Islamic(ate) Studies at UChicago

Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in the Islamicate Studies Symposium at the University of Chicago in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Marshall Hodgson‘s The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization.  Hodgson studied at UChicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and taught there until his early death in 1968.  The Venture of Islam was developed by Hodgson as an undergraduate textbook for the “Islamic Civilization” course he developed, and was posthumously published by the University of Chicago press.  The conference was organized by Shiraz Hajiani and Mick Bechtel, two graduate students at UChicago, and it brought together scholars from various stages in their careers to reflect on Hodgson’s place in the field and where the field is going.  Most of those invited had personal connections to UChicago, although some (such as I) were outsiders.  I am very grateful to the organizers for extending an invitation to me.

The Venture of Islam is still the reigning synthesis in Islamic history, although the majority of those present indicated that it is too difficult to use directly in most undergraduate instruction.  The genre of an undergraduate textbook forced Hodgson to synthesize more than most scholars do in their research, and his interest in world history led him to explain developments within “Islamdom” (states ruled by Muslims) in the context of developments across Afro-Eurasia as a whole.  Very few scholars have even attempted Hodgson’s breadth of vision.  This ensures that The Venture is still one of the most important books in Islamic Studies today.

In large part the difficulty of using the work for undergraduate teaching stems from Hodgson’s deployment of precise neologisms (such as “Islamicate” for secular features of Muslims’ society – reserving “Islamic” for the religion – and “Nile-to-Oxus region” instead of the “Middle East” which presumes a European vantage point).  Most of the first hundred pages of the first volume are occupied by terminological prolegomena.  As a result, some of the discussion at the conference necessarily reviewed the utility of Hodgson’s inelegant terminology, and whether better options exist.

The most interesting thing I learned at the conference (in addition to meeting many friendly colleagues) is that the UChicago which developed “Islamic Civilization” as a course was encouraging teachers to focus on the “eternal wisdom” of various cultures, which explains the word “conscience” in the work’s subtitle.  Indeed, while most historians today latch onto the Islamic/Islamicate distinction in order to engage with the secular side of the society, Hodgson himself seemed to view “Islamicate” phenomena as messy details which could be bracketed off to view the core message of Islam.  This explains why economic and social developments play a very small role of Hodgson’s story, in favor of elite developments among rulers and (Muslim) religious leaders.

Most scholars appreciate Hodgson’s precision, and update some of his models, but reject his terminology.  On the whole, Islamic historians resign themselves to the European vantage point of the “Middle East.”  They also replace “Islamicate” with “Muslim,” despite the fact that the last term excludes the non-Muslims (Jews, Christians, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Yezidis, etc.) which Hodgson identified as a portion of the society ruled by Muslims.  Indeed, the presence of non-Muslims in societies ruled by Muslims is not contentious among Islamic historians, nor is the fact that those non-Muslims remained the majority of the population for centuries, nor is the fact that non-Muslims occupied prominent governmental and cultural positions.  (Precisely when Muslims became a demographic majority anywhere is unclear.)  Yet most Islamic historians exclude non-Muslims from their studies, either because they consider them causally insignificant, or inaccessible from the sources, or simply excluded by the rubric which designates the field as Islamic history.

This last point is my only disappointment with the conference.  The conference description included discussion of the scope of the field, yet the other vocal participants seemed entirely comfortable with the existing rubric of Islamic studies.  Many participants of the conference reminded us, correctly, that Islam is more than the Middle East.  Yet the framework of Islamic studies blinds scholars to the ways in which Islam is also less than the Middle East, in all periods.  Gathering all of the states ruled by Muslims into a single field results in the arbitrary unification of many diverse societies, with different structures and varying majority religions.  Such a designation also has the surprising effect that when states ruled by Muslims are conquered by non-Muslims (by forces as diverse as the Byzantine Empire, the Crusaders, the Mongols, or the British in India), then the field of Islamic studies silently excludes them, perhaps to regain those same territories later when they are again ruled by Muslims (as is the case in northern Syria, Palestine, Iran, and Pakistan).

It is possible to have our cake and eat it too, by using multiple alternate frameworks simultaneously.  The rubric of Islamic studies will suggest certain comparisons with Muslims of other times and places, while the framework of Middle Eastern history would enable scholars to understand the dynamics of a whole society, with all of its diversity.  Linguistic lenses would call attention to the use of Arabic and Persian not only by Muslims but also by non-Muslims, and texts circulated across religious boundaries in the medieval and modern Middle East.  (For example, a Muslim Arabic history refers to a Christian Arabic refutation of the 13th C Jewish Arabic treatise on prophethood by Sa’d Ibn Kammuna, who concluded that Judaism was superior to Christianity and Islam.)  The notionally distinct fields of Islamic Studies, Arabic or Persian Studies, and Middle Eastern history will often speak of the same people, the same events, the same phenomena, but they will situate them in terms of different contexts and different comparanda.  The multiplicity of viewpoints generated by such an approach is the only way to grapple with a multi-faceted past.

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