Talha Ahsan hosts the Abbasid History Podcast - an audio platform for the study of the pre-modern Islamic(ate) past. The Abbasid History Podcast interviews academics and researchers about their work, to bring their ideas in long form audio to their peers, as well as junior students and general listeners.
We talk to Talha about his experience hosting the podcast, the intention behind it, and his thoughts on Islamic art, history and culture more widely.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, why did you start the Abbasid History podcast series?
Education is an emotive topic in popular discussion and the teaching of history is particularly fraught. There can be two extreme approaches in making sense of where we are now compared to the past: nostalgia and progress. That is either we can go to the extreme of thinking everything gets worse over time or everything gets better. And the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.
We are right now speaking about the past of our co-religionists in a language that was never theirs unlike Persian, Yoruba or Jawi, and yet it has become the dominant tongue, along with neighbors, to analyze the Muslim past. This not need be a bad thing.
And so here we are: the Abbasid History Podcast. An audio platform in the English language (currently!) speaking with academics and researchers about the pre-modern past with our feet in Islamdom but our eyes and ears wide open.
We started in June 2019 with our inaugural episode with the godfather of medieval Islamic history, Professor Hugh Kennedy. I’m still the host and I am currently a PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
The podcast is about the history, of the Muslim majority world, particularly the central region from Muslim ruled Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Did you initially start with an intention to focus on the Abbasid Empire and it grew into something bigger?
I felt our remit ought to complement the Ottoman History Podcast which inspired us. For us, the long Abbasid era ends in 1517 when the caliphature is formerly handed to the Ottoman dynasty. We also cover pre-Islamic topics. We can’t avoid the possibility of covering even more recent times as a type of reception history to ideas and objects from the Abbasid era.
We were keen to manifest a global approach to the past. We tend to think the crisscross of peoples is unique to modern times, but words and items have moved across land and sea for far longer. To make hermetically tight boundaries across geography and chronologically, though required for convenience of teaching, must be recognized as just that: interventions of convenience, not natural and inherent.
You interview academics, archivists and artists on their work. Do you come up with the themes for the episodes or do your collaborators contribute ideas?
We ended 2021 with 38 episodes. We look for people whose work excite us and we reach out with a script. We dislike the format of two guys chatting. We curate an arc to our episodes.
Who is the podcast intended for?
Ours is a conversation with the dead and unborn.
Initially, we aimed for anyone interested in Muslim societies and cultures whether specialists or lay folk, but we were keen to pull in anyone looking at pre-modern world in general to share parallel developments. Our social media accounts show the range of our listeners of intelligent folk.
We are keen to be a resource for those who don’t have the privilege nor luxury of studying at college or university. Listeners are effectively sitting in on a seminar which in real word value may be thousands of dollars. Some of our episodes have been put on college reading lists. We also recommended as a lockdown listen by the New Arab news magazine!
We have listeners from around the world. We periodically post updates from PodStatus who monitor podcast rankings. It’s so inspiring to see us breaking into the iTune charts in unexpected parts of the world like Switzerland or Ghana.
Great minds tend to think alike wherever they are!
What impact do you hope the podcast has on listeners?
We want to educate more than to entertain, but our guests know how to be lighthearted too. We won’t hide that at times we want to infuriate and antagonize.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Each episode is an ambassador for our project. Each episode is crafted with care. Each episode is scripted then recorded then edited. Each episode has to be one about which we can be proud.
Our twelve part series, a Spring of Classical Arabic Poetry, with Dr. Kevin Blankinship at Brigham-Young University in Utah has been very popular, and it has been gratifying to have the support of a big figure like Prof. Peter Adamson, author and host of the A History of Philosophy without any Gaps podcast series.
Can the inclusion of diverse histories help facilitate a better understanding of the world?
Probably not, but truthful histories can. ‘Diversity’, like a whole host of faddish terms, Anglophone Moslems adopt wholeheartedly thinking that it helps, but their shortsightedness doesn’t make them realise that it all hurts in the end.
Don’t aim for ‘inclusion’, instead aim to be the best. Achieve excellence. Don’t whine. Grow, build, consolidate and be in the position where the powerful now has to negotiate instead of dictate. Understand that it’s the prerogative of the strong since forever to conquer and plunder. Return the favour.
Do you think Islamic history should be included more widely in mainstream education?
Simple answer: No.
Do I think we could do better in our knowledge and reflections upon the past? Of course.
The matter is more philosophical than I can get into here and I’m not just being deliberately contrarian. Basically, ‘mainstream education’ is not there to impart knowledge and wisdom. Schools serve as state-subsidised baby-sitters. Tinkering with them has little return in value. Boycott them wholly.
I prefer to see a more global perspective to that past. What happened in year X? This happened here, and here, and here, and so on.
We should be seeing more collaborations of unlikely subjects. What were the Aztecs thinking at the time of the Abbasids? They never met but they observed the same stars, sun and moon.
At the same time, those who are believe in the truthfulness of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) have to realise that there is a scheme to events. Becoming literate to that is the true education we must aim to achieve.
What benefits can audio content including podcasts have on engaging with heritage, history and culture for the future?
I don’t want to see more content. I want to see more conversation. And collaboration. And creation. And dare I say: change – change for the better, not worse, not change for the sake of change.
Our household has always been a radio-centered household. I grew up with radio dramas and serialisations, comedies and panel shows. Now these are offered as podcasts so we can listen without regard to a broadcast schedule while washing dishes or shopping.
There are obvious utilities for audio guided tours of museums, particularly unofficial, transgressive ones.
We can get distracted with screen visuals especially when slickly edited. There is a need for quiet to the eyes. Let the ears see instead.
What are the potential future opportunities for Islamic art, culture and heritage. How can digital platforms like podcasts contribute to the development?
Digital platforms ought to have minimum a role in the development of any art, culture and heritage inspired by and in service of the sacred and divine. The medium is the message, and the digital medium by its nature is profane and degenerate. Digital platforms either return to that sense of optimism and innocence of childhood diaries and scrapbooking of the 90’s, or we shouldn’t kid ourselves that social media designed to be addictive and intrusive have any more impact beyond its own echo chamber.
We tend to forget that the majority of the children of Adam living on the face of the earth do not possess access to the internet. Granted, it’s always the imperial elite that capture the means of cultural legacy, at least the ones that strut and shout across time, but a quiet lineage of pieties persist too. One can observe it in the way a girl is taught to plait her hair by her mother, or the way a son is taught to till the earth. The moment any of that is captured on Instagram by an influencer, I feel an angel cry.
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