Prospects for Rethinking Islamic History

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM
Metropolitan Ballroom West (Small) (Sheraton New York)
Shahzad Bashir, Brown University
The modern historiographic method has invented a streamlined, intellectually impoverished, ‘Islamic history’ devoid of the extreme diversity and contention found in the cited sources. This proposition pertains directly to most coverage of the premodern period and has implications for the way historians of the modern period correlate between their subjects and the premodern ‘Islamic’ past. The roots of the problem are traceable to the imperative to create events out of literary descriptions, a general reification of Islam that makes it into an explanation rather than a product of history, and a neglect of discussions regarding matters such as the objectivity and subjectivity of the past, contingency, and presumed multiplicity of temporalities that proliferate in the materials. By highlighting theories regarding the past that are amply present in sources pertaining to Islam, composed by Muslims as well as non-Muslims, we can rethink Islam as an object of history. In this version, ‘Islamic history’ is not tied to a timeline stretching from Muhammad to the present. Rather, it must be the ever-evolving story of discussions about the abstraction ‘Islam’, a term that is endowed with ideological and sociological potency but acquires shape only in the context of localized human circumstances. The objects of this history—material remains, classes, people, ideas—are carriers of varied, often mutually antagonistic and unrecognizable ways of imagining the past. Shunning exclusivism and presumed coherence, this new mode of history is an invitation to reopen the material and literary archive pertaining to Islam to think anew about the relationship between Islam and time.
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