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Goldziher, Ignác

(1850–1921), orientalist. Ignác Goldziher’s ancestors settled in the western Hungarian community of Kittsee (Köpcsény). His father, Adolf, moved to Székesfehérvár in 1842, where Goldziher was born. By the age of eight, Goldziher was studying the Talmud, and he published his first essay, on the origins and time of prayer (“Síhat Jizhaq. Abhandlung über Ursprung, Eintheilung und Zeit der Gebete” [Isaac’s Discourse: A Contribution to the Origin, Arrangement, and Timing of Prayers]; 1862) while still a child.

In 1865 his family moved to Pest, where Goldziher attended school under harsh financial circumstances and enrolled at the university before graduating from high school. One of his first professors was the Turcologist Ármin Vámbéry, of whom Goldziher grew rather critical in later years. In 1868, the minister of religion and education, József Eötvös, awarded Goldziher a fellowship to study abroad. Subsequently, in Berlin his professors were Emil Rödiger, Johann Gottfried Wetzstein, Moritz Steinschneider, and Heymann Steinthal, and in Leipzig he was particularly encouraged by Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer. Goldziher wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Studien über Tanchum Jeruschalmi,” on the work of a thirteenth-century Arabic-speaking Jewish biblical commentator, and defended his thesis in 1870.

Goldziher next went to the University of Leiden, attending the lectures of Abraham Kuenen and exploring the manuscripts at the Legatum Warnerianum (the university’s Oriental collection). He based his seminal work, Die Zahiriten (The Zahiris; 1884), on these materials. It was also in Leiden that he formed lifelong friendships with the Dutch orientalists Reinhart Dozy, Michael Jan de Goeje, and others. The highlight of his time abroad was his vastly successful tour to the Middle East between September 1873 and April 1874; he was the first European to attend lectures at Al-Azhar Theological University in Cairo. There, too, he formed important friendships with scholars, including the leader of Pan-Islamism, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī.

When Goldziher returned to Hungary, the liberal Eötvös had died and had been replaced by his brother-in-law Ágoston Trefort as minister of education. No unconverted Jew received a university appointment during his and his successors’ tenures. Goldziher consequently had to accept the position of secretary to the Pest Israelite Community, a role that limited his serious scholarly work. He confided in his diary that he wrote his significant works during his five-week-long vacations. Although he was invited to several universities abroad, family reasons compelled him to stay in Hungary. Only in 1905 was he appointed to a full professorship at Budapest University.

Goldziher was somewhat more fortunate in being recognized internationally as a scholar: in 1876 he became an associate member and in 1892 a regular member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and in 1905 he was president of its first class. Though his Jewish status affected his teaching career in Hungary, he was widely recognized by foreign academies (in Russia, France, Prussia, Bavaria, Spain, Damascus, Denmark, and Britain), by more than a dozen learned societies (in Göttingen, Leipzig, Leiden, Calcutta, Paris, Cairo, and others) and by universities (Cambridge, Aberdeen). The last years of his life were made unendurable by World War I, the premature death of his daughter-in-law, and anti-Jewish movements after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919.

Goldziher’s two major Jewish works, written in 1876 and 1887–1888 were critically received in conservative Jewish circles. The first, Der Mythos bei den Hebräen (published in English as Mythology among the Hebrews in 1887), which he had written years earlier, refuted the thesis of French scholar Ernest Rénan, who had denied the existence of Hebrew mythology. Goldziher’s other work, A zsidóság lényege és fejlödése (The Essence of Jewry and Its Development) consisted of six lectures, the last of which was canceled as audiences lacked interest.

Goldziher viewed himself as a Jewish Hungarian citizen; he had little sympathy for Zionism. Although he preserved a deep-rooted Jewish faith throughout his life, he regarded his religion as a private matter that did not affect his scholarship. From the 1890s on, he refused to partake in discussion about contemporary Jewish issues, and limited himself only to writing strictly scholarly papers.

Goldziher is best noted for having established the foundations of modern Islamic scholarship. His bibliography, compiled by Bernát Heller in 1927, provides evidence of the quality and range of his scholarship. His renowned works include the following four texts: Die Zahiriten (1884); Muhammedanische Studien (Muslim Studies; 2 vols., 1888–1890); Vorlesungen über den Islam (Lectures on Islam; 1910); and Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegungen (Trends in Exegesis of the Koran; 1920). His treatise “Über die Entwicklung des Hadith” (On the Development of the Hadith; 1890) is regarded as his masterwork. In this text, Goldziher analyzed ways in which the Muslim community believed in divine legitimation of its changing practices, and on the prophetic tradition, which sanctified change in accordance with the norm of ne varietur (the unchangeable, that which is not to be changed) and the Koran.

Goldziher’s other works can be considered precursors and further developments of this groundbreaking idea. His Die Zahiriten, written almost exclusively on the basis of manuscripts, analyzed in depth the emergence and development of the “fifth school of law,” which later disappeared; Vorlesungen is the first (and to this day widely used) handbook describing Islam in its totality. This late work, consisting of six chapters, introduces fundamental interpretations of the Koran from its earliest times to the modernist tafsīr (Koranic exegesis). The afterlife of Goldziher’s scholarly oeuvre is quite exceptional in the history of scholarship. His writings were the starting point for ḥadīth-interpretation even half a century after his death.

Suggested Reading

Ignác Goldziher, Tagebuch, ed. Alexander Scheiber (Leiden, 1978); Bernard Heller, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Ignace Goldziher (Paris, 1927); Raphael Patai, Ignaz Goldziher and His Oriental Diary: A Translation and Psychological Portrait (Detroit, 1987), pp. 83–153; Robert Simon, Ignác Goldziher: His Life and Scholarship as Reflected in His Works and Correspondence (Leiden and Budapest, 1986); Robert Simon, Goldziher Ignác: Vázlatok az emberről és a tudósról (Budapest, 2000).



Translated from Hungarian by Veronika Szabó