A time before East vs. West
stark, otherworldly images of Afghanistan filling newspaper pages
and television screens have made many Americans feel exactly that:
as if the Middle East is another world.
not a new feeling, says Cornell Fleischer, the Kanunî Süleyman
professor of Ottoman and modern Turkish studies in the Near Eastern
languages & civilizations and history departments. For the
last several centuries many Westerners have assumed that Islamic
lands are intellectually and politically separate-even backward.
But Fleischer, who chairs a Sawyer Seminar titled From Medieval
to Modern in the Islamic World (designed long before 9/11), believes
the time has come to look beyond Western notions of Islamic lands.
He and the seminar's other participants-including faculty in history
and Near Eastern languages & civilizations, a postdoctoral
fellow, and a bevy of graduate students and guest scholars-hope
to paint a richer history of Islamic intellectual and political
institutions than is currently found in Western scholarship.
Sawyer Seminars are funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
and coordinated at Chicago by the Franke Institute for the Humanities.
One of two Sawyer Seminars at the U of C this year (the other
is on contemporary poetry) and one of six that have taken place
at Chicago since the seminars' 1995 founding, the Islam seminar
focuses on Muslim lands during the era corresponding to Europe's
shift from medievalism to early modernity, roughly 1300-1600.
current scholarship "skims over or collapses those centuries
into a schema of cultural stasis and decline," says Fleischer,
"creating a model of Islamic history reaching its high point
in the 11th and 12th centuries and then in a holding pattern until
the West appeared in the 18th century." But participants'
research into Muslim- and Christian-penned primary sources, Fleischer
says, reveals a different picture: a time when definitive decisions
had not yet been made about whether one belonged to an "East"
or a "West" and when, despite repeated military confrontations,
Christians and Muslims shared similar concerns and often profited
past autumn the participants began by studying the centuries immediately
after the Mongol conquest, when the caliphate-the system of political
and social leaders who succeeded the prophet Mohammed-was destroyed.
"The major item on the agenda for Muslims was, in the absence
of a caliphal authority and in the reality of a political regime
that had nothing to do with Islamic principles, how to construct
a society that remained Muslim," explains Fleischer. The
impetus to keep religious life alive in the 14th and 15th centuries
led, he says, to both "intellectual florescence and spiritual
striking is the extraordinary degree to which science, philosophy,
and mysticism penetrated the curricula of the institutions of
religious learning," Fleischer notes. "Far from being
a rote reproduction of older forms of knowledge, the boundaries
of knowledge were in fact reconstructed within the framework of
had a particularly profound impact in the post-Mongol Islamic
world too. The mystic experience, Fleischer says, "revalorized"
the physical world, "opening the possibility of the incarnation
of the divine in man." This socially and intellectually powerful
notion was taken up by the founders of the four regional Muslim
empires that arose after the decline of the Mongols. "Mysticism
not only allowed for the possibility that man could embody the
divine," Fleischer explains, "it also provided a social
and political structure based on spiritual as well as physical"-that
is, genealogical-"descent." Under the Ottoman, Safavid,
Mughal, and Uzbek empires, religious and political institutions
were bound together as they never had been before, creating an
"entirely new animal" in Islamic history: dynasties
with their own unique religious and political systems, akin, says
Fleischer, to the "national churches and national monarchies
that arose in Christendom during the same period."
quarter the participants are examining the parallels and interactions
between Christian and Muslim zones from 1300 to 1600. Far from
being separate and distinct, says Fleischer, these zones "were
very much interpenetrating." As a result, he argues, the
early modern era did not solely arise in the Western and Christian
world but was in fact a mutually informing and shared development.
what of the images in today's news media and the sense of separateness
they convey? The history behind them is rich and varied, says
Fleischer, one that's much more closely linked to the West than
is commonly believed. The notion of the Middle East as another
world, he contends, is "not true at the end of the 20th century,
and it also wasn't true of the 16th century-it is rather a creation
of the Westernizing historical vision of the two centuries."