2004 Balzan Prize for the Islamic World from the End of the 19th to the End of the 20th Century
My life and Ideas: A Brief Overview – Rome, 18.11.2004
In looking back at my life it seems important to write not only about aspects directly relevant to my profession as a historian, but also about my political life, which influenced my decision to be a historian and to study the Middle East, and which continues, in a time of renewed political repression, to be relevant to understanding the life of academics and others in the United States. I grew up mainly in New York City after spending ages 3-6 in upstate New York. My father managed textile factories and my mother from time to time worked for the Soviet-American Trade Organization, Amtorg, though she mostly stayed home with me and my older and younger brothers. I was what in today’s U.S. is called a “red diaper baby” with leftist parents. From the age of six I was intensely interested in political, especially international, issues and early empathized with people in distant countries. I filled Christmas stockings for Loyalist children in the Spanish Civil War. My mother was amazed when, at age just seven, after being away in summer camp for two months in 1937, I asked her first of all “How is the Spanish Civil War going?” and I remember her answering, “We have another war to worry about now; the Japanese have invaded China.”
After bad experiences in public schools, my older brother and I were sent to progressive private schools where history study was made interesting through doing plays and other projects. When we were asked to do papers on the Renaissance, I chose, at age eleven, to look at a non-western part of the world and wrote a paper on Genghis Khan and his period. I was cast as King Richard in a play on Wat Tyler’s peasant revolt, and as a Chinese woman in a play about the Sino-Japanese war; my brother had a more leading role as Nehru in a play about India—plays the classes and teachers made up.
In grade school and high school I was interested in history, chiefly American history, though I usually ignored the assigned textbooks and found more interesting or deeper material to read. Even in progressive schools at that time our textbooks characterized the period after the U.S. Civil War as one in which greedy men from the North and ignorant Negroes combined to ruin the South. I was beginning to think that this was untrue, though I could not have imagined the total revision of this Reconstruction period that has been done by historians led by Eric Foner in recent decades. In high school we learned little European history and no non-Western history, though we had a unique class in World Literature.
I participated in political activity, including ushering at the 25,000 audience-strong rallies at Madison Square Garden put on by groups like the Progressive Citizens of America, where speakers included Helen Keller, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Henry Wallace. This was the precursor to the Progressive Party, which ran Wallace for president in 1948. The summer I was sixteen I worked as a volunteer in Washington for an anti-racist organization, The Southern Conference for Human Welfare, staying with an aunt and an uncle who was editor of the labor newspaper, the CIO News. I was amazed to be asked to write congressional testimony for the Black leader Mary McLeod Bethune, and I was also sent, as an innocent-looking person, to a restricted press conference where the head of the House Un-American Activities Committee told why they had just listed the Southern Conference as Un-American.
When I went to Radcliffe, then technically separate from Harvard though all classes were at Harvard, I intended to major in Political Science, given my interest in politics, but friends advised me that Political Science would not give me what I wanted, and suggested I pursue my interest in History instead. I chose Harvard’s special honors program in History and Literature, in which one specialized either in a period or a country; I picked the nineteenth century (which in this program was truly long, 1789 -1939), and as my four countries chose England, France, Italy, and Russia. I studied Italian and Russian, already knowing French from an outstanding high school teacher who had us speak only French in class—a method that was then unique. I was attracted to Italy, particularly after a summer 1948 trip to Western and Eastern Europe, my first trip abroad, where I fell in love with Italy and got to know interesting Italians. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on reform and revolution in the Italian Socialist Party to 1922.
I was also heavily involved in politics and, like many leftist students at that time, joined the Communist Party. In the U.S., because Communists had been jailed or lost jobs, membership was rarely open, though the party was so penetrated by F.B.I. agents that the government knew nearly all members. Although there was a general “party line” that we were supposed to follow, we decided in our Harvard-Radcliffe groups most of the campaigns we would carry out based on this general line. Besides peace activities that included considerable naivety about the Soviet Union, these actions included several that pre-figured later major movements in U.S. society. Among these were to help set up a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at Harvard-Radcliffe, and the campaign I led to open the Lamont Library for undergraduates to women.
While at Radcliffe I got married, and as my husband was about to finish his Ph.D. and seek a job, I chose an accelerated program and finished my four-year stint at Radcliffe in three years and two summers. My husband got a three-year instructorship at Stanford University and I entered the Stanford M.A. program. I felt badly treated at Stanford, which did not then have the outstanding History Department it has since developed, and the only part of my year there I enjoyed was writing my M.A. thesis on the philosophy of history of Giambattista Vico, a thinker whose originality, dialectical subtlety, and brilliance has been increasingly recognized.
When I went to California, my Communist Party transfer was supposed to be accomplished by tearing a dollar bill in half and having the California receiver of the other half find me. No one approached me, and over time, as I became aware of more realities about the Soviet Union, I lost interest in the Party and concentrated on other approaches to progressive politics. These included the campaign against the execution of the Rosenbergs and several years’ activity in the grassroots California Democratic Council.
Unhappy with Stanford, I decided to commute to the University of California, Berkeley, where I was far better treated and was happy with nearly all my professors. Driving then would have been difficult and dangerous, so I chose a train, then a bus, then a trolley for a fairly long commute, and in my second year, in order to be able to attend late seminars, I stayed in Berkeley three days a week. Although I had been specializing in Italian history until then, I thought that so many people loved Italy that Italian History was sure to be overcrowded, and I should choose another field. At first I thought it would be Russian History, and I worked intensively in a Russian reading course on the great nineteenth century Russian literary critics. But I thought the really new frontier where the most original things could be done was in what came to be called Third World countries. I also thought, at a time of prejustice against many professors and departments, and often did not hire, women, I would be better off in a field that was new and expanding and in which I could use my linguistic talents to acquire rare languages.
By far my favorite professor and major influence at Berkeley was Joseph R. Levenson in Chinese history, a brilliant intellectual historian whose importance is again being recognized. I contemplated doing Chinese history, but two practical things stopped me—first, there were already several excellent Chinese historians in the country, many of them like Levenson trained in Chinese and Japanese in World War II, and I felt unsure I would be competitive, and, second, I have a bad memory, and it is hard to look up words in Chinese dictionaries. I felt more drawn to Middle Eastern, and particularly Iranian, history, even though I knew no Iranians and had no personal contact with anything Iranian. Iran, like Italy, has a long identifiable history, with outstanding traditions in the arts, literature, and religion. This was also the period of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and oil nationalization, so Iran seemed politically interesting, though this ceased to be true after the U.S. engineered Mosaddeq’s overthrow in 1953, and became true again only in 1978.
Nobody taught Middle Eastern History at Berkeley and I was only able to take two years of Arabic and almost no Persian there, so I had to complete my preparation in these languages on my own, at summer schools offered for these purposes, and finally in Iran. The lack of history courses was far less serious than the inadequate language courses, as I could read a lot of books, take a few courses in political science and sociology, and put together a Middle Eastern field for my oral exams in addition to the fields in Early Modern and Modern Europe and East Asia. I have always been surprised when people think it impossible to get a Ph.D. and be a good scholar without having had a professor in one’s field as a guide. Having a background in what would now be called World History has been a huge help in understanding historical processes.
At that time the great names in the Middle Eastern field were men who had a primarily philological training as Orientalists, many of them with religious interests, and they tended (as many still do) to treat the Middle East with an emphasis on Islam to the virtual neglect of other factors in history. Among the great names then, perhaps only Claude Cahen had a historian’s training and approach. Without realizing it at the time, I became one of a very small first generation of specialists on the Middle East trained as a historian.
During the years when I was getting my Ph.D., I divorced, moved to Berkeley and remarried. Once, two men from the FBI came to see me and, not yet knowing the best response was to say I would talk to them with my attorney present, I declined to talk to them. One of them then said that they wanted to talk about the government’s (de facto) refurbishment of the World War II Japanese internment camps, and to ask which camp I wanted to go to. (This of course was not their real purpose but was said, successfully, to scare me.) Also during my years at Berkeley my Harvard undergraduate advisor, after once writing me an outstanding recommendation letter, the next year wrote the same letter and added, “My only reservations are political…” etc., which caused me considerable trouble at U.C. Berkeley, which had been rocked by a university-wide, and later a state-wide, loyalty oath ostensibly aimed at Communists. As a result, I never felt I could use my Ph.D. adviser for recommendations. I did well at Berkeley, however, with good fellowships from the university and from the American Association of University Women.
After getting my Ph.D. in 1955 with a dissertation on the broad topic of the impact of the West on modern Iranian social history, I was employed for a year in a group research project about South Asia, which I had studied. My first article was on labor problems in Pakistan, 1957. In late 1956 I had no job, and my husband wanted to go to Tucson, Arizona for a year, to help in his father’s business. I could not find academic or teaching employment there, and took a job as secretary to the Dean of the Graduate Division. The head of the History Department died suddenly, and they asked me on two day’s notice to take over his courses and another course, totaling 12 hours a week. Thus began my teaching career, in spring, 1957.
Teaching jobs were then obtained in the U.S. by having departments write the leading persons in the field and ask them for recommendations—the so-called “Old Boys Network.” My name would never have come up this way, so I did what was considered wrong—wrote letters to about 100 places. Though I got little response before I had the Arizona teaching job, afterwards I got four offers, two of which, from Scripps College in Claremont, California, and from the University of Arizona, were for regular teaching posts. I chose to go to Scripps, where I taught in the Humanities program, emphasizing the modern West, and courses on the history of all Asia.
In 1958 I was granted a Social Science Research Council fellowship for 1959-60 to go to Iran to study the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. Until 1958, when the Supreme Court declared the denial of passports unconstitutional, I had been unable to get a passport for ten years.
Shortly before leaving on this trip I got a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was planning hearings in Los Angeles, though, in the politically improving times, these hearings were later cancelled. I, however, could not go abroad with an outstanding subpoena, so I contacted a New York attorney who was able to arrange a private hearing with the committee counsel in New York on my way abroad. The only way to avoid jail for not answering committee questions was to cite the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution against self-incrimination. My attorney said there were a few questions I could answer, including that I was not a Communist (which the Scripps president had insisted on), without waiving my Fifth Amendment rights, but the counsel asked many incriminating questions about spying and other activities that I could not answer without waiving these rights and risking jail for contempt of congress. Fortunately, my proceedings were not published. This was an extremely upsetting experience.
My stay in Iran, with my husband working on another project, was very fruitful. I was able to interview old people who remembered the constitutional revolution, and though this was not reliable for facts, it did tell me things not available in the written sources about the beliefs of many constitutionalists. Sayyid Hasan Taqizadeh, who had been a leader in the revolution, told me that for him and many of his colleagues attaining a modern education brought about a complete overturning of their former beliefs, rendering them religious skeptics even though in public they had to claim religiosity. He also named a group of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary leaders who belongs to the Azali branch of the nineteenth century heretical messianic Babi religion, while the larger, Bahai, branch, were not revolutionaries.
I became interested in explaining the unique alliance between unorthodox progressives and a large part of the orthodox Shi’i ulama against the Qajar government, which went back to the successful Iranian protest against a British tobacco monopoly. Only in Iran did a large part of the orthodox clergy combine with progressives in major movements against the government and its subservience to the West. I tried to explain the special features of both the clerical and progressive parts of this alliance in several articles, notably “Religion and Irreligion in Early Iranian Nationalism (1962),” “The Origins of the Religious-Radical Alliance in Iran” (1966), and a book, Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891-92 (1966).
In broader articles written in this period I discussed the effects of repression and of imperialism on the forms taken by oppositional discourse in Asia and the Muslim World, discussed in “Western Rule versus Western values: Suggestions for a Comparative Study of Asian Intellectual History” (1959) and “Symbol and Sincerity in Islam” (1963) I returned to California in 1960 and soon after divorced my husband. In early 1961 I learned that Scripps’s president had decided to terminate my employment, and I was very upset, but very soon Prof. Gustav von Grunebaum called and offered me a one-year position at UCLA. Von Grunebaum had been brought to UCLA from the University of Chicago to set up a major center of Middle East Studies. At UCLA all appointments are in departments, not centers, and both von Grunebaum and I were in the History Department. Although I was kept in visiting status for two years, the History Department then offered me an assistant professorship. The department chairman, without consulting me, lowered my step and salary to step one assistant professor, but later agreed to ask that it be raised back to step two after I complained.
In early 1963 I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for 1963-64. I got a call from the UCLA chancellor’s office asking me to see the chancellor. When I came, the chancellor and vice-chancellor were there, and the chancellor said he had one question to ask me, and if I answered satisfactorily that would be the end of it. He asked if I was a member of the Communist Party, and I said no, and he said that was all. I was not so sure. I spent the year at Harvard and in Europe, reading documents and writing chapters, which became articles and a book, on the background of the constitutional revolution. But the minor correction from step (and salary) I to step II did not go through, and when I saw von Grunebaum in Europe he told me the vice chancellor was still dissatisfied, and I would have to answer more questions on my return in late 1964.
In 1964 the Dean of the Faculty spoke to me and said someone (the FBI it turned out) had been to the chancellor with several charges. None of them said I was a Communist (the only point relevant in the then-university rules). They were things like my mother’s working for Amtorg, my friendship with a few Italian communists, and a total fantasy that I had dated Soviet Embassy spy couriers while in Iran. When I answered, the Dean said he was satisfied, and I was to be raised to Step III, but this was changed by the Vice Chancellor to Step II. I was reliably told that the Vice Chancellor was trying to force me to leave and would probably deny me tenure, and so I sought tenured jobs elsewhere and got two offers. The History Department then overwhelmingly voted for tenure, but higher bodies turned this down as too rapid an advance. I was about to leave UCLA for the University of Washington, but made a final appointment with the chancellor, who happened to be seeing von Grunebaum about something else in the interim. The chancellor told me he had not known what the vice chancellor was doing and, based on what von Grunebaum had said, I would get tenure without further review. He then made the most overt sexual advances and suggestions I have ever experienced from someone with power over me. The whole experience caused me extreme anxiety and stress, and I was never compensated by an apology or for the money lost by having been kept at such low salary for so many years.
At UCLA while I at first had few graduate students of my own, they were of high quality and their numbers increased over the years, until I had an outstanding group of graduate students in the 1980s and 1990s. All of them now have good teaching jobs. I also found both the Near East Center and the History Department outstanding and friendly, with most of my friends and close contacts being with historians in various fields rather than area specialists. I have always identified as a historian with broad interdisciplinary interests.
I had found that there was an unexpectedly huge amount of documentation on the constitutional revolution and came, after writing some articles on the background to the revolution, to concentrate on this background with my book on the tobacco protest and a series of articles on the years before the revolution and the beginning of the revolution. I then undertook a study of the internationally-important figure, Sayyid Jamal ad-Din “al-Afghani.” He was a late nineteenth century teacher and activist of great influence throughout the Muslim world, known especially for promoting pan-Islam, meaning the unity of Muslim countries and peoples for defense against imperialism, especially British imperialism.
The Iranian scholars Iraj Afshar and Asghar Mahdavi found, organized, and in 1963 published a catalogue of Afghani’s papers, left in Mahdavi’s family home when Afghani was expelled from Iran in 1891. I had all the papers microfilmed and purchased by the UCLA Research Library, and used these and other sources to reconstruct Afghani’s life and ideas. I found that the existing biographies of him were all mythical, based on what he and his disciples wanted people to believe about his Afghan birth and Sunni religious orthodoxy. These documents and others showed, as his Iranian relatives had written, that Afghani was born in Iran, had a Shi’i education there and at the shrine cities in Iraq, where he was influenced by the somewhat unorthodox Shaikhi school. He had among his books, and later taught in Egypt, works of the Greek-influenced Islamic philosophers. They, like other unorthodox thinkers in Islam, tried to escape repression by teaching that the rational truth was only for an elite, while literal religion was good for the masses. (This view in the West was called the “double truth” and was associated with Averroes). Afghani probably got his lifelong hatred of British imperialism during a trip to India at the time of the “Sepoy mutiny.”
Documents from Kabul show that Afghani came to Afghanistan for the first time in 1866 and was known to be a foreigner. His anti-British activism brought his expulsion in 1868 and he went to Istanbul, where a talk comparing prophets and philosophers brought his expulsion in 1871. He went to Cairo, where his teaching influenced a generation of activist reformers, notably Muhammad Abduh. He advocated modern science, self-strengthening, and resistance to the British. Expelled from Egypt in 1879, he returned via Iran to India, where he wrote several articles and a tract known as “The Refutation of the Materialists” in Persian. In 1968 I published An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din “al-Afghani,” with translations of his major writings and a 100 page introduction on his life and ideas. I gave the outlines of an accurate biography and showed how Afghani had adapted the methods of Islamic philosophers to modern political activism, appearing to mass audiences as an orthodox Muslim while known to his disciples quite differently. In an article in French, his “Answer to Renan,” in the Journal des Débats (1883), he wrote that both Islam and Christianity had tried to stifle reason and science, but that Muslims, like Christians would develop toward rationality, though the common people would always prefer religion.
In 1972 I published a long biography of Afghani and also published the first of several edited volumes, covering the social history of religious institutions, Scholars, Saints, and Sufis. I subsequently edited or co-edited several books on Iran and Islam, among them Shi’ism and Social Protest (1981), co-edited with Juan Cole. Over the years, I also published volumes of my articles on Iran and on resistance and revolution in the Middle East. Another topic I have written about in recent years is secularism and fundamentalism, going beyond the Muslim world to write comparative articles about these phenomena in countries ranging from the United States to South Asia.
In the 1970s I became interested in women’s studies, having included an article on women’s religious life in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis. As people were beginning to produce high quality papers on women in the Muslim World, I decided to edit a volume of original articles; Lois Beck got the same idea, and we cooperated to produce the large volume, Women in the Muslim World (1978), with excellent articles from several disciplines. This was the first such volume published. Later, with my ex-student Beth Baron, I edited Women in Middle Eastern History (1991), and with Jasamin Rostam-Kolayi, my graduate student, guest edited a special issue of a journal on women and fundamentalism, worldwide. I have a 60-page chapter on women in Middle Eastern history in an in press volume on women worldwide, and am currently working on a book on Middle Eastern women’s history.
In the past decades I have continued to work on Iran, on secularism and fundamentalism, and on other topics. In 1973-74 I spent a year in Iran, working on the economic and social aspects of handicrafts and carpets. I saw that this would involve photography, so got a good camera, studied photography, and took many photographs of handicraft and carpet workers and processes in nearly all provinces of Iran. I turned out to have a talent for photography (I had painted up to age 20), and returned in later summers partly for a photo project on the Qashqai people of southern Iran, which became a catalogued exhibit at UCLA. I also worked on other Iranian topics, and wrote articles about the crisis caused by Iran’s oil income boom and about the rising religious opposition. These and some of my talks gave me an exaggerated reputation of having predicted the 1978-79 Iranian revolution.
In the academic years 1976-78 I was honored to be a visiting professor at the University of Paris III, where I lectured in French and continued my research and writing. There I wrote an article about one of my other interests, “Material Culture and Technology: A Neglected Field of Middle Eastern History.” I went to Iran in the summers to continue my research and photography there. Over the years I have also spent many summers in Europe, primarily in London, doing research particularly in the Public Record Office. I have also attended many international congresses, including those of historians, economic historians, and specialists on Asia and North Africa. Unfortunately, chronic health conditions have made it impossible for me to travel abroad since my last trip to Europe in the summer of 1995.
After the Iranian revolution, when many people were suddenly interested in Iran, I decided to write a history of modern Iran that would focus on why Iran, ever since the tobacco movement (and to a degree since the mid-nineteenth century Babi movement) had had an extraordinary number of major rebellions and revolutions, all of them with some religious component. The ensuing book, Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (1981) updated my previous studies of the sources of the ulama’s power, discussed the positives and negatives of Iran’s attempts at modernization under the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties, and included discussion of modern Iranian social, economic, and intellectual history. In 2003 I published a substantial revision of this book as Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, with three new chapters on political, socioeconomic, and cultural developments since 1979.
The Rockefeller Foundation gave me a year’s fellowship in 1980, which I used primarily for work on Iran in Washington, D.C., where I was also a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for three months. In 1992 I got another Rockefeller Foundation fellowship for a month at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, where I wrote the manuscript of a critical book on identity politics, which I never published.
In the early eighties I wrote a number of newspaper and magazine pieces as well as scholarly articles on contemporary Iran. I then embarked on a comparative study of Islam and politics, traveling from Senegal and Nigeria to Indonesia, where I spent an entire summer in Minangkabau, Sumatra, the world’s largest matrilineal Muslim society, about which I wrote an article, as I did about Islamists in Tunisia, and a chapter about Yemen’s history. I wrote several comparative studies of Islam and politics, past and present. In 1999 I also published a book about the Qajar period in Iran.
While I have found it perfectly possible to edit a good book without a prior conference, I have initiated four conferences, all of them published with additional chapters—one with co-editor Eric Hoogland when I was a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., published as The Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic (1986), another published as Neither East nor West: Iran, the Soviet Union and the United States (1990) co-edited by Mark Gasiorowski, and a third, Iran and the Surrounding World: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics (2000) co-edited with Rudi Matthee. A fourth conference, on comparative fundamentalism, was published over two issues of the journal I founded and edited, Contention: Debates in Society, Culture, and Science (1991-1996).
Contention was an undertaking especially appropriate to a time after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe as well as the unexpected rise of fundamentalisms and of new, largely relativist, theories in the humanities and social sciences. I conceived of a journal that would include debates on these and other issues, and put together a distinguished and able board of editors. The format in this thrice-yearly journal was to have an initial article and a response in the same issue; these were usually commissioned, although as time went on there were increasing uncommissioned submissions. Further responses on the same subject were often submitted and published. The first issue included an article on “What Went Wrong” in communism by Eric Hobsbawm, with a reply by Richard Pipes. Over time we debated the deconstructionist Yale professor Paul De Man, whose early antisemitic articles had caused a stir; the ideas of Freud, Foucault, and Thomas Kuhn; several questions involving women, gender, and sexuality; the meaning of the rise of religious fundamentalisms worldwide; a number of seminal books and other questions of interest to educated persons. The journal was very enthusiastically received, but in a time of library cutbacks we could not get enough subscriptions to support its continuation after its initial five years. We still get requests for back issues, and two collections of Contention debates on particular subjects were published as books.
Currently, and for the near future, I am working on a book on women’s history in the Middle East, which creates a narrative based on the research done on this subject by several scholars especially since the 1970s. I will include this narrative in a book, to be published by Princeton University Press, that will also include several review and critical articles I have written on this topic as well as the autobiographical interviews published by Nancy Gallagher in Approaches to the History of the Middle East: Interviews with Leading Middle East Historians (1994), supplemented by additional autobiographical pages. I am also doing a section on modern Iran for the new Cambridge History of Islam.
The Balzan prize will enable me to participate in several other projects involving younger scholars, including one that will put several hundred of my Kodachrome slides of countries from Senegal to Indonesia on the web for use by graduate students and scholars. I will probably also publish a book that includes some of my color photographs of ordinary men and women and their work in several Muslim countries. Another project will bring young scholars of the Middle East to the UCLA History Department on fellowships for research, with light teaching. A third project is for retreats or conferences, involving both young scholars and established scholars, on topics including the history of women, gender, and sexuality in the Middle East, and Shi’ism and modern politics. The winning of the Balzan prize is an amazing and totally unexpected honor, and gives me the opportunity to undertake programs that will be of benefit especially to younger scholars and to the scholarly world more generally. I can only wish that such studies may contribute to greater understanding between the West and the Muslim World in a time when relations between the two, particularly as concerns the United States, have deteriorated terribly, mostly because of recent U.S. policies. My own views on politics are more skeptical and nuanced than they once were, but I still have strong opinions about such things as launching unprovoked wars, neglecting the poor at home and abroad and limiting civil liberties.