Prof. David Nirenberg awarded Laing Prize from UChicago Press

Scholar's work Neighboring Faiths earns Press's top honor

Zimmer with Nirenberg
President Robert J. Zimmer congratulates Prof. David Nirenberg (left) for winning the Gordon J. Laing Prize at a May 10 reception at the Quadrangle Club.
Photo by
Nancy Wong
Mark Peters
News Director and Social Sciences SpecialistUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago Press has awarded the Gordon J. Laing Prize to Prof. David Nirenberg for Neighboring Faiths, his examination of the interactions of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages that provides new insight into how the faiths relate today.

The Laing Prize is the Press’s top honor, awarded annually to the UChicago faculty author, editor or translator of a book published in the previous three years that brings the Press the greatest distinction. Nirenberg, dean of the Division of the Social Sciences and the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Distinguished Service Professor in History, Social Thought, Romance Languages and Literatures, is the 54th recipient of the award.

Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today is the rare historical work that, in looking backward, can help point a way forward,” said Garrett Kiely, director of the UChicago Press. “Now, more than ever, we need scholars like David to remind us of our shared religious past and of our shared future. I am very pleased that the Board of University Publications conferred the Laing Prize on this outstanding work of scholarship.”

In his research, Nirenberg explores how the interactions of the three religions help shape how they define themselves and each other. He describes his work as getting closer to an understanding of what it meant for a Muslim in Christian Spain to convert to Judaism in the 14th century, or how Muslim and Christian readings of Hegel in the 20th century have shaped how members of these faiths perceive the other.

In Neighboring Faiths, Nirenberg examines how the three religions interact by focusing on medieval Spain, but finding overlaps in more recent times from Pope Benedict XVI to the leaders of Hamas.

“How these three faiths interact with each other—and take shape through each other—is crucial to our current world and animates a huge amount of our geopolitical energy,” Nirenberg said. “Although the book is largely medieval, it begins with and ends with meditations on how this process of co-production among the three faiths is still going on.” 

Writing in the London Review of Books, Carlos Fraenkel described Neighboring Faiths not as a “feel-good story” about the faiths getting along, but instead an argument for why ideas matter and how they can harden over time, requiring a study of the past to inform future relations.

What inspired Nirenberg to write Neighboring Faiths was a curiosity that emerged from his own background as a Latin American immigrant to the U.S. of Jewish descent. Further impetus came more recently when he taught an undergraduate course in Jerusalem.

“It was there, discussing the scriptures of Islam, Judaism and Christianity with a class evenly divided between all three faiths, that I first began to perceive the possibility, and perhaps even the importance, of such a project,” Nirenberg said.

Nirenberg is also author of Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages; Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition; and Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies: Judaism in Christian Painting, Poetry and Politics. His honors include receiving the Historikerpreis der Stadt Münster this year, awarded for outstanding works in historical sciences.