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In the spotlight: William Sherman

What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

Do I have my hands on the Lathe of Heaven somehow? This seemed like a fellowship and an intellectual community that manifested out of my own dreams. The call for applications was, as it were, my first introduction to CAPAS. Even before receiving news that I would be fellow, therefore, I was grateful to the call for applications for alerting me to this vibrant, curious, and strange intellectual community.

William Sherman

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?

I work primarily with Persian and Pashto religious texts written by early modern Muslims in the regions that would become Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the imaginations of these communities, the apocalypse is both an immanent—even visceral—aspect of daily life and a cosmic principle of radical contingency. As Sura 75 of the Qur’an declares, God can just as easily gather our bones as God can fashion us with fingertips in the first place. In other words, for the sources in which I immerse myself, the apocalypse is first and foremost the insistence that what seems stable and concrete—the mountains, our particular senses of self and subjectivity, our particular ideologies of reality, temporality, and the past—can turn to dust at any moment. The tricky question for me, therefore, is how do I begin to lend my own temporal and apocalyptic imagination to the ends envisioned in these sources? How do I stop treating “their” apocalypse as an object of study and instead let the dead become a community of my interlocutors where “their” apocalypse comes to shape my own practice as both a historian and someone living in this time? I don’t know! 

What is your fellowship trying to achieve?

As my previous answer suggests, I’m attempting to connect early modern Afghan sources about the apocalypse with the practice of history—and, more generally, to let early modern Afghan sources be the source of theories that can read and interpret “us” in the present. Practically, I’m spending a lot of time at CAPAS poring over Persian and Pashto manuscripts and then placing them into conversation with many of the themes that have animated the works of so many of the researchers at CAPAS. This represents a bit of shift for me, actually, because I came to CAPAS thinking I would attempt to write a more traditional historical narrative of how the discourse of the apocalypse in Afghan sources shifted in the early modern period. Inspired by my fellow fellows and their brilliant projects, however, I’ve moved onto the appropriately time-looping project of theorizing my own positionality—as a historian in twenty-first century English-language universities—through the literary and religious experiments with the apocalypse we find in the Afghan highlands of some centuries ago. The end result, I hope, is to find some routes toward expanding our historical imaginations, toward recognizing the limitations of our current practice of history, and toward recognizing the centrality of the apocalypse in attempting to form ethical relationships with the dead of the past. 

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography? 

From the outside, I imagine that my work at CAPAS looks quite similar to my previous work. I am, after all, still spending all day trying to sink into the words and worlds of messiahs, mystics, and apocalyptic preachers who roamed the roads between Kabul and Peshawar! What is different—and quite substantially so—is the tone and horizon of my CAPAS project. My work at CAPAS is not explicitly comparative, but it represents a new effort on my part to treat seriously the audaciously universalizing claims of the sources that I read. Rather than attempting to wrestle the dead into a box by presenting the best historical narrative that I can write of a messianic movement in sixteenth-century Afghanistan (as I did with my most recent book), I am attempting to let their theory-making approaches to time and apocalypse imprint my scholarly work. If we fully accept, for instance, the common early modern Sufi claim that both creation and the apocalypse are events spoken into the world by God and that the world, at its elemental and molecular core, is essentially made up of letters and words, then how might we re-read a work such as Finnegans Wake or grapple with a concept such as the “Anthropocene”? I do not mean to advocate for this or that seventeenth-century mystic as “right” in his or her predictions of the End, but I am committed to entertaining that position as a way, hopefully, to shake myself loose from my impoverished relationship to time and potential. 

What do you take with you from the project and its?

While I have some concrete publishing goals in mind with this project, the more important result is—I hope—a renewed sense of how expansive and compelling the questions of the apocalypse can be. 

What was particularly valuable for you in terms of the input from other disciplines, other perspectives, and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?

Between the working groups and my fellow fellows’ lectures, I have been thrilled to be thoroughly challenged to keep pace. Without fully realizing it in the process, I now understand how intellectually comfortable I have made myself over the past years of my career. New works are published in my field and they may be brilliant or provocative, but none have truly stretched me as my exchanges at CAPAS have. These forays into other perspectives—Lacanian, philosophical, art historical, etc.—have cracked me open in unexpected ways. The result is, I hope, that I am ready to attempt bolder and more expansive approaches to my own materials and sources. 

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world? 

Yikes. I suppose “resignation to my impending doom,” “friends,” and “good cheer and equanimity” don’t count as “things,” do they? In that case, please equip me with a very durable pair of glasses (as I can’t see a thing without them), a nice bottle of whiskey, and a copy of Finnegans Wake so I can finally finish it. 

What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?

Four books I’m happy to recommend: Hammour Ziada’s The Longing of the Dervish, Siddhartha Deb’s The Light at the End of the World, Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, and the short stories set in 2048 found in the collection, Palestine + 100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba, especially Selma Dabbagh’s chilling contribution.  

William Sherman is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at UNC Charlotte since 2017. His research approaches the history and literature of Muslim societies with a particular focus upon premodern South and Central Asia.