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Orientations to the Past

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This chapter’s sections focus on materials produced in the nineteenth century, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the ninth century. If one reads them in the order designated in the table of contents, the progression is in reversed chronology. But the discussions make it clear that pasts are always creations. The order for presenting events is in the hands of writers and others contending to become a part of the conversation.

More than the basic observation about chronology, the designated progression moves from the most to the least familiar way to understand the Islamic past. Perspectives that came to the fore under the primacy of European ideas are still very much with us. Authors such as G. W. Leitner and Sayyid Ilahi Bakhsh Angrezabadi are the easiest for us to understand because the information and interpretation found in their work conditions how the world looks to us intuitively at present. While easiest to absorb, the most proximate authors are also the most difficult to scrutinize critically because doing this requires deconstructing our own presumptions.

Inflections pertaining to the past embedded in works produced many centuries ago are easier to notice due to their sheer otherness. But these works require much more work to decipher adequately because we do not have an intuitive understanding of their contexts. The world Juvayni, Tabib, and Vassaf inhabited is difficult to imagine because the sources are, for us, simultaneously information and interpretation, both text and context.

The representations found in Mas’udi contain no inkling of what the state of the lands he describes would end up being a couple of centuries after his time, in the Mongol period. In the normative understanding, time moves forward from past to present. But narration of time works in reverse. Interpreters placed in present circumstances create pasts in the face of evidence and exigencies contemporary to them.

The contexts discussed in this chapter are “moments” from which to reconstitute how the Islamic past appeared to a select group of authors. These moments are my creations, stemming from my decisions regarding what I understand as critical junctures in Islamic time. Discussions similar to what I have provided could be created based on alternative moments. Two further obvious examples in this regard are noted on the sidebar in this section. The conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when Ottoman Muslims triumphed over Byzantine Christians, was a signature moment for the transformation of a huge geography in the Middle East and Europe. Similarly, the fall of Granada in 1492, when Spanish Catholic monarchs routed the last remaining Muslim polity in Iberia, shaped the destinies of large communities. Islam’s pasts and futures look very different when seen from these two moments when Muslims and Christians were beset with opposing fortunes.

In the web model of the past I advocate in this book, moments function as clusters of interconnected nodes within which traffic flows between ideas and objects in multiple directions. To tell the past, I manipulate the evidence to produce images that I find compelling and “true” based on my epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical commitments. I should say, emphatically, that my projections are not definitive or categorical. To suggest that would be to undermine the core message I am trying to convey in this book. But to state this is not to imply that creating the past is a free-form exercise. My projections are subject to criteria pertaining to evidence and plausibility to which I am committed and that I presume to be operative for my presumed audience.

We must find patterns of flow and connection, the making and unmaking of the lives of individuals and societies over time. We should not reify Islam as having a lifecycle or some kind of internal momentum of its own that has propelled a single history.

To the greatest extent possible, we should accord authors and others whose expressions we consider to be the past as being free or constrained to the same level as we are ourselves. For them as for us, evidence mattered, although what is admissible or inadmissible as such varies greatly between different contexts. And the same goes for other elements, such as procedures for argument, attraction of mode of presentation, limits imposed by the medium in which the expression is occurring, intellectual conditioning and commitments, social and political positioning, and financial freedom or constraint.

For Islamic pasts, we must attend to situational issues pertaining to orientation without presuming predetermined vectors of development. As historians of many stripes, we must find patterns of flow and connection, the making and unmaking of the lives of individuals and societies over time. In doing this, we should not reify Islam as having a life cycle or some kind of internal momentum of its own that has propelled a single history. Rather, Islam is, and has always been, made and remade through the creation of pasts from diversified presents. Attending to material circumstances that condition these presents is a key element when assessing the logic of narrating time.

Exploring moments of transformation is an invitation to create new clusters in the web of history. When we concentrate on one or another set of data, the web transforms since it must be seen from a particular vantage point. This process brings some connections into view while causing other connections to disappear. The creation of clusters is our choice and not a matter tied to a pregiven, unilinear history. The web of history is beholden to material evidence, although the pictures and interpretations it gives rise to change continuously based on choices made by commentators ancient and present.

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