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The concerns of this seminar are interdisciplinary and humanistic. In addition to Arabic language and literature, the range of interests includes topics of significance for Islamic studies: religion, philosophy, science, law and history of the Muslim world, and modern social and cultural history. The seminar affords an opportunity to members and guest speakers to discuss research in progress. Because the members come from several disciplines, the substantive discussions draw upon various fields to expand the sources, help reformulate questions, and anticipate future publications.

Professor Muhsin al-Musawi

Ruwa Mohammed Alhayek

Meeting Schedule

10/06/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Excavating Early Sunnism
Ahmed El Shamsy, University of Chicago


Ibn Baṭṭa al-ʿUkbarī’s (d. 387/997) anthology al-Ibāna is an amalgam of early Sunni texts, including some that are otherwise entirely unknown and others that are known by name but do not survive independently. Reconstructing these texts and their passage across the centuries to end up in Ibn Baṭṭa’s compilation has much to teach us both about early Sunnism and about the development of the Arabic written tradition.

10/27/2022 Faculty House
7:00 PM
Lā tuṣāliḥ: Do Not Reconcile with History but Try to Reconcile with Adab Arabic Literature Faces the Future: When “Science fiction” Tries to Re-narrate History
Ada Barbaro, Sapienza University of Rome


In an article significantly entitled “The emergence of science fiction in Arabic literature” (2002), scholar Reuven Snir establishes that Arabic science fiction can be divided in two trends: the first offering mere entertainment value, and the second representing a form of literature that attempts to acquire canonization in the literary system. While focusing on the emergence of a new genre, Snir poses the question of Adab, whose relationship with modernity has been object of extensive academic research. As we cannot recant the importance of literary canon, we can still consider it to have permeable borders, which can embrace literary works linked to new genres – such as SF – or fluctuating among genres. On the basis of this idea, we can re-evaluate literary phenomena often neglected by a certain cultural elite: there are, in fact, some literary works, which deserve attention regardless of the genre they belong to.

Over the years, Arab science fiction has been building a dimension of its own, enabling it to compete with the more consolidated schemes, expressed in French and English, that have taken on a core role in this literary genre: once entered into the canonized literature, it offers unpredictable possibilities of exploring the present and re-narrate history. SF writers “play” with time and, by setting their stories in the future, they create an unusual narrative pattern useful to codify reality.

Starting with these premises, we will try to explore, among the others, a sub-genre of SF, namely all of history. By posing the question “What would have happened if?” all of historical fiction creates a hybrid reality, or hybrid parallel, between the official past and the “other” possible past projected in the future. Even if historical fiction in Arabic is still in its initial stages, it tries to create room for the reader to analyze the potentially verifiable “if”, thus offering a counter-narration of History.

11/17/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Necroaesthetics of Syrian War Culture
Max Weiss , Princeton University


In this talk, which is based on a chapter from his latest book, Revolutions Aesthetic: A Cultural History of Baʿthist Syria (Stanford University Press, 2022), Max Weiss explores the irruption of morbid experience and representation in Syrian War culture. This dimension of contemporary Syrian cultural reproduction addresses questions of aesthetics, politics, and mortality in wartime. Recent Syrian novels and films constitute a veritable artistic morgue, a textual, visual, and cinematic apparatus that has both produced dead bodies and (re)imagined experiences of death and dying, all of which are tragic hallmarks of the Syria Warscape. Using the concept of necroaesthetics, he explores how central the depiction of death, dying, and dead bodies have become in literature and cinema in the time of the Syrian War.