Zayde Antrim, Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Zayde Antrim (ZA): I was originally motivated by what I saw as easy dismissals of the relationship between Palestinians and the territory that now makes up Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. When the question of their attachment to land came up, it was often in order to deem it both recent and ideologically motivated, sometimes explicitly in comparison to the more historically legitimate or “natural” attachments of other peoples to their lands.
I continued to be concerned by facile assertions about the “artificiality” of nation-states like Iraq or Syria, born of European colonial designs and thus destined to fragmentation, inequalities, and conflict. Such assertions were often well-intended correctives to assumptions about Oriental despotism or the bloodthirsty nature of Muslims—“they” are only fighting with each other because “we” drew the borders wrong, or because “we” drew them at all—without any recognition that all nation-states are artificial or that the logical corollary is to suggest that each ethnic or religious group in the Middle East needs its own nation-state to keep it from becoming either predator or prey (whereas diverse populations are capable of coexisting peacefully within a single state in other parts of the world). Moreover, I knew that territorial entities at the regional scale had been assigned toponyms translatable as Syria (al-Shām) and Iraq (al-ʿIrāq) since an early period in Islamic history, and I wondered whether in attempting to absolve Iraqis and Syrians of responsibility for conflict by foisting it onto European shoulders, we weren’t also erasing a deeper history of regional attachments and the local knowledges that may have informed agents of empire and nationalist intellectuals alike.
Finally, I was influenced by excellent studies of nationalism, particularly those that attempt to bridge the modern and so-called “pre-modern” eras, such as Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches, Men without Beards or Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped. These scholars found creative ways to understand the changes that contributed to nationalist discourses while problematizing periodization and questions of rupture and continuity, transculturation, and indigeneity. But they were still focused primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What I wanted to do was to open up the discussion of the deeper past, to explore how early Muslims thought about territories conceived at a variety of scales well before the advent of European colonialism or the nation-state.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ZA: Routes and Realms explores the ways in which Muslims expressed attachment to land in formal texts produced between the ninth and the eleventh centuries. I use the term “discourse of place” to bring together a variety of such texts, including world and regional geographies, topographical histories, literary anthologies, religious treatises, travelogues, and maps, which are devoted in whole or large part to the representation of territory. I deliberately read these texts across genres as a way of illuminating their shared methods and sources and highlighting their collective testimony to the importance of land in the early Islamic world. What I found was that the territories represented in these texts were most often imagined at three distinct scales—home, city, and region—and were associated with claims to authority and belonging that had both particularist and universalist implications. In a period normally understood as politically and religiously fragmented, the texts making up the discourse of place communicated an overwhelming sense of connectivity and accommodated heterogeneous peoples, pasts, and agendas.
The book also examines the ways in which texts can be seen as purposefully crafted performances interacting with an audience, and I distinguish “textual performances,” defined as written or graphic acts of representation, from “extratextual performances,” defined as cognitive, oral, and physical acts prompted by a text. This interpretive and methodological approach reveals the multivalent and complex nature of texts in the early Islamic world and proposes a way to think about their influence in the culture at large, even in the absence of substantial evidence for circulation or reception.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
ZA: My PhD dissertation focused on place and belonging in twelfth- to fourteenth-century Syria, and I have published a number of articles from this body of work, including analyses of representations of Syria and Syrian cities in texts by Ibn ʿAsākir, Ibn Shaddād, ʿImād al-Dīn al-Iṣfahānī, Ibn al-ʿAdīm, Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī, and Ibn Taymiyya. However, to understand the ways in which these later authors, up to and including the nationalist intellectuals of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Middle East, invoked earlier authorities to legitimize their visions of home, city, region, and ultimately nation, it is necessary to understand the way the discourse of place emerged and developed across the Islamic world in its foundational period. This is the broader project I decided to undertake in Routes and Realms.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ZA: I hope that Routes and Realms lays the groundwork for further research on the geographical imagination and attachment to land in the Islamic world up to the present day. I would like to be read by modernists as well as scholars working in earlier periods, as I worry that our specialized training often prevents us from making connections not only across disciplines, but also across time and space.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ZA: I am working on a book entitled Mapping the Middle East, which springs from the analysis of maps in Routes and Realms. This new book analyzes maps of the regional entity we now call the Middle East, loosely defined, from the tenth to the twenty-first centuries, in order to shed light on peoples’ feelings of belonging in and to different territories and the various ways power has been asserted and inscribed geographically. Intended for a general audience, Mapping the Middle East is not a technical history of cartography, but rather an exploration of the way maps have communicated a variety of imaginings of Middle Eastern land over the past millennium.
Excerpts from Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World
If naming and locating cities, assembling their foundation and conquest narratives, and describing their built environments were useful and compelling textual strategies, in a broader sense cities themselves were useful and compelling objects of representation in texts. Their visibility and durability on the ground—their rootedness in land—is one of the reasons images of cities were especially resonant with audiences in the Islamic world. The rootedness of cities not only encouraged their representation, but also contributed to the flourishing of the entire discourse of place, which was, after all, about translating attachment to land into a persuasive textual idiom for expressing loyalty and belonging. Moreover, since cities were clearly associated with politics in the world outside the text, they could very easily be associated with politics inside texts. Works about certain cities, especially capital cities like Abbasid Baghdad or Umayyad Cordoba, can be read as pledging loyalty to or making demands on the associated regimes. Similarly, the frequent allusions to city rivalries in the discourse of place reflected the realities of not only political, social, and economic competition, but also intellectual competition as it was understood in the worlds of adab and Ḥadīth studies from which most of the authors emerged.
These two kinds of competition—between cities and between scholars—correspond to two levels at which textual performances had extra-textual political ramifications. On the one hand, composing a faḍāʾil treatise celebrating the preeminence of one city—over another or over all others—can be seen as a textual performance intended to encourage a response from its audience in the form of political, economic, or religious investment in that city on the ground. On the other hand, the composition of a faḍāʾil treatise praising a city might not be intended necessarily or primarily to encourage an extra-textual response for the benefit of the city itself, but to encourage an extra-textual response for the author’s own benefit. For instance, some authors might participate in the discourse of place to establish their bona fides as udabāʾ through word play that riffed on popular city rivalries but did not necessarily communicate their own allegiances in these rivalries. Others might participate in the discourse of place to establish their bona fides as ʿulamāʾ through the assembly of scriptural, legendary, and historical material about cities that could be seen as having contributed to sacred history, whether because of their cosmological or eschatological significance or because of their association, past or present, with prophets, caliphs, scholars, or pilgrims. These textual performances served as evidence of the performers’ erudition and linguistic agility or of their religious authority and piety—and sometimes of both—and might yield prestigious or lucrative opportunities for patronage or employment. Vying to represent cities in the discourse of place was, therefore, a competitive textual performance with potential political, social, and economic benefits in the world outside the text.
Recent scholarship has interpreted the portrayal of boundaries between regions in early Arabic geographical literature as a necessarily imprecise gesture toward the zones of transition, rather than “real borderlines,” that separated polities on the ground. This preoccupation with borderlines has resulted in a general emphasis on absence in studies of the Islamic world—the absence of boundaries, the absence of private property, the absence of religious or legal discourses that imagined political jurisdiction in territorial terms, the absence of attachment to land. Not coincidentally, these “absences” were also articulated to justify and facilitate the colonization of the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, Middle Eastern responses to colonialism in this period often sought to answer these charges of “absence” with “presence,” drawing a good deal of intellectual justification from the texts that make up the discourse of place. From a different perspective, however, even when and where “real borderlines” between neighboring polities can be shown to be present, people on the ground have not necessarily experienced them as such and, furthermore, may imagine them quite differently. Similarly, in the context of the discourse of place, whether or not the borders portrayed on maps were “real” or corresponded to lines on the ground is less important than the way in which they were portrayed or the fact that they were portrayed at all.
One of the clearest consequences of the representation of a bounded regionalism in the works by al-Iṣṭakhrī, Ibn Ḥawqal, and al-Muqaddasī is that it challenges views of early Islamic geography as linear or city-centric. It also distinguishes these geographies from those that came before by Ibn Khurradādhbih and al-Yaʿqūbī. The earlier works address frontiers, but do not systematically portray regions as bounded entities, a portrayal that makes possible the twin processes of naming and mapping. It is impossible to divide the Mamlakat al-Islām into regions in the first place, not to mention naming and mapping them, without some concept of boundedness—some concept of where one region ends and the next begins. This boundedness does not have to be a function of “real borderlines” on the ground or areal measurements, but it does have to contain the geographical knowledge assigned to each region. The descriptions of towns, landscapes, and cultural characteristics and the lists of revenues, resources, and itineraries that distinguish one region from the other in the commentaries are contained mentally by boundaries, just as the inscription of toponyms and the iconographic representation of mountain ranges, waterways, and roads are contained by the boundaries of a map, even if those boundaries are simply the edges of the page. While boundedness did not imply disconnectedness, it nonetheless facilitated the expression of regional particularism in the discourse of place.
The prolific production in the Middle East over the past century of critical editions of texts from the discourse of place, many of which include impassioned and nationalistic introductions by their editors, testifies to the ongoing relevance of these early expressions of attachment to land in the Islamic world. Such a phenomenon brings the act of interpretation performed in this book full circle. The texts analyzed here have, in many cases, been made available, and thus mediated, by contemporary interest among Middle Easterners in their own history of attachment to land. This interest stands in sharp contrast to the tendency, particularly pronounced in Europe and North America, to underestimate the role played by land in conceptions of community and polity among Arabs and Muslims and to over-determine the roles played by kinship and religion. This tendency has been compounded in recent years by views of globalization as a uniquely de-territorializing process. Thus, globalization has been seen as heralding the end of the nation-state, or at least loosening territorial attachments in its constant flows of information, capital, and people. Moreover, political rhetoric about the global dimensions of the “War on Terror” is dominated by the threatening figure of the “Muslim terrorist,” loyal only to a worldwide network of like-minded Muslims committed to otherworldly and utopian (or dystopian) goals rather than local, national, or geopolitical agendas. These assumptions have distracted from the modes in which territories, imagined in new ways and deployed in new forms of discourse, have retained wide relevance in the geographical imagination as well as on the ground in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries—not just among Muslims or in the Middle East, but everywhere. At a time when tensions between the local and the global inspire new notions of rootedness, it is more vital than ever to examine the changing ways in which people have looked to the land to declare loyalty and claim belonging over the centuries—the many ways in which they have expressed the power of place.
[Excerpted from Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World, by Zayde Antrim, by permission of the author. © 2012 by Oxford University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]