Faculty: Visiting Assistant Professor
Regional Field: Africa
Transnational Theme: Atlantic
Research Cluster: Islamic World in World History
Amir Syed joins us in Fall 2017 as Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of the Islamic World, for a two year term. His scholarship situates West African Muslims in the broader framework of the Atlantic world, as well as Islamic and African intellectual and social history. His research interests include issues related to the construction of religious authority, scholarly culture, and Islamic knowledge practices.
Dr. Syed’s research builds outward from the study of one particular and fascinating 19th century West African Muslim scholar: al-hajj ‘Umar Tal (d.1864). The library of 4100 Arabic manuscripts that ‘Umar Tal mainly collected during his lifetime—known as the Bibliothèque ‘Umarienne de Ségou—has been housed in Paris since 1891, yet before Dr. Syed’s work had never been used systematically as a source for social and intellectual history. This library is a mosquito trapped in amber—a microcosm, preserving much of the written Islamic intellectual tradition of 19th century West Africa and the Middle East.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as European colonialism, modern schools, and Islamic reform movements produced new interpretative frameworks and political demands, the former roles of Muslim scholars as arbitrators of Islamic knowledge were forever altered. The newer Islamic knowledge practices that resulted have drawn considerable scholarly attention, but we know comparatively little about what they supposedly replaced. ‘Umar Tal’s life and library provide a rare window onto the past—a vantage point to explore, recover, and explain older Islamic knowledge philosophies that remain current in Africa and beyond.
At Pitt Dr. Syed will offer courses in the history of Africa, the Middle East, and the broader Islamic world. A 2017 PhD in Anthropology and History from the University of Michigan, who speaks Arabic, French, and Urdu in addition to his native English, Dr. Syed brings both interdisciplinary depth and international breadth to his research and teaching alike. He is dedicated to making the classroom a space of vivid engagement and creative thinking.