A Changing Interest in the Islamic World

Middle Eastern StudiesToday, i consider myself a student of world history, and I know that an interest in the Islamic world drew me into history. I have not always been fascinated with this region, but I can trace a my interest as far back as my childhood, growing up in a household that read news, politics, and political satire.

If I remember correctly, my family began watching The Daily Show right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That was my first introduction into world politics, but I was too young to understand any of it. Years later, in my sophomore year of high school, I developed a greater awareness of the world. It started when I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for a creative writing class. Then, in a world history class, we discussed the spread of Islam. I watched Jon Stewart, Gary Trudeau, and other political humorists dissect the war on terror. Lastly, at the end of the year, my friends and I saw a woman in a niqab pass us in the street. One of my friends turned and asked me if Flagstaff had any mosques. I shrugged. Another friend said that there were none, and then both expressed their thankfulness for the lack of mosques in our town.

That moment left a strange impression on me. It was not my first encounter with bigotry. After all, I grew up in Arizona. But it left a sour taste in my mouth being so close to friends as they said something that to me was unfounded in sound logic. Why be happy that there are no mosques? I was baffled.

In college, I decided to educate myself about the Islamic world. I wanted to combat bigotry at first, but the more I learned about Edward Said and Orientalism, the more I learned about the Safavids and Ottomans and Mughals, the more interviews I saw of Afghan women who smile when they bring up the forty years of warfare they’ve seen, the more I realized that my true interest was not in combating bigotry, but in seeing a region of the world through the eyes of that region’s inhabitants. I don’t know exactly when I arrived at my next conclusion, but I am now fully aware that if I were to study only bigotry, hatred, and misrepresentation, I would still have a skewed view of the Islamic world. Opposing bigotry is necessary, but if it’s the main focus of study, one is left with a perception of Muslims as hapless victims whose lives began with the emergence of an oppressive Europe, and as nothing else. In truth, the history I learned about was full of great passions, eras of peace and poetry contrasted with periods of strife, poverty, combat, and reconstruction. The history of the Islamic world, as is the case with any other history, should be studied not from the perspective of lofty postcolonial analysts, but from the perspective of the history’s communities as they lived and thought.

My interest in world history began with a desire to oppose misrepresentation, and has become an interest in how people lived, ate, thought, worshiped, wrote, constructed buildings, saw the world, saw their neighbors, encountered one another, wrote music, traded goods, and understood their mortality. Postcolonial criticism, I think, should never serve to make scholars feel better about the academic ancestry’s role in justifying colonialism. A liberal European perspective of Europe is still a Eurocentric perspective. Instead, I want to study how Afghans constructed their own identities. I want to study court society in the Mughal Empire. I want to study Palestinian love poetry, the development of algebra and astronomy and science in the medieval era, and different Sufi brotherhoods in North Africa.

How else can we study history?

-jk

 

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