Conceptual Framework

Copied to clipboard!

Islamic time is a conglomeration of mutable and malleable horizons that fold diverse pasts and futures into themselves. Substantiating this view requires that we understand the object of inquiry nominally; that is, Islam is a matter of naming rather than determining substances. Islam is found wherever it is invoked by name or inference, without an expectation of systemicity or internal coherence. Coming across evidence, we must first register Islam’s presence through name and then attempt to constitute its meaning through close examination.

I contend that the nominal approach is the optimal way to think historically about Islam. Being named “Islamic” by someone, somewhere, is the sole criterion that stretches across all the evidence I present in this book. By thinking nominally, we allow our imagination to mold to the evidence pertaining to Islam in all its diversity. Doing so avoids confining Islam to regions, time periods, and topics in an a priori way. Limitations rooted in presumptions pertaining to such factors are counterproductive and easily falsified when we consider the totality of data available for Islam. Moreover, naming oneself, others, and objects put to analysis is a crucial matter central to comprehension. Far from being trivial or superficial, naming is the core issue that has made “Islam” a consequential and powerful term in human affairs for centuries.

Within a nominal understanding, Islam is both phenomenon and discourse. It consists of elements that human beings experience and discuss in language. As phenomenon, Islam is encountered through experience involving entities that have aspects that are presented to our senses and faculties of apprehension. These can be observed in the built environment, material objects, paintings, linguistic traces that are heard or read, narratives that substantiate individuals or communities, and composite social situations involving experience, such as politics. Very often, a single phenomenon contains any number of temporal elements that can be teased out through attention to the pasts, futures, and horizons discernible in its details.

As phenomenon, I can identify Islam’s presence in particular evidence, either due to projections made in the materials or my assessment based on prior experience. Islam is simply a part of the world we can observe and experience in its full diversity. There is no reason to expect Islam as phenomenon to be coherent or consistent. Any coherence we attribute to it as phenomenon derives from the analytical scheme we bring to the evidence to render it meaningful for the specific purposes we have decided to privilege in a given situation.

Analyzing Islam as phenomenon requires resorting to frameworks for making meaning that have given rise to modern academic disciplines such as phenomenology, history, anthropology, and sociology. Methods used in these disciplines lead to bounded assessments of the material and social worlds we can apprehend. Coherence in these assessments is a function of the analytical tools. The evidence itself is far too diverse, incidental, and conflicting for Islam to be understood as a bounded system.

Islam is also articulated discourse, a result of human thought regarding words inherited from others and the experience of phenomena. As discourse, Islam is found in theology, philosophy, political systems, texts in oral and written form (i.e., words put into determined order to produce images and systems), and so on. Interpreting Islam as discourse requires recourse to various branches of narratology (philosophical and literary analysis) and lexicons and terminology.

In assessing discourse, we may attend to questions of coherence and incoherence, consistency or lack thereof, slippages, and so on. However, we cannot presume that all the discursive evidence we have for Islam coheres into a unified, describable system. As in the case of phenomenon, Islam as discourse is too wide-ranging and conflictual to warrant such an assumption. Whenever an attempt is made to force all discursive evidence pertaining to Islam into a coherent system, the result is a hierarchizing ideology that is unwarranted, prejudicial, and easily refutable.

Phenomenon and discourse are interdependent categories that are engaged concurrently in complex analysis. In objects, time can be the signature of the moment of production as well as the difference between when the objects were produced and what we make of them today based on a change of horizons. In discourse, narratives are time bound by definition as they unfold in successive moments, have horizons, and deploy pasts and futures for diverse purposes.

Reframing Islam Beyond Theology and Orientalism

To regard Islam as a closed system, whether in its internal logic or as a subject of inquiry, is a characteristic shared between Islamic theology and the orientalist tradition of Western scholarship. When undertaking historical work, I believe we should transcend both these paradigms through attention to base presumptions. To this end, two features of this book distinguish it from most existing modern scholarship on Islam, including my own prior work.

The first is that Islam is not treated as an object made by and for those who consider themselves Muslims. To take a confessional view is to see Islam theologically, whereas my interests are social and historical. From the perspective of trying to understand time as a nexus of pasts, futures, and horizons, Islam has been an object in the imagination of Muslims and non-Muslims alike throughout the period for which we have evidence.

One could say that Muslim and non-Muslim imaginations of Islam originate from different vantage points and have different horizons, but even here bifurcations are untenable. It is easy to find self-described Muslim views of Islamic past and future radically at odds with each other. Conversely, there is also no shortage of Muslim and non-Muslim views that dovetail perfectly. Moreover, we have extensive evidence for the traffic between Muslim and non-Muslim views of Islam in all periods. The question of religious confession is therefore inconsequential for present purposes.

Issuing in part from a nonconfessional approach, the second distinctive element of my approach is that I treat in a single analytical frame materials concerned with Islam that are usually divided into “primary” and “secondary” sources. This distinction is mainly about treating some materials as objects (narratives and artifacts that were produced in some past time) while regarding modern scholarly works as synthesizing acts undertaken by observers who stand apart from them. This is a taken for granted aspect of the modern scholarly enterprise that makes a categorical distinction between raw materials, treated as objects, and modern syntheses that reflect a commanding view of the terrain.

The primary-secondary distinction is rooted in a particular view of time that has the effect of turning some human beings and their labors into static objects while endowing the interpreting scholar with dynamic subjectivity. Put a different way, the distinction obscures the dynamism of the horizons of peoples alive in the past while making modern scholarly horizons appear authoritative and agentive. Destabilizing both these presumptions adds dynamism to the primary materials while also showing the persistently hidebound nature of the modern scholarly enterprise. The academy, after all, is one of the most conservative institutions in society. This is as true of the modern Western academy as it was for Muslim scholars working centuries ago.

Breaching the primary-secondary division is critical to my endeavor. First, much of modern scholarship on Islam amounts to an uncritical transmission of religious presumptions taken from sources authored by earlier scholars who wrote in a confessional Islamic vein. This means that a lot of secondary scholarship contains views whose religious roots have gone unacknowledged.

Second, the modern claim of objectivity has obscured scholars’ own ideological commitments with respect to time and other matters. The book brings modern scholars, including myself, into a direct comparative relationship with assessments offered by those whose effects have very often been the objects of scholarly analysis. In the standard mode of academic production, sources classified as primary or secondary are accorded different types of authority in the construction of analyses. Deprivileging both from their automatic authority opens up all their assertions to examination.

I believe that treating all narratives about Islamic pasts and futures together promises an important pathway toward postorientalist scholarship in the study of Islam. While the orientalism question has generated much discussion since the 1970s, scholarship on premodern Islamic materials has evolved very little from perspectives first promulgated by self-proclaimed orientalists in the nineteenth century. This is less true of discussions of modern contexts, although even here it is common to find assessments that are analytically thoroughly orientalist while claiming adherence to postorientalist views as a matter of personal politics.

The lag between critique and practice is due to the base presumption of the difference between, on the one hand, the objects of study presumed to contain static beliefs and opinions and, on the other, modern scholars whose critical insights bring other worlds into view without contamination from the circumstances of their own environment. I subvert this standard understanding by, for example, treating a tenth-century chronicler’s understandings of time and the past in the same vein as that of a late twentieth-century scholar. This maneuver is not naive anachronism. It is an analytical posture that highlights the effect of temporal presumptions that usually operate in the background and are unacknowledged but crucial framing conventions that predetermine the contents of academic perspectives. Time is an ideal venue to attempt this subversion since its characteristics, stated as well as presumed, are essential for both such authors.

By subjecting the two categories of authors to equal regard as well as suspicion, I attempt a way out of the discriminatory bias that has become associated with Western scholarship on Islam. My hope is to do so without romanticizing particular aspects of the Islamic past as truer than all else that comes under the Islamic umbrella. My ultimate commitment is to insist on treating all human interlocutors as agents who create worlds in the same instance as their actions reflect the imperatives of circumstances surrounding them.

My presentation of topics pertaining to Islam in the book are not meant as an argument for exclusivity or exceptionality. What I see in Islamic data is easily found in other contexts, religious and otherwise. My syntheses aim to make the universality and open-ended quality of discussions pertaining to Islam accessible to readers who may not possess recourse to original materials. An investigation into time in the way I am suggesting provides a way to combine the specificity and contingent nature of Islamic materials with topics common to general discussions in the humanities and the social sciences.

To be a historian is to theorize constantly regarding one’s own work and evidence in conjunction with observing a world perpetually in motion.

A New Idiom for Islamic History

History, we are often told, is the study of change over time. This understanding relies on an intuitive view of time as a scale on which we plot occurrences and human actions to posit stasis, development, regression, and so on. My work falls in the subtradition within historical study that insists that time itself has a history to which we must remain cognizant while pursuing our analyses. In this formulation, ideas and empirical information are equally important. To be a historian is to theorize constantly regarding one’s own work and evidence in conjunction with observing a world perpetually in motion.

My approach is a proposal for a new way to generate Islamic history. In the existing standard understanding, such history places Islam in time imagined as a stream flowing from the life of the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the sixth century CE to the present in the diverse Muslim communities we can find all over the world. I advocate a categorical break from the linear representation. Instead, as explained in detail in chapter 2, we should think of Islamic history as an entangled, three-dimensional web that accommodates the vast differences regarding the constructions of time we can find in Islamic phenomena and discourses. The web model allows connectivity and specificity without resorting to dichotomies such as orthodoxy-heterodoxy, center-periphery, high-low, literate-popular, modern-premodern, and moderate-extremist. Rather than attempting to correct existing views, I urge changing the very terms on which we make Islam an object of history.

My perspective is also oriented toward different ends than what is usually covered in the discussion of Islamic historiography. Works put to analysis in this area refer to matters such as philosophies of time and history, presumptions about human psychology and society, and the providential purpose for which God created the world and makes it subsist via human activity. While these matters do come up in my discussions, these are only one part of the analysis for several reasons.

First, I proceed from the understanding of time I have provided above. I am not attempting to recover, or put into operation, specific theories I might see presented in old works written by famous Muslim intellectuals. Second, since I see Islam as a creation of Muslims as well as non-Muslims, I do not weigh works for consideration based on authors’ religious affiliation. Third, by looking beyond the division of works into primary and secondary sources, I seek to understand commitments pertaining to time that I take to be coeval between centuries-old narratives and works by modern academic historians. And last, the literary sources that have been the sole focus of scholars working in the field of Islamic historiography are only one type of evidence, among many, that matters for my analyses.

For reimagining Islamic history, it is absolutely necessary to work with a maximally diversified repository of evidence. My treatments include a variety of literary genres: chronicles in many different forms; prosopography pertaining to social classes and professions; epics; devotional poetry and prayers; talismanic texts; modern novels and other fictional forms; and epigraphy. Additionally, I bring in art and architecture in varied forms; material culture ranging between luxury objects, funerary expression, mementos, and trinkets; and modern media productions such as photographs, posters, postcards, graffiti, websites, and films and television programs.

Interpreting a wide range of nondiscursive materials requires recourse to literary analysis, folklore studies, history of art and architecture, archaeology, and the study of material culture and media defined broadly. As with the case of history and historiography, my engagement with disciplinary debates in these fields is limited and strategic. For the objects I present as evidence, I have explored disciplinary literatures in some depth. However, my narrative avoids making direct reference to the specialized scholarship in order to maintain a narrative style that remains consistently welcoming to nonspecialists within and outside the academy.

This book is the result of puzzling over Islamic evidence that I see as being laden with temporal elements, and I show, describe, and analyze the evidence in a variety of ways. Specialized academic disciplines are like lenses made of complex methods that can be trained on the evidence to see it in degrees of detail and from diverse angles. What the materials are taken to mean depends, ultimately, on what readers and viewers make of my choices.


This book’s chapters are multisection topical essays that juxtapose materials spanning many centuries to substantiate relationships between time and Islam. Each chapter is self-contained while also providing embedded links to materials covered in other chapters. On the basis of topical linkages, the book’s electronic format allows viewers to read the sections in sequences other than the ones I have created in the textual and visual tables of contents. Keeping this possibility in mind, markers that signify sequencing between sections within each chapter have been kept as unobtrusive as possible.

The book’s visual program provides a type of access to evidence that is impossible in a printed volume. I regard the images as essential components of the arguments rather than as illustrations for what is conveyed in my narrative. I imagine readers engaging with the images to better understand the ideas as well as to look beyond my words. Modes for presenting the images are also keyed to my topical impetus, inviting movement and interactive engagement. By extending to overlay the text and then receding, the visual evidence disrupts the text-image hierarchy that usually pertains in academic publications. When put in stacks, juxtaposed, or made into a series that goes across the page, images convey visual narratives whose order can be manipulated by the reader. These maneuvers allow my argument regarding time to be substantiated through readers’ own experience of this book.

The book is akin to a building made of words and images that has multiple entry points and numerous internal pathways between adjacent rooms. One can experience it by either following the tour I have created (as in the textual table of contents) or by discovering parts and nooks and crannies at an explorer’s will. If the book is experienced in the prescribed order, a complex argument, with multiple parts, should reveal itself gradually from the beginning to the end. The intention, in the ideal, is that if readers were to take alternative paths through each chapter, or across chapters, the experience would still convey a complex, interconnected argument that would, however, become visible in a different order.

Anticipating the possibility that readers may proceed along different paths, I am not providing guiding chapter summaries in this introduction. The chapters’ framing discussions that, in print books, are typically placed in introductions and conclusions can be found in text boxes that appear when one clicks on the “overview” button in the main header in all sections. These boxes contain summaries that lay out, for each chapter, what I consider the major stakes of the topic together with the logic of, and interconnections between, my choices of examples. The summaries sketch the lineaments of the book’s arguments, while the sections provide the details.

Related Sections in Other Chapters