In working on the Historical Index of the Medieval Middle East (HIMME), questions often arise of the form whether something or someone mentioned in one source is the same place or person as mentioned with the same name in a different source. I call this mini-research: usually all it requires is looking up the passage in each source and comparing what it says. But sometimes it requires more, as I experienced today when I was led on a chase through four medieval sources in three different languages (five if you count modern translations!) by my attempt to determine whether a “chapel of St. John” mentioned by a thirteenth-century Latin pilgrim might be the same as a “church of St. John” mentioned by a twelfth-century Syriac historian-patriarch. Continue reading
Recently I was translating a medieval Syriac poem lamenting a deacon who converted to Islam, and I got stuck on a single word. Different manuscripts, as is often the case, contained different readings of that word, but the options were either nonsensical or not in the dictionaries. The only other scholar to work with the text proposed an emendation which was semantically sensible but poetically impossible. What’s a translator to do? I found a way through, turning a philological detail into a methodological point about late medieval Syriac texts. Continue reading
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.
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. I recently had occasion to use this trick for a very interesting fifteenth-century text. Continue reading
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
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 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.