Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East

(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
A Summary

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

Advertisements

Al-‘Amiri’s Book of Notification of the Virtues of Islam

A classic rookie teaching mistake is to put on one’s syllabus a reading which has not been translated into a language one’s students can understand.  This is what I did a year ago with the Kitab al-I’lam bi-manaqib al-Islam of al-‘Amiri (d. 992).  This text is, among other things, a fascinating treatise in comparative religion (arguing, as the title suggests, for the superiority of Islam), as well as a defense of philosophy from Muslim critics.  Not having a full translation from which to choose a pungent section, however, I hurriedly made my own translation of a single small section defending the study of logic, using logical means.  I thought I’d include it here for general interest:

Continue reading

Found: The Birmingham Qur’an (N=1)

It is six weeks since the news first broke of a fragmentary Qur’an manuscript whose radiocarbon dating (95% accuracy) is between 568 and 645.  Early reports declared how much the discovery supported traditional Muslim accounts of the origins of the Qur’an, but this week the news media went abuzz with claims that the Qur’an may in fact predate Muhammad and debunk Islam’s account of its own origins.  (N. B.: The article was first published in the Times of London, but linking to paywalls is unhelpful.)  Some scholars (such as Georgetown Prof. Jonathan Brown) have now published critiques of the counter-claims, and the buzz continues apace.

Before we get too carried away, it’s important to remember that this is a single manuscript.  Statisticians derisively refer to the conclusions which can be reached when the number of data points N = 1.  Such a datum is not “statistically significant.”  While statistical significance is not the only measure of historical evidence (and indeed, most ancient and early medieval history does not achieve statistical significance), it does suggest that we might usefully remember the limits of what we are looking at here. Continue reading

Teaching Digital (Middle Eastern) History

Summer is over, Fall Semester has started, and I am teaching a new course entitled, “Minorities and Diversity of the Middle East.”  The class covers both ethnic and religious diversity from Muhammad to the present, so we have a lot of ground to go over.  As this is a topic of particular interest to me, I am very excited to be offering this class.  But I am excited not only due to the content, but also due to an additional experiment: I am offering a digital history extra credit project, to see if it works. Continue reading

Found: Early Modern Armenian Historians, or the Value of Outdated Editions Online

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

Found: Pros and Cons of Multiple Calendars in the Medieval Middle East

The medieval Middle East employed a surfeit of calendars which can bewilder the unwary researcher, but sometimes the multiplicity of systems for identifying time can in fact be helpful.  Scribes often failed to identify the date they were writing more precisely than by giving the year, but if they provided the year in more than one calendar, it can help narrow down the time in which they wrote (assuming they were accurate in their conversion).  Sebastian Brock created a list of medieval Syriac scribes who provided dates in the Hijri calendar, and he notes both when scribes employed additional calendars (up to six!) and when their conversions between calendars were mistaken.[1]  I recently had occasion to use this trick for a very interesting fifteenth-century text. Continue reading

Partying Like It’s 1299: al-Dimashqi on Easter

Ibn Taymiyya’s contemporary Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi (d. 727 AH / 1327) is best known for his geography describing his native Syria c. 1300, shortly after the final expulsion of the Crusaders from the mainland.  Like the more famous Ibn Taymiyya, he was aware of the festivals of the non-Muslims, in particular the Christians, but unlike that Hanbali jurist, he described them in the context of comparing the different calendars in use.  The calendrical context enabled al-Dimashqi to describe the celebrations without condemnation.  Here is his description of Easter in Hama, a major city in central Syria:  Continue reading