School of Historical Studies
When Sabine Schmidtke and Hassan Ansari, an Iranian national, met more than a decade ago in Tehran, Ansari was a student of the traditional religious system in Qum and Tehran (the “Hawza”). Ansari had read Schmidtke’s doctoral thesis The Theology of al-ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 726/1325), which was translated into Persian and published in Iran in 1999. Schmidtke’s scholarship changed Ansari’s approach to Islamic sources and was one of the reasons why he became interested in historical studies on Islamic theology. “The historical approach is not only useful, it is necessary,” says Ansari. “I talk now as a Muslim scholar. We need to have this kind of historical studies to change our approach to our own intellectual and legal tradition and its holy texts.”
What makes Ansari a particularly exceptional scholar is his combination of Western and traditionalist Islamic training. In the “Hawza” in Qum and Tehran, he successfully completed the very highest level of study for the rank of Ayatollah, in the Shi‘i clerical system. He also has studied Islamic and Western philosophy and Islamic intellectual history at universities in Tehran, Beirut, and Paris. “Hassan’s command of the sources is extremely wide-ranging,” says Schmidtke, “and he combines this with the very best historical-critical approach to the subjects and texts he is dealing with. He is an intimate connoisseur of manuscripts, Arabic and Persian, and the spectrum he covers is immense.”
by Monica H. Green
A Year (Well, Nine Months) in the Life of an IAS Member
The Institute is a remarkably modest place. Like all Members of the School of Historical Studies, I was provided a lovely apartment, a simple office (with computer), access to both the Institute’s libraries and those of Princeton University, lunch in the dining hall, tea in the afternoon. So how does new knowledge come out of such a simple mix? Juxtaposition! So much of the wealth of insight I’ve had this year (and there’s been a lot of it) has come from the chance conversations, the oblique reference in a lecture, the reference exchanged in the hallway.
The world of scholarship is a very different place than when I was a Member here for the first time in 1990–92. There was an Internet then, I suppose, but I was not yet a user. I was not yet using email, there was no Google, no online digital reproductions of unique medieval manuscripts that I could call up for viewing within seconds, rather than having to travel thousands of miles to get to distant libraries during their rare opening hours or buying expensive films that had to be strung up on a microfilm viewer (ugh!) for long, eyeball-shrinking, mind-numbing sessions. So much of the world of knowledge is now at my fingertips; I can go for hours without ever leaving my desk. So what is the value of the IAS in such a hyper-connected world? Even more than twenty years ago, I found that the richness of this place lies in the human interactions, the analogueness (if you will) of life at this community in the woods.
Much of my work this year has been in collaboration with scholars elsewhere, building on projects already many years in the making. But my work and theirs has been infinitely enriched by the daily stimuli I’ve had from my colleagues here at IAS. Here are a few vignettes.
By Nicola Di Cosmo
Did an unusually favorable climate create conditions for a new political order under Chinggis Khan?
In his recent book Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker states: “although climate change can and does produce human catastrophe, few historians include the weather in their analyses.” This is generally true, and the distance between historians and the weather may not have improved (indeed, may have been underscored) by the evolution of environmental history as a separate branch of historical research. Moreover, while the collection of historical climate data has never been more robust, instances of collaboration between scientists and historians are still very few and far between. In 2006, the National Science Foundation launched a program for research on Coupled Natural and Human Systems, capturing the need to model the interaction between societies and environments. Few of the projects funded so far, however, involve a long-term historical perspective or engage actual historical questions. One of these, funded last year, is titled “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire” and is led by Neil Pederson, Amy Hessl, Nachin Baatarbileg, Kevin Anchukaitis, and myself.
By Jonathan Israel
How freedom of the theater promised to be a major extension of liberty
Early on in the French Revolution, in his memoir on press freedom submitted to the Estates-General in June 1789, Jean-Pierre Brissot (1754–93), later a prominent revolutionary leader, proclaimed liberty of the press “un droit naturel à l’homme.” Loathed by Maximilien Robespierre, Brissot, together with his political allies, was later guillotined in October 1793 by the Montagne, the political faction that organized the Terror of 1793–94. During 1789 and throughout the period down to the coup that brought the Montagne to power in June 1793, no one publicized the demand for full freedom of expression more vigorously than Brissot. He also raised the issue of liberty from theater censorship, something which at that time existed nowhere in Europe, or indeed anywhere else, and never had. Theater freedom mattered more for renewing “liberty” than people think, he explained, since the theater exerts a great influence “sur l’esprit public,” a point he would develop further, he adds, were not a writer of talent—the playwright Marie-Joseph Chénier (1762–1811)—already doing so. Among the Revolution’s principal champions of free expression, this literary ally of Brissot’s was the brother of the poet André Chénier who was guillotined by the Montagne in July 1794.
By July 1789, the month of the storming of the Bastille, the question was no longer whether revolutionary France should possess freedom of expression and of the press—all the revolutionaries then agreed that it should—but rather whether this freedom required limits. Should there be “liberté illimité de la presse” without legal responsibility for calumny or inciting violence? This posed a dilemma for the national legislature, for aside from the principle itself, there was much uncertainty and anxiety about the unpredictable consequences. Many believed the campaign to bring “philosophy” and Enlightenment to the people would fail. Press freedom and the other new rights were justified in the people’s name, and yet, not one-hundredth part of the people actually read, warned the veteran republican writer and future deputy, Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740–1814), while only one-thousandth part read with sufficient discernment and knowledge to separate truth from falsehood. The “ordinary man, being ignorant,” he admonished, judges politicians’ reputations by popular reputation rather than talent or knowledge—with predictably disastrous results.
By Edyta Bojanowska
A Russian writer tours the colonial world.
Multiethnic empire? Colonialism? These aren’t topics that we associate with Russian literature. And yet, a sprawling, expansionist, multiethnic empire was a determining factor of Russian history since at least the mid-sixteenth century.
Hundreds of ethnic groups found themselves within Russia’s borders, making ethnic Russians, in the census of 1897, a minority in their own empire. Among modern times, the Russian empire rivaled the British one in size, and at various points included Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East, and Alaska. To this day, as a result of this process, the Russian Federation remains territorially the largest country on earth.
In recent decades, the history of Russia’s imperial expansion and management has come into greater focus. But this empire’s cultural self-image remains elusive. What were the cultural echoes of this process? With what images and ideas did Russian literary classics dress up (or dress down) the empire? What are the Russian equivalents of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness?
Contrary to its popular image, Russian literature has long grappled with questions of multiethnicity, colonization, and imperial expansion. Such issues predominated not only in Russian popular culture, but also evoked diverse engagements from all major Russian writers of the tsarist era, running the full gamut from propagandistic to anti-colonial. These writers include such major figures as Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. Sometimes, the imperial themes of their well-known works have been ignored. At other times, the texts that engage these themes, though popular in their own time, have been sidelined in the process of canonization—especially as commandeered by the Soviet authorities, which by and large sought to minimize both tsarist and Soviet imperialisms or to portray them as strictly benevolent.