Redefining Boundaries by Multivocality: The Synergy of Content and Form in Shahzad Bashir’s Online Book A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures

The cover of Shahzad Bashir, A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures. Cambridge (MA), and Providence (RI): MIT Press, and Brown University Library, 2022, URL: https://islamic-pasts-futures.org/ (22.03.2024).

What does Islam encompass? How can we portray the religion without essentializing it and without excluding the vast array of perspectives other than the canon of theological doctrines or Western viewpoints? How should this multifaceted portrayal be captured in a book? What narratives come into play, and how do they logically interconnect? Shahzad’s online book A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures1 ventures into these inquiries, expanding our perception of Islam and redefining our concept of a book’s potential.

Let me start by emphasizing that reading Shahzad’s book was a delightful experience – and I mean ‘reading’ in the broad sense because its interactivity demands a certain level of performance that goes beyond traditional notions of reading. But we will come to that in a moment. First of all, from a theoretical perspective I find Shahzad’s approach of presenting Islam as a multivocal discursive phenomenon forming around the cornerstone concept of time incredibly compelling. While I am not an expert on Islamic studies or Islamic history, I focus on the portrayal of Islamic history as, in Shahzad’s words, an “entangled, three-dimensional web.”2 Secondly, Shahzad’s book is groundbreaking as it translates this theoretical approach into a meaningful format that allows readers to untangle the web. And by ‘meaningful,’ I refer to the book’s design, which brings the argument about Islam to life by virtue of its functionality and aesthetics as a medium. The design is not merely attractive in appearance; more importantly, without its interactive and non-linear features we would be unable to fully grasp the concept of Islamic history Shahzad has in mind. This strong correlation between what I would describe as Concept Design and Media Design resonates deeply with my own theoretical work on representing history through linkage and multimodality, or in other words: hypertext.3 So, I will structure my discussion of Shahzad’s book along these two axes: theorizing temporalities and the book design.

In doing so, I first delineate my understanding of Shahzad’s argument. I then contextualize his take on Islamic pasts and futures with hypertext theory, a research vein that has been engaged in organizing information as a web from the very beginning. This framework allows me to ask about the role of Shahzad’s own positionality within the “entangled, three-dimensional web” of perspectives on Islam. Furthermore, I will discuss simultaneity as a temporality mode Shahzad refers to in his book and that is symbolized through visual aids. Finally, I will probe the extent to which Shahzad adheres to a nominal approach that focuses on instances where actors mention Islam in different ways. This approach substantiates Shahzad’s concept of Islam as a discursive entity. In particular, I am curious about how Shahzad deals with moments of silence regarding Islam, which nonetheless discursively shape perspectives on the faith.

1 Temporalities of Islam as a three-dimensional web

In the introduction and the first two chapters, Shahzad delves into his foundational assumptions. Here, he critiques the timeline model as a means of grasping Islamic history – a concept of Western and Orientalist origin. The model suggests a clear sequence of causalities and does not align with the multitude of interpretations of those who have also discursively shaped Islam, including discourses shaped by architecture or other symbolic forms. Instead, Shahzad emphasizes a concept of time that draws on two interdependent definitions. The first is understood as event, and the second, following Reinhart Koselleck, as continuous variation in the material world, thus emphasizing change.4 These categories are not essentialized. Shahzad takes events and processes as imagined, as products of selecting and placing entities into distinct contexts. Against this backdrop, two central claims make sense to me: the first is that Shahzad eschews the conventional temporal term ‘present’ in favor of ‘horizon,’ a space where humans negotiate visions of past and future. This idea underlines the contingency of standpoints that humans take to imagine both temporalities – and I would add timelessness/eternity as a third temporal dimension, one that undeniably holds significant sway in many religious discourses. Hence Islam and its history become phenomena of perception and imagination. Ultimately, Shahzad envisions Islam as an object of positionality, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

He demonstrates this idea across the chapters of his book, each of which highlights different modes (as I would put it) of envisioning time and Islam. We learn, for example, about the rich architecture and symbolism of the Friday Mosque of Isfahan. Here, a composition of inscriptions in stucco combines temporalities by correlating the Prophet Muhammad and other authorities of early Islamic history with the time of the Mosque’s foundation. The contemporary time of the Mosque visitor adds a further layer to the arrangement of temporalities at the site. Moreover, the engraved texts link the concept of eternal paradise to the era of the patrons and artisans responsible for creating this monument. There are more time dimensions to be observed in this briefly summarized example, but the key point is that the inscriptions and their hierarchic composition short-circuit different temporalities.

Fig. 1: The Chapter “Constructing Time. Events and Narratives” of Bashir, A New Vision, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.events-narratives.

Shahzad discusses other modes of imagining time beyond the timeline. We learn, for instance, about cases of the cyclical recurrence of past times in anniversaries and rites.5 We also encounter genealogies as tools for rulers to legitimize their claims to power by referring to esteemed predecessors.6 We find instances of the amalgamation of space and time, as in the case of the great Mosque of Demak on Java: it must align with Mecca, bridging vast geographic space while simultaneously testifying to the history of Islam in Indonesia.7 In another chapter, Shahzad addresses human lifetime as a distinct time unit.8 He also portrays fictional artworks as realms of imagination about pasts and futures that are just as real as religious architecture or canonized Islamic writings.9 I have merely summarized a selection of the aspects Shahzad covers. He himself emphasizes that many more could be considered. That said, these aspects already illustrate the radical argument that Shahzad offers us, namely, that we must envisage Islamic history as “an entangled, three-dimensional web” rather than a timeline. In this light, Shahzad’s consistent use of the plural forms Islamic ‘pasts’ and ‘futures makes sense.He links this idea to narration by referring to the web as a trope.10 It is a clear hallmark of Shahzad’s emphasis on positionality, since any imagination of time and its role in the discursive creation of Islam is, after all, a matter of perspective. 

At the same time, Shahzad encourages us to think beyond the context of Islam about other multi-vocal historical themes, where social and discursive construction is vital and different temporalities converge. One could consider, for instance, global perspectives in colonial power contexts, the history of national revolutions, where reference to both political traditions and their divestment come into play. Spatial history is another possible field of application. David Ambaras and Kate McDonald’s online edited volume and teaching tool Bodies and Structures 2.0 is one example. Here, modern East Asian history is portrayed as a multivocal web with space defined simultaneously as a geographical and a conceptual category “that encompasses myriad modes of place-making and establishing senses of self.”11

Shahzad also encourages us to think more broadly about past and even contemporary discourse that refers to history and envisions the future. This is something that Zoltán Boldizsár Simon and Marek Tamm called ‘historical futures.’ They claim that “anticipated futures relate to apprehensions of the past.”12 In a nutshell, Shahzad invites us to think about time constructions in a wider context, anchored in the imaginative and perceptual worlds of historical actors. But time constructions are also rooted in imaginations by contemporary actors, and no less so by us historians. We too contribute to the “three-dimensional web” and express our imaginations in publication products. This brings me to the second part of my commentary, the format of the book.

2 Experiencing multivocality through a non-linear book

Shahzad sees the intricate web of Islamic history mirrored in the interlinked structure of his book. While it does in fact have a chapter structure, we are confronted by default with a web-like main menu for entry, allowing readers to explore numerous links between topics and to dive straight into any section of the book.

Fig. 2: The main menu displays the section web. Hovering over an entry reveals the topic of the node and highlights its connection to other parts of the book. Bashir, A New Vision, URL: https://islamic-pasts-futures.org/#allChapters (21.03.2024).

Additionally, each section provides topic-related content from other chapters. These functions override the preset chapter order. As another tool of non-linearity, several sections feature images that call for interactive manipulation. As shown in Fig. 1, the material is often stacked and can be spread out and rearranged at the display while it hovers over the text. Shahzad comments: “These maneuvers allow my argument regarding time to be substantiated through readers’ own experience of this book.”13 Thus, the book becomes a tool of meaning-making for the reader (or should I say ‘user’?), and as such, let it be said, works incredibly well.

To contextualize these design considerations, I want to stress that they are closely in sync with discussions in hypertext research. Ted Nelson, hypertext pioneer and creator of the term, characterized hypertext as “non-sequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive display.”14 Integrating other media, such as images, and implementing multivocality has always been a major concern of that idea. Hypertext readers become active co-writers by choosing paths through “multithreaded stories composed of many intersecting plots,” as Janet Murray put it.15 In another moment of resonance, David Kolb emphasized that “If hypertexts are to serve inquiry, they need to question and comment on their own and others’ form and relations, so they must be able to represent their own form and movement.”16 Finally, Shahzad draws attention to his understanding of the web as “something like an image from nature that creates a complex jumble.”17 In hypertext studies, this has often been referred to as a rhizome – another nature-based metaphor, highlighting the endless possibilities of linking topics and perspectives for pasts and futures that also affect Shahzad.

3 Diving into the Web: Three comments on Shahzad’s approach

That said, and now I come to my actual comments, what exactly this open web and interactive format is supposed to represent should be clarified. Is it primarily an isomorphic documentation of the landscape of observed perspectives on the subject (in this case, Islam)? Or does Shahzad’s own positionality and horizon form the web in which he integrates different perspectives? When we include the reader’s construction of meaning (since Shahzad’s book is a tool for meaning-making), we could speak of threefold constructivism, that is, Islam constructions by the voices in the examples, Shahzad’s construction, and the reader’s fabrication of meaning. Throughout his book, Shahzad certainly stresses that his is only one among many voices that constitute Islam discursively. If, however, the book is to be a tool for the reader, the question arises as to the balance between the reader’s freedom and Shahzad’s role as a ‘guide’ through the web. And I am not entirely sure how exactly Shahzad positions himself here. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s acclaimed book on the year 1926 serves as an interesting parallel.18 His work deconstructs historical information on various aspects of daily life into bite-sized segments, organized under the broad categories “Arrays,” “Codes,” “Codes Collapsed,” and “Frames.” Readers are presented with encyclopedia-like entries where Gumbrecht indicates numerous connections to other topics. This works as analog hyperlinking and forms a veritable network of less extensive and less cohesively closed nodes. The design encourages readers to jump-read through the web, moving freely in all sorts of directions, which is only possible because Gumbrecht himself seeks to completely fade into the background. He discloses his positionality as little as possible and relinquishes control over navigation and interpretation. This is what constitutes the network in the first place. Shahzad, on the other hand, seems to want something different, namely, to provide pathways through a network that principally exists as a sort of background foil. He highlights specific short-circuits between parts of the book – but is that still a web in the full sense of the word?

My second comment concerns a specific notion of temporality and its representation in the online book format: if time is about events and change, what does this mean for simultaneous phenomena? In his section on Enduring Forms, Shahzad introduces us to the history of the Minaret of Kudus in Indonesia.19 The architecture of the Minaret borrows intertextually from pre-Islamic styles, which results in a “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” to quote Ernst Bloch’s famous dictum. This example shows that Shahzad addresses simultaneity and, to a certain extent, unveils simultaneous phenomena through the book design, notably evident in the intricate web on the first page’s menu. In some sections, Shahzad provides abstract maps of historical connections.

Fig. 3: Some parts of the book show abstract maps that connect people, places, dates, and other entities conceptually. This animated map focuses on the historic city of Kudus on Java,with links fading in step by step until it reaches its final state as displayed above. Screenshot from Bashir, A New Vision, https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.inadequacy-timelines.

Placing this kind of visual representation more frequently and more prominently in the book would, in my view, have made a more compelling case for simultaneous temporality and the obvious mission of the book design to represent the argument of Islamic history as a web. Practical reasons might have posed obstacles, yet from a theoretical perspective there are distinct advantages to incorporating visual tools “as meaningful conceptual tools of inquiry and insight in their own right,”20 as David J. Staley has argued. Staley highlighted that “visualizations are more conducive to synthesis than analysis.”21 Bearing this in mind, a stronger visual dimension to the book might have made Shahzad’s approach of synthesizing multiple connections more accessible. In addition, readers would have had more opportunities to reflect on his interpretations, thereby deepening their understanding of and fostering a more reflective engagement with Shahzad’s arguments.

My final comment addresses the nominal approach Shahzad pursues in the book: understanding Islam as a multivocal web works for him because Islam is always imagined whenever it is mentioned (e.g., textually, verbally, architecturally, through artwork).22 I wonder if this criterion is categorical for Shahzad. In discourse theory, at least according to Michel Foucault but also beyond, indirect references or even silence on a particular topic are likewise constitutive of discourses. These, too, shape conceptions and perceptions of phenomena. There are, of course, various nominal theories and I am no expert in that field. Reading Shahzad’s online book, however, left me wondering if he was less interested in cases where Islam was not mentioned explicitly, or whether his nominal approach was less strict than I have summarized here. Discussing moments of silence as integral to Islam would probably have foregrounded Shahzad’s positionality more clearly. Such an approach would demand greater interpretive effort to persuade readers of Islam’s implicit presence, unlike instances where the religion is referenced overtly. Since Shahzad sees himself as part of the discursive “web,” however, I do not think this would have clashed with his overall approach to Islamic pasts and futures. Still, the question remains: to what degree does Shahzad wish his positionality to be apparent to his audience?

These comments and questions reflect my personal positionality on Shahzad’s book, a perspective that could indeed be contrasted with a host of other viewpoints. It is precisely this discursive multivocality that Shahzad exemplifies for us in a groundbreaking way, since his book performs rather than describes his argument on multivocality. A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures transcends traditional frameworks by redefining the boundaries of conceptualizing Islamic history and book formats. More significantly, it allows us to broaden our view and envision other historical (and non-historical) phenomena as similarly multifaceted weavings. Interactive, media-rich and non-linear digital designs such as Shahzad’s help to de-essentialize these phenomena by moving beyond rigid categorizations and promoting more nuanced explorations of various facets and discourses. These may differ markedly from one another, yet all of them play a decisive role in constituting the historical phenomenon. Shahzad’s innovative book can therefore be seen as a beacon of inspiration for new explorations.


Christian Wachter is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Digital History working group at Bielefeld University. He received his Ph.D. for his thesis on hypertext as a medium for digital historiography in 2021. In a current research project, he conducts digitally-assisted discourse analysis, examining political discourse in early twentieth-century Germany.


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Cite this blog post
Christian Wachter (2024, March 26). Redefining Boundaries by Multivocality: The Synergy of Content and Form in Shahzad Bashir’s Online Book A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures. Geschichtstheorie am Werk. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w3xc

  1. Shahzad Bashir, A New Vision for Islamic Pasts and Futures. Cambridge (MA), and Providence (RI): MIT Press, and Brown University Library, 2022, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.introduction-framework. The book has no page numbers. Instead, each chapter section is referenced by a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). This design choice is in sync with the non-linear concept of the book. []
  2. Bashir, A New Vision, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.introduction-framework. []
  3. Cf. Ethan Kleinberg, „On the Precipice of the Digital Cliff: Christian Wachter‘s Geschichte digital schreiben: Hypertext als non-lineare Wissensrepräsentation in der Digital History“, Geschichtstheorie am Werk (11.04.2023), DOI: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcys. []
  4. Bashir, A New Vision, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.events-narratives. []
  5. Ibid., DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.events-relived. []
  6. Ibid., DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.genealogies. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. The chapter begins with a section on A Woman’s Voice. Ibid., DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.womans-voice. []
  9. The chapter on Historical Fictions starts with the section An Ambiguous Adventure. Ibid., DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.ambiguous-adventure. []
  10. Ibid., DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.tropes. []
  11. David Ambaras and Kate McDonald (eds), Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History. 2021, URL: https://bodiesandstructures.org/bodies-and-structures-2/why-think-spatially?path=get-to-know-the-site (15.02.2024). []
  12. Zoltán Boldizsár Simon and Marek Tamm, “Historical Futures, History and Theory 60, no. 1 (2021), 3-22, 4, DOI https://doi.org/10.1111/hith.12190. []
  13. Bashir, A New Vision, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.introduction-framework. []
  14. Theodor Holm Nelson, Literary Machines: The Report on, and of, Project Xanadu Concerning Word Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow’s Intellectual Revolution, and Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education and Freedom: Vers. 93.1. Sausalito (CA): Mindful Press, 1993, 0/2. []
  15. Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York (NY): MIT Press, 1997, 86. []
  16. David Kolb, Scholarly Hypertext: Self-Represented Complexity” in Proceedings of the Eighth ACM Conference on Hypertext – HYPERTEXT ’97, ed. Mark Bernstein, Kasper Østerbye and Leslie Carr. New York (NY): ACM Press, 1997, 29-37, 33. []
  17. Bashir, A New Vision DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.inadequacy-timelines. []
  18. Hans U. Gumbrecht, In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 1997. []
  19. Bashir, A New Vision, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.enduring-forms. []
  20. David J. Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History. How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past. 2nd Ed., Armonk (NY): M.E. Sharpe, 2014, 40. []
  21. Ibid., 46. Here, Staley refers to Donald Weismann, The Visual Arts as Human Experience. Englewood Cliffs (NJ): Prentice Hall, 1970. []
  22. Bashir, A New Vision, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26300/bdp.bashir.ipf.introduction-framework. []

Christian Wachter

https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2937-0868

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