Category Archives: Faculty Fellows Seminar

Addressing Race, Racial Justice, and Anti-Racism: Work by HI Affiliates

The Humanities Institute is dedicated to the process of “thinking in community.” We join in the important work of condemning and combating systemic oppression and violence based on race. Through scholarship, teaching, and public engagement, the Humanities Institute continues to work towards racial justice, equity, and inclusion. 

Many of our Faculty Fellows, Difficult Dialogues faculty, and other affiliates conduct research, teach courses, and pursue projects related to anti-racism. For those who are interested in learning more about the history and implications of our current moment, we offer this partial list of resources on topics related to race, racial injustice, and anti-racist movements, centering on work by UT Humanities Institute affiliates. We also profile work by Community Sabbatical grantees, and various community resources compiled by others. We will continue to expand this list and readers are invited to send us additional entries.

Additions

Mary Angela Bock, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and a 2014-2016 “Imagined Futures” Fellow, has published a number of articles and chapters on the police accountability movement, including “Re-Contextualizing Visual Representations: The Videos Of and About Police Accountability in Three Competing Discourses” in Discourses in Action: What Language Enables Us to Do, edited by Krippendorff and Halabi (Routledge, 2020); “Answering the Smartphones: Citizen Witness Activism and Police Public Relations” in Global Transformations in Media and Communication Research: Visual Imagery and Human Rights Practice, edited by Price and Ristovska (Palgrave, 2018); and articles on the Black & Blue Facebook pages in New Media and Society (2018); police credentials in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism (2016); video and narrative in the courtroom in Information, Communication and Society (2016); journalistic coverage of Ferguson on social media in Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies (2016); and the police accountability movement in Journal of Communication (2016).

Books and Articles 

“Black Lives Matter and the Limits of Formal Black Politics,” in South Atlantic Quarterly (2017), by Dr. Minkah Makalani, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Director of the John L. Warfield Center for African & African American Studies. Dr. Makalani is also author of In the Case of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2011). He also co-edited Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (UP of Minnesota, 2013). Dr. Makalani was a Faculty Fellow in the 2014-2016 (“Imagined Futures”) seminar.

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015), by Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies. Dr. Brown also wrote an article titled “Everyone’s Got A Little Light Under the Sun: Black Luminosity and the Visual Culture of Surveillance” that was published in the Cultural Studies Journal in 2012. She was a 2011-2013 “Public and Private” Faculty Fellow.

“Making Black Lives Matter at the (New) Nadir: The Legacy of Charles Chesnutt for Black Activism in the New Millennium,” in Inequality in North America: Interdisciplinary Critical Perspectives (Publikationen der Bayerischen Amerika-Akademie, 2017) by Dr. Shirley Thompson. Dr. Thompson is Associate Professor and Associate Chair of American Studies and author of Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans (Harvard University Press, 2009). She is currently researching a book project titled “No More Auction Block for Me: African Americans and the Problem of Property” that explores the interwoven concepts of race and property value from the vantage point of African American historical memory, political economy, and expressive culture. She was a Faculty Fellow in both the 2014-2015 (“Imagined Futures”) and 2006-2007 (“Labor and Leisure”) seminars.

Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle (The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), by Dr. Laurie Green, Associate Professor in the Department of History. Dr. Green studies the politics of race and gender in the twentieth-century U.S., including social movements, and is a three-time Faculty Fellow, most recently participating in the 2016-2018 “Health, Well Being and Healing” seminar. She is coeditor of Precarious Prescriptions: Contested Histories of Race and Health in North America (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) and is currently engaged in a book project on the War on Poverty titled “The Discovery of Hunger in America: The Politics of Race, Malnutrition and Poverty, 1965-1975.”

Violence, Restorative Justice & Forgiveness (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018), by Dr. Marilyn Armour and Dr. Mark S. Umbreit. Dr. Armour, Professor and Director of the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue (IRJRD) at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, studies the healing of victims, offenders and the community after crime and wrongdoing. She has served as a Faculty Consultant for the Community Sabbatical Research Leave Grant Program on a number of grantee research projects including Gabriel Solis’s recent project, “Documenting Narratives of Violence & Building Community-Based Archives of Survival” (see below).

African-American Political Psychology: Identity, Opinion, and Action in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), edited by Dr. Tasha Philpot and Dr. Ismail K. White. Dr. Philpot, Associate Professor of Government, contributes several chapters to this book. She is also the author of Race, Republicans, and the Return of the Party of Lincoln (University of Michigan Press, 2007). She has taught several Difficult Dialogues courses, including Black Women and Politics and African-American Women and the Struggle for Political Incorporation.

Kwaito Bodies: Remastering Space and Subjectivity in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Duke UP, 2020) by Dr. Xavier Livermon, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies. Dr. Livermon studies the intersection of popular culture, gender, and sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa as well as African diaspora and African cultural studies, Black popular music, Black performance, Black Queer Studies, and HIV/AIDS. Articles from his second book project, Queer(y)ing Freedom: Construction Black Queer Belonging in South Africa, have been published in GLQGender, Place, and Culture; and Feminist Studies. He was a 2014-2016 “Imagined Futures” Faculty Fellow.

The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge UP, 2018), by Dr. Geraldine Heng. Dr. Heng is a Professor in the Department of English, a founding co-director of the UT Humanities Institute. Her research considers literary, cultural, and social encounters between worlds, and webs of exchange and negotiation between communities and cultures, particularly when transacted through issues of gender, race, sexuality, class, and religion.

Purchasing Whiteness: Pardos, Mulattos and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies (Stanford UP, 2015), by Dr. Ann Twinam, Professor of History. Purchasing Whiteness has received a number of best-book awards, including the Albert J. Beveridge Award (American Historical Association, 2016). Dr. Twinam workshopped this book in the 2011-2013 “Public and Private” Faculty Fellows Seminar.

The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton UP, 2015) by Dr. Madeline Hsu, Professor of History. This is an award-winning text on the history of racism in the United States, particularly in respect to Chinese and Asian American racial identity. Dr. Hsu participated in the 2014-2016 “Imagined Futures” Faculty Fellows Seminar.

“A Long Way to Go: Collective Paths to Racial Justice in Geography,” by Caroline Faria, Bisola Falola, Jane Henderson, and Rebecca Maria Torres in The Professional Geographer (2019). Dr. Caroline Faria and Dr. Rebecca Torres, both affiliated with the Department of Geography and the Environment, were Fellows in the 2016-2018 “Health, Well Being and Healing” and 2018-2020 “Narratives Across the Disciplines” seminars, respectively. In the 2016-2018 seminar, Faria workshopped “A Darling of the Beauty Trade: Race, Care, and the Imperial Debris of Synthetic Hair,” co-authored with Dr. Hilary Jones, which appears in Cultural Geographies (24 July 2019, online). In the 2018-2020 seminar, Torres shared her recent article, “A Crisis of Rights and Responsibility: Feminist Geopolitical Perspectives on Latin American Refugees and Migrants” (Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 2018).

“Medical Education and the Challenge of Race,” by Dr. John Hoberman in Teaching Health Humanities (Oxford University Press, 2019). Dr. Hoberman, Professor of Germanic Studies, has written several books about racism in sports and medicine, including Black & Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism (U of California Press, 2012). He presented similar material in the 2016-2018 “Health, Well Being, and Healing” Seminar, and teaches The Racial Dimensions of Medicine at UT’s Dell Medical School and the new Difficult Dialogues course, The Origins of Political Correctness (Fall 2020).

Slave Sites on Display: Reflecting Slavery’s Legacy through Contemporary “Flash” Moments (U Press of Mississippi, 2019) by Dr. Helena Woodard, Professor of English. Dr. Woodard studies African-British and African-American writing, memory, and culture. Her time in the 2005-2006 Faculty Fellows Seminar on Remembering and Forgetting; Collecting and Discarding influenced her aforementioned book.

Podcasts, Journalism, and Performances 

Sorrow as Artifact,” the inaugural episode of the Transforming Anthropology podcast, features Dr. Christine Smith. Dr. Smith is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology, the Director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, and author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Performance, and Violence in Brazil (University of Illinois Press, 2016). She served as a guest editor of Sorrow‐as‐Artifact: Radical Black Mothering in Times of Terror, a special issue of Transforming Anthropology (24:1, 2016), which she discusses in the podcast. She is a staff reporter for The Center Square, which has published recent pieces on the Black Lives Matter protests in the state of Pennsylvania.  As a Difficult Dialogues faculty member, Dr. Smith has taught Gender/Race, Policing and Incarceration.

Comment on Maternal Mortality and Racial Inequities, by Dr. Jewel Mullen. Jewel Mullen, M.D., MPH, is the Associate Dean for Health Equity at the Dell Medical School, as well as an Associate Professor in the Departments of Population Health and Internal Medicine. She has been a presenter at and active participant in the Humanities Institute’s Health Humanities Research Seminar. This commentary was published in the American Journal of Public Health (April 2020).

Talking About Racism with White Kids,” by KJ Dell’Antonia (The New York Times, 2014), featuring an interview with Dr. Rebecca Bigler, Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology. Dr. Bigler’s research on the causes and consequences of social stereotyping and prejudice, particularly based on gender and racial attitudes, among children includes a chapter in Equity and Justice in Developmental Science: Implications for Young People, Families, and Communities (Elsevier, 2016) on “Children’s Intergroup Relations and Attitudes” and has been featured in a number of media outlets. Dr. Bigler has taught several courses in the Difficult Dialogues program, including Gender and Racial Attitudes.

Lessons of a Flag Flap(The Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 12, 2014) by Dr. Jennifer M. Wilks. In this 2014 op-ed Dr. Wilks discusses the appropriate way to respond when called out for racist behavior (whatever the intent behind it). Dr. Wilks is an Associate Professor of English, the Associate Director of the John L. Warfield Center of African and African American Studies, and the author of Race, Gender, and Comparative Black Modernism (2008). She was a 2008-2009 (“Ethical Life in a Global Society”) Faculty Fellow and served as the discussion leader of the Controversy and Conversation program’s screening of I Am Not Your Negro (2016) earlier this year. (The film I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s vision of James Baldwin’s manuscript, “Remember This House,” can be viewed on Amazon Prime and is available for free through APL’s and UT’s streaming platform, Kanopy.)

(Re)current Unrest (2016), choreographed by Charles O. Anderson, MFA, an Associate Professor in the Departments of African and African Diaspora Studies and Theatre and Dance. (Re)current Unrest, which was workshopped in the 2018-2020 (“Narrative Across the Disciplines”) Faculty Fellows Seminar, is an investigation of legacy, authorship, and the history of black art and protest. Professor Anderson’s interests include African Diaspora and African American vernacular and concert dance history, Black dance aesthetics, Afrocentric dance pedagogy, choreography and dance composition, contemporary dance, Afrofuturism, and critical race theory in dance. You can also read about the important work he is doing through The Reparations Initiative on his web site (and can make a contribution HERE).

The Mamalogues (Color Arc Productions, 2019) by Dr. Lisa B. Thompson. Dr. Thompson’s latest play depicts the lives of single black mothers, with a striking emphasis on fear for the safety of their sons. Dr. Thompson is Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and the author of Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (University of Illinois Press, 2009) and a number of other plays that address the impact of violence against African Americans. She was a 2016-2018 (“Health, Well Being and Healing”) Faculty Fellow, and workshopped The Mamalogues in the seminar.

sista docta” (Blackademics TV, 2012), a performance by Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones. In “sista docta,” Dr. Jones “combines poetry, dance and drumming to illuminate her experience as an African American woman professor in a predominantly white and male academy.” She examines the implications of the performance in “‘sista docta’: Performance as Critique of the Academy,” in TDR: the Drama Review 41 (2) (MIT Press, 1997). Dr. Jones is Professor Emerita of African and African Diaspora Studies and the author of Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Àse, and the Power of the Present Moment (2015). Together with Dr. Charlotte Channing, she taught the Difficult Dialogues course Talking About Race Through Performance

HI Community Sabbatical Research Leave Projects

Through our Community Sabbatical Research Leave Program we have worked alongside a number of Community Non-Profits doing anti-racism work in Austin. Please consider donating to these organizations and spreading the word about their work.

Texas After Violence Project (TAVP). The Texas After Violence Project is a community-based archive and documentary project focused on understanding the impacts of state-sanctioned violence on individuals, families, and communities. Gabriel Solis (a 2018-2019 CSRL grantee), who also led our Controversy & Conversation Film Discussion on the film Do Not Resist (2016), focused his research on the impact of documenting personal stories of trauma connected with the American justice system in order to have a restorative effect on victims. (Through the lens of the Ferguson, MO protests following the death of Michael Brown, the film, Do Not Resist, examines current policing in America and looks to its future. Read a recent blog post on the C&C screening and Mr. Solis’s discussion of the film, which is available for rent through Amazon Prime.)

Learn how to support the work of TAVP and/or make a contribution HERE.

People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER). PODER’s mission is to redefine environmental issues as social and economic justice issues, and collectively set their own agenda to address these concerns as basic human rights. Furthermore, they aim to increase the participation of communities of color in corporate and government decision making related to toxic pollution, economic development and their impact on Austin’s neighborhoods and beyond. Susana Almanza (a 2018-2019 CSRL grantee) is the Executive Director of the nonprofit. Her project focused on documenting the loss of low-income housing in East Austin by conducting quantitative analyses on demographic and cost-of-housing data to ascertain if and how low-income housing has been impacted in the areas affected by the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan. 

Learn how to support the work of PODER HERE.

Texas Fair Defense Project (TFDP). Texas Fair Defense Project focuses on improving the state’s public defense system and challenges current Texas policies that prevent citizens from defending themselves legally. Andrea Marsh (a 2011-2013 CSRL grantee and current faculty member in the School of Law) is the founder and former Executive Director of the nonprofit. Her project focused on researching and developing a model for providing holistic criminal defense representation in Texas. Professor Marsh, a 2018-2020 “Narrative Across the Disciplines” Faculty Fellow, also led our Controversy & Conversation Film Discussion on the film The Central Park Five (2012). (Ken Burns’ film documents the story of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. The Central Park Five is available through Kanopy for APL and UT communities, and on Amazon Prime with a subscription.)

You may contribute to TFDP HERE, learn about volunteer opportunities HERE, and sign up for their newsletter (under “Contact Us”) HERE.

Grassroots Leadership – Grassroots Leadership is a local community based activist group focused on fighting mass incarceration, private prisons, mass deportations, prison profiteering, and criminalization of all communities. They are currently fighting against the lack of COVID-19 resources in Texas prisons and are also involved in protests against police violence in Austin. Rocio Villalobos (a 2011-2013 CSRL Grantee) focused her research on developing a series of oral history and writing workshops designed to help the women released from the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, record and safely share their stories and experiences. The Hutto Visitation Program is a project of Grassroots Leadership, Texans United for Families, and the Social Justice Institute at The University of Texas at Austin. Ms. Villalobos worked on this project with Dr. Shannon Speed, whose book, Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler-Capitalist State (University of North Carolina Press, 2019) was recently published. (Dr. Speed, currently at UCLA, was a member of the Difficult Dialogues faculty when she was on the Anthropology faculty at UT.)

Sign up for updates from Grassroots Leadership HERE, and/or make a contribution HERE.

Foundation Communities – Foundation Communities is a local, homegrown nonprofit founded in 1990 that provides affordable, attractive homes and free on-site support services for thousands of families, veterans, seniors, and individuals with disabilities in Austin. These on-site support services include assistance and resources in the areas of education, financial stability, and health. Julian Huerta (a 2006-2007 CSRL Grantee) focused his research on finding strategies to improve and expand supportive housing opportunities for homeless families with children and those at-risk of homelessness in Austin. At the time, this was a very new population for Foundation Communities, and Huerta took away best practices around program design, case management and funding, many of which still influence Foundation Community’s Children’s HOME Initiative today. 

You may contribute to Foundation Communities HERE, learn about volunteer opportunities HERE, and access their blog HERE.

Other Resources through UT Centers and Initiatives

This is but a partial list of resources available at the University of Texas at Austin, with an emphasis on work produced by Humanities Institute affiliates. We would also like to point the reader to additional units at UT that have developed or are working on similar resources:

Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School for Public Affairs hosted “Justice and Equity in Austin in a Time of National Crisis: a Community Conversation”, a virtual public forum with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Austin Council Members Alison Alter and Natasha Harper-Madison. The conversation was co-moderated by the Center’s founding director, Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, a Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts. He is the author of many current issue op-eds and the new book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Basic Books, 2020), among others. The other co-moderator of the forum was Professor Jeremi Suri, also of the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Department of History. In addition to being the author of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy and articles in a number of major newspapers and magazines, Dr. Suri is the host of a UT Podcast, This is Democracy. The podcast, now with 100 episodes, aims to “bring diverse (and often ignored) voices together to discuss the steps we are all taking to renew our values, institutions, and humanity in general.” (On the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s web site, you can find information on additional books and lectures on anti-racism and racial justice.)

Engaged Scholar Initiative: A Texas Model (ESI), an initiative of the UT College of Liberal Arts funded by the Mellon Foundation, has compiled a “range of resources, including ways to materially contribute, mental health and anti-racist resources, and further reading about local and state histories of racial injustice.” The list of resources and a solidarity statement by ESI Director, Dr. Mia Carter, can be found HERE. Dr. Mia Carter is Associate Dean for Student Affairs, and Associate Professor and University Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor in the English Department at the UT College of Liberal Arts. 

 

 

Keeping Your Story Straight: Narrative & Storytelling in Dispute Mediation

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows seminar for December 5th was led by Dr. Madeline Maxwell, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication. In addition to discussing her research on conflict resolution, Dr. Maxwell discussed her work as founder and organizer of the UT Project on Conflict Resolution and the graduate portfolio program in Dispute and Conflict Resolution. Maxwell’s seminar took an unusual turn into introducing her topic, adding a note of intrigue in the form of a game.

Maxwell began by describing the disputes she mediates as ones that can threaten clients’ well-being fundamentally because of the risk they pose to clients’ personal narrative. Solutions, she noted, are often secondary to the issue of having a story that clients can tell themselves about the dispute and its resolution. She also discussed her plans to eventually write about storytelling in mediation, as well as mediation and conflict resolution as educational modalities. Teaching negotiation tactics can often be effective ways of teaching people how to work together and how to compromise, pedagogy that she has into practice with the Global Ethics and Conflict Resolution Summer Symposium. The Symposium provides high school students the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills that apply to everything from personal disputes to global issues. Maxwell stated she would like to further explore the benefits of communication and conflict resolution skills training in education alongside her current work.

Maxwell then informed the group that they would be doing a short exercise to demonstrate the ways in which storytelling often coincides with conflict resolution. Two Fellows selected by Maxwell read from a prepared script, telling a fragmented story of two seemingly separate, unconnected events. The rest of the group was permitted to ask the two readers any question they liked about the stories, with the caveat that the readers could only answer “yes” or “no.” The goal, Maxwell explained, was to uncover the full story connecting the two incidents. The Fellows had a lively Q&A, though several details still seemed unclear. Finally, Maxwell and the volunteered Fellows told the entire story.

Through this exercise, Maxwell provided further context for her work, noting the fungibility of words and the inexact science of interpreting disputants’ meanings. Maxwell explained that disputants in mediation will often have spoken or unspoken agreements about what is to be disclosed in the session, which further complicate the role of the mediator. The seminar closed with a discussion of Maxwell’s future projects and goals, as well as a discussion of mediating as a profession and the  relationship between leadership and mediation. Maxwell explained that teaching leadership skills isn’t a matter of teaching people to be assertive, or forcing people into a perceived best outcome. Rather, it’s a process of listening, compromising, and actively finding an agreeable outcome for everyone in a group–what might be called a common story.

 

Computational and Biological Approaches in the Study of Literature

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Pramit Chaudhuri, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on November 7th. Dr. Chaudhuri presented his current work on Latin literary genre, using methodologies from the digital humanities. With collaborator T.J. Bolt, a Mellon postdoctoral researcher in the Classics department, and other researchers Chaudhuri is exploring the stylistic boundaries between literary genres in Latin, such as the relationship between epic and drama. Bolt and Chaudhuri used quantitative methods to uncover what differences and similarities exist between genres of Latin poetry, seeking distinctive features that accurately describe a given genre. Building from this work, Chaudhuri expressed interest in other ways to apply computational analysis or to present the data to a scholarly audience.

Chaudhuri opened the seminar by considering the lens of analysis other Fellows had used to discuss “Narrative Across the Disciplines.” Rather than focusing on the analysis or construction of individual narratives, Chaudhuri suggested that narrative across disciplines could be a research discussion in its own right. He encouraged Fellows to discuss primary and secondary narratives, to consider what narratives felt familiar to them, and whether genre was a meaningful or valuable classification for work within their fields. Chaudhuri noted that these questions were meant to aim Fellows towards considerations of form, rather than content.

After a brief discussion of these questions in small groups, the Fellows reconvened to discuss Chaudhuri’s project more broadly as part of his work as Co-Director of the Quantitative Criticism Lab. Given the range of disciplinary interests, Chaudhuri expressed his curiosity toward what considerations of form and genre might be most influential for the Fellows in their own work. Fellows responded with a variety of answers, but they also posed questions regarding Chaudhuri and Bolt’s computational method. Fellows were interested in the assumptions embedded in the project regarding machine learning, and to what extent computational approaches offer insights beyond that of more traditional methods. Some in the group wondered if the project could be expanded or combined with similar projects in linguistics, while others noted concerns regarding generalization over historical periods that might lead scholars in some disciplines to resist digital humanities projects. A lively discussion of Chaudhuri’s use of the term “cultural evolution” revealed how scholars in various disciplines deal with change. The seminar closed with the Fellows speculating on the implications of the project for Classics departments, from possible considerations (or reconsiderations) of genre to novel examinations of intertextuality at the level of syntax.

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.