Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:
I am interested in politics and the role of political power in premodern Middle East. What attracts me most in my research is documenting the operation and negotiation of power, excavating the sites and forms of resistance to it despite its overwhelming controlling force, and reflecting on its discursive generation in texts. I focus primarily on intellectual discourses, the writing of movers and shakers, of ‘those who counted,’ the elite, the powerful to excavate the ways in which they wanted to shape the world they inhabited and to examine the politics of negotiating their desires. I am particularly interested in reading texts dialogically attending to their polyphonic and intertextual dimensions to mark breaks and disruptions in, as well as formation of new, discourses. I find translation theories and what is usually identified as the linguistic turn refreshing in historical analysis and interpretation.
Provisional sketch of essay:
I trace back the genealogy of the secondary reflective thinking in the Islamic Middle East about politics to the second half of the 8th century. I argue that this new language about politics was distinct from the one formulated as an auxiliary to the ruler’s practical needs and from the customary writing of “princely advice.” Enabled by the development of Arabic language, it aimed at helping rulers shape structures and practices, which in turn generated new subjectivities responsive to the post-revolutionary Abbasid politics, and addressed explicitly the nature, exercise, allocation, negotiation, contestation, and justification of power. For the first time, it made possible to speak about the ‘rules of the game,’ which allows us to distinguish, at the level of discourse, between pre-politics, where ad hoc, spontaneous, and non-goal oriented actions constituted the bulk of the response to grievances, and ‘politics’ proper. Furthermore, it was a language in which politics could be discussed as a function of cause-effect relation with a history, rather than an effect of textually/scripturally grounded theological universals. Finally, what we might properly call ‘Islamic’ political language, that is the ‘trans-political’ discourse in the sense of inventing politics at human level but attributing it to the divine, like what theological logic does in its operation, was an effect of the ‘jurisprudential turn’ in the early 9th century, which may be traced back to no earlier than al-Shafii (d. 820). This emerging political discourse must be thought of as distinct from pious exhortations, expressions of theological positions on certain matters of significance, and practical manuals for administrative needs (such as Abu Yusuf’s Kitab al-Kharaj), which in fact could hardly be called ‘Islamic’ as the principles of what constituted ‘Islamic’ had not been articulated yet. I will address these themes through the writing of an 8th century Abbasid scribe, Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 756). An upper-class member with tremendous privileges compared to common people, this bureaucrat advises his patron the Abbasid Caliph on how to run the empire effectively. Yet, his language may allow a reading of his text as a site of resistance to imperial power as well.