In January 2014, Mr Muhammad Alagil of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, endowed a Chair in Arabia-Asia Studies at the Asia Research Institute, NUS. In June 2014, the first Arabia-Asia conference held under the auspices of the Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Chair in Arabia-Asia Studies at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore(NUS), was convened. Engseng Ho, the Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor as of January 2014 (and Professor of Cultural Anthropology and History at Duke University) was the convener. Mr Alagil and President Tan Chorh Chuan of NUS participating in the opening panel, along with ARI Director Prasenjit Duara and Alagil Chair Engseng Ho.
by ENGSENG HO for ARI NEWS ISSUE NO. 34 (ASIA RESEARCH INSTITUTE,NUS) on SEPTEMBER 24, 2014:
Prof Tan stressed the importance of Arabia-Asia relations, noting the existence of a new generation of scholars working in the field, and among them welcomed home NUS alumni who had continued their work in leading universities abroad. In doing so, he also alerted them to the founding of a new PhD programme in comparative and connective Asian studies at NUS.
Prof Duara emphasised the thematic and strategic importance of Asian connections to ARI and to Singapore, and welcomed the addition of Arabia-Asia to this nexus.
Mr Alagil observed that while relations between the Middle East and the West have been full of conflicts and wars, relations between Arabia and Asia were much more peaceful and historically deep; and they were resurgent today. Yet the former has been widely studied, while the latter neglected. Mr Alagil explained that the naming of the chair—Arabia-Asia— was meant to make clear this contrast. Here was a historic opportunity for scholars to study Arabia-Asia, as has been done for relations between the Middle East and the West.
Indeed, Arabia-Asia relations cover a broad canvas, encompassing trade, diplomacy, labour, religion, language, literature, kinship and culture. This breadth of engagement was represented in the audience, who filled the ARI seminar room to capacity, and included prominent leaders in diplomacy, government, finance and the Singapore Arab community. The theme of the conference, that Arabia-Asia relations were like Slender But Supple Threads, not always thick or visible, but nevertheless strong and enduring, resonated with the audience. At the opening panel, a number of them were moved to recount their family histories, with ancestors coming from elsewhere, intermarrying with various ethnic groups, and cultivating businesses and friendships with one another. While relations between Arabia and Asia have existed continuously for centuries, modern scholarship has been divided by countries and regions, rendering those relations opaque. The conference was designed to overcome these divides by bringing together scholars working along a number of Arabia-Asia axes: to compare notes, complement each other, make mutual discoveries, and identify common areas of interest and ignorance. In that respect, the meeting was stimulating, and sparked lively discussions that we hope will bear fruit in developing research agendas.
Panelists came from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Korea and the USA.
Panels were focused on topics such as Arabia-Asia trading ports, Arabians in Asian cities, intellectual and organisational journeys, publishing, pilgrimage, and diaspora-state relations. It was striking that in many of these arenas of Arabia-Asia interaction, contemporary developments resonated strongly with historical precedents. The opening paper by Ho Wai-Yip introduced a maximal spatial and temporal stage, linking two cities at the limits of Arabia-Asia—Aden and Canton—in the thirteenth century and the present.
Arabian trading diasporas, which had been active in Rasulid and Sung times, were again active in Canton today, even as China has been rebuilding roads and ports in Yemen. While Aden’s traffic slowed during the socialist period, Dubai took up its role in Indian Ocean trade, developing primacy in global logistics, as did its counterpart Singapore, as discussed by Engseng Ho, while profiting from and benefiting nearer regions such as Kerala in India, in an intertwined traffic of gold and labour, as demonstrated by Nisha Mathew.
MORE ON THE CONFERENCE DESCRIPTION, PROGRAM AND ABSTRACTS
Engseng Ho is Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor, ARI, NUS and Professor of Anthropology and History, Duke University, and core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His research covers a range of issues, including long-distance and long-term cross-Asian mobility, maritime connections, Islam in Asia and ethnic diasporas. His research cross-cuts traditional regional studies and deals with large topics in current social science. Originally from Malaysia, Ho delved into interdisciplinary scholarship when he went in search of a more comprehensive narrative of Muslim societies to better understand his own.