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Il Kim Presents Paper in Berlin

Taccula Sunkun Ship

Visiting Professor Il Kim presented his paper, "Reading Cusanus’ Cribratio alkorani (1461) in the Light of Christian Antiquarianism at the Papal Court in the 1450s," at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Berlin on March 27. The paper discusses the development of antiquarianism in the early Renaissance and the way in which that method, derived from the close reading of both antique literature and architecture, was used by Nicolaus Cusanus in his readings of the Qur’an and in his search for common ground between Islam and Christianity. The following is a summary of the paper.

Nicolaus Cusanus, author of Cribratio Alkorani (Sieving the Qur’an, 1461) began his career as a cardinal bishop in the year 1450; the era of the burgeoning culture of Christian antiquarianism in the Papal Curia during the rule of Pope Nicholas V; a time in which humanists were attempting to gain a greater understanding of ancient Rome and most particularly that of Christian Imperial Rome. Christian antiquarianism, the new vision of the papal court and of the Renaissance, originated in the arts, most particularly architecture and literature. In the realm of architecture, Pope Nicholas V’s ambitions (although never fully realized) were, according to his biographer Giannozzo Manetti, the urban “reconstruction” of the glory of Ancient Rome. The remains of Rome were read and scrutinized almost as texts. In the field of literature, popes such as Nicholas V (1447-55), Callistus III (1455-8), and Pius II (1458-64), were deeply engaged in the pursuit of rarely available ancient writings.

As the vicar-general of the papal states (1458-59), Cusanus was in charge of their secular aspects. With the news of the Fall of Constantinople (1453) and a growing awareness of the strength of Islam, Cusanus took on the exceptional task, for his time, of reading and interpreting the Qur’an. He used the principles and methods of Christian antiquarianism to write his studies, the Cribratio Alkorani being the final result. In it, he employed the concept of “pia interpretatione” (devout interpretation) in an attempt to unearth mutually agreeable points between Christianity and Islam and to confirm that, whether intended or not, the Qur’an acknowledges a Christian god, praises and bears witness to Christ above all the prophets, and confirms and approves of the Testament and the Gospel. While others among his contemporaries were reading the Qur’an, the depth of Cusanus’ interpretation was exceptional. For Cusanus, the Qur’an is of value to a Christian when seen through this particular lens. Through his “pia interpretatione” Cusanus evolved an interpretation of the Qur’an that viewed its mistakes as a specific and divine strategy to prevent its being read literally by its often uneducated followers. He interpreted those mistakes as a virtue of the Qur’an: the many errors in the Qur’an, once decrypted through the pia interpretatione, reveal God’s wisdom. And in fact, he maintains that such decryption is similar to decoding parables and symbols found in the Gospels.

In Cibratio Alkorani, Cusanus employed antiquarian methods in observing another culture:  first finding the factual, rhetorical, and philological errors in the text of the Qur’an and then expansively explicating theological problems inherent in the text through contextual analysis. (The technique of contextual analysis was shared by his contemporary antiquarians, both in literature and architecture.)  By doing so, he tried to find a validation of Christianity in the Qur’an. At the end of Cribratio Alkorani, however, Cusanus admits failure. Like his contemporary antiquarians in architecture, who while gaining more knowledge of the ancient buildings of imperial Rome, found these buildings uneasy to categorize and deeply puzzling, Cusanus recognized the immense difficulty of attaining his original goal, the validation of Christian dogma in the Qur’an itself.