New Meanings, Old Words: Muslim Reading Practices across Time and Space

AHA Session 228
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Morgan Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Joel Blecher, Washington and Lee University
Manan Ahmed Asif, Columbia University

Session Abstract

Explaining change has always been the strength of the historical discipline, but for recent historians of the Islamic past, accounting for continuity has been particularly fraught. While 19th- and early 20th-century Orientalists often emphasized the stable Islamic underpinnings of Middle Eastern societies, post-WWII critiques of the field took issue with civilizational approaches that produced an “Orient” both homogenous and unchanging. And yet, since the flowering of the Islamic sciences in the 8th and 9th centuries, Muslim scholars have seen themselves as engaged in a tradition characterized not only by geographical breadth, but by chronological depth. Despite the many political and social ruptures of their times and places, Muslim scholars nevertheless were heirs to a learned culture in which a kind of continuity across time and space was constructed, maintained and even taken for granted.

This panel aims to bring together a range of focused and synchronic case studies in post-classical periods to shed light on how Muslim scholars read and responded to the written tradition, within the freedoms and constraints of their day to day environs, study circles and libraries, as well as the freedoms and constraints of their interpretive traditions over the longue durée. From the case of post-Umayyad Andalusia, to Mamluk Syria, to Ottoman Anatolia, panelists will explore the influence of local spaces, times and materials of live reading and writing culture on the interpretation of a discursive tradition that linked generations across far-flung locations, and vice versa.

The first panelist analyzes a transregional furor over Muhammad’s epistemological status that began as a simple grammatical question posed at a public reading  in 11th-century Andalusia. It shows how live readings served as political forums in which legal and theological commitments could be upheld, debated and sometimes subverted. Our second panelist moves our discussion eastward and forward in time to 13th-century Damascus. Observing that many codices from the period combined works by multiple authors, this study suggests that multiple-text manuscripts were combined through a conscious effort to serve the needs of audiences, increasing accessibility and giving new meanings to old words. Our final presentation carries our conversation of Muslim reading practices to 16th-century Ottoman Anatolia, showing how the informal gatherings of scholars shaped both the production and the reception of the Ottoman scholarly canon.

The respondent will relate these three cases to larger thematic discussions within the history of reading, reflecting on the interactions between text, space and narrative. By the panel’s close, we hope to have shown that reading reflected more than a mere transmission of information, but a series of historically and socially contingent choices that attempted to satisfy both the complex needs of the textual traditions and the equally complex needs of present audiences. We also aim to inaugurate a larger discussion on Islamic reading practices across regional, chronological and disciplinary boundaries, and to pave the way for a set of published studies on post-classical reading practices with special attention to the times and spaces in which they emerged.

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