Cornell University Press

James Pickett on Islam and Islamic Scholars

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We asked author James Pickett three questions about his new book, Polymaths of Islam, and his research on the history of religion in Central Asia,  Iran, and India from the mid-eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Parts of my book painstakingly recreate lineages of the most powerful scholarly families in nineteenth-century Central Asia. Today, many people’s knowledge of the pre-revolutionary period is hazy due to the tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution, which means that my topic does not generally lend itself to oral history. However, I managed to interview a scholar in Uzbekistan whose teacher’s teacher studied under a famous nineteenth-century scholar with an intellectual lineage stretching back over a century. This stands out as a remarkable thread linking a murky past directly with lived experiences in the present day.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

My book engages the issue of textual genre as a factor mediating our view of the past. Nineteenth-century Central Asian sources were intimately shaped by the literary conventions of the genre in which they were written. In practical terms, this means that learning Persian, Turkic, or Arabic is merely a first step in working with premodern Islamic texts, and not necessarily even the most difficult one. Equally involved and time-consuming is mastery of the particular genre of sources one is interested in engaging.

3. How do you wish you could change your field of study?

The field of history would be enriched by distancing itself from a nation-centric view of the past. In truth, the field is already moving away from the nation-state as a dominant category of analysis, but the organization of our sources into national archives still implicitly shapes the kinds of questions we tend to ask. The subject-matter of my book is not the patrimony of any single nation, which means that relevant sources are scattered all over Eurasia. This prompted me to work in libraries and archives in Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and India, which allowed me to engage questions not anachronistically subordinated to the narrative of any particular modern country.

*Featured photo: The opening chapters of the Qur’an. Credit Abdullah Faraz.


James Pickett is Assistant Professor of Eurasian History at the University of Pittsburgh.

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