Current projects
Previous projects

Research at the Orient-Institut Beirut can be divided into four clusters: Intellectual History & Literary Studies, Art & Material Culture, Social Sciences, and Islamic Studies.

Intellectual History & Literary Studies

Jens Hanssen and Zeina G. Halabi

How can we approach, methodologically and conceptually, Arab intellectual history and literature as writers reckon with ideologies of emancipation? What are the sources and impulses of producing knowledge and making theory? What are the intellectual relations between the region and its diasporas? What does the aesthetics/politics nexus in the works of modern Arab writers tell us about the ways they imagine their peers and themselves in the wake of critical historical junctures? And how does the present reconfigure the writers’ recollection of the past and visions of the future? These overarching questions inform research in this cluster of Arab intellectual history and Arabic literature, scholarship that is enriched by a multidisciplinary approach that touches on philosophy, comparative literature, visual studies, sociology and traveling theories. 

The cluster’s concerns are twofold: First, it examines the legacy of Arab writers and intellectuals as it was imagined in twentieth century Arabic literature and philosophy; second, it explores literary excavation and archival practices that reveal the ways in which the past and the future have been conceptualized in the modern literary tradition. Second, the cluster is grounded in a deep appreciation of the (counter-)archive and, indeed, the genealogy of Arabic thought. Of particular interest is the Nahda. Depending on one’s interpretation, it represents the beginning of a still "unfinished" Arab drive for enlightenment and emancipation, or it marks the colonial end of an independent cultural development. Either way, the Nahda represents a cultural filter of the Arab past as well as a kind of Archimedean point for Arab modernity on which truth claims about the future have been balanced ever since. 

The cluster is equally concerned with the uncharted category that is the Arab contemporary. In identifying and elucidating the political critique embedded in a presumed post-political aesthetic moment, the cluster renders the hitherto opaque contemporary era legible. Specifically, it counters the available critical corpus that reads late-twentieth-century Arabic literature, particularly of noncanonical authors and genres, as an apolitical and fragmented discourse insofar as it transgresses the ethos of political commitment and the archetype of the modernist intellectual that channels it. Research on the manifestation of the contemporary in the literary not only points to their political nature, but it also reveals the ways in which the political emerges at the interstices of the literary.

The cluster of research addresses a palimpsest of texts that have been circulating - with varied frequency - or have been blocked from traveling. Our sources vary from the written to the oral, the aural and the visual; we consider high- and low-brow and everything in between; ‘ephemera,’ ‘documents’ and ‘classics’; essays, philosophical treatises, fiction, poetry, films and songs from the Maghreb, the Mashriq and the Gulf.  By exploring alternatives to ahistorical and presentist scholarly approaches that have all too often governed research on the Arab world, our cluster reveals the ways in which modern Arabic literature and thought have answered ontological and epistemological questions at critical historical junctures.

Art & Material Culture

Alya Karame and Nadia von Maltzahn

Our cluster ‘Art & Material Culture’ is occupied with the ways in which artistic and material production is narrated in the writings of history. Our research projects are concerned with bringing to the fore social, religious, political and economic aspects of arts and material culture, and reinstate the people – the maker, the craftsman, the artist and the user – at the center of our studies, including their production and reception of ideas. We strongly believe that our studies become meaningful when we are able to locate artistic and cultural productions in their wider socio-political and economic contexts. Medieval manuscripts, modern artworks and films, for instance, are brought to life when we see them as mirrors of their contexts as much as agents in shaping collective thinking and practices.
In our cluster, we are interested in the materiality of the works of art. As such, we approach them not only as social constructs but also as objects formed by specific elements, such as ink. Our bottom-top approach encourages us to study the object itself, including its circulation during its life and in its afterlife, and to trace people’s trajectories and ideas. This facilitates the reconstruction of forgotten archives and of networks of people and movement that often reveal exciting aspects about our world. Our approach is not only characterized by work on the archives but also on counter-archives. Databases are our repositories, they form the basis of our research and become tools to help us identify stylistic trends and aesthetic patterns, as well as trace cross-cultural connections.
Taken together, our projects cover a wide time frame – spanning from the medieval to contemporary times – and geographically covering the whole region of the mashriq. We deal with an array of materials and media from modern paintings and periodicals to medieval Islamic manuscripts. While being rooted in (art) historical methods, our work’s interdisciplinary nature benefits from neighboring fields such as anthropology. And it is by contextualizing our subjects and objects of study that we hope to bridge between material culture, art history, and various systems of beliefs.
One of our aims is to explore the institutionalization of (art) history and to question threads that have side-lined regions or marginalized under-represented communities. As such, we reflect on various modern established categories, such as fixed identities, challenge prevailing paradigms and canons in writing history to contest stark dichotomies, such as the purported tensions between center/periphery, local/global, public/private, East/West, or arts/crafts. It is by exposing art systems, power dynamics, educational practices, and hegemonic cultural infrastructures that we aim to build a critical transnational history with wider implications on our present.

Social Sciences 

Carol Hakim, Sarah El Bulbeisi, and Christian Thuselt

Drawing on a variety of approaches (quantitative and qualitative), using different ways of collecting material (oral history, discourse analysis, digital humanities, participant observation, ethnographic fieldwork, etc), the social sciences cluster is engaged with the social as a contested field of relations. 
Conceiving social sciences as a reconstructive approach, we try to understand the epistemologies of those participating in these relations, their specfic practices, representations, and the structures they are embedded in. 
We explore among others the social mobilizations underlying them, societal cooperation, conflicts, hermeneutics, but also transnational dimensions, that allow us to engage with comparative approaches and theoretical conceptualizations. 
Our interdisciplinary background includes among others: Middle-East studies, political science, sociology, economy, political sociology, social and cultural anthropology, social and economic history, oral history, cultural studies, gender studies, critical race studies, psychoanalysis, urban studies, geography.
Studying the Middle East with the Middle East and not just in it, we aim for social science as a non-asymetric practice, reinforcing the ties with the local research community. This includes critical scholarly self-reflection. 

Islamic Studies

Thomas Würtz, Fatih Ermiş, Ahmed Abd-Elsalam, Yasmin Amine 

Islamic studies at OIB pertains to Islamic civilization, past and present. We are specialised in theology, history and historiography, Qur’an exegesis, Hadith, law, philosophy, ethics and Sufism. Our projects are interdisciplinary and often focus on the cross-cultural transfer of knowledge both within and beyond Islamic civilization. 

The interdisciplinarity of our projects can be detected in the ways in which, for instance, we study Islamic law by incorporating exegetical traditions and Hadith, and by intertwining Islamic and Muslim Feminism. The Transfer of knowledge can be demonstrated in the case of Greek philosophy and its reception in the framework of Islamic ethics. Our interest in interreligious and intra religious interdependency is highlighted best in how we study the way humans of different faiths perceive each other as for example how the ‘religious other’ is described in Qur’anic commentaries. The intersection between Islamic Studies and the arts is another of our interests, specifically the study of the Qur’an as a material object. 
In as much as we focus on the past, we are also interested in modern Muslim theology and how it endeavors the challenges of our age.

With regard to ethics, the interdisciplinary character ranges from Law to Sufism and also spills into gender issues, specifically with regard to Islamic law which claims to be based on the Qur’an and Sunna, and therefore incorporates exegetical traditions, Hadith and literature such as the Shahnāmeh and 1001 Nights. Modern approaches to produce more gender egalitarian readings, as well as more women-friendly interpretations are also incorporated. In this process stereotypical generalized images, especially with regard to role of women, are overturned. 

We also look at the environment from a religious perspective, aiming at studying the legal regulations and recommendations impacting the environment. Naturally, this is also tied to ethics, again in terms of use and abuse of resources, treatment of animals, methods of food production (ḥalāl versus ṭayyib) among other issues. In an upcoming project we plan to work on court documents, dealing with marriage, divorce and child custody. The lived reality can then be reconstructed and compared to the theoretical law books and manuals to determine whether a discrepancy exists between ideals and real-life practices or not. It also investigates the autonomy of judges versus the perceived hegemony of legal theories. Taken together, our projects cover vast geographical area – from Morocco to India - as well as a wide time frame – from early Islam to contemporary times. 

After describing what we are doing at OIB, we would like to give you a glimpse of a vision. One of the aims of Islamic studies at OIB is to create bridges between different religions and religious interpretations. An important vision is to offer critical readings and alternative interpretations, by providing different ones from the rich literature of Islamic history. 
Nevertheless, deconstruction is accompanied by a reconstruction, using the rich original source materials. as well as modern theories and hermeneutics. 

Islamic studies are thus conducted, on the one hand, within an analytical framework that examines the genesis and differentiation of Islamic doctrines. On the other hand, modern Islamic theology and the constructive intellectual accompaniment of its scope for dealing with society and the environment play a major role in our approach to Islamic Studies.