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Re-Centering the Bazaar: Notes toward a History of Capitalism in the Islamic World


Institute For Middle East Studies

The study of the history of capitalism has experienced something of a renaissance over the past decade or so, and has reinvigorated the field of economic history in the American academy and beyond. The discussion thus far, however, has largely pivoted around the Atlantic experience; although global histories of capitalism have gestured towards the Islamic world, work on the latter is only just beginning to surface.

This talk explores the possibilities of a history of capitalism in the Islamic world through the prism of one of its most visible expressions: the bazaar. As the locus of a range of different commercial practices, the bazaar offers a useful platform for thinking about economic life in the Islamic world — production, consumption, exchange, and finance. It is also the site through which the inhabitants of the Islamic world came to experience the changing tides of global commerce and politics: the wares of India and Africa, the textiles of Northern Europe, and most recently, the manufactures of China. And yet, as an object of scholarly analysis, the bazaar has largely been reduced to a set of interpersonal or patron-client relations, flattening what was in fact a vibrant site of exchange and transformation.

Rather than speak of the bazaar in the abstract, Professor Bishara will focus on a specific network of bazaars around the Indian Ocean — in Bahrain, Muscat, and Zanzibar — during the nineteenth century, so as to more accurately map out the interlinked markets for commodities (land, produce, etc.), labor, and capital, the paper instruments that linked them all together, and the circulating discourses that animated them. The discussion of bazaar capitalism in the 19th-century Indian Ocean will serve as the platform for thinking about how we might write a history of capitalism in the Islamic world more broadly.


  • Fahad Ahmad Bishara is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He specializes in the economic and legal history of the Indian Ocean and Islamic world. His book, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017) is a legal history of economic life in the Western Indian Ocean, told through the story of the Arab and Indian settlement and commercialization of East Africa during the nineteenth century. He is currently working on a series of microhistories of the dhow trade between the Gulf and the Indian Ocean during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He received his PhD in History from Duke University in 2012 and holds an M.A. in Arab Gulf Studies from the University of Exeter. His research has been supported by the European Research Commission, the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.