All posts by Kathryn North

ire’ne lara silva’s “the world is medicine”

the world is medicine
by ire’ne lara silva

let it in
the sunshine the rain the wind the lightning
eat the raw
eat the stones and eat the marrow
eat the warmth on your skin
and the words the sun is writing
eat the scent of the earth after rain
eat the storm the thunder rumbling inside

this is how you grow strong
be the roar be the keening
be the screaming be the running
be louder
be the wind be the trees growing tall
be the word be the day be the knife
be the hot rush of blood
be the clouds
be the electric spill of blooming
flowers in the desert

begin
and end with water
never forget
the ocean lives inside us
the rivers take us
where our ancestors
walked
our bodies still ebb and flow
with the tides
there is no joy like the joy of the body
suspended in water weightless and fierce
water is life
drink it in
touch the world eat the world be the world
the world is medicine

let
it in

From Blood Sugar Canto

 

The New Narrative of Oaths of Peace

By Kathryn North, HI Program Coordinator

A. Azfar Moin, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, began his Faculty Fellows seminar by drawing attention to a map of the dissemination of Islam. The geographic representation painted a surprising picture: the Indian subcontinent (specifically Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) is and has been home to the largest population of Muslims in the world. Moin noted that many may find this fact unexpected because, for the most part, the history of Islam has melded into the history of the Middle East (thanks to the legacies of 19th century Euro-centric historical representations). For this reason, Moin sees one of the primary goals of his new book project, Oaths of Peace: Sovereignty and Political Theology in Islam, as correcting this asymmetrical teleology – that is, he aims to “recast Islam in a new narrative frame – a deep history of biblical monotheism that moves through ‘Asia’ rather than the ‘Middle East’.” Each chapter of the proposed book will focus on an illustrative historical context through which Moin will trace back the long and complex chronicle of events bound by a common thread. In other words, the primary questions at stake for the Fellows and future readers of this work are: what assumptions about Islam can be reconsidered by decentering its focal point and what stories can we uncover by changing the dominant teleological narrative?

For the December 19th seminar, the Faculty Fellows read a draft of Moin’s opening chapter on “oath-taking” and “peace-making,” “Oaths of Peace.” In his manuscript, Moin explains that before Islam expanded into the “polytheistic” Asian context, there was no provision for a peace (sulh) oath to be solemnized. Generally, in the premodern world, for an oath (or, a “curse-in-waiting”) to have validity it had to be sworn on something both parties deemed significantly solemn. Since the time of early Islam, “people of the book” (i.e. Abrahamic “monotheists”) could legitimately swear on the God of Abraham to seal an oath. However, as Islam expanded, Islamic sovereigns faced a critical dilemma: clearly, oaths had to be taken to maintain order, but if a king were to accept an oath by a non-monotheist, he would be open to accusations of subverting the law of the Qur’an. To better understand the severity of this transgression, the Fellows read selections from Jan Assmann’s The Price of Monotheism (2009), wherein Assmann argues that the shift from the dominance of “polytheistic” to “monotheistic” religions were marked by moments that define the “Mosaic distinction” (2009). Assmann claims that, “what seems critical…is not the distinction between the One God and many gods but the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, between the true god and false gods, true doctrine and false doctrine, knowledge and ignorance, belief and unbelief” (2009, p.2). In other words, accepting the oath of an “unbeliever” on a “false god” was tantamount to apostasy. Therefore, how was a king to govern a “pagan” people?

The hegemonic narrative used to answer this question is that conversion was, for all intents and purposes, the predominant method implemented by the premodern Islamic empire. Conversion, so the story goes, offered a silver-bullet solution to all problems of governance and control (not to mention ethics and religion). However, Moin notes that historians do point to an exception: the policy of religious “tolerance” practiced during the reign of the Mughal empire in India. According to the established narrative, the Mughals were eccentrics but pragmatic; to be able to rule with any sort of expediency in this polytheistic outpost of Islam, Akbar (16th century) took a hard turn away from the monotheistic practice of the day and implemented the policy of sulh-i kull, translated as “universal peace” (or “peace with all”).

Moin agrees that Akbar’s language of accommodation (i.e. viewing…“all sects of religion with the single eye of favor”) was bold and unorthodox in that it essentially claimed authority above God. In fact, ultimately the Mughal’s sulh-i kull allowed the king to accept oaths from members of other religions as they could swear on the king himself as a divine being. However, Moin argues that much groundwork had already been laid by Islamic sovereigns prior to Akbar’s reign and that such claims had to be derived from some existing authority – however, the techniques used by previous Muslim kings had also gone awry of established monotheistic doctrine.

By the 16th century, Akbar (and the Mughals who followed) had inherited both the problem of accepting oaths from non-monotheists as well as the precedents to be able to claim ultimate authority. For instance, Chinggis Khan, one of Mughal dynasty’s most important forefathers, and a “pagan”, brought a return to pre-monotheistic “sacred kingship” during his reign. After defeating the caliphate in 1258, the Mongols declared Chinggis Khan to be “the living god” or god on earth – establishing a narrative of the king as divine. If we look further back, prior to the Mongols, Mahmud, a Ghaznavid mamluk (“slave”) who came to rule Ghazna in the 11th century, provides us with an example of “peace-making” in the non-monotheistic context. After besieging Kalinjar, Mahmud, in addition to spoils, accepted a finger from the Hindu ruler in exchange for peace. However, the symbol of amputation being a Hindu one, the conquered ruler also had to wear a robe of investiture that carried the sacred authority of the Caliphal, the Islam authority. While Islamic sovereignty in this era was manifested in a concrete form, this sovereignty, nonetheless, made it possible to accept oaths from those who were not “people of the book” – an important precedent, as Moin shows.

The Fellows posed a number of historical questions on early Islam, specifically, and premodern oath-taking and religions, in general. Additionally, the group asked Moin to expound on his view of “sovereignty” and “sacred kingship.” To this, Moin responded that, while most scholars would claim that “sovereignty” is a post-nation-state notion that has no place in the premodern context, in reality, issues of governance and territoriality have always been with us. For this reason, early-modern notions of sovereignty can and should be equated with kingship. Similarly, Schmitt’s “political theology” is illustrative for showing that “sacred kingship” was common prior to the expansion of monotheism. Moin explained that Mughal-era sacred kingship was the subject of his first book, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (2014, Columbia University Press), and he aims to move beyond South Asia and the Mughals in his forthcoming work.

Many of the Fellows were aware of the recent Indian legislation (and subsequent rioting) that denies refugee status to Muslims through the Citizenship Amendment Bill – making Moin’s and the work of his colleagues in this field all the more timely and critical. Moin recently organized a workshop titled “Peace with All Religions (Sulh-i Kull): Indo Persian Political Theology and Cosmopolitanism”, which followed a semester-long seminar series sponsored by UT’s South Asia Institute, bringing this conversation to the wider academic community. If the interest and enthusiasm shown by the Fall 2019 Faculty Fellows is representative, Oaths of Peace: Sovereignty and Political Theology in Islam is sure to be an influential work in shaping the teleological narrative of Islam’s past, and hopefully, this more nuanced history can be used to better guide the current narrative.

Jason De León Delivers Distinguished Visiting Lecture on Human Smuggling Across Mexico

Stephanie Holmes, HI Undergraduate Assistant

The Humanities Institute continued its Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series on Wednesday, October 23 with a visual presentation by Dr. Jason De León, Professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and Director of the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP). Dr. De León’s presentation, “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” shared his experience with human smugglers bringing migrants from Central America to the U.S./Mexico border.

Cropped faces, blurred motion and monochrome photos helped tell the story of the men Dr. De León came to know personally. “I’m not here to humanize smugglers. They are human,” said Dr. De León, “I’m just trying to show you their humanity, even in its most disturbing forms.” His presentation focused on how human smuggling is currently organized, what can be gained by using a camera, from a photoethnographic approach.

He discussed the importance of gangs involved in human smuggling, specifically the MS13 gang. He expressed how gangs control the market and, although dangerous, offer the safest way to travel across Mexico and the border. Throughout his presentation, he gave anecdotes of the time he spent with gang leaders and members. These stories span moments where his naiveté proved helpful to moments of sadness from seeing a friend deported – potentially due to his association with De León.

De León briefly mentioned the political factors that have played a role in migration, emphasizing that both the Obama and Trump administrations have put pressure on Mexico to stop migration from Central America.

For Dr. De León the camera served as an important tool in his ethnographic practice to understanding this new world. He shared various reason for why he takes pictures, such as to convey things that cannot be explained through words and to catch things that he could not see with the naked eye. “I am hoping to product new layers of understanding, through the use of visuals that can complement, contradict, and complicate the ethnographic authority that I claim to own,” said Dr. De León. He discussed the importance of framing, effects, and vantage points in photos and how they can affect the photos and the subjects in them.

There was also De León’s struggle with the ethics of representing these men in images, like his friend Chino. Dr. De León shared how there is a social contract created with the people staring back at you in the photo. This affects how he wants to depict smugglers like Chino and the difficulties they face. For example, he discussed the implications of showing the audience the version of Chino who is a solider, a drug addict and enjoys trading women and the Chino who is a “vulnerable youth, caught between violence and poverty at home and violence and poverty on the migrant trail,” said Dr. De León. De León left the audience with many questions about smuggling, the politics and economics behind migration, and the ethics of representation.

About the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP):
The Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) is a long-term anthropological study of clandestine movement between Latin America and the United States that uses ethnography, archaeology, visual anthropology, and forensic science to understand this social process. In Fall 2020, The Humanities Institute plans to host the Hostile Terrain exhibit, a project facilitated by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP).

To receive information about the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series and the upcoming exhibit, please stay tuned to the Humanities Institute’s website and sign up for our mailing list.

The Humanities and Public Life: Working towards Social Change through Critical Reflection and Creative Solutions

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Doris Sommer, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish at Harvard University, is this year’s Cline Visiting Professor in the Humanities. During her visit this spring, she led the April 4th meeting of the Faculty Fellows Seminar, and was the second lecturer in the Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Series, “Narrative and Social Justice.” Sommer’s discussions focused on how bringing the lessons, activities, and texts of the humanities into public life can foster positive changes in societies across the globe.

Sommer began her lecture by explaining that her current efforts to engage with the world and address social injustice through the humanities came from her realization that early humanities scholars espoused serious and active “engagement with the world” but by the latter decades of the 20th Century dominant theoretical paradigms led many scholars to devalue attempts to use the humanities to work for social change. She shared examples of how the humanities can be used to produce creative solutions to social problems. For instance, a creative and fun use of mimes at intersections reduced traffic fatalities in Bogotá.  According to Sommer, pleasure is perhaps the most powerful incentive to get people to think and act differently, and humanities-oriented solutions effectively produce social change by associating new ways of thinking and acting with pleasure. She also claimed that admiration is conducive to respectfulness and engagement, which are key characteristics of good citizenship. Because the aesthetic products of humanities-oriented solutions are well-suited to inspiring admiration, they may be used to deepen communities’ civic engagement.

Throughout her visit Sommer discussed her own engagement with social issues through the humanities by describing her current project, Pre-Texts, a program that uses theories and techniques from humanities studies to provide literacy training and space for creative and critical reflection on social issues for groups around the world. These have included, for instance,, incarcerated men in Dublin and employees of The Housing Authority of Buenos Aires. During her visit she facilitated several Pre-Texts workshops at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art (which partnered in the residency), offering local educators and children opportunities to experience the creative learning strategies the program employs. During one of the workshops for educators, Sommer asked participants to respond to James Baldwin’s short story, “Stranger in the Village,” by creating and performing short tragic plays inspired by Baldwin’s text. The production of these tragedies allowed participants to engage in “Forum Theater,” a practice created by drama theorist Augusto Boal to allow community members to consider how to address social issues by performatively intervening in tragic plays dramatizing those issues. Workshop participants performed potential solutions to tragic conflicts in each other’s plays by taking on roles in those plays and reversing their tragic plots. In short, participants were asked to creatively represent how their community is and then improvise performances of how their community could or should be. Sommer also led workshops in the Blanton Museum of Art designed to connect reading practices to art interpretation. A workshop for educators asked participants to relate one of the items in the Blanton collection to a theme in “Stranger in the Village,” while a children’s workshop centered on the fairy tale “Rapunzel” and Natalie Frank’s painting, “Rapunzel II.”

In the seminar, Faculty Fellows discussed selections from Sommer’s book, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities, which argues for re-engaging the humanities in civic life. Faculty engaged in a lively discussion of how teachers in the humanities should respond to students and other educators’ apparent devaluation of humanities studies. Fellows discussed whether pedagogically emphasizing the value of the humanities’ capacity to produce professional skills in literacy and communication conflicts with efforts to use the humanities to teach students to think critically about social forces and oppose social injustice. Throughout the discussion Sommer emphasized that it is not necessary to choose, and emphasized the importance of literacy for democracy.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.