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William E. B. Sherman | A Practice of Revelation: Apocalypse, Vernacular, and Identity along the Afghan Frontier

Lecture | April 26 | 5-7 p.m. | Stephens Hall, 10 (ISAS Conference Room)


William E. B. Sherman, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Munis Faruqui, Director, Institute for South Asia Studies; Sarah Kailath Professor of India Studies; Associate Professor in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies

Abhishek Kaicker, Assistant Professor of History, UC Berkeley

Institute for South Asia Studies, Berkeley Pakistan Initiative, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada Endowment on Pakistan


We are delighted to announce the recipient of the S.S. Pirzada Dissertation Prize in Pakistan Studies for 2016-17! Many congratulations to Dr. William E. B. Sherman (Assistant Professor, Department of Religion Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte) for his dissertation, Mountains and Messiahs: The Roshaniyya, Revelation, and Afghan Becoming, completed at Stanford University under the supervision of Prof. Shahzad Bashir.

Talk Abstract
In the sixteenth century, a group known as the Roshaniyya ("people of light") coalesced around a messianic leader and sought to speak the language of God. Past accounts of the Roshaniyya have emphasized their role in the formation of "Afghan" identity and their centrality to the emergence of "Pashto" literature. As we turn to the sources of the Roshaniyya—stories of saints, dream narrative, dhikr manuals, accounts of the spiritual path, and a multilingual imitation of the Qur'an—we find a literary tradition that eludes our usual frames of analysis. Is this just a matter of "ethnicity" and "vernacular"? This talk argues that the example of the Roshaniyya ask us to attend to the centrality of apocalypse, continual revelation, and sainthood in the emergence of local formations of identity, religion, and literature in South Asia. The Roshaniyya sought to speak God's language—and it is from their attempt to do so and their violent rejection by critics that we see new ways of using Pashto, being Afghan, and practicing Islam take shape.

Speaker Bio
William E. B. Sherman (B.A., Stanford University; M.A., University of California, Los Angeles; Ph.D., Stanford University) joined the UNC Charlotte faculty in fall of 2017. His research approaches the history and literature of Muslim societies with a particular focus upon premodern South and Central Asia. His research engages the imagination of language and revelation in premodern Islamic culture. When does language become revelation? And how does the presence of “new” revelation transform the emergence of categories such as tribe, ethnicity, and race in the broader Islamic world? In addition to his interests in the linguistic imagination of Islamic literatures, he also researches and teaches on issues of apocalypticism, hagiography, theory and method in the study of religion, missionary movements in South Asia, and Islam in America.

His current project is provisionally titled Mountains and Messiahs, and it focuses upon a Sufi millenarian movement popular among Afghan communities between Peshawar and Kabul in the 17th century. In narrating this story of a particular Sufi movement, however, this project explores a much larger topic: the ideologies and imaginations of letters, words, and revelation across the late medieval and early modern Islamic world. This project is a multidisciplinary project, connecting Pashto and Persian manuscripts to contemporary literary theory and philosophies of semiosis and subjectivity.

The Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada Endowment on Pakistan, established by Rafat Pirzada and his wife, Amna Jaffer, and named after Rafat Pirzada’s father, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, supports i) the Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada Dissertation Prize on Pakistan (an annual dissertation prize for the best work in the humanities, social sciences, law, or public health on Pakistan, the region that is Pakistan, or things to do with Pakistan), and ii) the Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada Lecture on Pakistan (an annual lecture that spotlights the winner of the S.S. Pirzada Dissertation Prize). Rafat Pirzada is a Silicon Valley based entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

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