Islamic History at the AHA

I couldn’t make it to the AHA this year. Of course, the salt to my wounds, every single one of my peeps did. And they all had a good time and they all talked about how much I suck. I am sure of it. One of my online friends that I missed out on meeting was Jonathan Dresner – who blogs at Frog in a Well: The Japan History Blog and is long familiar to the readers of CM. He attended a couple of Islamic history panels and, graciously, wrote up his thoughts for the CM audience. I think this is brilliant.

Guest Post by Jonathan Dresner

I know when the American Medical Association annual meeting is happening, because all of a sudden there’s cutting edge medical news on the radio; I know when the American Chemical Society meets, because all of a sudden someone’s talking about material science; there’s never any big news that comes out of the AHA, though, and that bothers me. Actually, there was big news this year (in which I played a small role), with international coverage, but it’s not exactly a credit to the profession. Academic journalists have been more interested in the business meeting, which was fun (you can see me in the background of some of Rick Shenkman’s videos) and “historic” but which still doesn’t really represent what we, as historians, do on a daily basis; it doesn’t show us advancing human understanding, clarifying things, growing.

Anyway, though it’s not “liveblogging,” there are still things I heard there which I’m thinking about and struggling with, and which are going to show up in my lectures. Since my Friday morning panels were both on Islamic history, and I blog at an East Asian History site, I’m very grateful to my host here for sharing his audience with me. A word of introduction, of course: I am a Japanese historian, with a good background in East Asian history, a tolerable understanding of South Asian religions, and years of World History teaching forcing me to be at least passing familiar with everything else.

I was actually quite excited to see the Islamic History panels. (111 and NHC 3) It’s stuff that I teach in World History all the time, and the titles actually addressed questions I’ve wondered about myself. Asian history is pretty thin on the ground at the AHA: all of the Japan panels were post-WWII; all the China panels were 20c; the only Korean history I saw was Christian religious history. I know, we’ve got the AAS, and our regional conferences to go to, but this seems like a pretty weak showing.

The first panel, “The Renaissance in an Islamic Context,” was a very interesting exercise in world historiography: the fundamental question was “what was the Renaissance, and did something like it occur in the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire?” The Golden Age (I’m quite sure it was capitalized when they said it) ran from Mehmed The Conquerer in the mid-15c to Suleiman the Lawgiver in the mid-16c: dead-on when the Renaissance was going on. Taken together, the three papers (Kafescioglu didn’t make it) made a strong case, though with two interesting caveats. First, you have to accept the panel’s definition, articulated by Giancarlo Casale, of the Renaissance as a conservative movement, a rediscovery of an “authentic” past neglected by subsequent ages; Casale cited Petrarch’s criticisms of Aristotle as “tainted” by transmission through Arabic scholars. Second, as the panelists pointed out, “Renaissance” in European historiography is the jumping-off point for a cavalcade of “progress” — Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, etc — whereas the grand narrative of the Ottoman Empire is economic decline and waves of insufficient political reform leading to the “sick man of Europe” age. But that’s the political history of the Empire, not the intellectual history, and what the idea of a renaissance in the Ottoman means remains open: there are shelves and shelves of manuscripts in collections across the Near East and Europe, even the US, which haven’t been published in accessible forms. The cultural questions about post-Suleiman Ottoman history haven’t yet been asked, at least not in any depth.

I should say a quick word about the actual papers. Giancarlo Casale described the way in which Ottoman geographers rediscovered Arabic geographic writings when they began expanding towards the Indian Ocean; among other things it was a wonderful example of the way in which knowledge accumulation is not linear. Also, Arabic geographers worked textually, rather than visually, which raises all kinds of interesting questions in my mind about different ways of understanding and recording information. Selim Kuru had the strongest direct parallel to the Italian Renaissance: the rise of courtier patronage for artists and the revival of Persianate literature; the flourishing of urban writings and — dare I say it? — distinctly humanistic genres like autobiographical poems and satires. One down-side to art patronage: all the viziers recognized as great patrons end up executed, possibly because their cultural work was too self-serving? Emine Fervaci continued the discussion of courtiers and art, especially literature and architecture (which also flourished at this time) in which a strong local idiom was being constructed out of classical models and local tastes. Fervaci also described the rise of historical writing at that time. During the discussion the topic turned to a subject near and dear to me: migration. Casale explained that the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain contributed to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire (take that Ferdinand and Isabella!) by creating new family and trade networks between Egypt, Istanbul and the Indian Ocean Basin. It was also noted that the Ottoman Empire, like many Muslim states, remained relatively open to the immigration of Christians or others with useful technical expertise, whereas Europe was clearly not going to welcome even the most advanced scholars or engineers if they were Muslim.

The “Muslim World on the Eve of the Modern Era: Reframing Islamic History” panel went in a couple of directions, all of them interesting. John Voll, as chair, led off by tracing the history of Islamic region studies from Exotic traveller tales to orientalism to Area Studies to “what we have now,” also known as global studies. In the process, scholars like the ones presenting have gone beyond revisionism, in which old frameworks are still functional, to fundamental redefinition of questions and abandoning the old Area Studies boundaries which split the Indian Ocean basin into three distinct academic territories. The three papers that followed (Engseng Ho didn’t make it; it wasn’t only Islamic History panels that had that problem, by the way: one of the Sunday presenters I’d hoped to see also had funding fall through) were each very interesting, but very different.

Giancarlo Casale — it’s not easy getting on to two panels at the AHA, by the way — complicated his earlier presentation about Ottoman geographers by showing some great maps, including a few Portolan maps (Mediterranean navigation charts whose scale was dictated by the fact that it was drawn on a single sheepskin, and on many of them you can still see the outline of legs and neck), and one which has been cited as evidence that aliens gave the Ottomans satellite data. Being a responsible historian, Casale didn’t dismiss the theory outright, but did point out that there are terrestrial sources which Ottoman geographers used to great effect, including interviews with spies and knowledgeable merchant captains, European maps and travel books; at least one of the logbooks from Vasco de Gama’s voyage, for example, was stolen and made its way to the Sultan’s libraries. And the revival of Arabic geographers that he described in the earlier panel was present as well, resulting in increasingly detailed and accurate maps and narrative geographies. He showed a fantastic detail image of a painting of an observatory from the 1570s in which the globe is done in painstaking detail, most likely by an actual geographer rather than an artist.

Jonathan Brown’s paper presented a very helpful overview and redefinition of the early modern history of Islamic legal scholarship, one which actually reverberated back to the Renaissance panel in its implicit (at least, I inferred it) invocation of the Reformation. He argued that the 18c revival and reform movements — Salafi, Wahhabi, etc. — which we now refer to as “fundamentalist” need to be understood in the context of the Sunni tradition of legal scholarship, and their challenge to the traditional methodologies rather than their doctrinal positions. Brown defines the dominant Sunni legal traditions as “Cumulative”: though they took slightly different doctrinal positions and had slightly different emphases (especially with regard to hadith v. local tradition conflicts), they all are very deferrential to past decisions and consensuses. Though the Cumulative tradition is sometimes very selective in which decisions it cites, it assumes that scholars of the past were aware of contradicting hadith and Quranic verses when they made their decisions, so that all older decisions could be cited as authoritative, even if apparent contradictions exist. Law, in the Cumulative tradition, was largely a settled matter, with only marginal and exceptional cases requiring innovative thinking. Most Cumulative scholars were pro-Sufi and friendly towards Shi’a traditions, as well. The “Iconoclastic” schools, though, assume an “existential egalitarianism” in which scholars of the present are no less competent than scholars of the past at interpreting Quran and Hadith, and prefer to go back to the original texts and authoritative hadith (and they have their own standards for this, as well, rejecting the theological orthodoxy of the transmitter as a measure of authoritative transmission, for example) directly rather than relying on putative claims of consensus and permissive selectivity. Iconoclasts reconnect the study of hadith with active law, because the issues are not, in their view, settled. It’s a more “Do It Yourself” style, requiring greater attention to detail, and spurring a new critical scholarship, as well as new tensions: the Iconoclasts are associated with anti-Sufi and anti-Shiite positions (though a group of brothers — Qumari? I really could have used a dramatis personae — are cited as examples of exceptions). Brown didn’t explicitly mention the Reformation analogy, but it strikes me as potentially very useful. It also reminds me a great deal of the divide between the Orthodox and Conservative (aka Traditional) traditions in Judaism, very much tied to the consensus positions of the past, and the Reform and Reconstructionist (aka Liberal) projects, though, as I think about it, the Liberal tradition in Judaism is not tied to the original texts in the same way at all. In the discussion period, Brown pointed out that the tensions between these approaches were not at all new to the 18c, but internal crises resulted in the differences becoming entrenched and open at that point.

Finally, Sean Foley gave an overview of Islam as a factor in Atlantic history which opens up all kinds of interesting directions. He cited a number of connections and overlaps, three of which stood out for me. First, and most immediately relevant, Thomas Jefferson’s interest in the Quran, which he read both in translation and, at times, in the original Arabic, and which influenced his view of religious liberty as being universal rather than cultural (Locke also could read Arabic, according to Foley, and explicitly included Muslims as individuals whose religious rights should be respected in civil society, though he also pioneered the contrast between Anglo-American freedom and Oriental Despotism). Second, and perhaps the hardest to pin down, was the influence of Mediterranean geopolitics on the Americas; the discovery and settlement of Brazil, for example, was a result of Portuguese navigators working the Atlantic waters to get around the West African coast, and the conquistadores and other explorers of European expansion were often veterans of anti-Ottoman campaigns. Finally, Foley pointed out — and I can’t believe this never occurred to me before, or showed up in the World History textbooks — that millions of the African slaves which came to the Americas — perhaps as many as one in five — were Muslims. There was apparently a jihad uprising in Brazil at one point, and interest in Islamic plantation agriculture resulted in a strong concentration of Muslim slaves in Georgia and North Carolina as well. This puts the slaveowner interest in Christianizing slaves in a very different perspective, not to mention Black Muslim movements. In the question-and-answer period, John Voll brought up the Salem coffee trade as a source of contact with Islam and point of origin for New England abolitionism.

I’ve already cited some of this material in my World History this semester — we start with the chapter on “Gunpowder Empires” — and I look forward to seeing it worked out more thoroughly in the future. In both cases, the missing presenter was going to bring out the Indian Ocean issues more directly, so I’m still feeling a bit of disconnect there. Still, it was four hours well-spent. This is why I go to these meetings.

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6 thoughts on “Islamic History at the AHA”

  1. Superb summary Jonathan, and greatly appreciated. I especially found the portion of 18thC “reformist” theologies, and possible parallels with the Reformation, instructive.

    Re: “I can‚Äôt believe this never occurred to me before, or showed up in the World History textbooks ‚Äî that millions of the African slaves which came to the Americas ‚Äî perhaps as many as one in five ‚Äî were Muslims. ”

    Dude– you never read ROOTS? Kunta Kinte is a Muslim…

  2. Dude– you never read ROOTS?

    No, actually. It was one of those cultural moments that kind of passed me by, and I’m not an Americanist so I’ve had little reason to go back to it.

    But it’s never shown up in any of my World History textbooks, or in other US history scholarship I’ve read…. there’s still a way to go before this is really integrated into the common knowledge.

  3. I simply want to thank Jonathan Dresner for his sound summary of the session that I organized and chaired. This is a conceptually exciting time in the development of how we analyze and understand global/ world history and the distinctive parts of that broader whole. His summary is very helpful.

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