I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest. In so doing, the book transforms me, changes what I think. As a consequence, each new work profoundly changes the terms of thinking which I had reached with the previous work…When I write, I do it above all to change myself and not to think the same thing as before.
Michel Foucault in Remarks on Marx, 1981
I didn’t expect to discover something about myself today. I discovered something about the way that I communicate, write, and conduct my research. Foucault went on to say that in the beginning of a project, he never knows what the conclusion will be. Work is experience. This insight is something that Western academics rarely talk about. That is because there is this standard of removed and objective scholarship. But we all have something at stake in the production of knowledge.
We should have something at stake and be transformed by our work. Louis Brenner’s study of education reform in Mali, Controlling Knowledge shows us how traditional methods of Islamic education linked knowledge with practice. Knowledge was supposed to be implemented, knowledge was transformative, with every level of education from early Quranic school to higher Islamic sciences, students’ daily lives were changed. Now, people learn a subject without changing, or at least they imagine themselves to remain objective and removed from the subject. I think that Western orientations stress the mastery of knowledge and stockpiling information. It is like a hoarding of knowledge without applying it or using it effectively. Through modernizing reforms in Islamic education Western orientations have shaped Muslims and their approaches to knowledge. Knowledge is less linked to practice (praxis), and just knowing does not make one a better Muslim, let alone person.
But back to why I write. I write because I am wrestling with difficult issues. I don’t know the conclusion of my life will look like. I have so many questions and I’m not sure what to think about many things. But I know that I want to change and be better. I have often had a difficult time writing about the present, but have looked to the past–distant and recent. One of my primary interests has been the ways knowledge is passed on in the Muslim world, and how it is spread across space and through time. Often, as a historian, I am confronted with limitations of what can be known about people’s experiences. There is always the problem of evidence–skewed evidence and lack of evidence. We can barely talk to each other and understand the ways people now order their lives and make sense of their worlds. It seems like an impossible task to interpret fragments of evidence to get at the lived experiences of those who are long gone. I write because I don’t know what to think about those fragments in documentary evidence or those tales that were passed on in oral traditions. I write to make sense of those bits. It is a narrative, but is it fictional? Perhaps in a sense that it simplifies, creates analogies, comparisons, and connections that the people who lived in the past may not have seen. Yet, what was legible to them is not longer legible for me. Ultimately, I am subject to the whims of knowledge and what can be known.
With all the limitations of an impossible task, I am seeking knowledge, truth, and the reality of my lived experiences. If al-Haqq (Ultimate Reality and Truth) is infinite, then mere mortals can only grasp a finite sliver of Truth for an ephemeral moment. Postmodernists point argue that there is not a universal truth. Not one that we can fully grasp, at least.
Randomness, I know…The things an insominiac writes late at night.