Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: Chase Robinson in Conversation with Sarah Chayes

– Good evening everyone,
I’m Helena Rosenblatt the chair of the history program
here at the Graduate Center and it’s my great pleasure
to welcome you all. For those of you who are here,
perhaps, for the first time the Graduate Center is the
doctoral granting heart of the City University of New York. And, tonight’s event is just
one of the many conferences, performances, and panel
discussions held here each week. So, I really urge you to
look us up on the internet and come here and visit us often. It’s no secret though
that the Graduate Center is a hub of scholarship. It’s here where lots of bold
thinking about the major social issues of our time originates, and where we are fully
committed to generating conversations across disciplines in our many programs, centers, and institutes. It’s also here where
just last year a student was named a winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and another a Guggenheim fellow. Few other institutions boast such a dazzling array of scholars. On that note, I’d like to introduce our two speakers this evening. Chase Robinson was appointed President of the Graduate Center in June, 2014 after serving as interim
president and provost. We’re immensely grateful
for his many accomplishments among which most recently
securing major funding to enhance faculty support,
expanding the masters of arts in Liberal Studies program, and launching several initiatives such
as the Advanced Research Collaborative, and the
initiative for the Theoretical Sciences, and the CUNY
Institute for Language Education in Trans-cultural Context. During Chase’s tenure as
provost the Graduate Center made major investments in financial aid and hired more than two
dozen scholar teachers of national and international standing including the Graduate
Center’s first Nobel Laureate. Under his leadership the
Graduate Center is emerging as a national model in doctoral education pedagogy and interdisciplinarity. Chase’s other life, of course,
is as a leading historian of early Islam. From 1993 until 2008 he
was lecturer and professor of Islamic History in the
faculty of Oriental Studies and Fellow of Olson College
at the University of Oxford. Here at the Graduate Center
I’m especially proud to say that he’s a distinguished
professor in my program, the history program. Professor Robinson is the
author of more than 40 articles, and the editor, or author of
eight books on Islamic History, among which, and I’ll only mention four, Islamic Historiography, Empire and Elites After the Muslim Conquest,
and the New Cambridge History of Islam Volume
One, and of course, his new book Islamic Civilization in 30 Lives the First 1,000 Years, which is the topic of
this evening’s discussion. Joining Chase is Sarah
Chayes, a Senior Associate in Carnegie’s Democracy
and Rule of Law program, author recently of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, and an “extraordinary
person” according to Chase, who knows her well. Sarah is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and it’s implications. Her work explores how
severe corruption can help prompt such crises as
terrorism, revolutions, and their violent aftermaths,
and environmental degradation. Before joining Carnegie Sarah
served as Special Assistant to top U.S. military officer Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Admiral Mike Mullen. She ended her journalism
career in early 2002 after covering the fall
of the Taliban for NPR. And, she remained in Afghanistan to help rebuild the country. From 1996 to 2001 she was
NPR’s Paris correspondant. For her work during the Kosovo Crisis she shared the 1999 Foreign Press Club in Sigma Delta Chi awards. Just this past March Sarah
dazzled us on this stage describing her experiences
in some of the world’s most notorious crisis spots. Guiding the conversation that evening was her old friend Chase Robinson. Tonight the tables are
turned and I couldn’t be more pleased and honored
to introduce them both. Thank you and enjoy the evening. (crowd applauds) – So, before I even say
how honored I am to be here let me just explain that
the reason, the pretext for my introducing this conversation is that we were actually in
graduate school together. And, I failed where Chase
Robinson succeeded, I bailed. I kind of love to start
with that a little bit, I mean, you know, you’re
20 something, right, and this guy with a
briefcase is in your class. And that’s really how, I
mean we were all kind of, you know you can imagine
the class of people doing their graduate
work on Medieval Islam in like 1989, 1990, right? There weren’t a lot of us. And then, there was
Chase who knew, I mean, he was purposeful and
he had this briefcase and it was like did he
come out of the womb with his briefcase? (laughs) – This is like when you
go home at Thanksgiving and people tell embarrassing
stories, your parents. (laughs) And, before the conversation
goes any further I do want to emphasize that
Sarah shares the stage with me by virtue of her deep
knowledge of the Middle East and erudition, not
because she’s a specialist in corruption, if I could
just make that clear. (laughs) – How did you light on Islamic history? I mean, this course has
been for the rest of us who tack a lot, it’s been so admirable to see someone who seems to know and follow that course. What was it about Islamic History? – It’s a good question,
it’s a question I’m asked frequently enough and for which I’ve never come up with a good answer. Biographically, or
autobiographically my father was born in China, actually. And, my mother ethnically Ukrainian, and she did all her speaking
with her mother in Ukrainian. So, I grew up in house, as I like to say, filled with third rate shin-wa-zer-ie and Ukrainian language being spoken. (laughs) – Which could tell us
something about corruption. We could have a whole other evening. – So, I think there’s
probably something oedipal that I wanted to something different from what my family had done. I thought hard, I spent a
year, as you know Sarah, in France when I was in
high school and came back an arrogant 17 year
old imagining that he’d mastered French, and wanted to
do something more difficult. Thought about Japanese,
thought about Chinese. Chinese was too close to home, so I began to do Arabic. Little did I know that Arabic would be the task
that it turned out to be. One of the many great
Orientalists and Sarah and I had the pleasure of
reading was H.A.R. Gibb, and you probably know this anecdote. H.A.R. Gibb was an English
man born in Alexandria, was asked late in his career, after 40 or 50 years of extraordinary scholarship, “Did you find Arabic difficult?” And he said, “Only the first 10 years.” (laughs) So, I got a start, enjoyed Arabic, and as I like to tell my students, “There is no period,”
and I will stand by this, “There is no period in
recorded human history “more interesting that
the seventh, eighth, and ninth century because
a religion is invented, a people is invented, the Arabs, an empire is invented, and a
language is invented, Arabic. So, you may have escaped
the clutches of the field. – Sort of. – And, I hope I didn’t drive you out of it with my briefcase, but I couldn’t escape it’s gravitational pull. – Before we turn to the
book there’s just one other aspect of your trajectory
that is, I’ve just been dying to ask you about, which is Oxford. I mean, I get it, like
he kinda looks the part and he always did look the
part, but how does a Yank like go over there and
not only teach there for, what was it 14 years, but
actually run part of the place. Like, how was that? – You know Oxford is a paradoxical place because on the one hand
there are parts of it that are seven or 800 years old and it exudes tradition, custom and in some respects it’s
a very conservative place. But, on the other hand it
is a remarkably cosmopolitan institution which goes out of it’s way, for the most part, to
recruit young scholars from wherever in the world they may be. And so, I entered a
faculty, the term for– – They came knocking on your door? – A little bit of both,
a little bit of both. But, we had in our department Britons, Americans, Germans, Swiss, French, Dutch, an extraordinary place. The bottom line being a commitment to the field and to learning. And so, in that sense
whatever expertise I posses and whatever I’ve happened to have written I owe it to a large extent to the training that you and I received at Harvard, but then the experience I had there. – Cool, let me turn to this. It’s fantastic, I mean
I cannot tell you guys the joy I had reading this book. And, I said initially,
the honor that I feel being able to sort of
introduce with with Chase this incredible piece of scholarship, an enjoyable piece of scholarship to you. One thing that strikes on immediately, this is telling the story of a period of 1,000 years, but the through
the lives of individuals. So, this isn’t an analysis, I mean there are analytical pieces to it, but it’s a series of narratives, which is a really interesting
way, I mean I’d been, I’d just came here from
Australia where someone said Aborigines that she had been interviewing told her, “We don’t teach our children “what to think, we teach
them how to think.” Very often, by telling them stories, which they’re supposed to
go back and puzzle over. And so, I just wondered
about why you wrote this book and why you chose to write it this way? – So, having spent, I suppose, 20 years for the most part writing
for a scholarly audience I think I woke up one
morning and looked around and had the blinding insight that people are interested in Islam
and Islamic history. – Thank you. – At the same time that I
sensed some genuine curiosity I think I discovered what anyone who reads in our field finds, and
that is for the most part academics who write about
Islamic History and Islam write inaccessibly, given to
turgid prose and high theory. And journalists who write
about the Middle East and Islam write excessively
more transparently, more lucidly but without the deep learning that the field really requires. So, I said to myself I
was gonna write something that people would actually
read as opposed to the dozens of scholars who
build a research monograph. So, how does one do that? And I think, to some
extent, I was informed by our own, and here’s a short plug for a Center in biography that we
have at the Graduate Center which does terrific work the
Leon Levy Center for Biography which hosts every year
for either distinguished or to be distinguished biographers and so I had the sense that the
biographical genre was one way in which one could deliver history in way that’s just more accessible. There was a second influence,
which is a wonderful book. It started off as a radio
broadcast, actually, History of the World in
100 Objects, some of you may know it, which used the object to tell the history of the world. And finally, and I begin the
book with an example or two within the Islamic
literary tradition there is a genre of biographical– – No kidding. – And, biliobiographical
writing such that the idea of capsule biographies, and most of these, are 2,000 2,500 3,000
words long, in other words you can pick it up and
in 10 minutes read about one or two people. There are books 40, 50, 60, 80 volumes long filled
with capsule biographies of notable Muslims. A good example dates from the 13th century and it has 5,500 such biographies. You and I read them as graduate students, not all of them. And, I said to myself, you know, this is biography works as a genre, we can see it working as a genre in our own culture. It’s got pretty long
legs in this tradition, why don’t I try it out. – That’s what I loved
is the degree to which there’s a kind of mirroring
of the very civilization that he’s writing about in
the way he’s writing about it. How did you chose? I mean, how many people
5,000 what did you say? Like, how do you pick? – So 30, there was nothing
special about the number 30. Islamic Civilization in 30
Lives was really determined as much by the need to provide
the background necessary to make sense of some of the subjects. I think many of you will know the names of some of those who feature
in the book, Mohammed, Aadi son-in-law of the prophet and the forefather of Shi’ism,
Saladin is in the book, Ibn Khaldun, perhaps a name
familiar to some of you, Timur or more famously
Tamerlane is in the book. There are eight or 10
who the educated reader will know of, then another 20 or so whom the specialist will know of and then one or two or
three who will be new to virtually everyone. So, how did I chose them? In some I was looking for exemplars. This is a book which is,
and I think this a point that we may return to,
this is a book which is not a greatest hits of Islam. It’s not a book which
apologizes on behalf of Islam. It’s not a book that
argues that the origins of civilization lie in
Islam, or the enlightenment, or democracy, or capitalism. Books have been written. It’s a book that’s mean to illustrate the diversity of the Islamic tradition, something which is, I think,
woefully underappreciated. And then, and here I think
there is an alignment between genre, or form, and the content that I’m trying to deliver
which is individuality. Everything from eccentrics to philosophers, scientists, men of power, men of the sword as they say in the Arabic or Persion tradition, physicians, cranks, a proto-capitalist, a physician. So, the underlying motivation was if the average reader had a better appreciation for the diversity
of the Islamic tradition and for the individuality of Muslims then we could disengage from what I think is a pretty fruitless
conversation about what is Islam. Is Islam compatible with X? Why doesn’t Islam have a reformation? As again, as I like to
tell my students questions that begin with Islam
usually end very badly. (laughs) So, let’s talk about what Muslim’s do, rather than what Islam is. – I’d love for you guys
just to get a flavor of what this book sounds like. Now, this is also totally
unfair because you may have seen me leafing through the
book as I’m sitting here because I hadn’t actually
given this to Chase ahead of time, but
there’s one of the people whom I didn’t know, I
have never heard of her. It’s a woman. It’s a very, she is a very I wanna say internally
contradictory to our eyes, perhaps, person because she’s both a slave and very powerful and influential person. So, let me just… – I’m meant to hold the
microphone, hold the book. – Oh, right. – I’ll cope.
– You’ll cope? – What am I reading? – So, I’m thinking down here. And then, he has to turn
the page so, you know, musicians they have a page turner, so it’s what were the rulers buying? And then, just to wherever you think is a good stopping place. And, introduce it anyway
that you want on Ah-reep. – So, I find myself
two or three pages into what is presumably a six
or seven page biography of a woman named Ah-reeb Al-mot-mo-nee-ah. Areeb was born around 801. And, the traditional
death date I think 897. She lived into her 90s. She was born probably
to an upper middle class or perhaps even a higher than
upper middle class family, but for reasons that are lost
to history she was either stolen into slavery or sold into slavery. Some misfortune occurred
when she was very young and this is what occasionally happened when misfortune took place
in the ninth or 10th century, slavery would ensue. So, she was purchased, but she was a girl of extraordinary talents. Her owner, then invested a significant amount of money in her education. She was taught not only to
read, but to compose music, to memorize thousands of
lines of poetry so that she could could be witty and
entertaining in high company. And, by the time she was
a teenager she’d already been purchased by a caliph. That is to say the pope/king of the polity then Abbasid empire in– – [Sarah] Which is a
big polity at that time. – Which is a big polity. – [Sarah] This is a big, guy. – So, she was purchased,
sold into slavery, is trained, then begins to work for and become the courtier of a caliph, the first of eight caliphs. Her job was to be
entertaining, to play music, to be, as I said, witty and
entertaining in gatherings, but also she was a sexual slave. “So, what were these rulers buying? “Or perhaps, more aptly
what was Ah-reeb selling, “both literally and figuratively? “Female slaves, especially
those hired for entertainment, “were badges of conspicuous consumption. “And, in this highly
competitive court culture “which prized bravuer
performance, especially in music, “poetry, and oral debate
Ah-reeb had conspicuously skills “as a singer, composer, lute player, “poet of popular verse, and prose stylist. “The oral culture of
the early Abbasid period “was riven by controversy. “Contrasting modes of poetry and song “being championed by rival
traditionalists and innovators. “Many, though certainly not
all, many of the controversies “were preserved in a
monumental encyclopedia “of songs and poems, the
book of Songs written by “Abu al-Faraj al-Ishahani who died in 967. “Several accounts portray
Ah-reeb as a master “of musical traditions and
styles and an arbiter of taste. “In the ferociously cultured
and competitive setting “that was Baghdad and Som-mor-a,
a city north of Baghdad. “One in which leading
poets fiercely debated “the relative merits of
the rose and the narcissus “flowers, this mattered. “It seems that Ah-reeb
was an outspoken advocate “of established forms and to many ears “her compositions were canonical. “In the male dominated world
of Iraq’s elite culture “she also had the good fortune of beauty.” I should say that towards
the end of her life she purchased her own freedom, she died a very, very wealthy woman. An extraordinary mentor for
many, many younger women and was, as I think I
put in the beginning, perhaps I’m showing my
age here, some combination of Amy Winehouse and Elizabeth Taylor. (laughs) – I just find that such
a fascinating insight into this culture. I mean, think about conspicuous, I mean our conspicuous consumption. Think about the Rolexes, and
not that they didn’t have the equivalent of the
Rolexes, but what this society was honoring by honoring,
and the fact that she lived to be 90, whereas as a
slave, I mean if she had made a wrong move. – I think in the popular
imagination Islamic culture is by definition highly puritanical. Of course, the historical
record shows that it varies from the highly puritanical
to the extraordinarily louche tolerant, indulgent. – But, louche tolerant, indulgent with a heavy dose of erudition. I mean, you know, of talent and educated talent. So, what he did in graduate
school, it’s really terrible to look back at graduate
school and say, “God, “how did we get progressively dumber.” I don’t think he did, but this guy was, he did his storyography, so I didn’t know what his storyograghy meant
when we were at graduate school so I’m like okay, Chase, you do your. But, I think some of that
comes out in this book and it’s a really, there’s
a really fascinating theme that threads through
it which has to do with number one, not having enough sources. And that’s a lot of
the reason why I bailed is because what I wanted to do there were no sources for it, so you can’t do it. But, where there are
sources what are the sources really talking about? Are they talking about
their ostensible subject or are they telling us
something different? – So, let me start with
an example that I think can illustrate part of what
you’re getting at, Sarah. So, I’ll take another woman and that is someone named Ah-ra-bee-a. Ah-ra-bee-a also belongs to late eighth and early ninth century. She was an ascetic, what we
call in the field a renunciate. She had a deep fear of God. She’s almost the polar
opposite of Ah-reeb. She was driven by her fear of God to spend much of her day praying
to wearing intentionally very light clothes at
night so she would be cold and constantly awoken by her chills. She was an exemplar of a certain mode of early Islamic piety. Virtually no one in the late
eighth and ninth century recorded her life. We have probably six or
eight data that we can feel confident capture the
reality of her lived experiences. Where she lived, what the
name of her sister was, what the name of her mother was. There are, for instance,
there’s massive confusion about did she come from
a very wealthy family or a very poor family. If you read Islamic letters
you will find thousands of pages written about Ah-ra-bee-a. Where does much of it come? Much of it comes from a
13th century collection of saints, what we would
call a hagiography. What one finds in the 13th
century is Ah-ra-bee-a who’s not fearful of God,
who doesn’t wear modest clothing so she’s kept
awake all night by chills, not someone who eats very little, not someone who eschews social contact especially sexual intercourse. What one finds is a miracle maker. So, if she’s walking around at night and she lacks a candle
she’ll blow on her fingers and they will illumine
and she’ll walk around. So, what’s happened in
the 600 years, 400 years between her life and her canonization of what amounts to a Muslim
saint is the infusion in her biography of all sorts of miracles that reflect not eighth
or ninth century ideas of piety, but 11th, 12th, and 13th century ideas of what constitutes a saint. So, the problem for the
scholar is how do you shed the legends to get back to the genuine. That’s a problem anyone
who reads seriously about the first century
of Islam, what do we know about Mohammed, What
do we know about Aadi? What we know for the
most part is what people wrote 150, 200, 250 years later, so that’s one problem. The obscure person who becomes famous. Then, you have the problem
of the obscure person who remains obscure. There are two or three of such characters who I’ve tried really hard
to resurrect in the book. The example that springs to
mind is someone named Ra-misht who belongs to the 12th century. He was a merchant millionaire. He was a ship owner, a trader. He lived in the Persian Gulf,
he traded as far as China. He practiced other kinds of conspicuous consumption, huge houses. What we know of Ra-misht
survives because of a few inscriptions that he put up. He was not unlike a wealthy
philanthropist nowadays, liked to see his name in the lights. He gave the money for a hospice for Sufis and his gift, his endowment
was memorialized in the ka-ba. Then, we have other examples of people who were really famous in their time and who more or less employed publicists. So, Saladin had a whole
bunch of publicists. They were poets who declaimed poetry. They were historians, scribes, scholars, who recorded his exploits. He had inscriptions, again, commissioned on his behalf in order
to project a certain vision of himself and his
state and his victory. So there the problem is
too much bad information that we need to cut through. So, the reason historiography
is so interesting that fancy and slightly awkward term for how people write history,
is that it forces one to grapple with these
fundamental questions of what is reliable, what is unreliable? Why did people narrate these stories if they’re not true? So, I wrote a book about
Islamic historiography, didn’t solve any problems at all, but tried to get the field and ourselves grappling with that
question because I think it’s fundamental to historical inquiry. And here, I should say
that part of the reason I wrote the book, it’s
not just about gross misunderstanding of
Islam, it’s also a plea, an illustration that this branch of the humanities, history, it matters. And, it matters for reasons that are substantive too how the
Islamic world currently is. But, it also matters because
it’s a way of educating. I know of no discipline,
and I think the chair of my department will
agree, which requires training in those
critical forensic skills, how do we know what we know? In that sense, it may not be as rigorous, it’s more imaginative than philosophy, but it’s touching on fundamental problems of understanding and knowledge. In that sense I very much
wish people to respect history more than they currently do. If not just because it
explains, in part, who we are but also as a way of acquiring
knowledge and particularly in an environment in which
there’s so much information and so little understanding. – What I also love about that sort of, I don’t wanna say subtext, but that thread that weaves it’s way all
the way through this book, is that even so part of
the effort is forensic. What do we actually know
about the actual person, but the ways in which those facts may be, “distorted or understood or emphasized” in later periods also is an artifact of those later periods
which actually tells you something about those periods, too. It’s not just sort of
this type of piety was honored in this period whereas
it wasn’t in that period. And so, I wonder where you
have people who’s story is told and retold and
retold and doubtless changed through a period, or I’m sorry through the sequence of periods
are you able to reflect, based on those changes,
something meaningful about the different periods? – I think you can, for
instance, in how the historical memory of Mohammed is
transmitted, or the historical memory of Aadi is transmitted,
you can write histories of Shi’ism based on the
oscillating representations how Aadi is accentuated, what parts of his life story are given
prominence, what are not. Mohammed himself is a good case in point. The earliest layers of his biography which we can infer and only
very partially reconstruct, he’s very much a man like your or I, a gifted man, a gifted
orator, an extraordinarily compelling speaker, courageous. The secondary or tertiary
layers of biography, he becomes a miracle worker. And, he’s assimilated
to late antique ideas of what constitutes prophesy. In other words, you can kind of see, and this is inferential,
we can kind of see an Arabian mode of prophesy
which was indigenous and had it’s own terms be
eclipsed by how questions to a large extent narrated the histories of their own saints and prophets. You can see that taking place as Islam, as Muslims assimilate the cultural norms of the world in which they live. And, as Sarah knows, in most
parts of the Middle East, although the Islamic conquest took place in the seventh and early eighth century it was the 12th, the 13th,
the 14th, the 15th century before Muslims outnumbered non-Muslims. So, you have to imagine
highly heterogeneous societies in which Muslim scholars
are rubbing shoulders with Christians and Jews
and they’re learning from each other. And, they’re narrating
their own histories, to some extent, in a competitive way. “So, who is this person named Mohammed?” “Oh, well he did this.” “Well, is he genuine or is he a fraud?” You can imagine these questions being put and Muslims saying, “Well, he’s just like “this person named Jesus. “We have some miracles,
you have some miracles.” So, it’s that kind of context which forms, and I might say deforms biography. – And, touching on that particular point, this sort of cultural, almost osmosis that starts to happen. One of the guys, so I spent
a lot of time in Afghanistan and I was in a town called Qandahar, a couple of hours up the
road is a town called Ghazni and so there’s a guy
in this book that I was particularly delighted to
see who is Mahmud of Ghazni. And of the dur-a Ghazni, one
of the things that he did, I mean again, as so many of
these rulers who are known and you’ll have absorbed
this from the Ah-reeb story who are known often
for their feats of arms are equally known for their
feats of intellectual, both patronage, but also capacity themselves, performance themselves. But, Mahmud of Ghazni was significant one. I feel like there was
a, or there’s an emblem of precisely one of these
moments, really important moments of cultural osmosis that
happens under his reign. – Mahmud of Ghazni belongs
to the 11th century he’s one of these
extraordinary individuals who I hope you would enjoy reading about, but I don’t think you’d wanna meet him. (laughs) I think he’s someone who
prized talent above all. I think he had no patience for mediocrity. He’s a wonderful, I think
the way I put it was resolver of contradictions. So, he himself was born
a slave, he becomes ruler of the largest empire in the Middle East in the 11th Century. Number two, he is an ethnic Turk but he patronizes Persian
language and literature. So, that is the high prestige culture that he wished to surround himself with so as to broadcast his deep
culture, his cosmopolitanism. In fact, it’s with the
patronage of Mahmud of Ghazni, as Sarah will know, that
the single most important piece of early Persian
literature is written. It’s called the Shahnameh,
it’s often called the Persian national epic. It was written by a poet named Ferdowsi who was employed by Mahmud in his court. So, a slave who becomes a ruler, an ethnic Turk who patronizes Persian letters and also Arabic letters, and also logic and
poetry in a wide variety of genres and science. And, at the same time,
he’s carrying out jihad virtually constantly in India,
what we now call Pakistan. The processes underlying why
what we now call Pakistan in north India become
Muslim are setting train because this extraordinary
patron of the arts, someone who values the finest
specimens of high culture is laying waste to parts of Indian culture and his depredations of
Somnath are infamous. So, he is a paradox as I put it, a paradox perhaps to
us, but not in his time, not in his time. – The way you’re describing
it you’re saying that Persian high culture was something
that he sort of aspired to and wanted to surround himself with, but I’d just like to pause for a moment, and the timing is a little bit off, this is about 10, middle
of the 11th century, right? But, Persian culture had
been completely obliterated by, or almost completely
obliterated by the Arab conquests. And, you had what is called Old Persian or various other languages. There was a new language
that started to be spoken, but this particular epic, the Shahnameh really represents, symbolically at least, even if it’s a little
bit, it’s not the first but it’s symbolically
represents a renaissance, a cultural renaissance. – Sarah and I had the
great pleasure of studying under a scholar who’s now in his 90s named Ahmed Ma-da-vid En Braw-ni. Ahmed Ma-da-vid En Braw-ni
was, he was a refugee from the Iranian revolution. He left Iran, I think in 81 or 82, and moved to Philadelphia and he
would come up once a week to Cambridge and teach,
in my case, I don’t know about yours Sarah, he would
teach Persian poetry in Arabic. He would teach the Arabic class in Persian and the Persian class in
Arabic, with lots of French. His training had been in
Iran, in the 50s, 60s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. After much interrogation, I’ll
get to the point in a moment, after much interrogation
he conceded to knowing about 20,000 lines of
Arabic and Persian poetry. When you asked him a question
what does this word mean he wouldn’t give you a
dictionary definition he would tilt his head
back, close his eyes and recite a line of poetry
in which the word appeared. Ahmed Ma-da-vid En Braw-ni
taught me more than I can possibly count about
Arabic and Persian letters. The Arabs conquered Iran,
but Iran conquered Islam. That’s what he told me
several times in classes. And, he drew my attention
to a wonderful book called Two Centuries of Silence. An entire literature about this period in which the extraordinary cultural legacy of ancient Iran, Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. And, if you’ve gone to Iran you witness the deep and substantial history that… Well goes back to the
Achaemenids through the Parthians and Sasanians and then goes silent, obliterated as you put
it, by an initial wash of an Arabian culture, but
then begins to bubble up, or one might say the pump is
primed and the wells are sunk. And then what happens
is is an extraordinary cultural movement that
produces we now know as Persian and what we now know as
the extraordinary cultural efflorescence of this period
and it’s subsequent periods. – And, in a way, I think,
although again, it’s not the starting point, but somehow Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh is sort
of emblematic of that. – For those of you who wish to get a sense of this culture that I’m
describing there are multiple translations of the Shahnameh. It’s, as I said, the Persian national epic which begins in a
mythological set of origins and carries through to
the Sasanian period, ends right before the Islamic conquests. And, to this day I think
it’s about 20 or 30,000 couplets of poetry, I can’t quite recall, is really the closest
that the Iranian tradition has to canonical text in which identity and
the past is anchored. – Just pursuing this theme a little bit there’s a tendency in
the west to kind of say sure Islamic culture and letters and intellectual science,
mathematics, astronomy. Yeah sure, it was important
in the Middle Ages but then it all came screeching to a halt. Is that accurate? – I think that’s what’s
called a leading question. (laughs) But, it’s an important
question because there are a few passages in this book which are, they verge on the polemical. So, H.A.R. Gibb the Orientalist
whom I mentioned earlier, who devoted 50 years of his
life to studying Arabic, he and many, many other
Orientalists subscribed to this decline theory of Islam in which as Sarah was alluding. Sure, in the eighth and ninth century the patrimony of classical culture, both from Greece as well as from India enter the Islamic world. Translations are made
from Sanskrit from Greek, they enter into Arabic. And many of these
disciplines then begin to exercise really important influence not only upon the
development of an indigiounes form of philosophy, but also
other forms of rationalism, theology, exact science,
mathematics, astronomy. So, no on disputes that in
the eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th century if you have any
serious interest in learning you don’t spend your
time in what we would now call Western Europe, which
was a cultural wasteland for all intents and purposes, you go to the Eastern Mediterranean
and you study in the courts such as Mahmud of Ghazni. It is a remarkable thing about our field that it, this decline theory in which there is this
extraordinary period of scientific and intellectual growth, the model held that it
came to a screeching halt in the 12th century. And, has been either
static, society has been either static or in decline. We now know that that’s not the case. You can find in the Arab tradition, in the Persian tradition,
in the Ottoman tradition, in the Turkish the
continuous experimentation with rationalism, the
continued study of philosophy. You can find, for instance,
the history of the astrolabe is unthinkable independent of the history of the astrolabe in the Middle East, not just in the 11th and 12th
but in subsequent centuries. What we seem to have is a trope, this idea that I think
says more about our idea in the west of how we came to be, than how Islam or Islamic
culture actually is. I think the idea is somehow is starting in the 13th and 14th century the western tradition,
institutions in the west began to organize
themselves intellectually, the rise of science, ultimately. The torch was passed
from Athens, to Baghdad, and then Baghdad to Europe. And so, this model of stultification and stasis cannot be
squared with the facts and had a certain, I
think, cultural appeal. Having said that the remarkable thing to historians of science is why the west
accelerated the way it did, not why Islam lost it’s
competitive advantage. It’s the exceptionalism of western Europe rather than the rule of the Middle East, south Asia, east Asia. – I am eventually gonna
relinquish this thing to you guys, so there
are a couple of those right there, but before I do that I just can’t resist one last kind of big picture question which really goes to that sense of exceptionalism. I mean, here we are
sitting in New York City in the United States, a week before we all have to vote, and God knows we think we’re exceptional, right? We think this period is exceptional in it’s sort of internationalism, in it’s cosmopolitanism, in it’s globalism if you will. You’ve already been, I
mean, we’ve all been hearing nuggets of why that’s clearly not true. But, I wonder if you could just talk to sum up a little bit
about the contrast between, on the one hand what might
be, what might be seen as a chaotic and not very I wanna say fertile political history, often a lot of these people end up dead in unpleasant ways, and
yet concurrent with that seems to be a kind of
ecumeny if that’s the word, something close to that, that to me, looks a lot like globalism. I mean, a set of tools, if you will, or a set of cultural, a
kind of cultural language that allows for a tremendous
amount of activity in spite of what we would
see as political obstacles. – I think that’s right. And, let me say and answer by giving just reflecting briefly upon two moments of this history. The first would be the
seventh and eighth century in which the Islamic conquests take place. What’s the consequence
of the Islamic conquest of the seventh and eighth century? It’s the creation of a polity that begins in Andalusia, southern
Spain and which travels across north Africa all they way through what we now call the
Middle East all the way into current day
Afghanistan and even points further west politically integrated, in many moments of it’s history using the same coinage
or comparable coinage so that exchange was possible, culturally unified by the use of Arabic, conceptually unified by a shared acknowledgement that the caliph sitting in Baghdad or in Damascus ruled. And, a shared cultic tradition such that not only were traders moving
across the Mediterranean, indeed into the Persian Gulf
and as far as the Far East. But, pilgrims are moving from those areas to visit places like
Damascus and Jerusalem. So, a moment of extraordinary exchange. – And, a legal framework also. I mean contracts, right,
trade depends on contracts. You had to have some sort
of shared understanding of how agreements and
things like that are– – That’s exactly right,
and there’s a similar even more deeply integrating moment. After, we all grew up, I
trust most of us grew up on a certain idea of the Mongol conquests, Hulagu and Ghengis Khan,
and ultimately Timur and towers of skulls, a certain idea of cultural destruction. A lot of cultural destruction took place but in many respects
the state that followed those extraordinary Mongol conquests. There you have a polity that begins in the Korean Peninsula
and extends to Hungary had that same integrating power, so language, culture, law, currency under those highly favorable conditions you had extraordinary moments
of cultural production and a deep cosmopolitanism. I think, there must be
a half dozen figures in the book who not only have Arabic, but they’ll have Persian. Take, for instance, one
my favorites Beruni, who was a contemporary. Beruni is arguably one of the world’s greatest scientists, really comparable to Kepler or Copernicus,
an extraordinary figure of mathematics, astronomy. Well, he had, he would have
spoken Iranian at home, he learned Arabic. He would have also been
able to read Persian. He also had Sanskrit, he had Hebrew. He was an empiricist who was as interested in eclipses and the summer equinox and calculating latitudes
as he was in recording very, very carefully his observations of how Muslims pray, of how Jews pray, how Christians pray, how Hindus pray. So, an extraordinary
mind, we can really only make sense of him in that context which is highly cosmopolitan,
very sophisticated in which knowledge was
so competitively secured that you had to be brilliant
in order to prosper. – Our globalized age has a
lot of forerunners, I think. We do have two microphones
here, so anyone with questions please, and it would be delightful for us if you wouldn’t mind introducing yourself before you ask your question. – [Man] Could you address– – Sorry, who are you, sorry? – [Man] I’m sorry. – Just interested in who you
are, that would be great. – [Hank] Okay, my name is Hank Hanow. I’m wondering who the
Suni, Shiite divergence effects any of this. – That’s a very good question. The origins of the Suni, Shiite divide lie in the seventh century. The crystallization of distinctive legal intellectual traditions
dates from the ninth and the 10th century. It’s not until the 16th century that we begin to see a Suni, S hiite geography that is familiar to us. What do I mean by that? – We take it for granted
somehow that Shi’ism is more or less synonymous with Iran. That’s not true in the seventh century or the eighth, or the ninth, or the 10th, or the 11th, or the 12th,
or the 13th, to the 14th. It only begins to be true
in the 15th and the 16th, really the 16th century. When Twelver Shi’ism is established as a state religion in Iran. So, in the early periods
the crystallization of these separate identities and separate religious systems takes some time. There’s a great deal of coexistence and sporadic conflict. If we could beam ourselves back in time and go to Baghdad in the ninth century we might find the occasional riot between Sunis and Shiites. But, they’ll be an occasional riot and it would reflect a particular political moment in Baghdad. So, one should not imagine a kind of serene ecumenicism at work, but one should model a kind of default coexistence and respect agreements about pretty much all of the important religious
matters, for instance, if you compare and
contrast Suni legal schools with most Shiite legal schools you don’t find many
substantive differences. A very strong disagreement
about what happened in the seventh century
and who succeeded Muhammad and who should have succeeded Muhammad. A Shiite view being that Aadi should have succeeded Muhammad. The non-Shiite view saying, “Well, “succession took place,as
it took place tough luck.” – Just to follow onto that,
apart from some of the leaders who particularly in that later
period were part of making Iran, or what we call today Iran Shiite. I mean in terms of the scholars
and intellectual figures that you feature here,
what’s the mix Suni to Shia?. – I might have answered
your earlier question about how I made the selections by saying I was looking for distribution, Suni, Shiite, Arab, Persian, Turk, scientist, man of the sword, discoverer, traveler, physician. Most of the figures
that I cover are Sunis. About 85% of the world’s
population are Suni and the world now has 1.6 billion Muslims, there about, about 85% are Suni. But, I’ve got two or
three Shiites, on of whom An-he-lee who was a very important figure in that post Mongol period,
and it’s thanks to An-he-lee, for instance, I mentioned a moment ago, that our understanding that Iran is Shiite well that’s actually
kind of only yesterday within the grand scheme
of Islamic history. The Shiite communities of
southern and central Iraq, which have now been, shall we
say, activated politically, those are much older. Those go back to the seventh,
eighth, and ninth centuries. And An-hel-lee one of
them, one of the personages of whom I discuss, he was a crucial person in institutionalizing the
Shiism of southern Iraq. So, when we look at Iraq now,
the south is mostly Shiite, central Iraq is combination
of Suni and Shiite, and the north is Suni, that
is a product of history. And obviously, it’s a
history that is consequential for what’s going on now. – Ma’am. – [Malveena] Yeah, thank you,
my name is Malveena Nathanson. To what extent is Islamic culture or the culture as it developed influenced by pre-Mohammad
traditions in the area? – In all sorts of ways that
are very difficult to track. I’ll give you a single example. The earliest, and most
important biographer of Mohammad himself is someone named Mohammad Ad-min-is Hah-ck
who died in about 765, 767. Mohammad Ad-min-is Hah-ck he came from a background that was deeply Christian and Jewish. Many biographers of the prophet were imbued with Christian ideas, Jewish ideas, Hebrew Bible. So influenced that for
instance many of what we take to be the events
of Muhammad’s life in some respects appear to be narrations of Biblical history imposed
upon Arabian history. Single example Muhammad in 622, some of you will be familiar
with this history, is said to have left Mecca for
Medina, what’s called the Hijrah, the emigration. Many scholars have argued that’s really just a recycling of an Exodus narrative. So, what can appear to be Islamic is genuinely Islamic, but at the same time it
reflects a pre-history of certain patterns, certain paradigms of what prophets do and
how history takes place. Needless to say Islamists wouldn’t agree with my reading of the Islamic tradition, but there you have it. – Let me just put in a
plug for the polytheists. Right, so it’s not just the
monotheistic traditions, nor even Zoroastrianism which was also a pretty organised, in
our perspective, religion. But, you had the whole poetic tradition of polytheists, you have, you know. – Absolutely. – Sir. – [Ken] I’m Ken Siegal. Sarah your excellent book Thieves of State really opened my eyes to
the state of corruption in Afghanistan and how
that may be driven by U.S. neoliberal policies
and restructuring, all that. Here’s my question. The corruption, what
about the corruption in the period, Chase, that you have studied, was there a lot of
corruption and what drove it? And tell us about the
corruption at that time. – I think I’ll probably
cede the microphone to the expert in corruption. But, I’ll make one fairly obvious observation at the risk of sounding like an
apologist for corruption. – Oh God, am I gonna have to kill him? – So, those two, I’ll
give you two examples of these extraordinary
polities that stretched from the Atlantic to the
Hindu Kush, or from the Korean Peninsula to Hungary. They ran on informal networks of patronage and connection. They ran in a way in which
the lines between public and private work, shall we say blurry. So, what we call corruption and reasonably criticize and see as corrosive to democratic culture,
something about which Sarah has written very eloquently. These are not societies
which are democratic. These are not societies that ascribe cultural value to transparency. These are societies that have to overcome enormous challenges of
technology and communication and heterogeneity, and ethnic difference. And so, shall we say, the transaction (laughs) the transactions that we would
see as signs of corruption are built in to how the state works. – So, rewind and erase what he just said. That was a beautiful pitch, low and straight across, right across. So, one of the guys that
Chase chose not to put in this book, and that I did
have a little question mark is a guy called Nizam Al-Mulk. And, he was a phenomenal statesman. And, he wrote a book called basically the book of politics, Siyasatnama. And, part of what inspired me for my book was finding this book again,
which we had read in school and reading it with my
corruption focused eyes and finding the book is
all about corruption. And, it is all about how
if you do too much of that you will, it’s a book
of advice to his sultan, to his king. And, he’s example after
example and aphorism after aphorism about how
the way you’re gonna lose your kingdom is if you don’t enforce your subordinates’ activities on behalf of the people. And that, in fact, you will be judged for the behavior of your subordinates. And, it’s really interesting ’cause I have a chapter that starts,
well it doesn’t start, but it includes Nizam Al-Mulk. It starts with the guy
who wrote one of these that were the most familiar
with which is The Prince. Machiavelli’s The Prince is
one of this type of literature. And, if you read it carefully what you see is that he’s all for all of
the vices, except corruption. Leave the property and the
women of your subjects alone or you will lose your principate. And so, I would argue
that in fact, even in non-democratic societies
both of these societies were extremely
non-democratic, but these two statesmen really recognized the corrosive power of corruption as
danger to the kingdom. – [Larry] Yeah, my
name’s Larry Petriquero. The question I have,
you describe a society, a civilization that’s rather cosmopolitan and extensive, at least at
certain points in it’s time. I have a tendency to think,
at least in today’s terms of Islam as being rather
intolerant of other religions. Is that something that was traditional? Is it something that it
changed in a period of time? Or, when this was a very
cosmopolitan society was it a very open society
to other kinds of beliefs? – A crucial question and
I’ll give you an answer that you might find unsatisfying. But, I think it’s the honest one, which is, enormous
variation from one place to the next and from one time to the next. So, at the structural level
in terms of the rights that non-Muslims
possessed it can be argued that there was an implicit, even explicit constitution at work which
protected minority rights such that the extraordinary systematic brutal bouts, incidents of persecution
that are in the western historical tradition are unknown in Islamic history up until
the 18th or 19th century. In other words, that legal framework of acknowledged rights mattered. On the other hand, there were moments of persecution, there
were moments of martyrdom. One of the ways in which the 19th and 20th and the 21st century even more so differs from the early
modern and pre-modern period is the emergence and the systematization of intolerance and the brutalization of
confessional as well as Muslim, non-Muslim relations. How does that take place? Let me commend to your attention
a book recently written by one of Helen, your and
my colleagues, Beth Baron about and this is just a single example, and I’m not saying this
provides a gullible explanation. But, it’s a book that
argues that the experience of missionaries in Egypt was crucial for how the Muslim Brethren,
the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the leading Islamic revolutionary or shall we say critical groups emerge their ideas of non-Muslims
were deeply informed by their experience with missionaries. Not for a moment am I suggesting that it’s the missionaries’ fault for
making Muslims intolerant. But, there is an ideological temperature that spikes in the 19th and 20th century and colonialism is part of the story such that that millennium
long, indeed longer millennium long tradition,
which again I’m not saying was some kind of
ecumenical Disneyland of you’re okay, I’m okay. But, had embedded within
it certain expectations, of rights, and respect
that’s been disrupted and as we now see in
parts of the Middle East, well to use your term totally obliterated. It’s one of the, the modern
period and the emergence of nationalism haven’t been merely disruptive but they’ve been destructive
to some of these traditions. – There are two gentleman
here, I think we’ve got time for these last two questions. Just be aware this isn’t
just entertainment, this is for sale and Chase will be signing copies and we’ll be able
to respond to any other questions or thoughts that
people haven’t had time– – All royalties go to the foundation of the Graduate Center. – [Henry] Bravo. Henry Salzman’s my name. Most of us know that Maimonides
in the Jewish tradition interfaced with Islam, Arabic writing and speaking, and so on. Could you say a bit
about the Jewish-Islamic interface during the Middle Ages. – You really should be
asking my wife that question. She’s standing in the second row. She could give you a much
better answer than I. So, it’s multi-dimensional. So, on the one hand the
Jews like Christians, like Zoroastrians, as well as polytheists provide the cultural
background, with a matrix in which early Islam crystallizes. Any historian of Islamic law cannot help but acknowledge the debts
it owes to Jewish law. So, that’s point number one. Point number two is that
Muslim’s, Jews starting in the ninth, 10th, 11th
century were living in a world that was not only Islamic in terms of it’s governance, power
was possessed by Muslims but in which Arabic had
become the Lingua Franca and Islamic institutions and Islamic ideas were the ascendant ones. And so, there you see
the influence reversing. And then, Jews begin
to become influenced by Arabic Islamic culture. They pick up and use Arabic, not just in the language of commerce,
but also as you suggested, in the academic context. Similarly, there are
points of rabbinic law which, and the way that for instance, Jews narrate history,
which are unmistakably signs of influence from
the Islamic side of things. So, it’s a highly… It’s a context in which
influence is mutual and in which influence
reflects relative status. Of course, in the case of
Maimonides there you have a particular Spanish tradition in which the exchange between
Muslims and non-Muslims and the role of Jews in
the Islamic intellectual tradition and vise versa
is particularly striking and exceptional in some respects. – Sir. – [Bob] Thank you for this
discussion and your work. Bob Larik, I work with U.N. NGOs. Actually, as you were
talking I was thinking people literally founded
the U.N. I’ve been proposing a good government, holistic
interfaith institute to be able to deal with these
issues more constructively. I wanted to ask, you talked
more of, to me at least the idea of civilizations have not always been separation of church and state. The issues of respect
for others versus abuse of power, corruption. There’s polarization all
over the world today, obviously in this country we got Trump, who is a good Republican. I work with the U.N. with
the mental health community. I represented a general
semantics which promotes an orientation of win-win cultures and communication,
communicating more accurately to each other, different
groups, different generations for a better world. And, what do you think
of the idea of New York’s Graduate Center and
your work being a center for greater inclusion and culture in the long history of New York City– – That’s what we do already. That’s what we do already. – [Bob] But, we need it even east coast, the coasts and the middle of the country seems to be so polarized. – We do what we can do here, and I think– – Thank you, sir. – I should say that it’s
an extraordinary privilege to be at the City University of New York. It’s an extraordinary privilege of mine to work with colleagues
who are so committed to the mission of the university, which is one of diversity
and empowering talent wherever that talent may be. And, we see that as our job
here at the Graduate Center to advance the mission of
the university as a whole which some of you may
know have, this university has 285,000 students. So, it is an extraordinary venture project I think in opportunity, equity, respect, tolerance, and as I said
it’s a privilege to be here. – What a great note to end on. (crowd applauds)

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