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His concern with the region followed from tragedy: He is from a military family, and his twin brother was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. What began as a focus on contemporary foreign policy has evolved into an astonishingly wide-ranging set of interests. “I’m weird,” he told me. “I’ve been on a whole little journey. Before I started school I planned to be a Catholic priest, and had done a lot of studies in theology. Then I had an identity crisis, and became an atheist, and then a Muslim. I have a B.A. and an M.A. in philosophy, a B.A. in near-Eastern studies, and I was teaching political science for a while. What I’m most known for today is my quantitative empirical work, but I have a deep interest and background in social theory as well.”
Al-Gharbi’s recently published article in Socius, “People of the Book: Empire and Social Science in the Islamic Commonwealth Period,” draws on all of these interests to describe the emergence, in the late Middle Ages, of a distinctively Islamic social science. Geared toward non-experts, the essay introduces readers to the psychologist al-Razi, the sociologist al-Farabi (“perhaps the first to articulate a robust social-construction theory”), the anthropologist al-Biruni, and the historian and polymath Ibn Khaldun.
I spoke with al-Gharbi about his new paper, ISIS, postcolonialism, and the book he’s working on now.
What’s your big claim about empire and the social sciences?
There’s a lot of work on the relationship between science and empire, and the relationship between social science and empire in particular. While these works are often interesting and enlightening, there are two tendencies in the literature that trouble me — and limit our understanding of the relationships in question.
First, virtually all of the work exploring the history of empire and social science is focused on one case: the “modern” Western empires and “modern” Western social science. Even studies looking at, say, Russia or Japan, still tend to focus on the modern time period, and how people in these other cultural contexts engaged with Western empires and Western social thought. This makes it difficult to generalize much about the relationship between empire and social science — because almost all the work is premised on variations of the same case.
There is also a tendency for authors to take things that they don’t like about contemporary social science and attribute those things’ origins to empire. Obviously, there must be things these authors like, and find valuable, about social science — these essays are usually composed by people who are, themselves, social scientists. Yet it’s virtually never the case that authors will trace some part of the enterprise they like to imperial or colonial origins. Instead, scholars identify some aspect of contemporary social science as problematic, and then explain how the methods, frameworks, or norms in question have their origins in colonial or imperial regimes.
So you’re objecting to a kind of morality play about the origin of the social sciences.
Yes. I find that frustrating. Another thing I find dissatisfying is that, because some of the classic scholars in the Western social sciences are associated with colonial and imperial regimes that are typically viewed as oppressive, depraved and exploitative — and because these scholars are mostly white men to boot — there’s a hunger to look toward scholars hailing from other historical or cultural contexts as alternatives. On the one hand, that’s great. But a lot of this work is highly idealistic.
For instance, some of the works I cited, although excellent papers, depict people like Ibn Khaldun as a kind of alternative to imperial social science. That’s a wild way to understand Ibn Khaldun, because he was very much dedicated to helping ensure that his social order flourished and reproduced. He was deeply enmeshed in the power struggles of his day. He was no less an imperial scholar than any of the Westerners that get condemned. And if you read some of his remarks about, say, Black people, let’s just say he was far from woke by contemporary standards. Yet all of that tends to be glossed over or interpreted in a charitable way, even as Western scholars are condemned for espousing similar views, or for similarly supporting the imperial regimes they were part of. This kind of asymmetry frustrates me.
Finally, a lot of this literature is too focused on the modern West. There’s very little effort to understand alternatives in their own terms, without reference to “us.” There’s a narcissism.
And yet you do say, Look, here are these four major Islamic figures, each of whom can be understood roughly as founders of fields analogous to our own traditions of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and history, respectively.
Yeah, there was definitely a tension there, in making things accessible to people in a radically different historical and cultural context while preserving the distinctiveness of these alternatives. This made writing complex. Especially for a generalist journal, one can’t take for granted a lot of background in the culture and history of Islam. A lot of world-building had to go into the essay on the front end. And then there’s translation work. So, for instance, ilm al-nafs could be translated as the “science of the psyche.” But “psyche” as understood in the Muslim context of that time is more complicated, and a bit different, than just saying “the mind.” It’s difficult to unpack all of that while still making the broader arguments that the paper is trying to make. So for convenience’s sake, you have to rely on the frameworks people understand, while also drawing attention to the fact that this way of talking — “psychology” — is a way of getting the gist across, but the enterprise these people were participating in was also importantly different in many respects from what we understand as “psychology” in the contemporary West.
The social sciences for these purposes are value-neutral attempts at describing human social interactions objectively. That objectivity is a prized good even when these sciences unfold in the context of some overarching value framework, like Islam. Is that a fair definition?
The criteria I laid out in the paper was “systematic, theoretically informed, and empirically oriented or historically grounded scholarship on social dynamics, structures, or relationships.” That kind of work isn’t something only done in the “modern” West. Nor is it the case that people like Ibn Khaldun or al-Razi were historical aberrations who somehow possessed these values or norms before they became popular — that they’re unique geniuses in this regard. There was a whole architecture there, institutions and norms, a rich exchange among scholars, whole fields of inquiry dedicated to understanding society in a systematic way, focused on particular dimensions, using particular methods and frameworks.
And those networks involved things like peer review, maybe for the first time in human history.
Right. It wasn’t as if Ibn Khaldun dropped from heaven or something. Part of the goal of the paper was to draw attention beyond the individual cases, to contextualize these in terms of the broader Islamic social-science enterprise.
You have two comparative scenes here, the Arab Islamic world in the late Middle Ages — a period of substantial Arab imperial activity — and then Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, obviously a period of massive imperial expansion in the West. On the basis of these comparative cases, are you willing to risk a theoretical statement about the relationship between empire and the social sciences? Do the social sciences require at some level a centralized and expanding state?
I don’t know if they require it. I do think that the needs those kinds of social configurations have — administration, legitimation, and so on — lead them to invest in or respect this kind of work. A certain set of incentives arise for people who are proximal to power — and most of the scholars who are discussed in this paper were social elites, concerned about the viability of their regimes.
So I think there’s a relationship there. I don’t think that that’s the only way that social science can happen, but I suspect that if you look at other contexts you’ll see the same kinds of rapid state expansion or rapid geographical expansion — with the attendant social unrest and tensions, legitimacy squabbles, etc. That’s my hypothesis.
That said, one of the things I try to underline is that we actually have surprisingly limited understanding of these very questions, about the relationship between regimes of power within society and regimes of knowledge about society, because so much of the literature has been focused on this one case, the “modern” West.
This is published in Socius, but it’s essentially a work of comparative intellectual history, and draws on a stunning range of fields.
It’s a paper I’ve been tooling with for a long time, that went through various iterations as I myself evolved. When I was still a philosopher I was doing some stuff on al-Farabi’s translations of The Republic into Arabic, and his exegesis of this text. But then, when I shifted to sociology, I was reading something by Weber, where he describes science as sui generis to the West. While other people in other contexts may have been grasping toward science, or pantomiming science, “real” science was a product of the West, and of its particular history, values, and culture. I remember reading that and thinking, “What are you talking about? Muslims invented much of this stuff first!”
There was a whole genre in the ‘70s and ‘80s devoted to understanding Islamic contributions to the social sciences. I cite many of these works in my paper. As far as I can tell, my essay may be the first, especially in the English language, providing a systematic overview of the Islamic imperial social-science enterprise per se. However, a lot of other work was focused on particular scholars and their contributions to particular fields. Basically, highlighting how Islamic scholars anticipated many ideas or methods that came to define Western science, or social science.
Social scientists rarely ascribe anything that they actually like about social science to empire.
That was my aspiration at first too, to rebut Weber. But then I came to realize that essays like these concede too much, in a sense. Muslim scholars are described as significant or valuable insofar as they can be shown to have some connection to “modern” social science as it developed in the West. I decided there wasn’t a lot of value in reinforcing that kind of narrative.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were also people thinking through what a “modern” Islamic social science might look like. I think that second question is genuinely interesting. But I don’t think the answer to that question would be to say, “Well, what can Ibn Khaldun’s work teach us about Trump voters?” You can’t just apply these historical Muslim scholars directly to contemporary issues. And contemporary formulations of an Islamic social science shouldn’t be hagiographic. They should recognize the problems and limitations of the scholars they respect, and also how the problem space has evolved over the last several centuries. They should also celebrate and build upon what’s good in mainstream social science rather than simply highlighting its crimes and shortcomings.
Your work sits at an interesting angle in relation to debates about postcoloniality and decolonization.
A lot of the postcolonial literature takes the prevailing Orientalist narrative and just reverses the signs on everything. Things that before were described as constructive and beneficent on the part of the West are now described as evil and exploitative, but the picture of the world remains roughly the same in both cases. Virtually all agency is still with whites, with powerful people. If you ask certain scholars, “How did ISIS come about?” they’ll talk about Sykes-Picot carving up the Middle East into arbitrary states, they’ll talk about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, U.S. meddling in Syria — and it’s not that those narratives are wrong per se. But they’re definitely incomplete. They’re focused exclusively on elites in the West, in Europe, in America. There’s no point in the story where some ordinary Iraqi or Syrian picks up a gun, and aims it at somebody else, and willfully pulls the trigger. When non-Westerners appear in the story at all, they’re like motes of dust being blown around by the “real” actors. That’s profoundly condescending, and it’s not really a picture of the world that’s any different than the imperial one in terms of who has agency and power.
And it’s impoverished if you’re hoping to provide a causal account of ISIS.
Absolutely. This is part of my dissatisfaction with some of the work on empire and social science too, which goes back to the original point: Social scientists rarely ascribe anything that they actually like about social science to empire. Because, implicitly, if it were derivative of empire, it would be understood as illegitimate in some way. This, to me, is bizarre.
The truth of the matter is that empires come into power for complex reasons. They’re able to persist for complex reasons. And their legacies are complex too. Not everything that an empire does is evil and bad or wrong and needs to be torn down or whatever — you have to get into the nuances of these legacies.
Scholars are willing to do this with respect to, say, Islamic empires — in part by apparently failing to recognize imperial scholars as imperial scholars. But there is a double standard in the ways contemporary researchers often talk about Islamic or other non-Western empires as compared to those from the West. They really should be understood more symmetrically.
This is true not just of empires but of the disempowered, the marginalized, the subaltern as compared to people from the dominant group. You can’t just reverse the signs on the prevailing narrative, such that the people from the dominant group are understood as bad, arrogant, and exploitative, while “others,” by contrast, are noble, wise and pure. History is full of formerly subaltern groups taking power and proving themselves to be every bit as depraved as the people they overthrew. And this is the point: People are complicated. Societies, even more so.
And this goes back to your critique of the moral melodrama that a lot of scholars seem increasingly attracted to. But I wonder if part of the problem is that when you do get people pushing back on some of the more hypercritical narratives, the people doing the pushback are often reactionaries — though they wouldn’t describe themselves that way, obviously. You end up with a binary worldview where the people who claim to be introducing nuance are frank apologists for empire.
To go back to the example of ISIS: Part of the reason that people tell a story of ISIS that completely removes any agency from the people of the Middle East or Muslims is because there is a constellation of actors that is very keen to describe ISIS as resulting from pathologies unique to Islam, and to portray Islam as a danger that will destroy the West.
The culture-war stuff just rots the brain. You end up with these extreme pictures of the world that circulate almost exclusively among people already predisposed to believe them.
However, if you’re concerned about empowering people from marginalized or disadvantaged groups, or elevating perspectives that have been ignored, then there’s actually an urgency to getting this stuff right, to having a more nuanced understanding. It’s important to have a good grasp on the relationships between regimes of knowledge and regimes of power. Otherwise, you can be in a situation — the one we often find ourselves in now — in which people who proclaim themselves champions of the marginalized or disadvantaged don’t seem particularly interested in what the people who they’re trying to empower actually think about the world.
Tell me about the book you’re working on.
It’s called We Have Never Been Woke: Social Justice Discourse, Inequality, and the Rise of a New Elite, forthcoming with Princeton University Press.
At its core, the book is about changes in society that occurred as a result of the shift to what you could call the “knowledge economy”; it’s about the people who make their living by manipulating data, symbols, and information, who have become increasingly prominent and influential in recent decades. They have certain legitimizing narratives that justify their role: why they should be the ones who are entrusted with power, why other people who have power are terrible and should be overthrown. The book traces the rise of that group, looks at the narratives they use to legitimize themselves, and then explores the extent to which those narratives correspond to reality.
And in many instances, they don’t. When you look at who benefits the most from systemic inequality, it’s not the people in Trump country, for the most part. It’s people who live in places like New York or D.C., especially those affiliated with the knowledge professions. They’re the ones who are the winners in the prevailing order — and by “they” I mean we.
To give a concrete example: At a different stage of my life, I subscribed to the banal liberal understanding, that a lot of people I’m surrounded by still believe, with respect to who the “bad guys” are: Those damn Republicans! If only people here in podunk Arizona could be more like the people of enlightened New York, then God, what a beautiful country this could be!
And I had already shed a lot of this in previous years — but the vestiges that were left got destroyed when I arrived in Manhattan. One of the first things that stood out to me is that there’s a racialized caste system here that everyone takes for granted. You have disposable servants who will clean your house, watch your kids, walk your dogs, deliver food to you. Someone goes shopping for you and delivers it to your house. There’s this army of disposable, vulnerable, desperate people — mostly minorities and immigrants and disproportionately women — from particular racial and ethnic groups, while people from other racial and ethnic groups are the ones being served. And this is basically taken for granted in New York, that this is the way society operates.
And yet, the way things are in liberal bastions like L.A. or Chicago — this is not how things are in many other parts of the country. Most other places, the person buying a pair of shoes and the person selling them are likely to be the same race — white — and the gaps between the buyer and the seller are likely to be much smaller. Even the most sexist or bigoted rich white person in many other contexts wouldn’t be able to exploit women and minorities the same way as the typical liberal professional in a city like Seattle or New York; the infrastructure simply isn’t there. It’s these progressive bastions associated with the knowledge economy that have these well-oiled machines for casually exploiting the vulnerable, desperate and disadvantaged. And it’s largely Democratic-voting professionals who take advantage of them.
Where does Trumpism come in?
A few months after I arrived at Columbia, Trump won. I expected this to happen, but for most people, that was not the expectation. So here at Columbia, the day after Trump won, a lot of the students claimed to be so traumatized that they couldn’t do tests or homework. They needed time off. Now there are two things striking about that to me.
First, these are students at an Ivy League school, overwhelmingly people from wealthy backgrounds — and even if they don’t come from wealth, they’re likely to leave well-positioned. These are elite schools — schools designed to cultivate elites.
So even in their own self-narratives about what the impact of the election would be — the poor and vulnerable would be crushed underfoot while elites became even more well-off — guess what: We’re the elites! Realistically speaking, we’re the type of people who stand to benefit from someone like Trump. We certainly shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as the little guy. But there seemed to be strikingly little recognition of these realities. Instead, many students seemed to view themselves as somehow uniquely vulnerable to Trump and his regime, as being especially threatened or victimized. And so they demanded all of these accommodations for themselves.
Meanwhile, there was this whole other constellation of people around them who seemed to be literally invisible to them.
The people doing all the work on the campus.
Yes! The landscapers, the people serving food, the security guards, the janitors. There was not one thought for them. And these were the people, according to the prevailing narratives, who stood to lose the most from Trump’s victory. They are disproportionately immigrants and minorities. Yet the students didn’t begin by demanding that those people need a day off, higher pay, better benefits or protections, etc. They were focused on themselves.
Nor were these ignored laborers — the people with the most at stake in this election — saying they needed time off because they were too traumatized. They showed up to work the next day and did their jobs. They weren’t making a scene, sobbing as they scrubbed rich kids’ mess out of the toilets. The juxtaposition was sobering. And I want to be clear, I’m not picking on Columbia students here. When I left campus, walking around the Upper West Side, or other affluent parts of Manhattan, similar scenes were playing out. Nor was New York City unique in this regard. Other knowledge economy hubs had similar scenes playing out. And the same drama that was playing out in Columbia was unfolding at colleges and universities across the country.
This is precisely what I found so troubling, so difficult to shake off: It wasn’t about my own school. It was about this broader disjuncture between knowledge-economy elites, their narratives about the world, and the realities on the ground.
If you want to know how this book started — that was the moment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.