Nir Shafir: The Road from Damascus

Nir Shafir

Nir Shafir

The Road from Damascus: Mobility, Material Culture, and the Redefinition of Islam in an Ottoman Holy Land, 1620-1720

My project uses the approaches of material culture and book history to reinterpret the history of Islamic religious transformation in the eastern Mediterranean during the seventeenth century. The seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire was marked by a series of intense polemical fights over the proper practices and beliefs of Muslims. Historians have viewed these religious debates as early manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism but I argue that they are a symptom of a much more fundamental shift in the intellectual and religious practices – practices which persist and continue to define Islam today. These include novel practices of knowledge transmission and a shift from a saint-based Islam to an Islam anchored predominantly in textual forms of authority. The motor of these changes, I argue, was an intensification of the circulation of objects and people, in particular between the Turkish-speaking and Arabic-speaking regions of the eastern Mediterranean. Early modern Ottoman scholars focused their energies on writing travelogues and geographies of a space that lay between Damascus, Cairo and Mecca precisely because of the growing movement of manuscripts, illicit substances, and pilgrims through this area. Explorations of this Ottoman holy land in turn became central to the intellectual and cultural life of the empire, leading subjects to question their own history and faith.

Nir Shafir is a historian of the Middle East whose research examines the intersections of knowledge production, religious practice, and material culture in the early modern world (1400-1800). He is a frequent host on the Ottoman History Podcast and curates the podcast’s History of Science series in addition to being one of the co-founders of hazine.info, a website dedicated to exploring the archives and libraries of the Islamic world. He will be starting a position as assistant professor history at the University of California, San Diego in 2016-2017.


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