Paper Abstracts

Listed in chronological order
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"The Humanities Through Islamic Eyes: The Beginnings"
- Wadad Kadi

One of the fundamental characteristics of early Islamic civilization (7th to 11th centuries) is derived from the fact that the 7th to 8th century Muslim conquerors of the Near East neither imposed their religion on their subjects, nor melted into the sophisticated existing civilizations of the region.  Rather, they worked together with the region’s local populations of multiple ethnicities and religions to forge a new civilization based on the supreme prominence of the concept of knowledge.

As a result, many disciplines of learning emerged, some of which were associated with Islam as a religion. Disciplines such as Qur’an interpretation, law, and dogma, however, almost always had a linguistic component to them, specifically Arabic philology with its subfields of grammar, morphology, and rhetoric. This immediately made Islamic civilization one in which the humanities — as understood in the studia humanitatis of the later Renaissance — represent an essential component of its identity.  Two other components broadened this identity: the proliferation of books as a means of transmitting ideas, and the translation of the Greek heritage of Late Antiquity into Arabic, making disciplines like philosophy, medicine and astronomy an integral part of that civilization.

How all this played out in Islamic civilization can be gleaned from examining the unique Arabic book Kitab al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, a bookseller living in Baghdad who wrote a bio-bibliographical work on the books that were produced in Islamic civilization until the turn of the 11th century. Starting from this work, the presentation explores how the humanities were perceived in early Islamic civilization, concentrating in particular on issues of language, books and the complex role of the individual within a religious culture.

"The Journeys of Hayy ibn Yaqzan": Hayy in European and Arabic Thought"
- Nabil Matar

Hayy ibn Yaqzan is a story about the mind’s journey to God. It also is a story that journeyed across the world from Persia to Andalusia, and from London to Aleppo. The paper will focus on the journey of the self-taught philosopher as he rose through his knowledge of the material world to the knowledge of the metaphysical.

The idea of such a journey had first appeared in the work of Avicenna,  and then migrated to the western boundaries of Arab-Islamic civilization in Cordoba where Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) wrote the most developed, recension in its history. It then was picked up by the Damascus-born Ibn al-Nafis (b. 1213), and in 1671 by Anglican Edward Pococke who translated it into Latin.

Three English translations ensued, followed by the adoption of its plot line by the nonconformist novelist Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe.  An anonymous, possibly Catholic, English writer in the middle of the 18th century re-wrote it as the story of a Christian monk, and in Aleppo, 1812, the traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt re-wrote it as a moral tale about” Sheikh Robinson” and the lessons that 19th-century Arab readers could learn from an English adventurer who once had been a self taught Muslim philosopher.
"Islamic Dramatic Traditions: Philosophical and Scientific Underpinnings"
- William O. Beeman

Although many believe that theater in the Middle East does not exist at all, or is only an import from the West, in fact there are strong, very old indigenous theater and performance traditions throughout the Middle East. These range from the comic improvisatory ru-hozi (Iran) and orta-oyunu (Turkey), to the puppet theater of Kara-göz (Turkey) and its forms in Egypt and Greece; to the epic tragic dramatic form, ta'ziyeh found throughout the Shi'a world.

These forms all embody conventions different from those of Western drama. In particular, they are typically performed in the open air as part of community celebrations or commemorative events, are frequently produced "in the round" and embody stylized symbolic representation.

It may be, rather than Western theater influencing the Middle Eastern dramatic traditions, that comic Middle Eastern theater inspired commedia dell'arte in Italy, which in turn set the stage for comic opera and drama such as we enjoy today.

"Interfaith Encounters: Francis of Assisi's Visit to the Sultan of Egypt in 1219"
- Steven McMichael

In 1219, Francis of Assisi visited the Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil. This paper will focus on what the writings of Francis reveal about this encounter and how it fits within the context of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages.

Most recent studies have focused on the lives of Francis and other 13th-century accounts of this encounter. This article focuses on the writings of Francis himself to understand what was in the mind of Francis as he journeyed to convert the Sultan and the Muslims of Egypt to Christianity. 

The paper first puts this encounter in the context of Francis’ entire life and his rejection of the pursuit of power, wealth and prestige. It will focus on the writing of Francis himself, especially the so-called Earlier Rule of 1221 and his Testament, to situate Francis’ attitudes toward Franciscan community life, how the friars were to go about the world and how they were to missionize and preach.

Contrary to what crusade historians have argued, this paper will show that Francis did not support the crusades but took advantage of the crusade in Egypt in order to preach to the Sultan al-Kamil about the truths of the Christian faith. He accepted that this preaching mission might possibly end in martyrdom. Having gone with an attitude of peace and reconciliation, he left the Sultan’s court in peace.

"Reason and the Sciences in Islamic History"
- Hossein Ziai

My talk centers on the role of reason in the rise of science in Islam, and will examine the origins and developments of philosophy in the Iranian-Islamic world.

Beginning with an overview of the ancient Greek philosophical texts that impacted the rise of philosophy in Arabic and Persian, I then discuss the main philosophical themes that are the core of Islamic Peripatetic philosophy.

I conclude by explaining how a new system of philosophy constructed by the 12th century Persian creative thinker Shihab al-Din Sohravardi departs from the Aristotelian principles by constructing a unified epistemological theory. In this theory, named “Knowledge by Presence,” acts of the self-conscious “I”, as an immediate and intuitive mode of cognition, obtain the primary principles of knowledge.

I will emphasize the significance of the rationalist approach to learning known as “The Primacy of Reason” and will indicate its role in the rise of philosophy and science in Islam. The role of reason, however, was curtailed severely by anti rationalist theological schools starting in the 11th century and was further reduced by the 14th century. The juridical interpretation of Islam triumphed over the philosophical one, and reason has played a severely limited and diminished role, if any, in post-classical Islam.

"Arabic Astronomy in Medieval Spain and Beyond"
- George Saliba

This illustrated talk will explore the scientific impact of Arab astronomers in the Iberian peninsula (al-Andalus) by examining the responses to the main cosmological flaws of ancient Greek astronomical thought they produced during medieval Islamic civilization.

An anonymous 11th-century Andalusian astronomer expressed misgivings about Greek astronomy in a text now preserved in a unique manuscript kept at the Osmania University Library, in Hyderabad, India. This text reflects critical research carried out by 11th century Andalusian astronomers, especially associates of al-Zarquiel, (al-Zarqallu, d. 1100). It presents their work to isolate easily-detectable problems in Greek astronomy, remove cosmological contradictions from Greek planetary theories, and re-formulate these theories in a more systematic fashion. Their purpose was to render the theories more responsive to rigorous scientific criteria, predict the behavior of celestial motions and still describe such motions in a consistent mathematical framework.

The common thread connecting the anonymous astronomer and Al-Bitruji (c. 1200) in the Islamic West, with Ibn al-Haytham (d.c. 1040), Mu’ayyad al-Din al-‛Urdi (d. 1266), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), and Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375) in the Islamic East was scientific theorizing that rendered Greek astronomy unacceptable to practicing astronomers of their time.

In that systematic destruction of Greek theory on the one hand and its simultaneous re-construction on the other, always subject to the conditions of observable celestial phenomena, those Arab astronomers laid the foundation for the scientific revolution of the 16th-century European renaissance, and the creation of a new vision of the scientific function of astronomy.

This talk will demonstrate the fruitful impact of scientific production in the Muslim world beginning in the 11th century, by contrasting manuscript pages from the Arabic works of those astronomers, with pages from Latin works of the renaissance scientists Copernicus (d. 1543), Galileo (d. 1642) and Giambattista della Porta (d. 1615).

"Portraits of Islamic Scientists"
- Hamid Rassoul

This talk will focus on the accomplishments of three Islamic thinkers - Razi, Biruni and Omar Khayyam – whose contributions to the sciences reflected Islamic civilization’s welcoming approach to the ancient knowledge of Indian, Persian and Greek civilizations, which was preserved, adapted and developed with new research and original work in diverse fields of knowledge and culture.   

Razi (b. 865) was versed in musical theory and performance before becoming a physician and training in the Greek sciences. His work in alchemy and pharmacology takes a more empirical and naturalistic approach than that of the Greeks, as does his work in medicine. The author of some 200 books, Razi’s medical writings on eye cataracts and its surgical treatment, stones in the kidney and bladder, and smallpox and measles were wide-ranging in their influence. His work on smallpox is the first known study of the disease, and it was translated more than a dozen times into Latin and other European languages.

Biruni (b. 973) also was interested in music and art, but worked in almost all branches of natural sciences, medicine, mathematics, optics and astronomy. He held the position of the highest science directorate in the Abbasid empire, an equivalent to the head of the National Science Foundation. Among Biruni’s engineering accomplishments is his modification of the Greek astrolabe, with exchangeable star disks, for use by mariners and the navy.

Omar Khayyam (b. 1048) examined problems in mathematics and astronomy, seeking the mathematical roots of higher order polynomials and piecing together celestial observations for the most precise solar calendar. At the same time, Omar Khayyam probed the mind of the creator and the reasons for the creation in some of the most beautiful poetry (robaie) of all times.

"Hence the American Mosque."
- Hazem  Ziada

This paper examines the socio-spatial issues attending the introduction of the mosque in North America, particularly issues of containment versus continuity with the surrounding urban fabric.

The mosque arrived in North America already a highly coherent and resilient spatial-construct. (A spatial-construct is constituted by quasi-stable and consistent patterns of spatial relations between, and conceptions of, bodies and objects, all sustained by the agency of specific social actors against anomalies and  contradictions). The mosque possessed its self-generative morphological rules, as well as its own rich and established traditions of openness to surroundings, honed over centuries in its pre-modern evolution. It presented a model for social practice, and it acted as a critical generator of public space and the urban fabric.

The mosque entered the modern North American (and European) cultural imagination filtered through representations by Western artists of the 19th century Orientalist art movement and presaged by lingering historical associations with two alien spatial typologies: the exotic, colonialist exhibits of World Fairs, and the spaces of incarceration (migrant enclaves and prisons). Between spectacle and containment (exoticism and extremism), the mosque’s spatial-construct struggles to define an urban role as it engages in tough negotiations of boundaries: physical, visual and symbolic.

In this paper, I reflect on the transformations in the mosque’s spatial-construct: what original spaces are ‘deformed,’ what new spaces emerge and on the significance of such transformations. I also speculate on the contributions of the mosque’s spatial-construct to public space in North America.

"The Spiritual in Architecture: Nature, Culture and Sustainability"
- Nader Ardalan

During the past few years a number of international academic and professional conferences have been held dedicated to the subject area of the relationship between nature, the built environment, society and spirituality. With respect to this lecture, the context of geographic reference shall be the countries of the Persian Gulf region, their contributions to world architectural perceptions and the phenomenal and cultural challenges they face today.

Today, the urgency of this research subject has been greatly heightened by the apparent conjunction of three, potentially cataclysmic forces: global climate change; the loss of indigenous Islamic identity due to hyper-development projects; and the “silver lining” potential of the world economic meltdown that has caused a hiatus in development. This talk will outline a conceptual and general design framework within which these diverse subjects might be holistically placed and common ground criteria established for their wholesome integration and resolution.

To truly achieve sustainable growth that has an authentic identity, we need to begin with a cosmic, systemic awareness of the context of human existence on both materially measurable and immeasurable levels. The lecture will conclude with selected examples of designs in the region that have been motivated to respond to such sustainable identity quests.

"American Mosques and the Boundaries of Community"
- Ingrid Mattson

American Muslims often say that "the mosque is not just a place to pray," but that it should be a center of community life.

There is no one model of "community" for American Muslims, and since the establishment of the first mosque in America more than 100 years ago, different ethnic, social, and sectarian groups have tried to shape their mosques according to their needs and aspirations. The diversity of American Muslims forces choices, whether deliberately or haphazardly, between the particular cultural and ideological expressions of Islam that will be tolerated, cultivated, or discouraged in any particular community. It also forces decisions about how to accommodate these differences under the umbrella of one mosque institution.

Muslims also encounter a diversity of expressions of American culture and identify within their towns and across the country, including long-standing expressions of American religiosity that are assimilationist or isolationist, and utopian or pragmatic. There is little that is essential about Islam itself that determines which of these orientations will most influence particular Muslim American communities, and the cultural contours of American Muslim mosques are shaped by a myriad of forces and interests in a dynamic manner. An expanded sense of community beyond parochial boundaries can develop when American Muslims encounter responsive partners in civic society and public institutions.

In this presentation, we will survey the variegated landscape of American Muslim mosques, giving particular attention to the ways in which the role of the mosque in forming a sense of community is articulated and expressed in governance, religious education and cultural programming.

"Emperors of the World: The Arts Under the Mughals, Safavids and Ottomans"
- Catherine Asher

The Mughals, Safavids and Ottomans all constructed monumental mosques that were intended to suggest that they were witnesses to world events and God’s glory. This presentation will explore in what manner the rulers of each of these dynasties used visual culture to make religious statements and also demonstrate that they were acutely aware of the patronage and attitudes of their neighbors.

The Ottoman Sultan Suleyman (1484-1566) built his great mosque, the Suleymaniye Cami in Istanbul, to showcase his dynasty’s adherence to orthodox Sunni Islam. This parallels his efforts to align the Ottoman legal system with the Sharia, that is, law based on the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, and the Hadith, collections of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Countering the Ottoman’s espousal of Sunni Islam, the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas (1571-1629) provided the magnificent Masjid-i Shah in the city of Isfahan as a statement of adherence to Shia Islam and as a response to Suleyman’s somewhat earlier monumental mosque.  

The Mughals, by far the most liberal of these three dynastic houses in terms of religious tolerance, were Sunnis but had a less rigid approach to Islam than either the Ottomans or Safavids.   A case in point is the mosque patronage of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan (1592-1666), in particular his Masjid-i Jami provided in the city of Delhi, whose inscriptions are unusual in that they are not drawn from the Quran. The implications of this, along with this emperor’s construction of the world-famous Taj Mahal mausoleum complex in Agra, will be a focus of discussion.

"Problems of History in Contemporary Arts from the Middle East" 
- Sussan Babaie

The youthful nature of marketing contemporary art from the Middle East, its energetic promotion in exhibitions and glossy magazines as well as through pricing of works of art in auctions and art fairs, and its rapid pace of new artist entries are features common to many emergent art markets – from the Pop Arts of the 1960s to contemporary arts of China and India.

Early stages of “discovery” ordinarily have an art historical frame of reference: for example, the cumulative histories of European arts or the rich artistic traditions of China including its modern developments.

In the case of the Middle East, however, the histories of the arts of the region, including its religious and secular traditions, are often reduced to universalized symbols and geopolitically articulated concepts. These include calligraphy and Islam, figures of modern history and secular-nationalism, or essentialized cultural views toward women, the body and so forth. This reductive history is in large part an outcome of the guarded ‘presentism’ that dominates queries into contemporary arts of the Middle East. Local histories, especially their Islamic pasts, have been relegated into oblivion, or else ignored, to make room for ‘modern’ global identities befitting the thriving art markets.

In thinking about the ‘rupture’ between those contemporary art practices, including writing about them, and the historical landscapes of their cultural location, this presentation focuses on artists whose own work suggests ways to re-engage history in conceptualizing the nexus of local aesthetics and global market demands.

"Moorish Revival: Re-visiting Orientalist Architecture" 
- Jeanne Halgren Kilde

In the present day, Islamic religious architecture is re-writing the religious landscape throughout the Western world. Mosques are being erected from Boston to Los Angeles, New York to Chicago. Their soaring minarets and domes announce their presence in ways that have caused concern as well as comfort. Moreover, their seemingly empty interior spaces bring unique constructions of the spatial relationships among worshipers that re-image the role of the body and the function of visual stimuli in ways that are increasingly influencing architectural design more broadly.

Yet elements of Islamic architecture have been a part of the U.S. religious and public landscape since the 19th century when what was then called "Moorish" design swept through both the U.S. and Europe as part of an important Western artistic movement and popular aesthetic style now known as Orientalism. Jewish congregations, in particular, adopted the Mudéjar
style, emphasizing its association with medieval Jewish life in Muslim Spain.

The current growth in Islamic architecture in the U.S. casts the earlier adoption in a new light, raising new questions about such cross-cultural borrowing and suggesting opportunities for visual dialogue in public space.
"From Abu Reuters to Anwar al-Awlaki: The Jihadi Media Phenomenon"
- Fouzi Slisli

This presentation charts the evolution of Jihadi media from 2001 to the present and outlines some of its main characteristics, its scope and its efficiency in breaking the Western monopoly on the production and dissemination of information in times of war.

Aren’t Islamic militant groups opposed to science and technology as Western observers and analysts often assert? Aren’t they opposed to progress and development? Then how did a militant Islamic group holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan and facing the biggest manhunt in history manage to break the West’s monopoly on information in times of war? What is the secret behind the success of al-Qaeda’s media strategy?

This presentation will show that the success of al-Qaeda’s media strategy is due, on a first level, to its uncomplicated message – the Qur'anic injunction to wage defensive Jihad against invaders. There are very few instances when the Qur'anic injunction to wage jihad becomes mandatory. Repelling invaders is the clearest one. On a second level, the simplicity of the message has succeeded in attracting young educated talents in the Muslim world to its cause.

The result is al-Qaeda’s complex underground media infrastructure with its own state of the art production capabilities and its own distribution channels. It has taken Western governments and public opinion nine years to realize how ambitious and efficient this media strategy is. While U.S. media campaigns and public relations effort have gone from one setback to another, al-Qaeda’s media campaign is beaming all over the internet. The U.S. government has been forced to resort to the authoritarian method of censorship. Youtube and other Internet sites have been scrambling to pull al-Qaeda media products out of their sites resulting in a comical trivial pursuit because the products just keep being re-posted back with different labels. 

"When Right and Left Meet: The Case of Islamophobia and Honor Killing"
- Khaldoun Samman

Moral Panics, such as the recent wave of the fear of Islam and Muslims in Europe and the U.S., are moments of rupture and production, and a process by which old political binaries are removed and new ones are constituted. This paper explores the process as it gained momentum, moving from a small group of right-wing intellectuals and political elites who initially articulated these fears to a larger base to include liberal and progressive voices for whom Islamophobia is beginning to have traction as well.

Through the works of Foucault (incitement and discursive formations), Laclau and Moufe (hegemony and articulation), Yilmaz (ethnicized ontologies), and Mamdani (culturalization of the political), this paper will attempt to analyze the constitutive nature of Islamophobia in the production of new racial and political identities. Illustrated through the example of what has come to be called “Honor Killing,” a crime many European countries have become obsessed with and that has now been culturalized to belong to a specific immigrant culture (read Muslim/Arab), this paper will explore its role in building moral panic.

As a moment of deep structural change in Europe, Islamophobia is a wave that is beginning—through the intervention of key propaganda actors (Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, Zionist groups, and others)—to spread to the U. S. In the constant incitement of moral panics, packaged for both conservatives and liberals, these networks of incitement have been working to locate Islam and Muslims as the ultimate Other of the West. Such incitements, I argue, are radically restructuring how we understand human rights, immigration, culture and crime, gender inequality, patriarchy, and domestic abuse by locating them as cultural in origin (read Muslim or Arab).

"Augmented Realities and the Body: Images of Muslims in Iranian Contemporary Art"
- Ali Momeni

Emerging digital media have expanded the scope of journalism, activism and contemporary art for producers as well as consumers of culture.  These new modes of cultural production and reception have created many new channels of distribution -- and therefore new audiences -- for the creative activities of the Muslim world.  Thanks to a focused network, artists, curators, collectors, and philanthropists, the aesthetic reinterpretations of life in the Middle East now reach much broader audiences in the west.  Artists born between 1975 and 1980 in Iran represent a slice of this community that has received considerable attention within the global contemporary art market in the last decade.

This community of artists includes many in exile as well as significant numbers working in Iran who participate in the larger community through their web presence and nomadic activities.  At the same time, social media are playing an increasingly critical role in supporting large-scale and sometimes effective political change.  The virtual discourse that creates bonds, while shaping minds and movements acts, as an augmentation of otherwise oppressed reality.  

Within this dynamic and expanding field of creative activity, a hybrid character is born whose identity is rooted in Islamic tradition, but whose modes of practice traverses across national and disciplinary borders.  This presentation takes off from an overview of the inspired work reaching western markets from Iran.  It hones in on a common element within the visual language of Iranian contemporary art that contemplates a social rupture of the intimate body.  This rupture is sometimes explicit, sometimes suggested, always poetic, and forcibly/forcefully political. 

"The Inhumanity of Orthodoxy"
- Anouar Majid

One of the main purposes of the humanities is to liberate thought from the shackles of tradition, the rigors of theology and all unexamined cultural prejudices. For the U.S. and Muslim-majority nations to have a useful dialogue that leads to more harmonious relations, both must first be willing to confront the ghosts of their beliefs and break free from the prison house of their dehumanizing ideologies.

The very concept of orthodoxy is, by definition, antithetical to the fundamental tenets of the humanities. The practice and study of philosophy, literature, history and art, for instance, require a high degree of intellectual flexibility, and the willingness to transgress borders. They also require the courage to imagine new meanings and possibilities, and the emotional maturity to transcend narrow tribal affiliations. Orthodoxies are systems of boundaries and vigilant policing, but breaking rules and questioning systems is the lifeblood of the humanities.

Islam, like its peer monotheistic religions of Christianity and Judaism, is premised on the adherence to a set of beliefs, statements, and rituals. To publicly question such beliefs or rules, or even to reject them in toto, is a perfectly human act. It  affirms the natural right of individual people to decide what lifestyles are most fulfilling to them, and to make their own case for what is best for their societies.Yet this basic right has been universally condemned and systematically persecuted since the rise of Muslim empires and states. Freedom of conscience for a citizen in a Muslim-majority nation remains an unattainable ideal.

By cleansing non-Muslim religions (Judaism and Christianity) from their social bodies, Sunni Muslim nations today are hardening their orthodoxy even further, and, in the process, narrowing room for vital differences. A civilization or culture that continues to enforce such a narrow worldview today impoverishes the lives of its people and condemns itself to new cycles of tragedy. Islam needs a robust culture of the humanities to break away from the tyranny of faith.

Nahid Khan,
Jan 7, 2011, 5:32 PM
Nahid Khan,
Jan 7, 2011, 5:32 PM