On 28 and 29 March 2014 the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at the American University in Cairo (AUC) convened its Annual History Seminar at Oriental Hall in downtown Cairo. Titled “Before the Modern, After the Medieval: Egypt and the Middle East in the 18th Century,” the seminar brought renowned scholars from across Egypt and the world together to question the narrative of the eighteenth century as a period of stagnation or decline which still dominants Egyptian and Middle Eastern history, and to try to find new frameworks through which to understand the period.
Dr. Emad Abu-Ghazi of Cairo University opened the seminar by addressing the issue of whether European colonialism of the nineteenth century curtailed regional transitions to modernity with a paper titled “Precursors to Modernity: A Reading of Consular Treaty from the 16th Century.” Dr. Abu-Ghazi used a sixteenth century treaty between Egypt and the city of Ragusa to examine ongoing changes in Egyptian society during these period, and to argue that the treaty reflects many values which we associate with modernity long before the French invasion of 1798, the date traditionally marked as the beginning of the modern period in Egypt.
Dr. Rachida Chih of Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in France and Dr. Justin Stearns of New York University at Abu Dhabi presented papers which examined intellectual developments eighteenth century Egypt and Morocco. Dr. Chih argued that traditional understandings of nineteenth century neo-Sufism which see the movement as a radical break in religious and intellectual thought, in fact ignore the deep ties of nineteenth century reformists to their eighteenth and seventeenth century forbearers. Dr. Stearns, presenting a paper on Moroccan intellectual history, argued that the traditional narrative of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as periods of intellectual decline across the Islamic world is not borne out by actual examination of the intellectual production of the period. As evidence he pointed to the deep and ongoing interest of religious scholars in the rational sciences, a point ignored by histories which focus on their spiritual and political significance. Both papers convincingly identified a robust intellectual dynamism in the region during the eighteenth century. They also encourage thought on the definition of various concepts, including those of Sufism and neo-Sufism and point that such definitions themselves change over time.
Dealing with economic and social history, Dr. Ghislaine Alleaume of Aix-Marseille Université presented a paper on the findings of her research on waqf documents from Alexandria prior to the nineteenth century. Interestingly, her research shows a sharp increase in awqaf in the first half of the eighteenth century, a finding which casts doubt on the traditional view of Alexandria as a regional backwater in the centuries prior to the reign of Muhammad Ali. Dr. Nelly Hanna of the American University in Cairo presented a paper titled “Guild History or Guild Histories,” which problematized the work of mid-twentieth century historians, which saw eighteenth centuries guilds in Egypt as static. Dr. Hanna presented evidence of textile guilds reacting to shifts in world trade and targeting specific markets abroad by producing new products especially for these markets. This, Dr. Hanna argued, means that some guilds in this period were not static, but were indeed actively adapting to and effecting shifts in the global economy.
In the under-explored field of eighteenth century literature, Dr. Adam Talib of the American University in Cairo gave a paper which presented several Arabic poems from the end of the eighteen century which focus on pocket watches, a simple device which has deep effect on the structure of our lives. Dr. Talib contended that these poems capture a moment in the Arab Eastern Mediterranean’s encounter with Europe’s technological revolution and the shifting mentalities that accompanied it. By exploring these shifting mentalities, Dr. Talib argued, we may be able to establish a better periodization of Middle Eastern history than the traditional narratives of stagnation in this period. Some scholars have argued that a changing awareness of time and time-keeping, time-discipline and different ways of organizing time productively are among the elements that characterized Western societies in the early modern world and allowed for the rise of Capitalist structures and European hegemony. Studying other attitudes in the Arab world towards the concept of personal time and watches therefore opens an avenue for comparative research. Dr. Hussein Hammouda, also of the American University in Cairo, gave a paper dealing with Egyptian literature in the eighteenth century, a subject almost entirely ignored by earlier scholars. In this paper, Dr. Hammouda asked whether Egyptian literature of the eighteen century was merely a “surrender” to the paradigms of the medieval period, or whether it contain new structures which led to the more well-known developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Other interesting papers were given by Dr. Mohamed Sabri al-Dali of Helwan University, Dr. Sabri al-Adl of Misr International University, Dr. Sayed Ashmawi of Cairo University and Dr. Nasser Ibrahim of Qatar University.
All of the papers presented at this seminar pointed to a dynamism in eighteen century society in the Middle East which constitutes a direct challenge to the narratives of stagnation or decline posited by earlier historians of the period. However, they disagreed over how this dynamism was to be interpreted, i.e. whether there were elements of the modern already brewing in the eighteenth century or whether these are later developments. Dr Abou Ghazi raised the notion of unfinished or incomplete modernity, and having focused on the sixteenth century in his paper, he stressed the idea that this part of the world had experienced more than one attempt at modernity and at a transformation but that other larger historical developments impeded this. Abou Ghazi also connected this interruption of development to the political realities that shaped who benefited from the economic production and profits of the labor of people in this part of the world. Several scholars, including Dr Ghislaine Alleaume, argued for focusing on particular sets of dates based on available sources rather than blocks of historical time, or periods, such as the whole eighteenth century. Both Drs Rachida Chih and Justin Stearns stressed the importance of redefining concepts, including Sufism, in light of changing circumstances. Several of the participants, including Stearns, added that even concepts like modernity and the early modern act as strait jackets that limit and confine the imagination of historians, and that they need to somehow liberate themselves from such concepts and their related paradigms. The seminar ended with the participants acknowledging that the work presented over the two days was a mere start and that more research is clearly needed if the old decline paradigm is to be finally put to rest. In that light, Dr Magdi Guirguis called for more collective and group research over such issues since no one scholar would be able to cover all aspects of the debate.