Nir Shafir

I am a historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire and my research as a whole explores how shifts in material culture and religious practice shaped the intellectual and scientific life of the Middle East between 1300-1800. I received my doctorate in History from UCLA in 2016. At UCSD, I teach graduate and undergraduate classes on the history of the Middle East, global history, and the history of science. I also lead workshops on Islamic codicology (the study of manuscripts). In addition, I am currently editor-in-chief of the Ottoman History Podcast, the leading podcast on Islamic history in general, where I also curate the podcast’s history of science series. Most of my writings and some of the podcasts can be accessed through my page. At the moment, I am on leave for the academic year and can generally be found in Istanbul.

The primary goal of my research is to reveal the largely unknown world of Ottoman thought. This entails not just analyzing them as abstract ideas, but also examining the physical forms (books, objects, gestures, etc.) through which they circulated across the Mediterranean and beyond. I find that tackling such a topic also requires reasserting the centrality of an Islamic pietistic movement over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the history of the Ottoman Empire.

I am currently preparing my first book manuscript, titled Pamphleteering Islam in the Ottoman Empire. The book examines how a new method of communication—cheap and short manuscript pamphlets—forged and fractured religious and political communities in the seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire. Historians have long puzzled over why Middle Easterners largely failed to adopt print until the late nineteenth century. My research turns this question on its head and examines instead the innovative new ways in which they used manuscripts as ephemeral and mobile texts. As these pamphlets circulated through the empire they engaged new readers and built broad publics but they also created uneven and “lumpy” intellectual and religious landscapes. Ottoman scholars writing in Turkish and Arabic used these vernacular legal texts as an arena for bitter polemical disputes over Islamic religious practices, which covered topics as varied as the permissibility of smoking tobacco or saint worship. Through the story of manuscript pamphlets, the book rewrites the history of the so-called Kadizadeli movement of religious reformers and suggests why legalism became the predominant form of Islamic religiosity by the nineteenth century. More broadly, the research asks how and why political polemicization emerges in the wake of new technologies of communication, whether manuscripts or the internet, and what are the social practices that allows for factionalism to abate. The Ottoman Empire serves as an ideal case to study these questions because it experienced deep political polemicization during the seventeenth century without a readily identifiable technological innovation.

I also have further research projects on the history of antiquarianism in the Ottoman world, understanding the social life of language in the Eastern Mediterranean, bacterial communities in history, and the perennial object of my research, the seventeenth-century Damascene scholar, Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi. My doctoral and post-doctoral research has been supported by a number of funding agencies including the Social Science Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation/Fulbright Commission, and Consortium of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC).