From Troublesome Thirties To Frenetic Forties

From Troublesome Thirties To Frenetic Forties

I initially planned on writing a long-winded post about this topic, with scholarly references to drive my point home. But, after careful consideration I decided to approach this more as a personal reflection than a sociological analysis; which believe me is not easy for me. I tend to go on long tangents and find myself knee-deep in sociological jargon quite often. When I started my blog, I was in my thirties and trying to navigate the turbulent waters one enters when we officially leave behind the last remnants of our youth, also  known as the twenties. But, life has a way of constantly keeping us on our toes, and just when I thought I was getting the hang of these troublesome thirties, here comes the next chapter of my life. If life is akin to a novel, then I think it is safe to say each decade is pretty much a whole new chapter, with recurrent themes and characters from previous chapters, but also a whole new set of challenges and shifting priorities.

There is a certain optimism often seen as the hallmark of youth which corresponds to a certain stage of one’s life. The twenties are seen as the age of possibilities; a time for self-discovery and boldness where you essentially feel the better part of your life is ahead of you. Every aspect of society by and large caters to the needs and interests of the young: every TV show, movies, social media, the fashion industry, most apps, etc…This reinforces the idea that youth holds a social currency that dwindles with aging. When one enters the thirties, you are expected to have your career well in hand, and be on your way to creating your family (if you haven’t already). If you have the misfortune of not making headways in your career, buying a home, and endeavouring to have a healthy 401k, you are basically seen as someone who is failing at being an adult (or just really failing at life in general). Unfortunately, even Muslims fall pray to this narrative.

Some of the greatest trepidations women experience in their thirties are related to the subject of motherhood. Society repeatedly tells you it is now or never if you wish to have kids. Of course anxiety and existential crisis ensue when you see the forties looming in the distance and you still haven’t found a husband. Every passing stroller and lively baby shower reminds you that you are essentially wasting your peak fertility years. If the thirties make you keenly aware of the passage of time and the increasingly deafening ticking of your biological clock, the forties bring one’s mortality to the forefront.

By the time you are in your late thirties to early forties, you’re bound to have experienced loss. Whether it is losing a parent, other family members, your friends, or your acquaintances, death becomes a lot more palpable. There is also the fact that you are statistically more at risk for just about any disease. Where your doctor used to tell you not to fret when you rushed to his/her office after making the mistake of googling some innocuous symptoms you were experiencing, in your forties they are more likely to send you for a test. Age is a risk factor for just about anything: from Cancer to neurological illnesses. This, of course, makes you think of your mortality a lot more. Every mole, spot, lump, and twitch suddenly becomes a potential source of concern. While having a good diet and exercising daily help tremendously in one’s overall well-being, it is nonetheless a sad reality that you start noticing a stark difference in your body from when you were younger. The wear and tear start taking their toll; acid reflux, joint pain, thyroid issues are all benign, but they nonetheless remind you of your aging. Just looking at tomato sauce gives me heartburn these days, and I’m pretty sure my knees are fomenting some sort of rebellion against me. You can’t help but worry for those who find themselves in your care. Wondering what will become of your aging parents or your small children in the event of your demise will keep you awake at night, anxiously thinking of an alternative that won’t leave them destitute and desperate.

You realize that the days of your youth are now really behind you. From now on what you have to look forward to are the indignities of aging. Where you once saw your future brimming with infinite possibilities, eccentric dreams, and time seemed everlasting; your future is now one that you contemplate with apprehension. You know that your end is closer than it’s ever been before. Looking back at your life is fraught with the regrets of past decisions, the what ifs of the roads never travelled, and the sadness of having to let go of unfulfilled aspirations. From the moment of our birth to our death, our lives are essentially the byproduct of a series of decisions we make; from the most inconsequential to the most crucial. Aging is not for the faint of heart folks, but in many ways it is also the only antidote to the hubris of youth. Which might explain why societies obsessed with youthfulness tend to fear it, and constantly try to battle and delay it.

So, what does all of this mean for me? Is Geeky Muslimah on her way to a retirement home? Not quite. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge my trepidations about aging. What do you do when your actual life in no way resembles what you dreamed of? Do you embrace the new possibilities that present themselves, no matter how far from your previous ambitions? Do you let go of the past or do you redouble your efforts to achieve those dreams the younger version of you held so dear? I honestly wish there was some sort of pause button that you could just hit to stop time and give yourself the opportunity to think. But time waits for no one, and we are all caught in its web. The very universe we live in will one day come to an end. Despite all of its marvels that so often defy human comprehension and it’s perpetual expansion, it will fail to elude the deadly grasp of time.

It is difficult to put into words the bittersweet reality of human existence. We are all lucky to have been given the chance to experience it first hand: the good, the bad, and everything else in between. Every moment of joy, every laughter shared with friends, every instance where love prevailed in our lives, every melody that lingers in our hearts, every kindness ever bestowed upon us, every look of unconditional love that shines in our parents’ eyes, every miracles big or small we get to witness, all of it remind us that we are indeed blessed to be alive. Maybe that is what makes our mortality so daunting. Our very existence is nothing short of a miracle. Of the 200 billion planets that exist in our galaxy alone, life thrived on our little blue dot against all odds. When we look at the heavens, are we not reminded of our solitude in this vast universe, and yet humbled by the  closeness we feel toward our creator?

Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem

  1. Most Gracious!
  2. It is He Who has taught the Qur’an.
  3. He has created man:
  4. He has taught him speech (and intelligence).
  5. The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed;
  6. And the herbs (or stars) and the trees – both (alike) bow in adoration.
  7. And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance (of Justice),
  8. In order that ye may not transgress (due) balance.
  9. So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance.
  10. It is He Who has spread out the earth for (His) creatures:
  11. Therein is fruit and date-palms, producing spathes (enclosing dates);
  12. Also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-smelling plants.
  13. Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?

(Surah Ar-Rahman/ The Beneficent)

Remembering that this life is but one leg of our greater journey is the only way of combatting the fears conjured up by thoughts of the inescapable finality that awaits us all. In Islam, death is but a transition. We are after all souls living in exile and waiting to return home.  But this world of ours is so very human and in its own way wondrous, even when it fails to live up to our expectations, that the idea of leaving behind the only existence we know imbues us with dread. Several lifetimes would probably not suffice for us to get our fill of the human experience. We want to live long and happy lives. We want to fall in love and be loved. We want to see our progeny rise higher and achieve so much more than we ever dreamed of. We want it all even when it is not written for us; and that is very human indeed.

So, I’ll end this reflection by saying that the very human woman I am will try to find solace in remembering that there is wisdom in accepting the destiny Allah ‘aza wajal prescribed for me; even when it doesn’t always jive with all the dreams and hopes I once had. I shall endeavour to remind myself that what a believer should strive for is to be reunited in the hereafter with not only loved ones, but also all the best of our Ummah: from the Sahabas to our beloved Prophet (saw). I shall endeavour to remember that what awaits us beyond the veil of death is, God willing, everlasting contentment; and aging is part of the journey that leads us there.

 

“We shall certainly test you by afflicting you with fear, hunger, loss of properties and lives and fruits. Give glad tidings, then, to those who remain patient; those who when any affliction smites them, they say: “Verily, we belong to Allah, and it is to Him that we are destined to return.Upon them will be the blessings and mercy of their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.”

(Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 155-157)

 

 

 

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Star Crossed: Part Three

Star Crossed: Part Three

Muslim Futurism

The hubris of the Children of Quailth, Bolthaar, and Durnah—who in their vanity sought power in the darkest realms of existence—plunged the land into an everlasting cataclysm. From the atramentous towers that housed the custodians of arcane knowledge oozed an evil so profound and primeval that even the land cried out in agony. Soon, their gilded cities were torn asunder. The laments of the old sages of Tsabong did nothing to assuage the impending destruction. Their sorrowful litany resonated in their hollowed sanctuaries as turmoil swallowed what was once the abode of the living.

—The chronicles of the traveler Tuba Saab—

The Xinfiniin flew over the Southern sea, cutting through the tumultuous weather with ease and precision. The builders of Kharnak carved its hull from the highly sought out metals of Tuul, anticipating the perils of its inauspicious voyage. Tefra Koss was a dead world caught in the gravity of…

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Ibn Khaldun: A Sociology Beyond Eurocentrism

Ibn Khaldun: A Sociology Beyond Eurocentrism

While the critique pertaining to the various aspects of the impact of Orientalism on the social sciences has been growing since the early part of the twentieth century, very little has been said about the persistent disregard of non-Western thinkers as a source of “theoretical authority” (Alatas, 2014: 1). The theories and concepts found in their extensive body of work are very rarely applied to produce key historical and empirical information. This is particularly the case in the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, where the prevailing theoretical expertise is still firmly grounded in Western Academia. Studying the work of influential non-Western thinkers as substitutes to Orientalist constructions remains for the most part a rare endeavour.

 The prevailing Eurocentrism in the social sciences often manifests itself in the study of all human civilizations from a European perspective. Western thinkers become in this dynamic the sole architects of ideas, the originators of theories and concepts through which the world is assessed and interpreted, while non-Westerners are relegated to mere subjects of study and purveyors of data. The modern social sciences are heavily influenced by European philosophical traditions in their approaches and discourses. “The empirical field of investigation is selected according to European (for European read also American) criteria of relevance” (Alatas, 2007: 271). All aspects of reality, whether historical or social, are therefore organized and understood from a Western perspective.

Sociology is yet another example of a field in the social sciences where the important role of non-Western social thinkers in the development of the discipline got little to no attention. The works of seminal Western sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Marx not only played a central role in the evolution and growth of sociology in Europe, but their theories and models were also applied to non-Western societies sometimes sharing very little in common with their European counterparts. Non-Western social theorists, on the other hand, were vastly excluded from the elaboration of social theory. A compelling example of this phenomenon is the treatment of Ibn Khaldun in the modern social sciences. The majority of the work on Ibn Khaldun comprises mainly of biographical studies pertaining to his life, discussions about his theory of state formation, and examinations of the methodological foundations of his work. However, the application of his theory in the analysis of existing historical situations remains sparse. For the most part, Ibn Khaldun’s work is often relegated to the margins of modern sociology either as an example of proto-sociology or the subject of investigation. His theories and concepts are described and analysed without ever being used as tools to interpret and understand history. Very few sociologists in Western academia have went beyond simply citing him as a pioneer or a founder of their discipline.

“There has always been little interest in developing his ideas, combining them with concepts derived from modern sociology and applying theoretical frameworks derived from his though to historical and empirical realities. While there are certainly exceptions that is, attempts to apply a Khaldunian theory or model to social reality, these are few and marginal to mainstream social science teaching and research” (Alatas, 2007: 271).

Modern social theory rests vastly on the ongoing overlooking of “alternative perceptions of reality” grounded in traditions other than the prevailing Western epistemology (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 412). The political, economic, social and cultural hegemony of the Western world enables the current dominance of Western though. According to Aijaz Ahmed the supremacy enjoyed by Western epistemology “represents a politically disabling contentious shift of attention from the facts of current neo-colonialism” toward less controversial areas of research (Moore-Gilbert, 1997:19). While the criticism of Orientalism and Eurocentrism in academia is well-known, the calls for the elaboration of alternative discourses remain essentially unanswered. Much like in mainstream Western academia “the prescription for autonomous social sciences are rarely put into practice even in the South” (Alatas, 2014: 9).

Very few attempts have been made to incorporate Ibn Khaldun’s theory of state formation within the framework of modern sociology. His study pertaining to the rise and fall of states, the nature of dynastic succession, as well as the role of religion as an “extra-historical unifying cohering force” (Mirawdeli, 2015:97) while often mentioned and analysed is seldom applied. His extensive work on the history of Muslim societies in North Africa and the Middle East, considered by many to be the genesis of sociological analysis, “has rarely been seriously considered as a basis for a modern Khaldunian sociology” (Alatas, 2014: 2). The persistent marginalization of Ibn Khaldun in the discipline of sociology is due to the lack of a neo-Khaldunian iteration of his theory. The primary aim of this thesis is to move beyond descriptive accounts of his work in order to demonstrate how Khaldunian theory can be applied to historical and empirical realities. The current underdevelopment of his theory finds its source in the lack of work applying his “theoretical framework to historical and contemporary data” (Alatas, 2014: 53). In order to remedy to this oversight and reiterate the place of Khaldunian theory in modern sociology, our study will revolve around the practical application of Khaldunian framework in the analysis of a critical period in Muslim history; that of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the subsequent emergence of modern states in the Muslim world.

Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun al-Tunisi al-Hadrami, known as Ibn Khaldun, was born in Tunis in 1332. His family, like many of their co-religionaries, fled Spain in the aftermath of the Reconquista and settled in Tunis in the 13thcentury.  As a young man ‘Abd al-Rahman received an education encompassing both religious instruction and worldly knowledgein the form of traditional sciences. Ibn Khaldun lived in a time of great tumult where the Arab Muslim world entered a period of political disintegration and cultural decay. Greatly influenced by the ongoing upheaval around him, he sought to understand and explain the “patterns of human action in history” capable of altering the world so fundamentally (Çaksu, 2017: 41). Inspired by the works of previous Muslim historians like Ma’sudi, he wanted to chronicle the transformations taking place in his own period by detailing the “newly emerging conditions” (Dale, 2015: 1).

While remaining firmly grounded in the traditional approach to historical writing of his predecessors, he nonetheless sought to transcend what he saw as shortcomings in their method. He exhorted historians to abandon the writing of narratives focusing solely on “transient political and military events” (Dale, 2015: 2). He advocated instead for a transformation of history into an integral part of the staple Aristotelian sciences such as physics, mathematics, and astronomy. History according to him should become both a subject and a method entailing a radical new approach to historical research.

“A beneficiary of the same Greek intellectual bequest that subsequently influenced the social and political thought of Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Durkheim, he argued that history ought to be practiced as a science, a philosophical discipline.” (Dale, 2015: 2). 

In 1378, he completed his Kitab al-‘Ibar, a historical study on the Arabs and Berbers. This book contained his famous Muqaddimah, a prolegomena in which he introduced what he believed to be a new science. He called it ‘ilm al-‘umran al-bashari(science of human social organization) or ‘ilm al-ijtima al-insani(science of human society). “The basis of Ibn Khaldun’s new science of society was his critique of the state of historiography among the historians of the Arab East and West up to his time” (Alatas, 2014: 13). According to him, in the study of history ascertaining the probability and possibility of events is the only way to distinguish the true from the false, and this can only be achieved through the investigation of human society. Relying solely on the authenticity of chains of transmissions, as was the method of choice in historical investigation amongst Muslim scholars, was a process Ibn Khaldun found to be inadequate when bereft of an investigative approach.

“While there were outstanding historians among the Muslims of the past, later historians introduced untruths and even gossip which were passed on to succeeding generations of historians. The false and the nonsensical in history were not rejected as historians tended not to look into the causes and origins of events and conditions” (Alatas, 2014: 14).   

Ibn Khaldun’s main concern was what he perceived as a lack of critical perspective in the study of history. He worried that this oversight would allow mistakes and weak suppositions to permeate historical records and taint the veracity of the recorded information. He posited that history became over time a discipline where the surface occurrences of history were hardly distinguished from “its inner meaning” (Alatas, 2014: 14). Historians simply relied on the work of earlier scholars without investigating the origins of the events in question and trying to discern the truth from false reports. They were instead preoccupied primarily with the preservation of historical information as it had been recorded by prior generations. For Ibn Khaldun however, “the discipline of history requires not only a sound command of numerous sources but also a good speculative mind”, since historical information cannot simply be trusted without proper scrutiny (Alatas, 2014: 14). Relying solely on the reported information, no matter how reliable the source, was in his opinion insufficient as a method. He proposed instead an autonomous science with “human social organization and society” as its main object and tasked with establishing the veracity of historical events and ascertaining their probability (Alatas, 2014: 21). This new science was to become a prerequisite for the study of history. He saw them as complementary since his science of human society endeavored to uncover the inner meaning of history. Ibn Khaldun distinguished the outer forms of history that he called zahirfrom its inner meaning which he referred to as batin. The outer forms referred to facts and reports while the inner meaning alluded instead to accounts of cause and effect. He was very much aware that his science of human society was in fact unique in both its scope and objective. While it bore a passing resemblance to rhetoric, politics, and other existing fields it nonetheless brought forth a singular contribution and a unique approach to history.

“Such is the purpose of this first book of our work. (The subject) is in a way an independent science. (This science) has its own peculiar object—that is, human civilization and social organization. It also has its own peculiar problems, that is, explaining the conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization, one after the other, Thus, the situation is the same with the science as it is with any other science, whether it be a conventional or an intellectual one, It should be known that the discussion of this topic is something new, extraordinary, and highly useful. Penetrating research has shown the way to it.” (Ibn Khaldun, Rosenthal, Dawood, Lawrence, 2005: 38).

He was particularly concerned with the rise and decline of states and societies and was trying to offer an explanation to this phenomenon. He quickly realized that he needed to first understand the nature of certain key elements such as the connection between the state and society, the nature of human organization, and the role of group solidarity and feeling in the evolution of human society. To comprehend the nature of human organization, he looked closely at factors that he believed triggered social change like urban institutions, the economic life, the organizational ability of the state, and existing solidarity/group feelings (Mahdi, 1957:235).

“Ibn Khaldun conceived of this new science of human society as consisting a number of sub-areas as follows: (1) society (‘umran) in general and its divisions; (2) Bedouin society (al-‘umran al-badawi), tribal societies (qaba’il), and primitive peoples (al-wahshiyyah); (3) the state (al-dawlah), royal (mulk) and caliphate (khilafah) authority; (4) sedentary society (al-‘umran al-hadari), cities; and (5) the crafts, way of making a living occupations. These areas can be seen to cover what in modern terms would encompass human or social ecology, rural sociology, political sociology, urban sociology, and the sociology of work” (Alatas, 2014:21).

Ibn Khaldun’s first mention in European sources can be traced back to the seventeenth century when a biography detailing his life appeared in d’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque Orientale. It was only a century later, at the height of Western colonialism, that prominent Orientalists like Silvestre de Sacy, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, and William MacGuckin de Slane provided the first translations of Ibn Khaldun’s work in French and German. These were based on extracts of hisMuqaddimahand only offered a quick and incomplete overview of his overall body of work. A more serious study of Ibn Khaldun was undertaken in the nineteenth century in mainstream sociology with several Western scholars recognizing him as the founder of sociology.

Both Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909) and Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) saw themselves as students of Ibn Khaldun. Oppeinhemer was often referred to as the “reviver of Ibn Khaldun”, while Gumplowicz dedicated an entire chapter to the scholar where he spoke highly of his work and called him “an Arab sociologist of the fourteenth century” (Alatas, 2014:44). Ibn Khaldun was recognized as the founder of sociology by many notable Western sociologists in the nineteenth century. Howard S. Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, in their book Social Thought from Lore to Sciencededicated to the history of sociology, credited him with being the “first to apply modern-like ideas in historical sociology” (Alatas, 2014: 145). They were particularly admirative of his contribution to conflict theory. Unlike many other Western scholars, they recognized the uniqueness of Ibn Khaldun’s historical, political, cultural, and social context. They were conscious of the fact that he lived and wrote in a context quite different from that of nineteenth century Europe. They were able to detect those elements in his work that resonated with their own era, and in doing so restated the ageless and universal features of Khaldunian theory.

“Becker and Barnes themselves, in their chapter titled “Struggle over The Struggle for existence”, recognized him as an early conflict theorist and one emphasized causal principles in history at a time when ‘providential’ viewpoints everywhere held sway” (Alatas, 2014:44).

In his methodology, they saw a direct critique of documentary history, especially his elaboration of laws relating to society and social change. According to them, his greatest contribution as a social thinker was his treatment of historical material. “Much like Durkheim, Weber and others he was a human mind trying to comprehend rather than catalogue the specifically social factors in man’s living and doing” Alatas, 2014:44). Another example of European-led revival of Ibn Khaldun can be found in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s article titled Ibn Khaldun reveals the secrets to us: thoughts on North Africa. He tried to integrate Khaldunian concepts into mainstream social sciences. Ortega however betrayed his Orientalist perspective of Islam and Muslim societies when he described native Africans as “generally not thinkers” and declared Ibn Khaldun to be “an eminent exception, who has a clear and insightful mind in the way of the Greeks” (Alatas, 2014:44).

In Muslim readings of Ibn Khaldun, his work was not reduced to a mere object of study but was rather considered as genuine tool in the analysis of “historical and contemporary development of states” (Alatas, 2007:272). Long before Western scholars became aware of Ibn Khaldun, his contemporaries in the Muslim world were already applying his writing and producing a body of work inspired by Khaldunian theory. Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad bin al-Azraq al-Andalusi (1428-1491) was one of his fervent disciples who not only produced a comprehensive synopsis of the Muqaddimahbut also wrote about the connection between ethics and royal authority from a Khaldunian perspective. Another influential historian inspired by Ibn Khaldun was the Egyptian al-Maqrizi who even went to his lectures in Cairo. He dedicated a detailed entry to him in hisDurar al-‘Uquda biographical dictionary in which he showered the scholar with high praises. He described theMuqaddimahas a perfect example of Ibn Khaldun’s unparalleled mastery of historiography. “It reveals the truth of things, events and news; it explains the state of the universe and reveals the origins of all beings in an admirable plain style” (Rabbat, 2000:24).

In the twentieth century a few Muslim and Western scholars attempted to use Ibn Khaldun to study “the contemporary realities of their societies” (Alatas, 2007:272). While in the context of Western academia figures such as Ernst Gellner and Yves Lacoste led the effort to apply Khaldunian theory, their counterparts in the Muslim world were also undertaking “important theoretical appraisals of his work” (Alatas, 2007:273). Ibn Khaldun’s influence could be felt amongst key Muslim reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century including Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and Rashid Rida, all of whom pioneered Islamic modernism. Much later, philosophers such as ‘Abid al-Jabir (1971) and Ali Oumlil (1979) continued to strive for the understanding of Khaldunian thought outside of the prevailing Orientalism and Eurocentrism in the modern social sciences. For the most part however, Ibn Khaldun has been reduced to an object of study as the more practical aspects of his work fell into disuse. While Khaldunian theory faded from memory, Orientalist thought gained in prominence amongst many sociologists as the primary framework for the production of knowledge about Islam, the Orient, and Muslims.

Sociological studies pertaining to Muslim societies in Western academia remain mostly beholden to reductionist and essentialist analyses. The Orientalist Grand Narrative’s assumption that Muslim societies are inherently chaotic and violent and are antithetical to good governance persists and is even enjoying somewhat of a rebirth in the current political climate. Yet, the work of ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun offers the possibility of not only elaborating a modern sociology (neo-Khaldunian sociology) but also studying Muslim societies beyond the confines of Orientalism and Eurocentrism.

 

Star Crossed: Part Two

Star Crossed: Part Two

Muslim Futurism

Muslim Futurism

“The truth is Commander, this is unchartered territory for all of us. Zaya received a direct blast from a weapon we know virtually nothing about. We know that it affected her neurological system as a whole. But the extent of the damage is something we are still grappling with. While a certain amount of memory loss is to be expected after a brain injury, we cannot explain why she believes she is someone else all together. You’ll have to be patient, and give her time to adjust to her new circumstances.”

Dr. Faysel Tolmen could read the worry, desperation, and frustration dancing on Jorran’s face. He couldn’t help but wonder what devious mind came up with the devastating weapon that almost took Zaya’s life. For twelve years, her husband vacillated between hope and despair, never giving up on the faint chance that she could one day wake up from her…

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Star Crossed: Part 1

Star Crossed: Part 1

Muslim Futurism

Muslim Futurism

October 2016

Anissa sat silently, listening to the loud chatter emanating from the reception hall. She could hear her aunt’s voice gleefully describing the future plans of the happy couple. Eyes cast down, she remained motionless to avoid bringing unwanted attention to herself. Her sight remained trained on those beautifully intertwined patterns etched onto the white marble slabs of the patio. She stared at the ruffle of her dress and smiled, remembering all the frenzy and money that went into finding the right dresses for the nuptials. The wedding picture of her cousin surrounded by her cortege of bridesmaids was a particularly high point in the festivities. Her eyes stung a little when she remembered how out of place she felt in that moment. Having a middle-aged, rotund relative, with a rather mediocre life in the midst of her otherwise young, beautiful, and successful bridesmaids was certainly not something her cousin…

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Postcolonialism And Sociology

Postcolonialism And Sociology

Although sociology came late to the study of empire, it would be erroneous to think that sociologists have made no significant contribution to discussions pertaining to imperialism or colonialism. Close to a half of the sociologists working in Britain, France, and their numerous colonies during the 1950s were directly involved in some kind of colonial research or another (Steinmetz, 2014:78). They played an important role in the research on development and under-development that emerged at the height of the decolonization period. They were also among the first to produce comparative historical research on colonies. For those sociologists interested particularly in historical and transnational analyses, empires represented an interesting subject that could not be avoided or ignored. This explains the emergence of a “self-described postcolonial sociology” focused primarily on the topic of colonialism and empire (Steinmetz, 2014:78).

Unlike anthropology that engaged in an assessment of its participation in the Western colonial project, “sociologists’ amnesia about their discipline’s engagement in the colonial empires set in almost immediately at the end of the colonial era (…)” (Steinmetz, 2014:78). Any sociological analysis pertaining to colonialism focused almost exclusively on the economic aspects of imperialism. Sociology’s own involvement in the colonial project was, for the most part, completely overlooked. Lately however, an impressive body of work on postcolonialism is starting to emerge in the discipline. Breaking away from traditional anthropological approaches, sociology focuses instead on the study of colonies as historical formations (Steinmetz, 2014:77). Sociologists insist on examining the interactions between colonizers and colonized in order to understand how both parties are being transformed by this encounter. Recent discussions of postcolonial sociology “question the applicability of Western social scientific concepts and theories to the global South and ask how sociology itself has been shaped by empire” (Steinmetz, 2014:77). It is becoming quite an effervescent subfield that cooperates closely with many other disciplines. It continually generates an impressive array of new theoretical, empirical, and methodological insights. Some of the emerging topics in this research domain include: interactions among different European empires, imperial urbanism, gender and familial relations and ideologies in imperial settings, postcolonial culture and literature, imperial violence, and new technologies of geopolitical domination (Steinmetz, 2014:93).

Postcolonial theory has been gaining ground in sociology since the early 1990s. While initially postcolonialism was incorporated into existing sociological endeavors—such as the study of migration and multiculturalism—four distinct postcolonial approaches have since gained traction in sociology. The first one examines how European ethnography, racism, social ontologies, and other aspects of culture have shaped colonial empires. The different imperial strategies used to shape these empires resulted in hybrid political formations. Sociologists study the transition from one imperial configuration to another in order to disclose the process through which the political landscape is rearranged and reorganized to fit the newly established imperial pattern (Steinmetz, 2014:82).

“An example of predominantly colonial strategies evolving into more imperialist approaches is the nineteenth-century British shift to an imperialism of free trade. The 1880s then saw a movement back to formal colonialism by Britain and other European powers. Another imperial pattern involves chartered companies. Such companies were created by investors for trade, exploration, and exploitation throughout the medieval and modern eras” (Steinmetz, 2014:82).

The colonial state is organized like a field. Its internal dynamics ensure the production of a constant stream of ethnographic representations and projects meant to facilitate and regulate native governance. These idées–forces define, according to Bourdieu, “the performative ideas that both represent and divide the social world” (Steinmetz, 2008:607). The modern colonial state becomes the sphere of production of a new kind of “noblesse de robe” (Bourdieu, 1996:377). This new nobility however finds its legitimacy in scholarly titles rather than “pedigrees of noble birth” (Steinmetz, 2008:607). The state helps to validate this new nobility by acknowledging its credentials and endorsing its claims to dominate the state.

The second approach explores the ambivalence inherent to the colonizer-colonized relationship and the forms of colonial hybridity that emanate from this rapport. In contemporary usage, the concept of colonialism refers to the conquest of a foreign territory and its native population, subsequently controlled and ruled over by members of the “conquering polity” (Steinmetz, 2014:79). The varying degrees of indirectness and informality, of said foreign rule, regulates the ramifications of the loss of sovereignty experienced by the indigenous population. An important characteristic of colonialism is the subservient position the natives are confined into. The conquered population is constituted as legally, administratively, socially, culturally, and biologically inferior to their occupiers. “All colonial states divide their subjects into different tribal or racial groups in an effort to enhance control, but at the same time the colonized are subsumed by the colonial state under a single, overarching category” (Steinmetz, 2014:80). All Western colonies practiced this rule of difference to maintain the status quo and prevent the colonized from ever attaining the same legal rights as their rulers. While some colonies haves shown a certain degree of flexibility in respect to the rule of difference, this tenet was generally more stringent during the nineteenth century than in previous eras.

“Even the supposedly assimilationist French Empire placed limits on genuine assimilation. In a historical study of the training of Algerian teachers in French Algeria inspired by Bourdieu’s sociology of education, Colonna (1975, pp.168-69) showed that the colonial power placed a specific limit on the path to acculturation one that defined the quality of scholarly excellence as being neither too close to the culture of origin nor too close to the culture of the West” (Steinmetz, 2014:80).

The third strand of postcolonial analysis in sociology criticizes Western knowledge as being inadequate for the task of understanding post-colonized non-Western cultures. Some even accuse Western thought of being antagonistic to the very existence of the non-Western world. This argument goes back to the German Romanticism of the eighteenth century, and was reclaimed a century later by certain schools in Central European anthropology (Steinmetz, 2014:93). “This critique of universal categories reached an apotheosis with interwar German neohistoricist sociologists (Steinmetz 2010), some of whom argued that all social scientific categories had to be unique to a single time and place (Freyer, 1926)” (Steinmetz, 2014:93). For some, this is the very reason why a Southern sociology focused on non-Western cultures is necessary. Others however, reject this line of thinking by arguing that a phenomenon like capitalism is “universalized and can be analyzed using the same concepts in the global South and the global North” (Steinmetz, 2014:93).

The fourth strand of postcolonial sociology focuses on the issue of imperial blowback, and Fanon’s observation pertaining to the reciprocal relationship between Europe and the Third World.  Eric de Dampierre (1968) argues for treating “the European, even metropolitan context, in counterpoint with the African context” (Steinmetz, 2014:94). This idea of cultural reciprocity between colony and metropole is a critical element in Said’s study of postcolonial methodology. While historians focused mainly on the impact of imperialism on the configuration of domestic cultures and politics, postcolonial critics such as Spivak, Said, and Gilroy concentrated instead on “metropolitan high culture” (Steinmetz, 2014:94). Sociologists on the other hand, choose to examine both the back flow of colonial culture in the metropoles, as well as the aftermath of colonialism in postcolonial societies.

An increasing number of sociologists are willing to engage in a self-critique of sociology as both a product of empire and an enabler of the colonial project. In fact, Alatas, Berque, Bourdieu, and Stavenhagen are amongst those who openly called for a decolonization of the discipline itself. Steinmetz however calls for caution against false generalizations and states that more empirical research is needed to truly ascertain and understand the role of sociologists in colonial empires. After all, many sociologists were ardent opponents of colonialism and were involved in the Anti-Imperialist League, which is often described as the precursor of the American Sociological Society.

“Bourdieu’s work on the relative autonomy of cultural field, which is inspiring some of the most interesting research in sociology today, is a key resource for preventing postcolonial sociology from failing back into reflectionist or one-sidedly ‘short circuit’ externalist approaches to the sociology of knowledge” (Steinmetz, 2014:94).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • Steinmetz, George (2008). The Colonial State as a Social Field: Ethnographic Capital and Native Policy in the German Overseas Empire before 1914, Sociological Review, Vol.73, No.4, pp. 589-612.
  • Steinmetz, George (2014). The Sociology of Empires, Colonies, and Postcolonialism, Sociological Review, Vol.40, pp. 77-103.

 

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Simulacrum

Muslim Futurism

The Ottoman railway line built in 1760 during the reign of Sultan Mustafa III was not only a symbol of Ottoman ingenuity and progress. It also facilitated the flow of people and commerce throughout the Ottoman territories and the surrounding Muslim regions. There were plans of establishing connecting branch lines into Arabia, Africa, and the Mughal Empire. This was to become a titanic undertaking requiring funds, manpower, and the involvement of the best engineers in the Muslim world. In its present state however, it connected Sarajevo to Kars, an Ottoman city bordering the Caucasus. This region over the years had become the theatre of an ongoing bitter struggle between the Ottoman Porte and the Russian Empire.

Every city traversed by the railway built massive stations in a bid to stimulate their local economies. Izmir’s train station was always crowded. It was constantly animated with a continuous stream of human activity and filled…

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