“Form, Content, and Meaning: The Linguistic Turn and the Writing of the Islamic History” 

Shahzad Bashir

February 2, 2011

While working on a previous project, Shahzad Bashir states that he noticed that the body of the messiah figures prominently in Sufi hagiographic narratives written between 1300 C.E. and 1500 C.E.  Probing further into the issue of corporeality, Bashir found that it was not the body as a singular entity but the connections between bodies that were important in the narratives—that the body is essentially social.  His new book, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam, explores how Sufi hagiographic narratives, which generally have been dismissed by scholars as myth, can be used to construct a social history. 

Bashir also noticed that in Persianate texts, the past as a marker of identity is a central theme.  He argues that the years 1300 C.E.-1500 C.E. was a period in which social identity and ideologies were in a state of flux and that in Persianate texts the past is constantly being negotiated.  In light of these observations, he argues for a paradigm shift in how Islamic history is constructed. 

Bashir then proceeded to describe the two dominant paradigms regarding the construction of Islamic history.  Either scholars focus on origins, the life of Muhammad, considering his life to predetermine the way in which Islamic history develops, or scholars consider Islamic history from the modern period looking backwards.  He claims that this is problematic, as our own modern context informs the conclusions we draw regarding pre-modern history.  This leads to periodization—origins, classical, medival, and modern.  He asserts that these categories are assumed to be self-evident and when used without self-consciousness predetermines what is to be said about these periods and societies; that these categories condition how we think about historical information.  Bashir proposes that we change how we categorize history while paying close attention to the materials in question.

Bashir’s work focuses on the period between 1400 C.E. and 1600 C.E. and how individuals in that period objectify the past.  He states that during this period we have multiple “visions” of the past.  He argues that if we can objectify these multiple “visions” of the past, then we can gain a completely different understanding of these societies.  Thus, we can move away from the two dominate paradigms.  Instead of focusing on origins and modernity, close attention should be paid to the genre, framing, rhetoric, social intent and use of the text.  Bashir argues that sources are not merely descriptions of beliefs and practices but are parts of arguments.  He asserts that history lies in between the sources and is not confined to the sources themselves. 

Bashir states that discussions on Islamic historiography have been primarily concerned with chronicles, which were sponsored by political or literary elites.  He argues, however, that in order to understand the past other writings produced during this time period should be examined, such as epic, myth, allegory, prosopography, dictionaries, et cetera.  Not only should writings be considered but other cultural artifacts, such as paintings, should be considered as well.  He states that this period produced the greatest number of Persian paintings than any other period in history.  He, therefore, poses the question, “What does this have to say about the past and constructing Islamic history?”  He argues that texts, paintings, et cetera, can not be read or interpreted in a straightforward manner but must be read or interpreted with attention to what they might be representing.          

Bashir then proceeded to cite a poem by Shah Ismail, founder of the Safavid Dynasty, to demonstrate his point.  He argues that very little has been said about the poem other than that Ismail appears to be self-aggrandizing.  However, Bashir argues that self-aggrandizement is a common element of Persian poetry of this period and that scholars should focus on other aspects of the poem.  Bashir suggests scholars ask a new set of questions.  For example, the poem is written in the first person around the same time Babur, the first Mughal king, composed one of the most well-known autobiographies of Islamic literature.  Thus Bashir poses the question,“Why do kings start writing in the in first person all of the sudden?”  Bashir argues that, in order to answer these questions, we must engage in a nuanced reading of the text: “We don’t take those things literally, but we have to take them seriously to try to understand literary subjectivity that pertains to these materials.”  He then proceeded to show a series of Persian paintings, focusing particularly on how the present is laced together with the representations of the past.

In conclusion, Bashir argues that we must rethink Islamic history and memory.  There is no pre-ordained Islamic history that is determined by Muhammad’s life, rather it is a dynamic process based upon contingencies.  Secondly, we must demonstrate self-awareness by “adopting a perspective that is consistently mindful of locations of articulating voices, whether ours as modern interpreters or of the producers of the material that forms our data.”  Lastly, we must leverage “the inherent plurality of meaning to produce narratives that constitute radical challenges to received wisdom.”  We must think outside of the “boxes that have come to define us academically in various ways.”

Questions for consideration:
1)    What can other cultural artifacts, such as paintings, tell scholars about the location of power in Muslim societies that a text cannot?
2)    Bashir argues that organizing history into periods (classical, medival, modern, et cetera), to a degree, predetermines the conclusion we draw about societies existing during these timeframes.  What other categories or divisions, other than periodization, do we assume in discussing the history of a society that perhaps shape the conclusions we draw?
3)    Perhaps scholars can reconstruct Islamic history, but is it likely that this reconstruction of Islamic history will be widely embraced by practitioners of Islam to the degree that Islamic memory will be reconstructed?

Submitted by: Melissa Reid
Research Assistant
The Institute for Signifying Scriptures

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