Sarah Qidwai on Science and Colonialism
Hello! Welcome back to The HPS Podcast where we talk all things History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science.
I am Samara Greenwood and today it is my pleasure to have Sarah Qidwai as our guest. Sarah is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the history of science, with a particular focus on British Imperialism, science and colonialism, the relation of science and Islam, as well as the history of evolutionary biology. Sarah’s dissertation and initial book project focussed on the Muslim polymath, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looking at how he dealt with science, as well as his efforts in science popularisation.
Sarah is also well known for her community building efforts in the history of science, technology and medicine – including the founding of the Virtual HistSTM Community during the early years of the pandemic, which proved to be a vital source of connection for many students and academics during a period of great uncertainty.
In this week’s episode Sarah introduces us to the topic of Science and Colonialism – a crucial area of study for understanding many of the features of modern science, as well as reconfiguring our understanding of its history – expanding our vision and challenging many traditional Eurocentric notions of what it takes to really come to grips with understanding this thing we call science.
[00:00:00] Samara Greenwood: Hello, Sarah, and welcome to the podcast.
[00:00:02] Sarah Qidwai: Thank you so much for having me here.
[00:00:04] Samara Greenwood: First, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to history and philosophy of science?
[00:00:08] Sarah Qidwai: Sure. I started out in the life sciences at the University of Toronto, pre- med, you know, classic immigrant story. And then I took a history class and I absolutely fell in love. But then in my second year, I took some time off and went to work in finance.
When I decided to go back to my bachelor's I found the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science. I switched over to HPS and history fully in the third year of my undergrad. One of the first classes I ever took was the introduction to the history of biology. I was just enamoured by the subject, I had been working in an evolutionary biology lab as well. I started questioning what the reception of Darwinian evolution looks like in Muslim contexts. Then I decided that I would do a master's and I stayed at the University of Toronto because it was a commute from home and wanted to avoid student debt. All of these different things together.
When I started my master's Marwa Elshakry had just published Reading Darwin in Arabic (2013), and I wanted to do something similar for the South Asian context. I tried to look in the 19th century who had discussed Darwinian evolution and what I found was this historical actor by the name of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan. Someone whose name I had heard from my mom and grandma while growing up. He's quite controversial. He's known as a religious reformer and founder of a college called Aligarh Muslim University, which was established originally in 1875 and becomes a university in 1910. Some websites said that he had discussed Darwinian evolution. I said, ‘This is it, this is the gap in the literature’.
When I transitioned from the master's to the PhD, I proposed looking at what Sayyid Ahmed Khan said about Darwin. I finally found the primary source that discussed Darwinian evolution, or so I thought. When I translated it into English - it was originally in the Urdu language - you find out that of the pages, there's only one sentence that deals with Darwin. The rest of it was this story of how evolution is compatible within Islam. That sort of narrative didn't exist in the discipline. So, in the 19th century, you have a Muslim reformer - this is not a dominant view, but it's a view - that claims humans were part of the animal kingdom. At that point, I realized approaching this through Darwinism was quite Eurocentric.
So, I was part of the problem. I realized what we have to do is reset the historiography of the discipline. What that means is go back to square one, convince a few people that this is an important thing to do research on, and start again. I was lucky enough to start working with Bernie Lightman, who was crazy enough to take on this project. And we started looking at Sayyid Ahmed Khan. He's this massive figure, people have published tens of thousands of publications upon him. And there's this small story in his life about his engagement with science that tells this other story and how it affects the socio-political context.
It's transforming the discipline in a way to look at not just scientists, but popularizers of science and technocrats of science who engage with scientific thought in the 19th century, and that started out my career. So that's a very long way of saying I found history and philosophy of science through accident, but also wonder.
[00:03:18] Samara Greenwood: That's a fantastic story. To find that figure that then opens up this new pathway.
Talking more about that story. What would you say are your main interests in history and philosophy of science?
[00:03:30] Sarah Qidwai: It's really funny because every time I update my bio, I add a new little thing. So broadly speaking, I'm interested in science and imperialism, science and religion, science and Islamic societies, the history of evolutionary biology. Currently, I'm also training in sociology of science and religion. Primarily I'm working in the long 19th century and I'm branching out and looking at the development of geology, evolutionary biology, and astronomy through imperial expansion.
It's a bit of a massive project, but it'll keep me going for many, many years.
[00:04:05] Samara Greenwood: Well, that's great, isn't it? A project that keeps on giving.
To the central question for today, what is a topic you believe would be of interest and value to a broader audience?
[00:04:14] Sarah Qidwai: I think it's broadly couched as ‘science and empire’ or ‘science and colonialism’, because it's such a big part of showing how the development of various scientific disciplines is tied in with socio political contexts.
Also, during a period in the 19th century, where you move from natural history, natural philosophy, through more standardized disciplines, it's happening through imperialism. The classic example is, how was Darwin on the Beagle? Why is Wallace in the Malay Archipelagos? Why is Joseph Hooker in the Himalayas? Right? All of these stories are quite rich and it retells how imperialism is actually tied into a lot of the things we understand today.
Science benefited, in a way, from colonial expansion and standardization and also promoted at times colonial expansion - anthropology being one of the disciplines - classifying humans and things like that. It's a massive beast and there's a lot of work that comes ahead of it, but also just because I work on the British Empire doesn't mean it's the only one. There's the French Empire, Portuguese Empire, Spanish Empire, Ottoman Empire. All of these are such rich stories, and we have to start routing out of Europe and looking at these other influences around the world.
[00:05:24] Samara Greenwood: Yes. Expanding on that, perhaps you could tell us a little bit of ‘a history of looking at imperialism and science and colonialism and science.’ Could you tell us a little bit about that?
[00:05:36] Sarah Qidwai: Yes, absolutely. So, there have been various historians of science who have established this connection. What's happening more recently is this idea of science and empire has collided with the global move in the history of science. So it's not just looking at what say agents of British Empire are doing in place, it's also looking at how this is a global story. What other languages are involved in the process? What other original sources of knowledge are involved? Whether it's indigenous or, say, as Arabic or Islamic sciences. How did these actually come together? It's also looking at who's out there in the field? Who are they reading? What sources have existed long before?
We're moving away from what would be like the ‘golden age’ narrative of ‘Islamic sciences had their peak at one point, and then you go back to the west and then the west redistributes’. What my story tells you is that, even in the 19th century, there's so much development and creativity between the North African, Middle East and South Asia context, because you have this long Islamic route. It's just what I happen to focus on, but there's a lot of exciting research in North America, in Australasia, and the East as well, that's colliding.
And again, it's looking at how they talk to each other, because while we're talking about British imperialism in South Asia, you know, China - that is right next door and so is Russia. What's the story and the connections there? I think that's the sort of direction where this new science and colonialism development is heading, the local understanding of the discipline.
[00:07:02] Samara Greenwood: Yes, absolutely.
I'm interested, you talked a little bit about the global history of science. For those that haven't come across this as a term, could you tell us a little bit about this rise of global history of science?
[00:07:18] Sarah Qidwai: In, I believe it's 2008, there's an ISIS focus section on the global history of science, and it shows where the discipline is and what it is.
There's a few wonderful pieces, including Marwa Elshakry’s ‘Knowledge in Motion’ and Sujit Sivasundaram also has a piece in there as well, that shows what's at stake by going global. So, there is something that is called science, and it has influenced how the world has been shaped today. And what's important for us is to study how that happens. Whether it's, you know, the 20th century, the 19th century, or even ancient history of science - an area that's receiving a lot more attention these days and needs to expand further in context.
The global trend is just acknowledging that there are other parts of the world apart from the West, but also, they talk to each other and are related to each other.
There's a lot of different languages, there's a lot of different religious traditions. There are sets of knowledge that we even haven't encountered and different sources. So not just primary sources and archives. There are oral histories as well and stories that have a fact embedded in them and artifacts that have been lost to time.
I think the global trend has been really exciting and only in the last 10 years has it reached a fever pitch in a way that we're getting all these really exciting new stories and regions and relationships of the world through the discipline. But also, again, focusing on the local and not losing those micro histories that are so important to showing how influential various disciplines of science and technology are in nation building.
[00:08:49] Samara Greenwood: You said that you believe it's important to keep the history of science separate from the history of knowledge. Could you tell me a little bit more about what your point is there?
[00:08:58] Sarah Qidwai: The big debate is, ‘is [the history of science] a subsection of the history of knowledge?’ Is it part of just this normal thing? But my view is personally that there is something called science today and it does shape the world and we need a distinct field, even though we may not have an overarching methodology, that kind of shows what we do.
I think the history of science is a wonderful field because you can be sitting in a talk about somebody discussing the translations of Arabic astronomical texts from the 12th century and the next person is talking about nuclear movements that happen in various parts of the world.
It's a discipline that really challenges area studies. Rather than having somebody who studied a specific regional context in its history, you can hop around the globe in a really cool way in our discipline. If you're interested in learning about different parts of the world, you can just follow, say, the history of biology, right? You can just go in various parts of the world and just see what people are talking about when it comes to, say, evolution - what's the movement of flora and fauna there?
I think the history of science is a wonderful discipline in that regard, but it's only recently that it allows us to look at the world in such a great way. It really allows us to see certain parts of the world in a way that - the way humanities departments have been structured - have never allowed us to do so before, if we all agree that [science] is the thing we're looking at and what we're studying.
I'm a big advocate for the discipline and I see myself primarily as a historian of science because that's the thing we're studying and showing its influence.
[00:10:30] Samara Greenwood: What an excellent response. I've kind of been struggling with that myself. I do like the history of knowledge, some of the stuff that's coming through there, but I agree that if we focus on science, you can do all of these amazing connective kind of things with that. Anyway, I just was very fascinated personally.
I'm interested, what do you find your students are most surprised about? Are there other things that come up that they're surprised about in learning about these connections?
[00:10:55] Sarah Qidwai: Yes, definitely. I had two students in Germany who were from Iran, and they were really surprised at how important Persian was in the South Asian context, for example.
There are a lot of these connections between certain areas of the world that people sometimes don't recognize until you start studying the history. Again, how interconnected the world really is at certain time periods. I always, before talking about a certain subject, give a broad lecture on the historical context of the place. One of my favorite lectures, I talk about the U. S., Canada, and India. It's called ‘Partition, Independence, and Revolution’. So how the American revolution loses ties with the U. K., and then Canada again goes and asks for it, and then India has the independence.
It just goes to show how imperialism relates back to these three countries that are also part of my life in very different ways, but also how they have various different scientific disciplines that are important.
One of my favorite things that I recently taught to my German students was about Operation Paperclip, which was recently popularized by Oppenheimer, where you have a lot of the Nazi scientists who are completely removed of their historical context and taken to the U.S.. Wernher von Braun is the classic example of that. They had no idea about this sanitation of historical facts and how it pushes us to the Space Race in a way. So again, science and politics is involved. And I really like telling them through stories like that. I love using Google Maps and Google Arts and Cultures features to take students there and then talk about the context and the stories.
I teach Islamic Sciences, I teach a Science and Empire class. It's a lot of fun just both going through it, but also seeing what students are interacting with and what they're taking away from the topic. So again, I could talk about this forever. Pedagogy is really close to my heart, but I think I'll leave it at that. It's just the power of narratives.
[00:12:47] Samara Greenwood: Excellent. So how do you think studying the history of colonialism and science relates to science and knowledge making today?
[00:12:54] Sarah Qidwai: That's a great question. And I think the first thing is we have to understand that it's separated, right? How we see certain things in the world today is not what they were in the past.
I think one of the best examples would be when people were celebrating the 150th year of Origin and how Darwin became this epicentre of evolutionary biology and it’s history.
What ends up happening is that a lot of historians of biology have to fight back against that narrative. In his time period, Darwin wasn't as revolutionary. It's much later on, with the emergence of Mendelian genetics and the merge of Darwinian natural selection, where it becomes important. So Peter Bowler's work, Jim Secord's work, Bernie Lightman's work, all of these, there's so many works on the history of biology that show how it is different – how we understand it today is not how it was understood in the 19th century. There are so many different thoughts at play. Ernst Haeckel's ideas as well as Sayyad Ahmed Khan and Muslim views of evolution. Before we have the modern paradigm of evolutionary biology, there's a long story of so many different things. It's not just evolution v. creationism, it's all these different ideas.
Again, there's no understanding of genetics as we have now. What we understand today may not hold in the future. I think that's the exciting part of what's important and why we study these certain things. The same thing about colonialism. There's different disciplines. There are disciplines of post colonialism as well. It's intersecting with these ideas and making people understand that just because we know something in a certain way now, it wasn't like that before. I know it's very simple, but for some people, it's a very novel idea to be like, ‘Oh, there was something that existed before the periodic table?’ What is phlogistic chemistry?
Because we've been in history of science for so long, we take for granted that we didn't know that at one point. And making sure every time we're talking, it's not just to each other in a silo, but go from point one.
I'm doing a talk in December to Italian chemists where we're actually talking about the history of chemistry, and that's exactly the story when I asked them, what came before the periodic table? It's quite fun doing these talks with scientists and the public and engaging with them because for a lot of them, again, they study these things in depth, but have never taken like five, 10 minutes to step back and say, why is this the way it is?
So that's why studying, for example, science and colonialism, you can also see again, why certain ways of the world are the way they are and how we understand different relationships that people have with each other.
Growing up in Canada and near Toronto, it was quite multicultural. We have people from all kinds of backgrounds. As I left and saw more of the world, I realized how much I took that for granted - to have such a multicultural context where we have people from all walks of life talking to each other and then being able to understand in this setting. It's one of the reasons I love studying various languages. To be able to connect and relate to people to a certain extent has been a wonderful part of being a scholar. I think that's the heart of the humanities in a way.
[00:15:57] Samara Greenwood: Before I ask the final question, I just wanted to go back - you mentioned, Marwa Elshakry’s Reading Darwin in Arabic, I've got that on my shelf. I was just interested, what was it that inspired you particularly about that book?
[00:16:11] Sarah Qidwai: Oh my gosh, it was page 120, 121, where Elshakry literally writes that Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was in Calcutta and he published a book against Sayyid Ahmad Khan.
This is one of the reasons where having diverse voices makes you understand. I grew up hearing the name Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Anybody who isn't in that context wouldn't have found it as significant as I did. So, I stopped there and I was like, ‘Why is this man here in this text, in this book about the Middle East?’ It was that moment where I was, ‘There's a broader story, a relationship between al-Afghani and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, between the Middle East and South Asia, that does not involve Europe.’
That was the sort of light bulb that led me down this path. I'm very grateful for that and every time I give a talk, I always have to give Marwa credit because that was my light bulb moment. And it wasn't so much a gap, but a black hole. Since 2014, in the last 10 years, there's been so much more work in the area. But putting together South Asia studies, Islamic studies, and the history of science back then was quite a big thing.
Now I want to see more intersections of these disciplines, not just, say, South Asia and history of science, but material culture, history of science, area studies, they all come together, and I think interdisciplinary work is the way to move forward.
[00:17:28] Samara Greenwood: I don't know if you found this, this is just a personal aside, but in the work that I do is the layers of knowledge you need. You don't just need knowledge about whatever the science is or those particular people, you need big historical knowledge, cultural knowledge. And so having interdisciplinary teams makes much more sense.
I've spoken with David Kaiser and he said what we need to do is have more people together working in these areas because they do require such variety of knowledge and you get such a rich outcome. I would imagine you would agree with that.
[00:17:58] Sarah Qidwai: 100%. And it comes back to asking universities to restructure their systems as well and reward interdisciplinary collaborative work at the end of the day. Imagine if I could spend 10 years learning Persian or I could work with somebody who already reads Farsi fluently - we could write a more significant paper together.
I am co-authoring several pieces with colleagues and friends who speak other languages and work on different regional contexts. The hope is that this becomes a sort of model. Again, the system does not reward these sorts of things, but for personal commitment, it's been a big part of my own experience.
I started out publishing in edited collections. I was told not to because there's not enough - quote unquote - credit. But that's how my career started, and I was introduced to massive groups of people. So, my first two publications, I was in Bernie Lightman's Rethinking History and The Cambridge Companion to Sayyid Ahmad Khan.
Through that, I was exposed to senior scholars who work on Sayyid Ahmad Khan and senior scholars who work on science and religion and was able to build networks through that. It may not have been rewarding - quote, unquote - the way the system does, but for me personally, it was enriching and it helped me build a community.
I try and do the same now that I'm sort of early career-ish, post PhD, is to the younger students tell them that people will give you all sorts of advice but find the thing that works for you. I love having a community, and I love collaborating with people globally. That was the motivation behind Virtual HistSTM, which was the community we built during COVID.
It was, ‘I want to keep talking to people, it may not be the way things work, but it's the way I want things to work’. And it's what's leading me down slowly the path. You know how terrible the job market is, but you hope that at the end of the day, you have a career that you can look back at and say, that was pretty cool.
[00:19:45] Samara Greenwood: I'm interested to know where would you like to see research on science and colonialism and imperialism - as well as global history of science - let's go big picture- where would you like to see that head in the future?
[00:19:58] Sarah Qidwai: I think the main thing I want to see is more multilingual collaborations. They're already taking place in a really cool way. And a lot of us are advocating for publications to be translated, having the original language and also having English language translations available. So, I would like to see a lot more collaborative research, people who are working on different parts of the discipline coming together and trying to put their heads together in their areas of knowledge.
Focusing on local Indigenous knowledge, platforming scholars from the regions as well, and giving them resources to continue doing work. Again, one year of someone in the local language versus 10 years of study. It's just a no brainer.
Putting together a new canon for the discipline that reflects the global, the imperial, but also the core of the discipline, which is the stories. Copernicus did exist, we have to talk about these shifts and changes, but also, he wasn't the only one.
Also showing how the discipline interacts with other disciplines. I think what we need now is this new sort of textbook that shows where translations are in the discipline, what is global, what is science and colonialism, what is still science, and how is it different from the history of knowledge. All that I think needs to come together and have a statement of the discipline.
I think it's just bringing the world together in quite an optimistic way, but also just giving more money to the humanities.
[00:21:26] Samara Greenwood: Yay to that.
That is absolutely fantastic. Thank you, Sarah, so much for being our guest on the podcast today. It's been such a great conversation. I can't thank you enough.
[00:21:36] Sarah Qidwai: Thank you for having me. I actually do feel quite optimistic after that, which is a great place to be.