Scholars


Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today

by Talal Asad, Critical Inquiry

I have used the term “tradition” in my writings in two ways: first, as a theoretical location for raising questions about authority, time, language use, and embodiment; and second, as an empirical arrangement in which discursivity and materiality are connected through the minutiae of everyday living.[1] The discursive aspect of tradition is primarily a matter of linguistic acts passed down the generations as part of a form of life, a process in which one learns/relearns “how to do things with words,” sometimes reflectively and sometimes unthinkingly, and learns/relearns how to comport one’s body and how to feel in particular contexts. Embodied practices help in the acquisition of aptitudes, sensibilities, and propensities through repetition until such time as the language guiding practice becomes redundant. Through such practices one can change oneself—one’s physical being, one’s emotions, one’s language, one’s predispositions, as well as one’s environment. Tradition stands opposed both to empiricist theories of knowledge and relativist theories of justice. By this I mean first and foremost that tradition stresses embodied, critical learning rather than abstract theorization. Empiricist theories of knowledge assert the centrality of sensory experience and evidence, but in doing so they ignore the prior conceptualization carried by tradition. My sensory experience is incommensurable with yours. It is only through language (integral to a shared form of life), and the conceptualization that language makes possible, that we can develop argument and knowledge as collective processes. Critique is central to a living tradition; it is essential to how its followers assess the relevance of the past for the present, and the present for the future. It is also essential for understanding the nature of circumstance, and therefore the possibility of changing elements of circumstances that are changeable. Relativist theories of justice assert that “justice” is simply the name for the norms that actually guide and regulate a people’s form of life. And yet what other people consider to be justice is part of the circumstance that confront the followers of every living tradition. As such it constitutes a challenge to every critical tradition, an invitation to change contingent aspects of one’s tradition, or of the circumstances in which it is embedded, or both. This is not a challenge of abstract theories but of embodied (and yet criticizable) ways of life.

For the rest of this article, click here.


Johann Gottfried Wetzstein (1815 – 1905)

by Christoph Rauch, H-Net

Arabic manuscripts and Oriental studies: Symposium on the occasion of the 200th birthday of Johann Gottfried Wetzstein.

The international symposium “Studies on Johann Gottfried Wetzstein (1815-1905): Manuscripts, Politics and Oriental Studies” will be held at Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin from 19th to 21st February 2015. (Venue: Potsdamer Strasse 33, 10785 Berlin)

The symposium will be inaugurated Thursday, 19th February 2015, 6:00 PM with a keynote lecture by François Déroche (Paris): “The Qur’anic collections acquired by Wetzstein”; and a musical-literary program by Claudia Ott and her ensemble. Furthermore, some original documents and manuscripts related to Wetzstein will be exhibited at the opening.

If you plan to attend the conference please register before 31st January at the secretary of the Oriental Department, Mrs. Muenchow, orientabt@sbb.spk-berlin.de.

The symposium is generously supported by the Fritz Thyssen-Stiftung and the Verein der Freunde der Staatsbibliothek e.V.; and is organized in cooperation with the Oriental Institute of Leipzig University.

Here is the list of contributions in alphabetical order:

Ibrahim Akel (Paris), Wetzstein in Arabic sources and remarks on some manuscripts from his collections

Kaoukab Chebaro and Samar El Mikati El Kaissi (Beirut), Manuscript ownership and readership at the American University of Beirut at the turn of the 20th century

Alba Fedeli (Cambridge), Tischendorf and the Mingana Collection: Manuscript acquisition and Qur’ānic Studies

Ludmilla Hanisch (Berlin), Semitic studies at the University of Berlin during Wetzstein’s lifetime.

Michaela Hoffmann-Ruf (Bonn), The Wetzstein collection at Tuebingen University Library – its history, its content and its reception in Oriental Studies

Ingeborg Huhn (Berlin), Some remarks concerning the official correspondence of Johann Gottfried Wetzstein

Robert Irwin (London), The Arabist and Consul in Damascus Sir Richard Burton and the problematic nature of his translation of The Thousand and One Nights
(more…)

One of the most original and intriguing scholars of the Islamic era in recent times is Patricia Crone, who has been at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton since 1997 and is now emeriti. Her, co-authored with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977) brought in a fresh and controversial angle to what had been a rather staid academic subject. She is currently battling cancer and a film is being made about this battle by her sister, a professional documentary maker. To find out more about this film, and how can you support it, click here.

Bruce Lawrence has written an interesting reflective essay on the work of Marshall Hodgson for the online Marginalia page of the Los Angeles Review of Books. I attach the start of the essay here.

Marshall Hodgson was both a genius and a visionary. While he may have seemed to be just another university professor, at once restless, innovative, and genial, he was also an academic Übermensch with a global agenda. He wanted to change the world by changing the way we saw, understood, and engaged Islam within world history. Born in 1922, he was drafted but as a Quaker refused to fight in World War II. After serving five years in detention camp, he returned to school, graduating from the University of Chicago with a PhD in the early 1950s. He had been teaching from the notes that became The Venture of Islam for over a decade before his demise in 1968. Forty-six years after his death, and 40 years since the posthumous publication of his magnum opus, his legacy remains puzzling. Was he ahead of his time, or has he been overtaken by the Cold War and its aftermath, including the horror of 9/11, along with its own, persistent aftermath?

Hodgson was informed, above all, by a moral vision of world history. He thought that Islam mattered because it righted the intellectually wrong yet emotively triumphalist notions of Eurocentric domination in world history. Hodgson began by expanding the backdrop for Islam to include the emergence of all historically documented societies. He stressed the formative features of world civilization dating from 3 millennia before the Common Era. By 1500 BCE, there had emerged four core cultural areas: Mediterranean, Nile-to-Oxus, Indian, and Chinese. It was two rivers, the Nile to the south and Oxus to the north, which provided the map markers etching the core area of what became Islamicate civilization. There was no Middle East or Near East, since in each case these qualifiers presumed an absent center: middle to where? near from where? east of where? Instead, it was these two major waterways, the Nile and the Oxus, which framed major developments characterizing the earliest three phases of Islamicate civilization. They are best viewed in alliterative or assonant pairs. (more…)

There is a very good Youtube video of interviews with a hundred British imams about the problems with ISIS and how it is doing damage to Islam, especially in Britain. It is well worth seeing. The video was posted on July 11, 2014.

The Egyptian intellectual Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 67, made a major contribution to the study of the Qur’an and other important aspects of Islam, for which he was branded an apostate in Egypt. For a summary of his life with links to videos and major works, check out the page on him in the series of “A Profile from the Archives” on al-Jadaliyya. For a film on his thinking, Youtube has the Lebanese film في إنتظار أبو زيد .

[Here is an interesting article on The Daily Beast by Clive Irving on the role of Gertrude Bell in creating modern Iraq…]

The story of the British intelligence agent who rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, drew new borders—and gave us today’s ungovernable country.

She came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20 years.

It was a hundred years ago, a few months before the outbreak of World War I. Baghdad was under a regime loyal to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish authorities in Constantinople had reluctantly given the persistent woman permission to embark on her desert odyssey, believing her to be an archaeologist and Arab scholar, as well as being a species of lunatic English explorer that they had seen before.

(more…)

Here is a short review of an exciting new book:

Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 University of Chicago, 2013.

by Carla Nappi on May 23, 2014, New Books in Science, Technology and Society

The work of Charles Darwin, together with the writing of associated scholars of society and its organs and organisms, had a particularly global reach in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Marwa Elshakry’s new book offers a fascinating window into the ways that this work was read and rendered in modern Arabic-language contexts. Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 (University of Chicago Press, 2013) invites us into a late nineteenth-century moment when the notions of “science” and “civilization” mutually transformed one another, and offers a thoughtful and nuanced account of the ways that this played out for scholars working and writing in Syria and Egypt. The early chapters of Elshakry’s book focus on the central role played by popular science journals like Al-Muqtataf (The Digest) in translating and disseminating Darwin’s ideas. We meet Ya’qub Sarruf & Faris Nimr, young teachers at the Syrian Protestant College who were instrumental in translating scientific works into Arabic there and, later, in Egypt. An entire chapter looks closely at Isma’il Mazhar’s work producing the first verbatim translation of Darwin’s Origin of Species into Arabic, but the book also looks well beyond Darwin to consider broader Arabic discourses on the relationship between science and society, as those discourses were shaped by engagements with the work of Herbert Spencer, Ludwig Büchner, and many others. Elshakry pays special attention to the ways that this story is embedded in the histories of print culture, the politics of empire, and debates over educational reform, materialism, and socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and concludes with a consideration of the continuing reverberations of these issues into late twentieth century Egypt and beyond. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the entanglements of science, translation, and empire in the modern world, and it will change the way we understand the place of Arabic interlocutors in the history of modern science.

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