Tag Archives: pre-modern

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? 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.”