Browse our Middle Eastern Studies 2019 Catalog

Our new Middle Eastern Studies catalog includes a groundbreaking history showing how Egyptian-Israeli peace ensured lasting Palestinian statelessness; a definitive political picture of the Islamic Republic of Iran; an exploration of frequently neglected aspects of Iranian spirituality and politics; and a bold new religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East that places ordinary Christians at the center of the story.

If you’re attending the Middle East Studies Association meeting in San Antonio this week, visit the PUP table to see our full range of Middle Eastern studies titles.

Seth Anziska Preventing Palestine book cover

How and why Palestinian statelessness persists are the central questions of Seth Anziska’s groundbreaking book, which explores the complex legacy of the Camp David Accords. Combining astute political analysis, extensive original research, and interviews with diplomats, military veterans, and communal leaders, Preventing Palestine offers a bold new interpretation of a highly charged struggle for self-determination.

 

Amin Saikal Iran Rising book cover

When Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

 

Alireza Doostdar Iranian Metaphysicals book cover

Since the late nineteenth century, modernizing intellectuals, religious leaders, and statesmen in Iran have attempted to curtail occult practices and appeals to saintly powers as “superstitious,” instead encouraging the development of rational religious sensibilities and dispositions. However, these rationalizing processes have multiplied the possibilities for experimental engagement with the immaterial realm. The Iranian Metaphysicals shows that metaphysical experimentation lies at the center of some of the most influential intellectual and religious movements in modern Iran.

 

Jack Tannous Making of the Medieval Middle East book cover

In the second half of the first millennium CE, the Christian Middle East fractured irreparably into competing churches and Arabs conquered the region, setting in motion a process that would lead to its eventual conversion to Islam. The Making of the Medieval Middle East recasts these conquered lands as largely Christian ones whose growing Muslim populations are properly understood as converting away from and in competition with the non-Muslim communities around them.

Trump’s Assertiveness vs. Rouhani’s Resistance

by Amin Saikal

President Donald Trump has acted to diminish the Iranian Islamic regime over its nuclear program, missile industry and regional influence. He has given Tehran an ultimatum either to succumb to his demands or face unprecedented punishment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has rejected Trump’s actions to withdraw from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), and to reimpose sanctions as “psychological warfare.” The US and Iran are now locked in a diplomatic confrontation that could lead to a confrontation with devastating consequences.

Ironically, this is the first time in the history of US-Iranian hostilities since the advent of the Iranian Islamic regime nearly 40 years ago that Washington, rather than Tehran, is isolated in world politics as a result of an American president’s actions. Not only the other signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – but also most of the other states in the world have sided with Tehran. The European signatories and America’s traditional allies have taken extraordinary steps to salvage the JCPOA. They have gone so far as to invoke an old “blocking statute” to protect their countries’ businesses dealings with Iran and have instructed their companies either to defy American sanctions or run the risk of being sued by European Union member states. They have also opened a mechanism to enable those businesses affected by sanctions to sue the American government in the national courts of member states.

Whatever the European powers’ measures and the degree of sanction defiance by Russia and China as the other two strong supporters of Iran, as well as the Iranian government’s efforts to circumvent the sanctions, as it has in the past, Trump’s actions can still entail serious economic and political implications for Iran. The Iranian economy was in a fragile state prior to the reimposition of sanctions; it is now bound to receive more hard blows. This in turn is likely to increase public disenchantment with and protests against the Islamic regime.

However, the Islamic regime is unlikely to be brought to its knees, for four important reasons. The first is that Iran has endured soft and hard sanctions since the early days of its transformation into an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. The regime has vigorously diversified Iran’s economy and trade. It has succeeded in making the Iranian economy less dependent on oil exports, and has expanded trade relations with friendly powers, including China, which has become Iran’s largest trade partner. It has engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and mastered different methods of sanction-busting, including barter trading, and transactions through third countries where it wields influence, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The second is that despite its theocratic and administrative shortcomings and corrupt practices, the regime is well entrenched. It has built sufficient coercive instruments of power to deal with any widespread public uprisings. The clerical forces and their associates that dominate the power structure have done everything possible to guard themselves against a revolution similar to the one that caused the Shah’s downfall and brought them to power.

The third is that the regime has successfully used the “threat” from the United States and its regional allies, Israel in particular, for public legitimation and mobilisation, and this factor remains at its disposal. Many segments of the Iranian society are unhappy with the regime and may well desire a better alternative, but when Iran is threatened by an outside force, a majority of them have rallied behind the government of the day. The more that Trump pressures and threatens Iran, the more he plays into the hands of the regime to invoke a combination of historically fierce nationalism and Shia Islamic devotion among the Iranians.

The fourth is that in the unlikely event of the Islamic regime crumbling through popular uprisings, this will not serve the interests of the United States and its regional allies. It could produce uncontrollable outcomes for not only Iran but also the region. The regime’s removal without a smooth power transition could generate a much worse national and regional situation than did the overthrow of the Shah’s autocracy.

The Trump leadership, egged on by Iran’s arch enemy, Israel, and backed by another regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has touted the use of force as an ultimate means to change the behaviour of the Iranian regime. However, Tehran has secured a strong deterrence against such an option as well. It has garnered adequate prowess though a combination of hard and soft power within an asymmetrical warfare strategy to make an attack very costly for its perpetrator. It has secured a network of regional protégé forces that includes most importantly the Lebanese Hezbollah, which possesses some 120,000 rockets of all kinds, capable of hitting targets in Israel and across the region. This deterrence factor should make the US and Israel think twice before they resort to the use of force.

Trump has sought to subdue the Iranian regime, but at the cost of America’s isolation from even its traditional European allies. The US has become an oddity in world politics. This had never happened since the rise of the US to globalism following the Second World War.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic by Princeton University Press.

Hans-Lukas Kieser on Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide

PashaTalaat Pasha (1874–1921) led the triumvirate that ruled the late Ottoman Empire during World War I and is arguably the father of modern Turkey. He was also the architect of the Armenian Genocide, which would result in the systematic extermination of more than a million people, and which set the stage for a century that would witness atrocities on a scale never imagined. Here is the first biography in English of the revolutionary figure who not only prepared the way for Atatürk and the founding of the republic in 1923, but who shaped the modern world as well. In this major work of scholarship, Hans-Lukas Kieser tells the story of the brilliant and merciless politician who stood at the twilight of empire and the dawn of the age of genocide.

Though you have written a number of books in history, this appears to be your first biography. What led you in this direction?

I have written a variety of biographical articles, all related to the modern Levant. Yet, this is indeed my first book-length biography. There were two main motivations for writing me this biography of Talaat Pasha.

First, Talaat was the main political actor in the 1910s, the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when he led a single-party regime. All those interested in that area in modern history must therefore be able to know him well. Yet, oddly, there doesn’t exist any non-Turkish biography of this paradigmatic politician.

Second, the last Ottoman decade and its wars, including the Balkan Wars, the Great War, the Armenian genocide, and the war for Asia Minor, have remained a Pandora’s box in need of historical clarification. I navigate with my readers through turbulent and complex, dramatic and impactful times, always focusing on the mastermind Talaat as well as late Ottoman Istanbul and its provinces. The Ottoman capital was the center of a still-huge Empire, a hub of European diplomacy, and a hotspot of international dynamics.

What is an example of Talaat Pasha’s influence still being felt in Turkey today?

A blatant legacy is ongoing genocide denial based on arguments already made by Talaat in 1915. Another legacy is favoritism instead of meritocracy, because leader-centered partisan regimes need systemic corruption to maintain their power. Talaat’s leadership had blended imperial pride, Turkish nationalism, and Islamism. Turkey’s current re-embrace of charismatic leadership and its post-Kemalist return to political Islam is not surprising if we understand that Talaat had been a first father—before Kemal Atatürk—of post-Ottoman Turkey. The “Kemalist revolution” did not undo pre-republican fundamentals. In his effort to concentrate power, the current president Erdogan largely draws on patterns and ideologies used by these historic leaders, both marked “sons of an Empire.” Whereas both Talaat and Atatürk had claimed a progressive departure from religious conservatism, Erdogan identifies also with the conservative legacy of Sultan Abdulhamid II and other sultans before him.

How do modern Turks reconcile the positive things that resulted from Talaat Pasha’s actions with the atrocities that he perpetuated?

Talaat’s corpse came pompously back from Berlin to Turkey in 1943, in a joint venture of Adolf Hitler’s and İsmet İnönü’s governments. Lauding books and articles by former party friends were published in the years afterwards. Talaat, the former grand-vizier, won thus again public credit as a patriot and great statesman. Streets, schools, and mosques were named after him. Nevertheless, he remained associated with the Great War: a lost war little-remembered in Kemalist Turkey, except for the victory at Gallipoli. The atrocities against non-Turkish Ottoman citizens in and after the Great War were almost totally repressed from public memory. For such a spirit, almost no negative things must be reconciled with the progressive revolution achieved by the unique Atatürk, prepared by Talaat. Compared to previous governments, the current AKP regime publicly remembers much more the Great War, that great jihad and its battles. Yet, it does this without soul-searching or an acknowledged need and effort of reconciliation—because, in Erdogan’s words, there was “never genocide or ethnic cleansing in our history.”

What are some of the things you’d like readers to take away from this book?

I’d like my readers to take away from this book interest in, respect for, and better knowledge of topical challenges of the late Ottoman world, today’s Middle East. These are challenges that subsist to this day because their peaceful solution surpassed the political resources and the will of the contemporary rulers. More than a hundred years later, consensual polities for people from different religions, but with equal rights, are still utopian. The Levant, the cradle of monotheism, is under the spell of competing apocalyptical expectations.

Also, I’d like my readers to revolt in spirit and intellect against attempts at doing away with, instead of meeting, universal challenges, and against disfiguring historical truths for state and personal interests. Talaat pioneered patterns of miscarried modernity, in particular demographic and economic engineering including genocide. Inspired by his party friend Ziya Gökalp, a modern prophet of Turkish-Muslim greatness, Talaat had given up in the early 1910s on seeking a democratic social contract, starting instead comprehensive press control and prosecution of rivals. Talaat’s rule made Asia Minor a “national home” for Muslim Turks, excluding other peoples rooted in the same geography. Talaat thus shaped politics in the post-Ottoman Levant for a hundred years to come.

Hans-Lukas Kieser is associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle in Australia and adjunct professor of history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. His many books include Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East, World War I and the End of the Ottomans: From the Balkan Wars to the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey beyond Nationalism.

Michael Brenner explains why a Jewish State is “not like any other state”

BrennerIs Israel a state like any other or is it unique? As Michael Brenner argues in In Search of Israel, the Zionists attempted to put an end to the millennia-old history of the Jews as the archetypical “other” by creating a Jewish state that would be just like any other state, but today, Israel is regarded as anything but a “normal” state. Instead of overcoming the Jewish fate of otherness, Israel has in fact become the “Jew among the nations.” Israel ranks as 148th of the 196 independent states in terms of geographical area, and as 97th in terms of population, which is somewhere between Belize and Djibouti. However, the international attention it attracts is exponentially greater than that of either. Considering only the volume of media attention it attracts, one might reasonably assume that the Jewish state is in the same league as the United States, Russia, and China. In the United States, Israel has figured more prominently over the last three decades than almost any other country in foreign policy debates; in polls across Europe, Israel is considered to be the greatest danger to world peace; and in Islamic societies it has become routine to burn Israeli flags and argue for Israel’s demise. No other country has been the target of as many UN resolutions as Israel. At the same time, many people around the world credit Israel with a unique role in the future course of world history. Evangelical Christians regard the Jewish state as a major player in their eschatological model of the world. Their convictions have influenced US policies in the Middle East and the opinions of some political leaders in other parts of the world.

Why does Israel attract so much attention?

The answer lies in history. Many people call Israel “the holy land” for a reason: it is here where the origins of their religions were shaped. The Jewish people too are regarded as special: they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the world’s dominant religions. In Christianity and in Islam, Jews were both seen as a people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected by God. While over the last two hundred years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained. That the Jews became victims of the most systematic genocide in modern history lent them yet another mark of uniqueness. After two thousand years in exile, the fact that Jews returned to their ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded the people and place with additional mystique.

Did the Zionists view themselves as unique?

The irony is that the Zionist movement was established at the end of the 19th century precisely in order to overcome this mark of difference and uniqueness. Many Zionists claimed that they just wanted to be like anyone else. Chaim Weizmann, longtime leader of the Zionist movement and Israel’s first president, was quoted with saying: “We just want to be another Albania,” meaning a small state that nobody really cares about. Even Israel’s founding document, the declaration of independence, says that Israel has the right to be “like all other nations.” But at the same time the notion of being different, perhaps being special, was internalized by Zionists as well. Many of its leaders argued that a Jewish state has a special responsibility. Even the most secular among them regarded Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations” as a crucial part of a prophetic tradition.

Does this mean that Zionism was a religious movement?

Not at all. Most of its early leaders were strictly secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, knew no Hebrew and in fact very little about Jewish traditions. But he wanted to establish a model state for humanity, and saw the formation of Israel as an example for the liberation of African-Americans. Long before any other state granted voting rights for women, he let women be active participants in the Zionist congresses. He drew a flag for the future Jewish state that had seven stars, symbolizing a seven-hour-workday for everyone. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was a Socialist and rejected organized religion. But just like Herzl, he believed in the mission of a model state that could spread the prophetic ideals of universal peace and equality among the nations.

Why then is Israel seen by many today not as a model state but as a pariah state?

Herzl discussed other potential destinations, such as Argentina and British East Africa, as refuge for the persecuted European Jews. But the only place Jews had an emotional connection with was the territory they had originated from. Over centuries, Jews prayed for their return to the land of Israel. But it was not an empty land. The Arab Palestinians soon developed their own ideas of nationhood and rejected the growing Jewish immigration. In the meantime, antisemitism increased in Europe and other countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came too late to save the lives of millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But by then, most of the world recognized the Jews’ right to their own state in their ancient homeland, as reflected in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Yet the Arab world did not see why they should pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. The situation reflected the parable of a person (the Jews) jumping out of the window of a burning house (Europe) and hitting another person (the Palestinians) on the street in order to save his own life. The ongoing conflict of two peoples over the same land, combined with the special significance of this land in the eyes of the world, led to a situation where even outsiders have strong opinions. For Evangelical Christians, Israel fulfills a divine mission, while for others, especially in the Arab world, Israel is regarded as a foreign intruder in the tradition of the medieval Crusaders and modern Imperialists.

So, can Israel one day become just a “normal state?”

To begin with, let me qualify this question. The idea of a “normal state” is a fiction altogether. Every state sees itself as special. But it is true that some states receive more attention from the rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another Albania in the eyes of the world, or relegated in our attention to its place among the nations between Djibouti and Belize? I do not believe so. The history of Jerusalem is different from that of Tirana (Albania’s capital), and the Jews have attracted so much more attention than nations of comparable size. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the limelight of media attention. However, let us not forget: The people in Israel live their everyday lives just like everywhere else. They worry about their jobs and about their sports teams, they want their children to be safe and successful in school, and they dream of a peaceful future. In this deeply personal sense, Israel has become a state just like any other.

Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lilian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His many books include A Short History of the Jews.

Robert Irwin on Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography

IrwinIbn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin provides an engaging and authoritative account of Ibn Khaldun’s extraordinary life, times, writings, and ideas.

Who was Ibn Khaldun?
Wali al-Din Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332 in Tunis. In his youth he was tutored by some of finest scholars of the age before going on to occupy high offices at various North African courts and at the court of Granada in Muslim Spain. He became, among other things, a diplomat and a specialist in negotiating with the Arab and Berber tribesmen of the North African interior and on occasion he led the tribesmen in battle. Later he moved to Cairo where he was to occupy various senior judicial and teaching posts under the Mamluk Sultans. In 1401 he had a famous meeting with the Turco-Mongol would-be world conqueror Timur (also known as Tamerlane), outside the walls of Damascus which was under siege by Timur. Having escaped becoming Timur’s honored captive, he returned to Egypt. In 1406 he died and was buried in a Sufi cemetery in Cairo. Despite his active career in politics, law, diplomacy, and teaching, he is chiefly famous for his great book, the Muqaddima, (the translation of which is currently published in three volumes by Princeton University Press, as well in a single-volume abridgment).

Why is Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima so important?
This big book asked big questions. The Muqaddima started out as a study of the laws of history and it has gone on to win great praise from modern historians. Arnold Toynbee described it as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.’ Hugh Trevor-Roper agreed; ‘It is a wonderful experience to read those great volumes, as rich and various, as subtle, deep and formless as the Ocean, and to fish up from them ideas old and new.’ The Muqaddima has attracted similar praise from philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and Islamicists.

Ibn Khaldun began by asking how do historians make mistakes in their interpretation of events and what kinds of information should be recognized by historians as good evidence or bad evidence. Then he set out to understand the origins of civilization and the causes of the rise and fall of dynasties. As he continued his investigations, his book broadened out to become what was effectively an encyclopedia of Muslim society and culture.

Given his importance, there are already quite a few books on Ibn Khaldun. What is new about yours?
There are indeed so many translations of Ibn Khaldun and books about him that something like half the history of Orientalism can be deduced from the contrasting readings of the Muqaddima produced by such scholars as Silvestre de Sacy, Quatremère, Von Kremer, Monteil, Gibb, Hodgson, Hourani and Gellner. Some of the books by my predecessors are pretty good and I owe debts to those who have gone before me. Nevertheless many of their readings of the Muqaddima have been selective and have stressed and, I think, overstressed the logicality of Ibn Khaldun’s admittedly powerful mind and in doing so they have neglected the inconsistencies, ambiguities, and eccentricities that make the Muqaddima such a fascinating text. Mine is the first book to focus closely on the importance of the occult in Ibn Khaldun’s thought and his intense interest in methods of predicting the future. It is also the first to bring out the importance of North African ruins and the moralizing messages that he took from them. Although he was an outstanding thinker, he was also a man of his time and there has been a tendency to underplay the North African and strictly Muslim context of the Muqaddima. I have also sought to bring out the distinctive quality of Ibn Khaldun’s writing by contrasting it with famous texts by Froissart, Machiavelli, Vico, Montesquieu, Spengler, and others.

His ideas have been described as anticipating those of Montesquieu, Comte, Darwin, Marx, and Toynbee, among others. So was he a ‘modern’ thinker?
As new disciplines evolved in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their leading scholars frequently sought to create intellectual lineages for their chosen subjects and so Ibn Khaldun came to be hailed as ‘the world’s first anthropologist’ or ‘the first ever cultural historian’ or as a ‘proto-Marxist.’ Though there is some justice in such tributes, the quest for relevance can be a dangerous thing, as an overemphasis on similarities may conceal or distort past ways of thinking and living. As the novelist L.P. Hartley observed, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Ibn Khaldun’s remarkable ability to formulate general laws based on the close observation of discrete phenomena gives his thinking the delusive appearance of modernity, but he wrote in the service of fourteenth-century Islam. Moreover there is no evidence that he influenced Montesquieu, there is no continuity between Ibn Khaldun’s sociological formulations and those of Comte and there is no indication that Ibn Khaldun had anticipated Darwin’s ideas about the survival of the fittest.

Why did you write this book?
It feels as though I have been living with Ibn Khaldun since I first read the Muqaddima as a student in the 1960s. So it was high time that I took a close look at the assumptions and vocabulary that underpinned his thinking. To spend so much time with a polymathic genius has been both demanding and exhilarating. But there is also something else. As already noted, his Muqaddima is encyclopedic in scope. It not only covers history and philosophy, but also religion, social studies, administrative structures and title-holding, geography, economics, literature, pedagogy, jurisprudence, magic, treasure hunting, diet, dream interpretation, and much else. So a study of his masterpiece can serve as a panoptic guide to Muslim thought and life in the Middle Ages. There is nothing to match it either in the Islamic world or in medieval Christendom.

Robert Irwin is senior research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His many books include Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents and Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics, and the Sixties, as well as seven novels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Omnia El Shakry: Genealogies of Female Writing

Arabic

Throughout Women’s History Month, join Princeton University Press as we celebrate scholarship by and about women.

by Omnia El Shakry

In the wake of the tumultuous year for women that was 2017, many female scholars have been reflecting upon their experiences in the academy, ranging from sexual harassment to the everyday experiences of listening to colleagues mansplain or even intellectually demean women’s work. Indeed, I can vividly recall, as a young assistant professor, hearing a senior male colleague brush off what has now become a canonical text in the field of Middle East studies as “merely” an example of gender history, with no wider relevance to the region. Gender history rolled off his tongue with disdain and there was an assumption that it was distinct from real history.

Few now, however, would deign to publicly discount the role that female authors have played in the vitality of the field of Middle East studies. In recognition of this, the Middle East Studies Association of North America has inaugurated new book awards honoring the pioneering efforts of two women in the field, Nikkie Keddie and Fatima Mernissi. I can still remember the first time I read Mernissi’s work while an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. Ever since my freshman year, I had enrolled in Cultural Anthropology courses with Soraya Altorki—a pioneering anthropologist who had written about Arab Women in the Field and the challenges of studying one’s own society. In her courses, and elsewhere, I was introduced to Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments, an ethnography of poetry and everyday discourse in a Bedouin community in Egypt’s Western desert. Abu-Lughod’s narrative was sensitive to questions of positionality, a lesson she both drew from and imbued with feminism. A second piece of writing, this time an article by Stefania Pandolfo on “Detours of Life” that interpreted the internal logic of imagining space and bodies in a Moroccan village gave me a breathtaking view of ethnography, the heterogeneity of lifeworlds, and the work of symbolic interpretation. 

In hindsight I can see that these early undergraduate experiences of reading, and studying with, female anthropologists profoundly impacted my own writing. Although I would eventually become a historian, I remained interested in the ethnographic question of encounters, and specifically of how knowledge is produced through encounters­—whether the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized or between psychoanalysis and Islam. In my most recent book, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, I ask what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement. Rather than conceptualizing modern intellectual thought as something developed in Europe, merely to be diffused at its point of application elsewhere, I imagine psychoanalytic knowledge as something elaborated across the space of human difference.

There is yet another female figure who stands at the door of my entry into writing about the Middle East. My grandmother was a strong presence in my early college years. Every Friday afternoon I would head over to her apartment, just a quick walk away from my dorm in downtown Cairo. We would eat lunch, laugh and talk, and watch the subtitled American soap operas that were so popular back then. Since she could not read or write, we would engage in a collective work of translation while watching and I often found her retelling of the series to be far more imaginative than anything network television writers could ever have produced.

Writing for me is about the creative worlds of possibility and of human difference that exist both within, but also outside, of the written word. As historians when we write we are translating between the living and the dead, as much as between different life worlds, and we are often propelled by intergenerational and transgenerational bonds that include the written word, but also exceed it.

Omnia El Shakry is professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt.

Alexander Thurston on Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

ThurstonBoko Haram is one of the world’s deadliest jihadist groups. It has killed more than twenty thousand people and displaced more than two million in a campaign of terror that began in Nigeria but has since spread to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon as well. This is the first book to tell the full story of this West African affiliate of the Islamic State, from its beginnings in the early 2000s to its most infamous violence, including the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls. In an in-depth account of a group that is menacing Africa’s most populous and richest country, Alexander Thurston also illuminates the dynamics of civil war in Africa and jihadist movements in other parts of the world. Read on to learn more about this deadly terrorist group and what is being done to stop them.

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a jihadist group, or rather cluster of groups, that emerged in northeastern Nigeria in the early 2000s. The group has called itself by various names, and “Boko Haram” is a nickname given by outsiders—it means “Western education is forbidden by Islam.” The nickname refers to a central theme that its founder Muhammad Yusuf used in his preaching, namely the idea that Western-style education (and democracy) were anti-Islamic. Boko Haram was involved sporadically in violence before 2009, but its transformation into a sustained insurgency occurred that year, when Yusuf and his followers clashed with authorities. Yusuf was killed during the initial uprising, but his followers regrouped under Abubakar Shekau and began to commit regular assassinations and attacks the next year. Boko Haram began to hold significant amounts of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014, which prompted Nigeria’s neighbors to intervene more strongly. In 2015, back on the defensive, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). Boko Haram continues to stage attacks in Nigeria, as well as in the neighboring countries, especially Niger. In summer 2016, a public schism emerged in the group, with one faction remaining loyal to Shekau and another following Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi, who has pledged to reduce civilian casualties and refocus Boko Haram’s efforts on fighting states and militaries. Boko Haram is most infamous for its mass kidnapping of 276 teenage schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.

How has the Nigerian government responded to Boko Haram?

The Nigerian government has used a heavy-handed, military-focused approach to Boko Haram. The approach involves serious and systematic human rights violations—extrajudicial killings, collective arrests, detentions without trial, and torture. This approach has itself become a driver of the crisis, antagonizing civilians and reducing their willingness to work with authorities. In some cases, a desire for revenge has even pushed some civilians into joining or working with Boko Haram. Nigerian politicians repeatedly debated and haltingly pursued the idea of dialogue with Boko Haram starting around 2012, but it was not until 2016 that negotiations bore some fruit, resulting in two waves of releases/prisoner swaps of some of the “Chibok girls.” The current president, Muhammadu Buhari (elected 2015), has been quite eager to declare Boko Haram defeated, but its attacks continue to trouble the northeastern part of Nigeria.

What are the biggest misperceptions about Boko Haram?

One key misperception is the idea that Boko Haram is a direct consequence of demography, poverty, and underdevelopment in northern Nigeria. That thesis does not explain why Boko Haram emerged in the northeast, rather than elsewhere in the north, nor does it explain why there are not many more movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria’s neighbors, which suffer from many of the same problems. In a related way, many observers continue to believe that Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was a nonviolent critic of Nigerian government corruption; in truth, he rejected the entire premise of Nigeria’s secular state, and he flirted with violent jihadism from an early point in his career. By the time Yusuf’s message was fully developed, he was not calling for reform in the existing order, but for a complete overhaul of the system.

Another key misconception, however, is the claim that Boko Haram is merely an extension of the global jihadist movement—that it was created and managed by al-Qaeda, or that it now is merely a branch of the Islamic State. The reality is more complicated; Boko Haram’s early contacts with al-Qaeda were patchy, and al-Qaeda had trouble getting Yusuf and Shekau to follow their advice, so much so that al-Qaeda seems to have broken off contact with Yusuf well before the 2009 uprising, which was a disaster for Boko Haram. Given the flaws in these simplistic hypotheses—the poverty hypothesis or the global jihadism hypothesis—there is a need to develop more complicated understandings of Boko Haram. That’s what my book tries to do.

What are the key arguments of your book?

The main argument is that Boko Haram reflects a complicated intersection of politics and religion in northeastern Nigeria, and that this intersection can only be understood by examining developments at the local level, especially in the city of Maiduguri and the surrounding state of Borno. Political developments that contributed to Boko Haram’s rise included the implementation of “full shari‘a” in northern Nigerian states in the early 2000s, a highly competitive gubernatorial election in Borno in 2003, and bitter memories among northern Muslims regarding intercommunal violence dating back to the 1980s. Religious developments involved a rapidly shifting “religious field” in northeastern Nigeria. Yusuf’s rise coincided with new opportunities for young preachers to gain prominence as key scholars in Maiduguri were either aging and passing away, or were absent because they were studying in the Arab world.

Another, related argument is that although Boko Haram horrified and antagonized almost all Muslims in northern Nigeria, it did not come out of nowhere. Boko Haram and Yusuf picked up on ideas that had been circulating for several decades, particularly the idea that Nigeria needed to become an Islamic state, and the idea that Western-style education was undermining the moral fabric of northern Nigerian society.

In what way does religion matter for Boko Haram?

When the relationship between religion and jihadism gets discussed in the media and popular outlets, analysts often focus on the question of whether individuals really believe in what they’re saying—whether jihadists are pious and well-informed about religion, and whether recruits join jihadist groups out of conviction or opportunism. To me, those debates are of limited interest because it’s difficult to get inside the minds and hearts of individuals, and to know what they really believe. So for me, the most important way to think about religion’s role in jihadism is in terms of the “religious field”—the totality of actors and institutions vying to define and shape a religious tradition in a particular setting. Whether or not Boko Haram’s leaders and followers are truly religious and pious, they certainly see themselves as operating in a religious field. Their vocabulary, their propaganda, the leaders’ interactions with followers, and often the targets of their violence all reflect a self-conscious invocation of religion and Islam, or at least Islam as Boko Haram tries to define it. A big part of the book is an effort to show how Boko Haram found a niche in northern Nigeria’s religious field, and how it has tried to reshape the field around it.

ThurstonAlexander Thurston is visiting assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown University and the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.

Browse Our New Middle Eastern Studies 2018 Catalog

Our new Middle Eastern Studies catalog includes a fascinating study of a 14th century Arabic encyclopedia, an incisive analysis of the clash between nationalism and Islamism, and a new, comprehensive history of Sufism.

If you will be at MESA 2017 in Washington DC this weekend, please stop by booth 33 to pick up a copy of the catalog, and see our full range of titles in Middle Eastern Studies.

The thirty-one volumes of Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition are among the flowers of the encyclopedic tradition in the medieval Islamic world. In The World in a Book, Elias Muhanna explores the cultural context within which this monumental work emerged, its structure and content, and its reception both in the Islamic world and in Europe.

The World in a Book, by Elias Muhanna

In Making the Arab World, Fawaz Gerges (author of ISIS: A History) analyses the conflicting roles of nationalism and Islamism in the history of the modern Middle East, as represented by two strikingly different figures: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb.

Making the Arab World, by Fawaz Gerges

Sufism, by Alexander Knysh, presents a comprehensive history of this enduring ascetic, mystical strand of Islam, from its emergence during the golden age of Islam to the modern day. Considering the tradition from the perspective both of adherents and outsiders, Knysh presents Sufism in all its richness and complexity.

Sufism, by Alexander Knysh

Omnia El Shakry: Psychoanalysis and Islam

Omnia El Shakry‘s new book, The Arabic Freud, is the first in-depth look at how postwar thinkers in Egypt mapped the intersections between Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic thought.

What are the very first things that pop into your mind when you hear the words “psychoanalysis” and “Islam” paired together?  For some of us the connections might seem improbable or even impossible. And if we were to be brutally honest the two terms might even evoke the specter of a so-called “clash of civilizations” between an enlightened, self-reflective West and a fanatical and irrational East.

It might surprise many of us to know, then, that Sigmund Freud, the founding figure of psychoanalysis, was ever-present in postwar Egypt, engaging the interest of academics, novelists, lawyers, teachers, and students alike. In 1946 Muhammad Fathi, a Professor of Criminal Psychology in Cairo, ardently defended the relevance of Freud’s theories of the unconscious for the courtroom, particularly for understanding the motives behind homicide. Readers of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s 1948 The Mirage were introduced to the Oedipus complex, graphically portrayed in the novel, by immersing themselves in the world of its protagonist—pathologically erotically attached and fixated on his possessive mother. And by 1951 Freudian theories were so well known in Egypt that a secondary school philosophy teacher proposed prenuptial psychological exams in order to prevent unhappy marriages due to unresolved Oedipus complexes!

Scholars who have tackled the question of psychoanalysis and Islam have tended to focus on it as problem, by assuming that psychoanalysis and Islam have been “mutually ignorant” of each other, and they have placed Islam on the couch, as it were, alleging that it is resistant to the “secular” science of psychoanalysis. In my book, The Arabic Freud, I undo the terms of this debate and ask, instead, what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem,” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement.

What I found was that postwar thinkers in Egypt saw no irreconcilable differences between psychoanalysis and Islam. And in fact, they frequently blended psychoanalytic theories with classical Islamic concepts. For example, when they translated Freud’s concept of the unconscious, the Arabic term used, “al-la-shuʿur,” was taken from the medieval mystical philosopher Ibn ʿArabi, renowned for his emphasis on the creative imagination within Islamic spirituality.

Islamic thinkers further emphasized similarities between Freud’s interpretation of dreams and Islamic dream interpretation, and they noted that the analyst-analysand (therapist-patient) relationship and the spiritual master-disciple relationship of Sufism (the phenomenon of mysticism in Islam) were nearly identical. In both instances, there was an intimate relationship in which the “patient” was meant to forage their unconscious with the help of their shaykh (spiritual guide) or analyst, as the case might be. Both Sufism and psychoanalysis, then, were characterized by a relationship between the self and the other that was mediated by the unconscious. Both traditions exhibited a concern for the relationship between what was hidden and what was shown in psychic and religious life, both demonstrated a preoccupation with eros and love, and both mobilized a highly specialized vocabulary of the self.

What, precisely, are we to make of this close connection between Islamic mysticism and psychoanalysis? On the one hand, it helps us identify something of a paradox within psychoanalysis, namely that for some psychoanalysis represents a non-religious and even atheistic world view. And there is ample evidence for this view within Freud’s own writings, which at times pathologized religion in texts such as The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. At the same time, in Freud and Man’s Soul, Bruno Bettelheim argued that in the original German Freud’s language was full of references to the soul, going so far as to refer to psychoanalysts as “a profession of secular ministers of souls.” Similarly, psychoanalysis was translated into Arabic as “tahlil al-nafs”—the analysis of the nafs, which means soul, psyche, or self and has deeply religious connotations. In fact, throughout the twentieth century there have been psychoanalysts who have maintained a receptive attitude towards religion and mysticism, such as Marion Milner or Sudhir Kakar. What I take all of this to mean is that psychoanalysis as a tradition is open to multiple, oftentimes conflicting, interpretations and we can take Freud’s own ambivalence towards religion, and towards mysticism in particular, as an invitation to rethink the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion.

What, then, if religious forms of knowledge, and the encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam more specifically, might lead us to new insights into the psyche, the self, and the soul? What would this mean for how we think about the role of religion and ethics in the making of the modern self? And what might it mean for how we think about the relationship between the West and the Islamic world?

FreudOmnia El Shakry is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt and the editor of Gender and Sexuality in Islam. Her new book, The Arabic Freud, is out this September.

Global Ottoman: The Cairo-Istanbul Axis

First published in Global Urban History as ”Global Ottoman: The Cairo-Istanbul Axis” by Adam Mestyan. Republished with permission.

On a Sunday at the end of January 1863 groups of sheikhs, notables, merchants, consuls, and soldiers gathered in the Citadel of Cairo. They came to witness a crucial event: the reading aloud of the imperial firman that affirmed the governorship of Ismail Pasha over the rich province of Egypt. The firman was brought by the Ottoman sultan’s imperial envoy. After the announcement, which occurred, of course, in Ottoman Turkish, Ismail held a reception. Local Turkic notables and army leaders came to congratulate and express their loyalty. A few months later, in April 1863, they received Sultan Abdülaziz in person in Alexandria—something that had not occurred since the Ottomans occupied Egypt in the sixteenth century. From Alexandria the sultan took the train to Cairo. This was the first trip of a caliph on the tracks.

 

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The Fountain of the Valide (the mother of the khedive), between 1867 and 1890, by Maison Bonfils, Library of Congress.

But what did Ottoman mean exactly in Egypt? My forthcoming book, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt, examines the significance and meaning of the Ottoman imperial context for the history of Egyptian nationalism. The book demonstrates the continuous negotiation between Turkic elites in Egypt and local intellectuals and notables bound by collective, albeit contested, notions of patriotism. There was an invisible compromise through the new representations and techniques of power, including the theater. This local instrumentalization and mixing of urban Muslim and European forms is the backstory to new political communities in the Middle East. Importantly, the Ottoman connection was an urban one: imperial elites are urban elites and rural elites had to become urban ones in order to maximize their interests by the fin-de-siècle.

So, what does the Ottoman framework mean for urban historians of the Arab world and in particular of Egypt? Such a framework does two important things: as Ehud Toledano underlines, it points to the delegated power of the governors by the sultan; and it reveals that new (elite) consumption practices and technologies spread not only by direct contact between local and European actors but also by the imperial mediation of Istanbul, or vice versa, by local provincial mediation to the capital. The Ottoman Empire guaranteed the network of free and safe trade, and movement between cities still in the nineteenth century. These basic features of the Ottoman context remained in place even after the British occupation of Egypt until 1914.

Such a perspective does not diminish the factual power of European empires and their military interventionism to protect their economic interests. On Barak eminently showed that the first train line in Egypt was crucial for British rule in India in the 1850s. European technologies and new sources of energy (coal, electricity) also helped the Ottomans to reach their far-flung domains quickly (remember the sultan arrived via train in Cairo). These instances, however, do not mean that the sultan’s (or his representatives’) power was usurped by Europeans completely until the 1870s. “Bringing the Ottomans back in” destabilizes the bifurcated view of West and East by highlighting a plural system of power just before the scramble for Africa.

We should not read “Ottoman” as “old” in contrast to the European “new.” This is the exciting moment of the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire, in which new technologies were “Ottomanized” to a certain extent, next to legal changes. There was an Ottoman elite modernity representing novelty to the provincial populations which had milliard connections to bourgeois practices globally.

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Interior of the Mosque of Silahdar Agha, picture by the author.

In the context of nineteenth-century Cairo, the most aesthetic representations of power were often formulated in terms of Ottoman sovereignty—a sovereignty that the pashas of Egypt wished to renounce but never did. Among these Ottoman features, one can see the mosque of Mehmed Ali in the Citadel. Doris Behrens-Abuseif reminds us that this mosque represents both Mehmed Ali’s power and Ottoman imperial aesthetics. It dominates the city’s skyline to this day. The pasha’s military elite brought late Ottoman baroque to Cairo: just look at the mosque of Sulayman Silahdar Agha in al-Mu‘izz Street and other smaller Ottoman mosques, schools, fountains, and palaces around the city. Though featuring local characteristics (“the Egyptian dialect of Ottoman architecture”), these structures are unmistakably Istanbulite and were built prior to or in the 1870s. A particularly interesting interplay between Ottoman and European aesthetics, hygienic considerations, and capitalism occurred in the creation of various public and private gardens in nineteenth-century Cairo and Alexandria. Buildings of power such as the Abdin Palace were likely conceived in a competition with the Ottoman capital (there the Dolmabahçe Palace was new in the 1850s) restaging political representation in a “modern” architectural idiom.

Socially, there are some who understand the Ottoman presence in Cairo (and in Egypt in general) as “The Turks in Egypt,” to quote the useful but somewhat misleading publication title of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. There were certainly ethnic Turks in Ottoman Egypt. The local population looked at the quite cruel Ottoman military ruling class as the “Turks” (al-Atrāk). Yet, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Cairo, there were many Ottoman Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Circassian families whose primary or secondary language was some version of Turkish and who had family or economic ties to various Ottoman cities in Asia and Europe. Their leading members rapidly transformed themselves into Franco- and Italophone “cultural creoles” (to use Julia Clancy-Smith’s expression), who forged new identities precisely by distancing themselves from their Ottoman past. Another identity strategy, not necessary exclusive of the previous one, was nationalism.

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Ismail Pasha, Library of Congress.

The Cairo Ottoman elite was connected to Istanbul and was part of the imperial order. There was an elite Ottoman global network. The rulers, their families, and various relatives lived in both cities (later in Paris and in Switzerland). Every day, orders, secret reports, gifts, and personal staff arrived from Istanbul in Alexandria to be transported to Cairo and vice versa. From the 1860s onwards, this political and leisure traffic was facilitated by the Aziziya steamship company. The landowning-ruling households developed significant economic investments in between both cities, not to mention the large yearly tribute Egypt paid to the sultanic treasury. Ottoman treaties applied to Egypt to a significant extent. In the 1860s, as Nicolas Michel argues, the Ottoman Empire not only remained skeptical of the Suez Canal, but actually intervened in its construction. Ismail Pasha himself is usually remembered for the Suez Canal opening ceremony and associated follies which led to foreign control of Egyptian finances. He was, however, also an Ottoman man, part of the imperial elite and intimately familiar with Istanbul where he lived and where he eventually died. His mother, Hoşyar, who maintained a full Ottoman cultural elite household, invested significantly in the Muslim landscape of Cairo. Last but not least, one should not forget that the Ottoman sultan’s firman was the legal basis of the pashas’ rule.

There was also an invisible Ottoman underworld in Egypt. Sufis orders, especially in Cairo, had spiritual and material significance in Istanbul. Musicians and entertainers travelled between the two rich centers and other cities. Religious endowments (sing. waqf) in Cairo were related to Istanbul in many ways, going back to the sixteenth century. Religious scholars often received a salary from the sultan or from the Sheikh-ül-Islam. Small merchant networks fully functioned between Egypt, the Syrian provinces, and Tunis. Shari‘a court cases from Cairo could sometimes even reach the Istanbul courts. The question of religious endowments in Egypt belonging to individuals in republican Turkey remained a complex problem until the 1950s. Merchants living in Istanbul and in other parts of the empire had significant investments in Cairo and vice versa. Likewise, criminals circulated (and sometimes escaped) between Istanbul and Cairo. Al-Qanun al-Sultani, the “Sultanic Law,” was the basis of the penal system in Egypt, though the governor wanted the right of death penalty for himself in the 1850s. Political dissidents also commuted between the two cities (scholars are yet to properly explore the use of fin-de-siècle Cairo as an Ottoman hub of anti-Abdülhamidian propaganda). The khedives and the sultans used various figures in the capitals to keep each other at bay.

The often-romanticized bourgeois society of Alexandria was in large part a semi-Ottoman society, which had its less spectacular but perhaps even more powerful sister-groups in Cairo. The ministries in Cairo received the French, Arabic, and Turkish newspapers printed in Istanbul until the 1880s. Armenian refugees arrived in Egypt in large numbers. Egyptians were legally Ottoman citizens until the First World War.  Even in the 1920s there were (Ottoman) Turkish newspapers printed in Cairo.

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Citadel of Cairo, between 1870 and 1890, by Antonio Beato, Library of Congress.

The British occupation did not reduce the Istanbul-Cairo traffic. Egypt and its capital Cairo remained both a cultural and financial market for Ottomans—from the Ottoman musical theater brought by enterprising Turkish-speaking Armenians, to clothing and other products.  Indeed, the occupation arguably boosted the symbolic Ottoman presence by the arrival of an Ottoman Imperial High Commissioner (the war hero Muhtar Pasha) in Cairo in 1885. Ottoman flags symbolized Egypt’s belonging and resistance in the 1890s. Some argue this was a mere instrumentalization of the Ottoman Empire because Egyptian anti-colonial mass nationalism had already bloomed, clamoring for an independent nation-state.

The urban nature of these dynamics and relations cannot be overemphasized. Rural Egyptians rarely identified with the empire. Outside the cities, “the Turks” meant taxation, conscription in the army, misuse of power, and pashas and beys with legal privileges. Until the nineteenth century, peasants could apply for justice to the distant sultan as his subjects by way of petitions, but the Mehmed Ali family, by assuming legislative powers, blocked this unique means of connection between the poorest and the highest.

The provincial system of the late Ottoman Empire was torn between centralization, local concerns, and integration into global infrastructures, as Johann Büssow, Christoph Herzog, On Barak, Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, and Till Grallert have recently shown on the examples of Ottoman Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, respectively. It was up to local elite activity to shape whether the processes of urbanization and capitalism were to be paired with imperial initiatives as negotiations played out in the European imperial context.

MestyanAdam Mestyan is a historian of the Middle East. He is an assistant professor of history at Duke University and a Foreign Research Fellow (membre scientifique à titre étranger) at the French Institute of Oriental Archeology – Cairo. His first monograph, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt, presents the essential backstory to the formation of the modern nation-state in the Middle East.

Nile Green: What happened when a Muslim student went to Cambridge in 1816

GreenTwo hundred years ago, there arrived in London the first group of Muslims ever to study in Europe. Dispatched by the Crown Prince of Iran, their mission was to survey the new sciences emerging from the industrial revolution.

As the six young Muslims settled into their London lodgings in the last months of 1815, they were filled with excitement at the new kind of society they saw around them. Crowds of men and women gathered nightly at the ‘spectacle-houses’, as they called the city’s theatres. London was buzzing with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo a few months earlier, and the new sciences – or ulum-i jadid – that the students had been sent to discover seemed to be displayed everywhere, not least in the new steamboats that carried passengers along the Thames.

As the weeks turned into months, the six strangers began to realise the scale of their task. They had no recognisable qualifications, and no contacts among the then-small groves of academe: they didn’t even know the English language. At the time, there was no Persian-to-English dictionary to help them.

Hoping to learn English, and the Latin that they mistakenly took to still be Europe’s main language of science, the would-be students enlisted a clergyman by the name of Reverend John Bisset. An Oxford graduate, Bisset told them about England’s two ancient seats of learning. When two of the students were subsequently taken on by the mathematician and polymath Olinthus Gregory, further links were forged with the universities, since Gregory had spent several years as a successful bookseller in Cambridge. A plan was hatched to introduce at least one of the students, Mirza Salih, to a professor who might be amenable to helping a foreigner study informally at one of the Cambridge colleges.

This was long before Catholics were allowed to study at Britain’s universities, so the arrival in Cambridge of an Iranian Muslim (one who would go on to found the first newspaper in Iran) caused sensation and consternation.

The don who was selected to host Salih was a certain Samuel Lee of Queens’ College. Lee appears to have been an odd candidate for supporter of the young taliban, as the students were called in Persian. A committed Evangelical, Lee was devoted to the cause of converting the world’s Muslims to Christianity. Along with other colleagues at Queens’, including the influential Venn family, he also had close ties to the Church Missionary Society. Founded in 1799, the Society was fast becoming the centre of the Cambridge missionary movement.

Yet it was precisely this agenda that made the young Muslim so attractive to Lee. The point was not so much that Salih’s conversion might bring one more soul to Christian salvation. Rather, it was that as an educated Persian-speaker, Salih might help the professor in his great task of translating the Bible into Persian, a language that was at the time also used across India, as well as what is today Iran. Lee jumped at the opportunity. And so it was that Salih was invited to Cambridge.

As his Persian diary reveals, Salih came to like the professor enormously. For though posterity would commemorate Lee as the distinguished Oxbridge Orientalist who rose to the grand status of Regius Professor of Hebrew, his upbringing was far humbler. Lee had been raised in a small Shropshire village in a family of carpenters and, in his teens, was apprenticed to a woodworker himself. On a research trip from California, I visited Lee’s home village of Longnor. It is still a remote place today, reached by single-lane tracks hidden in the hedgerows. At the local church, I was delighted to find the initials of his carpenter great-grandfather, Richard Lee, carved into the pews he had made for his fellow villagers.

Two hundred years ago, it was almost unknown for a country boy like Sam Lee to become a Cambridge professor, but he had a genius for languages that won him the patronage of a local gentleman. As a similarly ambitious young scholar on the make, Salih warmed to the self-made Lee, and in his Persian diary he recorded his life story with admiration.

Through Lee’s patronage, Salih was able to lodge at Queens’ College, and dine in the hall with dons such as William Mandell and Joseph Jee. At the time, the president of Queens’ was the natural philosopher Isaac Milner, as famous a conversationalist as he was a chemist. Salih certainly enjoyed the dinners at the high table, but his time in Cambridge was not all a Regency feast. He made study tours of the libraries that interested him, especially the Wren Library at Trinity College, which housed the statue of Sir Isaac Newton. In his diary, Salih called him ‘a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England’.

In return for having the closed world of the university opened to him, Salih helped Lee in his work on the Persian Bible. He even wrote a letter of recommendation when Lee was first nominated for the post of Regius Professor. The letter is still preserved in the university archives.

Between Salih’s diary, Lee’s letters and university documents, a rich picture emerges of the unlikely relationship formed between this foreign Muslim and what was then the most muscularly Christian of the Cambridge colleges.

The university was only one of many places that Salih and his fellow Muslim students visited during their four years in England, questing for the scientific fruits of the Enlightenment. The encounter between ‘Islam and the West’ is often told in terms of hostility and conflict, but Salih’s diary presents a quite different set of attitudes – cooperation, compassion and common humanity – and, in preserving the record of an unexpected relationship with the evangelical Lee, unlikely friendships. Written in England at the same time as the novels of Jane Austen, Salih’s diary is a forgotten testament, and salutary reminder of the humane encounter between Europeans and Muslims at the dawn of the modern era.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include Sufism: A Global History and The Love of Strangers. He lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Arab Imago: A slideshow of portrait photography

The Arab Imago book coverThe dawn of photography coincided with the expansion of European imperialism; as a result, many of the oldest photographs from the Middle East come from the skewed colonial perspective of Europeans. In his forthcoming book, The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography 1860-1910Stephen Sheehi offers an alternative history via numerous Arab and Armenian photographers who created their own images of Middle Eastern people. Sheehi seeks to define the past by these insider photographs, not the Orientalist pictures first circulated by foreign photographers. Many of the images come from posed studio portraits, showcasing the intricacy and clarity of the style, as well as the wide range of people who chose to be photographed.

This slideshow represents just a small selection of the early photographs featured in the book. Click on an image to enlarge and read the caption.