Current Institutional Affiliation
Assistant Professor, Civilization Studies, American University of Beirut

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2008
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, Columbia University
Trajectories of Learning and the Everyday Life of Ideas: Al-Azhar in the Eighteenth Century

My dissertation casts the intellectual and social history of the eighteenth-century Islamic world in an original light, combining a genealogical method with a microhistorical approach to the study of al-Azhar in Cairo. Despite its assumed centrality in Islam, al-Azhar mosque and seminary has elicited little critical study, either in the Arab or indeed in the Western academies. The existing literature relies on colonial-nationalist categories that chart a linear narrative of greatness-decline-modernization and reify culturalist geographies. Questioning the spatial and temporal parameters of Orientalist taxonomies, I seek to historicize al-Azhar, capitalizing on recent breakthroughs in the historiography of Islam in Africa and in the conceptualizations of the eighteenth century in the larger Ottoman and Arab-Islamic worlds. By retracing the trajectories of three different but connected scholars who defy the dichotomies which conventionally governed the study of the Islamic world such as Arab/African, orthodox/heterodox, normative/performative, I explore the everyday life of ideas in and around al-Azhar, re-imagined not as a central institution from which Islamic thought and practices were emitted but rather as a dynamic space of circulation of persons and influences coming from as far afield as South Asia, Yemen and Northern Nigeria. My research contributes not only to enriching the historiography of the eighteenth-century, but also, more fundamentally, to a rethinking of the very categories used to study history. Its innovative engagement with its primary site of research, al-Azhar library, invites future scholars to approach this collection not simply as a repository of manuscripts but as an actively constructed archive with institutional memory and normative purpose. Its relevance to contemporary realities is significant, as it also historicizes the racial and cultural discourses that animate conflicts such as that in Darfur.