Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Anglo-Muhammadan Law in Colonial India

My main academic interest centers on how Islamic law was altered (read: ruptured, dismantled, reified, codified, desiccated, displaced, etc.) by the forces of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This semester I wrote a paper on the development of Anglo-Muhammadan Law in colonial India in the 19th century.

It provides a really good example of the distorting effect that colonialism had on Islamic law -- something that is often forgotten.

Basically, Anglo-Muhammadan law was a (by)product of the colonial encounter. It was a fusion of elements of British common law, Islamic law, customary law, etc. that developed -- over a long period of time -- into an entirely new construct.

I think this is what makes Anglo Muhammadan Law so interesting. In other words, the British did not merely displace the legal system as it had existed under the Mughals. Rather, they selectively appropriated and interpreted elements of Islamic law to their own liking, creating something new in the process.

Charles Hamilton (d.1792) published a translation of part of al-Hidāya in 1791, which was originally authored by al-Marghīnānī, a well respected twelfth century Ḥanafī jurist.

Islamic law, as practiced in the pre-colonial period, was characterized by ikhtilāf, or a diversity of opinions.

Since Islamic texts rarely offered definitive answers, translation aimed to simplify their ambiguities. In fact, in order to deal with this diversity of contradictory opinions in al-Hidāya, Hamilton decided to prioritize the students' decisions over the teachers' decisions.

Translators also paraphrased Islamic texts, or cut out parts of them, or simply made unintentional errors. Since Hamilton took such extensive liberties in editing al-Hidāya, he actually created a new text, which assumed a new authority that it never had.

Since translated texts did not cover all issues, the British introduced precedent to the legal system. The decisions of Anglo-Muhammadan courts were recorded and published -- and through this process a literature about precedent accumulated.

One of the last acts of translation was renaming Anglo-Muhammadan law "Muhammadan law," which suggested (among other things) that the process of translation described above had never occurred.

Later, Anglo-Muhammadan became a lens which blurred interpretations of earlier Islamicate history / Islamic law.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Egypt's New Foreign Policy

Although the balance of power within Egyptian domestic politics is still very much up in the air, Egypt's post-revolutionary foreign policy is beginning to crystallize. Egypt's foreign policy under Mubarak played a somewhat minor - if any - role in fomenting the flames of revolution back in January and February. Certainly there was some modicum of popular discontent with the Mubarak regime's alliance with Israel and the United States, but these concerns certainly did not drive the revolution that forced Mubarak from power.

Egypt's foreign policy under the transitional government is breaking somewhat from the old alliances forged by the Mubarak regime. The most ovbious indicator of this break from the past is Egypt's role in negotiating a deal between Fatah and Hamas two weeks ago. Egypt had been attemtping to midwife an agreement between the two Palestinian factions for four years to no avail. There were accusations that Egypt was not an honest broker throughout the process, as it allegedly favored Fatah at the expense of Hamas. Yet not three months after the Egyptian transitional government took power, an agreement was struck between Hamas and Fatah through Egyptian mediation. Though it's difficult to know exactly what made the reconciliation possible at this moment, one is led to believe that Egypt's shifting foreign policy goals helped facilitate an agreement.

Egypt has also indicated it is open to closer relations with Iran. Egypt and Iran have not enjoyed diplomatic relations since 1979, when Anwar Sadat provided refuge for the deposed Shah. Iranian cargo ships are now allowed to pass through the Suez Canal, and there are even rumors that both countries are seeking to restore diplomatic relations and return their ambassadors.

The emerging strategic calculus on the part of the post-revolutionary Egyptian government is not entirely surprising. Throughout the last decade, many within Egypt have voiced dissatisfaction with its alliance with Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia. Many claimed that these alliances limited Egypt's foreign policy options. It also arguably opened the door for countries like Turkey and Qatar to cement their status as independent mediators. As a consequence, these countries have acquired influence at Egypt's expense. How interesting, then, to see Turkey and Qatar invited to Cairo to share in the official announcement of Palestinian reconciliation two weeks ago. Of course, Egypt's options will be perpetually limited in a way that Turkey and Qatar's are not. As we were reminded time and time again throughout news coverage of Egypt's revolution, Egypt receives over $2 billion annually in US aid. Thus, there will surely be limits to Egyptian overtures to Iran and Hamas.

***I expect this to be my last blog entry, as I am graduating in a week. It's been a pleasure blogging for the department throughout the last two years. I'd like to thank Nadia Khalaf for managing the blog, as well as all the others in the department who have made this blog possible. I would also like to thank the readers. As for me, today I begin my long walk off into the sunset.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Myth of Al-Andalus

Next time somebody mentions al-Andalus (medieval Muslim Spain) as an example of interfaith utopia and tolerance ("la convivencia"), think again. What strikes me is how ubiquitous the myth of al-Andalus has become, and how it is continually adapted, reappearing in different contexts.

Architecture of the Cathedral of Cordoba, formerly a mosque.

The myth is of course associated with Bin Laden and the lamentation of the loss of Muslim Spain. Side note: the Islamic Commission of Spain issued a fatwa in 2005 condemning Osama Bin Laden.

In the wake of Bin Laden's death, this article by Gil Anidjar is definitely worth re-reading. The article originally appeared in Tikkun magazine in 2009.

Anidjar shows how the myth of a tolerant medieval Muslim Spain has been appropriated and exploited for different (political) purposes. He focuses on how the myth became popular as a self-righteous, self-legitimating narrative in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The story [of Al-Andalus] offers the image of an isolated country, a solitary beacon of light and civilization in a dangerous world. The force of the story comes from the limited size of the window of hope it offers--a few hundred years of multicultural coexistence on a relatively small territory--and from the reasons given for its sad conclusion: Its end and failure were and remain Islam's fault.
Parts of the very same narrative that Anidjar critiques appeared in a recent Guardian report on Muslims in Spain, "In Search of the Spirit of Al-Andalus."

For example:
"Islam was the dominant religion, but other faiths were tolerated."
"This was a multicultural city before the reconquest."
"One of the most harmonious communities in Europe was al-Andalus." (note the use of Europe)
However, in Spain, there is currently a small movement of converts to Islam, who draw on (the history of) al-Andalus in order to build a (new) Spanish-Muslim identity.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The US Budget and Title VI

This is not a blog about American politics. Hence, I bet you are wondering why I plan to write about the US budget and how it affects us all at the Kevorkian Center. The answer lies in the fact that one of the victims of the bipartisan budget deal struck between President Obama and House Republicans last April happens to be Title VI of the Higher Education Act. According to this report, the deal cuts funding for Title VI by 40%, reducing the total amount of funds from $126 million to $76 million.

Title VI is the Department of Education program that funds Language Resource Centers across the United States, including New York University's Kevoriakian Center for Near Eastern Studies. This pool of money also funds the FLAS fellowships, which allow so many of us to pursue advanced level study in languages like Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. So many of us at the Kevorkian Center have benefiited enormously from FLAS fellowships. Not only do they facilitate language study during the regular academic year at NYU, they also allow many of us to study during the summer in the Middle East. As anyone who has tried to learn Arabic can attest, there is no way to reach a genuine level of advanced proficiency if you don't spend time living and studying amidst native speakers. Furthermore, the cost of independently financing language study halfway around the world makes these generous fellowships an absolute necessity for many of us.

It baffles me that lawmakers have chosen to cut these programs, practically rolling them back to pre-2001 levels. Out of all the things in the 2011 budget - which tops $3 trillion - why cut programs that give such tangible material assistance to graduate students learning languages like Arabic and Persian? Graduate school would literally be out of reach for many students without this funding. Here's to hoping that the Obama administration increases this funding in the fiscal year 2012 budget, which begins October 1st. If these levels become the new normal, lots of area studies programs and graduate students will be in serious trouble.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Koran by Heart: Something like a Review

First things first: it is hard to be a blogger without reliable internet. It's also very embarrassing not to have reliable internet in New York. How does that even make sense? Well, I'm not going to explain it here. But I will blame the delay between this 'review' and the day I saw the film in question (April 30th, at the Tribeca Film Festival) on that particular problem.

Moving on:

Let me first state the obvious: you should watch Koran by Heart. I heard it's going to be on HBO at some point - keep your eye on filmmaker Greg Barker for news there. The story pretty much makes itself - adorable, intelligent, charming children with beautiful voices, competition, long difficult journeys, language barriers, bonds between parents, etc. etc. Somewhere between my last year of high school and my first year of grad school I became the sort of person who cries at the mere mention of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' even though I don't watch the show. So even as I sat there scribbling notes as fast as I could, tears were running down my face (for happy reasons! sad reasons! reasons I can't explain!). Thank God movie theaters are dark.

However, like most students in this field, I lost my ability to just shut up and let myself be entertained a long time ago. Just recently I walked into my youngest brother and sister's dance competition to see a team of primarily white suburban New Jersey girls performing a very intricate, skilled rendition of some sort of Bollywood/Bharatanatyam dance, plus requisite high kicks and triple turns...to Arabic music. In bright orange harem pants, belly shirts, and scarves. The oldest members of the team were teenagers, and they were all really, really good. Every detail perfectly executed and perfectly in sync. But ahh...the headache came immediately.

So here are my complaints about what was otherwise one of the most promising examples I've seen of a blooming genre in film, I'll call it Movies-to-Make-You-Like-Muslims- closely related to Movies-to-Explain-Islam, often with nobler intentions, though often equally misguided.

1) The three main characters in the film are ten year old children from Senegal, Tajikistan, and the Maldives. For some reason, we never see a city or town name for these places, though the footage from each child's home country is made to stand up against Cairo, an imposing cityscape that gets its own sped-up, frantic, urban-life montage. Since Nabiollah Saidov from Tajikistan travels within his country, we do get a sense of the difference between his own very rural area and the capital city where he hopes to attend boarding school. The audience never learns which particular island Rifdha Rasheed hails from in the Maldives. Since most people in the U.S. have likely not even heard of the Maldives, we can maybe offer Barker a pass for just letting American audiences know that it exists! In the Indian Ocean! - even if these audiences never learn, say, whether the Maldives is one island, two islands, or twenty six. But the footage from Djamil's home in Senegal really bugged me. It seemed somehow unfair, and too easily in line with stereotypical portrayals of Sub Saharan Africa. Senegal is represented by a village setting, and that setting alone - Egypt by its largest city, and that city alone.

2) The filmmakers also left out some rather important details. For example, though Rifdha is a very successful student who wants to be an explorer, and her mother clearly wants Rifdha to continue studying science in addition to religion, one moment of serious tension in the film comes when Rifdha's father says that his dream for his daughter is that she'll get a religious education and ultimately be a housewife. In a Q&A session after the film, one of the Associate Producers told us we should all know that Rifdha's mother works. Why wasn't that information in the film?

Secondly: While watching we learn that Nabiollah's rural, one-room school has been shut down as part of a government crackdown on "Islamic extremism" in Tajikistan. Again, in the Q&A after the film some audience members asked for clarification. Was this some sort of blanket crackdown? Did it have more to do with politics? Or was Nabiollah's teacher really promoting extremism? The answer turned out to be that the government in Tajikistan was simply shutting down all small, rural schools dependent on the instruction of only one teacher, since it is difficult for the state to supervise or control what happens in such classes.

I'm not sure why a documentary that was otherwise well-crafted, beautifully filmed, compelling, and clearly assembled by people familiar with the material needs to have these sort of slips - to me it looks like sloppiness, since I don't think it was their intention to portray Nabiollah's school as a bastion of extremism (the film actually includes a very sympathetic interview with Nabiollah's teacher after the shutdown), or to imply that Dakar looks like Djamil's village, or that Rifdha's father is certain to have the final word on her future (or that his word is uncomplicated and unchanging).

Oh, well.The children are adorable, their voices really are beautiful, and according to my latest searches, you can't watch them on YouTube. All complaints aside - I recommend it.

Just be prepared for a few awkward moments, one of which was entirely out of the filmmakers' control. Our little heroes are competing in last summer's Cairo-based annual international Qur'an reciting competition. The competition always happens during Ramadan, and the winners are always announced on Lailat al Qadr...by the President. Yes - Hosni Mubarak makes a cameo appearance. How quickly it has become strange to see him playing the role he always envisioned for himself: a benevolent father figure, watching over his children and grandchildren.

Nabiollah, the only one to recite at the awards ceremony, had this to say: "That's when I realized it was a big deal, because usually presidents don't come for small things."