Ignác Goldziher

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Ignác Goldziher
Ignác Goldziher.jpg
Born (1850-06-22)22 June 1850
Székesfehérvár, Hungary
Died 13 November 1921(1921-11-13) (aged 71)
Budapest, Hungary
Nationality Hungarian
Scientific career
Fields Islamic studies
Goldziher image from a book

Ignác (Yitzhaq Yehuda) Goldziher (22 June 1850 – 13 November 1921), often credited as Ignaz Goldziher, was a Hungarian scholar of Islam. Along with the German Theodor Nöldeke and the Dutch Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, he is considered the founder of modern Islamic studies in Europe.


Born in Székesfehérvár of Jewish heritage, he was educated at the universities of Budapest, Berlin, Leipzig and Leiden with the support of József Eötvös, Hungarian minister of culture. He became privatdozent at Budapest in 1872. In the next year, under the auspices of the Hungarian government, he began a journey through Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and took the opportunity of attending lectures of Muslim sheiks in the mosque of al-Azhar in Cairo.[citation needed]

Goldziher kept a personal record of his reflections, travel records and daily records. This journal was later published in German as Tagebuch. The following quotation from Goldziher's published journal provides insight into his feelings about Islam.

Ich lebte mich denn auch während dieser Wochen so sehr in den mohammedanischen Geist ein, dass ich zuletzt innerlich überzeugt wurde, ich sei selbst Mohammedaner und klug herausfand, dass dies die einzige Religion sei, welche selbst in ihrer doktrinär-offiziellen Gestaltung und Formulirung philosophische Köpfe befriedigen könne. Mein Ideal war es, das Judenthum zu ähnlicher rationeller Stufe zu erheben. Der Islam, so lehrte mich meine Erfahrung, sei die einzige Religion, in welcher Aberglaube und heidnische Rudimente nicht durch den Rationalismus, sondern durch die orthodoxe Lehre verpönt werden. (p. 59)
i.e., "In those weeks, I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim, and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophic minds. My ideal was to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level. Islam, as my experience taught me, is the only religion, in which superstitious and heathen ingredients are not frowned upon by rationalism, but by orthodox doctrine."

Sander Gilman, in commenting on this passage, writes that, 'the Islam he discovered becomes the model for a new spirit of Judaism at the close of the nineteenth century.’ [1] In Cairo Goldziher even prayed as a Muslim: "In the midst of the thousands of the pious, I rubbed my forehead against the floor of the mosque. Never in my life was I more devout, more truly devout, than on that exalted Friday."[2]

Despite his love for Islam, Goldziher remained a devout Jew all his life. This bond to the mosaic faith was unusual for a man seeking an academic career in Europe in the late 19th century. This fact is significant in understanding his work. He saw Islam through the eyes of someone who refused to assimilate into contemporary European culture. In fact, despite his fondness for Islam, he had little affection, if not outright scorn, for European Christianity. As a convert to Christianity he would have easily received a university appointment as full professor but he refused.

Goldziher died in Budapest.


In 1890 he published Muhammedanische Studien in which he showed how Hadith reflected the legal and doctrinal controversies of the two centuries after the death of Muhammad rather than the words of Mohamed himself. He was a strong believer in the view that Islamic law owes its origins to Roman Law but in the opinion of Patricia Crone his arguments here are "uncharacteristically weak".[3]

Goldziher was denied a teaching post at Budapest University until he was 44, then becoming the first Jewish scholar to accede to such a position. He represented the Hungarian government and the Academy of Sciences at numerous international congresses. He received the large gold medal at the Stockholm Oriental Congress in 1889. He became a member of several Hungarian and other learned societies, was appointed secretary of the Jewish community in Budapest. He was made Litt.D. of Cambridge (1904) and LL.D. of Aberdeen (1906).

Goldziher on Hadîth[edit]

A general statement of Goldziher’s thesis in his own words is as follows:

“In the absence of authentic evidence it would be rash to attempt to express the most tentative opinion as to which parts of the hadîth are the oldest original material, or even as to which of them date back to the generations immediately following the Prophet’s death. Closer acquaintance with the vast stocks of hadiths induces skeptical caution rather than optimistic trust regarding the material brought together in the carefully compiled collections. We.... will probably consider by far the greater part of it [i.e. hadîth] as the result of religious, historical and social development of Islam during the first two centuries. The hadîth will not serve as a document for the study of the infancy of Islam, but rather as a reflection of the tendencies which appeared in the community during the maturer stages of its development. It contains valuable evidence for the evolution of Islam during the years when it was forming itself into an organized whole from powerful mutually opposed forces. This makes the proper appreciation and study of the hadîth so important for an understanding of Islam, in the evolution of which the most notable phases are accompanied by successive stages in the creation of the hadîth.” (Muslim Studies, Vol. II, pp. 18-19, Engl. translation by Barber and Stern, George Allen & Unwin Ltd: Great Britain, 1971)

At another place, Goldziher summarized his views on hadîth in following terms:

“... [T]here soon developed in Islam a science of textual criticism... Its object was to decide the claims of the various authorities, to judge of the degree of credit to be given to each, to weigh the possibility that sectarian or party tendencies might have vitiated the bona fides of men otherwise above reproach. The climax of this work of criticism is to be found in certain systematized compilations of traditions, the editors of which start with the definite object of sifting what appears to them authentic out of the vast body of obviously spurious material. The most famous of these compilations are those of Bukhârî (died 870) and Muslim (died 875). The general consent of Islam presently invested these compilations with canonical authority... From the thirteenth century onwards, six codices have been recognized as the sources of authentic traditional records... Judged by a scientific criterion, only a very small part, if any, of the contents of these canonical compilations can be confidently referred to the early period from which they profess to date. Minute study soon reveals the presence of the tendencies and aspirations of a later date, the working of a spirit which wrests the record in favor of one or other of the opposing theses in certain disputed questions." (The Historians’ History of the World, Vol. VIII, p. 302, Hooper & Jackson Ltd: London etc. 1908).

Once addressing a gathering of scholars, Goldziher himself gave a concrete example wherein he demonstrated the application of his above-mentioned theory:

«Sometimes the very text of the tradition lets us see, as it were, its own biography, for any one acquainted with the technics of this kind of literature. You may see this, for instance, in a little fragment of traditional text, which, though insignificant in itself, yet is highly interesting as regards the history of civilization, and which I am going to put before you in translation. For your better understanding I must premise that the quotation is preceded by the following doctrine attributed to the Prophet: "If you hear that the plague has broken out in a country, do not go there; but if you are already there, do not leave the country from fear of catching the illness."

«You see. Islam is putting up here a practical precept of how the every-day experience of contagious diseases may be somehow squared with the conviction that one cannot escape God's decree, and that one should not even try to evade it. Two opinions seem to have existed in old Islam as regards infection. The one does not admit any causal connection of events, but imputes each to a separate decree of God's. Such a view could not admit the possibility of a contagious character in certain diseases. The other did not base the explanation of facts entirely on dogmatical suppositions; some at least cared, in spite of a fatalistic creed, for their own skin and for saving their own property. The following traditional report shows you the struggle of these two modes of proceeding:

«"Abû Huraira relates that the Prophet taught the following: there is no contagion and no cankering worm (causing disease), and no soul-owls (into which, according to the belief of the Arabs, the souls of the unavenged are transformed, in order to cry for the murderer's blood). Thereupon a Bedawi, who was present, threw in: '0 Messenger of God! but how is it that we see camels lying fresh and healthy like gazelles in the sand of the desert; then a scabby camel mixes with the flock, and infects all the healthy animals?' Then the Prophet replied: 'But who infected this sick camel?'

«"Abû Salima relates that he heard later from Abu Huraira, that the Prophet had said: 'One must not bring a sick one among healthy ones,' and that he (A. H.) denied his previous comments. Then we said to him: 'Did you not say before, in the Prophet's name, "There is no contagion"? Then he muttered something in the Ethiopic language. — Abû Salima says: "I have never noticed that he had forgotten anything," (that he had told us formerly") (Bukhârî, Tibb nr. 35, Sahîh Muslim, v, p. 54).

«You can believe me that the Oriental commentators were not wanting in ingenuity for making the shadow disappear which was cast by the story just mentioned upon the earnestness and trustworthiness of Abû Huraira, who was one of the amplest informants from the Master. But, however naively the tale presents itself, it is technically nothing else than the reflex of, first, the two simultaneously existing views on the nature and efficiency of infection; secondly, the concession which knowledge, founded on experience, wrung from a religious conception. The fact of such a concession has found in Abû Huraira's hesitation and revocation a form suitable for these circles.» (in: Congress of Arts and Science, Universal Exposition, St. Louis, 1904, ed. by H.J. Rogers, Vol. II, pp. 503-4, Houghton, Mifflin & Company: Boston, etc. 1906).

Joseph Schacht called the views of Goldziher on hadîth a “fundamental discovery”:

“One of these foundations [of our historical and critical study of the first two or three centuries of Islam]... is Goldziher's discovery that the traditions from the Prophet and from his Companions do not contain more or less authentic information on the earliest period of Islam to which they claim to belong, but reflect opinions held during the first two and a half centuries after the hijra. This fundamental discovery, as I scarcely need emphasize, put our study of early Islam for the first time on a sound basis, and I know of no serious contribution to the history of early Islam in any of its aspects, which does not take this character of Islamic traditions into account. But whilst general homage has continued to be paid to the work of Goldziher, his results have gradually been whittled down and their implications neglected in the sixty years since they were first published.” (in: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 81, Oct. 1949, No. 2, p. 143).

W. Montgomery Watt referred to the work of Goldziher on hadîth as “epoch-making investigations.” (Muhammad at Mecca, p. XIII, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972 Reprint).

D.S. Margoliouth speaks of the views of Goldziher on hadîth as follows:

“Of European authorities on the subject, two occupy foremost rank -- Sir William Muir and Professor Goldziher. Their works leave the reader plunged in skepticism as to the possibility of any tradition being authentic; and, indeed, the process of development which the latter has so clearly expounded, makes the natural question in each case ‘for what purpose is this likely to have been invented ?’ In some cases the reasons seem obvious enough; in others, the fact that they are not so, may be due to insufficient knowledge on our part.” (in: The Moslem World, Vol II, No. 2, April 1912, p. 121).


  • Ignác Goldziher, Abū Ḥātim Sahl ibn Muḥammad Sijistānī (1896). Kitāb al-muʻammirīn. Volumes 1-2 of Abhandlungen zur arabischen Philologie. Buchhandlung und Druckerei vormals E.J. Brill. Retrieved 2011-07-06. 
  • Tagebuch, ed. Alexander Scheiber. Leiden: Brill, 1978. ISBN 90-04-05449-9
  • zur Literaturgeschichte der Shi'a (1874)
  • Beiträge zur Geschichte der Sprachgelehrsamkeit bei den Arabern. Vienna, 1871–1873.
  • Der Mythos bei den Hebräern und seine geschichtliche Entwickelung. Leipzig, 1876; Eng. trans., R Martineau, London, 1877.
  • Muhammedanische Studien. Halle, 1889–1890, 2 vols. ISBN 0-202-30778-6
    • English translation: Muslim Studies, 2 vols. Albany, 1977.
  • Abhandlungen zur arabischen Philologie, 2 vols. Leiden, 1896–1899.
  • Buch vom Wesen der Seele. Berlin 1907.
  • Vorlesungen über den Islam. 1910; 2nd ed. revised by Franz Babinger, 1925.
    • English translation: Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, trans. Andras and Ruth Hamori. Princeton University Press, 1981.


Goldziher's eminence in the sphere of scholarship was due primarily to his careful investigation of pre-Islamic and Islamic law, tradition, religion and poetry, in connection with which he published a large number of treatises, review articles and essays contributed to the collections of the Hungarian Academy. Most of his scholarly works are still considered relevant.

His works have taken on a renewed importance in recent times owing to Edward Said's critical attacks in his book Orientalism.[citation needed] Said himself was to reprove his work's defect for failing to pay sufficient attention to scholars like Goldziher.[4] Of five major German orientalists, he remarked that four of them, despite their profound erudition, were hostile to Islam. Goldziher's work was an exception in that he appreciated 'Islam's tolerance towards other religions', though this was undermined by his dislike of anthropomorphism in Mohammad's thought, and what Said calls 'Islam's too exterior theology and jurisprudence.[5] In his numerous books and articles, he sought to find the origins of Islamic doctrines and rituals in the practices of other cultures. In doing so, he posited that Islam continuously developed as a civilization, importing and exporting ideas.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gilman, Sander (2006). "Can the Experience of Diaspora Judaism Serve as a Model for Islam in Today's Multicultural Europe?". In Schenker, Hillel; Ziad, Abu Zayyad. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener. pp. 59–74. ISBN 1-55876-402-X. 
  2. ^ The Jewish Discovery of Islam by Martin Kramer
  3. ^ Crone, Patricia (2002). Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-521-52949-2. 
  4. ^ Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Pantheon Books. p. 18. ISBN 0-394-42814-5. 
  5. ^ Said, ibid. p.209.

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