The 2001-2002 Sawyer Seminar at the University of Chicago

From Medieval to Modern

in the Islamic World

Sponsored by the Andrew Mellon Foundation


In a traditional narrative still reified in the broad expanse of Islamicist and Europeanist literature, both modernity and its preludes are effectively denied to the central lands of the Islamic world -- the expanse stretching from India and Central Asia on the east to the Balkans and North Africa on the west -- until after Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. In the dominant account, which informs twentieth-century Muslim historical sensibilities as much as it does Western Orientalism, "modernity" IS the technicalist, imperialist West, here beginning that increasingly physical assertion of its intellectual, social, and economic superiority that would end in outright colonialism and its aftermath. Islam, as both religion and civilizational identifier, was grudgingly accorded a remote affinity with the post-Enlightenment Christian West by being labeled "medieval"-although its Middle Ages were extended to the beginning of the nineteenth century or, in modern media coverage of such events as the Islamic Revolution of Iran, until the late twentieth century.

The triumphalist eurocentrism of this framework might appear risible, or at least questionable, in this era of globablization and multiculturalism, but its impact has been profound. Despite particular or individual challenges to its validity, the traditional trajectory of an Islamic civilization, the high-culture languages of which were Arabic and, latterly, Persian, remains largely intact: It was established in the seventh and eighth centuries, blossomed in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh, and in the twelfth and thirteenth finally succumbed (and lost its creative vigor) in the face of political fragmentation and the incursion of powerful aliens, most notably the non-Muslim Mongols, who in 1258 captured Baghdad and put an end to the theoretically still-universal Abbasid caliphate that bound Islamdom together. To caricaturize only very slightly, at least until, and even after, the definitive establishment in the sixteenth century of the regional Muslim empires (those of the Ottomans of the Balkans, Anatolia, Middle East, and North Africa; the Safavids of Iran; the Jengiz Khanid Uzbeks of Central Asia; and the Timurid Mughals of India), Islamic cultural and intellectual life slept, stagnated, or decayed under the rule of largely Turcophone pastoralist military elites, capable at best of imitation or preservation, certainly not of creation, until the new West overthrew "tradition" and brought inescapable new challenges. To be sure, an "East" that was largely and, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, politically entirely Muslim, had by way of translation into Arabic and some elaboration preserved the antique legacy the rediscovery of which would ultimately make the West the West, in a modernity that would leave the East in its medievalism.

These historiographical binomialisms, institutionalized and universalized in the age of the modern nation state, divide shared histories into true and false, modernizing and traditional, those to be taken seriously and those that may be summarized (sometimes under an essentialized civilizational rubric); and their impact-cultural, political, and psychological-on our own world has been profound, and often violent. This is most particularly the case for the history of Islamic lands which until the nineteenth or, in the Ottoman case, twentieth centuries were largely ruled by the imperial regimes in question here. The last decades of the twentieth century provide abundant, and tragic, examples of the implications of the narrative of East versus West, most recently and perniciously epitomized in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. It was this language that lay at the center of the Serbian rhetoric that proclaimed the Muslim presence in "Europe" (the direct legacy of an imperial order suddenly forgotten or denied) unnatural and dangerous. It was equally responsible for the acquiescence of the Western powers to genocide, particularly in the case of a Britain and France that were increasingly uncomfortable with the growth of internal Muslim populations that are the legacy of colonial adventure. It was that same language of civilizational integrity that informed Ayatullah Khomeini's Islamist challenge to a "decadent" West, as the Orientalist vision of a monolithic, unchanging, medieval Islam was turned back on its authors.

Islamic history, especially that of the regional empires, is a highly charged ground, both in the Western academy and in Muslim lands. In a West that is itself an invention of the eighteenth century, Islamic imperial histories have been deemed irrelevant to real history because we triumphed, and this decision has been enshrined in university curricula. The decision even to teach Islamic or Middle Eastern history (and if so, who should do it) has often been politically fraught for reasons of policy and public perception that need no elaboration, and they are effectively institutionalized as two histories: "Medieval" and "Modern," the latter usually qualified by "The Impact of the West." The corollary is that Western and Eastern Islamic history have always been culturally and (except in cases of armed conflict) spatially distinct from one another, although this is hardly a historically sustainable position. As practitioners and cultural intermediaries, Islamicists inhabit a charged, contested ground that has everything to do with the politics of knowledge and power. In old imperial lands the effect of an absorbed eurocentrism is multiplied. Imperial histories are inherently corrupt because 1) the empires "fell" before the West, and 2) they failed to produce the (ethnically or linguistically) pure nation state. So, for example, throughout the Balkans and Arab lands, four hundred years of Ottoman rule is dismissed as a dark age of alien occupation that prevented the nation from following the natural path to modernity; solace and national origins can only be located in a remote medieval glory. In the case of the modern Republic of Turkey, the imperial past has been nearly annihilated, proscribed except for the most controlled of political use, Ottoman failure being linked both to the pluralism that was the essence of the Empire and to the "alien, unmodern" Islamic confession of the ruling elite.

Thirty years ago Marshall Hodgson's three-volume The Venture of Islam, an outgrowth of his Islamic Civilization sequence at the University of Chicago, finally offered the first, masterful and sympathetic, frontal assault on the Westernist narrative of Islamic history, incorporating extraordinary comparative essays on cultural patterning in the European West and Islamic East, and on the exceptionality, from a world-historical perspective, of Western technicalism. But in the intervening three decades, Hodgson's vision has hardly been taken up seriously, and his comprehensive work has not been superseded, despite the particular weaknesses that are a function of his own medieval (i.e., twelfth-thirteenth-century) specialization. Chief among these weaknesses is the empirically sketchy, uncharacteristically unsympathetic treatment accorded precisely that transitional period (which he rightly terms "the age of nomad prestige") between the founding of the Mongol world empire and the definitive establishment of the regional "gunpowder" empires that were so striking and central a part of the early modern world. Hodgson is hardly to be blamed, for the period has been little studied, dismissed as confused, decadent, even "inauthentic," and so the secondary literature available to him was limited, to say the least. Furthermore, the assumption that it was primarily the adoption of firearm technology (the descriptor "Gunpowder Empires" has passed into the world-history lexicon) that made possible the growth of centralizing states no longer dependent upon pastoralist manpower itself invokes a technicalist explanation for global history that ignores, or masks, the cultural corollaries of modernity that are at least as important as material factors.

The paradigm of "decline and decay," then, effectively denies five centuries of history that were critical to the formation of what has been understood as modernity, within which assumptions of nearly primordial civilizational identity and integrity have become fundamental. For example, from the traditional "Western Civilization" perspective, while the role of the Ottoman Empire as a primary actor in "European" political history until the early twentieth century might be backhandedly acknowledged, the fact that western Christian theoreticians of politics from the time of Machiavelli until the late eighteenth century regularly cited the Empire as one of the great models of social and political organization is lost. And from the perspective of modern proponents of a notion of "Islamic Civilization" that is a counterpoint (most especially in its "creative, florescent" medieval phase) to Western Civilization, the five centuries of Ottoman rule over Southeastern Europe and much of the Middle East (defined in contemporary geopolitical terms) becomes a puzzling, alien, decadent interlude, both admirable and suspect in its "Europeanness" and "Islamicness," for moderns of all ethnic and communal stripes.

We propose a year-long seminar that would focus on Islamic lands 1300-1600, corresponding to the transition from High Middle Ages to Early Modernity in the Europeanist chronology. While the issues we raise have been discussed between individual scholars it is time that they were taken up in the more concentrated, pointed fashion made possible by the Sawyer program, precisely because 1) the relatively small number of specialists in this period of Islamic history are scattered across a wide range of institutions, and 2) the seminar mandates the sort of sustained interaction across disciplinary and cultural boundaries that the project envisions and requires, particularly in the uniting of Islamicists and Europeanists.

The most basic, but by no means sole, goal of the undertaking is simply to take stock of the state of an historiographically underdeveloped but crucial segment of the intellectual, cultural, and social history of the history of lands stretching from Central Asia to North Africa, discern its lineaments, and persistently pose the questions: How did those strikingly new, differentiated, articulated formations, the early modern regional Islamic empires, emerge from the common Turco-Mongol matrix that dominated Islamdom for more than two centuries? What was the nature and content, hitherto largely unexamined, of Muslim intellectual and cultural endeavor that ultimately contributed centrally to the emergence of these new formations, themselves, each in a slightly different way, a resolution of the clash between pastoralist Turco-Mongol and sedentary Islamic political and cultural ideals?

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Autumn 2001
Islamdom 1300-1600: State of Knowledge and Issues

We seek an understanding of the history of Islamic lands in broader terms than those afforded by the narratives of either rise and decline or of the "great man/thinker," so that the interaction between political culture, social structures, and intellectual and cultural production can be re-imagined more accurately. In this first phase of the project, then, topics of particular focus would include: Science, astrology and their political meaning; the conflict between pastoralist and Muslim legal and social norms; the creation of esotericist knowledge, its dissemination, and public functions; the popularization and organization of mysticism, and the development of radical pieties; encyclopaedism and the reorganization of knowledge; the role of apocalyptic thought and millenarianism in the formation of new political and social ventures.

Winter 2002
The Formation of Regional Empire

The project is inherently and explicitly comparative. In the second phase of the seminar, we wish to examine the formation of the new regionalized empires in relationship to one another, both as a counterpoint to eurocentrism and as a development in certain respects parallel to the emergence of an expansive Europe in the sixteenth century. At the very least, we propose to compare the different ways in which a common Persianate political and religious culture was articulated in the distinctive contexts of the regional Muslim empires. For example, one singular feature of commonality in the legitimation of incipient dynastic traditions (and an important point of comparison to the European case) was the subordination of religious institutions to the interests of state through explicit sanctification of the ruler. We would therefore ask how the expansion of organized mysticism in the preceding centuries contributed to the naturalization of divine kingship, and how such sanctification was effected in demographic contexts that were primarily Muslim (Safavid Iran, Uzbek Central Asia) and largely non-Muslim (Ottoman Empire, Mughal India). Other critical topics include the emergence of new literary vernaculars (Ottoman Turkish, Chagatay Turkish, Urdu), the formation of new bureaucratic cultures, the expansion of literacy and florescence of historical writing, and establishment of new cultural as well as political boundaries. To cite but one example that suggests the magnitude of the transformations effected, in the mid-fifteenth century the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople asserted the grandeur of his imperial court by importing both Italian Humanists and Muslim scholars from Iran and Central Asia, and the confessional identity of members of the ruling elite was at once diverse and ambiguous. A century later his successors presided over an extensive, and entirely internal and self-sufficient, educational system assertive of its Sunni Muslim identity, and significant cultural intercourse with Iran was severely restricted as a result of the Safavid imposition of Shi`ism as state religion. One large question to be asked, then, is how the open and fluid world of the fifteenth century became the much more internally bounded one of the seventeenth.

Spring 2002
Islamdom and Christianity: From Medieval to Early Modern

In the third segment of the seminar it is Christian Europe that constitutes the pole of comparison. The point of the exercise is not to assimilate Islamdom to a "European" standard -- the idea of united, distinctive Europe is a posterior creation, belied by its diversity and fragmentation in both early modern and modern periods -- but rather to observe that there are important comparisons to be made between European and Islamic contexts (not, for this period, to be wholly distinguished from one another) that have implications for our proposition that the development of modernity is not to be understood as a solely Western phenomenon. The period in question is one in which, at a world-historical level, Muslim rather than Christian power was in the ascendant. It is also one in which, for both Muslim East and Christian West, history in fact became "global" under the technological conditions permitted, a fact to which the explicitly millenialist Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry for universal hegemony in the sixteenth century bears witness. At the broadest level, we wish to examine certain striking parallelisms and interactions between the two zones, which at this point very much interpenetrating: The fragmentation of religious institutions, the formation of new confessions, interconfessionalism, the rediscovery of antique wisdom, the rise of vernacular languages and literatures, the passage from universal to more particularized and regionalized political ideals, and the reconfiguration of the relationship between religion and state such that the emergence of "national" or regional monarchie -- and ultimately secularisms -- became possible.

In a more nuanced vein, of course, conflict, difference, and cognizance of distinction as well as similarity are equally important to a comparative project. For example, the image of a politically and culturally unified, successful, and threatening Islam (in the medieval view Islam was, far from being wholly alien, seen as a Christian heresy) was certainly a crucial element in the formation of an (internally incoherent) notion of European unity and identity. And it is equally the case that in our own time the Muslim sense of distinctiveness, and of the monolithic and primordial character of Islam, arises directly from, and in reaction to, that demarcation of "East" and "West." While taking seriously the possibility that there are fundamental characteristics that distinguish the medieval from the early modern periods, we wish to explore the proposition, not only that these features are as much a part of the Islamic landscape as of the western European one, but also that these several early modernities were mutually informing, part of a more global development.

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