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Investigations
A time before East vs. West


The 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.

It's 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.

Yearlong 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.

Most 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 from interaction.

This 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 experimentation."

"What's 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 religious learning."

Mysticism 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."

This 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.

And 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."
- S.A.S.



  APRIL 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 4


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