Richard W. Bulliet's "Methodists and Muslims: My life as an Orientalist"

The agency of historians. Or what Edward Said missed out on

Is it legitimate for a historian to compare 11th century Nishapur with 20th century Rockford, Illinois? What possible motive can there be for studying Middle Eastern societies if you have no biographical ties with the region? Eminent Middle East historian Richard Bulliet answers these and other questions in his witty memoir "Methodists and Muslims: My life as an Orientalist". Sonja Hegasy read the book

I do not agree with the former president of the American University in Beirut, John Waterbury, when he says that "it is difficult to pin down the central message or messages of this memoir".

In fact, I have rarely read a book with three such clear messages: firstly, we are invited to observe a historian at work during various stages of his formation (including adolescence), thereby raising the topical question of historical knowledge production. Secondly, the author examines the inherent motives of Orientalists and Middle East experts after the Second World War. And thirdly, the book is time and again an inner dialogue with the eminent professor of literature Edward Said.

In the first instance, Harvard-trained scholar Bulliet explores his positionality as someone who started off in 1960s USA as a historian of the medieval Middle East and "ended" by inviting Iranian President Ahmadinejad to Columbia University in 2007, via detours of painting and trying his hand as an author of fiction and pornography (for which latter Bulliet has conveniently forgotten his pen name).

Coming-of-age elements

Methodists and Muslims has something of the coming-of-age novel about it. Luckily, Bulliet kept and shares the sources about his family – don’t skip part one on his parents and grandparents – and himself, including a diary penned while travelling between Iran and Morocco in the pre-Saidian era.

This in itself is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the construction of knowledge about the Islamicate world. In addition: anybody who has heard Richard Bulliet teach will have experienced his dry humour, in which it is impossible to detect even the slightest change in tone or facial expression. The same is true of this book.

Cover of Richard W. Bulliet's "Methodists and Muslims: My Life as an Orientalist" (published by Ilex Foundation/Harvard University Press)
Both memoir and critique, "Methodists and Muslims" follows Richard Bulliet's expansive career, starting with his beginnings in Illinois to his entree into the then-arcane field of Islamic Studies and culminating in the controversial visit to New York City by President Ahmadinejad of Iran

Once upon a time it was apparently acceptable to give lectures based on notes by someone else. While giving a lecture at Berkeley on Syrian history by Orientalist Hamilton A.R. Gibb, Bulliet was asked by a student during a moment of universal boredom: "Why are you giving this lecture?"

"Definitely not what I wanted to hear, and definitely not a Harvard question," writes Bulliet, and continues: "After quelling my instincts to give a barbed response, I said: I’m giving this lecture because I have the notes for it." It was the last time Richard Bulliet was seen to give a lecture from written notes.

Bulliet reveals himself in extensive quotes from his diaries as well. In doing so, he exemplifies the big questions in history writing, in his case, how he came to his assumptions about 11th-century society in Nishapur – by comparing it with modern Rockford, his birth town in Illinois. This is a long shot, and the majority of historians might formally object to such an approach. But Bulliet rationalises the comparison in his conclusion.

Frankness of tone

His frankness is useful to the reader, as Bulliet sets out to examine Orientalism from within (i.e., as an Orientalist): "Was I wrongheaded in unconsciously assimilating the Nishapur I imagined to the Rockford that I grew up in? Of course I was. How could I not be? I hadn’t been alive in the eleventh century. I wasn’t Iranian. I wasn’t Muslim. […] All I had to go on was my imagination, in my own life experience, and an array of textual sources that had almost nothing explicit to say about the areas of social history that interested me most. Was this Orientalism? Of course it was."

But – and this is the second "message" throughout the book – this interest was neither malign towards nor denigrating of non-Western cultures, as he implicitly substantiates with numerous examples of his own thinking and political engagement. Bulliet denies "that an imaginative and malign creation of 'the Oriental other' was a determining factor in my research."

While the awkwardness of research topics in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies can sometimes feasibly make us believe that there is no benign willpower behind them, Bulliet is probably one of the few historians who can point to similarly "out-of-place" topics he has had published outside the region, like Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationship (Columbia University Press 2005).

The Said connection

Thirdly, Methodists and Muslims is an inner monologue with the late professor of literature Edward Said, his colleague at Columbia University for over 17 years. Bulliet accepts his fate as an Orientalist and writes this book to let the reader and Said know what else an Orientalist could be, and not from low motives.

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