Tuesday, November 24, 2009

History of the Caliphates

Several years ago, I heard a senior historian of the modern Middle East express surprise that there were still topics left unstudied in the history of what, borrowing a European term but changing its meaning, we call the medieval period. Far from it - in fact, I'd say we're just getting started approaching the era at the level that other fields of history with similar issues take for granted. This year's MESA offered a wealth of riches on the caliphal period, featuring senior scholars not only from North America, but Europe and the Middle East, as well.

The first panel I attended, although I was late and missed a lot of it, was on "Ibn Asakir in Medieval Arabic Historiography." Presenting on the panel were Steven Judd of Southern Connecticut State University, Zayde Antrim of Trinity College, Nancy Khalek of Brown University, and Suleiman Mourad of Smith College, with the University of Chicago's Fred Donner as discussant and the University of Washington's Jere Bacharach as chair. One major development in the field it represented is the use of previously neglected sources providing a different view of history than that offered by the standard narrative drawn from al-Tabari's History of Caliphs and Kings. Of course "neglected" might be too harsh with Ibn 'Asakir's History of the City of Damascus," as a complete edited scholarly edition of this work appeared only recently. Before then, anyone using it had to consult manuscript versions. As the edited version extends to 80 volumes, you can see how that might be unwieldy.

Donner, however, noted something else: That all the papers focused largely on Ibn Asakir's agenda, which almost certainly had something to do with promoting the glory of the Bilad al-Sham, what is now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, during the period of the early Crusades. I wish I had made more of the papers, but can report on Judd's. The work is primarily a biographical dictionary of everyone in some manner attached to Damascus, and Judd highlighted the differences between Ibn 'Asakir's biography of that Umayyad-period figure Khalid al-Qasri and the account of his deeds in Tabari. One implication of this, spelled out fully in the discussion, is the acknowledgment that there were multiple versions of key historical developments floating around, at the very least in different regions, and perhaps representing different social and political trends, as well, as with the more basic contradictory Sunni and Shi'ite accounts of some aspects of the pre-Umayyad period. What one questioner called "the canonization of Tabari" probably took place unevenly, and may not have been full across the Islamic world's historical core until centuries after his death.

A key aspect of the historical project, then is to increase our understanding of the sources themselves by examining the information we have about their authors and the contents of the texts themselves, especially in comparison with other texts and the way they chose to include or leave out aspects of sources we know they consulted and, frankly, as much of the history of the transmission of the information as we can recover. The same issues were at play in two papers in the session I chaired, that by Bilal Orfali from the American University of Beirut and the University of Wisconsin's Scott Savran.

An 8 a.m. session this morning, however, moved past that level to focus on "Umayyad Practices of Power." One paper was an iconoclastic argument by DePaul University's Khaled Keshk that the Umayyad caliph Mu'awiya may not have been the one to appoint Yazid as his successor, and if he did, it was done in the interests of the Syrian nobility rather than dynasticism. The University of Maryland's Antoine Borrut placed the Umayyads in the framework of itinerant kingship known from many other societies. Chicago's Mark Luce examined how Asad b. Abdullah al-Qasri (brother of Khalid) implemented Umayyad strategies for ruling Khurasan, while Abdulhadi Alajmi of Kuwait University suggested that the rhetoric of al-Walid II, who reigned from 743-4, which is often taken as representative of the Umayyads' general presentation of their right to rule, actually represented a break from a different tradition of Umayyad self-presentation of which he was unable to take advantage. Finally Donner himself gave a paper entitled "Qur'anicization of Religio-Political Discourse in the Umayyad Period," working out the implications for the Umayyad period of the frequent understanding that Islam began as a religious movement centered on a return to monotheistic purity centered around the God of Abraham.

The discussant, Oxford University's Chase Robinson, made insightful comments on all these papers, but what stands out as most bloggable is his laying out of five key developments in Umayyad history over the past 20-25 years. The first of these is a focus on "the character of Umayyad statecraft" and "modalities of Umayyad legitimacy," the thrust of which is in part the working out of the implications of the book God's Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam by Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds. Probably linked to this is the second focus, on Umayyad visual culture and the cultivation of an imperial image. It is, after all, through monumental building and coinage that authorities in societies with low literacy rates sought to convey their political messages. (See the link for a summary of the argument in God's Caliph. It is a much sounder work than Hagarism, which was also co-written by Crone, though it still has detractors.)

Robinson's third key focus is an interest in settlement and urbanization, particularly with the aid of archaeology from the Bilad al-Sham region and the topographical discussions in Ibn 'Asakir. Yet another focus is administration and finance, with the fifth, and really one of the oldest, going way back to Julius Wellhausen's work 100 years ago, being factionalism and the regime's political fragility which ultimately segues into the reasons for its collapse in the face of the Abbasid Revolution.

Do I need a concluding comment? If so, it would be a return to the theme of my first paragraph. Hold on tight - this ride is just getting started, but is moving full speed ahead.



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