Q&A: The Feeling of History

Through the Jewish-Muslim research Network, I spoke to Associate Professor Charles Hirschkind about his new book, ‘The Feeling of History: Islam, Romanticism and Andalusia’ (see video below).

Read about the book here:

‘In today’s world, the lines between Europe and the Middle East, between Christian Europeans and Muslim immigrants in their midst, seem to be hardening. Alarmist editorials compare the arrival of Muslim refugees with the “Muslim conquest of 711,” warning that Europe will be called on to defend its borders. Violence and paranoia are alive and well in Fortress Europe.

Against this xenophobic tendency, The Feeling of History examines the idea of Andalucismo—a modern tradition founded on the principle that contemporary Andalusia is connected in vitally important ways with medieval Islamic Iberia. Charles Hirschkind explores the works and lives of writers, thinkers, poets, artists, and activists, and he shows how, taken together, they constitute an Andalusian sensorium. Hirschkind also carefully traces the various itineraries of Andalucismo, from colonial and anticolonial efforts to contemporary movements supporting immigrant rights. The Feeling of History offers a nuanced view into the way people experience their own past, while also bearing witness to a philosophy of engaging the Middle East that experiments with alternative futures.’

Charles Hirschkind is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests concern religious practice, media technologies, and emergent forms of political community in the urban Middle East and Europe. His published works include, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia 2006), Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (co-edited with David Scott, Stanford 2005), and The Feeling for History: Islam, Romanticism, and Andalusia (Chicago 2020).

Anthropology Is: Bendy Minds

The best anthropologists make their minds bendy – they try to warp their perspective of the world (how it works, how ‘society’ is organised, what ‘culture’ is) and explore these questions from another perspective (and in doing so, may allow their questions to radically change) Saba Mahmood had the bendiest of minds. She showed up white liberal neo-imperialist feminists and anthropologists who went into Middle Eastern nations and placed Muslim women (from a diverse range of locations) within their white, liberal conceptual frameworks. From their perspectives – if a Muslim woman was observant, she was oppressed. Accordingly, the less Islamic they were, the more ‘liberated’.

What’s the point of anthropology – understanding cultures and societies in their diversity – if you already know what’s good and bad for groups/individuals before hand? if you can just slot them into an oppression/liberation narrative? So Mahmood made her mind bendy – she went and researched a group of Muslim women in the ‘Women’s Mosque Movement’ in Cairo after the Egyptian Revolution. Mahmood saw how the way white liberal feminists understood ‘submission’ was, for this mosque movement, irrelevant. For the practitioners of this all women’s Mosque movement, ‘submission’ to Islamic values was not a oppressive, passive, docile and dogmatic act. Submission meant an active, intellectual and bodily moulding of the self in order to internalise Islamic values and practises until they emerged from the self and body without conscious effort. Submission was a form of empowerment. To understand this, Mahmood had to deconstruct dominant European conceptions of agency, the body and freedom and in turn see how such concepts, applied to the Mosque movement, concealed as opposed to revealed something of the culture which Mahmood was studying. Much Euro-American academia (and especially anthropology), if it doesn’t question itself (and its political agendas), can violently assimilate sociocultural difference to its own terms, hierarchies and views of the world.

The best anthropologists, like Saba Mahmood, endlessly question the terms through which they understand different social and cultural groups. Many Egyptian Islamic feminists disagreed with the Women’s Mosque Movement relation to submission, although that doesn’t discount the need to understand a multitude of perspectives on the matter of women’s diverse experiences of freedom and oppression.

Read Mahmood Cairo ethnography in her 2004 Politics of Piety.

A Century of Women Who Changed Literature: the 1930s


Commissioned by Ponder journal


Hurston, a prolific folklorist and novelist who documented the African American culture of the rural South, died penniless in 1960. Her writings were tossed into a fire outside her house after her death, left to burn until a passing friend salvaged them from the flames. 15 years later, the renowned novelist Alice Walker would stoke a different kind of fire when her essay ‘Looking for Zora’ led to widespread recognition of Hurston’s talents.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel, is as politically relevant today as it was in the 1930s. The novel’s controversial use of language brings the voices of those who are often silenced into centre-stage. The novel follows the tales of its protagonist, Janie Crawford, as she relays her life to her friend, Phoeby. Janie leads Phoeby through stories of her domineering husbands, the claustrophobic micro-politics of porch-side gossip, the Okeechobee hurricane and eventually, to her final love and partner, Tea Cake. The story is part set in Eatonville, an all African American town in Southern Florida where Hurston herself grew up.


The book caused a literary backlash after its publication for its extensive use of African-American dialect. Across a 1930s America still plagued with the racist ideology that had legitimised slavery just decades earlier, “serious” literature was equated with standardised English (the language of the media, universities, the “educated”). The judgements given to certain styles of speech and writing were often steeped in racist and classist hierarchies as white supremacist ideology had influenced the mainstream to see African-American dialect as proof of a lack of education and “non-seriousness”.

Despite pressures from the literary world to do so, Hurston refused to translate the African-American dialect of the novel’s characters into standardised English. Such a move would have culturally misrepresented the groups within the novel. Beyond this ideological choice, Hurston artfully plays around with the voice of the book’s narrator*. While the novel’s narrator begins by using standardised English, as the story progresses and Janie rids herself of her misogynistic husbands, the narrator progressively picks up Janie’s dialect. By the end of the novel, Janie’s voice seeps into the narrator’s: ‘‘Janie fooled around outside awhile to try and it wasn’t so”. Janie’s increasing control over the book’s narrative is symbolised by her emboldening refusals to speak at the behest of others. As Janie sat in court at the novel’s close: “She didn’t plead to anybody”.

Janie’s growing empowerment is mirrored by Hurston’s as a novelist – both women refused to mould their speech or writing to the racist and patriarchal hierarchies of early 20th century America; predictably, the novel yielded little success after its publication in 1937.

As a doctoral student in Anthropology, Hurston’s work forms a guide for how I aim to write. Anthropology, which Hurston trained in, is about understanding how groups and individuals comprehend the world from their given perspectives. Within anthropology, language is seen as a crucial way through which individual or group identity is formed – it’s integral to how people organise and comprehend their reality. Unlike many anthropologists at the time, Hurston refused to speak over those she researched and wrote about, allowing her to thrust the voices of communities into a domain which often relied on representations of such groups by others, which were misinformed at best and unequivocally racist at worst.

Taking Hurston’s example beyond 1930s America and anthropology, how would present-day European xenophobia be different if people listened to migrants’ voices more than their representation by right-wing papers like the Daily Mail?


*the term used by the literary critics Barbara Johnson and Henry Louis Gates

*the narrator of many of Hurston’s novels is often a non-personal voice which narrates the main events of the novel, distinguished from speaking characters (who are identified by speech marks).