Interview: Faridah Zaman

faridah zaman

This interview is the first in a series of conversations with intellectual historians working here at the University of Oxford. We hope to showcase the diversity of research and approaches to intellectual history at Oxford.


A conversation with Faridah Zaman, Associate Professor of the History of Britain and the World, and Fellow and Tutor of Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford.

By Zobia Haq, DPhil in Modern Intellectual History at Mansfield College, Oxford.


ZOBIA HAQ: Could you introduce yourself, and your general area of research?


FARIDAH ZAMAN: I am Associate Professor of the History of Britain and the World, and have been at Oxford for three years. For the most part, I work on political and intellectual history in imperial and (you might say) global contexts, but certainly transnational contexts. I am particularly interested in the role of religion in the history of ideas – pretty much all of my work to date has focussed on Muslim political thought in South Asia. I also have an underlying interest, as maybe all historians do, in the development of concepts around history and in temporality. In the case of imperial history, I am interested in the way historicism in particular has been critical to buttressing imperial ideologies, and most recently I have become quite interested in the history of British socialism and its impact on anticolonial movements from the early 20th century, as well as the way socialists generally reckoned with empire in the late 19th and early 20th century.


ZH: How did you initially become interested in your field? Who – or what — were your main influences?


FZ: I knew I wanted to work on some kind of imperial history quite early on as an undergraduate, and that I wanted to work on South Asia and probably on Islam in some capacity. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, I had written a dissertation on the impact of 1857 on religious discourses within Britain, and for my MPhil thesis I looked at the East India Company’s encounter with Indo-Islamic heritage in pre-1857 India. I found both of these projects interesting, but they also left me unsatisfied in some ways. For my doctoral work I wanted to centre the history and thought of South Asians themselves. I was working with a supervisor who was at the forefront of debates around Indian political thought and global intellectual history and so I knew there was scope to work on a project that centred Muslim South Asians and took the intellectual content of their writing seriously. Shruti Kapila, my supervisor, was enormously helpful in making these kinds of histories seem possible and urgent, and in facilitating conversations around them. No one was doing more for the field at that moment. I was lucky to also benefit from Chris Bayly’s experience. Chris was a remarkable scholar with a diverse set of research interests but he was also incredibly generous to young scholars - he facilitated a research culture around world history in Cambridge that took graduate contributions seriously, and the environment never felt hierarchical. That has influenced not just my research, but the way I think about the potential for academia.

I had my first introduction to world history when I took the so-called ‘West and the Rest’ paper with Tim Harper as an undergraduate, and I have always appreciated the way that he made the enormity of a 500-year world history paper seem like an intellectual adventure. He once told me that he considered Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age a model of good writing and scholarship, and, consciously or not, I ended up taking a very similar approach in my doctoral work. Hourani believed that there was value in taking even a fairly small group of writers and thinkers, who were perhaps set apart from others by their education or experience, and exploring the way they responded to and expressed the needs and potential of their societies, becoming forces in the process of wider change. That is essentially the approach that I took in my thesis – I looked at poets and activists and writers, people who set up newspapers, a relatively small group of people but quite diverse in and amongst themselves. I think they are a useful lens through which to consider the direction and political horizons of Muslim thought in South Asia in the early twentieth century. I have also been influenced by Faisal Devji, and find his work incredibly stimulating, creative, and counterintuitive in the way it forces us to re-think particular kinds of categories. As a tutor now myself, I still look to others for models of what good teaching and mentorship might look like, so there are lots of individuals in Oxford with whom I do not necessarily share obvious research interests but who have been important for me as I continue to develop as a tutor.


ZH: Do you think of yourself as an intellectual historian? What fuels your current research interests?


FZ: I was very involved in the world history community at Cambridge and I did not necessarily think that intellectual history was for me. It seemed like something that was happening elsewhere. I became a graduate student just as ‘global intellectual history’ was emerging as a field, however, and that was a natural identifier for those of us working on non-European histories. I have tried to speak to some of the concerns of intellectual history and the history of ideas – for instance, I have a piece on historical writing among Muslims, which came out in Modern Intellectual History a couple of years ago; that was my first attempt on what I think to be intellectual history terrain. In much of my work I tend to think more in terms of political visions of the future, questions about power, questions around religious authority, questions about relationships between different parts of the world. So, I’m still not sure whether intellectual history or political thought are fitting labels for my research. At Oxford, I’m lucky to get to teach broadly and in a way that reflects my eclectic range of interests.


ZH: I think global intellectual history feels like a passionate place in some ways. What do you think about the current state of the field? What are the challenges, and green pastures to explore?


FZ: Fundamentally there is a choice between – this is true of all history – stressing similarities or differences. A global approach that presumes interconnectedness, exchange, interactions, the transportability of concepts and so forth, tends towards a history of similarity and convergence. But for that exact reason, the global approach seems suspicious to some because it feels like a teleological determinism, a history of sameness, when perhaps the basic task of a history of ideas – political ideas or otherwise – ought to be something different. For some intellectual historians, the excitement lies in discovering indeterminacy, the contingent careers of certain concepts, ideas that could have travelled but for various reasons did not travel, did not go global. So there may be a tension – an important and productive tension - in global intellectual history at the moment. Five or ten years ago, for instance, we saw works on liberalism across the world – Indian liberalism, Latin American liberalism – but actually the research showed us that those ideas were transformed and became quite different when they travelled. To use Bayly’s term, Indian political thought ‘cannibalised’ liberalism. I think we can take this further, and that we are going to see more histories of disjuncture, of incommensurability, and more work on ideas that resist being folded into concepts such as ‘liberalism’ – I think we are going to see less of a knitting together, and more fracturing and disconnecting, which I think would be useful.

Something else that seems to have been in vogue in the last few years was finding indigenous or local equivalence – trying to find the Indian version of republicanism, say – and there was perhaps an enthusiasm for translating concepts back and forth across languages. But I think we are now moving away from this, letting ideas stand on their own and not trying to collapse them into ‘global’ narratives. The seminar you’ve established on South Asian Intellectual History feels very much part of this shift.


ZH: Letting go of the assumption that concepts are necessarily universal and in dialogue across the world?


FZ: Exactly. Scholars will sometimes go to great lengths to demonstrate that concepts such as democracy have a resonance across the world, and it is clear why they do it – these concepts remain critical to contemporary political discourse and we don’t want the values underlying them to appear to be the sole preserve of Europeans. Scholars working on non-European sites are also often forced by the structure of scholarship to cite European thinkers in order to make other parts of the world intelligible as a proper subject of political thought. But that approach can diminish the specificity and interest of other ways of thinking, and so perhaps we will see more work stressing difference.

In the last few years for instance, we have seen lots of work on non-Western political thought that has stressed the fact that the nation-state was by no means the inevitable carrier of postcolonial futures – lots of work on federalist thought, for instance, in South Asian, African, and Caribbean history. I think we will need to think carefully about the state going forward. There are scholars who work on perhaps a ‘traditional’ version of political thought in Europe and America, for whom a work of political thought that is not engaging with the state is not political thought at all, because that is really where politics resides for them. Many of us working on non-European thought just don’t find the state to be a major theme in the sources we read – it was often not as important for the people that we work on, or it was not the central focus of their thinking, and not necessarily that visible as a concept in broader political discourse. The people that I work on, for instance, are interested in the future of India but also in the future of the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, and it is difficult to derive from their writings, disparate as they are, a particular conception of what the state is, or even what politics is in relation to the state. If the bounds of the history of political thought are going to expand, we may want to consider what unites the study of these different parts of the world when our thinkers and writers are not necessarily exercised by the same categories.

We also want to consider what the ‘global’ is doing in ‘global intellectual history’ – why isn’t it just ‘intellectual history’? What does that addition denote? If it is about ideas in a transnational or a global context, then whose version of the globe and from whose perspective? Political thought in colonial contexts is often more outward-looking by virtue of being part of imperial systems of circulation. But that does not necessarily mean that ‘global’ as a prefix is salient. It’s great to have separate spaces, seminars, and journals to foreground non-European parts of the world, but I hope that in terms of the discipline, these are not things that we will need forever. The MSt and MPhil strand at Oxford is called ‘Intellectual History’, and there isn’t a separate strand for global intellectual history, so it should be possible for anyone working on the intellectual history of any part of the world, assuming that there is expertise here to supervise their project, to just identify as an intellectual historian if they wish to.


ZH: I have also heard terms such as ‘intellectual history of the global south’.


FZ: That’s an interesting one since it implies a binary. In our own cases – without making it too personal – would we characterise ourselves as writing from the global north? In some ways of course we are, but we both have a more complex set of identities and positionalities, too. The subjects of our work deserve the same complexity. Thinking about the global south and north is instructive in lots of ways and reminds us about the persistence of structural inequalities, but I would be hesitant to encapsulate everything that is non-European or American political thought as ‘global south’. I personally find the connotations of such developmentalist terminology a little disquieting, and when we’re talking about the majority of the world’s population, at a certain point it becomes a bit absurd…


ZH: Let’s move on to the last question. Do you have any advice for students trying to pursue global intellectual history at Master’s and DPhil level?


FZ: Often people interested in working on global intellectual history are applying with proposals on subjects that have not received serious scholarly attention before, potentially new and quite exploratory topics. If you are applying somewhere where you think scholars will be less familiar with your chosen subject, then it is important to make the project seem feasible in the first instance. There is always a need for applicants to make it clear what kinds of sources they might use, what archives might exist for their work, what the existing scholarship is, what models for similar work are out there, but the burden is perhaps a little higher in global intellectual history. You cannot assume that the person reading your application is familiar with the specifics of your area of study. Going back to that earlier point about making projects intelligible and comprehensible, as it were, you do need to do a bit of that. Ideally you do not want to spend three or four years translating your work into terms that a specialist on Rousseau, say, can appreciate, but if you want to be a part of a research community – which an application for graduate study is – offering people different ways to engage with your project is helpful. It can sometimes feel like self-aggrandising, and applicants are understandably reticent about doing that, but it is important to signal what the stakes are of your project, why it matters, how it connects to existing debates, and its potential to transform current conversations and existing knowledge in the field. You may not have all the answers yet – that’s what the research is for – but articulating why something should be of interest to other people is generally a good thing in any kind of proposal.

It can be useful to reach out to academics in faculties and departments before you apply for a DPhil – our research interests are listed on our Faculty profiles. There are lots of very generous scholars who would be willing to talk to you over email about the direction that you want to take. That said, that’s not always possible – the History Faculty receives hundreds of enquiries each year. You are not at a disadvantage if you do not get feedback on your proposal – our admissions process treats every application equally.

If some of our research seminars continue to take place online in the coming period, which I expect they will, then attending one or two before applying could be helpful as a way to observe the research culture at Oxford. Being able to attend a seminar remotely allows potential applicants to see Oxford students, researchers, and Faculty members interact in a way that was frankly not possible pre-pandemic. It’s also a great way for applicants to see if they would enjoy graduate study, and graduate study at Oxford, in particular.