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The Legacy of Muslim Societies in Global Modernity | 3. Panel 1: Recent Historiography on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires
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3. Panel 1: Recent Historiography on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires

Cemal Kafadar, Harvard University

Rajeev Kinra, Northwestern University

Kathryn Babayan, University of Michigan

Cemal Kafadar Presentation Summary

Prof. Kafadar took note of the many paradigm shifts of recent decades of which the historiography of our region is only one. He took note of various factors in international relations such as the post-colonial transformation, the post-Soviet era, and intellectual trends such as post-structuralism within which these paradigm shifts are taking place. Noting the phenomenon of neo-Ottomanism which as taken hold in Turkish studies and even tourism and popular culture, a resurgence and reclaiming of history following a period of downplaying historical studies. I will underline the following interrelated developments. Prof. Kafadar mentioned four areas related to the paradigm shift.

In confronting both the rise and decline narratives, in the past 2-3 decades Ottoman studies scholars have been seeking an alternative narrative framework to the pervasive declinism in analysis of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It is so deeply embedded in the historiography that we can barely escape it, since it forms the dominant mode of thinking about later Ottoman history. We cannot just give up on the task of confronting it. Simplistic as it seems, decline is a highly effective conceptual tool that enables its users to weave together processes in the political, social, and economic spheres together with a set of descriptive terms related to decline, debauchery, and degeneration.

The terminology question of early modernity is another issue within the larger narrative of world history. Should we designate this post-medieval period as early modernity, or as a post-medieval society that needs to be reckoned with on its own terms? The question of early modernity has been reduced to a matter of political correctness like use of the word decline, but the true task of intellectual significance is to develop an understanding of connectedness and interactivity of various spheres of life: politics, everyday practices, etc. If the term “modern” is to be a meaningful concept one has to deal with the inter-connnectedness of multiple spheres to endow it with meaning, or play with other notions with similar function. I have been trying to understand Ottoman early modernity by looking at the connections between various spheres.

There has been the realization in the field that we cannot continue to do Ottoman history without relating it to trans-regional, transnational frameworks. Prof. Kafadar spoke about the “trans-temporal” dimension of Ottoman history, or viewing the three empires within larger temporal frameworks as our world history colleagues do. Prof. Kafadar called this combined shift of frameworks “the de-Turkification,” or de-centering of the narrative that has privileged the linear story of the Turks from Central Asia to Manzikert. That kind of narrative has configured and constrained the historical imagination in Ottoman studies. Diachronically speaking as well, the embeddedness of Ottoman history—the people, institutions, dynamics, practices—in the medieval, Byzantine past is not sufficiently developed. This same set of issues is also relevant to dealing with the Mughals and Safavids and other Muslim societies. We cannot continue to do Ottoman history without considering contemporaneous societies. The development of connected histories takes into account the larger space that the three empires inhabited, from the Danube to Southeast Asia, and everything around them. The trans-regional turn helps us imagine a space filled with consumer goods and other sorts of linkages [in the early modern period and before], and helps us to back away from merely comparative history in favor of something more meaningful and substantive. Ottoman historians still suffer from something of a stiff neck, with their gaze directed mostly toward Europe, while looking in other directions still requires much more effort. Prof. Kafadar mentioned in this connection his own research on the history of coffeehouses, and the colonization of the nighttime in terms of its broader social and political implications, and common aspects of coffeehouses as part of global consumption patterns and their effects in the political and social spheres. Coffee is only one of the commodities that has a global story that informs the development of the modern world.

Prof. Kafadar further addressed de-centering the ethnicizing narrative, or de-Turkification of Ottoman history. He stressed that Byzantine and Ottoman history are intertwined, and are not “owned” by either Turks or Greeks, but should be pursued within the humanities to bring together the legacies in which each group participated. In addition, setting Ottoman history into a trans-regional frame would include non-Turkish peoples of the former Ottoman world, an effort that is beginning to take place, putting aside self-definition, stories of victimization, and triumphalist narratives alike. The historiography of the Safavid and Mughal empires would also benefit from a similar effort related to getting away from essentialization of ethnic, linguistic identities, especially the Turkish and Iranian.

Rajeev Kinra Presentation Summary

Building upon the drawing of the shaikh with the wine cup in Dr. Farhad’s presentation, Prof. Kinra cited a verse from an eighteenth century Urdu poet that humorously referred to the destruction of the Kaaba, saying it is not the citadel of the heart [of a believer]. Such humor seems incongruous because it doesn’t fit the pervasive narrative of decline in Mughal historiography. According to that narrative, British conquest of the Mughal empire was the only event of importance during that period. Kinra asserted that the decline paradigm is particularly stubborn in Mughal historiography because it is a sub-narrative in the overall narrative of Islamic decline. He described the trajectory of the Mughal history narrative as a parabola, which begins its ascent with Babar arriving in 1526, founding the empire and remaining only four years, followed by Humayun for another brief period, and culminating in the ascension of Akbar, his son, as head of the Mughal empire. Akbar, contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, reigned from 1556 to1605. He is said to have expanded and consolidated the empire, and ruled as an outward looking, religiously tolerant leader. The lionization of Akbar represents the height of the parabola, which descends with the reign of Jahangir, followed by Shah Jahan, whom everyone knows as the builder of monuments (Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Jama Masjid). The historiography has projected backward its judgment of Aurangzeb as an intolerant champion of orthodoxy and the figure of decline, so that Shah Jahan is seen as having been even a precursor of the later ruler’s orthodoxy in contrast to Akbar. With Aurangzeb the parabola drops sharply, and religious strife, invasion, financial overextension combine to open the door to British takeover. This pre-existing narrative ignores the historical evidence that would contradict it. Because it is wrapped between the decline narrative and the modernization narrative of the British period, it has been very durable.

Dr. Kinra related how his work on Mughal history challenges that entrenched narrative. The first is a problem is one of selection in historical research. After independence 1947, historians were interested in social history, economic history, the history of institutions and the history of war. Mughal economic policy was viewed as important, and institutions were more important than the people who in habited them. Kinra’s own work seeks out individuals who depart from this narrative, such as a Punjabi Brahman official at the Mughal court who rose through imperial secretarial ranks to become Chief Secretary under Shah Jahan. This already disturbs the standard narrative. Kinra’s Brahman official also wrote in Persian on topics like Sufism, Persian poetry, and wrote prose chronicles of shah Jahan’s court, and was the author of many letters, which allow insights into his biography. Such individuals have been little studied because they do not fit the paradigm. Nor does it fit into the decline narrative or the concept of impending orthodoxy, since he continued to work as a court secretary until 1660, well into Aurangzeb’s reign. His writings provide insights into the social history of the institutions. Other, similar material from the Mughal era has been little studied by historians, and later literature has also been either neglected or its use has not been showcased.

The second problem is that the entire period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century is not studied at all in Persian literary history, simply because it has been pre-judged as a literature of decline—a situation described in Persian painting by Dr. Farhad—based on a set of ideals as to what it should have been rather than assessing what it was on its own terms. The fact that Indian writers of Persian poetry are considered as lesser lights than indigenous Persian writers has created an embargo on Indian poets, as well as some Iranian, Turkish and Central Asian poets of the time, because they differ from the norm set by earlier scholars of an Ideal Persian poetry. Kinra argues, in contrast, for a period in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of experimentation in modern literary styles in Persian. What twentieth century scholars of literature called Sabka Hindi (Indian style, or decline), was called by contemporaries the “fresh style” in poetry, and later the “imaginative style” in music. It was the product of figures who belonged to newly more mobile groups. This period and this work remains under-acknowledged, under-studied, and under-theorized because it is simply dismissed as the Indian style.

Kinra raised another important issue related to the rupture thesis. Post-colonial scholarship has entrenched the conviction concerning Indian history that anything before the arrival of European colonists is not only uninteresting, but unknowable. European technologies of knowledge systems, and the arrival of these methods among Indian scholars, is so overwhelming that anything earlier is unknowable, and the archives are tainted because it was the colonial state that created the archive. That closing off of the pre-modern—it may be worse in India than elsewhere—creates problems for global intellectual history generally. Kinra provided a powerful example of the missed opportunities inherent in this way of thinking. For example, in the field of comparative philology, William Jones, the pioneering comparative philologist, is known for having discovered the concept of Indo-European languages, drawing a link between Europe and India in ancient times. What is yet to be thoroughly explored is that Jones learned his Sanskrit grammar from a Hindu munshi who happened to be traveling in England, met Jones at Oxford, and taught him from a Mughal work of philology. According to Kinra, Jones based his own grammar of Sanskrit philology on a legacy of Brahmin scholarship in philology and lexicography that was made available to Jones. Jones learned from a Brahman pundit who taught him about Sanskrit lexicology, and all of the Persian literati at the time would have known the works of Siraj al-din Ali Khan Arzu, one of the most celebrated intellectuals of India at the time, a man of tremendous philological skill who composed profound works of scholarship. Beyond simply compiling lists of words, Arzu was and claimed to be a scholar using methodologies that were more modern than anyone else, including European philologists. Arzu, apparently anticipated Jones’ discovery regarding common linguistic roots. Even more, noted Kinfa, Arzu himself was building on centuries of philological scholarship in Iran, Central Asia, and India. How does one write such a narrative of philology in the Indo-Persian world back into global intellectual history. It is a challenge that may be met in many other areas as well.

Finally, the last paradigmatic problem related to Indian historiography is that India is a special case because Islam in explicitly foregrounded as a problem in a way that is not true in other places. Among certain radical elements in modern India, Islam is viewed as a tumor that needs to be excised from the Hindu and larger Indian body politic. This magnifies the need for paradigm and methodological shifts noted above.

Kathryn Babayan Presentation Summary

Safavi historiography has traditionally been studied through binary lenses of the rise and decline of empire, though the last two decades have marked a critical reevaluation of such staid tropes of study. After the second half of the 17th century, the story goes, decline sets in once the great Shah Abbas I reconfigured Isfahan into a worldly capital (naqsh-I jahan), as he planned out his city and the political economy of his imperium, building a bridge into the Armenian quarters and from there into the world. After him, every other shah was either a drunkard or an opium addict. Debauched kings were seen as the main cause for the Shi’I clergy taking over state affairs, with the help of the Ghulams, or slave soldiers of Georgian and Armenian origins. The paradigm of decline addressed imperial technologies of power, and issues surrounding military and political institutions. In this historiography, the focus has been heavily laid on the palace and seldom on what took place elsewhere in society.

Dr. Babayan described her own intervention in the field as stemming from her interest in hearing voices from below and beyond the court. Inspired by historiographies that emerged as a result of the 1960 experiences of the Civil Rights movement, the Gay Rights movement, Marxist and anti-colonial struggles that allowed for the hearing of other kinds of voices and the writing of other kinds of stories. I was fortunate to be at Princeton when Natalie Zemon Davis was writing about Martin Guerre; her work opened ways of imagining and speculation about the past, just as Cemal Kafadar was seeking ways to get away from the insular history of empires, as he has spoken about earlier in this conference.

Dr. Babayan described two important scholarly moves in the field of Safavi studies: opening up sources outside of chronicles, bringing in poetry, art, and epics for the writing of history, and looking at these sources as cultural production that reveal the historical moments of their creation. In addition to stimulating different ways of reading, the linguistic turn allowed for the gender to inform the discipline of history. She discussed her work on the waning of the Qizilbash that tried to understand popular religiosity of the so called ‘extremists’ on their own terms, as legitimate voices and expressions of Muslim piety, and as valuable subjects of academic inquiry that radically alter our understanding of the Islamic past and complicate/question our textual and Orientalist readings of Islamdom.

Accordingly, her approach depends as much on ‘official’ writings and court produced literature as it does on sources that are often classified – and neglected – as belonging to oral or popular culture (epics and poetry). Taken together, these methods enabled a radical rethinking of the relationship between power and culture, between Safavi sovereignty, Qizilbash devotion and Shi’i Islam. Thus, claims of political power became inseparable from claims of saintly status, giving rise to a long enduring pattern of messianic kingship.

Sources related to magic and the occult sciences such as alchemy, geomancy, astrology, and objects such as talismans experienced similar neglect. Magic and the occult sciences were facts of life in Muslim societies, and pre-dated Islam in those regions by millennia. The longe duree of these practices has been a key factor in their exclusion from modern discourse in Islamic history. Such analyses have not been limited to Islamdom’s place in the history of science. A. J. Arberry struck a similar note as the intrusion of magical practices into late medieval Sufism. Early Sufism, he claimed, had been refreshingly free of obscurantism, but now it was decadent, so charms and amulets acquired special significance in the minds of people no longer confident in reason.

The assessment of the strain of irrationality in Islamic science is linked to ideologies of science, based on elevating science from its medieval base to create modern science by the Europeans, leading to political, military and economic hegemony. This was seen as a necessary stage of scientific progress. The West was said to have rejected its own pre-modern instances of the occult, superstition, and magical thinking in favor of Enlightenment rationality. Magic was the most egregious offender in the blending of nature and culture, and belonged only to primitive societies. Magic was a universal aspect of culture and has endured as a topic in anthropology, a case in point. The category of the Early Modern is a product of this kind of discourse in trying to distinguish the modern West from the pre-modern East.

Prof. Babayan discussed two possible trajectories for dealing with this paradigm. Using the concept of connected histories, Babayan foregrounds materiality—looking at objects and manuscripts as actors themselves, as artifacts. She referred to connected histories as reconceptualized by Sanjay Subrahmanyam (see video link at ) To simplify Subrahmanyam’s complex argument: Connected Histories represents as critique of and alternative to comparative histories of Asian and European state formation, which take European developments as the implicit norm and measure of global modernity. The concept refers to the multiple, shared practices – from trade in goods and slaves to journeys of exploration and empire-building – that made Eurasia a zone of interaction and forged linkages between permeable political and cultural entities. In this model, differences in development reside not in a measurable distance or proximity to an abstract set of criteria, but rather in the distinct local manifestations and variations of supra-regional connections and global processes.

Subrahmanyam’s main example, interestingly, stems from the domain of culture rather than economics: millenarian political theology. He discusses how ideological constructs in the service of state formation circulated widely, alongside merchandise and weapons technology, in early modern Eurasia. Muslim and Christian leaders alike believed they were living at the end of time and hence were eager to read the signs correctly and govern accordingly. The political results varied from place to place, often profoundly. Yet elites all over Eurasia shared the same millenarian interest in deciphering the signs and even discussed their interpretations with one another.

Connected histories could also be useful for studying gendered forms of piety in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, traditions with strong parallels whose adherents have interacted in global cities. Babayan’s current work on friendship in Isfahan explores competing masculinities in the early modern world, inspired by Norbert Elias’ charting of a ‘civilizing process’ in early modern Europe through the production and dissemination of pedagogical manuals on proper etiquette, conduct and manners to regulate social behavior and emotional expression. Elias foregrounds the rise of literacy and print making as key phenomena mobilized by confident imperial states to extend their control into the hitherto lightly regulated sites of quotidian religious experience and everyday social intercourse. I challenge Elias’ vantage point, however, by demonstrating that even before print, manuscript-albums were a media of communication that performed similar disciplinary work on the body politic. Moreover, my focus on Iran critically decenters Europe.

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