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Intellectual Captivity

Literary Theory, World Literature, and the Ethics of Interpretation

Chen Bar-Itzhak


This essay concerns the unequal distribution of epistemic capital in the academic field of World Literature and calls for an epistemic shift: a broadening of our theoretical canon and the epistemologies through which we read and interpret world literature. First, this epistemic inequality is discussed through a sociological examination of the “world republic of literary theory,” addressing the limits of circulation of literary epistemologies. The current situation, it is argued, creates an “intellectual captivity,” the ethical and political implications of which are demonstrated through a close reading of the acts of reading world literature performed by scholars at the center of the field. A few possible solutions are then suggested, drawing on recent developments in anthropology, allowing for a redistribution of epistemic capital within the discipline of World Literature: awareness of positionality, reflexivity as method, promotion of marginal scholarship, and a focus on “points of interaction.”


Edited by Gülru Necipoğlu and Maria J. Metzler

Muqarnas 34 features articles ranging from monumental architecture in seventh-century Jerusalem to modern Arab painting in Syria. It includes an archaeological study of the Agdal in Marrakesh, one of the few surviving medieval Islamic estates; as well as a fresh assessment of Ilkhanid polychrome stucco decoration in the Pir-i Bakran mausoleum. The volume contains several articles on interactions between Islamic and Christian societies as attested in architectural landscapes from the early modern period. One piece interprets an inscribed Renaissance gate at a Crimean palace; another provides a fascinating micro-history of Venetian merchants in Aleppo, who lived in commercial khans. Other highlights include an article exploring the impact of Shirazi poets and their tombs on the famous traveler, Pietro della Valle; and an investigation of the forgotten Galata New Mosque in Istanbul, built by the queen mother in 1698 to replace a prominent Catholic convent church following Ottoman military defeats.

The Notes and Sources section introduces several new texts, including a Neo-Latin poem that challenges recent modifications to the Alhambra’s iconic Fountain of Lions, and a hitherto undeciphered Persian chronogram poem, which sheds valuable light on the production sites of luster-painted ceramics in the Safavid period. Also featured is a sixteenth-century Arabic chronicle describing Ottoman construction projects in Mecca within the context of diplomatic relations between Istanbul and Gujarat.


Edited by Gülru Necipoğlu and Karen Leal

Muqarnas 33 contains articles that range chronologically and geographically from a study of architectural innovations in the early mosque under the Umayyads to an analysis of archaeological finds in medieval Armenia, the book culture of Bijapur, and a discussion of a nineteenth-century Muslim cemetery in Malta. Readers will also discover essays on, respectively, the influence of a Tabrizi workshop on Cairene architecture in the fourteenth century, and the brilliant ceramic tiles of the fifteenth-century Uzun Hasan Mosque in Tabriz, as well as the latest research on the coffeehouses of Safavid Isfahan and on the architectural patronage of Shah ʿAbbas. A study of a Timurid pilgrimage scroll in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and an essay on Bihari calligraphy round out the volume. The Notes and Sources section features a never-before-published treatise on the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul. Muqarnas 33 includes articles by Heba Mostafa, Diana Isaac Bakhoum, Sandra Aube, David Roxburgh and Mounia Abudaya-Chehkhab, Eloïse Brac de la Perrière, Keelan Overton, Charles Melville, Farshid Emami, Conrad Thake, Ünver Rüstem, and Hans Barnard, Sneha Shah, Gregory E. Areshian, and Kym F. Faull.

Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World is sponsored by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bīdil’s Portrait

Asceticism and Autobiography

Prashant Keshavmurthy

In 1704 the Indo-Persian Sufi and poet Mirzā ʿAbdul Qādir ʿBīdil’ completed an autobiography entitled The Four Elements (Chahār ʿunṣur). Into the fourth “Element” of this text he set an account of a portrait of himself painted around 1677 by Anūp Chhatr, a painter famous for his portraits in the imperial Mughal ateliers of the time. Initially refusing his painter-acquaintance permission to paint him, Bīdil finally yields and is astonished at how the resulting portrait duplicates him like a mirror. After marveling at it for a decade, he falls ill. His friends visit him in his sickbed and one of them, leafing through his anthology of texts, comes upon the painting. He exclaims at how faded it is. Bīdil himself can barely make it out on the page. When he recovers his health, he opens the anthology to examine the faded portrait and is astonished and shocked, as his friends are, to see that it has recovered its brilliant colors. He tears the painting up.

This essay reads this ekphrastic account of self-transformation as an autobiographical and iconoclastic interpretation, playing on philosophical, literary and painterly traditions of visuality, in particular Ibn ʿArabi’s (d. 1240, Andalusia) theory of the imagination. Among the questions that will be pursued are: what understandings of self and self-transformation did Bīdil renew by this interpretation? How is this episode a focusing of concerns that pervade all of The Four Elements? What kind of reader and reading practices did this autobiography assume? And, finally, does an understanding of Bīdil’s iconoclastic self-transformation—turning on this episode—prepare us to better understand his works in other genres?

Marcel Lepper

How should the field of philology react to the ongoing quantitative growth of its material basis? This essay will first discuss two opposing strategies: The quantitative analysis of large amounts of data, promoted above all by Franco Moretti, is contrasted with the canon-oriented method of resorting to small corpora. Yet both the culturally conservative anxiety over growing masses of texts as well as the enthusiasm for the ‘digital humanities’ and the technological indexation of large text corpora prove to be unmerited when considering the complexity of the problem. Therefore, this essay advocates for a third, heuristic approach, which 1) accounts for the changes in global text production and storage, 2) is conscious of the material-political conditions that determine the accessibility of texts, and 3) creates a bridge between close and distant reading by binding quantitative approaches to fundamental, qualitative philological principles, thus helping philologists keep track of the irritating, provocative, and subversive elements of texts that automated queries inevitably miss.

Calligraphic Africa

Notes toward the Location of Philology in Africa

Shamil Jeppie

Is it possible to productively bring together two seemingly exclusive ideas: Africa and philology? This essay presents a case for working at multiple levels and numerous sites in bridging these apparently disparate realms. Indeed, there is already a tradition of philological study about and on the continent that reveal the many different trajectories of Islamic scholarship in particular. While surveying this field, which has advanced substantially in recent decades, it also suggests that there are key issues that require examination such as the question of the archive and the collection, their constitution and movement. Philology, no matter how it is conceived, rests on the availability of texts and therefore the histories of the way texts come to accumulate in certain places and are discovered or recovered at specific moments is part of the project of the philological encounter. We thus have to be mindful of the histories and practices before, in, and after the practice of deep, close reading.

Cultural Geographies of the Malay World

Textual Trajectories in the Indian Ocean

Sumit K. Mandal

This essay explores the cultural geography of the Malay world writ large by examining the trajectories of texts beyond the conventional national and regional boundaries of Southeast Asian studies. Although the Malay world could be studied in relation to a number of transregional orientations, this essay highlights its interconnectedness with the Indian Ocean. This orientation offers a broad enough frame to examine the transregional scale without losing sight of the local. The essay focuses on a collaborative effort at examining textual trajectories. It proposes a rethinking of the normative vocabulary of the nation-state by exploring the subterranean histories of the present. The essay proposes the term “Malay world” as a helpful vehicle for exploring the transregional connections that are not captured by the language of territory and boundedness. The cultural geography of the Malay world that emerges in this essay is multifarious as its interconnectedness with the Indian Ocean has taken complex and diverse forms. The trajectories of the texts examined have traced a world that has been enmeshed in the transregional traffic of people, goods, and ideas. The pervasiveness of the thinking and practice of the nation-state, has undermined, but not eliminated the multifarious cultural geography of the Malay world.

Rajeev Kinra

This article surveys the deep history of the discipline of comparative philology in the Indo-Persian world, and attempts to situate it within larger debates about global forms of intellectual modernity. From its early beginnings in the production of literary lexicons designed to help poets in different regional centers of the Persianate world understand each other’s works, comparative philology in South, Central, and West Asia developed into a key scholarly discipline in which a whole host of concerns relating to Indo-Persian intellectual life was negotiated: literary canon formation, the arbitration of good taste, the maintenance of cosmopolitan literary intelligibility in an increasingly vernacular world, and even the nature of language itself. These developments took place over many centuries, in a vast array of works, spread out over a vast region that stretched from Anatolia to India. But in their increasingly sophisticated scholarship, as well as their increasing cognizance of their own scholarly disciplinarity, we find several distinctly “modernizing” tendencies among many of the Indo-Persian philologists discussed here, long before the supposed “invention” of the discipline by western scholars like the British colonial judge and orientalist, Sir William Jones (1746-1794).

Holy Lives as Texts

Saints and the Fashioning of Kashmir’s Muslim Identity

Mufti Mudasir

The present paper aims to examine some important hagiographies of the Muslim saints of Kashmir to illustrate how these accounts contributed to the creation of a space vital for the emergence of a new religious subjectivity from the fourteenth century onwards. It argues against the tendency, underlying much recent scholarship on medieval Kashmir, to approach these texts as unproblematic historical documents without raising certain important questions regarding the context of their production. It, therefore, argues against the dichotomy of ‘myth’ and ‘history’ assumed by most historians who have engaged with these hagiographies. Questioning this approach, it argues that these texts nevertheless offer insights into how a Muslim subjectivity emerged and consolidated itself in medieval Kashmir. Writing lives of the saints should be seen as a discursive practice constructing ideal images for imitation rather than imitations of real lives. Following certain archetypes of saintliness, these texts created and perpetuated the concept of ideal life among a population experiencing a cultural and religious transition. Basing its argument on the thesis that a life is not how it is lived but how it is told and remembered, the paper argues that the narratives of Sufis and Rishis of Kashmir should be seen as constitutive of the very processes by which the Muslim community perceived itself and hence seminal to the formation of a distinct Muslim identity. It concludes with the argument that the binary opposition posited by certain stake holders between a Sufi/Rishi Islam and ‘scriptural’ Islam is a fallacy with no foundation in the recorded lives and teachings of Kashmiri Muslim saints.

Imperial and Philological Encounters in the Early Modern Era

European Readings of the Codex Mendoza

Adrien Delmas

Although the history of philology is merely an addition to the rediscovery of textual traditions which have been neglected for too long by academic philology, it is nonetheless an important one for its ability alone to provide an explanation of the existing asymmetric situation. When the world opened up after the 16th century following transoceanic navigations, European encounters with written traditions in America, Africa and Asia led to a variety of attitudes—from denial to fascination, from destruction to collection. These “philological encounters”, both material and conceptual, largely contributed to shape the views of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment regarding language and writing. To understand the semiological and epistemological consequences of these views, this paper focuses on a single text produced at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Codex Mendoza, and on the different interpretations to which the latter was subjected in Europe after crossing the Atlantic. The history of the Codex Mendoza would have us believe that it was during the 18th century, and not before, that writing became exclusively synonymous with alphabet, resulting in the marginalisation of non-alphabetic written systems—and this mainly for historiographical reasons.