of overviews (pp.11-12).

This did not mean the rejection of his youthful, more comprehensive aims but was due to his resignation: Simon claims that the former would point to personal weakness or failure, while the latter attests to the objective impossibility of his project (p.81). Goldziher’s resignation coincided and was related to the process of the separation (and at times opposition) of national and universal values (p.224), making the service of the nation one of the unquestioned axioms of science, also in Orientalism (p.228). In this sense, Goldziher’s is one of the many oeuvres, extremely impressive as it is, that was clearly sadly impacted by negative external forces – a rather common phenomenon in the modern history of East Central European intellectuals.
In Simon’s work, there is also an important corrective to mainstream historiography from the point of view of the history of science: Simon claims that national conservatism began to rule supreme already in the 1870s, reaching its high point in 1875 with the change of government (p.25) and Goldziher’s is a paradigmatic case of this change (p.60). While under Eötvös he was selected to study abroad at several of the best places in Europe and became the first European student at Al-Azhar (his stay abroad lasted from 1868 till 1874) to thereby prepare for a university career, he was later rejected in favor of a politically (and religiously, or rather denominationally) supported candidate (who was insignificant from a scholarly point of view). This made his life increasingly unbearable, especially after Tiszaeszlár and the appointment of a new Jewish leadership, headed by Mór Wahrmann (with whom his relationship was more than a little strained), having to labor most of the year as secretary, being able to devote not more than 40 – 42 full days annually to his scholarship. No wonder that after his most impressive intellectual works written in the 1880s, Goldziher continued on narrower terrain, namely the study of Islam and Arab history and philology.
Simon’s interesting comparison is with Spinoza: how and why could Spinoza leave his community (in 1656, 200 years earlier!), unlike Goldziher? Even though Goldziher rejected both mainstream alternatives (of the unprincipled compromises with the elite and the ghetto spirit), he evoked the ideas of patriotism, honor and conscience to justify staying in Budapest – seeing the temptations of moving abroad as offering a third false alternative. Therefore, he had to suffer “from the scandal of national development detached from bourgeois development” (p.206) and reconcile himself with the dominance of the non-bourgeois Hungarian ruling class (p.215). Notably and characteristically, posterity also tended to stress not his national and polgáriaffiliations, but his Jewishness. (Moreover, the censoring of the translation of his diary has been similarly unjustifiable, in which Simon detects confessional interests, proving this claim on the basis of a detailed comparison with the German original.)
In short, the volume Goldziher Ignác includes sensitive treatments of Goldziher the scholar, his social and cultural environment and has many superb discussions on the history of scholarly explorations in the 19th century – the discussion of Simon’s many points in this vein unfortunately falls beyond the scope of this review and partly also the competence of its writer.Goldziher Ignác provides a coherent and detailed presentation of the remarkable story of this eminent scholar and his crucial resignation, and embeds these in larger problem areas, including that of uneven development and East Central European history more particularly. While one might be somewhat skeptical towards Simon’s extremely positive assessments of Goldziher, his reliance on the idea of the dual structure of Hungarian society and on a normative idea of the West in his explanations combined with the use of (at times strongly) Marxist language and descriptions, as well as find his polemical and at times denigrating or lamenting tone somewhat too fierce or “pessimistic,” his questions lead to thoughtful answers and valuable insights and his actual treatment of sensitive problems is often exemplary. This is a challenging work based on an immense amount of diverse material and a very important addition to scholarship on Goldziher (which, once again, was not among the aims of this review to cover, being primarily focused on the theme of East Central European history) that certainly deserves to be seen as having succeeded in its basic aim, namely the posing of the most important questions concerning and related to Goldziher – the further discussion of which could prove immensely interesting and fruitful.