Studying America

One of the central themes of American historiography is that there is no American Empire. Most historians will admit, if pressed, that the United States once had an empire. They then promptly insist that it was given away. But they also speak persistently of America as a World Power.
—William Appleman Williams, 1955

This astute, provocative remark serves as an epigraph to Amy Kaplan’s famous essay “‘Left Alone with America:’ The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture,” which opens the landmark volume Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993), edited by her and Donald Pease. When I came across the article yesterday, I actually didn’t know that it was so important in its own academic field, but was immediately hooked by the quote. As I’ve now learned, Williams himself was a groundbreaking scholar in the 50s and made the case for an imperialist framework towards better understanding American history. But countering his primarily economic analysis, Kaplan called for an attention to culture—both the significance of culture in imperialism, and that of empire to the making of American culture: “Foregrounding imperialism in the study of American cultures shows how putatively domestic conflicts are not simply contained at home but how they both emerge in response to international struggles and spill over national boundaries to be reenacted, challenged, or transformed” (Kaplan, 16).

For a total outsider to the field, I think I’ve had a somewhat ambivalent relationship to American Studies. Oddly, this may have resulted from both unfamiliarity but also a pretty close proximity. On the one hand, I managed to go through college without ever really hearing much about or knowing what entailed American Studies. On the other hand, training to be a historian in the US means being surrounded overwhelmingly by “the Americanists,” as we usually refer to them in grad school. And then there’s the fact that the rest of us often tend to regard this group (i.e. the mainstream!) as almost uninteresting, or at least uninterested in the distant past before America or in the world beyond. Going along with these perceptions are also the grumpy complaints we often make about supposedly having to work more and harder: more languages to learn, more and distant places to travel for research, and so on. All of this, needless to say, is a generalization and therefore unfair by definition.

Sometime ago I began to notice that a lot of research I like and find interesting—such as critical works on race and gender, as well as recent ethnographic studies on immigrant communities—is being done by scholars in the field of American Studies. I then also had the belated realization that American Studies might just be another instance of an area studies discipline, not much unlike Middle Eastern or South Asian Studies. Of course, this apparently simple observation is actually not so at all, when you consider that the very premise of area studies had been the West analyzing the rest. In any case, Kaplan’s essay in particular has gotten me very excited and curious about the kinds of scholarship being produced in American Studies.

Secondly, I’ve been finding myself increasingly enthralled by American historyincluding not just that of the US, but of the Americas at large. This was instigated in part by some stuff I happened to read last spring on early European encounters with the “New World” i.e. Pizarro and the Incas, Cortés and the Aztecs and so on. Equally fascinating is the social world of 17th century New England, as can be gleaned from Mary Rowlandson‘s captivity memoir which was a veritable bestseller in its time (There’s been a really cool recent study trying to recuperate the submerged voices of the Native peoples encountered by Rowlandson, and to remap the indigenous geography that would become sporadically invisible as overlaid by English toponyms). But later history can be just as interesting and complex, as I pondered during a trip to New Orleans last month. The contestation over North America between the French, the Spanish and the British foretell rather little of the political geography that would eventually emerge as we know it today. We see glimpses of a later French-Native alliance of sorts in The Revenant, which I got to see a few weeks ago while in Texas and absolutely loved (at the very least for its stunning cinematography, but also for its testament to the originality of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmmaking and the evolution and continuing brilliance of his career ever since Amores Perros fifteen years ago).

My only real exposure to American history until now had been through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I first encountered in the form a graduation gift from a college friend, who described it as a “classic” in the experience of countless young Americans and which could therefore doubly serve as a rite-of-passage for me. I started reading it that summer after graduation, and remember being thoroughly intrigued by some of the early colonial history, though I only got through maybe just about a third of the book. I managed to pick up the book again years later and speed read/skim through the rest, just so I could say I finished it.

But since the historiography in Zinn is perhaps somewhat outdated if not a bit slipshod, I just picked up from the library a recent survey history (A Concise History of the United States of America by Susan-Mary Grant) and am really liking it so far.

Islamic Thought: Reason and Revelation

This is the first part of a series on Islamic theology and philosophy.

The problem of reason itself lies at the heart of many of the rational debates that intrigued medieval Muslim intellectuals, such as the question of literal versus figurative interpretation of scripture, or the relationship between prophecy and philosophy. This has also been the object of continued confusion, as many modern readers came to regard the historical triumph of the Ashʿarī school of theology over the so-called “rationalist” Muʿtazilīs, together with al-Ghazāli’s famous condemnation in the “Incoherence of the Philosophers” (Tahāfut al-Falāsifa), as evidence for the closure of reason in Islamic civilization, and as explanation for its eventual decline. The disputes between various thinkers and groups, however, were more often based on specific conclusions and doctrinal positions rather than on basic methodological approaches. Even so, the Ashʿarī and Ḥanbalī schools, named after Abu ‘l-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935) and Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855) respectively, strongly disagreed on the project of kalām itself—a debate that has been overshadowed in modern scholarship by the considerably greater attention paid to the earlier Ashʿarī reaction to the Muʿtazilīs, described in the next section.

The Ḥanbalī anti-theological position found characteristic expression, for example, in the writings of a later member of the school, the famous jurist Ibn Qudāma (d. 1223). In his Tarīm al-Naar fī Kutub ahl Kalām, a treatise attacking speculative theology, Ibn Qudāma accuses the theologians (mutakallimūn) of heretical innovation (bidʿah) in pursuit of activities such as allegorical interpretation of scripture, which allegedly have no precedent in the tradition of the Prophet or his pious followers. However, the Ashʿarī defense of theology, such as in al-Ashʿarī’s Risālat Istisān al-Khaw fī ʿIlm al-Kalām, usually claimed traditional precedence for theology at least in principle, and in general if not specific terms. Furthermore, almost all of the religious sciences, including law and jurisprudence, were innovative developments.

A similar appeal to parallels with religious law appears in Abu ʾl-Walīd Ibn Rushd’s (d. 1198) defense of philosophy. Remarkably influential in Europe as the Latinized Averroes, Ibn Rushd gained renown for his commentaries on Aristotle and his refutation of al-Ghazāli in Tahāfut al-Tahāfut (“Incoherence of the Incoherence”), but specifically discusses the relationship of philosophy and religion in al-Faṣl al-Maqāl (“the Decisive Treatise”). Arguing that the Qur’anic command to reflect on creation in order to know the Creator basically amounts to an invitation to intellectual reasoning, Averroes presents philosophy as an obligatory Islamic pursuit. For Averroes, philosophy and religion represent one and the same truth, and where there are apparent conflicts, it is simply because the scripture must yield to allegorical interpretation. Truth, however, may be conceived differently by and for people of varying intellectual ability. Averroes identifies three classes based on their proclivity to different levels of syllogistic reasoning and persuasion: rhetorical for the majority, dialectical for the religious scholars, and demonstrative for the philosophers. Philosophy may, in fact, mislead the masses, and is therefore forbidden to them: a sentiment that appears to have been shared widely among medieval Islamic philosophers. In the view of al-Fārābī (d. 950), to be discussed later, a prophet is in fact someone with exceptional rational and imaginative faculties, who can therefore represent abstract knowledge in the form of religious allegories palatable to non-philosophers.

Islamic Thought: Philosophy & Theology in the Middle Ages

This is the preface to an introductory survey of medieval Islamic intellectual history that I will post here in regular installments as part of a series. In addition to some good brain exercise, it would also be an appropriate tribute to this blog’s banner image (from a 13th c. Arabic miniature depicting Aristotle and Alexander the Great).

Philosophic activity in the medieval Islamic world may be divided into two broad currents, represented by the Arabic terms kalām and falsafa—usually translated as “speculative theology” and “philosophy,” respectively. The division between the two is hardly unequivocal, and often reflects modern presumptions about the religious and the secular, notwithstanding significant tensions within the pre-modern tradition. While kalām generally denotes Muslim scholarly engagement with various questions about God, the scriptures, and religious doctrines, many of its concerns overlapped with those of falsafa, typically identified as the enterprise that grew out of a Graeco-Arabic translation movement between the 8th and 10th centuries C.E. The origins of Islamic theology and philosophy, whether in early Muslim political crises or in encounters with Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others, has been a notable preoccupation in Western academic scholarship, often at the expense of closer attention to the intricacies within the tradition, particularly in its later development. Nevertheless, it is clear that Islamic intellectual activity took place in the context of the diverse cultural milieu of the medieval Near East, as evident in its parallels with Jewish and Christian theological concerns, but especially in its appropriation of late-antique Neoplatonism, including the Alexandrian commentary tradition. Thus, the works of Aristotle, and attempts to reconcile him with Plato, figure prominently throughout Islamic philosophy. Once viewed as no more than a passive intermediary between the ancient Greek and the medieval/renaissance Latin phases of European intellectual history, philosophical writings in Arabic (and to a large extent also Persian) have now come to be recognized as an active, independent tradition with its own original and characteristic features.

This six-part, thematically organized discussion will introduce some of the major figures, schools and texts of this tradition, in the course of presenting the key problems they debated.

Modesty and Desire: The Hijab as a Historical Puzzle

Frankly, I’m loath to post on this tired topic and continue the never-ending discussion on the hijab. But, I wanted to begin recording here conversations that I’ve engaged in elsewhere (and not just on this subject), as I recently realized that in the years since I’ve become a much more active facebooker than a blogger, it’s been easy to just loose sight of things I say/write pretty much all over the place. And that’s probably not a good thing; I suppose keeping track of thoughts is the least a thinker should do, regardless of how crappy or brilliant those are.

In any case. A few weeks ago, one of my best friends from college published this excellent piece at altmuslimah on rape and women’s clothing, dismantling the oft-parroted myth (we’ve all heard it, whether from upset imams or wise aunties/uncles) that rape and sexual assault have something to do with how women dress: a myth that is, alas, not restricted to our community alone, but is really a textbook example of blaming-the-victim. It’s great that people like Altaf (and others!) are addressing this loud and clear, and judging by the number of Facebook shares/likes in my networks alone, her piece at altmuslimah has been immensely influential among the online reading public.

On that note, when posting a link to the article, a friend of mine raised the following question:

So here’s a thought: The Muslim reason for a woman covering herself is so that she can be modest and avert male desire (according to the Quran). If a full-body/face covering does NOT save a woman from rape, much less averting male desire….then what is the point of wearing a hijab/head scarf from Islam’s perspective?

This may be in some sense the very essence of “the hijab problem” that continues to confuse all kinds of people, especially Westerners but also Muslims themselves. But it’s also a legitimate question, one that is however not so easy to answer. Let me just reiterate, with a few slight modifications, the couple of comments I wrote then in response:

While that, i.e. modesty, has indeed become the conventional rationale, it is also one that is arguably somewhat inaccurate (note though that rape and desire are NOT on a continuum–precisely the point of Altaf’s article). But this inaccuracy has more to do with the history of gender and the body (i.e. the shifting social configurations of male and female between the pre-modern to the modern), than with the Qur’an per se. One key to solve this problem is to examine why in classical Islamic law, certain “women” were forbidden to veil while others were required to do so. There’s a paper that pursues precisely this analysis and offers I think the best explanation so far in terms of social and legal history–I’m referring to this article.

Note however that especially from an anthropological point of view, it is sort of meaningless to ask what Islam says about this or that (which is like the perennial question these days), because “Islam” is not an actual entity that exists in reality. Rather it is the texts or people that speak.

I realize that I ignored above my own appeal to anthropology, because from that perspective, it shouldn’t really even matter what the text/law says but rather the voices of people themselves. Perhaps there are as many “reasons” to veil as there are women who do, even though I think a notion of piety is important and undercuts all of them. So the question is as complex as if we were to ask, why do we dress?

But to get back to the history (after all, my thing), basically it seems that in the classical Islamic legal conception, the point of veiling was not modesty in the sense of protection from male desire per se (even though jusrists did actually make this argument), but rather modesty in the sense of propriety and guarding social reputation, etc and to distinguish between respectable–what in Bengali we would call bhodro–women from “common” ones. Of course, this isn’t unique to Arab/Muslim history at all, as there’s evidence for veiling being practiced in most ancient Near Eastern traditions (including Judaism and Early Christianity) as well as as the Eastern Roman Empire i.e. the Byzantines. So for example, almost no traditional icon of the Virgin Mary shows her without a headscarf.

Now, the reason I was referring to gender history: the basic principle is that ideas about, or even who counts as, male or female are not the same in every time/place. Modernity erased a lot of social hierarchies that used to be there, such as noble/common, free/slave, etc. This has specific implications for the veil in Islamic law, but I don’t really need to get into that right now :)

That’s as far as I got then, but it’s probably important to clarify what specific legal implications I’m alluding to above: basically, what to do about the fact that pre-modern jurists considered the `awra (“shame zone,” or “private parts”) of legally un-free women to be different from and more limited than that of free women, and indeed the same as that of men, i.e. from the navel to the knee! This precisely is the point of departure for the academic paper I cite above; but also, this strongly suggests that what we mean when we say “women” is not necessarily the same as what Muslims back in the day would have meant, hence my reference above to a sort of constructionist principle of gender history. Of course, like it or not, what we’re really doing here is to open a can of worms that include such immensely complex problems as what us full-time nerds call “the history of the body,” as well as the very basic analytic categories of “sex,” “gender,” etc.

The Dialogue of a Life with Itself

I’m curious if and how this interesting take on the nature of autobiography might apply to blogging, at least that of the diary/journal type:

In the final analysis, then, the prerogative of autobiography consists in this: that it shows us not the objective stages of a career–to discern these is the task of the historian–but that it reveals instead the effort of a creator to give the meaning to his own mythic tale. Every man is the first witness to himself; yet the testimony that he thus produces constitutes no ultimate, conclusive authority–not only because objective scrutiny will always discover inaccuracies but much more because there is never an end to this dialogue of a life with itself in search of its own absolute. Here every man is for himself the existential stakes in a gamble that cannot be entirely lost nor entirely won. Artistic creation is a struggle with the angel, in which the creator is the more certain of being vanquished since the opponent is still himself. He wrestles with his shadow, certain only of never laying hold of it. (p. 48, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical)

These are the closing words of Georges Gusdorf’s now-classic 1956 essay on autobiography (“Conditions et limites de l’autobiographie”)–which James Olney, a leading scholar in the field of autobiography studies, characterizes thus: “[I]t is only with Gusdorf’s essay…that all the questions and concerns–philosophical, psychological, literary, and more generally humanistic–that have preoccupied students of autobiography from 1956 to 1978 were first fully and clearly laid out and given comprehensive and brilliant, if necessarily brief, consideration” (p. 9, ibid.).

Gusdorf’s most potent idea, one that I think remains foremost in theories of autobiography, is about how a life-narrative constitutes a definitive moment in that life itself: “Any autobiography is a moment of the life that it recounts: it struggles to draw the meaning from that life, but is itself a meaning in the life. One part of the whole claims to reflect the whole, but it adds something to this whole of which it constitutes a moment” (p. 43).

The Ludicrous Bungling which Decides the Life of a Human Being

I don’t remember ever having laughed out loud when reading Kafka. That is, until yesterday.

It may have had to do with the fact that while reading the following passage, and before reaching K.’s hilarious punchline, I was thinking of the most recent of my own encounters with the Bureaucracy, with stories of which I have bored many a friend in the past. Earlier this summer, soon after I got home, I learned that I could no longer travel on my current passport, since it’s now only valid for less than six months. So I had to get a new one, better yet, a machine-readable one, now that the government has finally started issuing these after missing several international deadlines over the past decade or so (Yay! We’re finally catching up with the rest of the world–when I guess they’re actually moving on, with biometric passports and whatnot). Anyways, since due to lack of technical resources they’re apparently still having to outsource production overseas (Yes, they make our nationality documents in another nation!), the process takes some time, and there was some concern I might not have a new passport in hand before I had to get back…to my other home.

It turned out, however, that I was not even eligible to get one of these new passports Continue reading “The Ludicrous Bungling which Decides the Life of a Human Being”

Desher Bari

Last night I returned from a brief trip to what is called my desher bari--which in the awkward literal translation would mean “country house,” but is better understood as one’s native village or hometown. It is the Bengali version of where one is really from, and although to the outside world we’re all basically just from this one tiny country, among ourselves our locale of origin makes a lot of difference. “Where’s your desher bari?” is thus often among the first things one would ask on meeting a fellow Bangladeshi. I’ve found myself as intrigued when I’ve occasionally faced the question even in America, as I used to be when, growing up in the Middle East, I would observe my dad bring it up with friendly strangers from the motherland. Replies to the question may sometimes be even more interesting, as one might try to further clarify his or her father’s and mother’s respective desher baris.

I think this quintessential Bengali concept may have begun to loose some significance for groups/generations of people born and raised in the big city, or even outside the nation. For me, however, the problem has usually been more in trying to accurately translate what desher bari could mean exactly. Continue reading “Desher Bari”