Why, and How, History (Sometimes) Matters

I do not generally consider the kinds of history I do, either academically or for the wider public, to be especially ‘political’ (in the ordinary sense of the term at least) nor driven by a concern for activism. My own ideological and philosophical profile has become much more convoluted and much less clear over the years- in part because of the challenges my study of history has presented to many of my earlier presuppositions- and while I do not imagine that some pure ‘objective’ stance exists from which to do history, I do aim at letting the past in all its complexity and heterogeneity guide my own approaches as much as possible.

Of course, the fact that I do not put a great deal of energy into shaping the political profile of my scholarship or its possible political and cultural uses does not mean that my scholarship isn’t politically charged or that it might not make a difference (not necessarily predictable) in a given political or cultural situation. My focus on Islamic history arose in no small part out of the context of post-9/11 America and even more so the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. I hoped that my scholarship, and perhaps also the whole tenor of my life, could act as a corrective, a sort of reparation even, for what my country had done and was doing to people across the Islamic world. That wasn’t my only motivation, to be sure, but it was- and is, in modified and I would like to think somewhat more sophisticated form- a part of why I embarked on the path upon which I still find myself.

The political potency and even importance of the sort of scholarship that I and many others in history, religious studies, and other disciplines do was driven home today with the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch upon Muslims praying the Friday prayers. Last night, before the news had broken about what was happening on the other side of the world from me, I posted the following tweet, a rather casual observation about medieval artistic patterns in Iraq and points north into the Armenian lands:

On the surface this is not an especially ‘political’ observation. Late medieval Armenian art, even to a relatively untrained eye, displays many differences from earlier periods, with many components that appear ‘Islamic,’ even if the exact analogues in non-Armenian art are not always clear. It seems likely to me that the 13th century Maqāmāt painting tradition revealed in the Baghdad manuscript above can be connected to the 15th century Armenian Gospel and similar productions, as part of a shared cultural sphere that extended through the Jazīra into the Armenian lands and west to Syria, a shared sphere that can be seen in many other instances of art and architecture.  ‘Armenian’ culture more broadly, in medieval and early modern periods alike, is marked by creative interaction with, and active integration within, the ‘Islamic’ cultures in which Armenian communities lived, creating a complex cultural world that cannot really be reduced to ‘Armenian’ or ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arabic’ or any other homogeneous-sounding appellation.

What does this have to do with the fascist terrorist in Christchurch? While the mimetic (in more than one sense) culture of online fascism is itself quite complex and notoriously slippery, it is very clear that the terrorist (possibly terrorists) in Christchurch, and their political kin elsewhere, draw upon a very particular ‘narrative’ of history, particularly Islamic history. I hesitate to call it a coherent narrative since it is really more an emotionally-charged bundle of stories, sentiments, memes, and fragments of narratives, images and moods. It does not depend so much on a structured account of history as an overall mood or sentiment, one in which ‘Islam’ is a looming and deadly mass, consuming and leveling all before it. Islam and everything non-Islam are imagined only in terms of conflict and violence and terminal struggle. The Christchurch terrorist emblazoned his weapons with verbal images of some of this imagined history- the Armenian genocide, the fall of Acre- which summon up images of stark conflict, of zero-sum interactions. There is no room in this historical imagination for ‘Islamized’ Armenian Gospels, or, say, the role of Muslim troops in the wars of the British Empire. He did not invent these images, nor did he devise the historical narrative of which they are a part. Rather, they have been put together by various actors, mostly online, and exist in the ethereal space of (mostly) social media. Given the right circumstances and agents, they can have real power, as today’s events reveal.

Which is why, I want to cautiously argue, presenting alternative images, alternative narratives, such as the very sort I suggested- rather offhandedly- on Twitter right on the cusp of the terrorist in Christchurch bringing his own historical narrative to bloody life. Now, the historical narrative I presented has the advantage of being true, or at least inclining towards historical truth, constructed carefully and as the result of much research and analysis. In the online world of meme and image and mood, however, if we’re being honest, the possession of historical truth or something like is not necessarily an advantage. What counts is the degree to which certain moods and imaginaries and narratives can capture people’s attention, structure their sense of what is real and what matters. Good historical scholarship, because it captures historical reality better and more fully and hence more powerfully than the manipulations of fascists or other ideologues for whom history is nothing more than raw material for politics and socio-cultural struggle, can put forward images and narratives and moods that can stand in opposition to the tendentious ones of fascists and others.

In other words, this machine of historical scholarship may not kill fascists, but it can create different emotional and imaginative spaces, one that can neutralize the narratives and emotional spaces that feed fascism (and other ideologies, too, I would add, such as militant ‘Islamism,’ itself a fascist-like tendency). ‘Public history,’ whether that means tweeting, writing books for a wide audience, participating in community events, giving lectures, or whatever, puts the narratives and spaces that arise from scholarship out into the wider world, where they can potentially have very real power. It would be naive, of course, to imagine that historians can somehow by themselves stop the next mosque shooting, or prevent ISIS from re-organizing. These movements and tendencies are multi-causal and complex, like everything in human society. However, I do think that we- self included- as historians, particularly of Islam, have a role to play, that even small things like presenting different images (sometimes quite literally), of making worlds and realities visible that would not otherwise be seen by the wider public, that such things can make a cumulative difference.


Notes On the ‘Why’ of Doing History

In thinking and talking about the work of history as a discipline, I have long enjoyed using the metaphor of ‘inhabiting’ a given past, but it has often occurred to me that I ought to build upon and expand from that metaphor, to develop an argument or an explanation—I am not sure what word works here—for why history matters, how one encounters the past, and what that does in one’s life, work, being. Here are a few thoughts towards that end, essentially my own thinking out loud, for which I ask your indulgence and, perhaps, participation should you feel inclined.

In the work of historical encounter, especially, I think, in the work of encounter with individual and collective lives in the past, one expands one’s own self, you become richer and deeper and are able to see the contingency of the present and the multitude of possibilities inhering in the past and in the flow of human history. There is a sort of loneliness and poverty that afflicts someone whose knowledge begins and ends with his contemporary world, in which the only emotions imaginable, the only configurations of self conceivable, the only moral universe explicable, the only languages comprehensible, are those of one’s own narrowly circumscribed present. What is more, one does not even fully grasp one’s own present: for all of those things—emotions, sense of self, morality, and so on—are expressed in and through us because of the work and being of past worlds. And whatever genealogies extend backwards from our particular presents at some point intersect with or overlap or contrast with other genealogies, other worlds of the past, spread out across this earth. We are now living in a historical moment in which our tools and our manner of life, at least in the post-industrialized nations, allows us an unprecedented ability to delve into the past and to encounter great sweeps and depths of the human experience. At the same time, we are perhaps more than ever in human history constrained by our governing and prevailing ‘inner technics,’ by our ideologies, by our habits of thought from looking beyond the narrow boundaries of the present or of what is familiar and safe.

Yet people long for these sorts of encounters with the past, they long for both the stability of connecting with long traditions and the dynamism and vitality that comes from stepping into streams of time and practice longer and larger than ourselves. Not unlike previous periods in modernity, false encounters with the past, and manipulative iterations of nostalgia and propagandized memory so often end up being the means whereby people try to ground themselves in history or seek encounters with other, past worlds. Such means can range from mostly benign indulgence in nostalgic media or advertising campaigns to recruitment into resurgent authoritarian leftist or rightist movements which promise the recovery of some lost golden age, whether it is one of the power of workers or the unity of the nation. Unsurprisingly the time horizons on such nostalgic endeavors is rarely very deep, the twentieth and nineteenth centuries providing the usual frames of reference, even if colored, on the right, with vague appeals to ‘tradition’ and to deeper pasts.

History by itself is not sufficient to give people a sense of meaning or to ground them in connection with others and with deep pasts and traditions. In some ways the discipline of history runs counter to any political project that would seek to use the past for justification, in fact, for the discipline of history rightly done reveals a dynamic and contingent past, looks at the inner logics and developments of traditions and ways of life. Rather, history offers a space for encountering the past in its complexity and wonder (and, to be sure, terror and darkness), of enriching one’s self through stepping into other worlds and out of one’s own, expanding the bounds of what is imaginable. History erodes the feeling of loneliness and of a crippling ‘autonomy’ by revealing the interconnections and interdependencies that all humans, ourselves included, partake of. We inhabit, for a moment and of course partially (but this is always true for us) the lives of others, encounter their fears and dreams and catch glimpses of how the world looked through their eyes. What we may then do with the knowledge—a knowledge that is, or at least should be, multifaceted and not easily described—so gained is not dictated by the knowledge itself. There is no political program determined by deep encounters with human pasts. Rather, any political program or cultural ambit or whatever else that we may embark on in the here and now ought to be informed by, situated within encounters with and awareness of many human pasts, with persons in the past, an experience and knowledge which may then help lead towards wiser, more human, more emphatic and adroit, actions and policies and works of life.


As a child I would for hours crouch along
The gentle rise of that old refuse pile, its last discarded
Entry from well before the Depression. Rhizomed grass and dropped leaves,
The archivists. I delved gently into the covering soil,
Turned black and loamy with the century past, and worked
Out bits of blue-and-white, medicinal bottles, metal melted back
Into elemental shape, and met the roots
Of the nearby sweetgum piercing the far more ancient sky above.
Beyond the daylilies nodded, following the sun. And so
I began to learn what it is to feel, rough and dark and smooth and giving-way, all,
The traces of the lives of others past, welling, up from the mothering ground.

Too Much Tafsir and Tarikh

The following little story is related in al-Sharazuri’s entry on the famous exegete and  historian al-Tabari. As you could gather from the story, al-Tabari’s two most renowned works were his massive tafsir and his equally massive history (tarikh) of the world, with a particular emphasis upon the parts he knew best, of course (the image above is taken from a later, partially illumined copy of his history). As the humorous story below demonstrates, he could have made both far longer. That, at least, was the perception of later scholars (like al-Sharazuri, who lived hundreds of years after al-Tabari) who had come to see al-Tabari as one of the crowning jewels of Muslim scholarship- though, this story might also insinuate, such an ability might be more than ordinary scholars could handle…


Al-Qadi Abu ‘Umar ‘Ubid Allah ibn Ahmad al-Samsar and Abu al-Qasm ibn ‘Aqil al-Waraq said that once Abu Ja’afar al-Tabari said to his disciples: ‘Are you in the mood for commentary on the Qur’an (atanshatun li-tafsir al-Qur’an)?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ He said: ‘Thirty thousand pages,’ to which they replied: ‘This would use up entire lifetimes before it could be completed!’ So he condensed it to approximately three thousand pages. Then he said to them: ‘How do you feel about a history of the world from the time of Adam up to our own time?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ So he said what he had said about the commentary, and the replied in the same way, to which he said: ‘Good Lord! Ambition is dead.’ So he condensed it in the same fashion as he had condensed the commentary.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah