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
(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
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
Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in the Islamicate Studies Symposium at the University of Chicago in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Marshall Hodgson‘s The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Hodgson studied at UChicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and taught there until his early death in 1968. The Venture of Islam was developed by Hodgson as an undergraduate textbook for the “Islamic Civilization” course he developed, and was posthumously published by the University of Chicago press. The conference was organized by Shiraz Hajiani and Mick Bechtel, two graduate students at UChicago, and it brought together scholars from various stages in their careers to reflect on Hodgson’s place in the field and where the field is going. Most of those invited had personal connections to UChicago, although some (such as I) were outsiders. I am very grateful to the organizers for extending an invitation to me.
The Venture of Islam is still the reigning synthesis in Islamic history, although the majority of those present indicated that it is too difficult to use directly in most undergraduate instruction. The genre of an undergraduate textbook forced Hodgson to synthesize more than most scholars do in their research, and his interest in world history led him to explain developments within “Islamdom” (states ruled by Muslims) in the context of developments across Afro-Eurasia as a whole. Very few scholars have even attempted Hodgson’s breadth of vision. This ensures that The Venture is still one of the most important books in Islamic Studies today.
Last night President Barack Obama announced that US military would be conducting two missions in Iraq. The first, already started when he made the announcement, is dropping food and water supplies on the besieged civilians, mostly Yezidis, in the Sinjar mountains after their city of Sinjar was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after reports of deaths due to dehydration among the children. ISIS regards Yezidis as a devilish sect to be exterminated. The second US mission is to use airstrikes to prevent ISIS from posing a threat to American personnel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Baghdad.
Not all analysts support US military intervention in Iraq; one cogent statement of the case against airstrikes is here. I agree with almost the entirety of that argument, and have repeatedly written against US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Why should the US intervene in Iraq, but not Syria? Basically, there is no way for the US to do more good than harm in Syria, but the costs of letting ISIS continue to terrorize Iraq and Syria outweigh those of striking ISIS, not only for Iraqis, but for the world. Continue reading
The best thing I’ve read on Syria in a long while is this New York Times opinion piece, written by Alia Malek. It provides an excellent survey of the lead-up to the current revolt and poignant anecdotes revealing how can everyday life differ from what one reads in the headlines. There is also an amusing discussion about varieties of beards (Hezbollah, Salafi, cosmetic, or now loyalist), amusing in part based on how important the beard identification can be.
More importantly, Malek makes a crucial distinction between what started the Syrian Civil War and what sustains it. To paraphrase her piece, what started the peaceful demonstrations was complaints about financial corruption ruining the economy and impoverishing the vast majority of Syrians. She makes that point that most beneficiaries of the corruption were urban Sunnis, while most ‘Alawis (the sect to which Bashar al-Assad himself belongs) were also impoverished, unless they were close to the President himself. What sustains the revolt now is sectarianism, which has been used both by those who would lead the rebels and by the government to claim legitimacy. Although Malek does not bluntly spell out the import of the distinction she draws, it holds out the hope that non-sectarian help (help provided across sectarian lines and contingent upon eschewing sectarian rhetoric) could de-sectarianize the movement. The success of such interventions, of course, would depend heavily on who was receiving the aid, and who else they hoped to receive aid from.
There is nothing I could say to improve this thought-provoking and excellently written piece, so I will just refer you to her words.