Nir Shafir “Pamphlets and Graffiti as a Means of Rethinking the Connection Between Writing and Power in the Early Modern Islamic World”

Nir Shafir

Nir Shafir presenting his paper during the Winter Academy

Pamphlets and Graffiti as a Means of Rethinking the Connection Between Writing and Power in the Early Modern Islamic World

The nexus of script and power in Islamic societies has long been regarded as emerging from face-to-face social relations. The acts of reading and writing, limited to a small population and chained to the pages of the manuscript, were thought to have been largely mediated through the embodied knowledge and power of a teacher or shaykh until the arrival of print-modernity. This presentation questions this traditional relationship and narrative by examining the multifarious forms of public and easily produced writing in the early modern Islamic world.

The first part of the presentation focuses on the circulation of small, cheap, short polemical treatises that were part of the flurry of “manuscript pamphlets” so commonly found in the material archive of early modern Islam. Manuscript pamphlets, easily reproduced and often aimed at readers of limited capacity, allowed for complex legal and religious questions to be addressed and tackled alone by dispersed, individual readers. The presentation looks at some of the techniques that authors and scholars developed to deal with these new readers. Ultimately, it argues that these new practices of manuscript reading and circulation created new, polemical social communities spread across a wide imperial space.

The second part of the presentation will briefly look at the copious graffiti that was found on the walls of so many buildings in the Ottoman Empire. The term graffiti, which today often connotes scribbling or spraying a name or a tag onto a surface, is somewhat misleading in this context as most of these wall writings were pieces of Persian, Arabic, and Turkish poetry. As such they represent a sort of public program of inscription and writing, written with ink on marble and plaster, that challenges our traditional emphasis on the static and costly marble inscriptions of official patrons. In this case, I will introduce some of the graffiti preserved in the Aslan Pasha mosque in Ioannina, Greece.

Nir Shafir is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles working on the intellectual history and history of science of the early modern Ottoman Empire. His dissertation, “The Road from Damascus: Authenticity and Knowledge in an Ottoman Holy Land, 1620-1720,” examines how and why major intellectuals writing in Turkish and Arabic constructed and explored a holy land through numerous travelogues, antiquarian histories, and geographies. He is a frequent host of the Ottoman history podcast, where he hosts a series on the history of science in the Ottoman Empire. He is also co-editor of HAZINE, a guide to the archives and manuscript libraries of the Middle East and beyond.


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