Irfana Hashmi

  • Fellowship Dates 2011-2012
  • Research Topic Riwaqs at Azhar University in the 16th and 17th Centuries
  • Fellow or Grant Type Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
  • Affiliation Pre-doctoral candidate New York University
This research reconstructs the untold stories of religious elites at Azhar University, the oldest Muslim university in the world, located in Cairo, using the Ottoman Shari‘ah court records as a source for social history. It combines relevant documentary and narrative sources to investigate how the fraternity system at Azhar (riwaqs) mobilized ethnic identity in 16th and 17th-century Egypt for material and symbolic purposes. This research project focuses specifically on four riwaq communities at the Azhar: the North African, Syrian, Rumi and Hanafi. These groups have virtually fallen through the methodological cracks of Ottoman historiography because they evade traditional scholarly categories like “Egyptian Arabs” or “Ottoman Turks.” Based on a comprehensive study of the main administrative court in Ottoman Egypt, al-Bab al-‘Ali, it examines how Azhar’s riwaq system created “ethnic fault-lines” and how elites mobilized these fault-lines for career advancement and lucrative pensions. Complex layers of ethnic identity during this period reveal how material considerations produce and reinforce “ethnic fault-lines” within the riwaq-based structure of Azhar. This research investigates how ethnicity was made increasingly “relevant” through patronage. It investigates the interplay between ethnicity and patronage as central to understanding the larger process of how Ottoman sultans and governors integrated the newly-conquered province into the imperial network. The interventions of this research are intra-disciplinary and interdisciplinary. It compares acts of patronage at the local level, at the center, and in other Arabic-speaking Ottoman provinces. Bridging the intradisciplinary boundaries of Arab-Ottoman historiographies by comparing the “provincial religious circuit” in Cairo with the “imperial religious circuit” (ilmiye) in Istanbul (Zilfi), further places the ethnic networks of Azhar in a comparative perspective with the various networks that characterized medieval and early modern Islamic education in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul. By reconstructing four riwaq communities, this research presents an account of ethnic identity in a climate of transformation, advancement among Azhar’s elites and Cairo’s role as an Ottoman center for learning.

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