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.

Almost everyone nowadays has heard of the Quran. But what about the Hadith? Far larger than the Quran itself, the Hadith comprise several hundred thousand reports about what the Prophet Muhammad said and did. For almost fourteen centuries, learned Muslim have drawn on these reports for myriad purposes, whether moral or mystical, political or legal. With such high stakes, assessing the authenticity of sometimes contradictory reports became a core intellectual discipline, leading both male and female scholars to memorize thousands of Hadith and debate their implications. Turning from past to present, we’ll finally ask how the Hadith are interpreted today. Nile Green talks to Asma Sayeed, the author of Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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. And in terms that we can find interesting. Because as I’ve learned in decades spent travelling, researching and writing about the Islamic world, its cultural wealth and historical complexity are endlessly fascinating.

In 1898, an obscure Syrian scholar called Rashid Rida founded a magazine in Cairo called al-Manar (‘The Lighthouse’). Over the next forty years, it reached readers as far apart as India and Argentina, Africa and Indonesia, spreading worldwide the new form of Islam called Salafism. Despite never holding any formal religious office, by seizing the opportunities of the Arabic media revolution Rida became the preeminent Muslim influencer of the age of print. Urging readers to return to the pure Islam of the ‘pious ancestors,’ he aimed to free his fellow believers from the shackles of tradition that prevented them from embracing modernity. As both prosperity gospel and means of empowerment, Rida’s magazine reveals the attractions of early Salafism. Nile Green talks to Leor Halevi, the author of Modern Things on Trial: Islam's Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida (Columbia University Press, 2019).

While the Quran was revealed in Arabic, for more than a thousand years Muslims have explored its meanings and implications in many other languages.  In the medieval period, this process of ‘vernacularization’ accelerated as wandering holy men — known as dervishes and abdals — preached profound mystical doctrines in languages understood by ordinary people. Their preferred medium was poetry, leading distant contemporaries like Yunus Emre (d.1321) in Anatolia and Amir Khusro (d.1325) in Delhi to lay the foundations of Turkish and Hindi literature. This episode looks at these developments through the Turkish poems of Kaygusuz Abdal, whose verses are still read — and sung — across Turkey to this day.  Nile Green talks to Zeynep Oktay Uslu, the translator and editor of Mesnevî-i Baba Kaygusuz (Harvard University Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, 2013). 

The Uyghurs of the Xinjiang region of China have been the focus of much media attention in the past few years. In this episode, we journey beyond the headlines to explore the religious and cultural history of the Turkic Muslim people who in the modern era came to be called Uyghurs. We’ll pay special attention to their relationship with their homeland by looking at the many places of pilgrimage that, over the course of a millennium, emerged around such oasis towns as Kashgar, Yarkand and Turpan, as well as in remote regions of the Taklamakan desert. These shrines became the focus for Uyghur historical memory through manuscripts in Turki and Persian that linked local people and places to the wider sacred geography of the Muslim world. Through the history of the Uyghurs, both before and since the Qing imperial conquests of the 1750s, we’ll consider the changing ways in which Muslims have identified with the places where they live. Nile Green talks to Rian Thum, author of The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History (Harvard University Press, 2014).

 

In 1575, the Mughal emperor Akbar established the Ibadat-khana, or ‘House of Worship,’ at his Indian capital of Fatehpur Sikri. Over the following years, it would act as a space of religious dialogue between Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Jews, along with Christian missionaries of the Jesuit order. By emphasizing the use of aql, or ‘reason,’ these discussions fostered a deeper understanding of other religions that fed in turn into translations of Christian and Hindu religious works into Persian. Through examining the surviving evidence, both architectural and textual, we’ll ask what motivated Akbar, as well as what topics were discussed in the original “Akbar’s chamber.” Nile Green talks to Nadeem Rezavi, the author of Fatehpur Sikri Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2013).

 

 

Since the middle of the sixteenth century, Russia has been home to a large but little-known Muslim community that stretches from the Caucasus mountains across the Volga-Ural plains to Siberia. Today, Russia’s Muslims make up between 10 and 15 percent of the overall population, between two and three times the proportion of Muslims in the European Union. In this episode of Akbar’s Chamber, we’ll trace the history of Russia’s multiethnic Muslim mosaic, from its origins and expansion under the Tsarist empire through the persecutions of the Soviet period to the religious revival of more recent decades. We’ll pay particular attention to the intellectual and spiritual traditions that found expressions in thousands of manuscripts and printed books written in languages that range from Arabic and Persian to Tatar and Kazak. Nile Green talks to Alfrid Bustanov, the author of Soviet Orientalism and the Creation of Central Asian Nations (Routledge, 2015).

In this episode, we explore the interplay between religion and geography through a case study of the mountain regions that formed the borderlands between Afghanistan and British India then, from 1947, Pakistan. In recent years, the region entered the headlines through its association with the so-called Pakistani Taliban. But this was only the latest in a series of movements to emerge from a region whose innate social structures and enforced political autonomy fostered a distinct trajectory of religious development.  Beginning with the formation of this ‘tribal borderland’ through the cartographic boundary-marking of the colonial Great Game, we’ll trace the interplay of religion and geography from the mid-nineteenth century to the present-day as British rule was replaced by Pakistan. Along the way, we’ll follow the transformation of this borderland Islam as traditional Sufi leaders lost influence to reformists associated with the Deoband movement of the lowlands, which was in turn forced to adapt to what had become local religious as well as political modes of self-rule. Nile Green talks to Sana Haroon, the author of Frontier of Faith: Islam in the Indo-Afghan Borderland (Columbia University Press, 2007).

From the verses of the Quran and the deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, charity has taken on many different forms over the fourteen centuries of Muslim history. The terms for obligatory and voluntary charity – zakat and sadaqa – are mentioned nearly sixty times in the Quran, while Sunni Muslims consider zakat to be one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Yet since the early centuries of Islam, such ethical ideals have prompted practical and legal considerations of how individual donations can be most effectively organized, and institutionalized, without surrendering the moral value of voluntary acts of conscience. In this episode of Akbar’s Chamber, we’ll follow this interplay between ethical ideals and practical realities from legal debates to booming medieval cities like Damascus and Cairo, where the rising problem of urban poverty led to large-scale complexes that comprise some of the most abundant remains of classical Islamic architecture. We’ll also examine how such traditional forms of charity changed, and survived, in the modern era.  Nile Green talks to Adam Sabra, the author of Poverty and Charity in Medieval Islam: Mamluk Egypt, 1250-1517 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

 

Today Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population of any nation on the planet. But when, and how, was this region converted? And how were Islamic ideas and texts translated into the Malay language that became a regional lingua franca for Muslims across Southeast Asia at large? In this episode, we’ll survey over a thousand years of Southeast Asia’s religious history, from the arrival of early Arab merchants to the emergence of sultanates ruled by local Muslim rulers and the subsequent dynamics – and disputes – between mystical and legalist visions of the faith. We’ll also look at the overarching process of translation, both of cultural practices and particular texts, by taking a look at the emergence of the ‘Jawi’ literary tradition and the first complete commentary on the Quran in Malay. Bringing the story up to the present, we’ll finally ask how the relationship between local and global forms of Islam plays out across the region today. Nile Green talks to Peter G. Riddell, the author of Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World: Transmission and Responses (University of Hawaii Press, 2001).

Since early Islamic times, the shores and islands of East Africa have been closely linked to the Arabian Peninsula by monsoon winds that carried traders, scholars and mystics to sultanates that flourished along the Swahili Coast for almost a millennium. As well as contributing to the rich Swahili culture that developed through these Afro-Arabian interactions, these contacts fostered traditions of Arabic learning which have continued in the region into modern times. Today, the Swahili Coast encompasses parts of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, which we’ll be exploring along with the islands of Zanzibar, Lamu and the Comoros, where collections of Arabic manuscripts help us investigate the history of East African Islam. Nile Green talks to Anne K. Bang, the author of Islamic Sufi Networks in the Western Indian Ocean (c.1880-1940): Ripples of Reform (Brill, 2014).

Historians have long recognized how the spread of printing in early modern Europe was a major contributor to the Reformation and Renaissance. So, when printing spread across the Islamic world in the nineteenth century, what were the consequences for the religious and cultural life of Muslims? In this episode, we’ll explore this question by looking at the Middle East, with a particular focus on Cairo, which became the epicenter for not only Arabic printing but also for the ‘Arab renaissance,’ or nahda, and the religious reform movement that was later dubbed ‘Salafism.’ By bringing to light a technological revolution so successful that it’s now all but invisible, we’ll see how many of the things we take for granted about Islam were shaped by decisions made by the first few generations of Arab editors and printers. Nile Green talks to Ahmed El Shamsy, the author of Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2020).

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