Islam Through the Eyes of a German Traveler? Reflections on Biography as Method


Mon, 27/06/2022 (All day)
Nora derbal


Mandel Building


Dr. Nora Derbal

In this talk, I explore the potential and challenges of biography as method. Through the life and works of the German Orientalist and traveler Heinrich von Maltzan (1826­–1874), the research project investigates knowledge production about Islam in the long 19th century. I argue that biography as method (and not genre!), enables a systematic view on those structures which produced and impacted the trajectory of knowledge of a so-called Islam expert of the 19th century. Through Maltzan’s life trajectory, the book project grasps the social, institutional and political structures, in which a 19th century Orientalist developed, established and shared knowledge about Islam. Knowledge about Islam was not only produced and negotiated at the university or on research trips, but also in professional societies, like the German Oriental Society (DMG), in the media, and in popular literature. Through Maltzan’s biography, the diverse entanglements and interdependencies between these different social spheres become visible and can be critically examined. In other words, Maltzan’s biography offers a window for understanding the broader societal structures, which shape the epistemic field of Islam at the particular point in time. Based on his diaries and numerous letter exchanges, the research offers an intimate view into Maltzan’s life and thereby shifts the perspective on Orientalism as theory towards understanding Orientalism as embodied practice.