Influencing global political discourse and bringing it to class
History professor Shah Mahmoud Hanifi teaches students to think critically.
Originally published in Fall 2010 Madison Magazine.
Author and renowned scholar Shah Mahmoud Hanifi is one of the nation’s few experts on Afghanistan. He is influencing global political discourse and bringing it directly to JMU classrooms.
Madison: You spent a spring 2010 sabbatical working on your second book about Afghanistan. How will this experience enhance relationships with your students?
Shah Mahmoud Hanifi: I enjoyed giving some talks this year that I am organizing around my forthcoming book Knowing Afghanistan: The Epistemology of a Global Colonial Frontier. In addition to preparing a few chapters and essays to appear in edited books and journals I have contracted with Stanford University Press for a paperback print version of my first book, Connecting Histories in Afghanistan and with I. B. Tauris for an edited volume, Power Hierarchies and Hegemony in Afghanistan: State Building, Ethnic Minorities and Identity in Central Asia. Through my research and publication efforts, I’m developing new ways of thinking about subject matters, which I’m anxious to convey to students who will in turn surely help me refine my thinking and writing about the things I’m trying to learn better.
Madison: You are an assiduous researcher and scholar. You could teach anywhere. What do you like about JMU’s teaching environment and direct contact with undergrads?
Hanifi: As a historian with transnational and global orientations, the most appealing, and challenging, aspects of teaching at JMU are the geographical breadth and chronological depth I push my students and myself to explore. My duties at JMU have prompted me to creatively use and branch out from my core interests in the economic impact of British Indian colonialism on 19th-century Afghanistan to engage a variety of issues including printing, literacy and bureaucracies in the region of the world between Casablanca and Calcutta since the rise of Islam. I appreciate the institutional space for comparative and interdisciplinary teaching at JMU, and my students help me think about material that in some instances I am learning afresh right along with them.
Madison: How do you transform the innate curiosity of JMU history students into disciplined, in-sightful and analytical investigation?
Hanifi: For understanding the Middle East, South Asia and the Islamic world more broadly it is first and foremost necessary to de-exoticize and humanize the people there. The next task is to expose students to the social and cultural complexity in this part of the world. The subsequent need is to address the ongoing interaction and changing relations between the multiple communities that interact across this wide zone. The final goal is for students to situate the Middle East, South Asia and the Islamic world in relation to the rest of the world.
Madison: How do you take someone from curious student to novice researcher to practiced historian?
Hanifi: That is the true reward of teaching. Students mature at different rates. However, one pattern that emerges among them is a moment when after exposure to considerable doses of local, regional and world history it dawns on students that knowledge is partial and full of inconsistencies and contradictions. This prompts them to realize that practical organization of information and careful interpretation of limited data are the keys to practicing history. The beauty of this maturation moment is that it renders the historian’s craft tangible and manageable for rapidly growing young minds. The period of this intellectual conjuncture can vary from a few weeks to a full semester. It entails students metaphorically “looking themselves in the mirror” and coming to terms with their own short-term limitations while also helping to frame their longer-term aspirations.
Madison: Talk about a time when you were able to engage with a student who has become an “expert” in a particular topic and feel that you have been enlightened.
Hanifi: The first student fitting this mold is John Adair Miller (’06, ’09M). John is one of the many undergraduate history majors who have returned to JMU for graduate school, in his case a master’s degree in our emerging graduate program concentration in global history. He produced a first-rate thesis on Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan that taught me a lot about a place I thought I knew well. John is now pursuing a Ph.D. in history, focusing on Afghanistan, at Ohio State University. I also want to mention Claire Metcalfe (’08), whom I first encountered on a Study Abroad program in London. She wrote an award-winning senior honors thesis about the history of cholera in British Colonial India under my direction in the anthropology department. Claire returned to Europe for graduate work and earned an M.A. with honors in bioarchaeology at the University of London. She is now considering Ph.D. programs in paleontology and paleoecology in England and Germany. I’ve learned quite a bit about the history of colonial medicine, physical anthropology and archaeology from Claire.
Madison: What first inspired you to your field? Do you see that same excitement in your students?
Hanifi: In some ways I was born into my field through an Afghan father and a Lebanese mother. However, in other ways my excitement about the history of the Middle East was triggered just as it is with my students. My commitment to history took shape over the course of a revolutionary few weeks as an undergraduate, when I started thinking critically about my particular niche as a burgeoning historian, career goals and my overall life aspirations.
‘I appreciate the institutional space for comparative and interdisciplinary teaching at JMU, and my
students help me think about material that in some instances I am learning afresh right along with them.’
— Shah Mahmoud Hanifi
Madison: By coordinating the minor in Middle Eastern communities and migrations, you get to collaborate across the university. What is attracting students to this minor?
Hanifi: I’m sure global events are attracting students to the minor, but one thing history teaches us is that times change and wars end. My long-term goal is to leave structures in place for academic knowledge to continue to flourish and remain in demand in a far less militarized context that I hope, perhaps against all odds, will develop domestically and globally sooner rather than later.
Madison: Describe the educated and enlightened citizen you see graduate from the history department.
Hanifi: One who is able to critically examine his or herself and the structures that make that thinking possible, and one who uses that critical self-awareness to more fully understand other cultures.
✱ Learn more about Hanifi’s research here.