“Muslim Propaganda in America” – as Ignaz Goldziher saw it

By Katalin Franciska Rac, University of Florida

In 1894, the magazine Budapesti Szemle (Budapest Review) published an article by the world-renowned Hungarian Oriental scholar Ignaz Goldziher about Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb’s missionary work in America.[i]  Goldziher gave his article the title “Muslim Propaganda in America,” which he borrowed from Webb’s book Islam in America: A Brief Statement of Mohammedanism and an Outline of American Islamic Propaganda published in the previous year, illustrating that in Hungary as in the US it was customary to use the word propaganda to describe active proselytizing work. Although it may sound curious that Goldziher felt it was important to inform Hungarian readers about a recent convert to Islam and Muslim missionary in the United States, the topic fit into his broader journalistic work and scholarly political agenda.


Since the early 1870s, he regularly published articles in the Budapest Review as well as other papers about recent developments in Muslim countries and, given the heightened European archeological interest in the Middle East, about Oriental and biblical scholarship. In fact, his first, 1881 Hungarian monograph on Islam Az Iszlám (Islam), in many respects, the precursor of his two-volume German monograph Muhammedanische Studien (Muslim Studies), discussed current developments in Muslim academic life as well as warned about and refuted wide-spread biases about Islam. The 1894 article about Webb likewise served as an opportunity to address broader questions about the state of western study and knowledge of Islam and the role of the religious scholar in it—an issue which was closely connected with Goldziher’s own performance as a public intellectual and Oriental scholar in Hungary.

Since this blog is intended for readers with scholarly interests and because students of his life and oeuvre rarely address Goldziher’s social engagement and work as a public intellectual, this contribution seems to be a fitting forum to discuss Goldziher’s views of the Oriental scholar’s contribution to public scholarship and discourse on Islam.

One can only wonder if Alexander Russell Webb was known at all in Hungary before the publication of Goldziher’s article. Umar F. Abd-Allah’s biography, A Muslim in Victorian America (2006), suggests that American audiences, in contrast, could have been familiar with Webb’s name even before he became a Muslim missionary. Having lost his jewelry business in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he moved to Missouri and became a successful journalist. He was an active Democrat too. President Grover Cleveland named him the United States’ consul to Manila in 1887. It was during his time in the Philippines that Webb, who had been studying Oriental religions for several years, became closely acquainted with Indian Muslims and consequently converted to Islam.

After his resignation from the consular position in 1892, he returned to the US as a Muslim missionary. He established his mission and a Muslim press in New York City, founded the periodical The Moslem World, gave public lectures, and wrote Islam in America to spread the word of Islam. Abd-Allah suggests that Webb’s approach to and interpretation of Islam, his missionary work, and public persona can only be understood when contextualized within the popular discourse and culture of fin de siècle America.

Over a century earlier, Goldziher was similarly interested in understanding the social context of the “Webb phenomenon.” In the article’s introduction, Goldziher explains that although Islam began to spread in a period of war, for most of its history, Muslim missionaries peacefully brought its teachings to even the most distant corners of Asia and Africa. Islam was not an unknown religion in the Americas either; however, it was established there through immigration rather than “propaganda.” This changed when Webb initiated “real Muslim propaganda in the New World … a year and a half ago.” Hence, using a rather dismissive voice, Goldziher asks: “How did this oddball (csudabogár) set his goal for himself in the society that surrounded him?” (p. 51).

To answer this question, Goldziher could only rely on the press and travel literature about the United States. (He ultimately visited America ten years later, in 1904.) Despite the magniloquent language, instead of examining American society, Goldziher turns to the examination of Webb’s biography and works, which were rather recent (and for Goldziher much easier to review.) Webb had established his mission less than two years before Goldziher’s essay and had published his aforementioned book and participated in the First Parliament of Religions, a very well publicized event of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, only a year before. Goldziher also exchanged letters with Webb, only to learn that Webb was unfamiliar with recent German scholarship, including Goldziher’s work, on Islam, Muslim peoples, and their history. (See Webb’s letter to Goldziher in the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences HAS GIL/36/25/01.)

Outlining his career leading from journalism to consulship, Goldziher focuses on Webb’s intellectual growth. Based on his autobiographical notes, Goldziher relays that Webb did not find the spiritual guide in ancient religions and western philosophy that he searched for and consequently turned to Islam. The words “what can we say about the fact that the materialism of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel lay heavy on [Webb’s] stomach?” articulate Goldziher’s disdain for what he viewed as Webb’s lack of understanding of modern Europe’s intellectual heritage.[ii]

Goldziher is also critical of Webb because of what he considered to be Webb’s superficial and inaccurate knowledge of Islam. He finds that Webb’s written statements about Islam lack any correspondence with “historical and objective scholarship.” Webb misinforms his audiences, argues Goldziher, and his “honest enthusiasm” for Islam does not make up for his ignorance about the positions of Muhammad and the Qur’an on women, polygamy, and slavery, just to mention a few examples.[iii] Goldziher contends that Webb’s “apology is so exaggerated that even a born Muslim, learned in the religious literature of his or her religion, would refuse to accept it.”[iv]

Goldziher justifies his expectation that religious missionary work should be based on “historical and objective” knowledge by comparing Webb’s movement to the “Muslim movement in England.” He finds the latter “less boisterous than its American counterpart enterprise” (p. 59). It does not have a periodical but has a mosque, Goldziher notes. Additionally, as the English Society’s (a Muslim association in London) advertisement in Webb’s periodical The Moslem World reveals, the Society aims to spread knowledge of Islam among Englishmen by organizing lectures, setting up a library, and other activities.

Goldziher emphasizes that it is the Society’s requirement that lecturers “must address their subjects in a historical and objective manner.” He further quotes the Society’s reasoning (in Hungarian): “In order for conversion to Islam to become valid, it first and foremost must be the result of a spontaneous decision. Hence, it will not be permitted to any Muslim person to endeavor to persuade others to accept a religion to which he or she does not belong” (p. 60). Goldziher’s rather ironic comment, “A rather suspicious excuse,” loudly speaks to his wholehearted identification with the sort of missionary work that regards scholarly interpretation as a guide to religious life. His diary and several writings on Judaism attest that it was his personal conviction that scholarly findings should be given primacy over traditional religious “truths.”

The example of the English Society and its comparison with Webb’s missionary work illustrate the invaluable service that, in Goldziher’s estimation, the Oriental scholar can render to society. In his capacity as a Hungarian public intellectual, Goldziher relies on his scholarly authority to hold the Muslim missionary accountable for spreading the “truth” of Islam. In contrast to the oft-characterized persona of the western orientalist abusing his or her knowledge to gain political influence over colonial matters and suppressed populations, this article by Goldziher highlights the importance of involving the western public in the production and dissemination of knowledge about a foreign religion and culture. Consequently, it illustrates how Goldziher wished to assert himself as an Oriental scholar in Hungary by stressing the relevance of his field in understanding contemporary developments in the western world.

Equally significant is Goldziher’s defense of western religious thought and modern philosophy against Webb’s deprecating judgement. Unlike Webb, he does not compare the teachings of western philosophy to those of Islam. Instead, Goldziher reminds his readers that exaggeration about Islam, even if it is meant to create a positive picture, is misleading and does disservice to any intelligent reader who genuinely wishes to learn about Islam. Moreover, it contradicts the fundamental tenets of Muslim proselytizing.

As in his other works, Goldziher suggests that the “objectivity” of knowledge unveils and preserves the truth of religion, therefore it should not be subdued to the subjective standpoint of the believer. The role of the religious scholar (of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or any other faith) is to guard and develop objective knowledge in the public sphere. Beyond remarkable feats of scholarly literature, I read Goldziher’s works as reminders that while scholarship, a genuinely public matter, presupposes, and even demands, an objective attitude toward the subject, religious practice is subjective and, therefore, a personal matter.

[i] “Muhammedán propaganda Amerikában” (Muslim Propaganda in America) Budapesti Szemle (Budapest Review) vol. 80 no. 214 (1894):45-60.
[ii] Ibid., 53.
[iii] Ibid., 52-55.
[iv] Ibid., 55.


© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

Qurʾān Seminar Commentary OPEN ACCESS


IQSA is delighted to announce that the Qurʾān Seminar Commentary (De Gruyter 2016), offering new insights on the Qur’an from 25 scholars, is now available for free (see here).  The Qurʾān Seminar Commentary, including contributions in English and French from the perspective of different disciplines, offers a collaborative study of 50 central Qurʾān passages.  A full list of contributors is below.


Mehdi Azaiez
Patricia Crone
Michel Cuypers
Guillaume Dye
Emran El-Badawi
Reuven Firestone
Marcin Grodzki
Gerald Hawting
Asma Hilali
Frédéric Imbert
Nejmeddine Khalfallah
Manfred Kropp
Daniel Madigan
Michael Pregill
Gabriel Said Reynolds
Andrew Rippin
Mun’im Sirry
Emmanuelle Stefanidis
Devin Stewart
Esma Hind Tengour
Tommaso Tesei
Shawkat M Toorawa
Abraham Winitzer
Munther Younes
Holger Zellentin

Take advantage of this free, valuable resource HERE or copy and paste the following link: https://www.degruyter.com/viewbooktoc/product/462559?rskey=6OGxUY&result=1

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

Andrew Rippin Best Paper Prize Winner 2017

The International Qurʾānic Studies Association is delighted to announce that the first annual Andrew Rippin Best Paper Prize (open to papers delivered by junior scholars at the 2016 annual meeting) has been awarded to Jawad Anwar Qureshi of the University of Chicago for his paper “Ring Composition, Virtues, and Qurʾanic Prophetology in sūrat Yūsuf (Q 12)”. The winner of the Andrew Rippin Best Paper Prize receives a cash award. In addition, an expanded and edited version of the winning paper qualifies for publication in the Journal of the International Qur’anic Studies Association. An announcement regarding submissions for the second annual Andrew Rippin Best Paper Prize will follow the 2017 IQSA annual meeting in Boston.

This award is given in honor of Prof. Andrew Rippin (1950-2016), a leading scholar of the Qurʾān and inaugural president of the International Qur’anic Studies Association (2014). Prof. Rippin is remembered as “an esteemed colleague, revered mentor, and scholarly inspiration to many members of the IQSA community.”


An abstract of Jawad Qureshi’s award winning paper follows:

This paper focuses on the structure of Surat Yusuf (Q. 12), arguing that the surah demonstrates the most prominent features of ring composition, then noting how its structure informs the larger argument of the surah concerning prophetology. The first half of Joseph’s story of betrayal, exile, slavery, temptation, and imprisonment is mirrored inversely in the second half by his freedom, exoneration, elevation in society, and reunion, forming a perfect chiasm. Scholarship has noted this chiastic structure and building on the work of Michel Cuypers, I argue that the ring structure of Q. 12 is in fact more intricate and detailed than scholarship has considered thus far. Specifically, I demonstrate that Q. 12 is composed of not merely of one ring but that there are in fact four distinct rings—a ring addressing the Prophet (which frames the surah), followed by Joseph’s dream, then Jacob’s narrative, and at the center is a retelling of Joseph’s experience in Egypt. After detailing the surah’s intricate ring composition, using the surah’s ring structure, I argue that each ring argues a set of qurʾānic teachings, namely, the Qurʾan’s monotheistic message and the reality of revelation (Joseph’s ring), trust in God’s plan along with patience through trials (Jacob’s ring), and the truth of revelation (the dream ring). All of this is framed in the ring addressed to the Prophet, putting him in line with Jacob and, more directly, Joseph as a continuity of prophetic missions, shaping the Qurʾān’s unique prophetology. 

Jawad Anwar Qureshi



Jawad Anwar Qureshi, PhD Candidate
University of Chicago (Divinity School)

University of Groningen PhD Scholarship Programme

PhD Scholarship Faculty Theology and Religious Studies



Since its foundation in 1614, the University of Groningen has enjoyed an international reputation as a dynamic and innovative center of higher education offering high-quality teaching and research. Balanced study and career paths in a wide variety of disciplines encourage the 30,000 students and researchers to develop their own individual talents. Belonging to the best research universities in Europe and joining forces with prestigious partner universities and networks, the University of Groningen is truly an international place of knowledge. The Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies is an ambitious faculty with a dynamic and accomplished staff drawn from around the world (58% international), and a Graduate School with 60 PhD students.

Scholarship opportunities

The Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies offers a three-year scholarship to complete a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies. The PhD student will be enrolled in our Graduate School.
The PhD in “Late Antiquity and Early Islam” will conduct research that fits with the profile of the Islamic Origins segment of the research unit Jewish, Christian and Islamic Origins: https://www.rug.nl/research/centre-for-religious-studies/jewish-christian-islamic-origins/

The proposed PhD research plan should match one of the following trajectories:
• Qur’ānic studies – Projects could include qur’ānic engagement with Late Antique, biblical or other pre-Islamic themes (literary, societal, material), as well as the multi-faceted reception history of such qur’ānic representations (e.g. in tafsīr, grammar, literature, fiqh, kalām, etc.).
• Textual studies – Research projects on specific texts in their doctrinal, historical and social contexts, including their production and reception history. Proposals with this focus could include a critical edition and/or English translation of a text (either a manuscript or an edited, but untranslated, text).
• Acculturation and cultural resistance – How did Islam develop in the multicultural world of Late Antique Asia, Africa or Europe? Proposals with this focus would be expected to demonstrate competence in both Islamic and pre-Islamic history.


The PhD student is expected:
• to have graduated with excellent results in a research-based MA thesis in Theology/Religious Studies, History, Islamic Studies or another relevant discipline (by 1 August 2017 at latest)
• to have ample experience with relevant languages and qualitative methodologies such as literary analysis and cultural-historical approaches, as well as the ability to combine these methodologies
• to have an interest in presenting his/her research findings at academic conferences, as well as in non-specialist settings
• to be able and willing to work in an interdisciplinary environment
• to have an advanced level of Arabic or other relevant linguistic skills, so as to be able to read primary sources
• to be fluent in English (both oral and written)
• to have the skills necessary to complete the PhD thesis in three years (project planning, time management, taking initiative in research, and academic writing).


The successful candidate will receive a scholarship of € 1,700 per month, with wage tax and social insurance premiums already deducted. She/he will be required to be resident in Groningen and will initially be offered a scholarship of one year; prolongation of the scholarship for a further two years is contingent on sufficient progress in the first year.
General information about the University of Groningen’s PhD scholarship programme can be found here: https://www.rug.nl/education/phd-programmes/phd-scholarship-programme.

The preferred starting date is 1 September 2017.

How to apply
You may apply for this position until 2 April 11.59 PM / before 3 April 2017 Dutch local time by means of the application form (click on “Apply” below on the advertisement on the university website).

Your application should include:

  • a brief letter of motivation
  • a CV, including contact details of two academic referees
  • a research proposal of up to 2000 words, covering (a) state of the art, (b) main research question, key objectives, and relevance, (c) the proposed (methodological) approach, and (d) the proposed timetable for the writing of your thesis (if your project is interdisciplinary, please also list potential co-supervisor[s])
  • a writing sample of no more than 5000 words, such as an essay or part of a master’s thesis
  • certified official transcripts of your academic degrees.

Official documents must be in the English or Dutch language. Any translation of originals not in these languages must be authenticated.

Note that the procedure will include interviews. Selected candidates will be invited for an interview in Groningen. Interviews are scheduled to take place 19 April 2017.

Unsolicited marketing is not appreciated.


For information you can contact:

(please do not use for applications)

Please visit the University of Groningen’s webpage for more program information.


© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

Last Chance! IQSA Call for Papers 2017


The deadline to submit paper proposals for IQSA’s 2017 Annual Meeting to be held in Boston, Massachusetts from November 18-21, 2017 is quickly approaching! Paper proposals are due by 11:59 PM (23:59) Eastern Standard Time (UTC -5) on March 7, 2017. Proposals should be submitted through the Society of Biblical Literature’s online submission system via the affiliate form corresponding to one of the six IQSA program units listed on the Call for Papers Page. Detailed instructions and requirements for the submission process can be found HERE.

If you have not yet done so, please renew your membership immediately to avoid complications as the Call for Papers closes and the Annual Meeting in Boston approaches.

In addition, early-bird registration for the 2017 IQSA Annual Meeting to be held in Boston, Massachusetts from November 18-21 will soon be open! Stay tuned to register as an AFFILIATE via the Society of Biblical Literature’s Meetings and Events page.

Please email contact@iqsaweb.org with questions or concerns about the paper submission process. IQSA looks forward to receiving your proposals!


© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.