Tag Archives: medieval Middle East

A Brief Syriac Bio of an Arabic Poet

In the Chronicle of 1234, composed in Edessa in the mid-13th century, there is a brief notice of the poet al-Mutanabbi:

At this time a person named Mutanabbi was famous in poetry, and he had a book of poetry in Arabic writing, and he is greatly praised among the people of the Arabs.

It’s not much, and it does not tell us anything about the poet which we did not know from other, fuller sources.  But it does tell us a bit about the reception of the poet, namely that this Muslim poet and his work were known in Christian social circles in what is today eastern Turkey.  It is a further example that medieval Middle Eastern culture was not divided along religious lines.

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

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

The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria

I just published an opinion piece on Muftah.org entitled “The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria” which begins:

The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned.  As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended.  Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized.  As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.

Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive.  The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.

(Read the article…)

The End of Christianity in Mosul

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its hold on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and is busy converting the metropolitan center to its own extremist brand of Sunni Islam.  Last week the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself Caliph Ibrahim, issued an order for Christians in the city to (a) convert to Islam, (b) pay the jizya tax on non-Muslims at an unspecified rate, or (c) be killed, although some awareness of the option to leave was displayed in the order as well.  Reports that a church was torched are of uncertain veracity (see a careful analysis of the photos circulating around the web at this blog), but images showing an Arabic ن (for نصارى, nasara, meaning “Christians”) spray-painted on various houses indicate that these houses were available to be seized.  Nor are Christians the only ones to suffer: reportedly some Shiite men have disappeared, Shiite families have been told to flee or be killed, and Shiite homes have been emblazoned with another Arabic letter, ر for رافضي (rafidi) something like “heretic scum,” while reports are also circulating that ISIS has destroyed the Sunni shrine and tomb of Nabi Yunus (the biblical prophet Jonah) in the ruins of ancient Nineveh to the east of the Tigris).  In this climate, most Christians chose to leave Mosul for the comparatively tolerant lands of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, although refugees have reported being robbed of all their belongings at the checkpoint leaving the city.

The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, who is presently the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of any denomination in Iraq, commented on the expulsion of the Christians, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” Continue reading

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.”