MHC Professor Penn Wins Guggenheim

Thursday, April 26, 2007 - 11:15

Posted: April 26, 2007

Michael Penn has hit the so-called academic jackpot. Last December, Penn, assistant professor of religion and gender studies, learned that he had won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In February a notice came from the National Humanities Center naming Penn a fellow for 2007-2008. A few days later, in an unassuming typewritten envelope, Penn got one last bit of good news: he had received a Guggenheim.

Penn said it was humbling to be among the list of 189 Guggenheim Fellows, which include artists, scholars, and scientists selected from more than 2,700 applicants for awards totaling $7,600,000. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation makes the awards on the basis of distinguished achievement in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment.

"This award is different, because it's not simply for academics," Penn said. "When you look down the list, it's filled with people you know." Past Guggenheim winners include Henry Kissinger, Aaron Copland, and Ansel Adams. "It's a pretty intimidating list to be a part of. It felt very surreal in a way that winning the other grants did not."

The work that Penn is being widely lauded for focuses on the historical reconstruction of early Christian/Muslim relations. Most scholars who have examined the earliest interactions of Christianity and Islam rely on Greek and Latin texts. Because most Greek and Latin authors lived in societies at war with Muslims, a reliance on their writings may inaccurately reinforce a "clash of civilization" model of interaction. Penn explained that when Muslims first encountered Christians, they did not initially meet Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople or Latin-speaking Christians from the Western Mediterranean, but rather Christians from Northern Mesopotamia (modern day Iran, Iraq, and Eastern Turkey) who spoke an Aramaic dialect called Syriac. These Syriac Christians lived under direct Muslim rule from the seventh century up to the present day and wrote our earliest surviving Christian references to Islam.

Syriac, however, is a language that all but died out by the end of the twelfth century. Today Syriac is mostly used liturgically and only a few people still speak it. Even scholars of antiquity generally ignore Syriac; the most commonly consulted Syriac dictionary was written in 1903 and the last main Syriac grammar book was published in 1880. As a result, Penn is one of only a handful of scholars studying early Syriac documents that speak of Muslims.

"Scholars haven't really explored this corpus of material, and certainly not in the way I'm looking at it," Penn said. "What really intrigues me is the diversity of interactions, from animosity to coexistence. This very diversity of early Christian reactions to the rise of Islam suggests to me that even at the very beginning, we see a range of interactions that are simply too complex to be reduced to the solely antagonistic." In a post-9/11 world, where many proclaim a conflict between Islam and "the West" as inevitable, Penn's work clearly has modern-day ramifications. "This isn't a purely 'academic' endeavor," he said.

The three grants Penn received, for $40,000 each, will allow him to take a research leave to start writing two books. The first will be an anthology of English translations of Syriac texts about Islam. The second, a book called Imaging Islam, will be an analysis of this material. "It will hopefully start a conversation that hasn't been going on yet," he said.

Penn spends most summers in Europe, where the largest cache of Syriac texts is currently housed. "One of the best parts of my research is going to the British Library, pulling out an eighth-century manuscript written on cowhide, and realizing you are literally the first person to read it in 1,000 years. It gives a sense of immediacy." Such work also presents a great many challenges, as Penn has to look through many texts to find what he's looking for. "There is no table of contents. You flip through the texts hoping to find something, and nine times out of ten it's just a dead end."

Penn's work aims to be of use to Syriac scholars, church historians, Islamicists, and religion historians, as well as the general public, in helping us to better understand the first interactions of the modern world's two largest faith communities.

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