Time and Its Others: Contesting Telos through a Sociospatial Analysis of Islamicate Chronotropes


Heather Ferguson


The fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies remain engulfed in the politics of encounter configured between the metageographies of “east” and “west” that animates Edward Said’s Orientalism.[1] Despite nearly forty years of vigorous debate, partial amendments, and counter proposals, “orientalism” remains a totalizing discourse that eclipses a more purposeful effort to interrogate how spatial regimes of power also entail periodization schemas defined by the purportedly progressive telos of modernity.[2] The historiography of Islamicate societies produced within the emergent imperial metropolises of the nineteenth century, particularly in the form of Islamwissenschaft, does indeed continue to shape how scholars investigate and students consume knowledge about Islam as a late antique phenomenon and its evolution into a disparate geopolitical terrain.[3] However, defaulting to an oppositional discourse that pits the “inauthentic” Eurocentric misrepresentation against the “authentic” affectivity of historical actors and agents reinforces several problematic assumptions. First, this oppositional discourse assumes that nineteenth century contexts were inherently “European” rather than precisely produced as such within a trans-regional imperial field wherein participants deployed the alterity of time and culture so as to refine a civilizing discourse of superiority.[4] Entrenched binaries further render incomprehensible the methods by which actors from Islamicate contexts within this trans-regional imperial field also produced visions of a wholistic past that masked complexity so as to assert unity. Second, the totalizing images invoked in the nineteenth century reified Islam as a monolithic category that persists today even in scholarship attentive to diversity. And finally, a metageography that purposefully conflates “west” with “European” and “east” with “Islamic” entails a politic of incommensurability dependent in turn on a politics of time: the “modern” and the “unmodern.”[5]


We have purportedly triumphed over the nineteenth-century masters of this progressive telos, who explicitly deployed the Ottoman Empire as an index of the “un-modern.” Max Weber’s “sultanism”[6] characterized a patrimonial model of rule leading to despotism rather than bureaucratization, and Karl Marx’s “asiatic mode of production,” linked despotism to the political economy of an amorphous east.[7] Each generated schemas of “west” and “non-west” that reappear in debates concerning the nature of power in contexts as diverse as the seventh-century Arabian Peninsula and seventeenth-century Istanbul. Yet most efforts to rebut these theories do so through arguments of specificity: identifying distinctive features of varied contexts so as demonstrate the erroneous nature of these conceptual schema.[8] Specificity, however, has not unseated the triumph of telos and reinforces the oppositional discourses on which this telos depends. More recently, intrepid scholars have sought to link conceptual models—or ideal types, in Weberian terminology—to a politics of time (the invention of “medieval” as antithesis to “modern”) that masks the constitutive linkages between emergent colonial power and histories of enslavement.[9] This linkage between technologies of power and the historicization of time posits a global chronoscape.[10] In so doing, scholars attentive to sovereignty as also a temporal hegemony allow us to move beyond the language of commensurability or difference.


The theory of commensurability, initially proffered as an alternative to careless comparative histories, correctly identified the comparative instinct as complicit in analyses that reproduced discrete civilizational units. Commensurability was also intended as a move beyond “encounter” as comparative praxis, recognizing in turn that narratives of contact also fortified engagement with the “west” as the moment in which history was realized.[11] Arguably these problems also attend the work of scholars that adopt “commensurability” as a means to assess most prominently “Eurasian” centralizing regimes of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.[12] Global historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s commitment to questioning hidden assumptions of “connected histories” charts one significant way out of the morass of both civilizational units and encounter as inherently inflected by Eurocentrism.[13] Originally the “connected” was, for Subrahmanyam, expressive of the designation “early modern” and employed to track parallel strategies of centralizing courts and mobile circuits across sovereign terrains from the fifteenth through early eighteenth centuries. Increasingly disenchanted with the telos of the “early modern” designation, Subrahmanyam led a new charge against “commensurability” and its tendentious erasure of difference—a difference understood as constructed rather than innate. He more recently turned to theories of scale and suggested that the “commensurable” emerges at the imperial or national level and masks the microhistories of the regional—the town, village, shrine, or law court.[14] This masking was deliberate rather than casual and signals courtly establishments’ efforts to territorialize sovereign power across composite and disparate realms. Subrahmanyam cautions that if we base our narratives of the past unreflectively on those commissioned to sustain the fiction of imperial invulnerability, then we are caught within a politics of time rather than tracing its emergent practices.

Challenging the “Islamic” and the “Historical” via Conflicting Rubrics of Time


Together, these cautionary tales of a troubled analytic conflation between cultural and temporal categorizations and the erasure of difference invite a new frame for “thinking” time in the past. In the following pages I embrace Subrahmanyam’s call to reflect on periodization as a problem in the past and not just a problem of investigation about the past.[15] Here, then, I seek to explore how temporal distinctions became fields of knowledge production within the Islamicate context and, within these fields, attempt to reveal how the evolution of conflicting rubrics of time embody or are linked to conflicting visions of social and spatial order. While I identify several examples of how organizational rubrics for time capture or produce distinct sociopolitical formations between the eighth and the seventeenth centuries these are intended to illuminate but certainly do not exhaust possibilities for future inquiries. Instead, my examples represent three general interventions. First, that there is no all-encompassing “Islamic” notion of time and history. This should be obvious, but the cases revelatory as even when assessing sacred scripture and sacral time the sobriquet “Islamic” obscures the conflicted rubrics this essay seeks to reveal. Second, while generating rubrics of time indeed includes the field of “history-writing” as such, our exploration should not be limited to narrative treatments of the past. Further, the actions of annalists and chroniclers themselves become purveyors of conflicted visions of temporal order and, more pointedly, other types of textual and material artifacts also forged temporal visions that were often in conflict with each other. Modes of marking time and thus of making time cross generic boundaries of bureaucratic record-keeping practices, biographies of the Prophet and the bibliographic dictionary, encyclopedic compilations, philosophical treatises, jurisprudential manuals, court records, illuminated manuscripts, and memoirs of travel and pilgrimage. I thus hope to step out from the assumption that time-making is by default a textual cum narrativizing process.


And finally, my effort to exemplify the inherently conflicted and sociospatial elements of temporal distinctions posits the chronotrope as a means to emphasize that the rhetoric of time-making alerts us to the use of time as a means to position actors within a competitive field of power. In other words, time sanctions the right to historical agency. The question posed here, then, is not “how do we correct the imposition of Eurocentric historical frameworks on an Islamicate past” but rather, how do we foreground the ways in which deploying time as an organizational method is inherently an act of power in both an Islamicist and an Islamicate formation? Scholars within both formations deploy the past, and methods for differentiating periods of time, to shape their present into a legible universe and to mask conflicts that disrupt this unity of vision.

Crafting Revelatory Time


While I argue that there is no such thing as an “Islamic” conception of time, and instead, identify varying sociabilities and spaces wherein the creation of time-marked identities, or identities shaped by the marking of time, emerged, it is important to note that a chronotrope did appear first in early efforts to inscribe as communal history the movement of Muhammad in the early seventh century Arabian Peninsula.[16] Early narratives of this emergence wrestled with the relationship between a divine time of creation, the Prophetic time of revelation, and a human time conceived as the embodiment of the two. Thus, early chronicles that incorporate the Qur’an into an unfolding of history, posit the revelatory moment as the intervention of the divine into the human world so as to “remind” the world of the radical oneness of god. This revelatory moment, and the Prophetic mission of Muhammad, heralded both a “reminder” of that which had been “forgotten” by previous monotheistic communities, and the harbinger of a future day of judgment when all individuals and communities would be evaluated against this standard of “remembrance” of a reclaimed truth. This “truth,” of the radical oneness of god, was thus immediately instantiated as a “historical” truth, one that marked human time by groups who either remembered or forgot the monotheistic message of a god then deployed to define a path of daily practice, a path that would ultimately lead back to a reunion of the divine and human worlds, i. e., divine and human times, in the advent of a cosmic day of judgment.

This chronotrope, the interaction between divine, prophetic, and human history, thus appeared in the earliest histories and biographies of the Prophet Muhammad. Although no extant text exists of one of the earliest example of these, by ibn Ishaq (d. 767), it was widely circulated, copied, and redacted into later works of history writing such as those composed by ibn Hisham (d. 833) and al-Tabari (d. 923).[17] Ibn Ishaq’s work, ultimately reproduced under the auspices of the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (r. 754–75), founder of Baghdad and patron of diverse forms of speculative inquiry, interwove several itineraries of time: “the beginning of time”/i. e., the moment of creation and the story of Adam and Eve; the time of the Prophet; and the time of the conquests and expansion of the Muslim community (umma) out from the Arabian Peninsula and into the former imperial strongholds of the Byzantines and Sassanians (i. e. Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and beyond). Ibn Ishaq thus identified a new rubric for interweaving divine/prophetic/human time—creation, the emergence of monotheistic voices, the perversion of a monotheistic truth, Muhammad as the clarion call for its reinstatement, and then a narrative depiction of the events that followed his death. This chronotrope introduced epochal time, with the Prophet Muhammad dividing an age of ignorance (jahiliyya) from an age of awareness or awakened knowledge. But it was also a political time, as the time marker that became year zero for chronicle writing in the decades and centuries that followed was not of Muhammad’s birth, but rather of the immigration of his movement/community of followers from Mecca to Yathrib in 622 C.E. (later re-named Medina, or city of the Prophet). Thus, time was marked or born from a point of embarkation, a departure from a past way of being in time and the commencement of a distinct political and economic identity that took full form only after the Prophet Muhammad’s death.[18] Efforts to sustain a revelatory vision necessitated a new kind of time, that of the political body that administered the message of the Qur’an as the formation of an ethico-political apparatus for rule and expansion.


The Qur’an, when it emerged as a codified scripture, resists its use as an administrative apparatus, however, because it in itself disrupts the narrativization of time. By the third successor to the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (644–56), codices circulated across the expanding zones of conquest and assimilation that extended the reach of this nascent political community beyond the frontiers of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. Robert Hoyland defines the Qur’an as the epitome of a “late antique” text, given that it threads together the diverse religious, discursive, philosophical, and apocalyptic trends that epitomized the era.[19] This diversity is sustained as an organizational and animating principle within the archetypal codex. The orality of revelation, a speech act, became narrativized into a canonical codex sanctioned by ‘Uthman and intentionally formed to resist counter authoritative communal claims. But, as is commonly known, the Qur’an defies chronology, organized instead from the longest to the shortest revelatory moment. The time of revelation, then, becomes captured in the oratorical/recitational (or reading/perusal) length of a chapter (sura) that sustains the eternal now of revelation.[20] The suras of “The Pen” and “The Poets,” amongst others, further distinguish and elevate the word of revelation from the poetic fetes of rivalry common to the Arabian Peninsula as well as from judgments of evildoing that are not premised on revealed scripture.[21] The now of revelation supersedes all preceding instantiations of textual authority.

Social Chaos and the Integration of Revelatory Time into Narrative


The epoch gestated by the political birth of the believers’ movement was inscribed and narrated through a chronographic itinerary of expansionary movements, the battles, personages, cities, and geographies folded into the embrace of this new political identity.[22] But it was also a narrative of contestation—one born out of conflicting conceptions of leadership—and later chroniclers explicitly addressed how political fragmentation also disrupted a vision of epochal time (a time of awakened knowledge) and descried the dangers of internal divisions. They thus introduced a new chronotrope, that of social chaos (fitna) and the dispersive consequences of rival political claims. This chronotrope was initially fashioned by ‘Abbasid-era chroniclers such as al-Tabari working to cement a consensus concerning the emergence of Islam, a consensus that would gradually be defined as the way, the Sunna, or later the Sunni, thus inventing along with it a vision of narrative and communal purity, one that began with the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad and continued through his first four successors termed the “rightly guided,” despite the contentious nature of each.[23] Even annalistic narratives of later dynasties were disrupted by the “time of the Prophet,” as evidentiary reports composed by his companions were privileged as records of the community’s emergence, expansion, and re-definition.


However, the “evidentiary report” of the eyewitness was fashioned as the historical standard not by the authors of chronicles but rather by jurists and theologians. Intent on creating manuals to guide the proper ritual observance of the community they too dealt with divine/prophetic/and human time as they sought the means whereby to legislate contemporary affairs through the auspices of a revealed text and law. The bridge between text and law in all its intricacies I must leave aside here. Suffice it to say, especially through the work of the jurist and founder of the Maliki legal school Malik ibn ‘Anas (d. 795), that the practice of the Prophet became a lodestone for the practice of law, and gradually, the practice of the community became its own guiding principle (a mode of legal interpretation known as maslaha). The jurist and then those who adopted orthopraxic modes of knowledge, sought a standard of verifiability, one that moralized time and affixed truth to distance—proximity to the prophet became explicitly linked to veracity and foregrounded the speech act as the lodestone of evidentiary proof. Tracing proximity through a chain of speech acts, known as a system of isnad (sound proof of authenticity) and a silsila (chain) of connectivity, constitutes the legal and communal apparatus of the hadith—the collected deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The systematicity of proof was not universal but led instead to variable collections of hadith with their own sorted contents derived from differing, and often conflicting, assessments of the veracity of both chain and the individuals who embodied it. Hadith then, as instantiated speech act inscribing the past time of the Prophet Muhammad into the unfolding of the present, would become a tropic form in itself, manipulated at will by those who sought to critique what they deemed present corruptions via past forms of purity. The hadith created an eternal now or nunc. This moralized timescape appeared in diverse forms during periods of political crisis from ninth-century Baghdad to twenty-first century digitized forms of legal pronouncements.[24]


Thus, the reported speech acts of the Prophet’s deeds and sayings (hadith) were parsed into texts, be they of the jurist, the philosopher, the chronicler, or the theologian, as both the epitome of a normative past and a projection for future action. Each, in various ways, inserted a frame of judgment, the judgment of time understood in terms of a past purity and a present corruption, into their various fields of knowledge production. In this way, reported deeds and sayings were also de-sacralized and defined as simply “reported speech or news,” threads of which served as both the expository and evidentiary basis first of chronicle writing and then of an evolving literary corpus (adab in the languages of the region) and finally even in administrative reporting for tax collection purposes in various dynastic and regional polities.[25]

Crafting Unification from Conflicted Histories of Truth


For one example of the admixture of truth, time, and variant moral chronotropes we can turn to the genre-bending treatises of al-Shahrastani (d. 1153).[26] I have elected to focus on the corpus of al-Shahrastani for three reasons: to depart from the customary use of well-known philosophes and theologians such as al-Farabi (d. 950), ibn Sina (d. 1037), and al-Ghazali (d. 1111); to highlight the import of the Khurasani zone (region that extends to the northeast past the borders of contemporary Iran into Central Asia and Afghanistan) for the complex interweaving of geographic and chronographic realities in the expanding Islamicate universe; and, as I will show, for the innovations specific to making and marking time that appear in his various treatises. Al-Shahrastani’s itinerant learning exemplifies Islamicate geographies of knowledge production. His name, like many, derives from the town of his birth (1086) in Shahristan, but he studied with theological masters in Nishapur and then Baghdad where he taught in the al-Nizamiyya, an institution dedicated to the Ash‘ari school of interpretive inquiry that guided much of al-Shahrastani’s career and speculations.[27] It is worth pausing on his position as a disciple of the Ash‘ari school as contained within this allegiance to a tradition of knowledge is a chronotropic discourse that definitively shapes the intellectual universe of the period. Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Isma‘il ibn Ishaq al-Ash‘ari (874–936) established an interpretive theological school now referenced as the epitome of Sunni orthodoxy. Yet he had also charted an intermediary path within the volatile debates concerning the nature of the interpretive act within a community shaped by revelation. As the revelatory universe of the believers became increasingly entangled with the philosophical traditions translated from Greek, these debates escalated and became the site of claims to both political and religious authority.[28] Al-Ash‘ari embraced the importance of debate and discourse, even as he resisted schools of thought, such as the Mu‘tazilite, that prioritized speculative inquiry above and against the “source texts” of the Qur’an and hadith. It should be noted that theological interpretation (kalam) was inherently an interpretive enterprise, thus despite al-Ash‘ari’s orthopraxy, he also departed from legal schools that insisted on the hadith as the only true realm in which the Qur’anic principle could be extended to fit contemporary contexts (known as the ahl al-hadith, or people of the hadith, and best epitomized by the legal school of Malik ibn ‘Anas, d. 795). Thus, the Ash‘ari model transforms the universalist time of the philosopher into a method for yoking revelation to the unfolding of human practice in a post-prophetic world. Conflicting orientations yielded a chronotropic interpretive discourse.


Al-Shahrastani, writing from within a world of proliferating versions of truth and rival claims to caliphal succession from the courts of Cordoba, Cairo, and Baghdad, sought to demonstrate the means by which plurality might be enfolded into singularity, the singularity of a timescape defined by the Qur’an as word of God capable of reshaping difference into a unified conceptual framework. Revelation, in his conception, was the ordered presentation of words, and these words contained within them their own timescape, word made time and thus the time of others (other traditions or interpretations) could be folded back into the word of revelation. He further transformed the sociopolitical chaos (fitna) of multiplicity into a history of difference in his monumental work that traced the evolution of philosophical and religious schools of thought across the bounded limits of Qur’anic history.[29] In other words, he folded the Qur’anic moment into a genealogy that began before Islam and then developed in disparate ways after the prophetic moment of Muhammad. More pointedly, his primary rubric for assessing religious phenomena was textual—the presence or absence of written scriptures. In part, of course, here he follows the Qur’anic dictate that privileges “peoples of the book” for their presumably monotheistic tendencies. But he removes this privilege in a synoptic glance at the diversity of religious belief and practice that identifies recorded texts as a marker of difference without moral attribution.

A New Universalism: Time as a Globalized History


However, plurality into singularity was only one strategy for addressing diversity. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the Islamicate worlds were politically fragmented by conquest and plague that convulsed the region from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Asia. The Chinggisid invasions (1219–1260) that reconfigured the geography of rule, and the plagues and famines that disrupted the timescapes of the harvest, also led to a new chronographical imagination. Despite the fissures of political control from internal rebellions and cycles of nomadic invasions, the Islamicate terrains reemerged into a world defined by shared commercial and conceptual zones that encompassed both land and sea routes. The invasions themselves became “swallowed” by the rhythms of an intellectual, institutional, and administrative system within a sovereign space inflected by the dictates of Islam. New foundations of colleges, monasteries, caravansaries, and saintly shrines cloaked the invaders in the clothing of legitimacy modeled by self-professed Muslim rulers. Accompanying these experiences of cyclical travails were new models of universalist time. As two preeminent yet distinctively variant examples, the universal histories of Rashid al-Din (d. 1318) and ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) expanded the time of Islam to include the time of the other, and reconceptualized epochal history, now divorced from the truths of Islam and intent instead on incorporating or assessing the volatility of political sovereignty.[30] Both relied on epochal conceptions, but these epochs foregrounded human rather than divine time, creating a chronotrope that fit pre- and post-Qur’anic history into a shared timescape.


Rashid al-Din personally embodied the period’s contrapuntal dynamics. Born Jewish and trained as a physician, he converted to Islam and then served Sultan Ghazan’s court (r. 1295–1304), ultimately becoming the most powerful vizier of the Ilkhanid empire.[31] Commissioned to write a history of the Mongols (now contained in volume one), Rashid al-Din shifted scale and departed the localized political configuration of the Mongols to adopt an encyclopedic “history” of lives, geographies, dynasties, legends, myths, systems of organization, feats of military victory and scientific exploration, and much more. Notably, he sought to inscribe a comprehensive portrait of both synchronic and diachronic scales, and in so doing unseated both the Mongols and Islam from positions of primacy. This “history” was more compendium than chronology, however, and despite the dynastic itineraries inserted within the volumes posited a universalist and globalized vision of human time extending across space.


Rashid al-Din thus presented not a unified chronicle, but rather a multivocal “compendium of chronicles,” as the title clearly indicates. This compendium, however, was commissioned as a monumental text of the court, with monies and resources lavished on an artisanal workshop housing the calligraphers, illustrators, and scribes that produced a text then copied and emulated as the preeminent model of text as ornament. The illustrated manuscript “ornamentalized” the dynastic court, and thus reinforced a vision of imperial power. Even if its contents were multivocal, it still served as a monument—and thus an instantiated event—that of the Ghazan court.


By contrast, the wave of encyclopedic knowledge that engulfed the region during this period displaced the court and the court historian with the knowledge accumulated through the trades of the street and the scribe. Perhaps most vividly captured in the Ultimate Ambition of the Arts of Erudition by the Mamluk accountant and scribe Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri (d. 1333).[32] Al-Nuwayri delightfully shifted in and out of reported speech, philosophical conceptions of cosmic and human homologies, folkloric knowledge, recipes for bodily and sexual ailments, in addition to incorporating dynastic and bureaucratic histories. He also de-sacralized the hadith, deployed here haphazardly along with the poetic fragment, the anecdote, and inserted text from other scholars, bibliographers, jurists. The encyclopedia, therefore, adopts the chronotrope of universalism but does so with an eye for the everyday rather than that of either the sacral history of religious emergence or the dynastic chronicle. Yet, the encyclopedic compendia indeed lends itself to the imperial gaze, as it adopts an expansive eye and therefore maps in its textual itinerary the geography of composite empires.[33] Still, these compendia folded together timescapes that had once been opposed: the eternal, the historical, the prophetic, and the everyday.


Ibn Khaldun, by contrast, insisted on a “science” of investigation and named history as a field of knowledge unto itself, distinct from the embrace of religious traditions and its pantheon of interpreters. Born in Tunis (1332) to an elite Andalusian family that fled Seville after its reconquest in 1248, he then lost his parents to the so-called Black Death and served various regional rulers of the Maghreb (western Islamicate lands) amidst an ever fragmenting political landscape.[34] His bravado and scholarly acumen equipped him well in a constant quest for patrons (periods of imprisonment aside), and he set about composing a multivolume “Book of Lessons” that remained incomplete. Ibn Khaldun’s intent, however, is palpable within the introduction, or Muqaddimah. Notably, he embraced the Galenic concept of the “body politic” to inscribe the lifecycle of the in individual into a schema for assessing intra-group dynamics.[35] This cyclical vision of historical order, or disorder, was defined by sociopolitics rather than revelation, and represented a radical departure. Dismissing the theologians and jurists as ensnared by tradition, he turned his gaze to the horizontal and embraced observational methods as a disciplinary act. Ibn Khaldun thereby disrupted the chronotrope of revelation with that of cyclical history.


All of these visionaries of the universal emerged out of expanding networks of scholarship that knit together disparate courts and patrons from Qayrawan, to Cairo, Tunis to Tabriz and Samarkand. Together, the universal history-writer and the encyclopedist pivoted between the normative and the descriptive, but also purported to present globalizing rather than sacral or regional histories. Thus, while characterized as universal histories, they are born precisely out of a concern to fit multiple, competing chronoscapes into a synthetic, totalizing historical narrative.

The Time of the Empire


These all-encompassing and totalizing urges were in turn coopted to form an imperial narrative space, as the scholars cum bureaucrats in the courtly establishments of the Timurids, Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids fit visions of dynastic legitimacy into universalist conceptions of time—time that their imperial houses both enfolded and abrogated, like the early narrative chroniclers of Islam’s emergence.[36] This imperialization of time also yoked the cosmic to temporal power in novel ways, with the astrological conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn and millenarian apocalypticism harnessed to proclamations of universalism precisely amidst a field populated by competitive claims to sovereignty.[37] Here I will focus on the Ottomans, and the multiple mechanisms by which actors within these courtly establishments produced a time of the empire. The displacement of regional customs by an imperial law and the transitory post of the court historian established under Sultan Süleyman (r. 1520–66) briefly illustrate an imperial effort to displace rival timescapes. Both also represent the inherently conflicted processes by which disparate territories and rival histories were subsumed into a vision of invulnerable imperial order.


The regulatory framework of the Ottoman bureaucratic establishment depended on a legal vocabulary that generated, even as it fixed, the circulation of goods, services, and subjects into a bounded and legible space of imperial provisioning. It thus depended on record-keeping practices that affixed the realm into the timely ordering of command and supply—a “seasons of empire” if you will. The legal regulations (kanunname) dispersed from the palace enfolded regional “custom” into an imperial category in itself—a sleight of hand that became a framework for legal interpolation.[38] References to “what went before” (min b‘ad), “from the old days” (kadīm-ül-eyyamdan), and “according to formerly established methods” (üslūb-ı sābık üzere) transferred “scattered” (perakende) practices into “new defters” (defterler-i cedid) of recorded knowledge. This mobile and evolving archive of administrative practice invoked the terminology of customary law (Ottoman Turkish, örf; Arabic, ‘urf) but displaced it so as to assert a customary time of the empire. The legal terrain, and thus the temporal order of previous rulers, became part instead of a legal chronologics of imperial sovereignty.[39]


Parallel to this effort to create a legible legal order, the Ottoman establishment under Süleyman sought, through language, monumental architecture, and further legal reform, to replace the heteroglossia of the realm with a unified sovereignty of empire. This effort is visible within the scroll and codices of Seyyid Lokman, who composed his Quintessence of Histories from the position of court historian, the şehnāmeci.[40] Both the scroll and the codices position the dynastic house of Osman within a genealogical history that begins with a cosmological chart of the world’s origins, and then draws parallel connections to the prophets and kings of ancient Persian and other pre-Islamicate dynasties emanating out from the first humans, Adam and Eve. Although this genealogical map inserts the Ottomans within a diverse lineage, with the arrival of the Ottoman dynasty all contemporary rivals disappear. The suggestion that the Ottoman dynasty possesses no parallels (imagistic or textual) reinforces Lokman’s presentation of the Ottoman dynastic genealogy as a “final world order.”[41] These efforts results in an imperial golden ageism, where the “golden” meant centralized, well-administered, equitably distributed resources, and a lack of sociopolitical upheaval. Despite efforts to produce a legible and invulnerable imperial time, what emerges instead is a sense of fragility—of the always present possibility of upheaval mustered via either the sword or the pen and wresting imperial time away from its conquerors.

Conclusion: Chronotrope as Method


This tour of Islamicate chronotropes ideally demonstrates that remaining fixed within the oppositions of the “Islamic” with the “Eurocentric” or the “medieval” with “modern” misses not complexity, but rather the mechanisms by which timescales always contain within them contradictions of differing logics. In this case, the conflicting logics of revelation and history, sacral and human, the anecdote and the global. Born out of shifting sociospatial identities, these logics in turn shape categories of being by marking and making the temporal legible. If we argue that investigating chronotropes provides a method to address variant projects of meaning-making that construct or reinforce particular power formations through the manipulation of time, then we can avoid both oppositional and exclusionary discourses of “other” times and histories.

[1] Edward W Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1978). Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen provide a prescient analysis of the linkages between space and power in the configuration of “Eurocentricism” in The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[2] Zachary Lockman reflects on the entrenched nature of these debates as they continue to shape these fields in Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Robert Irwin and Alexander Bevilacqua, by contrast, muster an assault on Said’s thesis, either directly or indirectly, by assuming an inherent neutrality in intellectual histories of encounter in, respectively, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (London: Penguin, 2007), and The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[3] Like many who embrace the vision of Marshall Hodgson, I use Islamicate to differentiate cultures and histories informed by the structures and lifecycles of Islam, but not themselves reducible to its religious principles and modes of sociopolitical organization. The term’s streamlined conceptual bundle gestures toward the doctrinal and ethical import of Islam, but also invokes the communities, practices, and aesthetic motifs that overflow the boundedness of creedal definitions and so avoids reductive generalizations. Hodgson’s brilliance enables precision in efforts to distinguish broader processes from those moments in which religion does pointedly serve as an activating force or explanatory mechanism. Marshall G. S Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974). Srinivas Aravamudan suggests that “Islamicate” equals “the hybrid trace rather than pure presence or absence of Islam” in “East-West Fiction as World Literature: The Hayy Problem Reconfigured,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 47, no. 2 (2014): 198. See also “Islamicate Cosmopolitan: A Past Without a Future, Or a Future Still Unfolding?,” Franklin Humanities Institute, May 2, 2017, https://humanitiesfutures.org/papers/islamicate-cosmopolitan-past-without-future-future-still-unfolding/. I also use the term “Islamicist” to identify scholars from variable contexts who objectify the past via the lens of Islam.

[4] Cemil Aydın, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[5] For “un-modern” or “non-modern” see Greg Anderson’s usage in his argument for a new ethical ontology that arguably reasserts difference as a necessary angle for analysis: “Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past: The Case for an Ontological Turn,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 3 (2015): 787–810.

[6] Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, trans. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). On patrimonialism as “one of the most important elements of communal action” see, 1: 322–324 and 336. For the Ottoman Empire as a despotic example of patrimonial rule, one that unites spiritual and political power in the personage of the sultan and thus precludes rational intervention in coercive power, see, vol. 1:231–232, 237 and vol. 2:1017 and 1031.

[7] The outlines of what would become the “asiatic mode of production” appeared in correspondence between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels between 1857 and 1861 and then in Marx’s article “The British Rule in India”: see volumes 28 and 13 of Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1986).

[8] Scholarship in this vein also tends to reinforce the historical uniqueness of the movements they follow: Robert G. Hoyland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); and, Karen Barkey, Bandits and Bureaucrats: The Ottoman Route to State Centralization (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

[9] The invention of the “medieval” in the Renaissance humanist enterprise, and its revitalization within Michel Foucault’s narrative of an emergent disciplinary order demonstrates the early conflation of periodization and hegemonic power. Anthony Grafton provides an example of this mode within the Renaissance moment in, Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 1450–1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991). Anne Clark Bartlett highlights some of the problematic aspects of Foucault’s approach in, “Foucault’s ‘Medievalism,’” Mystics Quarterly 20, no. 1 (1994): 10–18.

[10] Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); and, Sarah Davis-Secord, “Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe, by Daniel G. König,” Mediterranean Historical Review 32, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 111–14.

[11] Jerry H. Bentley, “Cross-Cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History,” The American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (1996): 749–70.

[12] For more recent examples of this approach, see the work of Kaya Şahin in, Empire and Power in the Reign of Süleyman: Narrating the Sixteenth-Century Ottoman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and, Kaya Şahin and Julia Schleck, “Courtly Connections: Anthony Sherley’s Relation of His Travels (1613) in a Global Context,” Renaissance Quarterly 69, no. 1 (2016): 80–115.

[13] His resounding clarion call for a connected past appears in “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia,” Modern Asian Studies 31, no. 3 (1997): 735–62. For one of the many examples of later work that embraces this analytic mode see, Courtly Encounters Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[14] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Region, Nation, World: Remarks on Scale and the Problem of Periodisation”, Paper presented at the Chronologics. Periodisation in a Global Context Conference, Maison de France, Berlin, December 7–9, 2017.

[15] Subrahmanyam, “Region, Nation, World.”

[16] Fred McGraw Donner’s book maps this itinerary with attention to the misattribution of religious sentiment and Muslim unity in the early formation of a political identity in Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[17] See Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham ibn Ayyub al-Himyari’s As-Sirah an-Nabawiyya and Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari, trans. Franz Rosenthal, 28 vols. (State University of New York Press, 1985–89).

[18] See Stephen J. Shoemaker for a careful assessment of how the early movement that developed around the prophetic revelations of Muhammad only crystallized into a distinct creedal body in its sociopolitical formation after his death: The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

[19] Robert Hoyland “Early Islam as a Late Antique Religion” in Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1053–68.

[20] For a truly remarkable effort to capture the “soundscape” of the Qur’an and its inherent orality, along with an introduction to how to “read” the text, see Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (White Cloud Press, 1999).

[21] The suras with accompanying commentary illuminate the triumph of the revelatory word over all other authoritative statements. See Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Study Qur’an: A New Translation and Commentary (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 906–27, and 1400–07.

[22] The most important collection of these narratives can be found in Ahmad ibn al-Baladhuri, The Origins of the Islamic State Being a Translation from the Arabic: Accompanied with Annotations, Geographic and Historic Notes, trans. by Philip Khuri Hitti, and Francis C Murgotten (New York: Longmans and Green, 1924).

[23] The “rashidun” or rightly guided successors to the Prophet Muhammad represents its own chronotrope, referenced but not fully explored here. These four leaders sustained the movement after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632: Abu Bakr (632–34); ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (634–644); ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (644–56); and ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (656–661). Each successor contended with rival claimants and sociopolitical unrest both internal to the believer’s movement and generated by resistance to its expansion. Thus ‘Umar was assassinated by a slave likely of Persianate origin, and ‘Uthman by a contingent from the garrison city of Fustat in Egypt disgruntled by favoritism to Meccan personages and likely encouraged by ‘Ali, son-in-law and cousin to the Prophet Muhammad. This assassination led to the first of three violent civil wars that convulsed the community until the stratagems of the house of ‘Abbas united discontent under the banner of the ‘Abbasid caliphate in 750. Hugh Kennedy provides an excellent overview of these dynamics inHugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2004).

[24] I have source material for all of the above, but in the interest of time will add later. Each point contains a set of conflicted narratives I will track through footnotes.

[25] For the formation and circulation of a literary sensibility in the period consult Barbara Daly Metcalf, ed., Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Patricia Crone provides a synoptic overview of the links between legal, political, and religious authoritative modes in From Kavad to Al-Ghazali: Religion, Law, and Political Thought in the Near East, c. 600–c. 1100 (Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2005).

[26] His full name is Taj al-Din Abu al-Fath Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani. For a translation of one of his most significant treatises “The End of Steps in the Science of Theology”, see The Summa Philosophia of al Shahrastānī Kitāb nihāyatu’l-iqdam fī ‘ilmi ‘l-kalām, trans. byAlfred Guilaume (London: Oxford University Press, 1934).

[27] For an excellent summary of the evolution of these traditions, see Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy (London: Oneworld Publications, 2015), 15–68. His Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oneworld Publications, 2018) provides a more detailed investigation of these broader debates.

[28] Elizabeth Key Fowden and Garth Fowden, Contextualizing Late Greek Philosophy (Athens: Diffusion de Boccard, 2008). See also Garth Fowden, “Pseudo-Aristotelian Politics and Theology in Islam,” in Universal Empire: A Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation in Eurasian History, ed. Peter F. Bang and Dariusz Kołodziejczyk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 130–48.

[29] Kitāb al-milal wa ‘l-niḥāl, William Cureton, ed. (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1923). The section on the Muslim religious communities was translated into English by A.K. Kazi and J. G. Flynn, Muslim Sects and Divisions: The Section on Muslim Sects in Kitāb al-Milal wa ‘l-niḥal (Abigndon: Routledge, 2013).

[30] The two narrative histories referenced here are Rashid al-Din Hamadani’s Jāmi‘ al-Tawārīḥ (Compendium of Chronicles) and Abu Zayd ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami’s Muqaddimah.

[31] Mahmud Ghazan is best known for professing the truth of Islam and then turning Mongol rule into an Islamicate empire under the Ilkhans (subordinate khanate of the Chinggisid empire that includes the modern territories of Iran, Azerbaijan and central and eastern parts of Turkey).

[32] Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, trans. and ed. Elias Muhanna (London: Penguin, 2015). See also World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[33] Jason König and Tim Whitmarsh, Ordering Knowledge in the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 3–39 and, Elias Muhanna, “Why Was the Fourteenth Century a Century of Arabic Encyclopaedism,” in Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance, ed. Jason König and Greg Woolf (Cambridge, 2013), 343–56.

[34] There are many excellent introductions to ibn Khaldun’s life and conceptual innovations, for some recent summaries see, Muhsin Mahdi, Ibn Khaldûn’s Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of the Science of Culture (London: Routledge, 2015); and, Stephen Frederic Dale, The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[35] Glen Cooper, “Medicine and the Political Body: A Metaphor at the Crossroads of Four Civilizations” (The Healing Arts across the Mediterranean: Communities, Knowledge and Practices, Symposium, Rutgers University, March 28, 2014).

[36] Patricia Blessing, “Introduction: Reframing the Lands of Rūm,” in Rebuilding Anatolia after the Mongol Conquest: Islamic Architecture in the Lands of Rūm, 1240–1330 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2014), 1–20; Abdurrahman Atçıl, Scholars and Sultans in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Stephen P. Blake, Time in Early Modern Islam: Calendar, Ceremony, and Chronology in the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman Empires (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[37] Cornell H. Fleischer, “Mahdi and Millenium: Messianic Dimensions in the Development of Ottoman Imperial Ideology,” in The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilization. Vol. 3, Philosophy, Science and Institutions, ed. Kemal Çiçek (Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, 2000), 42–54; Muzaffar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam: India, 1200–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Sheldon Pollock, “India in the Vernacular Millennium: Literary Culture and Polity, 1000–1500,” Daedalus 127, no. 3 (1998): 41–74.

[38] Guy Burak, “Between the Ḳānūn of Qāytbāy and Ottoman Yasaq: A Note on the Ottomans’ Dynastic Law,” Journal of Islamic Studies 26, no. 1 (2015): 1–23, https://doi.org/10.1093/jis/etu038.

[39] For an extensive treatment of this subject, see chapter two in Heather Ferguson, The Proper Order of Things: Language, Power, and Law in Ottoman Administrative Discourses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018). Guy Burak argues that law and sovereignty are linked in The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[40] Christine Woodhead’s scholarship remains the standard treatment in the field: “An Experiment in Official Historiography: The Post of Şehnāmeci in the Ottoman Empire, c. 1555–1605,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 75 (1983): 157–82; and, “Reading Ottoman ‘Şehnames’: Official Historiography in the Late Sixteenth Century,” Studia Islamica, no. 104/105 (January 1, 2007): 67–80. On the Quintessence as both scroll and codice, see Emine Fetvaci, “From Print to Trace: An Ottoman Imperial Portrait Book and Its Western European Models,” The Art Bulletin 95, no. 2 (June 2013): 243–68.

[41] Fetvaci, “From Print to Trace,” 174.

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2 Responses

  1. Barbara Mittler says:

    This is an exemplary essay, thank you so much! Just three small remarks:
    (3) I thus hope to step out from the assumption that time-making is by default a textual cum narrativizing process. WHAT THEN; THOUGH? Can you make this clearer?
    (5) how do we foreground the ways in which deploying time as an organizational method is inherently an act of power in both an Islamicist and an Islamicate formation? Scholars within both formations deploy the past, and methods for differentiating periods of time, to shape their present into a legible universe and to mask conflicts that disrupt this unity of vision. HERE it is absolutely necessary to tell your reader what exactly is hidden between the differentiation between Islamicist and Islamicate!
    You have a couple of footnotes in which you are saying that you have sources, do cite them, at least in the footnotes, they will be useful references for future work even if you do not make a fullscale argument in your text.
    I have a general point: It may be useful if you could make some critical remarks on the typology offered in the piece by Jörn Rüsen. I wonder to what extent your essay and the typologies you are suggesting is a counter-example or one that can be used to expand his 4 types of periodization, “traditional” “exemplary” “genetic” and “critical” that he establishes. It would be great if you could react to his terminology (critically) and engage with his argument.

  2. Thomas Maissen says:

    Impressive and very well informed contribution that explains the problem of unifying different temporal logics in the Islam(s).
    If I see it right, “Islamicate” is not a generally known concept; could you define it or explain how you want it to be understood? If I am right, it stems from Hodgson which would allow you to refer to Michael Geyer’s article in our volume.
    2: “We have purportedly triumphed” – who is “we”?
    3: “the work of scholars that adopt “commensurability”” Isn’t it either “that adopts” or “who adopt”?
    4: “temporal visions and time-making“ – I agree; but do you think that the particular case of periodization can be done outside the “textual cum narrativizing process” of historiography? I doubt.

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