Nabil Matar Wants to Change History

Professor of English Nabil Matar's research in Anglo-Islamic relations offers a different perspective on the early modern world--and hope for the present day.

Image of Nabil Matar
This October, Professor of English Nabil Matar celebrated the 25th anniversary of what he terms his "birthday"--the day his life began, again, after exactly six months in captivity during Lebanon's civil war. Then an associate professor at the American University of Beirut, Matar was abducted by members of an armed militia. Numerous American University faculty were kidnapped during the war; Matar was one of the lucky few to emerge alive.

The day after his release Matar was back at work, welcomed by the colleagues and students who together had shut down the University in protest after his kidnapping; but he would not be staying--the end of the war was not in sight (it would last four more years). He had been a scholar of seventeenth-century English religious poetry, trained at Cambridge University, but after his release his research interest would change dramatically. "I couldn't relate any longer," Matar recalls in a Lind Hall interview this fall, "to the kind of religious imagination that I had really admired in English poetry and prose. Spiritually, I changed. I could not keep my . . . " he pauses, locates the word, "soul in my work."

His parents had earlier immigrated to Florida, and Matar followed with his family. He began teaching in the Humanities Department at the Florida Institute of Technology. He continued to travel to England to do research. One day, another scholar suggested he visit the National Archives. "So I went, and I had no idea what to do." He laughs. "There are these catalogues, but there are no calendars. You just know that SP 71, Box 1, is about Algiers. And so I requested it. My God! There were these letters--I mean, just a rich, infinitely rich source. And that was just one box out of hundreds. These boxes had been sitting there for centuries. Nobody knew what was in there. It was great fun."

It was also, Matar rapidly discovered, a mission. His experiences in Beirut and in the United States had left him intensely interested in cross-cultural relations. He was fascinated by the spaces where the early modern Christian European and Muslim worlds came together: "good intersections, bad intersections, trying to interpret how they understood each other."

The interactions (then as now) included trade, war, travel, piracy: "One mode of catharsis is to try to study captivity," Matar shrewdly observes in a faculty video on the English website. "I discovered in England in the early modern period a vast amount of captivity literature of men . . . who were captured by North African corsairs, and after their release they wrote accounts. So. I turned to that with a vengeance.

"For me," he states, "to reconstruct that narrative was not going to be literal."

Image of Nabil MatarEventually Matar discovered that many British pirates had been operating in the Mediterranean, that there were Arabic accounts of European captivity. The deeper he went the more he discovered that his research was offering a wildly different perspective on the early modern world than what had been previously accepted. He published a book, Islam in Britain, 1558-1685 (Cambridge University Press, 1998), examining how the British viewed the Islamic world of the Mediterranean, and he had so much material he ended up writing a trilogy. Because of his fluency in Arabic, he decided to start a second trilogy from the other direction, uncovering the Islamic view of Europe.

Image of Nabil MatarThe second book in that series, Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578-1727 (Columbia University Press, 2009), received a rave review in the Times Higher Education Supplement, among others. "This book fills a huge gap in our understanding of the history of that period," the reviewer wrote. "What is presently available in abundance in Western libraries, via literature on Islam, Muslims and the Orient in general, is a resolutely Orientalist depiction of the East. . . . This is a study that breaks new ground in our understanding of the way Arabs were looking at Euro-Christians, and it is as ambitious and original as the title suggests."

Image of Nabil MatarMatar's passion for this material has made him a pioneer in the post-colonial study of early modern texts. In 2007, the University of Minnesota hired him away from the Florida Institute of Technology, where he'd served as English department head for 10 years, to be a Presidential Professor in the President's Interdisciplinary Initiative on Arts and Humanities. He could have chosen to be housed in History or Religious Studies, where he teaches regularly, but he settled on English. "My PhD is in English," he states firmly, "so I wanted to have my home in the English department."

It was a good deal for English, as then chair Paula Rabinowitz noted. Associate Professor and Graduate Studies Director Katherine Scheil concurs. "Nabil Matar has reshaped the way we think about the geography, politics, and culture of the early modern period," she relates. "His work on early modern travelers, traders, and captives has opened new avenues of study, not only because he has provided the first English translation of several seventeenth-century Arabic travel narratives, but also because of his astute and compelling analysis of the religious, political, and cultural importance of these texts. It is no accident that Nabil Matar is in high demand around the world as a scholar, and we are lucky to have him here in Minnesota."

Matar has found the University and the Twin Cities a generative, stimulating environment. He is very impressed with the writing abilities of his undergraduates and the research skills of his graduate students. Since he's arrived here, he's published two books and has at least five projects in the works. A casual chat with colleagues in Anthropology and Religious Studies led to a conference proposal that received a $170,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; last February, "Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in the Arts and Sciences" drew panelists from across the world to explore how Muslim contributions to literature, science, art, and architecture influenced those disciplines in the West. (The best part of the conference, Matar says, was the reaction of his undergraduates, who were able to witness the sometimes fiery interactions between presenters.) Finally, also in February, Matar was awarded College of Liberal Arts Scholar of the College recognition for 2011-14.

Cover image of Britain and the Islamic WorldHis most recent book, published this past summer, represents his first collaborative work: Britain and the Islamic World: 1558-1713 (Oxford University Press) was co-authored with Gerald MacLean, from the University of Exeter. "We agreed that we wanted to do a book together covering the whole Islamic world," Matar recalls in his British-accented English. "He's more interested in Indian and Persian history, so we said we complement each other. But you need a thesis. As I was reading the material from India, I realized it's a very different history at work, a very different impact in terms of what that history leaves. And it struck me it would be interesting to see how it played out if you can divide [the Islamic world] in three parts: the western Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire, and the Persian and Indian lands. Each region had a different history [with Britain]."

It may surprise some readers to learn that, at the beginning of the period, England was the desperate supplicant, applying to the powerful Ottoman Empire for favor in trade and strategic alliance. The authors stress that British expansion into the world was economically driven. Only the "needy and greedy," as Matar terms it, would risk life and limb as pirate, soldier, trader. "If you're English in 1600, 1700, 1800, your country, the resources are limited. You have to leave. You leave into a world that's completely alien to you. This idea that people go for adventure--I absolutely hate that," he confesses, shaking his head. "Give me a break. These are people living in places that were quite dangerous. Algiers is an outpost. And here are these English guys, later they bring their families, but initially on their own with a couple of servants, and they're trying to manage really the beginnings of trade. So very heroic in one respect. But nobody seems to bother with these people. And all that corpus of writing, I think it might be very important, because it gives a different angle to the understanding of Anglo-Islamic relations."

Cover image of Europe through Arab EyesThe flipside, of course, is the relative disinterest within the Ottoman Empire during that period in exploring Europe. Matar not surprisingly has a different take on that situation than previous scholars, who often insinuated some inherent laziness or complacency. "If you're a Moroccan in 1600, you could travel and work very easily all the way to Bosnia, to Iraq, to Surat," he exclaims. "The whole world is open to you . . . especially if you're literate, you're educated. Most biographies we have--if not all, and they're in the thousands--these are educated people. It is incredible the amount of mobility there was there. Obviously it was not always safe--but essentially you didn't have to fight anyone, you didn't have to eradicate populations, you didn't have to change your language, you didn't have to change your religious habits. And that's why they never bothered with Europe. That's a major difference I see: different momentum for different reasons."

Matar and MacLean's book also throws into high relief societal differences in religious tolerance. As Matar notes, in this period the largest indigenous Christian population outside of Western Europe was under the Ottomans. And Judaism, protected as a monotheistic tradition by Qur'anic law, had active communities in North Africa and the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, in England, Christians vied against Christians for supremacy (and took prisoners): Catholic against Protestant, Anglican against Puritan. Jews were banished from 1290 to 1650. Muslims were mocked and caricatured. For his third book in his current trilogy, Arabs and Europeans in the Mediterranean, Matar has immersed himself in the writings of Christian Arabs under the Ottoman Empire, an enormous amount of material. "Historically," he says firmly, "there was a major difference in approach to the 'other.'"

Cover image of Islam in BritainBut before he can concentrate on that work, he must finish other projects. Matar looks at commonalities across religious experience in his next publication, a collection of essays on travel to the Holy Land in the early modern period which he is co-editing with University of Tampa Professor Judy Hayden (Brill, 2012). "Basically I want to examine what the concept of holiness means," he says. "We're looking at it from different angles: French, English, Christian, Muslim, Jewish." He has been consumed ("but I'm always consumed!" he jokes) by another forthcoming title, an edition of Henry Stubbe's Original & Progress of Mahometanism, the first European text to acknowledge Muhammad as Islamic Prophet (rather than "imposter") and to offer a full account of his life. "The text to me is perhaps the most important I've worked on," Matar claims.

"It was a text I taught the first year that I was here," he remembers. "We had an edition that was produced, literally, a hundred years ago. I realized that this Henry Stubbe had read Arabic material in Latin, so there's something for me to explore, because the English-Arabic-Latin triangle is fascinating. And again nothing has been done on that. That's why the introduction keeps growing." He shakes his head, amused at where his enthusiasms takes him. "And I haven't even started on the notes! Which are all ecclesiastic material--which I love!"

Cover image of Lands of the ChristiansMatar has another edited volume in the works, an edition of three early modern English plays featuring Muslim women. Finally, he just submitted another proposal, for a book on captivity in the early modern period. Matar freely admits that captivity has risen as a theme in nearly every book he's written. In his first trilogy he wrote about the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century campaigns of English wives to obtain their captive husbands' release--in part an acknowledgment of what he calls the "miraculous" effort of his former wife in securing his freedom. This new work may be his last word on the subject: It's a list, compiled over 10 years of research, of English captives held in North Africa, aiming to debunk scholarship claiming up to a million Christian captives, scholarship used to demonize Muslims and Arabs. "Obviously there will always be names that I don't have," Matar says. "But what I've done is write a very long introduction, basically raising the issue--how do you evaluate numbers, what do you do with them?--and providing the history of captivity from that perspective. And then really looking at it in terms of what the English were doing. These captives were not just innocent people; some were, of course, but a lot of them were soldiers, some were pirates, you know!"

Back and forth he ranges. From Tangiers to London, from history to literature, from Christian to Muslim, back and forth. "It's the impact of my family and my home community," describes the Palestinian born and raised in Lebanon, "that I grew up relating to two religions, very intensely." In Florida, Matar was convinced to teach an introduction to Islam; he also authored the popular book Islam for Beginners. "I could speak the two religions, independently and together," he observes. "And that's what I still do: how can you bring them together?

"It's an obsession. My sons always say, 'Why do you keep working?'" He laughs delightedly. "I love the sense of discovery. Also, I'm a missionary, by my very nature. I have a mission for this work: I want to bring awarenesses together. I don't think I'm going to bring people together. But if history can be a model, we can look back and say, 'You know, there's a different way of relating.' Hopefully." He pauses. "I don't know," he says, smiling ruefully, his eyes suddenly focused elsewhere. "I don't know."



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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Sutton published on December 6, 2011 12:01 PM.

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