Owen Cornwall is a visiting lecturer at Columbia University in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. In 2015-2016, he was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. He is currently working on a book manuscript about Alexander the Great in the premodern Persian literary tradition.
Towards a Politics of Adab: Reconceptualizing Shuʿūbiyya through al-Bīrūnī's Critique of Alexander's Persian Patrimony
This presentation attempts, from the perspective of Arabic adab, to re-theorize the conceptual framework for analyzing the political stakes of premodern multilingual literary practice. The MESAAS department at Columbia has been on the forefront of re-theorizing premodern transregional languages away from the sterile "vehicular languages" framework posited by Deleuze and Guattari towards the more robust frameworks of "The Arabic Republic of Letters," "Persian literary humanism," and "The Sanskrit Cosmopolis." To put these frameworks into conversation, this paper uses as an ansatzpunkt the rich critique by the polymath al-Bīrūnī (d.1048CE) of Alexander the Great's dubious and controversial Persian ancestry.
Departing from the dichotomy of "roots and routes," this paper will identify filiamentary modes of thinking (in both senses of "fils" as "son" and "fils" as string/wire) in al-Biruni's critique of the supposed Persian patrimony of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), to show how roots and routes were co-produced through "cultural techniques," Bernard Siegert's supple concept. By tracing the concepts of sabab (cause, path, or heavenly chord), nasab (genealogical relation) and ʿaṣab (nerve, chord) through an interdisciplinary selection of Arabic adab (from natural science, the Qur'an, and animal fables) this paper analyzes the complex filiamentary modes of thinking that pervade al-Bīrūnī's critique of Alexander's Persian birth narrative.