The International Dr. G.W. Leitner Trail
Marcus Roberts & Silvia Dovoli (Oxford University Jewish Country House Project)


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Leitner's Early Teaching Career

Leitner first entered academia in 1856 in Bursa (Broussa), Turkey, where he has first resided in Turkey and he took a teaching appointment, and then in 1858 he went to England where he entered King's College in London, initially as a matriculated student. He then started a precocious teaching career, as in 1859 he became Lecturer in Arabic, Turkish and Modern Greek at King's, and then by 1861 was Professor of Arabic and Muhammadam Law, having successfully argued that there should be an Oriental Section at the University. He also became Dean and was made an Honorary Fellow. He carried a wide variety of other roles and had gone through 'every stage of an educator' and carried out other engagements tutoring, or examining, young students at a variety of schools. In India he was to reprise this interest in primary and secondary education.

Bursa was also important to Leitner, as this is where he met his wife, 'Lina' Olympia Schwab (d.1912). Her father was a silk manufacturer and Austrian and American Consul, stationed principally in Broussa (modern Bursa, Turkey). As a child, she travelled extensively with her family, particularly in Asia Minor (she was born in Burma). She came to live in London with Leitner in 1878 and their son was Henry Moritz Leitner (1869-1945) who became an electrical engineer and inventor (a pioneer of electric cars who also worked on electrical applications for the railways and airplanes). Henry studied Arabic at the School for Modern Oriental Studies and married Sapho, a woman from Turkey, but divorced her in 1905.

Mysteriously, but significantly, Leitner was stated to be a Secretary to a 'semi-religious society'. This over-looked comment on Leitner may be of real importance to understanding his religious outlook, though the term 'semi-religious' had a number of connotations in the Victorian period. Semi-religious societies at one pole included organisations such as Madam Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, and at the other there were lectures conducted at George's Hall by Prof. Huxley, as well as lectures on free thought and secularist topics at Newington Hall (which succeeded St George's Hall). In between there was a popular genre of semi-religious literature which had a general religious and moral tone, though at the more intellectual end there was also a slew of semi-religious periodicals, which tackled issues of religious interest such as evolution, and there were regular titles such as the 'London Investigator' and 'The Agnostic Journal' and 'Eclectic Review'. This was a continuing interest for Leitner, as in 1871 Leitner is recording as addressing the Spiritualist Society in London, and was clearly brusquely dismissive of their claim that their work deserved scientific study, which indicates the anti-supernaturalist stance typical of many who subscribed to the Higher Criticism and religious Liberalism.

The category of the semi-religious also embraced new kinds of religious services, including 'theistic' services at St George's Hall in London, which in 1873 were led by the Rev. Voysey (who had been expelled from the Church of England for his unorthodox views). The 'Theists' were semi-religious group who were described as having 'faith' but wished to be free of Christian dogma, orthodoxy, supernaturalism and superstition, and to have unchallenged freedom of thought in all religious matters. They also had a certain antipathy to the notion of 'Divine Revelation', while affirming the origin of all the good of God, but only as far as it was consistent with the dictates of reason, moral sense, the highest affections and science. Jews were regarded as being more naturally sympathetic and open to the cause than Christians (presumably as Judaism is a non-dogmatic religion).

The Theists also had their own prayer and service book, with hymns and prayers, and they were strongly interested in inter-faith interaction with other theists from other religious traditions across the world. There was a strange Utopian 'prayer book' called the 'New Koran', published in 1861 by a young man from England who wanted to promote the work in Turkey. Of great additional interest, there are accounts of a strong international theistic missionary movement which also operated in both in India and the Punjab (with visits to Lahore and also operating in the North West Provinces), led by native people of India.

While more research would need to be carried out, this would appear to describe perfectly the context of Leitner's religious sympathies and affiliations. It seems that Leitner may well have taken a syncretic and rationalistic view of religion. The outworking of Higher Criticism, in terms of personal belief, tended to favour the retention of a 'kernel' of universal moral truth in the teachings of religion and reject the ahistorical and super-naturalistic elements, the 'husk'. Leitner certainly advocated taking a historical view of the Bible in his writings and urged an understanding of '... its eclectic nature and gradual transformations'. We also see him in India urging the importance of moral and religious teaching in schools (which he would not have been so inclined to do, if he had personally dismissed the value of religion) and wanting to support the religious identities and activities of those engaged with the University. He also had Yazedi retainers, who were regarded as infidel devil worshippers by contemporary Muslims.

More than anything else, he seems to have had a special affinity to Islam, though in India he appears to have been also very closely involved with adherents of Ahmadiyya Islam, who are, to this day regarded with great hostility by many Islamic groups and seen to be heretical and apostate. His feeling towards Islam may have rested on the fact that historically Islam was more sympathetic to Jews and Christianity was often more hostile. Islam and the Judaism of his birth were more aligned than Judaism and Christianity and the practice and non-doctrinal (and legal framework) of both Islam and Judaism is much closer. Certainly, Leitner wrote that Islam deserved a sympathetic approach, at a time it was often regarded as primitive, as it had formulated a practical way of 'walking with God' and finding the Peace of God, as well as 'to submit to the Divine Will', and had made these a cornerstone of its edifice of faith. Islamic writers consider him to be amongst the small number of white Europeans prepared to defend Islam as a religious system and he also wrote that Christians would 'honour Christ more by also honouring Muhammad'. It is probably incorrect to claim that Leitner did not bring at least some knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish learning to his appreciation of Islam.

At age 21, Leitner left England and went to Freiburg University in Germany where he took his MA and Doctorate. In 1861, however, an application to become a naturalized British citizen was accepted by the British authorities. The German universities were at the forefront of advanced studies of philology and linguistics, and their advanced adherence to 'scientific' principles in all they did probably explains Leitner's decision to move there as well as its reputation in matters of education and pedagogy, a model which for example, broadly influenced the American education system. It is also quite certain that it helped fuel his interest in ancient inscriptions and archaeology, which was to emerge when he was in India.

The emergence of comparative linguistics and the drawing up of a comparative grammar in Germany had a big impact on contemporary anthropology and archaeology. The work of scholars such as Schlegel, Bopp, Grimm and Humboldt, were very important in the first half of the 19th century in this process. The inner structure of language itself, using scientific principles, could give access to history that was otherwise inaccessible. There was a shift from philology, which studied language through texts alone, to a comparative discipline which studied the cultural and historical background - setting in life - which gave rise to those texts. Philology also moved from just looking at Greek and Latin culture and anthropology, to being able to integrate new learning from the study of other more "exotic" societies and cultures.

The study of language could show the influences of the tides of migration, cultural exchange, power-politics and slavery on a language and culture. There was also a blossoming of the study of ancient inscriptions and other ancient mediums of communication and exchange, such as coins, ancient religious monuments and artistic artefacts used as diplomatic gifts or war chests. These are all influences clearly at play in Leitner's work in India and through the rest of his life. The International Congress of Orientalists, from 1873, became an important mechanism in this scholarship and was a forum where new discoveries could be presented and discussed and could tackle topics as diverse as the grammar of a newly researched language, or display new archaeological finds.

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