- Fellowship year:2010-2011
- University: Columbia University
- Dissertation Topic/Category: Middle East
- Dissertation Title: Trajectories of Learning and the Everyday Life of Ideas: Al-Azhar in the Eighteenth Century
A history of the social networks of three leading Islamic scholars that formed in relation to Al-Azhar, the leading intellectual and relgiious institution of Ottoman Egypt. While it is structured around the micro-histories of three connected scholars, Muhammad al-Kashnawi (d. 1741), Muhammad al-Samman (d. 1775), and Murtada al-Zabidi (d. 1791), it is also concerned with the reasons for their enforced isolation in literature. Through a contextualized engagement with selected works from this period, it reassesses the production of the history of non-European settings, and provides an oblique window onto the practices of the institution that connects them to each other and to the larger structures of their mental and material worlds. The dissertation then has a dual, theoretical and empirical, objective: it both interrogates the spatial and temporal configurations framing the historical discipline, and explores regimes of knowledge in an important mosque-seminary cum university, whose history remains conscribed by colonial-nationalist narratives. Rejecting the divide between social and intellectual history, it combines a genealogical method with a micro-historical focus on three eighteenth-century scholars who dispel prevalent conceptual dichotomies (such as Arab/African, center/periphery, orthodox/heterodox, secular/religious, modern/traditional). Methodologically, it also problematizes the relationship between sources and the production of historical narratives. Accordingly, the themes of each of the four chapters are explored through a specific type of document.
A pivotal question of my project is why these connections have escaped analysis for so long. For this, I return to the roots of the historical discipline, its professionalization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the constitution of distinct fields of knowledge production. More specifically, the genealogy brings us back to two spatial and scholarly regimes, ‘Islam’ and ‘Africa.’ According to the traditional Orientalist view in good Hegelian fashion, ‘Islamic civilization,’ considered to have once made a contribution to the Universal Spirit evidenced in written documents from a lost Golden Age, was by the eighteenth century in sustained decline. By symmetry, African cultures, primitive, isolated, and oral, were studied by anthropology. This has a produced a stalwart set of dichotomous concepts and frames that precondition the history of al-Azhar in particular and Islam in African in general. Spatially it reifies culturalist geographies that rely on a strict center-periphery axis (what I call the “lighthouse model,” with Cairo (and al-Azhar) at the center around which faithfully revolves a distinct periphery). Temporally, it charts a linear narrative of rise-greatness-decline leading toward the telos of colonial-nationalist modernity.