Akbar’s Chamber - Experts Talk Islam

Akbar’s Chamber offers a non-political, non-sectarian and non-partisan space for exploring the past and present of Islam. It has no political or theological bias other than a commitment to the Socratic method (which is to say that questions lead us to understanding) and the empirical record (which is to say the evidence of the world around us). By these methods, Akbar’s Chamber is devoted to enriching public awareness of Islam and Muslims both past and present. The podcast aims to improve understanding of Islam in all its variety, in all regions of the world, by inviting experts to share their specialist knowledge in terms that we can all understand.

Over the past millennium, pilgrimages to the shrines of Sufi saints have played an important part in religious and cultural life for most regions of the Muslim world. But in modern times, these shrines have become the focus of intense criticism by Muslim reformists, who see them as sites of superstitious deviation from true religion. In this podcast, we’ll follow these developments in South Asia, home to the largest Muslim population of any world region. After explaining the general characteristics of shrine-based Islam, we’ll look at how the Pakistani state joined the larger program of Muslim reform by seizing control of most of the country’s major pilgrimage centers. By seeing how this happened, we’ll learn how religious reform plays out ‘on the ground’ through the contest to control specific sacred spaces. Nile Green talks to Umber Bin Ibad, the author of Sufi Shrines and the Pakistani State: The End of Religious Pluralism (IB Tauris, 2019).

The late nineteenth century saw the onset of a great religious transformation that might well be called the Muslim reformation. Among Sunnis at least, arguably the most influential figure was the Egyptian thinker Muhammad Abduh. In this podcast, we’ll follow Abduh from his rural upbringing through his youthful years of political activism and debates with Christian missionaries to his later cooperation with Egypt’s colonial rulers and the rationalist theology of his Treatise on Divine Unity. Turning finally to his legacy, we’ll ask whether his key role in this reformation makes it useful to consider him the ‘Martin Luther of Islam’? Nile Green talks to Oliver Scharbrodt, the author of Islam and the Baha’i Faith: A Comparative Study of Muhammad ‘Abduh and ‘Abdul-Baha ‘Abbas (Routledge, 2008).

When Middle Eastern students were sent to study medicine in Europe, one of the unexpected outcomes was the introduction to Iran of the fashionable occult movements that flourished in the West amid the decline of traditional Christianity. Using the scientific language of laboratory-like seances, Iran’s occult impresarios presented their methods as a modernized route to reliable religious knowledge. As Muslim clerics responded in similar terms, even Ayatollah Khomeini drew on occult ideas in his early writings. Following this imported ‘metafizik’ as it gave shape to new expressions of Iranian spirituality, in this podcast we’ll explore how many Iranian citizens have circumvented the official religiosity of the Islamic Republic. Nile Green talks to Alireza Doostdar, the author of The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny (Princeton University Press, 2018).

In terms of geographical breadth no less than population numbers, the British Empire was the largest ‘empire of Muslims’ in history, reaching from West to East Africa via Egypt and Palestine through India (and what is now Pakistan) to the Maldives and Malaysia. Right in the middle – in easy reach of the colonial transport hubs of Aden and Suez – lay the holy cities of Arabia, under Ottoman then Saudi jurisdiction. Taking the hajj as its focus, in this podcast we unravel the policies and compromises of empire that enabled larger numbers of pilgrims than ever to make the journey to Mecca. Nile Green talks to John Slight, the author of The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865-1956 (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Situated in northern Afghanistan, the ancient city of Balkh was one of the great cultural crossroads of world history. Following its transformation from a sacred Buddhist center into one of the holy cities of Islam, this podcast delves into the little-known interactions of Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish peoples along the pilgrimage and trade routes of Central Asia. We’ll hear what the recent discovery of medieval manuscripts in arcane languages like Bactrian and Judeo-Arabic tells us about everyday life in this pluralistic society, as well as the gradual process of conversion as Balkh’s Buddhist stupas gave way to a new sacred geography. Nile Green talks to Arezou Azad, the author of Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Over its long history, Islam has taken on many distinctive regional forms. With its many languages and countless cultural influences, South Asia – comprising India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – has produced a particularly rich variety of these localized versions of Islam. Taking the example of the Tamil-speaking Muslims of southern India and Sri Lanka, in this podcast we’ll explore how living by the shores of the Indian Ocean shaped the contours of their maritime Islam.  Turning to more recent times, we’ll also see how religious reformists from Pakistan and the Gulf have tried to ‘purify’ or ‘standardize’ the way Tamils practice their faith. Nile Green talks to Torsten Tschacher, the author of Race, Religion, and the ‘Indian MuslimPredicament in Singapore (Routledge, 2017).

For almost a thousand years, cultured Muslims from many regions of the world turned for inspiration and solace to the Persian mystical poetry of the Sufis. Originating in medieval Iran and Afghanistan, these poems spread as far as the Balkans, Bengal and beyond, shaping the religious and cultural life of South and Central Asia no less than the Middle East. In this podcast, we’ll be introduced to the most important poets and their main spiritual themes, brought alive by sample verses recited in the original Farsi and English translation. Whether the celebrated Rumi or lesser known mystics like Sana’i and Bidel, we’ll ask why we should still read these poets today. Nile Green talks to Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, the author of Recasting Persian Poetry: Scenarios of Poetic Modernity in Iran (University of Utah Press, 1995).

In the decades either side of 1900, a series of influential Muslim thinkers tried to reconcile Islam with the modern world. As their ideas gained prominence in late colonial India, the doctrines of Islamic modernism formed an informal religious charter for the founding of Pakistan in 1947. But over the subsequent seventy years, Pakistan’s ruling elite found their modernist ideals questioned from many corners, not least as they failed to live up to their democratic promises. In this podcast, we’ll follow the travails of Islamic modernism as rival religious authorities promoted competing visions of the place of Islam in the constitution, law and daily life of the world’s first ‘Islamic republic.’ Nile Green talks to Muhammad Qasim Zaman, the author of Islam in Pakistan: A History (Princeton University Press, 2018).

How did Muslims encounter and interpret other cultures before the modern era of globalization? To answer this question, we turn to the testimony of one of the great genres of Muslim literature: the travelogue. In this podcast, we’ll rove around the Bay of Bengal, where the Persian lingua franca promoted by the Mughal then British empires became the intermediary language between Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists finally Christian Britons. Poring through unpublished manuscripts, we’ll ask what these Indo-Persian – and ‘Anglo-Persian’ – travelogues can tell us about the ways in which Muslims have understood and interacted with other cultures. Nile Green talks to Arash Khazeni, the author of The City and the Wilderness: Indo-Persian Encounters in Southeast Asia (University of California Press, 2020).

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood became the key promoter of the political visions of Islam that spread more widely as the century progressed. By following the biography of its founder, Hasan al-Banna, this episode examines the circumstances, debates and idiosyncrasies that gave shape to the world’s most influential Islamist movement. As well as al-Banna’s adept organizational skills, we’ll look closely at his teachings as recorded in his various Arabic writings. At the center of his mission, at once practical and ideological, lay the leading political role which Islam had to play in a modern world he saw dominated by colonialists, nationalists and communists. Seven decades after his death, we’ll finally ask what al-Banna’s legacy is today. Nile Green talks to Gudrun Krämer, the author of Hasan al-Banna (Oneworld, 2010).

Among the many varieties of Islam, and the numerous Muslim minorities, few are less known but more fascinating than the Bohras. A minority within a minority, this million-strong community of Ismaili Shi‘is emerged in Egypt before their leaders fled to Yemen then finally found refuge in India. In this podcast, we’ll follow the Bohras from medieval Cairo via the remote Haraz mountains of Arabia to their third homeland in Gujarat, where they adopted many aspects of Indian culture, and grew rich from the Indian Ocean trade. But they maintained throughout their loyalty to their hereditary leaders, telling us much from the margins about Muslim religious authority. Nile Green talks to Olly Akkerman, the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Alawi Bohras and the Making of a Neo-Fatimid Library.

From its humble origins as a small-town madrasa founded in colonial India in 1866, the Deoband movement has become one of the most influential molders of contemporary Islam. By tracing its trajectory of expansion, and unpacking its doctrines, this podcast follows Deobandism from provincial India to the world, before turning to its complex relationship with Sufism, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other. Together with its allied Tablighi Jamaat missionary society, the impact of Deobandism points us to the leading but little-recognized role of South Asia in contemporary global Islam. Nile Green talks to Brannon D. Ingram, the author of Revival from Below: The Deoband Movement and Global Islam (University of California Press, 2018).

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