Akbar’s Chamber offers a non-political, non-sectarian and non-partisan space for exploring the past and present of Islam. It has no political or theological bias other than a commitment to the Socratic method (which is to say that questions lead us to understanding) and the empirical record (which is to say the evidence of the world around us). By these methods, Akbar’s Chamber is devoted to enriching public awareness of Islam and Muslims both past and present.
The podcast aims to improve understanding of Islam in all its variety, in all regions of the world, by inviting experts to share their specialist knowledge in terms that we can all understand.
A World of Wonders: A Muslim Guidebook to the Cosmos
Writing amid the tumult of the Mongol invasions, the polymath Zakariyya al-Qazwini compiled an account of the earth and heavens that rose above his dismal surroundings to depict a creation full of wonders and rarities. After leading readers through everything under the sun—animal, mineral, or vegetable-he then turned to the planets and stars, before looking back below, to the relations of the celestial and terrestrial domains. Not content to remain on the level of the physical cosmos, Qazwini tried to show how observation of the natural world contained metaphysical and even moral lessons, teaching the careful observer how to live a better, and fuller, existence. At the core of this approach was the concept of wonder, a disposition Qazwini aimed to inculcate in his readers as they looked up and out from the pages of his book to the marvels of the cosmos around them. Nile Green talks to Travis Zadeh, author of Wonders and Rarities: The Marvelous Book That Traveled the World and Mapped the Cosmos (Harvard University Press, 2023).
How Bengalis Became Muslim (and How Islam Became Bengali)
Home to some 175 million Muslims, Bengal—incorporating today’s Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal—is one of the largest but least known regions of the Muslim world. Since the medieval period, it has also reared a rich literature in the Bangla language, written by both Muslims and Hindus alike. In this episode, we’ll examine how one particular text, the Nabivamśa, helped convert many Bengalis to Islam in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Written by Sayyid Sultan, the Nabivamśa was the first biography of the Prophet Muhammad to be written in Bangla. Yet rather than rejecting Bengal’s Vaishnava Hindu traditions, Sayyid Sultan incorporated them into his cosmic history of divine revelation. And so, as much as it was a biography of an Arabian prophet, the Nabivamśa was also a story of a Muslim Krishna who was sent by God as an heir to Abraham and a forerunner of Muhammad. Nile Green talks to Ayesha Irani, author of The Muhammad Avatara: Salvation History, Translation, and the Making of Bengali Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), which was a finalist for the American Academy of Religion’s Book Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion.
The Meanings of Muslim Mysticism: An Introduction to Classical Sufi Texts
Between the eighth and tenth century, a series of profound texts were written in Arabic that explored the deepest, darkest and ultimately the most brightly illuminated corners of the human psyche. Their authors were the founding figures of the Islamic mystical tradition known as Sufism. But inasmuch as these teachers were mystics, whose prayers and spiritual exercises had yielded extraordinary inner experiences, they were also psychologists whose writings laid bare the both the delights and delusions of the human personality, and the path to its perfection by the annihilation of the ego. Yet in order to share their experiences, and the lessons that were the fruit of them, the Sufis needed to wrestle with another set of issues: the problem of language. And so, after explaining the key terms and concepts of classical Sufism, in this episode we’ll learn how the early Sufi masters tackled the problem of translating mystical experiences into language that ordinary people could understand. Then, turning to our own times, we’ll examine how those Arabic texts can be made comprehensible in English. Fortunately, we’re joined in Akbar’s Chamber by Michael Sells, who has devoted his career to translating classical Arabic and especially Sufi texts. He is the author and translator of Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur’an, Mi‘raj, Poetic and Theological Writings (Paulist Press, 1996).
Singapore Islam: How a Commercial Hub became a Muslim Melting Pot
Few people today would think of Singapore as being a religious center, still less a Muslim one. But even before it began its great commercial climb in modern times, the city was already linked to the spiritual and mercantile networks of Indian Ocean Islam. Then, from nineteenth century, Singapore played host to as varied a spectrum of Asian Muslims as might be imagined, whether Yemeni Sufis and merchants, Indian laborers and missionaries, or publishers and miracle workers from across Southeast Asia. From Arabic to Tamil and Malay, these migrants brought along their own traditions and languages, which melded into the many rich expressions of ‘Singapore Islam.’ Nile Green talks to Teren Sevea, author of Miracles and Material Life: Rice, Ore, Traps and Guns in Islamic Malaya (Cambridge University Press, 2020), which won the Harry J. Benda Prize of the Association for Asian Studies.
‘The Master of Illumination’: The Teachings of Suhrawardi
Few philosophers can be said to have been watershed figures, in the wake of whose teachings a tradition of philosophy forever changed its course. Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi was such a figure for the development of Islamic philosophy. Trained in the Aristotelian school of Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna), Suhrawardi nonetheless became a mystical philosopher who not only demonstrated the limits of rational deduction, but also insisted there was an alternative mode of knowledge. This he called ‘ilm al-huzuri—literally ‘knowledge by presence’—that derived from our direct experiences. As a mystic, such experiences included not only the commonsensical realm of ordinary everyday experience. It also included the mystical states that he argued allowed human beings to come into the presence of their own true being and in turn the ultimate Being of God. Both, he claimed, were pure light: divine light that that was at once the basis of all existence and the source of all knowledge. Drawing from the famous Light Verse of the Quran, from his philosophical studies, and from his own mystical experiences, Suhrawardi called his teachings the ‘Wisdom of Illumination’ (hikmat al-ishraq). Nile Green talks to John Walbridge, author of God and Logic in Islam: The Caliphate of Reason (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
God’s Unruly Friends: Rule Breaking World Renouncers of Medieval Islam
According to a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “Poverty is my pride.” Perhaps no group of Muslims took that adage so seriously as the qalandars and other dervishes who not only renounced the comforts of family and domestic life, but also rejected every trace of social respectability. Nothing mattered more to them—they took pride in nothing else—than their vows of complete poverty. For to renounce the world, and punish the flesh through a life of daily discomfort, was the surest way to negate the self and so fully submit to the will of God. Paradoxically, this logic also led them to renounce the Sharia, since they believed poverty turned them into God’s unruly but saintly friends. For their critics, this was hypocrisy at best and heresy at worst. Yet from the Balkans to India, qalandars wandered from town to town and tribe to tribe, winning followers from the lower classes and literati alike by living up to their arduous principles. Nile Green talks to Ahmet Karamustafa, author of God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200–1550 (University of Utah Press, 1994).
this is fantastic ! wow