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Found: Early Modern Armenian Historians, or the Value of Outdated Editions Online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

Found: Ibn Taymiyya on Palm Sunday

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule.  He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.).  He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today.  So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents.  But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:

Continue reading

Is ISIS Medieval?

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