In Memoriam: Franz Rosenthal, 87

Franz Rosenthal, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Arabic at Yale University, died on April 8 in Branford, CT., after a long illness.

“Franz Rosenthal was a man of total intellectual integrity, a renowned interpreter of Islamic religion and Arabic literature, a leading scholar of Aramaic and a personal friend, to be admired and emulated,” said William Hallo, a long-time colleague. Hallo is the William M. Laffan Professor Emeritus of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Professor Rosenthal was born in Berlin, Germany, on August 31, 1914, the second son of Kurt W. Rosenthal, a flour merchant, and Elsa Rosenthal (née Kirschstein). He entered the University of Berlin in 1932, where he studied Classics and Oriental languages and civilizations. He received his Ph.D. in 1935, with a dissertation on Palmyrenian inscriptions, published the following year. After teaching for a year in Florence, Italy, he became instructor at the Lehranstalt (formerly Hochschule) für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a rabbinical seminary in Berlin. In 1938, he completed his history of Aramaic studies, which was awarded the Lidzbarski Medal and Prize, but the prize money was withheld from him because he was Jewish.

Shortly after the infamous “Kristallnacht” in 1938, Rosenthal left Germany and went to Sweden, where he was invited through the good offices of the Swedish historian of religions, H.S. Nyberg. From there he went to England and eventually came to the United States on February 5, 1940, having received an invitation to join the faculty of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (HUC), Ohio.

In 1943, he published a monograph on as-Sarakhsi, became a U.S. citizen and was inducted into the U.S. Army. After basic training, he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington.

Following the war, he returned to academia, first at HUC and in 1948, moving to the University of Pennsylvania. In 1956, he was appointed the Louis M. Rabinowitz Professor of Semitic Languages at Yale University. He became a Sterling Professor in 1967 and emeritus in 1985. v A prolific scholar, Rosenthal’s publications ranged from a monograph on “Humor in Early Islam” (1956) to a three-volume annotated translation of the “Muqaddimah” of Ibn Khaldun (1958) to a “Grammar of Biblical Aramaic” (1961). His 1952 “History of Muslim Historiography” was the first study of this enormous subject. He wrote extensively on Islamic civilization, including “The Muslim Concept of Freedom” (1960), “The Classical Heritage in Islam” (1975), “The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society” (1971), “Gambling in Islam” (1975), “Complaint and Hope in Medieval Islam” (1983), three volumes of collected essays (1990) and two volumes of translations from the history of the medieval Arab historian at-Tabari. His books have been translated into Arabic, Russian and Turkish.

He held membership in numerous professional organizations, such as the Deutsche MorgenlŠndische Gesellschaft, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Medieval Academy of America, the American Academy of Jewish Research, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Rome), the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy and the American Oriental Society. His many academic honors include the Giorgio Levi della Vida Medal (1977) and the Harvey Prize (University of Haifa, 1984), as well as honorary degrees from Hebrew Union College, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, the University of Tübingen and Columbia University.

“Rosenthal was unpretentious in his manner, self-effacing and devoted to scholarship,” said colleague Benjamin R. Foster, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and curator of the Yale Babylonian collection. “He was noteworthy for his integrity of character, inspiring guidance of serious students, generosity with his knowledge and scholarly resources, and his dry and sometimes cutting humor. He never married and most of his extended family, including his older brother, Günther, perished in Nazi concentration camps, so chosen personal and scholarly friendships were of special importance to him.

“Rosenthal was among the last of a distinguished generation of scholars exiled from his homeland by Nazism. At the time of his arrival in the United States, there were few professional Arabists in American universities. The growth of a dynamic American discipline of Arabic and Islamic studies, with high scholarly standards, was strongly stimulated by his precept, example and prodigious scholarly output,” Foster added.

Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325