Tag Archives: Syriac

Questions Beget Questions: An Example of Digital History Research

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

Found: A Philological Detail and a Methodological Point

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

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: Ibn Taymiyya on Palm Sunday

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule.  He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.).  He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today.  So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents.  But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:

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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

Found: 1918 List of Mosul Religious Buildings

An unnamed Chaldean scribe in the city of Mosul finished a Syriac manuscript (now in the Vatican) on “the middle day” (i.e. 16) of March, 1918, in the closing months of World War I on the Middle Eastern front.  The manuscript was paid for by “the priest Peter Hakim of Amid,” who had presumably fled his home city (now called Diyarbakır) during the massacres a few years before.  There are many Syriac manuscripts copied in the early 20th C, but this manuscript has a difference: after identifying Mosul as the place where the manuscript was copied, the scribe added a list of religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim.  In particular, he lists fifteen churches, four monasteries, and over fifty mosques in and around the city.

In light of the destruction of many religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim, by ISIS in the past two months, I thought it would be interesting to give some of the highlights of the list in my own translation from the Syriac and Garshuni list (which remains unpublished):

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Non-Muslim Significance? The Advantages of Marginalia

Religious minorities serve a valuable function in allowing scholars and careful thinkers to distinguish religious from social and environmental factors in their analysis.  If, to take a counter-factual, it were the case that all Muslims were Middle Eastern and all non-Muslims were not, then it would be unclear whether any given aspect of Middle Eastern society was related to Islam as a religion, or related to the type of government, or geographic factors, or anything else.  One could reason about the nature of the causes, of course, but in the absence of disjunctive populations (the non-overlapping lobes of a Venn diagram), it would not be possible to test these hypotheses.

Fortunately, this is a counter-factual, despite the sloppy thinking of many who simply equate “Middle Eastern” with “Muslim.”  In the first instance, it is a counter-factual because not all Muslims are Middle Eastern.  Something that is true of Moroccans and Indonesians, for example, is more likely to be due to a common Islamic understanding than due to environmental factors distinctive to the eastern Mediterranean basin.  Something thought to be “Islamic” but unique to the Middle East is less likely to be related to the religion.  But the other half of the conditional is equally false: not all Middle Easterners are Muslim.  If something is true only of the Sunnis and Shiʿites in the Middle East, then religion seems a more likely factor than if the same is true also for Jews and Christians in the Middle East.

For example, much of “Islamic” art is stylistically very similar to decorations in Christian manuscripts, which is not surprising since at least into the medieval period many of the workers producing “Islamic” art for elite Muslim patrons were themselves Christian.  It was not unusual for Syriac manuscripts into the 20th C to open with a textual decoration resembling a monumental doorway, and the architecture of many mosques shared features in common with Middle Eastern churches from late antiquity onward.  The distinctive Arabic calligraphic style, on the other hand, depended on the Arabic language and script, which most non-Muslim literate elites did not adopt until after the calligraphy had begun to develop in the medieval period.  Now, however, it has been adopted by Christians as well as Muslims.

(Parenthetically, the existence of Christian groups outside of Europe also provides an opportunity for European historians to distinguish which aspects of their medieval culture were due to Christianity and which were due to the fact that the medieval European nobility were a barely civilized thug-ocracy.  The Jewish population of medieval Europe can also play a disambiguating role analogous to the various non-Muslim groups of the Middle East.  But that is for European historians to benefit from.)

Another example, this time from women’s history, shows that not even aspects of religion can be safely assumed to be explainable by religion alone.  Women in medieval mosques were assigned to pray in the back, behind the men.  There is a hadith in which Muhammad reportedly said that the best rows for women to pray in are the back ones, and the best rows for men are the front ones.  Since these traditional sayings were considered normative in medieval Islam (or at least some of them, in certain ways), the case seems to be closed: the religion of Islam was the cause for women being relegated behind the men in religious services.  But before we leave the subject, we might observe that in Christian churches in Iraq until the early modern period women were also placed in the back of the sanctuary, and two doors in the side of the church provided separate entrances for men and women.  (Interestingly, the Bible was read from a platform on the gender line, while communion was consecrated at the front altar.  I haven’t yet figured out whether women went forward to receive communion or whether communion was brought to the women’s side.)  Now, these Christians were not likely reading the hadith collection, nor regarding it as normative.  Is the gender divide of medieval Middle Eastern religious architecture, Christian as well as Muslim, due to religion, or due to trans-religious cultural assumptions regarding gender and space?

Failure to pay attention to the disjunctions in the Venn diagram leads to a disproportionate tendency among scholars to explain aspects of Middle Eastern society with reference to Islam.  The result relegates non-Muslims to insignificance, but it does so due to an unarticulated circular argument.  Only closer attention to Middle Eastern non-Muslims would allow scholars to discern the true significance and social effects of Islam.