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Inadequacy of Timelines

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The line is a powerful ideographic tool used extensively to indicate temporal and other relationships for centuries. In premodern literary contexts, it can signify genealogical succession among families as well as voluntary groups invested in authority inherited from one’s predecessors. The modern notion of a timeline evolved out of this long-standing usage but has characteristics specific to the homogenized time that has gradually replaced other conceptualizations since the eighteenth century. Taking a variety of forms, the modern timeline communicates, with great economy, “the uniformity, directionality, and irreversibility of historical time” (Rosenberg and Grafton, Cartographies of Time, 19).

The basic graphic of time as a line that now feels natural to us presents time as an empty canvas, divided according to a uniform principle, upon which events can be plotted. The modern timeline is a symptom of ideational developments that originated in Europe but have by now acquired worldwide currency. Its usage tracks the fact that, since the eighteenth century, there has been an ever greater emphasis on streamlining chronology to create a universally applicable framework for time. This emphasis itself resulted from the way greater connectivity led people (especially Europeans with most access to material resources) to devise systems of knowledge able to accommodate perspectives becoming available simultaneously from increasing numbers of human contexts around the world.

The conjunction between global connectivity and epistemological change had different (although interconnected) implications for present versus past time. For the present, requirements of commerce, communication, and governance in an ever more globalized world resulted in agreement upon a universal time within which all empires and nations could place themselves. Getting to the agreement was a long drawn out, far from easy process, and universal time gained ubiquity only at the very end of the nineteenth century.

However, a successful conclusion of the process meant that “local times were abolished in favor of time zones and countrywide mean times; the Gregorian calendar spread to parts of the non-Western world; time was eventually severed from natural and agricultural rhythms and instead assumed more abstract qualities, a grid to be grafted onto natural rhythms; time was increasingly linked up with occupational notions—work time, leisure time, recreational time, time for acquiring useful knowledge” (Ogle, Global Transformation of Time: 1870–1950, 1–2).

As bureaucrats and rulers argued about a common present time in the nineteenth century, professional and amateur scholars tackled the related task of giving order to the past on the basis of accumulating data. To be made meaningful in a global frame, the past too required a scale that went beyond what were perceived as partial and parochial understandings of time. The invention of a standardized scale for the past is entwined with the birth of history as a modern academic field. This story has been the subject of numerous illuminating works and does not bear repeating in detail in the present context. Instead, I would like to highlight aspects of the process’s final result through a couple of evocative examples.

Timeline as Historical Form

Emma Willard (1787–1870) was a brilliant author and educator with a long career as a promoter of women’s education in the United States. Her Temple of Time, published in 1846 in the United States, is a mnemonic conspectus of universal history. The image of a temple in classical European style presents the intersection of three hierarchically arranged temporal orders: the building’s pillars mark Common Era centuries, representing abstract time; inscriptions on the pillars (rulers) and lists inscribed on the temple’s ceiling (statesmen, etc.) tether biographies to abstract time; and twisting columns containing text, which snake across the temple’s floor, encapsulate destinies of groups identified as nations (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc.) in correlation with abstract and biographical times.

The density of information contained in this graphic reflects the variety and complexity of discourses about the past that needed to be assimilated by an educated person in Euro-American societies in the nineteenth century. However, the distinctively modern element here is not the comparison between pasts coming from multiple sources. This was a concern for many premodern chroniclers and philosophers as well, among them Europeans and Muslim polymaths such as Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (d. ca. 1050) and Rashid al-Din Tabib (d. 1318).

The temple’s modernity resides in the timeline that is invisible in itself but forms the basis of the serialized placement of pillars marking the passage of impersonal time. Everyone looking at the image is presumed to have an intuitive grasp of this timeline as the image’s understructure. While expert viewers may disagree regarding text placed across the surfaces of the architectural elements as being a part of the graphic, they would consider the structure of time beyond dispute. Similarly, novices are presumed to know that time progresses regularly and are pushed to treat this as the basis for acquiring universal knowledge about the past.

For the creator and the presumed viewer of the temple graphic, abstract time has a totalizing yet agent-less authority over other temporal scales, such as lifetimes and narratives shared among religious communities and nations. I propose that to derive richer understandings of Islamic and other pasts, we must dismantle the presumed logic of representations such as the Temple of Time.

In addition to the primacy of abstract time as the scale, other aspects of the worldview exemplified in Willard’s graphic need recognition. Corresponding to the floor of the Temple of Time, these are seen more easily in The Histomap, a graphic representation of world history published in the United States in 1931. Abstract time dominates here as well, represented in the scale covering 4,000 years that runs vertically along both sides of the map. In between the scale’s regularity, we see lines twisting and tortured, representing what the work’s title refers to as “Relative Power of Contemporary States, Nations and Empires.” By looking horizontally between the years marked on the vertical axis, the viewer gets a snapshot of the relative balance of power between entities existing contemporaneously at a given moment on the scale.

While we are not provided a definition for “power,” the condensing of four millennia into a chart is based on a qualitative progression leading up to the global dominance of powers identified with Europe that have the widest presence at the very bottom (United States, British Empire, Continental Empires, and the USSR). The material wealth and technological capacity that allows these entities to dominate the world are the implicit definition of strength. Even as time continues its unconcerned march in the abstract scale, The Histomap gives history a purpose, which is to explain, and justify, power structures pertaining to human beings prevalent at the time the map was generated.

Underlying modern universal time—impersonal in scale but imbued with the power relations of the modern present—is the principle of material causality purportedly observable through scientific methods. Since the nineteenth century, this understanding of causality has acted as the touchstone for differentiating between the plausible and the implausible regarding claims about the past. Formulated in visions of progress or conservatism, and of development and stasis, the same principle has helped shape varying visions of the future.

Pasts and futures tied to timelines via investment in material causality have been the seemingly natural way to comprehend phenomena at any scale. At a micro level, causality presumed within the timeline is central to matters such as the detective novel and the modern science of forensics. In grander terms, its effects can be seen in understandings of biological evolution, theories of economic change, and sociopolitical dominance represented in documents such as the Temple of Time and The Histomap.

The ramifications of causality in this vein have not resulted in investigative naïveté. I am not suggesting that the notion of history as a modern science is a blind ideology or conspiracy. In fact, since the nineteenth century, the number and complexity of causes that can be invoked to make sense of observed data feeding into timelines has become greater and greater. Investigators operating on the basis of material causality have usually realized that figuring out one connection spurred them toward looking for others. However, even absolute uncertainty in this perspective is premised on the imagination of time as a unidirectional line. The observer’s frustration over the inability to substantiate the causes for an occurrence belie the foundational expectation that such causes must propel linear temporal progression in a single direction.

The important thing here is the epistemological pattern that connects material causality to the notion of time as an impersonal series of moments. The ascendancy of the timeline as a modern interpretive and representational mode and its underlying presumptions about causality has had specific consequences for the way Islam has been imagined.

Timelined Islam

Since the nineteenth century, initially by Western observers but then becoming more pervasive, a theologically driven Islamic chronology has become embedded in the map of time imagined as homogenous and neutral progression. While the roots of Western efforts to give meaning to the term Islam can be traced to medieval European intellectual cultures, it is only in the middle of the nineteenth century that we start to see comprehensive “histories” of Islam. A main purpose of such histories was to place Islam within larger frameworks of spatiotemporal knowledge.

In space, Muslims could be mapped to various parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, while in time, Islam was put after Christianity or adjacent to epochs pertinent to European societies from the sixth century onward (as in The Histomap). These broad coordinates provided the contours or outside boundaries of the limits of Islam’s specificity. Islam’s internal dynamics as a temporal phenomenon were then established through recourse to materials generated by Muslims themselves. As I discuss in greater detail in other chapters, Western scholars of Muslim contexts—self-proclaimed orientalists—translated and adapted discourses found in Islamic narrative sources to fill out the picture of Islam as a spatiotemporal phenomenon.

I see the equivalence between the temporal contents of Islamic sources about the past and the modern conceptualization of timelines as a case of misalliance. Islamic literary sources that describe the past certainly contain accounts of linear temporal progression. Looking across various genres of literature, these progressions come with dates in various calendars, providing uniform measures of abstract time that may begin with Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina in the first year of the Hijri calendar (622 CE). But the calendar as a timeline of the presumed community’s memory is a matter quite different from the timeline of history as conceived in the modern perspective.

The central issue is that chronicles and other works describing the past written by premodern Muslims are driven not by an overarching commitment to material causality but by motives of political or religious legitimacy. What we find in these sources are matters such as accounts of rulers, dynasties, exceptional genealogies such as descent from Muhammad, scholarly lineages, and chains of human beings that claim to transmit esoteric authority over time. Progressions found in these sources are, invariably, accounts of time driven by the interests and ideological requirements of their producers. The serialized time we see here is always embodied, pegged to questions of legitimate succession rather than to an abstract sense of events occurring through material causation alone.

Moreover, as my readings of various sources show throughout this book, these accounts of time are constantly in competition with rival accounts, all of them vying for Islamic authority and authenticity. Very far from representing homogenous, disinterested time, these progressions are Islamic arguments in and of themselves that are critical to the perspectives represented by their authors. When such temporal schemes are made synonymous with the modern timeline pattern, interests of particular religious groups are absorbed into secular history. The timeline of Islamic history that we can find replicated endlessly in modern works from the nineteenth century to today is then a case of taking certain Islamic religious claims on face value at the expense of others.

Anchoring the discussion of the Islamic past to the timeline that has been operative since the nineteenth century is an unfortunate limit. The acceptance of this timeline represents a reification that is the source of several fundamental problems in the modern academic conceptualization of Islam. It is connected to an overemphasis on the Arab Middle East as the essential repository of Islam. It has also led to programmatic readings of the Islamic past that include an overweening concern with the period of the origins of Islam, followed by a classical age, and supposed decline.

Such an approach has tended to see the evolution of Islamic ideas and practices as part of a predetermined or natural cycle of some sort that can be understood without reference to the circumstances and interests of individuals and groups. The single timeline for Islam has led also to an undervaluation of the role of human agency in creating time within Islamic social, cultural, and religious contexts. I propose that we substitute an entangled web for the timeline as an overarching metaphor for Islamic history.

A Web of History

Representations of time require tropes to make time perceivable and comprehensible. The timeline used for Islamic history since the nineteenth century is one such trope that is, I believe, inadequate to the purpose of describing the temporalities we can substantiate by understanding Islamic materials in their full complexity. The problem here is the very notion of the line as a way to model time. The issue cannot be alleviated by “thickening” the line with more data or allowing branching since these options retain structuration to a scale and the presumption of material causality as the sole basis for the way time flows. The situation calls for a change in paradigms.

I propose that we replace the line with the image of a perpetually transformable and transforming three-dimensional web. The web is a master trope of our own era through the way it represents computer-centered networks for communication. While I do mean to leverage our intuitive understanding of the electronic web, the thought I have in mind is something like an image from nature that creates a complex jumble. Such an image indicates patterning and intensive connectivity that includes varying densities and thicknesses, parallelisms, interruption, and obscuration. Lines in such an image do not have a predetermined directionality. Although my concern here is with Islam, the web metaphor is not exclusive to this case. I leave it to others to judge its viability and applicability to arenas of interest to them.

While the unidirectional line represents the homogeneity of time, I argue for us to see time as a tangle of differently configured lines that can signify a variety of temporal structures. Since time is constructed variably between differing actors and situations, the overarching trope we use to represent it must accommodate diversity in matters such as invention, progression, scaling, and direction. Rather than impersonal material causality, propulsion that constitutes the passage of time must acknowledge the agency of the person or entity positing relationships between events. Time is made by the one who makes a claim about it.

I am not suggesting that material causes do not exist or should be ignored such that, for example, setting a building on fire does not cause it to burn. While that certainly happens, the fact that the building burned is never the crux of historical narration. When telling of the past, it amounts to a bland and inconsequential note to say that a building burned upon being set alight. The observation matters only when it fits in a larger account of why the event happened and how it affected the story being told.

Historical (rather than purely material) causation is invented and adjudicated within a narrative concerned with an event. This means that, for history, causation must be seen to flow from the way a narrator sutures events together to create the story she tells. Thinking this way about causation makes it impossible to ignore the perspective of reporters and narrators when considering the passage of time. It compels us to be ever mindful of the social, political, ethical, and aesthetic investments embedded within projections about time.

As this chapter demonstrates, the city of Kudus is an excellent example for my conceptualization of Islamic history as a web. The first issue is the very choice of a particular entity to project the understanding of history. In this case, I am beginning with a place, which I treat as a node metonymic to the web. The representation of history I claim to see here is a creation based on my choice as a producer of a narrative about time.

The city can be replaced by all manner of different types of evidence: texts, specific monuments, life stories, concepts, and so on. All these points of data have temporal notions embedded within them that can be thematized through historiographical work. At this level, these nodes within the web of history are not pregiven; they are products of interpretive action. Once a node is posited, all evidence pertaining to knowledge about it can be treated as the locus of temporalities present within it.

Seen from the viewpoint of imagining Islamic history as a web rather than a timeline, all types of evidence pertaining to Islam in space and time can be subjected to the type of unpacking I am indicating for Kudus. A web works well as a trope because it allows, and encourages, multitemporal understandings. These, in turn, provide better access to the ever-changing human worlds that have been connected to materials available for adjudication.

The web is an apt representation also because, unlike the line, it is three dimensional, pluriform, and malleable. Constructions of time that we can observe in Islamic materials are marked by overlaps, contestations, leaps, and continual invention. The contents of this book provide a spectrum of examples to illustrate this point.

Related Sections in Other Chapters