Conversation with Ira Lapidus.
Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. 1/14/03



Ira, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised there. I went to high school there, and then I went to college and graduate school at Harvard.

Looking back, how did your parents shape your thinking about the world?

My parents were immigrants, and I guess the principal lesson in our family was that you had to get an education. They worked hard for a living, and they wanted my brother and me to be professionals. So they raised us with the expectation that we’d go to college and that we’d make our contribution to the world in some profession.

As you were growing up, did you have any teachers that shaped the course of your life?

Oh, yes, very much.

Any in particular you’d like to mention?

I had a high school teacher. His name was Morris Cohen, and he tutored me and prepared me for college. My high school was a big, urban high school.

What was its name?

Thomas Jefferson. It sent one student every year or two to Harvard. Mr. Cohen prepared me for admissions tests, and he said to me once (I didn’t realize at the time how important this was going to be) that Asian studies was a really interesting field — this was in the early 1950s — and that it was interesting, it was a burgeoning field, a growing field. And that it was a field in which you could work on a broad canvas, you didn’t have to do micro research. I guess I must have had this in mind when I was a junior. I was taking a class on Asian history.

This was now a junior in … ?

This was now a junior at Harvard.


And there were two principal choices — East Asia at 9:00 in the morning and Middle East at 11:00. So that settled my career.

I see!

In Middle Eastern and Islamic [studies].

So those important moments in time when there’s a certain hour when a course is being offered and you take it, and there you are.

There I am.

Was it a natural fit between you and the study of the Islamic world?

I didn’t think about it at the time. I liked the course. I liked the teacher. It was Sir Hamilton Gibb, who had just come from Oxford to teach at Harvard. He had just what I liked — the broad overview, a vision of what history was like, and how it had unfolded in the Middle East. I grew into the subject, taking one class after another. I didn’t have much of a question as to whether it had a fit. I had the kind of imagination that would work in a field like this. Gibb encouraged me very much to study sociology, in particular; also, anthropology, political science, so that I would have a social science background to bring into my history.

What does it take to be a historian, in addition to being grounded in many disciplines, as you just suggested?

I suppose it takes a desire to get away from everyday life.

I see.

And to live in the past. But it also … I think it also takes a desire to make sense of one’s own historical situation, and to find a way to order, to organize, to make a pattern and understanding of what the world has been like, how it works, and how we got to be here today, where we are.

Does that tell us what the historical imagination is? There is an imagination involved in all of this, right?

It’s a kind of imagination to make a new, verbal universe that has explanatory power in your own world. How do societies come to be? Why do political situations work through the way they are? I can’t define that imagination any more precisely for you.

I know that you’re also a photographer, and I’m curious, what is it about photography that attracted you? Does it have any relation? What are the differences between doing work in photography and doing work in history?

The big difference, and the important difference to me, is that photography is not verbal. At least, when I do photographs, I don’t work out an intellectual puzzle as much as I respond to something I see, and I try to get it in a mood and in a light and in a composition that I like. I like music for the same reason, that it’s not verbal. So that’s the contrast.

In photography, I guess the similarity is that I like to make slightly surreal images, images that you don’t ordinarily see, but you can find. I take pictures of reflections on store windows. So maybe there’s an analogy. You make up a universe that exists in your mind, and then you translate it into an image or into words that you can convey to other people.

Now before we talk about Islam and Islamic societies, I know you’re also a world traveler. When did that start? Was it after you were in graduate school or once you became a historian?

I got a prize when I graduated from college. Harvard College gave a fellowship for a year of travel anywhere. The only stipulation of the fellowship was that you not spend more than two months in one place. That was a life-saving revelation. I thought the whole world was college and study, and then I discovered this great world of interests. I went to Europe, and I went to Morocco and to Turkey in that year of travels. That opened my life up. It gave me a lifelong love of travel and of new places and new experiences.

2-Complexity of Islam

Islam is a complex universe, both through time and history, and then at any particular moment in time.

Absolutely. The diversity of it and the differences among people and their beliefs, their lifestyles, and their politics is something we don’t grasp enough of.

Let’s try to get a handle on all of this and what a historian might help us understand about Islam. What are the essential features of the Islamic belief system? Could you identify that for us?

Oh, yes. They’re actually very familiar. The beliefs that there is one God, who created the world, who put human beings in the world, who commanded them to act righteously and to behave according to His laws, who is going to judge them — the Day of Judgment — and either reward them with heaven, or punish them in hell. It’s the same belief system in its fundamental outline as the Judeo-Christian system. But it follows with the idea that the Koran is God’s final revelation, and Muhammad the last prophet. God, once again, gives human beings a chance to get it right. It’s also fundamental to Islam is that it creates a sense of brotherhood, a sense of community, which is very strong among Muslims, and is the basis of political loyalty.

Tell us a little about Muhammad. He was many things — a prophet, a warrior, and a statesman.

Yes. He began his life, his career, as a seeker. He used to go out into the desert mountains for silent vigils, and it was in these vigils that he had the first revelations. The years in Mecca were years of preaching, preaching the imminence of the last judgment and calling on people to repent and to be decent to the poor, and to the widows and the orphans. I think that his experience in Mecca, where he was rejected by his own people — that was his home city — led him on a different path to seek help in neighboring cities, in Medina, in particular. In Medina, he begins to add a communal and a political dimension to his activities, supporting a community, eventually fighting to defend and to benefit the interest of that community.

That’s the precedent that exists all the time. It’s that combination of belief in God, moral and ethical behavior, and loyalty to a community that’s characteristic of Islam, and other religions, too. It’s not unique to Islam by any means.

How do you account for the universal appeal of Islam and its success in spreading across the globe? You’ve touched on some of those elements. But talk a little more about that.

The way I would look at it is there are certain elements that are universally appealing, and the critical one is that it creates a sense of community and brotherhood. When people convert to Islam, they are joining a community. Just as people come to California, when they’re newcomers, what do they do? They find a church or a synagogue, or a mosque. They join a community. Islam has that potential all over the world.

It often appeals to people in societies that are disorganized or fragmented — clan-type societies, tribal-type societies, merchant communities where there are lots of immigrants and newcomers — because it gives a sense of belonging. That’s a crucial factor. And, of course, the belief system itself is extremely appealing to people, that it appeals to all. There’s a shared Jewish-Christian-Islamic heritage. It’s a way of looking at the world in which people find meaning, and they find the standards of righteous behavior.

Those two elements are general, universal elements, but as Islam spreads in particular historical circumstances, either a conquest sets off the process of conversions, or an Islamic administration, or the establishment of merchant communities. Sometimes it’s the activity of missionary preachers. But there’s a different historical context, a different moment that starts the process of winning people over to Islam in different parts of the world.

Before we get into that dynamic of how it interacts with these local environments — obviously it is a diversity of patterns — I’m curious: does Islam have special appeal to people who are oppressed and in poverty? You mentioned societies that are fragmented or broken. But what about this appeal to, essentially, classes that have not done well because of things that are not necessarily under their control?

It does definitely have that appeal. But it also appeals to middle classes, and it appeals to political elites. So it appeals to different segments of the population for different reasons. Different milieus have a different way of understanding and practicing Islam. So it begins, for example, with a conquering elite, the political elite. The Arab conquerors of the Middle East are at first the Muslims, and then begin conversions among landowners, government officials, soldiers, merchants. Eventually, Islam becomes the religion of poor peoples, oppressed peoples, tribal peoples who resist these political elites in the name of the same religion. So they dispute over which way to interpret that religion; who has the correct understanding of it.

One of the misperceptions that we — that is, “we,” the people in the United States — may have about Islam is that, because of the present historical circumstances, we see it unidimensionally, we do not see its complexity. But you make very clear in your book, which I have here, this encyclopedic history of Islamic societies, the extent to which Islam interacts with local environments, local societies, and local settings. And, in many ways, is changed by it. And then, in turn, changes those settings; which creates a dynamic that is very different in its results than what we see when we focus, say, for example, on terrorism or political fanatics.

Yes, definitely. Islam is just different in different regions. The on-the-ground practice, if you look at people and how they worship and if you talk to them about what they believe, is different everywhere. It differs by class. It differs by educational level. So today, for example, you find the Muslim purists, the political Muslims, but you also find the liberal Muslims, not only in Europe and America, but Iran, in Egypt, in Pakistan and Indonesia; people who believe that Islam is compatible with contemporary democratic values and has the same commitment to civil rights and human rights. There are people who believe in Islam as a system of strict ritual practice. There are people who believe that Islam is the veneration of saints, and who don’t think about these political issues at all, but go to the tomb of a holy man to make a small gift and to pray for God’s help as a favor to the holy man. These are very different kinds of religions, but it’s all within the framework of Islam.


3-Politics and Religion

A problem that comes up in Islam that we need to address in these different settings is, to what extent has Islam been able to adjust to what we call modernity, to modernization, to secularization? And there is no definitive answer to that question, as I read your book, is that correct? Or is there?

No, there isn’t. There are different responses. Some Muslims have adopted it. Certainly, the upper classes, the middle classes all over the Muslim world, live in what is now a Western lifestyle. They may be very devout Muslims, but the physical style of life is basically Western. They adopt all the technologies. Many people adopt the politics that come from Europe and America: political parties; democratic politics, as I mentioned; respect for civil rights, human rights. So, just as Christians remain Christian, or Jews, Jews, but live in a modern world in a modern fashion, so do many Muslims.

At the other extreme, there are many people who reject Western modernity as a fundamentally corrupt way to live. They reject its materialism, its emphasis on consumer goods. They reject its political values, because they believe that there’s an absolute truth, and that people have to live by that revealed truth. They don’t accept the idea of a marketplace of political competition. Those are the two principal factors.

Let’s talk about politics and religion — Were you going to say something? Did you have another thought?

I had a further idea about why they oppose the contemporary world. They oppose contemporary states. The states many Muslims live in are not democratic states. They’re military regimes, or they’re tiny oligarchies, even family regimes. Insofar as those regimes commonly identify themselves as modern and secular, the opposition identifies itself as Muslim and anti-secular.

Right. So Islam, because of its plasticity, seems to take a very different shape where it’s located.

Yes, it does. Again, I don’t want you to think that Islam is different in doing this from other religions. People adapt these basic beliefs and principles to a given circumstantial situation. They look to holy texts for guidance, but they can come out with different interpretations and a different sense of what is called for. Even reading the same text, or reading the Koran, some people will quote one verse as critical and some people will quote another. Yes, Islam is very adaptable. So are other religions. Any religion that has a billion or more adherents is, in practice, extremely adaptable.

Let’s talk a little bit about politics and Islam. As one looks at your work, and looks at the sweep of Islamic history, it becomes very clear, again, that there have been different answers to this problem of whether to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” or whether the two, that is, religion and the state, should be combined. So help us understand that diversity within Islam, and help us understand whether the faith itself points in one direction or another.

There are really two options. One is the example of the prophet Muhammad, in which religious belief and practice, community affairs, and politics all go together. There’s one leader. There’s one authority. This is the life of a small, integrated community. That example goes on through the centuries in all parts of the Muslim world. And since the eighteenth century and right down to the present, it’s invoked as an ideal model. This is the “just” society.

The other model is one in which there is a separation of state and religion. The political elites are one group of people; the religious teachers and their followers are another group of people. Politics is understood to operate by secular norms; the community of religious believers follows religious norms. There’s a separation in practice, which is never quite recognized in principle or in theory. But that separation in practice, historically, is the ordinary way in which large-scale countries and societies are governed, right down to the modern national state. So the practice and the theory, the practice and the ideal, are in contrast. And the ideal, the unity of state and religion and politics, is now invoked as a criticism or as an alternative to the actual practice.

And Afghanistan and the Taliban would be an extreme example of that?

That’s an extreme example of trying to establish an Islamic state, one which enforces what the Taliban think of as the right religious rules.

You make the point in your work again and again that the Islamic identity goes with multiple identities. And that where Islam has flowered, it’s been as part of a complex civilization which it both defines and is shaped by.

If you talk to individuals — I think if you could talk to anybody in the past and in the present — most people have, as you say, multiple levels of identity. They’re Muslims, but that’s not the only thing. They’re also members of a family or a tribe. They’re people from a particular location. They have a profession. They have political loyalties of one sort of another. They have clientele ties. They have economic interests. These complex connections conflict with each other sometimes, and people have to reconcile which level is important in any given case. So, sometimes, they invoke being Muslim. Sometimes they invoke their families’ financial interests. That gives people everywhere a great variety of options.

It’s an extreme and it’s still a very rare case that people will say they are Muslims only, that they have, in fact, no other loyalties and no other commitments. You can only see that in the case of political extremists and terrorists — that’s why they are free from the obligations that keep everybody else integrated in a society. That’s rare.

We shouldn’t think of Islam as a single thing that defines a people. It’s just one, albeit an important factor that operates in their thinking.

And a different setting has a very …

Has different, varying weight.

4-Women and Islam

One matter of interest is the status, the role, the place of women in Islam. Again, in looking at that subject in your book, you expose a much more complicated history and evolution of the status of women than the common perception in the United States is. Help us to understand the complexity of that status, and how it has changed over time.

This is not only complicated, this is a very controversial subject.

Yes, it is.

Even dangerous … The way I see it, there are certain guidelines, which you kind of know. Generally speaking, Muslim societies are patriarchal societies, and so men are expected to have a dominant position, to have the last say in the family. People commonly think of men as being superior in reason to women. They think of social order as correct if a man dominates his family. But when you get down to the reality of how people actually relate to each other, the differences are enormous, and you see every kind of situation. You see typical patriarchal families. You see nuclear families where a husband and wife are in practice co-equal — whatever family decisions are made or negotiated, they’re discussed between husband and wife. You see families where by force of personality or sometimes by force of family status or riches, in reality the woman dominates the household. If she respects the traditional practice, she doesn’t do this in public, but, in fact, she dominates the household. So you see a great spectrum of behavior in real situations, and very diverse possibilities for the distribution of power between men and women, whatever the formal norms of the society.

Now, this is changing in contemporary times. In modern times, it changes because, first, the education of women is becoming a universal value. The more women are educated, the more they demand, in terms of career opportunities, respect, and influence on family matters. This is almost universal. So nowadays, even conservative Muslims, even reformists or revivalist Muslims, make allowance for this reality, favoring the education of women — or some do. Some favor the education of women, and as much as they will stress the superior prerogatives of men, their real operating model is the nuclear family.

Once you get educated women, people go through the same process we’ve been through — the women want careers and work. That is extremely controversial, because conservative Muslims think of that as taking the woman out of the family, subjecting her to temptations and influences that are extrafamilial. And they are still, largely — not entirely, but largely — opposed to that. But it changes. Education and the influence of the media are terrifically important forces affecting the status of women today.

You suggest that the veil can have double meanings. Talk a little about that. That it doesn’t necessarily just indicate their subjugation within Islamic society.

My main point of view is that there are always multiple situations. It can mean very different things. It can mean the very traditional seclusion of women in the household. Nobody sees their face in the market. They don’t go out. They only have women friends. They’re cloistered in the family. It can mean that.

It can also mean almost the opposite. For example, in Egypt, which has a very strong Islamic movement, the majority of university women now wear the veil. They wear the veil, it seems to me, as a way of going ahead with their education and careers, making a space in a society of men who hear a certain message from that. The message is, “I’m a serious, professional person. I’m not here to be flirted with or trifled with. I have conservative moral values. And I want to make a career. I’m entitled to a career, and I’m a good woman anyway.” It’s very functional and it works very well, since so many women, for example, coming to Cairo —men and women — come from villages and have very conservative families. This reassures the family that a young woman is behaving properly in the city, and they don’t have to worry about her.

So the veil, which we associate with tradition, can be a vehicle for modernization, for upward mobility, and for actually bringing modernization.


5-Islam after 9/11

As a historian of Islamic societies and somebody who has spent a lot of time understanding its complexity, its diversity, what was your reaction to the response of people in this country to the events of 9/11? After reading your book, I was reminded of a quote from the Bible: “Now we see darkly, then shall we see face to face.” I have the sense that we have a very limited vision of what Islam is, whether it’s our adversary, its implication in the events of 9/11.

What I think is that that is a disaster. It’s a disaster for Muslims as well as for Americans, for Westerners. It’s a shocking exaggeration of the element of conflict and rivalry. [The 9/11 events] make the situation look to many people like a conflict of civilizations, which it isn’t, I think, in reality. It makes it seem that way to Americans. It makes it seem that way to Muslims, especially with the American military response. So I think that’s a disaster, and it obscures the fact that in so many deep ways, we actually have a common civilization, both on secular and religious bases.

We have so many common interests, or at least reasons for good relations, cooperative relations. We have close political ties. We have business ties. There are millions and millions of Muslims living now in Europe and America. We have shared worlds, and it obscures the importance of these shared worlds. I think that’s really unfortunate.

At the core of Huntington’s argument about a clash of civilizations is a clash of values. Is that what he’s trying to get at, or do you have a sense of that?

You have to take people at their word in certain ways. There is a clash of values in the minds of the extremists, and in the minds of people who want an extreme response to this. You can make it into a clash of values. People will try to do that as a justification for the conflict of interest, or for the justification for the violence. They want to say there are deep principles at stake. So it’s a choice we make as to how we see it. But I don’t think that’s inherently the case. What we need is a supple politics that distinguishes violent enemies with whom we are going to be at war from the average Muslim with whom we have no reason to be in conflict with.

You’re suggesting that there is [more of] a compatibility of religious values than we realize?

There’s more of that and more of a basis for it than we commonly think.

Help us understand the way Islam, or parts of Islam, interface with globalization and American power. Because it seems to be the case that this argument about the clash of civilizations goes on to draw conclusions not just about philosophical values, but about a conflict of interest. And the question is, is that right? Is it ever right? If it is right sometimes, what is it about particular interfaces that lead certain Islamic radicals to see the opportunity in globalization to mobilize people and to direct that animosity toward the United States and its power?

You ask complicated questions.

Let me say first about globalization, there are different levels of it. On a cultural level, the U.S. in particular, but also Europe, is extraordinarily forceful in promoting a consumer culture. All over the world, what people want in everyday life is Coca-Cola, jeans, movies — those must be the principal American mass products sold everywhere. They are very important to people all over the world because they symbolize liberation from tradition — liberation from traditional restraints on behavior, liberation from family control, liberation from political control. That has enormous appeal. However shallow we might think it, it’s a symbol of something really potent. And so it’s an enormous threat to conservative milieus, to societies which still live in small family and village communities. It’s an enormous threat. It dissolves the family. People want to go out and make money rather than remain at home and live under the authority of papa and mama. So that is a huge threat. Conservative Muslims all over the world see it as a threat rather than as an opportunity. Many do. That’s one dimension of it that makes the unease and the hostility with the West very widespread in the Muslim countries.

Then there are reasons, politically, why the strength of the West provokes antagonism. And that is, essentially, because the United States backs the existing governments in most countries. And backing those governments, we help those governments in Muslim countries to refuse reforms and to put down the opposition. So the Muslim radicals see local governments, and the U.S. behind them, as their dual enemy. In that sense, globalization, the ever-greater influence of America around the world, is provoking resistance and a reaction. In the last decade, the focal point of that resistance has begun to shift from its trying to attack local governments, to trying to attack the United States. I think that’s what we see in the World Trade Center.

There is an emergence of a new variant on the notion of a global Muslim identity that relates to identifying with Muslim resistance movements in different parts of the world?

Yes. Say that Muslims are being affected. That is yet another way that globalization impacts Muslims. Muslims —just like European or American professionals and intellectuals and businessmen and people in any technology — live in a global environment. The national state becomes much less important for people in big corporations, in advanced fields of development. So many more people are involved in international trade, or international economic exchanges, than ever before. That’s the primary impact of globalization. The technology allows for a universal diffusion of people’s ideas. The web, radio, TV. So there are lots of Muslims who no longer feel an allegiance to a particular national state. They feel they’re cosmopolitans; only they’re cosmopolitan Muslims. So they think of themselves as representing the true and universal version of Islam without the compromising loyalties to individual countries. And that’s a growing phenomenon. You find only a tiny percentage of people represented, but it’s a growing phenomenon.

How do you explain al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in the context of this discussion? Is he a particular variant of this or phenomenon?

He’s a particular variant in the extremism of waging war directly to cope. But he’s typical in a lot of ways. He’s a Saudi, originally, opposed to the Saudi regime. He opposes it from a still more purist religious position than the Saudis take. He opposes them as corrupted and unworthy of continuing to rule. He can’t make any political progress in Saudi Arabia. Because he identifies with Islam as the legitimating truth that justifies his opposition, he looks for causes abroad that he can support to help the pure and good Muslims, as he sees them.

So Afghanistan was his first range of activity. Then, he sees everywhere that it’s American power that stands behind the evil, local regimes, and that since there’s no field of opportunity at home, he’s looking for ways to attack the United States. So, he has that global identity. He has the anti-national, anti-Saudi basis for it. But he represents an extremist minority that believes that the only proper response is violence.

6- Revivalist Islam

In the concluding part of your book, you talk about the Islamic revival as a way to get a handle on recent events, and you argue that it’s much more complex than we normally realize. We don’t want to fall into the trap of saying the terrorist, the jihadists, are the only element of the Islamic revival. There are other forms of revival. What are those other forms, and what is the diversity that they represent, that sometimes we’re not seeing?

The other forms are basically religious revivals where people preach, go to mosques, listen to sermons and tapes of sermons, and so on. There are educational movements that want to uplift the condition of Muslims by providing an education. There are social welfare movements, a very important part of the revival: a community organizing to provide everything from charitable support to families, jobs for men out of work, intervention in family matters; communities [provide] social services — everything down to picking up the garbage and monitoring the water supply, or talking to government officials to make sure that [someone’s] check comes through.

It’s a political party/welfare party kind of stuff. That’s what the Islamic revival represents everywhere. But it’s done on a religious basis. It’s a faith-based revival. So people are motivated and explain it in religious terms. That is the much more common and almost universal form of Islamic revival.

Is there also a political reform movement that’s not necessarily directed to combining traditional Islam with the control of the state?

There’s a spectrum here, too. You find political movements where people try to translate this party-nawaathine base into politics. They want to run for parliament, they want to get seats in parliament. They want to influence legislation. They don’t have many opportunities to do that. The most visible one right now is the outcome of the elections in Turkey, where what was validly an Islamic party three years ago presents itself now in neutral reformist terms. But everyone knows this is motivated by Islamic welfare considerations. Now they’ve taken power, and I think they are going to try to function in the parliamentary framework of Turkey to advance their interest. I see them as, in effect, the equivalent of a Christian Democratic Party. They are a “Muslim Democratic Party.”

Then you do have movements that are broad-based politically, but whose ultimate agenda is to create an Islamic state. You have that, too.

The problem in most of the Muslim world is that neither local governments nor the United States is willing to give these parties a chance in a fair, democratic electoral competition, and see what they do. Everyone’s afraid that if they come to power, they’ll immediately turn radical.

Sometimes it seems we, that is, the United States, in our foreign policy are our own worst enemy, in the sense that our narrow focus on terrorism leads us to [support] particular regimes that further the success of the very radical fundamentalists we oppose.


It seems to be the case in Pakistan, for example.

Yes. That’s a dilemma that we’ve never been able to resolve. The classic case is the Shah of Iran, whom we backed entirely, thinking that he would be “our man” in the Middle East. And that didn’t work. In other regimes, the struggle is reduced to a struggle of force, when you have a repressive regime and you get a violent opposition. There’s no middle ground for political competition. That’s very dangerous.

Are you, as a historian, frustrated by the limited extent to which a historian’s understanding of Islam is not reflected in the policies of your own government?

Oh, yes, sure. I’m sure I could advise how to do a better job. I’m not sure I could get it done. Yes, and you can see what my frustration is, that the problem is not seen in a large enough context and that the solutions people try to get are not sufficiently various and multiple-leveled solutions. We go too much to the same devices of military power and economic bribery.

7- Conclusion

If you were advising students who have an interest in Islam and dealing with the Islamic world, do you have any advice for them to how to prepare for that future?

Be prepared for anything. Don’t expect anything to stay the same.

As you mentioned before, we live in an increasingly integrated global society, and I think students should know at least one foreign language well, and be able to function in a foreign environment, whatever one they choose. They should prepare themselves for the possibility of internationally related careers through whatever discipline they want — political science, history, sociology, public health, conservation of resources. There are all kinds of options, but I think all the options will increasingly have a global dimension.

Is there any particular lesson that they might draw from your intellectual odyssey, if they were to watch this tape?

What lesson would I like them to draw?

Yes, or do you … ?

Now you’re pushing me over the edge. Yes. Open-mindedness to how truly rich the world is, not to close it down by thinking it has to fit in a few boxes.

I can’t resist the urge in the few minutes remaining to link your interest in photography to your interest in the Muslim world. I know you take photographs of windows, shopping windows, and then in that view, see multiple perspectives. In fact, you say on your website, “What I see in these pictures is my childhood, roaming the streets of New York, finding a city of pleasures, drama and excitement, full of towering skyscrapers, trendy people …” and on and on. So it’s a kind of a kaleidoscope of unexpected images. Isn’t that really what you found in the Islamic world? Is that fair, or is that stretching it?

No, actually, you’ve explained it to me.

I see, okay.

Because I couldn’t have answered your question. But yes, that quote goes on to say, you also find the tawdriness and dirtiness, and even misery in city life, too. That is a fair image. I want to put into an image something of a complication and variety of the world. The way that I go at it is I’m looking into a window, but I’m really taking a picture of what’s in there, meshed with what’s back of me, which is a cityscape, a city environment.

To reveal the situational complexity.

That’s right — in one image.

Well, on that note, which combines these different facets of your multitalented life and your intellectual odyssey, Ira, I want to thank you for being here today, and talking with us about Islam.

Thank you, Harry. This was very stimulating for me. They’re certainly wonderful questions.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.


1- Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founding Chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies on the Berkeley campus. Professor Lapidus has traveled extensively across the Muslim world and written many articles and books on Islam and related subjects. His publications include Islam, Politics, and Social Movements, edited with Edmund Burke, and Contemporary Islamic Movements in Historical Perspective. He is also the author of A History of Islamic Societies, which was published in 1988 and has recently been issued in a second edition.