“I was and still am particularly interested in the mobility of people and texts” – 5in10 with Christopher Bahl

Christopher Bahl received his PhD in history from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London in September 2018 with a thesis on Histories of Circulation – Sharing Arabic Manuscripts across the Western Indian Ocean, 1400-1700. He holds a MA in Historical Research Methods from SOAS and a Magister Artium in Islamic Studies and South Asian History from the University of Heidelberg. Since October 2018 he is a research associate at the Max Weber Foundation’s Orient-Institute Beirut (OIB), where he is working on his postdoctoral project that focuses on mobile protagonists of the early modern Indian Ocean and their practices of knowledge formation and community building.
His research interests include the social and cultural histories of the wider early modern Indian Ocean region, manuscript cultures and their circulation, scholarly cultures and practices of history writing.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

I am interested in the movement of people and knowledge between shrine cities in the early modern period. Centres of pilgrimage, shrines and other places of religious significance were frequented by different social groups. What interests me in particular is not just the religious aspect of these places but also what else social groups did when they travelled between shrines: the books they read and copied, the sociabilities they shared with other people, the networks among travellers which they forged, and so on. Ultimately, the idea is to look at interconnections between shrine cities and to understand how knowledge formation and knowledge dissemination worked in such contexts.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

In my doctoral research I studied Arabic manuscript circulation during the early modern period. The academic inspiration for my current research project came from a manuscript that I discovered during the fieldwork for my PhD in India. A sixteenth century scholar from Medina, who travelled to India and Iran and repeatedly moved between shrine cities, wrote this Arabic text to envision a historical community of the Western Indian Ocean region. So I was and still am particularly interested in the mobility of people and texts, especially as it pertains to the Indian Ocean World. After having looked at the travels of manuscripts, I then wanted to focus more on other cultural mobilities. I thought that looking at the movement of scholars, pilgrims and so on between different Muslim shrine cities and what happens during these movements would be another interesting aspect to look at. Personal inspiration certainly came from the many different shrine cities I visited during my research in India, especially in the Deccan.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…)?

Central to my research are manuscript collections and, to a lesser extent, archives. What I really want to do is go to the historical locations that feature in and matter to my research and study in situ the texts that were produced, written and transmitted in these places.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) inspired you recently?

I was especially inspired recently by a talk given by Brinkley Messick and his book that’s related to that talk on “cosmopolitan” and “contingent” texts in Yemen. They helped me conceptualise my research on how texts circulate among communities and how this changes processes of knowledge formation.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Yes, I do think that’s the case. From my personal experiences, I can say that most of my PhD colleagues and my current colleagues at the OIB were and are highly mobile when it comes to conducting research, when presenting at conferences, and so on. The fact that I was able to travel extensively during my PhD project and therefore to access and study many manuscript collections, which I could integrate into my research, was paramount to how I initially conceptualised my project. At the same time, being highly mobile while you are doing this research shapes your research in no small way.

Citation: „I was and still am particularly interested in the mobility of people and texts“ – 5in10 with Christopher Bahl, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.02.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18002.

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