"I was afraid we have lost it forever until a team of young Mosulis preserved it. Court records of Ottoman and post-Ottoman Mosul." @MosulEye

Poetry (al-shiir) is the archive (al-diwan) of Arabs…

— Ibn Faris (d. 394)¹

Oriental nations are no longer able to take care of their own literary treasures. This is not owing to a want of veneration for them but to apathy and imbecility. If you describe to them the telegraph or a steamer, they may be heard saying: “we observed since many years that the Franks لعنهم الله purchase every old book they can find, and these are the fruits of their study of our literature. But الله اكبر عليهم (Anglice) God will d—n them all the same”. I once sent my servant at Damascus to return a book which had been lent to me. He was a Christian of mount Libanon [sic] and as he passed through the bazar, two zealous champions of the Islam assailed him and administered to him a sound thrashing for profaning the sacred volume (it was a history) by his touch. Yet they allow their books to rot, to be devoured by insects and destroyed by neglect, though a Moslim [sic] never willfully rears up a book. Even the best informed among the men of the old school take a very erroneous view of their own literature: they value only the latest and vilest productions of scholastic learning. As a general rule they place no value on old books and generally on works containing facts, and take little pains to preserve them, their destruction therefore proceeds with great rapidity. In some oriental towns you find bags and bags of odd leaves of the most valuable volumes, which if complete would give occupation to a learned society of Europe for a quarter of a century. Under these circumstances the duty of taking care of the patrimony of out eastern brethren devolves upon the enlightened public of Europe, and every man who finds an opportunity ought to secure as many good books as he can.

Aloys Sprenger (1857)²

Due to the stinginess of [book-collection] owners and superintendents, on one hand, and the unreliability of book borrowers, on the other, [books] remain locked behind iron doors, left at the mercy of moth and consumed by dust. What is the use of so many books if no one reads them?

Butrus al-Bustani (1859)³

Governments in both India and Pakistan have demanded the restitution of the Queen’s gaudy diamond—a claim needing to be publicly rejected as recently as February 2013 by a sitting British prime minister on a visit to India—but so far as I know there is no record of any state in the subcontinent showing any interest in the restitution of the Mughal library. 

— Aamir Mufti (2016)  

In her encyclopedic study of Urdu women’s writing in early twentieth century India, the historian Gail Minault registered an archival problem: “To find women’s newspapers and journals… requires assiduous detective work… [this study] represents not only the usual methods of historical and literary research, but also a personal odyssey of discovery.”⁵ In a great service to future historians, Minault noted the specific libraries and archives where she located each periodical she read. Besides the usual scholarly repositories, these places included private homes and second-hand bookshops across India and Pakistan. Consequently, very little of her research took place in that clearinghouse of South Asian historiography, London. As is now well known, Europe’s stockpiling of Oriental reading material was part and parcel of its imperial practice in India and elsewhere. These archives in Europe’s capitals are well-organized, relatively well-funded, and—for researchers in the Global North—easily accessible (though thanks to admirable if not ironic digitization efforts, like the British Library’s Endangered Archives Project, some of the same magazines Minault located are now available to be read in high resolution online). 

Far too often “imperial,” “global,” “international,” and “world” histories rest exclusively on these archives of empire. But what is left behind? Where do the reading practices and scholarly institutions of philologists and archivists outside of Europe fit into theories and critiques of “world literature” and “world history”? What, for example, do we make of Khuda Bakhsh’s library? In the late nineteenth century, Bakhsh, a barrister in the provincial northern Indian city of Patna had on his payroll an Arab by the name of Muhammad Maqi. Paid 50 rupees a month plus commission, Maqi traveled across West Asia collecting manuscripts for his patron. “The reminiscences of this Arab seeker after books,” one enchanted colonial observer suggested about Maqi, “had they been written with fidelity, might now be reckoned amongst the most lively and entertaining of personal memoirs.”⁷ Today, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library is a treasure trove of rare manuscripts sought by researchers from around the world. The Bengali historian Jadunath Sarkar, whose own controversial accounts of the Mughal Empire relied largely on documents and manuscripts housed in India itself, wrote that the Bakhsh’s “was one of the greatest authorities on Islamic bibliography.”⁸ In our accounts of collection and preservation, room must be made for histories that depart from the purportedly scientific and the perennially white. "One night," Khuda Baksh, recounted: 

I dreamt that the lane near the Library was filled with a dense crowd of people. When I came out of my house they cried out, 'The Prophet is on a visit to your library, and you are not there to show him round.' I hastened to the manuscript room and found him gone. But there were two manuscripts of the Hadis, lying open upon the table. These, the people said, had been read by The Prophet.  

Today, according to Sarkar, these volumes contain a note that they are never to be removed from the library. Bakhsh also shared a close relationship to that vast network of Orientalists in Europe. Indeed many non-Europeans, as the proceedings of the many International Orientalist Congresses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can attest, corresponded, assisted, and translated the work of Europe’s Arabists and Indologists. In Beirut, the Jesuit philologist Louis Cheikho, known best for his efforts to document the Christian presence in the history of the Arabic language, was another non-European whose impact on Orientalism as a discipline is undeniable if often unacknowledged. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Cheikho went to India in search of manuscripts for his own collection. On his final day in Bombay he connected with one Sheik Shirazi, “the biggest book-dealer in India… the King of Books,” from whom he purchased more than a hundred books and manuscripts.10 Many of these manuscripts were in Persian and today remain housed in Beirut’s Bibliothèque Orientale. Or what of the library of the American University of Beirut? Founded as Syrian Protestant College in 1866, the university’s library constitutes one of the most important collections of modern Arab thought. By virtue of its place and age, the library was a subscriber to many of the Arab world’s most important periodicals from their inception. None of the above-mentioned institutions emerged out of state-patronage and their collections—like those of London, Paris, and Washington D.C.—are clearly part of a global history of ideas. If we follow the making of these collections closely and survey their content, an intellectual history is revealed that is not readily encountered in Europe’s storehouses of conquest, plunder, and theft. For the West, the East—or South—was not a place of living ideas. Its intellectual history, if it had one at all, was confined to its ancient past. The printed matter of the modern Arab or Indian or Chinese mind was simply the bearer of sedition and rebellion or a vehicle for propaganda and profit, never an arena of theory or thinking. Therefore, to write a new history of these ideas, a new archive must be raised. How to raise this new archive, much of it now decaying in Third World libraries that are themselves crumbling under the conditions of structural readjustment or withering away thanks to a growing chauvinist disregard for particular pasts, is the task before us.


1 Cited in: Ignác Goldziher, “The Arabic Tribes and Islam,” in S.M. Stern, ed., Muslim Studies (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2006) 49.  

2 Aloys Sprenger, A Catalogue of the Bibliotheca Orientalis Sprengeriana (Giessen: Wilhem Keller, 1857) v.  

3 Cited in: Ami Ayalon, The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 115.  

4 Aamir Mufti, Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literitures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016) 46.

5 Gail Minault, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998) 106.

6 Jadunath Sarkar, “Khuda Bakhsh, The Indian Bodley,” The Modern Review 4:3 (1908) 249. Reprinted in slightly expanded and edited form in, Sarkar, Studies in Mughal India (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1920) 270-281. For more on the making of the library, the origins of which lie in the book collection of Muhammad Bakhsh, Khuda’s father, see: S. Khuda Bakhsh, My Father: His Life and Reminiscences (Calcutta: The Baptist Mission Press, 1909) and chapter six of David Boyk’s carefully researched dissertation “Provincial Urbanity: Intellectuals and Public Life in Patna, 1880-1930” (Ph.D Dissertation, UC Berkeley, 2015).  

7 V.C. Scott O’Conner, An Eastern Library (Glasgow: Robert Maclehose & Co. Ltd., 1920) 7.

8 Ibid. 247, For more on Sarkar, particularly his own efforts to collect historical documents, see: Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Sarkar’s method was tied to his own cultural nationalism, exemplified by his comment that “India cannot afford to remain an intellectual pariah, beggar for crumbs at the doors of Oxford or Cambridge, Paris or Vienna,” quoted in Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012) 10.

9 Sarkar, “Khuda Bakhsh,”249.

10 Louis Cheikho, “Min Bayrut ila al-Hind,” al-Mashriq 16 (1913) 265.

Esmat Elhalaby
Rice University


Anti-Communist handbill distributed by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham in the 1930s

My main concern, however, is that Europeans sometimes provide Americans inappropriate, or should I say incomplete, models. In my field of labor history, for example, the enormous contributions of European styles of analysis must be balanced against their silence on fundamental facts of American history: the existence of race as a potent social and economic category and the relationship between race and class. It is true that Europeans like Comte Joseph de Gobineau invented the scholarship of racism in the late eighteenth century, but until quite recently race has not figured as an important theme in European social thought. In the United States, however, race and labor have gone hand in hand ever since the institutionalization of slavery.
Despite the salience of race and racism in American history, they have been difficult for American historians who were not black to confront. (Genocide, gays and lesbians, and, of course, women also have long histories of oversight. These are topics that have been, as the French would say, "occultes.") The civil rights movement and the concomitant black studies movement would have seemed to have ended the silence on race: Most certainly the field of African-American studies has grown tremendously, with many of its most active participants being non-black scholars. Yet the very vigor of African-American studies provided historians of labor a pretext for continuing to produce lily-white analyses—race, they could say, belonged exclusively to black studies. Turning their backs on African- American studies, many labor historians took the further step of embracing paradigms from European history that seemed more sophisticated theoretically than American analyses but that have disregarded race.          
The result has been an outpouring of interesting yet flawed labor history that pretends that non-black workers are not affected by the existence of a workforce segmented by race. Although they know that non- black as well as black workers have been affected by racism in this country, labor historians sometimes only admit to this fact when the question is put to them directly. They often prefer to wrap themselves in fashionable Europeanisms and to write as though their favorite, northern, European- American workers lived out destinies divorced from matters of slavery and racism, as though, say, Chartism meant more in the history of the American working class than slavery.

With such struggles over American labor historiography in mind, confess the fear of having to start all over again with historians of women. My nightmare is that this Annales article [“Culture et pouvoir des femmes : essai d'historiographie” the subject of discussion in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Women’s History, in which this essay appears], with the customary European blindness to matters of race, will play the E. P. Thompson role in women's history, with historians of women adopting the myopia along with the genius of European thought.

Perhaps things ought also to be going the other way around. As we read them, French scholars should be consulting Americans who recognize the importance of race, for late-twentieth-century European populations, including the French, now include large numbers of southern-European, Arab, and African working-class immigrants. A glance at French newspapers reveals the popularity of demagogues like Jacques Le Pen, whose xenophobia has begun to alert Europeans to the power of race right there at home. Le Pen is the best-known racist now active in Europe, but the continent is full of racists and proto-racists of the sort who are familiar to Americans. It would be a pity if European historians remained blind to the importance of the relationship of race and class in their own societies, several of which were imperialist, continuing instead their traditional pre-occupation with peasants and shopkeepers of European ethnic backgrounds.
Nell Irvin Painter, “French Theories in American Settings: Some Thoughts on TransferabilityJournal of Women's History 1:1 (1989)
Marx wrote somewhere that literary scholars make their own canon. But, he said, they do not make it just as they please, but rather under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. This dictum seems unexceptionable, stressing as it does a particular kind of historical determinacy. Yet, what it does not clarify is the ideological orientation Marx was gesturing toward. The "past" is always a selected phenomenon, arranged for class usage. The past conditioning canons—their discussion, implementation, pedagogy, or other uses—is always an ideologically conditioned version of events and occurrences gone by.

In recent United States literary study, Marx's insight—like other considerations of history—has been pointedly ignored in pursuit of theory. Rather than looking to either the immediate or distant past of the United States to arrive at useful observations on such matters as the founding rhetoric and representational practices of, say, Colonial America or questions of canons and canonicity in the New World, United States literary scholars have bent their best attention toward theory. In their discussions, theory has been both a covering term for literary study in general and, I believe, a disguise of sorts. It has allowed scholars to avoid a self-conscious perspective on their specific historical situation in the United States and the active implications and imperatives of such a situation.

The stance taken by United States scholars has, more often than not, been that implied by Isaac D'Israeli in his 1791 essay "Literary Fashions": "prose and verse have been regulated by the same caprice that cuts our coats and cocks our hats." Whirled around by the whirligig of theoretical taste, United States literary scholars have recently been concerned only with next fall's fashionable theoretical line rather than with history. It would be fair to say, I think, that "theory" has implied—especially in its poststructuralist manifestations—an ideological and sometimes willed blindness to any version of the past that suggests real events, actual human bodies or a responsibility to such phenomena on the part of literary scholars themselves.        

In this essay I look specifically at the embodied and actual past of the United States, summoning for sight and hearing rhetorics that imply a promised canonical body described neither by the term "dismantling" (as in taking apart existing canons) nor "replacement" (as in a liberal substitution of Invisible Man for Henderson the Rain King). To set such a uniquely American historical and scholarly scene, I suggest immediately that the most impressive sound in the domain of United States canon formation during recent decades was that of tens of thousands of Civil Rights marchers singing "We shall not, we shall not be moved / Just like a tree that's planted by the waters / We shall not be moved.”

The song is a metonym for historical and radical African American energies that exploded like TNT on the American scene. It is a name for the resonant topsy-turvydom that marked every walk of American life in recent decades. A dramatic social initiative was seized and overseen by Black Americans during the 1960s and 1970s and preeminent in this initiative were questions of canons and canon formation-questions, that is, of binding contractual cultural texts, the production and reproduction of culture, and cultural axiology.

And when Black Power and the Black Arts Movement in combination with the Black Aesthetic found their way (under the aegis of Black Studies) onto the stage of the American academy, the black initiative became a reality for every student, woman, or man-every secretary, security guard, resident advisor, professor, or administrator. If the Black Power epoch was tragically short-lived (I believe the window of opportunity opened for no more than a decade-from  assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.), it nonetheless dramatically altered long-standing modes of literary creative and literary critical understanding. It seems appropriate, therefore, in any discussion of canons, to emphasize a United States situation. To do so we might look first at that New World interaction of actual black and white bodies and historical conjunctions that wrote themselves in unique ways during the eighteenth century.

Houston Baker Jr., “The Promised Body: Reflections on Canon in an Afro-American Context,” Poetics Today 9:2 (1988).