The Cultures of Distance in Islamic History

AHA Session 24
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 2
Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Sutton South (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Ismail Alatas, University of Michigan
The Audience

Session Abstract

Our session seeks to reorient historical and anthropological reflections on the history of “Islam” through the methodological prism of distance. Our essays and talks engage a wide but interconnected set of questions from the medieval, early modern, and modern epochs, and we offer insights from the Middle East and North Africa to South and Southeast Asia. In the spirit of interdisciplinary exchange, we mine the theme of “distance” as both empirical artifact and theoretical conceit. We look at how distance was experienced, maintained, negotiated, and ultimately, overcome in different Islamic societies and contexts. We thus deliberate on the fields of intellectual history and the traditions of cartographic distance in the medieval Maghreb; the cadences of long-distance gift economies that connected pilgrim circuits in late Mughal India to the Ottoman Hijaz; and Sufi epistolary circulations as what negotiated different modalities of distance in nineteenth-century Java. Bridging disparate geographies and forms of historical inquiry, we are broadly concerned with positing new questions to the expanding fields of “global” Islamic history and its interplay with vernacular cultures. And while we recognize the importance of a still-growing conversation on Islam as a “world-historical” religion, our collective contention is that historians and ethnographers should confront the very grounds of this debate, and come to terms with the visible and subtle spans of distance, depth, and difference that historically conjoined the worlds of “ecumenical” Islam.

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