I am an anthropologist focussing on practices of “doing good” (charity, development, humanitarianism, philanthropy), infrastructure and religion. I also have expertise in global health. While much of my research has evolved around societies in Central and South Asia, I look at these themes from a broader comparative and theoretical perspective. I am a Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at The Graduate Institute Geneva and currently the Principal Investigator of the Swiss National Science Foundation funded project “Quiet Aid: Service and Salvation in the Balkans-to-Bengal-Complex”.
Born in Germany to Swiss parents I received an MA from the University of Vienna in Austria and completed my PhD at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Before taking up my position in Geneva I lectured at the University of Bern and The University of Hong Kong, and I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong.
In addition to my past and present academic positions, I have worked on a range of different collaborative research projects. I was the editor of the series “MUHUM – Muslim Humanitarianism” at Allegra Lab. With Allegra Lab, I have also co-produced the webinar series “Mobile Humanitarians” – a multimodal resource to better understand the complex of global mobility and humanitarianism. Furthermore, I am a specialist member in the European Research Council funded project “China, Law and Development” at the University of Oxford, an associate in the Hong Kong Research Grants Council funded project “The Infrastructures of Faith: Mobility on the Belt and Road” at The University of Hong Kong, and a collaborator in the Swiss National Science Foundation funded project “Roadwork: An Anthropology of Infrastructure at China’s Inner Asian Borders” at the University of Zurich.
2023. With Max Hirsh (eds.). Infrastructure and the Remaking of Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
2017. Azan on the Moon: Entangling Modernity along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Reviewed e.g. in Central Asian Survey, Europe-Asia Studies, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Social Anthropology, Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies; shortlisted for the 2018 Book Award of the Central Eurasian Studies Society.
2007. Islam und Kirgisen on Tour: Die Rezeption “nomadischer Religion” und ihre Wirkung (Islam and Kyrgyz on Tour: The Perception of “Nomadic Religion” and Its Effects). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Journal special issues
2019. With Magnus Marsden (eds.). “Whither West Asia? Exploring North-South Perspectives on Eurasia.” Journal of Eurasian Studies 10(1). [OPEN ACCESS]
2018. With Amelia Fauzia, Nurfadzilah Yahaya (eds.) “Muslim Endowments in Asia: Waqf, Charity and Circulations.” The Muslim World 108(4).
2017. With Brook Bolander (eds.). “Language and Globalization in South and Central Asian Spaces.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 247.
2016. With Andrea Rota (eds.). “A Matter of Perspective? Disentangling the Emic-Etic Debate in the Scientific Study of Religion\s.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 28(4-5).
2015. With Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, Anke von Kügelgen (eds.). “Thematic issue on Central Eurasia.” Asiatische Studien/Etudes Asiatiques 69(3).
Articles in peer-reviewed journals
2022. “Dying Dreams in Tajikistan’s Global Borderland.” Current History 121(837), 277-282. [OPEN ACCESS]
2022. “Exemplary Lovers: Humanity and Hierarchy in Muslim Philanthropy.” Public Anthropologist, 4(1), 1-20.
2020. “Humanitarian Affect: Islam, Aid and Emotional Impulse in Northern Pakistan.” History and Anthropology 31(2), 236–256. [OPEN ACCESS]
2020. With Hasan H. Karrar. “The Belt and Road as Political Technology: Power and Economy in Pakistan and Tajikistan.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 38(5), 834–839.
2019. With Tobias Marschall. “Affective Labor: Afghanistan’s Road to China.” Roadsides 2, 73–87. [OPEN ACCESS]
2019. “Faraway Siblings So Close: Ephemeral Conviviality across the Wakhan Divide.” Modern Asian Studies 53(3), 943–977. [OPEN ACCESS]
2019. With Magnus Marsden. “Whither West Asia? Exploring North-South Perspectives on Eurasia.” Journal of Eurasian Studies 10(1), 3-10. [OPEN ACCESS]
2018. With Amelia Fauzia, Nurfadzilah Yahaya. “Muslim Endowments in Asia: Waqf, Charity and Circulations.” The Muslim World 108(4), 587–592.
2018. With Hasan H. Karrar. “Assembling Marginality in Northern Pakistan.” Political Geography 63, 65–74.
2017. “Building Bridges Across the Oxus: Language, Development and Globalization at the Tajik-Afghan Frontier.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 247, 49–70.
2017. With Brook Bolander. “Language and Globalization in South and Central Asian Spaces.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 247, 1–11.
2016. “‘The very act of cutting’: Ethnomethodology, Interaction and the Emic-Etic Debate.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 28(4-5), 400–420.
2016. With Andrea Rota. “A Matter of Perspective? Disentangling the Emic-Etic Debate in the Scientific Study of Religion\s.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 28(4-5), 317–336.
2014. “Where Empires Meet: Orientalism and Marginality at the Former Russo-British Frontier.” Etudes de lettres 2-3, 179–196. [OPEN ACCESS]
2014. “The Road Not Taken: Enabling and Limiting Mobility in the Eastern Pamirs.” International Quarterly for Asian Studies 45(1-2), 153–170. [OPEN ACCESS]
2013. “‘The state starts from the family’: Peace and Harmony in the Eastern Pamirs.” Central Asian Survey 32(4), 462–474.
2012. “Making Kyrgyz Spaces: Local History as Spatial Practice in Murghab (Tajikistan).” Central Asian Survey 31(3), 251–264.
2011. “Paving the Way: Ismaili Genealogy and Mobility along Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway”. Journal of Persianate Studies 4, 171–188.
2021. “Astronauts of the Western Pamirs: Power, Mobility, and Disconnection in High Asia.” In: Nayantara S. Appleton and Caroline Bennett (eds.). Methods, Moments, and Ethnographic Spaces in Asia. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 3–20.
2020. “Managing Karbala: Genealogies of Shia Humanitarianism in Pakistan, England and Iraq.” In: Giuseppe Bolotta, Philip Fountain and Michael Feener (eds.). Political Theologies and Development in Asia: Transcendence, Sacrifice and Aspiration. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 55–67.
2018. “Development Institutions and Religious Networks in the Pamirian Borderlands.” In: Alexander Horstmann, Martin Saxer and Alessandro Rippa (eds.). Routledge Handbook of Asian Borderlands. New York and London: Routledge, 385–395.
2018. “‘The state starts from the family’: Peace and Harmony in the Eastern Pamirs.” In: Edward Lemon (ed.). Critical Approaches to Security in Central Asia. New York and London: Routledge, 218-230. [Reprint]
2016. “Political Regimes: Central Asia.” Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures.
2016. “Humanitarianism Across Mountain Valleys: ‘Shia Aid’ and Development Encounters in Northern Pakistan and Eastern Tajikistan.” In: Hermann Kreutzmann and Teiji Watanabe (eds.). Mapping Transition in the Pamirs: Changing Human-Environmental Landscapes. Dordrecht: Springer, 229–244.
2015. “‘The state starts from the family’: Peace and Harmony in the Eastern Pamirs.” In: David Montgomery (ed.). Negotiating Well-Being in Central Asia. London and New York: Routledge, 40–52. [Reprint]
2011. “Kyrgyz – Muslim – Central Asian? Recent Approaches to the Study of Kyrgyz Culture in Kyrgyzstan.” In: Stephan Conermann and Michael Kemper (eds.). The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 291–305.
Muslim Humanitarianism – short MUHUM – is a platform that seeks to foster debate on the complex relationship between charity, philanthropy, humanitarianism, development and Islam.
In anthropological and historical discussions about the emergence of humanitarian thought much emphasis is put on the global, and often violent, spread of “originally” Christian or Western ideas. This approach is countered by studies that underline the existence of alternative humanitarian genealogies that are rooted in the religions and philosophies of non-Western societies. Yet to what extent do such broad civilizational classifications withstand the force of fine-grained ethnographic and historical investigation? Which political and ideological positions exert influence on the existing takes on humanitarianism? And how – methodologically and theoretically – might one approach the concerns at hand?
For an overview of ongoing debates on MUHUM have a look at the proceedings of a workshop on Muslim Humanitarianism, held at The Graduate Geneva in May 2019:
Introduction: Muslim Humanitarianism #MUHUM (Till Mostowlansky)
A Note on Humanitarian Terminology #MUHUM (Jonathan Benthall)
Theorizing Humanitarianism for an Islamic Counterpublic #MUHUM (Basit Iqbal)
Reflections on a Theory of Zakat #MUHUM (Christopher Taylor)
Saudi Arabia, Humanitarian Aid and Knowledge Production: What Do We Really Know? #MUHUM (Nora Derbal)
The Egyptian Red Crescent in the Twentieth Century #MUHUM (Esther Moeller)
A Postcolonial Civic? Shi’i Philanthropy and the Making and Marking of Urban Space in Mumbai #MUHUM (Radhika Gupta)
At Odds With the Impulse: Muslim Humanitarianism and its Exclusions in Northern Pakistan #MUHUM (Emma Varley)
Islam, Humanitarianism and Everyday Religion #MUHUM (Filippo Osella)
Muslim Humanitarianism: An Afterword #MUHUM (Julie Billaud)
Taking the perspectives of anthropology and history MUHUM continues to invite fresh contributions on Muslim humanitarianism, development, philanthropy and charity, on how Muslim institutions, networks and individuals negotiate these concepts and on how they thereby foster manifold social, spatial and material transformations.
Azan on the Moon
Azan on the Moon is an in-depth anthropological study of people’s lives along the Pamir Highway in eastern Tajikistan. Constructed in the 1930s in rugged high altitude terrain, the road fundamentally altered the material and social fabric of this former Soviet outpost on the border with Afghanistan and China. The highway initially brought sentiments of disconnection and hardship, followed by Soviet modernization and development, and ultimately a sense of distinction from bordering countries and urban centers that continues to this day.
Based on extensive fieldwork and through an analysis of construction, mobility, technology, media, development, Islam, and the state, Till Mostowlansky shows how ideas of modernity are both challenged and reinforced in contemporary Tajikistan. In the wake of China’s rise in Central Asia, people along the Pamir Highway strive to reconcile a modern future with a modern past. Weaving together the road, a population, and a region, Azan on the Moon presents a rich ethnography of global connections.
“Azan on the Moon is a landmark contribution to the anthropology of modernity. Meticulously researched and lucidly written, Mostowlansky’s subtle analysis of the afterlives of Soviet developmentalism along the Trans-Pamir Highway shows how ‘modernity’ itself becomes a central figure through which Pamiris navigate economic change, religious reform, and political marginalization at the turn of the millennium.”
—Madeleine Reeves, University of Manchester
“Places that we consider remote and disconnected look different to those who live in them. Skillfully drawing on life and road-trips in the Pamirs, Azan on the Moon is an inviting book that offers us an enchanting ethnography. There are numerous lessons here for scholars working at other intersections of mobility, culture, geopolitics, and nature.”
—James D. Sidaway, National University of Singapore
Order Azan on the Moon here