Tag Archives: Anatolia

What is History?

The past doesn’t change, right?  So once we know what happened, what else is there to do?  What do historians do, anyway?

The history profession has many critics, but even many of its fans cannot figure out what historians do, other than teach.  I recently visited family and encountered these questions more explicitly than I had in the past.  As a historian starting an assistant professorship, these are questions I expect to hear from my students, and to which I hope to provide them with an adequate answer.

We might grant that the past doesn’t change, but to do so we need some large caveats.  While what happened does not happen differently (unless time travel is in fact possible, according to Back to the Future), our access to what happened is indirect.  New sources are being discovered which reveal additional aspects about parts of the past which were unfamiliar.  Discovery of new data is one of the important functions of historians.  And if you wish to learn anything outside of the past 500 years or outside of that portion of the world dominated by English speakers, you will need trained experts to interpret the evidence and translate it into a language you can understand.

But discovery of new data is only a small portion of what historians do, although it is always exciting when it happens.  A larger portion of the historian’s job is to interpret the data which is already known.  Okay, so we know that in 1258 the Mongol general Hulegu (grandson of Chinggis Khan) conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph.  So what?  Why is that an important event?  Who cares?  The historian’s job is to answer these questions.  This conquest put a final whimpering end to the myth of unity in the Islamic world.  For three centuries already the caliph in Baghdad had been a puppet in Baghdad with little real power, yet Sunni thugs who wanted to appear as legitimate rulers would send letters to Baghdad claiming to ask for recognition from the caliph, which the caliph rarely if ever refused.  And thus, at least for the region west of Libya, there was a notion that all Islam was united under one caliph.  After the Mongol pagan Hulegu killed the last Abbasid caliph, a new Abbasid caliphate was quickly established in Egypt (whose successors continued, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, in Istanbul until 1923), which achieved recognition within lands ruled from the Nile valley. But to the north in Anatolia and to the east of the Euphrates, areas now ruled by Mongols, Muslims religious thinkers learned how to get along without a caliph in their political theories.  The events of 1258 forced some rapid rethinking of the relationship between religion and politics in the Islamic world.

That’s the significance question, but historians also care about the causality question: why did the events of 1258 happen as they did?  Why did the Central Asian steppe nomads conquer most of Asia and part of Europe, but not India, Palestine, Egypt, or Western Europe?  It’s easy to say that they ran out of gas, but why then?  Why there?  Western European sources from the 1240s to the 1260s show clear concern that the Mongol juggernaut would roll over them next.  And why did the events of 1258 have the particular effects they did, rather than some other effects?  Why didn’t all Muslims in Iraq rise up in revolt at the death of the caliph and attempt to establish a new caliphate, as some are doing today in northern Iraq?  Causal questions are difficult, because the phenomena involved are many-faceted, and there are many variables that we don’t have access to in the evidence that survives (and historians are bound to the surviving evidence; that is what distinguishes them from authors of historical fiction).  Because questions of causality are difficult, they occasion much debate, as questions of significance also do, and historians debate these questions.

One might naively suspect that the causality and significance questions could be settled once and for all, and then historians would move to more recent topics.  But this has not happened, and will not happen, for a few reasons.  One reason is that we interpret the evidence of the past through our present understanding of the world.  As we understand better, or perhaps just differently, “how the world works,” so our understanding of the evidence for the past changes as well.  Historians are necessary to help sift out narratives about the past which depend on theories about the world which have been disproven.  For example, a theory about the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th C which remains popular today is the environmental theory put forward by René Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes, according to which all Central Asian nomads grew up in a climate which forced them to be natural warriors with a desire to conquer the sedentary lands around them, and whenever the military of those sedentary lands degraded in quality, conquest from the steppe lands was inevitable.  This is to say that the Mongol conquests did not depend at all upon what happened where the nomads lived, but was exclusively a function of what happened in the “civilized lands.”  This is clearly wrong, and yet it remains popular, because it was written in a seductively clear narrative which was mass-marketed.  Historians need to challenge this notion.

Another reason these arguments will never cease is that we investigate history to learn more about the present.  As the present changes, so too does our view of the past; things that previously seemed very significant suddenly seem less so, or vice versa.  When a descendent of Hulegu, Ghazan Khan, adopted Islam, this is seen as a significant event.  (Personally, I doubt it was very significant).  When Ghazan’s brother Oljeitu rejected Sunni Islam for Shi’ism, this is seen by some as a significant event, precisely those people who look at Middle East conflicts today and see them as sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, while others think the switch was largely cosmetic on Oljeitu’s part (how much did he know about Islam anyway?).  Cultural forces which previous generations assumed were universal motivators, such as religion, have been considered in some recent historical scholarship to be just a front for “the real motives,” usually economic or sociological.  Historical causality and significance are difficult and elusive topics, and hence historians are always attempting to come to a better understanding of them.

But I think the most important job of the historian is not these, precisely, although these questions play a role in it.  The most important job of the historian is to help society come to terms with the quantity of the past.

There is a lot more information about the past than any single person can hope to understand, no matter how thoroughly she or he devotes a lifetime to the pursuit (and some people need to earn a living, and see friends and family).  The abundance of information about the past creates the problem that no one can fully understand it.  It’s also true that no one can know all the things that are going on in the world right now, so scientists create models of the physical world to enable us to understand why things happen a certain way, and to allow us to interact with the world around us.  Much more has happened than is happening (because whatever is happening is past just as quickly), and so historians create models and frameworks to organize our understanding of the past.  These mental models and frameworks are necessary to make sense of the past, to reduce the overwhelming details into stories which tell us about our world and what makes it the way it is.

People create mental models to understand their world somewhat reflexively; it’s one of the amazing things about being human.  But these models are not necessarily correct, no more than any other explanation after the fact is necessary correct.  So just as amazing, to my mind, is the propensity for people to create erroneous models of the past.  And historians argue about these models, to see which is better.  To come back to Hulegu’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258, we know it had an effect.  But was that effect significant enough to merit distinguishing all that went before it in the Middle East from all that went after it?  Or did the year 1200 have more in common with 1300 in most of the Middle East than either did with 900?  Historians debate this.  (I have debated this.)  This is the debate about periodization: where should we put the pauses in our accounts of the past in order to make the most sense?  And while historians rightly think that too much effort has been put into “getting the periodization right,” since different phenomena will inevitably have different natural stopping points, periodization is just one aspect of the question of which mental model makes the most sense about the past.

Many people continue to believe history is just a series of names and dates, and no doubt this is how history is commonly taught.  Meanwhile, historians see history as a series of debates, where the dispute is not (usually) about what happened or didn’t, but about larger questions, such as why it happened, why it matters, and what is the best framework for understanding this event in the larger trajectories of human experience.  Such questions transform history from a deadening litany of the dead into a living and changing collective attempt to understand better the world in which we live today.

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Non-Muslim Significance? In the Company of Others…

Islam did not develop in a vacuum.  This is not pejorative, nor indeed contrary to the traditional Muslim account of its own origins.  The traditional Muslim view is that Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and others were all prophets preaching Islam, but that Jews and Christians corrupted their scriptures.  So one might expect certain continuities, and indeed, the Qur’an refers to Jews and Christians and presents Allah as instructing Muhammad to consult the “people of the book” if he is doubtful about the revelation he has received (Yunus 10:94).  It is well known to scholars of the origins of Islam that the Qur’an adapts various biblical accounts and refers to various figures found in the Bible, but this contact between Islam and other religions did not cease with the final form of the Qur’an, but rather intensified.

After Muhammad’s death, his followers conquered a large part of the world and came to rule over societies of non-Muslims.  One would then expect even more extensive contact between Muslims and non-Muslims.  One result of this contact is the importation into the body of Islamic tradition of the isra’iliyyat, accounts from Jewish or Christian tradition regarding biblical figures.  The anxiety of early Muslims imitating non-Muslims is shown in the hadith (traditional account) which ascribes to Muhammad the prohibition of imitating Jews or Christians.  In one of several formulations, this injunction reads, “He is not one of us who imitates other than us. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians.”  (Note: hadith accounts are often not genuine, and often reflect conditions and questions that arose after Muhammad’s death.)

But “imitation” is too restrictive a model to describe the relationship between Islam and other religions of the regions ruled by Muslims, whichever direction that “imitation” is posited.  It is also the case that our evidence rarely allows us to establish that “imitation” occurred.  Instead, we can speak reasonably confidently of certain aspects of shared culture.

Consider the importance of Jerusalem.  Of course it is the holy city of Judaism, the place where the Temple was built and G-d dwelt on earth.  It is the holy city of Christianity, the place where Jesus was crucified and rose again from the dead, where the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost and inaugurated the Church.  According to traditional Islamic accounts, it was also the first holy city of Muslims and the direction that the earliest Muslims were to pray (the first qibla), before Muhammad changed Muslim prayer to be in the direction of Mecca.  It is often presumed that the change of qibla relegated Jerusalem to the status of third holiest city of Islam, after Mecca (Muhammad’s home town) and Medina (Muhammad’s adopted city).  But in fact, three and a half centuries after Muhammad, an important Muslim author named al-Muqaddasi (i.e. “from Jerusalem”) wrote that Jerusalem was in fact more important than Mecca or Medina because Muhammad ascended to heaven from there and God would bring all creation there for judgment!  (Al-Muqaddasi acknowledged, however, that Muslims were a minority in the city.)  Thus the cultural importance of Jerusalem was shared, if differentiated, among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  Other examples of shared culture include the aesthetics and gendered architecture mentioned in a previous post.

As a historian, I take it for granted that Islam has a history.  Even at the highest intellectual stratum, certain thinkers thought (and, more importantly, wrote) at specific periods of time.  They did so in particular cultural contexts, and cultural contexts which included not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims.  Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) is one of the heroes of the Salafi movement (so-called “Islamic fundamentalism”), though he lived seven centuries after Muhammad, at exactly the half-way point between Muhammad and the present.  He is known for his voluminous writings and polemical rejection of everything Islamic that did not have the most spotless pedigree.  He wrote polemics against a wide variety of popular Muslim devotional practices, such as celebrating saints’ birthdays at funeral shrines, and opposed honoring mosques (even that at Jerusalem) too highly.  He opposed any similarity to non-Muslim religions, and often opposed practices by arguing that they were influenced by Muslim religions.  Here is a Muslim thinker for Muslims.

But like all thinkers, Ibn Taymiyya wrote in a cultural context.  He wrote a polemic against Christianity (كتاب جواب الصحيح لمن بدّل دين المسيح, “The right answer to whoever corrupts the Messiah’s religion”), in response to fears that Muslims would convert to Christianity in light of a Christian polemic against Islam in Arabic.  When he left his native Harran for cities further south, such as Damascus, he must have stopped for a rest in a town which was almost entirely Christian at that time: Qara, one caravan stop south of Hims.  He opposed Muslims doing things that he had seen Christians do, because he wanted Islam to be a distinct religion that could stand on its own two feet without supporting itself with non-Muslims.  His writings must be placed in a context which includes non-Muslims; to read them without that context, as many Salafis do today, makes Ibn Taymiyya into a monster who simply glorified in calling other religions nasty names.  But instead he used polemic, as did his various contemporaries, to protect what he valued against what worried him.  He was worried that the Islam of his day was not independent enough, and too similar to the religions of Christians and Jews.

And if so strong a Muslim exceptionalist as Ibn Taymiyya must be read in light of a mixed-religious context, then the normal Muslims against whom he is arguing, who are engaging in devotional practices which Ibn Taymiyya labels imitative of non-Muslims, must even more be seen in a religiously diverse Middle Eastern context.  This becomes apparent when one reads the travel accounts of Muslim travelers such as Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217) and Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9), as they discuss different local variations of Islam, and how Muslims of different regions interact with the non-Muslims there.  Ibn Jubayr, during a very brief stay in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, was scandalized at how easily Muslims adjusted to being ruled by non-Muslims, and he devoted a couple passages to arguing from Islamic tradition that Muslims are obliged to leave a region conquered by non-Muslims.  Ibn Battuta describes the various ways in which the Muslim Turks ruled Anatolia in the fourteenth century, when much of the population was still Greek Christian, and he complains both that he cannot find Muslims who speak Arabic, and that people in one city suspect him of being a heretic, because they never saw anyone of his branch of Sunni Islam.  Anatolian Muslims knew how to live with Greek Christians, but not Maliki Sunni Muslims.

The reason why Muslim sources so rarely discuss non-Muslims is not that there were few non-Muslims, but that the Muslim authors took the non-Muslims for granted and considered them literally unremarkable.  Nevertheless, the fact that Islam developed over centuries in a religiously diverse society had a poorly understood but readily apparent impact on the shape even of religion, to say nothing of government, law, society, culture, and art.  The history of Islam, like the history of every human phenomenon, cannot be understood without a broad analysis of the society as a whole.