- Johann Heinrich Hottinger. Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Seventeenth Century by Jan Loop
A quiet revolution in the understanding of early modern scholarship concerning the Arabic language and the Islamic world has been taking place over the last thirty years. Thanks initially to the work of Alastair Hamilton and Gerald Toomer, the knowledge and assumptions of seventeenth-century scholars in England, France, and the Low Countries have become clearer and the outlines of the confessional debates in which they engaged have taken shape. Jan Loop is the outstanding example of a new generation of students who are able to benefit from this achievement. His study of the Zürich scholar and theologian, Johann Heinrich Hottinger [End Page 204] (1620–67), broadens and deepens what we can know about the formation, teaching, skills, learning, and polemical intentions of early modern writers about Islam and Islamic history.
Hottinger’s death crossing the river Limmat outside his home town and the mysterious prophecy that he found written on the blackboard of his lecture room eight days before (‘the dying swan is already singing its song of death’) frame Loop’s account of his protagonist’s learning and scholarship. They highlight the precocious reputation that Hottinger acquired, and that carried him from Switzerland to the Netherlands and back, and then, for a time, to a chair at Heidelberg, the foremost Reformed university in Germany. Zürich reclaimed Hottinger in 1661, but, after he had turned down offers from across Europe, reconciled itself to losing him again to Leiden, his former alma mater, only for fate to take him instead. By the time of his death, Hottinger was perhaps the leading exponent of Oriental learning among Protestants of his generation, and exemplary proof of the fact that European schools could now turn out scholars able to make discoveries in Hebrew and Arabic literature, irrespective of opportunities to travel in the East or to benefit from extensive communication with native informants. He was also seasoned by more than twenty years of polemical engagement with Catholic critics, and able to tune his accounts of the history of the Church and of Arabic religion and literature to serve the ongoing interests of the Reformed orthodoxy, in argument both with Rome and with radical anti-Trinitarians. In so doing, he looked back to the activities of generations of earlier scholars, not least his predecessor at Zürich and translator of the Koran, Theodor Bibliander, as well as bringing to bear on his work the fruits of perhaps a century of western collecting of Islamic manuscripts and texts.
At the zenith of a tradition, Hottinger’s premature death at the same time presaged decline. The excitement felt by young European scholars at the no longer quite so novel challenge of Arabic grammar lessened. The glitter of new hauls of manuscripts from the East dulled as the realization dawned that European libraries were already full of unidentified texts. At the same time, the value of Islamic sources as witnesses to the true nature of early Christianity became more compromised now that those who were critical of all forms of traditional religious authority increasingly used them to undermine orthodox theologies. Above all, as Loop recognizes far more acutely than many others, the sanitization of Oriental learning by bringing it into the fold of biblical scholarship and ecclesiastical history (to which Hottinger contributed more than most) had the paradoxical effect of diverting able students from the philological, literary, or linguistic topics that might naturally have attracted them and that more modern scholars have valued.
Loop’s work, which is based on a thorough grounding in Hottinger’s extensive correspondence (largely preserved in the Zentralbibliothek in Zürich), will appeal to many kinds of reader. Students of the history of early modern scholarship will find it indispensible, not least for the new material and precise understanding that it includes concerning topics as diverse as the debate over the antiquity of Hebrew vowel points or the case...