IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Sasson ChahanovichIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Sasson Chahanovich
Sasson Chahanovich holds a PhD in Islamic Intellectual History from Harvard University. His interests are grounded in the long history of eschatological apocalyptic thought in Islamic history from Muhammad’s revelation, throughout the Early Modern Period, and also in contemporary Islamic militant movements.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
My first thoughts were: “Can this be real? A center dedicated to apocalypticism?!” I was personally very excited to see that the subject of my thesis [a pseudepigraphical Ottoman-era Islamic apocalypse] actually had some wider resonance/relevance.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
Personally, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic thinking is quite an optimistic Weltanschauung, if I may be so bold. It is predicated on the idea that all problems, all the complex systems and their attending negative consequences for us as humans and for our planet as we know it is somehow – beyond our capacities – on a collision course to a definitive end. Anyone more familiar with history knows that things are never solved so quickly; so easily. Our global problems, if they really are so cataclysmic, will linger; their negative effects will not dissipate in the blink of an eye but stay with us for much longer. Systems rarely, if ever, collapse so quickly.
From the perspective of my discipline, I find the eschatological apocalypses the most thrilling mode of revelation. The long history of this genre clearly indicates that mankind has always been interested not only in the plans of the gods. The attending depictions of damnation and salvation at the Final Judgment for Jewish, Christian, and Islamic apocalypses is, moreover, what really intrigues me. That mankind can think up of supernatural organization and some idea of absolute justice in cosmic perpetuity after the universe is dissolved is, I think, revolutionary in the history of human imagination.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve?
My fellowship is principally dedicated to finishing two book projects. The first is the publication of my Ph.D. thesis which is about a pseudepigraphical Ottoman-era Islamic apocalypse. The question that I address there is: what is the function of pseudepigraphy in Islamic apocalypses? How did apocalyptic thinking serve the political propaganda of the Ottoman state? And how does this application of eschatological apocalyptic politics preface the resurgence of political apocalypticism in Islamic extremist groups?
The methods I use are pretty basic: philology and archival research. These may seem lacking in the bells and whistles of much research in the humanities – what with “theory” and polysyllabic jargon take up much of the page –, but I argue that these are two firm and sound, as well as straightforward, pillars of investigation.
My second book project is actually a novel. After I finished my Ph.D. I gave myself a gift: since I finished early, I would take the remaining months to compose a fictional novel. This novel is apocalyptic in nature. It takes place in 1980s Oklahoma and well…no spoilers. I am simultaneously working on a treatment of my novel for a potential limited TV series.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
The fellowship project is the culmination of my Ph.D. thesis; that is to say, it is helping me get my first academic book published.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
Even if I do not continue in academia, I want this project to be a critical contribution to the field. I really hope to advance Islamic studies by making apocalypticism a more popular subject of research.
What are the aspects you are most looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives, and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?
There are few fellows at the center who do plain ole’ history of religion. However, I have made a great connection with one of the fellows, Tommy Lynch. His work on theological politics has helped me in understanding how more modern research on apocalyptic politics can be applied to analyzing early modern Islamic eschatology.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
Since I have no desire to linger in a world that has collapsed – nor, for that matter, do I think I have the rough survival skills to stay among the living –, for those of us who would not like to take part in some kind of End-Times hunger games, I suggest: a stool, some rope, and a strong wooden beam. For the rest, let gravity take over and free me from a dismal post-apocalyptic existence…
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
I would definitely suggest reading Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban. It is perhaps one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I have ever read.