Interview with Dr. Shuaib Ally, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University

  1. Tell us a little about yourself. (Background, field of research, etc)

I work on pre-modern traditions of commentary in two fields: commentaries written on the Qur’an, a genre called tafsīr, and commentaries on works of balāgha, a field that encompasses aspects of Arabic linguistics, stylistics, and literary theory. The bulk of my research is in the period widely referred to in Islamic studies, for better or for worse, as the post-classical period, covering from around the twelfth century to modernity. I work on the content of commentaries from this period, as well as broader questions related to the history and development of that genre of writing, and the scholarly cultures and environments in which such practices of writing emerged. Much of the scholarly output from that period remains extant in manuscript form, and even when the works are published, their manuscripts contain a wealth of other types of information that is invaluable for reconstructing intellectual history. That is a roundabout way of saying that I also work quite a bit with manuscripts.

a. Follow up question: what drew you to this area of research?

I find commentary writing fascinating, especially in the fields of tafsīr and balāgha. The nature of commentary writing is that it is integrative, meaning that it brings in a number of other disciplines to bear on whatever it is discussing. In many ways, commentaries reflect the latest in the field from a variety of disciplines in the pre-modern period. As you get into more expansive commentary literature, you start to see what pre-modern scholars thought was the horizon of interpretive possibilities when it came to language use. Oftentimes – not always – you find that what they have to say about the Qur’an and language interpretation is directly relevant to theories that are being offered on these topics today.

I have long been interested in the language and style of the Qur’an, as well as issues related to how language is interpreted. How the Qur’an is and/or ought to be interpreted is of course a continuing matter of debate outside of academic circles. When I was an undergraduate, I began to write papers on some aspects of Qur’anic style, and I drew on the Qur’an commentary tradition, the natural place to look for insight on those matters. I wrote a paper on Qur’anic rhyme, and another paper on Qur’anic humour. Neither of those papers were very good, but both of them inform a larger project I am now working on related to the intertwined development of balāgha and tafsīr. It is nice to see these undeveloped ideas turn into something substantial much later. Sometimes you don’t know how what you are researching will come together or show its importance later.

I would go on to receive substantial training in reading commentaries. After my MA, I moved to the Middle East, where I was trained for many years in the close reading of a range of texts, including some texts in tafsīr and balāgha, and related fields like grammar, and made use of commentary and supercommentary writing, the latter being commentaries written upon commentaries. This was invaluable training for me because this type of close attention is a feature of traditional Islamic pedagogy and requires a large time investment from the end of both student and teacher. I am very grateful for those who invested substantial amounts of their time in me. I was able to study some medieval handbooks word for word, like al-Taftāzānī’s Mukhtaṣar al-maʿānī, a fourteenth century primer in balāgha that was central to balāgha and tafsīr. It engendered its own commentary tradition, and it is still studied to this day. That book is also an important piece of the research I do today. That kind of training had – and continues to have – a significant impact on my ability to read and engage with the texts in my field, and it also shaped how I think about the traditions from which those works derive.

I am also drawn to these areas of research precisely because they are under-researched. This is in part because scholars have long been interested in origins in Islamic studies. As a corollary, works from later times have often been depicted as originating from a period of decline, and stamped by their period. For these reasons, most of the works in what we can call the post-classical period have received little to no attention. Just as an example, even though the Mukhtaṣar I just mentioned was central for hundreds of years, and even though there is probably no major manuscripts library without a copy of this work, if not dozens of copies, there is nothing substantial written on it in the western academy. This, at least to me, creates this strange dissonance in how we present and engage with the past, where works like this that were clearly important are understudied, while other works which were relatively less important enjoy the continued attention of scholars today. Even worse, the ideas and theories that developed in this long period of scholarship remain relatively unknown, which creates its own host of problems. For example, sometimes the same theories are assumed to have no precedent and are simply replicated today. The long and the short of it is that because of my training in these areas, I want to make substantial contributions to our knowledge of two fields which are critical and have relevance today but remain understudied.

I should say something about manuscripts. Using manuscripts is unavoidable in the field because so much of the heritage of Islamic scholarship is available only in manuscript form and restricting yourself to printed works severely limits the scope of your scholarship. Even before any type of formal training in manuscripts, I was using manuscripts for research or just for interest. A lot of the time when I would look for a book, its manuscripts would come up in internet searches; someone had helpfully uploaded a copy to some internet forum or site. Some of those forums have unfortunately gone defunct and have been replaced to varying degrees with other sites or types of social media. In my undergrad and MA, I started to work on some of Walid Saleh’s manuscripts projects related to tafsīr, and that was my first formal training in that area. For example, I read with him the entirety of a treatise he was editing by a Mamluk scholar named al-Biqāʾī, and did some work for Professor Saleh on the introduction another scholar, al-Aṣfahānī, wrote for his tafsīr. During my PhD, I worked on another manuscripts project with him; we edited a lacuna that was missed in a recent printed edition of an eleventh century tafsīr work by al-Wāḥidī. I also worked on a manuscripts project for Jeannie Miller on using marginalia in manuscripts of al-Jāḥiẓ’s Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, or Book of Animals, to trace the transmission of that work. That project informed some of the focus on paratexts in my dissertation. Those were some of the influences in my work on manuscripts.

2. What can you tell us about your dissertation?

I wrote my dissertation at the University of Toronto, although from home would probably be more accurate, because I actually researched and wrote it almost in its entirety during the worst of the pandemic. I had received a grant from U of T to do some manuscripts research at the Süleymaniye library in Istanbul, which I did for a couple of months in the fall of 2019. When I was there, I looked at manuscripts of the two main works of an eleventh century grammarian, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, his Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz (Markers of Inimitability) and his Asrār al-balāgha (Secrets of Eloquence), because I was working on ʿAbd al-Qāhir for a larger project. During the pandemic, in the Spring of 2020, I began to work on these manuscripts in earnest, thinking that the research on their paratexts would result in an article. But that one article became two, then morphed into three, and then I realized I had a whole new project. I think that’s probably a common experience for scholars doing continued research in the humanities. And that became my dissertation. It recently won the Malcolm H. Kerr dissertation award, honorable mention for the humanities.

The dissertation itself was meant to show how we can trace an intellectual history, in this case primarily related to balāgha and tafsīr, through the use of paratextual material. In this case, I made use of paratexts, here meaning any written material other than the main text itself, taken from over thirty manuscript copies of ʿAbd al-Qāhir’s works. ʿAbd al-Qāhir’s works, especially the Dalāʾil, were foundational for the emerging discipline of balāgha. They would serve as the basis for later textbooks and commentaries in that field.

I used paratextual evidence – ownership notes, colophons, and substantive marginal notes written by scholars who owned copies of his works – to show how these classic works were not lost, as is sometimes claimed, but were rather used, engaged with, and reintroduced throughout the postclassical period up to the modern era. In a specific sense, my dissertation was about these two works, and balāgha and tafsīr, and commentary writing in the post-classical period. However, because I was primarily using paratextual evidence, the project was in a larger sense about broader concerns in book history, scribal and scholarly communities, and intellectual history.

3. What are you working on right now, any specific project?

I have a few projects occupying me. I am currently working here at McGill on the tradition of supercommentary writing on the Qur’an and what it meant to practice Qur’an commentary by the seventeenth century in the pre-modern period. Supercommentaries, by this time, had become a massive endeavour and had become their own genre of writing: they had their own set of concerns and references. I am working on a type of pre-modern footnoting, which is one strategy to manage the information in these large projects. I discovered this strategy in manuscripts of a supercommentary in tafsīr by a seventeenth century scholar, Shihāb al-Dīn al-Khafājī, who wrote his commentary on the tafsīr of al-Bayḍāwī, a fourteenth century scholar. This dovetails nicely with my dissertation, because supercommentary writing is part of that engagement with ʿAbd al-Qāhir, and also because Shihāb al-Dīn al-Khafājī, coincidentally, is one of the most famous owners of ʿAbd al-Qāhir’s works. I am also working on a monograph that traces the interrelated history of balāgha and tafsīr, with a focus on some broader issues, including verbal irony and rhyme in the Qur’an. That is a project that focuses on the content of the commentary and supercommentary traditions in those disciplines, and so it complements the focus on paratexts in my other project. Finally, I am working on revising my dissertation into a monograph for publication.


4. Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

I received a grant from the Max Weber Foundation to do some manuscripts research this year in Italy, Istanbul, and India, so I am very excited about that. I am presently in Rome now. I saw a massive flock of starlings swarming by the Vatican, which was my first time seeing that. It’s spectacular! I am examining copies of commentary works in my two primary fields for their paratextual evidence. I am optimistic that they will contain a wealth of evidence useful for reconstructing how these works were transmitted and used. In general, I hope that even more scholars will study the content of commentary writing and manuscripts from this period. It is mostly untouched material, and there really is no shortage of amazing discoveries awaiting the unsuspecting researcher.

At the end, we would like to thank you for participating in this interview for the library blog, this is greatly appreciated. And we wish you the best of luck in all of your endeavors!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Islamic Studies Library nor McGill University

Reading Muslims Project

Reading Muslim is an inter-and multi disciplinary project funded through the university of Toronto’s Connaught Global Challenge Grants Program.

Reading Muslim project is a Network of academics, scholars and researchers, and is re-examining the place of textuality in the Islamic Studies. This project is aiming to “elevate the understanding of Islam, Muslims and society”, by examining a set of methodological and political questions about the Islam today through the lens of textuality.

  • “Who are the privileged readers of Muslim texts?
  • What is the relationship between texts and Islamic tradition?
  • Who gets to decide the relationship between textuality and orthodoxy?
  • How do texts support the legal and bureaucratic institutions of the modern state in its project of governance?

This project provides access to three different types of content such as articles, podcasts and videos. Each item provides an introduction about the author along with the full access to the content.

“Reading Muslims begins from the premise that consideration of texts and textual methods are indispensable to the study of Islam. Islam began with a book : al-Kitāb, the Qur’anic revelations. From this first textual experience came others: Qur’anic exegesis, the Law, Sufism, etc. Islamic studies scholars, whether Muslim or not, read Muslim texts to understand the Islamic tradition. But they also read Muslim bodies and practices through an ethnographic lens. And, to make things more complicated, they read Muslims as readers of their texts, paying attention to various interpretations within Muslim communities.”

This platform is comprised of four research hubs. Hub 1: Muslims as Readers, Hub, 2: National Security and Anti-Muslim Racism, Hub 3: Reading Practices, Hub 4: Anthropology of Islam. Under each hub researchers and community partners are looking “textuality in Islamic studies and its place in the formation of community identities in dynamic societies.”

Each hub provides a brief introduction to the aspects that will be examined, name of the researchers and community partners as well as access to the various available contents through the Reading Muslims platform.

Moreover, Reading Muslims provides information about their upcoming events on their website.

Maydan

Maydan is an online publication of Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University, offering  expert analysis on a wide variety of issues in the field of Islamic Studies for academic and public audiences alike, and serving as a resource hub and a platform for informed conversation, featuring original articles and visual media from diverse perspectives.

Maydan complements and benefits from the flourishing academic blogosphere and the rise in digital scholarship, amplified by social media and the diversification of academic production venues. It aims to contribute to the developments in digital scholarship by bringing peer-reviewed academic research to the attention of the broader public and providing original resources and databases for scholars, students and the public to facilitate research, discussion, and pedagogy in Islamic Studies across all disciplines. In response to a growing need for a broadly-focused online resource for academic scholarship and critique, Maydan offers its readers multidisciplinary perspectives on the historical, intellectual, and global patterns and developments influencing the Muslim world.

While drawing on the expertise of the scholars and faculty associated with the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, Maydan aims to widen academic and public discourse, stimulate intra and inter-disciplinary debate and inspire researchers from all levels to undertake new projects and engage with new issues. It features original pieces and compiles academic resources for the advancement of a sound and nuanced understanding of Muslim societies and the Islamic faith, its role in world history, and its current patterns of globalization.

Categories:

In addition, Maydan includes a Resources page centralizing news from the Islamic Studies scholarly community, a Journal Roundup page making available quarterly lists of the latest articles in Islamic Studies, a Book display page offers monthly lists of new publications in the field, and a Podcast page (Soundcloud) giving access to recorded lectures by, and interviews with, renowned Islamic Studies scholars.

Last, the weekly Media Roundups propose an overview of Islam in the media.

To receive updates, you may subscribe to the Newsletter.

Ottoman History Podcast

The Ottoman History Podcast began in 2011 and March 2021 marks its 10 years anniversary that this initiative is recording interviews with academics researching or studying the Ottoman Empire.

It started with the goal of experimenting new form of academic production by using more accessible media and a more collaborative approach. Now it is one of the largest developed  digital resources about Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East in the form of academic discussion.  

“Our recorded interviews and lectures, while still largely academic in tone, provide scholarly conversation accessible to a wider public audience.”

https://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/p/about-us.html

Chris Gratien, Producer and Co-Creator of the podcast in an interview with Bosphorus Review of Books, in response to the question of “What is The Ottoman History Podcast?” says:

Ottoman History Podcast is an internet radio program focused on the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire, modern Middle East, and Islamicate world. Since 2011, we’ve featured the work of over 300 contributors, mostly scholars and students of history and other academic disciplines. At any given time, we have more than a dozen team members equipped to record in different locations throughout the world. All of our interviews happen in person. And the project is completely independent and non-commercial. Over the years we’ve built quite a community that includes not only podcasters but also a few other web projects loosely-centered on the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East”.

 For the full interview click here

On the Ottoman History Podcast’s website, information can be found in five categories of:

  Türkçe — Episodes in Turkish

  The Making of the Islamic World  — conversations about the history of Muslim societies from the 7th to 17th centuries, and each episode offers suggestion for further listening and some primary and secondary reading. 

Also one of our assistant professor of Ottoman history at McGill Institute of Islamic Studies, Aslıhan Gürbüzel,  shared her insights in three episodes in this category (1. The Early Modern Islamic World; 2. Rumi’s World; 3. Dragomans and the Routes of Orientalism)

  Deporting Ottoman Americans : “How do you deport someone whose country no longer exists? This podcast addresses this question through the stories of Middle Eastern migrants subject to deportation from the United States during the 1930s”

  The Yayla— is an internet radio program centered around various range of Turkey’s music. Each episode talks about a particular genre also covers a bit of cultural context.

Bibliographies — is a list of books and resources compiled by Heather Hughes the OHP librarian on select subject and time.

Chris Gratine in his above mentioned interview, for those who are new to this podcast, suggested to start with the episode called : Ottoman New York, where the forgotten shared history and connection between New York city and the Ottoman Empire is being discussed.

Iranian Oral History Project

The Iranian Oral History Project (IOHP) was launched in fall 1981 at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. In the Autumn of 1980, the director of the project Habib Ladejvardi was encouraged by Edward Keenan, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, to document Iranian oral history.

Keenan as an historian believed that the immigration of many of Iran’s former leaders to western countries after revolution presented a great opportunity to gather valuable historical data through collecting the personal accounts of those individuals who played an important role in political events or decision making. The focus of the project is to collect information about the political history of Iran between the 1920s and 1970s. Various restrictions on information after the revolution makes this project even more valuable.

The aim of Iranian Oral History project is to provide:

  • A better picture of the way the Iranian political system actually functioned from the point of view of the actors involved – for example, how decisions regarding foreign and domestic issues were reached and implemented.
  • Circumstances behind major political events and decisions.
  • Additional details regarding the background, character, and career of key political figures of the period.

The IOHP’s goal is to gather first hand accounts of these major historic moments, events and decisions. Therefore, a wide range of leaders from different political parties, groups, and institutions, including foreigners who were involved or somehow had an impact in Iran’s political events at the time were interviewed. Interviews were conducted in Paris, Washington D.C., Cambridge, Austria, Switzerland and some other cities around the world. In addition, some politicians who still had an official role in Iran at the time, participated in the interviews while travelling to other countries.

896 items are available in this collection that can be browsed and searched by subject, interviewee, language, ….furthermore a comprehensive background on the project and detailed methodology used on gathering the information and interviews structure is accessible from here.

New Publication: The Dialectical Forge, by Dr. Walter Edward Young

The Dialectical Forge: Juridical disputation and the evolution of Islamic law, published in 2017, is the first monograph of Dr. Walter Young (although he has a number of other works in preparation, see below), graduate of the Institute of Islamic Studies. This book is a revised version of Dr. Young’s 2012 Ph.D. thesis, supervised by Prof. Robert Wisnovsky and Prof. Wael Hallaq, and is the 9th volume in Springer’s “Logic, argumentation & reasoning” series.

We had the occasion to ask the author a few questions regarding his monograph in a short email interview:

JM: This is a revised version of your Ph.D. thesis? What aspects have changed between the two versions?


WY
: Yes, significantly revised. Among other revisions: 

  1. It is a single volume—the dissertation’s second volume (the translation of the Ikhtilāf al-ʿIrāqiyyīn /al-ʿIrāqiyyayn) has been mostly excised;
  2. The focus throughout is maintained almost solely on juridical dialectic (no treatment of theological or philosophical dialectic, apart from Aristotle);
  3. The case studies have been expanded and all now appear with full prose analyses;
  4. A new section detailing Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī’s theory of qiyās has been appended.

JM: What can you tell us about this book?

WY: The real aim of the book is to bring juridical dialectic into the limelight as a key dynamic in the shaping not only of substantive rulings (fiqh, furūʿ), but of legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh) and dialectical theory (jadal/munāẓara) itself.

In fact, in my view, and I believe it is supported by mountains of evidence and obvious to most who consider it, the exigencies of dialectical disputation left their marks on all Islamicate intellectual projects whose scholars engaged in it. The study of the theory and practice of Islamicate dialectics should, in my view, provide essential concepts and tools for exploring, analyzing, and comprehending all such Islamic sciences which may in any way be qualified as “argumentative” (i.e., pretty much everything). It should therefore be a thriving discipline, but remains understudied—in fact practically unknown in the larger field of Islamic Studies (despite some excellent contributions in the last four decades). So a key aim of the Dialectical Forge (and pretty much all of my work) is to promote the study of Islamic dialectics, and to try to get scholars excited about it and involved in it. One way to do this, I think, is by showcasing the high level of sophistication attained by dialecticians (practitioners and theoreticians), by publishing and analyzing both the theory literature and example/historical disputations.

In this spirit of inspiring scholars to be excited about and involved in the study of Islamicate dialectics, Dr. Young has created an impressive website: the Society for the Study of Islamicate Dialectical Disputation (SSIDD). This site hosts information and resources on the study of Islamicate dialectical theories, practices and contexts, as well as a discussion forum for scholars to share ideas and sources.

JM: What drew you to this area of research?

WY: Two key factors—via the work of two esteemed advisors, mentors, and friends—drew me to the study of Islamicate dialectical disputation in general, and juristic dialectics in particular:

  1. A brilliant (and for me, career-changing) class on Islamic dialectical theory (especially the ādāb al-baḥth) conducted by Rob Wisnovsky;
  2. The teachings and publications of Wael Hallaq in the areas of legal and dialectical theory.

And I was very privileged to have both Prof. Wisnovsky and Prof. Hallaq as advisors to my dissertation.

We wish to congratulate Dr. Young on his monograph, and thank him kindly for his comments!

Other publications by Dr. Walter Edward Young

Articles:

  • “Mulāzama in Action in the Early Ādāb al-Baḥth;” Oriens 44.3-4 (2016) [special issue: Major Issues and Controversies of Arabic Logic], pp. 332-385.

Forthcoming or in preparation:

  • (critical edition and translation) On the Protocol for Dialectical Inquiry (Ādāb al-Baḥth): A Critical Edition and Parallel Translation of the Sharḥ al-Risāla al-Samarqandiyya by Quṭb al-Dīn al-Kīlānī (fl. ca. 830/1427), Prefaced by a Critical Edition and Parallel Translation of its Grundtext: the Risāla fī Ādāb al-Baḥth by Shams al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d.722/1322); Brill (Islamicate Intellectual History) [planned submission Winter 2018]
  • (critical edition and study) Scholarly Contexts of the Early Ādāb al-Baḥth: An Intellectual Prosopography Drawn from the Margins of Quṭb al-Dīn al-Kīlānī’s Sharḥ al-Risāla al-Samarqandiyya, with Critical Editions of its Common Glosses; Brill (Islamicate Intellectual History) [planned submission Summer 2018]
  • (monograph) The Jadal Primer: An Introduction to Classical Sunnī Juridical Dialectic [in preparation, pending funding]
  • (article) “Al-Samarqandī’s Third Mas’ala: Juridical Dialectic Governed by the Ādāb al-Baḥth;” Oriens (Spring 2018; special issue: Uṣūl and Falsafa in Post-Classical Islamic Scholarship)
  • (article) “Have You Considered (A-ra’ayta)? Don’t You See/Opine (A-lā Tarā)? A Working Typology of Ra’ā Formulae in Early Islamic Juridical Disputation;” in Y. Papadogiannakis and B. Roggema, eds., Patterns of Argumentation and Exchange of Ideas in Late Antiquity and Early Islam; Routledge (Centre for Hellenic Studies)

The Dialectal Forge is available through McGill Libraries, as well as through Amazon.ca and Springer.

Professor of Ottoman and Turkish Studies

The Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University is currently seeking a Professor of Ottoman and Turkish Studies. The posting is here. The Islamic Studies Library maintains a strong collection of Turkish materials and Ottoman sources. We are currently focused on developing the Republican period, i.e. 1923 to the present. The ISL’s current collection development policy is here.