What can the past tell us about the present? This question, once the bedrock of historical enquiry, faded from the academic imagination after the post-structural turn. As utilitarian and deterministic understandings of the past came under attack for ossifying ‘traditions’, a new periodization took shape–now familiar to anthropologists and historians alike–of a post-colonial present separated from its ‘authentic’ past by the unbridgeable gulf of European imperialism and colonial modernity. The workshop aims to probe the limits of this approach by bringing together anthropologists and historians interested in exploring the manifold relationships various pasts have with the present day world.

The workshop will focus on Muslim societies as the primary context to conceptualize the interplay between historical inquiry and analysis of emergent social forms*. Our interest in Muslims societies is driven by the recent academic work on Muslim empires and networks (see Bibliography section). The emergent scholarship on networks and empires, venture beyond both postcolonial and textual approaches to Islam to highlight the complicated relationship of Muslim societies with the cultural geography of Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean. However, despite employing anthropological categories of analysis, this scholarship has yet to engage with ethnographic work on present day Muslim societies. To initiate a conversation between these ships passing in the night, we hope to press historians of Muslim empires and networks to speak about the past’s resonances with the discourses, practices, and structures explored in ethnographies. Conversely, we encourage anthropologists working on emerging social networks and political struggles in the broader Muslim world to focus, not only on the conditions of postmodernity, neoliberalism, and globalization, but also on regionally specific histories and memories, no matter how layered, distorted, or uneven.

We ask: what are the multi-layered pasts of the Muslim societies that escape the grand-narratives of colonialism and post-colonialism? How does one go about tracing the legacy of such pasts through texts from different genres such as hagiographies, genealogies, epics, letters, diaries, and contracts? How does one do that in the absence of such representations? How do Muslims themselves mobilize these pasts to sketch in the present and summon possibilities for alternative futures? How do such mobilizations inform the social imagination and geographical reach of itinerant Muslims today, be they scholars, fighters, missionaries, merchants, and diplomats? What are the possible analytical angles that would help us understand such processes beyond “ahistorical traditions” or “inventions of the present?”

The weekend-long workshop will be held on the Duke University campus in Durham, NC **.  The workshop will open with a keynote lecture, which will be followed by thematically focused sessions and finally a closing discussion. During the sessions, participants will respond to one another’s work. We invite graduate students in the ABD stage and recent PhDs to submit articles, chapters, and thought-pieces that address one or more of the themes above. To be considered, submissions must be between 6,000 and 8,000 words, including notes and references. Selected papers will be circulated in advance amongst all participants and will be discussed in detail during the workshop.

All participants will be provided accommodation and meals. Depending on the availability of funds, requests for travel compensation will also be considered.


Deadline for abstract submission: January 7th 2015

Deadline for paper submission:  March 20th 2015

Workshop Dates: April 17th – April 19th 2015




Please email all questions and concerns to: [email protected] or [email protected]




*Included in our understanding of Muslim societies are the European powers that ruled over and through Muslims, and non-Muslim communities whose stories have inextricably been part of the Muslim experience.

** Specific room details to be posted later.


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