Tag Archives: Egypt

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

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

Lost: What’s in a Name?

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that they have shortened their name to simply “the Islamic State,” Western media have had difficulty knowing what to call them, especially because they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  But this name-change is not simply an attempt at re-branding: the terrorist group also prohibits anyone under their governance from calling them by the common Arabic abbreviation Da’ash (داعش, for الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام).  The penalty for using the proscribed, but common colloquial, acronym is 80 lashes.  What’s going on here? Continue reading

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.

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Yemen at Center Stage

Yemen does not exactly loom large in the world consciousness, and certainly not among the many Westerners who would have a hard time placing it on a map.  US foreign policy toward the country has often been an adjunct to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s far richer and larger neighbor to the north and a key US ally.

But a recent flight afforded me the time to begin reading Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, which places Yemen and Yemeni politics in the center of global politics and terrorist networks, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to 2012, when the book came out, and from jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya to bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  Although Yemen is often portrayed as a remote backwater of the Arabian peninsula, Johnsen brings together many strands of international history over the past three decades by drawing links from his detailed familiarity with Yemen’s great families.  Even Osama bin Laden, usually identified as a Saudi, was a younger son of a Yemeni pauper-turned-billionaire who made some useful connections with the Saudi royal family.

I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but it is a real eye-opener regarding the numerous connections between disparate parts of the contemporary Arab world and the inner workings of various different terrorist organizations.  I am particularly struck by the degree to which family, clan, and tribe shape such a large portion of organizations usually designated religious, which may reveal my own blindspots as a member of an anonymizing and impersonal modern Western society.  Johnsen also points out occasional clues missed or misunderstood by counter-terrorism officials, and analyzes a dispute between the lead FBI investigator and the US ambassador to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.  But he does so without succumbing to 20/20 hindsight; instead, his narrative helps readers understand the ambiguity of many of the pieces of evidence before their interpretation became indelibly clear in specific attacks.

The book is very readable and engaging.  The action is fast.  Readers unfamiliar with Arabic names may have trouble keeping track of the many actors involved, often with similar names.  Such readers will find a helpful appendix with brief bios of “Principal Characters”; no doubt the author would have liked to include more than made it in.  There is also a very useful map of Yemen just after the table of contents, which will be essential for readers who have not familiarized themselves with the terrain of the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Non-Muslim Significance? The View from Below

Historians have a source problem.  In order to talk about the past, we need sources.  Anything else is just fiction.  But the available sources are not neutral, evenly distributed, or representative.  Sources that exist had enough going for them that they were created in the first place, and then available sources are the selection of all created sources which have survived the many possibilities for destruction over time.  The first clause favors the creation of sources from the viewpoints of those who have power, wealth, leisure, and sufficient education.  The second clause favors the preservation of sources which are continuously in use, well treasured, or buried in Egyptian sand.  Both of these limitations affect pre-modern history more forcefully than modern: literacy rates were lower, so fewer people were able to preserve their viewpoints, and the acid of time has eaten away more of what was written.  But even sources for modern history only represent the powerful enough and literate enough classes, and some modern sources still disappear before they can be copied.

The result is that dominant classes produce a disproportionate weight of source material.  This is why, despite the fact that men and women have made up nearly equal proportions of almost all human populations, the vast majority of pre-modern sources were written by men (and were usually primarily about men).  The majority of pre-modern sources were written by the ruling class (or by members of the educated class who wished to be ruling) or even more narrowly by government employees, and again, almost always about the ruling class or the state.  The upper crust has never evinced much curiosity about how the rest live, and for much of human history the rest have been too busy trying to live to be able to preserve very much of anything in writing.  The result is that, until the middle of the 20th century, almost all history being written was the history of the rulers.  Since the mid-20th century, the mystery of the rest of the population has intrigued historians who have attempted to answer questions about the lives of women, children, farmers and other workers, slaves, ethno-religious minorities (such as European Jews), social deviants, and various other groups which are under-represented in the source materials which survive.  History is the history of the society, not merely of those segments with the power to create and preserve source materials.

What does any of this have to do with non-Muslims in the Middle East?

Sources written by and for non-Muslims open up to historians viewpoints which are under-represented in Middle Eastern history.  Almost all the widely known sources in Middle Eastern history, before the 19th C, were written by the ʿulamaʾ, the Islamic religious class who were experts in questions of religion and also almost always in the employment of the state (or wishing to be).  They were useful to the state because they were literate (and state records require literacy, as do diplomatic correspondences) and because they could justify the state’s legitimacy to the ruled.  But just like the preponderance of Medieval European sources being written by clergy, this shared religious class shapes the nature of the source materials.  These ʿulamaʾ had very little interest in non-Muslims except when they got in the way (and thus the ʿulamaʾ wrote polemical treatises about how Muslim rulers should not employ non-Muslims, which only a few Muslim rulers in fact agreed with).  Thus the “mainstream” sources in Middle Eastern history present a falsely unified picture of a dominantly Muslim society.

This mirage of cultural unity has not been interrogated by Middle Eastern historians, but in the magisterial work of Marshall Hodgson has been canonized as the “reality” of the medieval Middle East.  (His Venture of Islam is truly a magnificent accomplishment, and half a century later is still a touchstone for so much scholarship, and he outdid most of his heirs in putting the Middle East in the context of world history.  It’s just the assertion that the medieval Islamic world was “culturally unified” from Morocco to Indonesia is not only false; it’s preposterous.)

In medieval Europe, historians can turn to the Jewish sources and increasing numbers of vernacular sources to act as a check on the clerical sources, in order to attempt to counter-balance any clerical balance.  Still, this is very difficult for the early and high Middle Ages.

In the Middle East, highly literate non-Muslim elites produced reams of sources ranging from the Cairo Geniza to the world chronicles of Bar ʿEbroyo, and they usually did so without large amounts of government patronage (often in a language which the government could not read, providing broader freedom of expression).  These sources allow us to verify and check the court histories produced to flatter the rulers or the confessional bias of too narrowly religious histories.  They are thus an invaluable resource for triangulating the past relative to the dominant religious discourse.  Yet they remain under-studied, often considered the domain only of sectarian scholars and odd ducks who don’t deal with “mainstream” Middle Eastern history.  But sources by non-Muslims, written in whatever language, are as much about the history of Middle Eastern society as any source from the ʿulamaʾ, and they provide perspectives which cannot be found among sources written by the ʿulamaʾ.

While the modern period provides a broader range of non-elite sources by Muslims, thus making non-Muslim sources less distinctive for the purpose of counter-balancing ʿulamaʾ sources, even in the modern period non-Muslim sources serve a distinctive function.  As non-Muslims became a demographic minority, they often (though not always) experienced greater isolation from the resources of the state and what services it offered.  Nevertheless, non-Muslims in the Middle East were frequently disproportionately literate, relative to Muslims with similar financial means and access to the government.  Due to this greater downward penetration of literacy, non-Muslim sources can reveal a broader range of what was going on among the lower ranks of Middle Eastern society, and non-Muslims can act as a “canary in a coal mine” to reveal all sorts of phenomena which would be otherwise invisible to historians.  Thus non-Muslim sources are especially valuable to Middle Eastern sources for providing a non-governmental perspective, and in modern times even a “view from below.”