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Connected Histories of Science, Islam, and the State in the Globalizing Middle East, 18th-20th centuries

Session XII-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
Since the late nineteenth century, a view emerged whereby Islam and modern science were fundamentally incommensurable, coinciding with the entrenchment of “modern science” as a dominant epistemology and linked to ideas of universal progress, on one hand, and to Europe’s imperial ascendancy across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, on the other hand. Although this view has endured and impacted the way scholars have approached the globalization of science in the Middle East, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have made clear that "science" has not superseded "religion" nor has "religion" stopped the development and spread of "science." Just as clear, we have not reached a political stasis that has marked the “end of history”; the inevitability of increasing democratization or any intrinsic relationship of science and technology to any particular form of government, seem ever more tenuous. Following the lead of, and in conversation with, scholars interested in writing a global history of science free of Cold War politics, Modernization theory, and the discourses of “Clash of Civilizations” and Orientalism, this Round Table focuses on “the conditions under which knowledge begins to move” thereby historicizing processes associated with the globalization of science in the Middle East from the late 18th-20th centuries. The brief presentation of several case studies will kick the Round Table off, followed by discussion among the panelists and audience about connected histories of "science", "Islam" in particular and “religion” more broadly, and “the state.” Ultimately, the Round Table seeks to foster discussion and understanding of the current state of the field of Middle Eastern history of science and its politics.
  • Victoria Meyer
    In this presentation, I explore discussions of smallpox inoculation and vaccination as windows onto perceptions of scientific medicine and the Middle East in Ango- and Francophone elite networks. Modern public health initiatives in industrialized countries revolve around immunization against contagious diseases. The practice of engendering immunity against disease through disease first emerged in Western European social and medical landscapes in the eighteenth century. European physicians revised it in the nineteenth century through a related procedure of vaccination against smallpox. Popular and academic narratives categorize inoculation as a procedure from the Middle East perfected by Western European knowledge and then rendered truly scientific with the emergence of vaccination. Scholarship thus has obscured the complex traditions of intellectual exchange between Western Europe and Middle Eastern societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I apply recent scholarship demonstrating the circulation of scientific knowledge that undermines persistent views of scientific medicine as Western and imposed upon less developed countries in the nineteenth century. Both Western Europeans and Egyptians across social hierarchies translated foreign or new medical practices to their knowledge and goals, creating cycles of adaptation. This exploration of inoculation and vaccination furthers our understanding of the bilateral translation processes ingrained in the global circulation of knowledge.
  • How did 18th-century chroniclers and travelers think about knowledge of the natural world and its proper connection to questions of society, governance, and trade? Using the Cairene chronicler, Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1753-1825), and several European expeditions from the 18th century, this presentation highlights very different visions about how embedded or remote ideal knowledge producers should be in relation to the subjects of their knowledge. Over the eighteenth-century, multiple European expeditions to Egypt voiced an ideal of disinterested European natural history in their writings, distanced from growing imperial and trade motivations. While trade and economic gain figured on the margins of their rhetorical justifications, these tracts focused on the intellectual gains to be had by exploring novel regions of the natural world. In contrast, al-Jabarti (1753-1825), the Cairene chronicler of Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt and student of several scientific texts, advocated an ideal of deeply interested science, explicitly furthering a moral worldview through the measured, disciplined sensibilities of scientific inquiry and the personal qualities and interpersonal relationships cultivated therein. Deep connectedness to a society was critical to realizing the insights and advantages of scientific study. This period highlights competing legitimizing narratives of scientific practice and political and economic power, as those very powers were reshaping boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. In conversation with the rest of this Round Table, I look forward to exploring colonial settings in the rise of modern claims of objectivity and understandings of utility in the sciences, and ultimately the kinds of questions we ask about the rhetoric and practices of globalizing modern science.
  • In this presentation, I discuss the globalization of science in the Ottoman Empire by analyzing Ahmed Cevdet’s translation of the sixth chapter of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, which contained an overview and history of the sciences. Influential accounts of the emergence and spread of modern science have been unidirectional, taking the origin to be Europe whence science was distributed to other parts of the world. The paper shows that in fact late Ottomans such as Cevdet willingly appropriated modern science due to an Islamic philosophical conception of human beings as having a distinct nature and propensity for scientific reasoning along with a historicist and progressivist understanding of scientific development. These ideas, I argue, provide grounding for the globalization of sciences. Additionally, I draw attention to another aspect of modern science which contributed to its circulation, that is namely its supposedly empirical and positivist nature. I assert that due to previous tensions between Islamic theologians and peripatetic philosophers regarding metaphysical issues, the former were wary of sciences that had such implications. Adhering to this theological school, Cevdet was sensitive to such topics, and thus, welcomed a science which shunned metaphysical questions and left those topics to religious authorities. Overall, my presentation argues for greater attention to acts of scientific appropriation and the appeal that empiricism and positivism had in a variety of social and intellectual contexts.
  • Where does the authority of science end? Where might gaps in that authority be located and the elisions of scientific practice questioned? After the Second World War and during the global process of decolonisation, the colonial science of archaeology faced a crisis across the Middle East: a region that the discipline’s practices had both helped to create and—materially and socially—dispossess. Attempting to regain authority, archaeologists working in Egypt and Sudan found relevance in a massive project of survey and preservation: UNESCO’s 1960–80 International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia. Launched due to the flooding caused by the building of the Aswan High Dam, the project saw archaeologists and engineers work across the regions of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia documenting archaeological sites and taking apart and reassembling ancient temples. A masterpiece of spectacle, the Nubian campaign seemed to reconstitute archaeology as an authoritative science geared toward the issues of the day. Yet building on years of archaeological survey conducted during the construction of the earlier Aswan Dam under the British occupation of Egypt, UNESCO’s campaign ignored Nubians themselves. Archaeologists—mainly Euro-American, but also Egyptian and Sudanese—helped to constitute a picturesque and “recolonized” ancient Nubia free of contemporary life. Simultaneously, Nubians, who the earlier work in the region had often characterised as racially degenerate, became subject to ethnological survey and forced migration projects that sometimes drew protest. Archaeology’s authority over the past created present and future ruptures. Those ruptures, however, are clear in the very documents that gave archaeological practice its power: in them, Nubian lives lived around the material objects of excavation and preservation are often visible. I turn to those documents to ask if a “re-colonized” discipline has ever been a secure one, and prompt discussion about the nature of that science’s authoritative status.
  • What does it mean for scientific fields and practices to become globalized? I examine this question through historical developments in human genetics, drawing insights from the American University of Beirut as a site of interaction between American, European, and Middle Eastern scientific actors and research subjects. In the inter-war period, the establishment of clinical laboratories at AUB’s medical school enabled the development of an informal large-scale program to study human heredity through anthropometry and sero-anthropology. AUB’s Middle Eastern students were trained in these techniques, and research results were disseminated locally in Arabic as well as in international scientific journals. In the post-war period, new technologies transformed human genetics into an internationally coordinated science with specialized laboratories. However, an attempt to establish such a lab at AUB during the 1960s ended in failure: the Anthropological Blood Grouping Laboratory functioned for only four years before closing. The American and British personalities who promoted the ABGL in Lebanon had aimed to collect blood samples from across the region without committing to long-term relationships with local scientists and research subjects, which ultimately contributed to the lab's failure. Reflecting on these two moments in time-- interwar and postwar-- I consider how particular circumstances of "globalization" include or exclude certain people and places as scientific actors or sites of knowledge production.