Recently I was translating a medieval Syriac poem lamenting a deacon who converted to Islam, and I got stuck on a single word. Different manuscripts, as is often the case, contained different readings of that word, but the options were either nonsensical or not in the dictionaries. The only other scholar to work with the text proposed an emendation which was semantically sensible but poetically impossible. What’s a translator to do? I found a way through, turning a philological detail into a methodological point about late medieval Syriac texts. Continue reading
(It’s been a while since I’ve posted, because I’ve been working on other things. One of those things was my participation in a workshop earlier this month at Princeton University, organized by Christian Sahner, Jack Tannous, and Michael Reynolds. Here, as a guest post, is their post-workshop summary of the discussion, for anyone interested in Middle Eastern religious diversity, yesterday and today.)
Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East
A Workshop at Princeton University
May 6-7, 2016
On May 6-7, 2016, the Near East and the World Seminar welcomed fourteen distinguished scholars to Princeton University to discuss the place of Christians in Middle Eastern history and historiography. At the outset, speakers were invited to reflect on how the field of Middle Eastern history generally and their work specifically changes when they consider perspectives provided by Christian sources, institutions, and individuals. A working premise of the conference was that although Christians have formed a significant portion of the population of the Middle East since the Arab conquests, the stubborn but understandable tendency of historians to conceive of the Middle East as a Muslim region has had the effect of marginalizing Christian experiences. The result has been to consign Middle Eastern Christianity to a niche specialty alongside larger fields, such as Islamic studies, Byzantine studies, church history, Jewish studies, and Ottoman history. Continue reading
For my dissertation on Iraq and Jazira in the fifteenth century, Armenian sources were particularly valuable. But the last medieval Armenian historian was T’ovma Mecop’ec’i (d. 1446), after whom two centuries passed before another Armenian author recorded a chronicle. That was Arak’el of Tabriz (d. 1670), who in 1662 completed a history of the Armenians starting in the reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas I (r. 1588-1629). Since I was not interested in anything as late as Shah Abbas I, I concluded that Arak’el and his successors were not useful for my work. It turns out, I was wrong! Continue reading
A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims. The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers. I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS. For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam. It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will. However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.
Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such. Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading
Recently I had the privilege to finally pick up a classic text in the social scientific study of religion, Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967). Berger was an early leader in the development of sociological thought which took seriously the ways in which social phenomena are not “given” or “natural” but instead “constructed.” His views have influenced sociologists and non-sociologists alike, and it is now common to refer to phenomena long regarded as immutable and natural (such as gender) as cultural constructs. This theoretical move usefully highlights the contingency of phenomena widely, and perhaps necessarily, taken for granted.
Without diminishing Berger’s accomplishment, I found myself wondering whether construction was the right metaphor. It was an obvious choice: in common English parlance the opposite of “natural” is frequently “artificial” (as in sweeteners), and the lack of a useful English verb corresponding to “artificial” might lead to considering related activities of making or building. And constructions have the advantage of not also appearing in nature, so the opposition is immediate and readily intelligible. On the other hand, there are four ways where I think the metaphor of construction can (and probably has) misled scholars when thinking about societies and cultures: deliberation, individuality, stability, and questions of origins. Continue reading
Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in the Islamicate Studies Symposium at the University of Chicago in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Marshall Hodgson‘s The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Hodgson studied at UChicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and taught there until his early death in 1968. The Venture of Islam was developed by Hodgson as an undergraduate textbook for the “Islamic Civilization” course he developed, and was posthumously published by the University of Chicago press. The conference was organized by Shiraz Hajiani and Mick Bechtel, two graduate students at UChicago, and it brought together scholars from various stages in their careers to reflect on Hodgson’s place in the field and where the field is going. Most of those invited had personal connections to UChicago, although some (such as I) were outsiders. I am very grateful to the organizers for extending an invitation to me.
The Venture of Islam is still the reigning synthesis in Islamic history, although the majority of those present indicated that it is too difficult to use directly in most undergraduate instruction. The genre of an undergraduate textbook forced Hodgson to synthesize more than most scholars do in their research, and his interest in world history led him to explain developments within “Islamdom” (states ruled by Muslims) in the context of developments across Afro-Eurasia as a whole. Very few scholars have even attempted Hodgson’s breadth of vision. This ensures that The Venture is still one of the most important books in Islamic Studies today.