You know, this week I really wasn’t planning on writing another commentary on the ins and outs of our program and what were supposed to understand from it. But then I sat through my Tuesday lecture in the Problems and Methods class. Now for those of you who are reading this from outside the program, the Problems and Methods in Middle Eastern Studies class is one of the required courses for the program and deals largely in, as the title suggests, the various methodologies experts in the field utilize in their work. This particular class focused on biographical dictionaries, a genre within the primary source material that incorporates formulaic entries of personal data on practically anyone considered noteworthy in a given area of the region at a given point in history. Of course, who the dictionary entries focused on depended on who was writing them, but more often than not, it was a means of cataloguing members of the ‘ulama and where they came from.
It wasn’t the subject matter that caught my attention so much as it was the tangents the lecture led to toward the end of class, namely those dealing with open-minded approaches to research. But before I get to that, a brief summary may be in order. My problems and methods course is taught by Professor Khalid Fahmy, but this week Professor Tamer al-Leithy came in as a guest lecturer to discuss his use of biographical dictionaries in his dissertation on conversion in Mamluk Egypt. Professor al-Leithy focused on how Coptic bureaucrats were led to convert to Islam during this period of the latter religion’s ever increasing prominence as well as the particulars of what that conversion meant and how it was received by other Muslims. This was all achieved in large part by examining the biographical literature and thinking about not just what it literally said, but rather what it reflected about the society that produced it. For example, some of the biographers who wrote about prominent Coptic converts during the Mamluk era described them with the epithet “al-Qibti” which denoted their convert status. Essentially, it was meant to indicate that they were less of a Muslim because of their conversion being due to practical political reasons rather than genuinely spiritual ones. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, what was most interesting about this lecture and the point I’m trying to draw attention to, as Professor al-Leithy made abundantly clear, was that the ultimate form of his dissertation was not actually his original focus. Not at all.
Our guest lecturer discussed how, during his research in the archives, he began to pick up on this pattern of Coptic conversion within the biographical literature. From there, he couldn’t help but question what more there was to this story. And more and more, he became distracted from his original project and took on these new questions. It was at this point that Professor Fahmy impressed upon us the need to allow ourselves similar opportunities to become distracted within our research. In many other countries throughout the world, historians and other social scientists are trained to focus on only a singular topic of research and that’s it. It follows a simple pattern: come up with a dissertation topic, defend it, research it, and then produce the paper. Professors Fahmy and al-Leithy, however, said that this should not be the case. Allow yourself to be distracted and let your mind wander through the material you’re looking into. These are the principles that they believe should guide historians and other researchers through archives and source material, not some central static focus. By allowing yourself to become distracted, you can open your mind up to larger, and often, more important questions. In other words, let the material guide you to your conclusions, not the other way around. And be open to drastic shifts in thinking on your way there. This is what Professor al-Leithy did, as has Professor Fahmy and countless others. This is the measure of a creative and successful academic. And personally, I think it makes our craft all the more fun.