Researching early modern political identities in Eurasia with Ferenc Csirkés, 2022-23 Farley Scholar

June 01, 2023

Ferenc Csirkés is an expert on linguistic, religious, and political identities in early modern Eurasia. He is the 2022-23 Jack and Nancy Farley Distinguished Visiting Scholar at The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS).

The Islamic world in Eurasia has been home to many languages throughout its history. Some of these languages—for example, Arabic or Persian—were used in literature, governance, or religion, and profoundly impacted other languages they encountered. Others were only spoken locally until conditions changed.

A professor of history at Sabancı University in Istanbul, Csirkés teaches and researches the relationship between these different languages and their profound links to political culture in early modern Eurasia.

While at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Csirkés is completing a book manuscript with the working title Sons of Japheth and Ali: Turkic Language and Ideology in the Medieval and Early Modern Persianate World (Cambridge: Harvard UP, forthcoming), which discusses the formation of linguistic and religious identities in early modern Iran, Central Asia, and the Ottoman empire.

The book focuses on the overlapping and intersecting processes of confessionalization, the fixing of religious beliefs into set categories of dogma; and vernacularization, the gradual replacement of cosmopolitan languages for everyday communication and formal use.

“Linguistic, political, and religious identities are created roughly at the same time in the early modern period—not only in the West, but also in the Middle East,” says Csirkés. “For example, Germany becomes Protestant and France, Catholic. A similar process of developing state religion and linguistic identity occurs in the Ottoman Empire.”

Spanning a period from roughly 1500 – mid-1800s, Csirkés explains that his book investigates the development of a religious identity connected to political establishment, but also the continuation of nonconformist religious identities and alternative vernaculars, including oral tongues whose standardization remains incomplete.

“I am not looking at this from a nationalist perspective, but from the perspective of antinomian, Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes—their tribal viewpoints on the one hand and the establishment’s state religion on the other hand,” says Csirkés. “To this day, over 40% of Iran is not Persian, and there are very sizable minorities—both Christian and Muslim—in Turkey. The full matrix of linguistic, religious, and literary identities that descend from the Ottoman empire continue to exist.”

When asked about how this research might resonate on the other side of the world in British Columbia, Csirkés points out that large ethnic communities from the region he researches continue to grapple with their heritage and linguistic, religious, and political identities as immigrants in Canada.

“An immigrant from Iran might speak a minority Arabic dialect at home, speak the majority language Farsi to communicate with other Iranians in Canada, but primarily write in English because that’s the language formally taught at school,” says Csirkés. “The process of integration into Canadian and British Columbian society is a story of languages, religions, and identities. It’s a story of generations. It's a story of stories.”

SFU’s Department of Global Humanities, which was selected from among FASS departments to host the Farley Scholar in 2022, was renamed from Humanities to Global Humanities during the same year. The name change represents an effort to dismantle Eurocentric thinking and better reflect the department’s long history of engagement with religion, language, and literature from the East to the West.

“You exclude a lot of important knowledge of the world if you only myopically think in terms of Western singularity,” says Csirkés. “The role of the Islamic world in civilization is not to be underestimated.”

Csirkés also sees resonance between his research and the postcolonial Canadian context, particularly in the ways that Indigenous communities experienced shifts in linguistic identity post-contact and negotiate access to their own heritage through language revival programs. How do Canada’s linguistic communities forge connections to their past when they are at a remove from their places of origin either through processes of colonial oppression or immigration?

"You exclude a lot of important knowledge of the world if you only myopically think in terms of Western singularity. The role of the Islamic world in civilization is not to be underestimated."

Ferenc Csirkés, 2022-23 Farley Scholar

Csirkés holds a PhD in Islamic History and Civilization from the University of Chicago, in addition to three MA degrees in Middle Eastern History, English Language and Literature (with TESOL), and Iranian Studies. Prior to assuming the 2022-23 Jack and Nancy Farley Distinguished Visiting Scholar post at SFU, Csirkés also held visiting appointments at the Central European University and the University of Tübingen.

Csirkés’ extensive list of publications include peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters in English, Turkish, and Hungarian. In addition to these multilingual publications, he has also translated multiple books from Ottoman Turkish. Notably, this includes the first English translation of Kātib Çelebi’s pivotal 17th-century text Cihannümā, published under the title An Ottoman Cosmography: Translation of Cihannümā (Leiden: Brill, 2021) and co-translated with John Curry and Gary Leiser. Csirkés will teach a Global Humanities summer course that prominently features the translated text, entitled HUM 360: Travel, Cosmography, and Geography in Islamic Eurasia.

During his tenure as Farley Scholar, Csirkés will also organize an interdisciplinary and collaborative workshop entitled Empires of Language in the Islamicate World. This public outreach event will take place June 9-10, 2023 at SFU Harbour Centre and brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines working on topics and languages in the Eurasian region.

Conference poster for the "Empires of Language in Islamicate Eurasia" workshop

Stay tuned to the Farley Scholar homepage and the Farley Scholar Twitter feed to stay up to date with the Csirkés’ work at FASS and upcoming events.