Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Book Recommendation: From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

by Salman Hameed

Actually, I want to make two recommendation. In December, I had a chance to read Pankaj Mishra's fantastic new book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia. It uses the Japanese defeat of the Russians in 1905 as a fulcrum to talk about the response of Asian intellectuals to 'Western' colonialism. Apart from a broad historical perspective of the epoch that was shaping the modern world, Mishra focuses on the intellectual odyssey of three influential writers: Jamal al-din Afghani (in Iran, India, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire), Liang Qichao (in China), and Rabindarnath Tagore (in India).

From the perspective of this blog, the long section of Afghani (1838-1897) would be of interest. He has been a bit of a mystery. His writings say different things in different places. But, apart from his Pan-Islamic movement, he is also responsible for creating the narrative of Islam and science narrative, arguing that Islam is a 'modern' religion and that science is essential for the progress of Muslims. However, he rejected evolution - at least in the 1880s, but his rejection was more aimed at Sayyid Ahmad Khan than an intellectual response to evolutionary biology. In fact, he changed his mind later and not only appropriated evolution by attributing it to medieval Muslim scholars, but by also calling Darwin "a mere specimen collector".

Mishra's book does not focus on Afghani's views on science or education, but it does a fantastic job of taking us around the world with him. Afghani must have been an amazingly charismatic guy. He managed to gain access to sultans, kings and the czars, while also fomenting popular uprisings in most of the places he went. His rate and span of travel is quite incredible for 19th century. But his writings can only make sense if we see them through the lens of his single-minded opposition to the British colonial rule (both direct and indirect). Mishra's section on Afghani is riveting as he takes us on an intellectual roller coaster ride with this fascinating character. Later he does the same with Liang Qichao and Tagore - but I think the Afghani section really stands out.

If you have a chance, do check out Mishra's book. Also read this fantastic review by Vijay Prashad: Under Eastern Skies.

But while I was reading this book, I was also listening to a Teaching Company course titled The Long 19th Century: European History from 1789 to 1917 by Prof. Robert Weiner. Now I'm a Teaching Company junkie, and have listened to over 30 of their courses. The bar is very very high, but I can still say that this is one of the best courses I have listened to (the three lecture set on Middle Ages by Prof. Philip Daileader also comes close to perfection).

What was really cool about this were the two different vantage points. Weiner's 36 lectures provided a detailed look into the making of the modern world from the European perspective, and Mishra's book complimented that view with the perceptions of those who were affected by European imperialism. I absolutely loved the combination. If you have a daily commute longer than 15 minutes, I would highly recommend The Long 19th Century, and reading Mishra's book, when not driving.



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