Ali Anooshahr

Expert on Islamic empires looks to centuries-old stories for new insights to the past.

History is made of stories. Fictional or factual, they provide multiple perspectives on a society that create a picture of the past. Ali Anooshahr, an associate professor of history and an affiliated faculty member of the Middle East/South Asia studies program (ME/SA), uses these stories to study Islamic empires during the Middle Ages, including the Safavids of Iran, the Ottomans of Turkey and Arabia, and the Mughals of India and Pakistan. Much of his research focuses on written texts and how they work to build a full picture of the past that informs the present.

“We need to rethink the past based on where we are now,” he said. “The present constantly changes, and because of that, the past constantly changes. Either we change our perspective and go to the past and take what we need from it, or we look at the past and that helps us change our perspective.”

Taking a fresh look

Anooshahr is especially fascinated by how people in other times looked at the past versus how we do today. In one of his favorite studies, he examined the Arabic text “The Kitab al-Yamini,” a history of the Islamic conquest of India by the Sultan Mahmud from the 11th century. Even though the historical accuracy is debatable and the text itself is notoriously hard to use, Anooshahr sees value in its revelations of how the society of the time operated and thought and its insights into to pre-Islamic pagan traditions of the region. He hopes his analysis highlights the text’s usefulness for other scholars who may have overlooked it.

Photo of the UC Davis historian reading “[Historian] Carlo Ginzburg has argued for the idea of ‘making things strange,’” he said. “You have certain assumptions that you immediately associate with a topic, thing, or a place. But after a second glance, you realize you have to look with new eyes and peel through what you thought was there.”

He believes that the Safavid empire, which ruled Iran from 1501 to 1736, is particularly misunderstood. Since a majority of the scholarship was done by proto-fascists in 1920s Germany, the Safavids are portrayed as ultra-organized Aryan brotherhood-type religious fanatics that the fascists aspired to be. Much of this scholarship is still in the historical canon, so Anooshahr wants to take another look and try to uncover a less biased truth.

“If you look at [history] from different perspectives, then you may see a completely different picture each time,” he said. “[If] I’m looking at a table and I don’t see a [fourth] leg from where I’m sitting. I know a table should have four legs, I know it’s there. But if I don’t know what’s supposed to be there, I won’t know about it unless I go around and look at it from another angle. Then I see the fourth leg, but I won’t see this drawer. So you have to keep changing your perspective to get a good picture of what’s happening.”

The Iran-India connection

mapHe is also interested in how knowledge moves between empires and regions through scholars and court officials, and particularly the links between India and Iran and the knowledge and culture shared between them. 

Anooshahr was born in Iran and moved to Texas with his family in the 1980s. After earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, he went to UCLA for graduate studies in Islamic history. Though he had always been interested in the Middle East, his interest in Central and South Asia was cemented by a research visit to India and Pakistan while in graduate school. “It was really eye-opening to go to India,” he said. “It was also convenient because the main sources, often still in manuscript form were in Persian. Given the size of the population of South Asia, it seemed that relatively few people were working on the precolonial period of Indian history.”

After earning his Ph.D., he completed two postdoctoral fellowships at the UCLA library, sorting and cataloging the thousands of volumes of Persian, Ottoman, and Arabic manuscripts. He joined UC Davis as a scholar of comparative Islamic empires in 2008 after a year as an assistant professor at Xavier University in Chicago. He liked the broad research focus of the UC Davis position and was excited to return to California's warm weather.

Since his arrival, Anooshahr has earned recognition for his scholarship. He received the 2011 Innovation in Research Award from the social sciences dean in the College of Letters and Science, and a Hellman Fellowship in 2009, a university award for research excellence for faculty who are early in their careers.

Middle East/South Asian Studies

He has been involved with the ME/SA program since he came to campus and has been prominent in the program’s fundraising, faculty recruitment, and teaching.

All of the courses he teaches are cornerstones of the ME/SA curriculum. He teaches HIS 6, “Introduction to the Middle East,” MSA 100, a comparative perspectives class on different Islamic empires and a seminar on “Themes in ME/SA” (MSA 180). He also teaches “The Middle East from the Rise of Islam to the Mongols” (HIS 190A/B), and HIS 190D on Safavid Iran.

“I like teaching, being in the classroom and talking to people. That’s always fun,” he said. “And I think in Davis, many students are well-prepared and have a good work ethic.”

In his free time, Anooshahr plays guitar and loves cooking and grilling. He is particularly fond of barbecue.

— Noah Pflueger-Peters (B.A., English, ’17)