5in10 Interview with Nir Shafir

Nir Shafir is a historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire. His research explores how shifts in material culture and religious practice shaped the intellectual and scientific life of the Middle East between 1300 and 1800. He received his doctorate in History from University of California, Los Angeles in 2016 and has an appointment as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. Nir is also a member of the editorial team of the Ottoman History Podcast, the leading podcast on Islamic history in general, where he also curates the podcast’s history of science series. During the academic year of 2018/19, he is the Irmgard Coninx Prize EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien associated with the Institute of Islamic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

I have always been curious about the world, from the flora and fauna on the river near which I grew up, to the mechanisms of economic institutions. Perhaps most of all I was interested in how humans organized themselves. How did human societies function in such diverse ways? I could have been a sociologist, economist or biologist, but I found myself drawn to history in search of an answer to these questions.

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

I often tell my students that I study the effects of “social media” in the seventeenth-century Middle East. When they learn that during this period people continued to copy books by hand, that is, as manuscripts, they inevitably ask how one can investigate social media in a region where print was only adopted in the late nineteenth century. The answer requires examining not why print failed to be adopted but how manuscripts were used in innovative ways as ephemeral and mobile texts. My research looks at what I call “manuscript pamphlets”—cheap, ephemeral, and very mobile texts that circulated widely and rapidly across the Ottoman Empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like social media in our own times, these manuscript pamphlets developed new publics and connected the empire but they also divided society by exacerbating the deep polemical debates of the seventeenth century about the proper practices and beliefs of Muslims. How do technologies of communication, whether manuscripts or the internet, simultaneously connect yet fracture political and religious communities?

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

Certainly, every part of my academic journey has been formative, and I continue to be shaped by the many different people with whom I speak and the books which I read. One particular moment, though, was taking a seminar on the history of science in my first year as a graduate student at UCLA. Understanding how scientific knowledge was historically constructed opened up a world of questions that I then wanted to apply to the Middle East.

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

Mobility, circulation, travel, etc. are the catchwords of our current methodology in the humanities and social sciences. For historians, this is usually expressed in the approaches of global history in comparison to the earlier methods of cultural or social history, and these methods and terminology are inescapable for scholars today. The majority of academics also assign a normative value to these words. We champion these qualities in our society today, and we aim to be cosmopolitan, hybrid global citizens that can move easily between cultures. In the past few years, there has been a marked reaction to those ideals, in the form of anti-globalist movements or worse. These ideals are important and we should uphold them, but not by clinging to them blindly, without any form of self-reflection or criticism. As always, there needs to be a balance, a bit of critical distance between our scholarly projects and the ideals we champion for own society.

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

I still believe that the best conferences I ever attended were the two winter school/summer schools funded by the Forum Transregionale Studien. These were 10-day conferences in various locales that allowed a true scholarly conversation to emerge over the course of multiple days. They were truly exceptional opportunities.


Citation: 5in10 Interview with Nir Shafir, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.05.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18591.


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