Thursday, July 27, 2017

Teaching at a Public Comprehensive University: Three Items

So, you are about to start teaching at a public comprehensive university somewhere in the United States, quite possibly with a direction as part of its name.  Shippensburg University doesn't have a direction, but it is a public comprehensive university of about 7000 undergraduates and just over 1000 graduate students, and so not that different from many others.  All institution types have a few things in common, but there are often differences, and the peculiarities of public comprehensives aren't always communicated amidst the focus on large research institutions and their supposed opposite, small liberal arts colleges.

This post is therefore about three things I've learned from being here, much of which I think is common at similar institutions.  The biggest reason Shippensburg may stand out in the bunch is that it is a unionized campus with a fairly low cap on adjunct teaching and lots of small class sizes even in many general education courses.  Without further ado...

1.) Students will have diverse skill levels

Honestly, the range of ability at Shippensburg is much larger than anywhere else I have ever been.  You have some students who are very weak, and quickly fail out or barely make it.  They are there because public comprehensives are usually unselective and your may have been the only institution to take them.  You will also have students who would excel no matter where they went.  They are there because they wanted to go someplace close to home or where tuition was cheaper.

What this means is that you have to craft courses in a way that students of a variety of skills can benefit from them.  This is actually where I think having studied secondary education in college and becoming a certified teacher (though I never taught K-12) has served me well, in that I was specifically taught to think that way in my social studies methods course.  You might assign an essay requiring some complex reasoning, while accepting that your bottom 20% will simply improve at writing grammatically, or a reading where the bottom students will simply improve at spotting the parts of a scholarly article.  At the same time, you might spend class time on some basics to make sure everyone you can is at a certain level, assuming that the top students are more likely to have done the reading and gotten a more complex picture.

2.) Students will be very focused on professions

At this point in time, I'm not sure this is that different from other places, even in matters of degree, so let me approach it this way.  Starting in grad school and through an adjunct course at Beloit College and a VAP year at Colgate, the "tough audience" for history classes was supposed to be science majors.  When I started at Shippensburg, I therefore used James McClellan and Harold Dorn's Science and Technology in World History alongside my department's common world history textbook and a primary source reader.  I think some students liked it who wouldn't otherwise have liked anything in the course, but I was trying to solve the wrong problem.

At Shippensburg, and I believe at most similar institutions, students flock overwhelmingly to the directly pre-professional majors such as business, education, and criminal justice.  Their view of college is strictly vocational, and to be honest, given the costs of college, I don't blame them for their lack of idealism.  It does mean, however, that expanding the range of those who value your course means trying to show it as having significance for their professional futures beyond just the idea of becoming an educated citizen of a democracy.

Sometimes this involves low-hanging fruit: basics of reading, writing, and critical thinking are widely respected, and history in particular excels at "symphonic thinking" - recognizing patterns and seeing big pictures.  I tell students that once they've written good cover letters and reports and read whatever people in their professional field read to keep ahead, they might one day notice a pattern in reports from subordinates all around a district of which they are manager, and this is the same thing historians do when we see a pattern in our primary sources that turns up as a general statement in their textbook.

In ancient and medieval history, students can usually be persuaded that religions matter, while the conceptual level that is inevitable when dealing with those periods helps them think about why the world is the way it is, and therefore what types of things might change it.  This easily relates to business buzzwords about anticipating the future and spotting trends.  When credit appears in history, you can stop and think about why credit matters in an economy, which many students don't.  I highlight Isaac Newton's troubled past for social work majors, and call attention to education systems during the Enlightenment and in nation-building for the education students.

Does it all work?  Impossible to say, since you never get everyone on board, and I have no idea if more students assert that my class is interesting (or boring) than do for my colleagues or would if I related everything that happened to its impact on grass.  Thinking about where your students are at and what matters to them is always a good idea, though.

3.) Service, service, service

There are famously three aspects to being a college professor: teaching, research, and service.  Much time is spent discussing whether institutions are teaching-oriented or research-oriented.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that public comprehensives are service-oriented, but they do seem to have heavier service requirements than many other institutions.  If that is the case, it might have to do with having the bureaucracy of a public university, but fewer economic resources than the flagships.

Consider this:  At many institutions, JSTOR catalogs are purchased as they come out by the library.  At Shippensburg, interested faculty have to submit an application to a competitive grant to acquire them, an internal grant program in which other faculty, of course, have to participate.  Faculty governance always means work; the more decisions have to be made or reporting mandates have to be fulfilled, the more work there is.

A colleague at one of my sister institutions once estimated that promotion decisions at her school were based about 40% on service.  Because of this, being on the right committees is something even junior faculty strategize about and compete over.  At Shippensburg, a lot of campuswide committee appointments are made by the union.  At the end of both my third and fourth years, when the call went out, I submitted various committees I would be interested in serving on.  I got no committee assignments at the end of my third year, and only one my fourth year.  My sense is that experience was extreme, but the point about service mattering a lot remains.

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Tap, Tap

Is this thing on?

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Nasir-i Khusraw Essay Questions

This semester is my second of assigning Nasir-i Khusraw's Book of Travels to my students in HIS 339: The Central Islamic Lands, 500-1700.  The book is a good chance to talk about Perso-Islamic culture, Isma'ili Shi'ism, the Fatimids, and simply to read an example of the medieval Middle East's rich travel literature.  Students then write an essay on one of three questions.  Here are the ones I've used:

1.)    In what ways is Nasir-i Khusraw’s travelogue influenced by his identity as a philosophically inclined Persian convert to Isma’ili Shi’ism?
2.)    What are the ways in which Islam is physically manifested in the places Nasir-i Khusraw visits?
3.)    How did Middle Eastern rulers use ritual and monumental building to justify their rule?
4.)    How do Nasir-i Khusraw and others observe and interact with their natural environment, including other organisms?
5.)  How does legend influence the understanding of place in Nasir-i Khusraw’s travelogue?

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Christians and the Qur'an

Last Sunday I blogged about current views of the Covenant of Umar, which provided the framework in which Islamic jurisprudents considered the legal position of non-Muslims under Islamic rule.  I highlighted an argument by Milka Levy-Rubin that much of it went back to the Sasanian social class hierarchy, with religion replacing social class as the key differentiator between strata of the population.

One stipulation which I don't believe Levy-Rubin dealt with, however, is "We shall neither learn the Qur'an nor teach it to our children."  (EBL is down for maintenance, so I can't check for sure.)  This clause was, however, the focus of a chapter in the outstanding edited volume The Place to Go: Contexts of Learning in Baghdad 750-1000 C.E.  The stipulation mentioned seems peculiar for a missionary religion and has often been taken as simply another way of marking boundaries between the ruling class and others.  In this chapter, however, Clare Wilde argues instead that it arose from a concern with properly reverential approaches to Islam's sacred text, as well as the fact Christians often used the Qur'an to argue on behalf of their own religion.

The latter, of course, involved accepted the Qur'an as a divinely revealed text, but highlighting ways in which it could be read and confirming Christianity.  Christian exposure to the Qur'an owed something to its use as a tool in learning Arabic, which by the ninth century had become the lingua franca of the imperial elite.  Much as Muslims found support of Islam in the Bible, Christians looked at Qur'an 4:171, which refers to Jesus as the word and spirit of God, as indicating his divine status, especially in the context of the Muslim theological disputes over the nature of the Qur'an as God's word.  The mysterious letters which begin some suras were also interpreted as supporting Christianity.  Sura two, which begins a-l-m, was seen as referring to the Messiah, "al-masih."

Wilde also highlights a few other aspects of the Covenant of Umar's prohibition, such as whether banning non-Muslims from a key Arabic instructional text could have been designed to hinder their fluency in the educated form of the language.  The point here is, though, that it is a complex document which arose in a certain time and place under certain social and cultural conditions, and we have to understand those conditions to understand the document and its intentions.

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Covenant of Umar

One of my projects this summer has involved the history of Christianity in the Persian Gulf, a little-known part of the broader history of Middle Eastern Christianity.  What I've been doing on this point is synthesizing existing scholarship as part of a broader history of the Persian Gulf in the early Islamic period.  Gulf Christianity is surprisingly absent from most works of synthesis; for example, it is covered in neither of the relevant Arabian Peninsula chapters of the New Cambridge History of Islam.  The one narrative survey which integrates it into broader developments is Dan Potts's The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity, which is 25 years old.

For many people, any discussion of Christianity in the Islamic period must involve the text, or rather family of texts, called the Covanant of Umar.  Purportedly offered to the early caliph Umar b. al-Khattab by Christians at the time of the initial Islamic conquests, it became a later cornerstone of Islamic jurisprudence on the treatment of non-Muslims under Islamic rule, especially Jews and Christians. However, it is not nearly as obviously relevant to the history of Gulf Christianity as some might think.

For most of a century now, scholars have often dated the covenant, which exists in several forms, to the early eighth-century Umayyad caliph Umar b. Abd al-Aziz, who sought to place Umayyad government on a more overtly Islamic footing and issued a number of regulations for non-Muslims.   The recent indispensable study of the matter, however, is Milka Levy-Rubin's Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire.  Through meticulous research, Levy-Rubin demonstrates that as late as about 800, the Covenant of Umar was one of several competing theo-juristic models for how Muslims should be regulating the non-Muslims among them.

Levy-Rubin argues more comprehensively than I have generally seen that most of the stipulations in the Covenant go back to Byzantine and Sasanian precedents, and one of her contributions is linking many of its stipulations to Sasanian social codes which used dress to distinguish within its strict class hierarchy.  As Muslim society gradually took on some of the Sasanian ethos, religion replaced social class as the primary marker of social standing in the Islamic jurisprudential tradition.

A key moment in the imposition of the Covenant of Umar's stipulations was the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil from 847-861.  Others have highlighted how his reign marked a turn in which the caliphs moved away from trying to impose their own religious authority in favor of ruling as the agent of an independent class of ulama.  A key development was ending the mihna, an inquisition by which the caliphs sought to impose the doctrine that the Qur'an was created and not eternal.  It is perhaps relevant to this environment that al-Mutawakkil issued a decree implementing stipulations of the Covenant of Umar, which would subsequently become the standard reference as described above.

I began this post by linking it to my work on Gulf Christianity.  The connection, or rather lack of connection, is that Gulf Christianity seems to have disappeared at about the same time the Covenant of Umar was being imposed.  These two developments also do not appear to be related, since the Abbasid caliphs did not have control of the relevant areas of the Gulf at the time and, as I will eventually explain, there are other factors to explain Christianity's decline there.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Iranian Revolution Video Game

The article on this involves the regime's censorship, but the video game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday sounds like it has potential as a teaching tool:
The game’s title comes from a massacre that took place in Tehran’s Jaleh Square (later renamed Martyrs’ Square) on Sept. 8, 1978. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s military fired on protesters for violating martial law, killing scores of people. This moment in Iranian history is seen as the point of no return for the shah. In "Black Friday," the protagonist is an aspiring photojournalist named Reza who has to make life-altering decisions to survive the streets as insurrection breaks out against the Iranian monarch. The game progresses in a choose-your-own-adventure style that allows players to navigate the 1979 Iranian revolution as it unfolds. Think "The Walking Dead" game series with a historical twist.
This documentary style — also known as verite — comes from Iranian-Canadian game developer Navid Khonsari of the New York-based iNK Stories. Khonsari is behind such blockbusters as the "Grand Theft Auto" and "Max Payne" series...
To develop the game's storyline, Khonsari conducted over 40 interviews with a variety of Iranians both inside and outside of Iran who experienced the revolution firsthand. Some interviewees went so far as to provide personal photos of the events in 1978 and 1979. “They remain anonymous because of the concerns they might have for their own safety and the safety of their families,” Khonsari explained.
The game's Iranian opponents are concerned by Western influence on its development and ways in which it diverges from regime-approved narratives of the revolution.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Afrin University

It has been clear for some time that one outcome of Syria's civil war will be an autonomous Kurdish region, much the way the Persian Gulf War led to an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.  This is not only about the establishment of governing institutions, but cultural institutions which are unlikely to go away, such as this new university:
Afrin University, the first university based in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), began registering students in August. Though it is not yet accredited, the school's officials already plan to expand its offerings and facilities...
“One of the objectives of the university is to bridge the large gap in the educational field as a result of the Syrian war," Abdul Majeed Sheikho, dean of the arts faculty, told Al-Monitor. "The university gives the students an opportunity to complete their studies and to achieve their educational goals. This is a better solution than the decision to migrate.”
The school's teachers hail from the Afrin area and are required to have doctorates or master's degrees in their specialties. Youssuf said 222 students are enrolled: 121 in the literature program, which includes a Kurdish-language section, 50 in engineering and 51 in economics. The school includes institutes for studying medicine, topographic engineering, music and theater, business administration and the Kurdish language.
“Work is in progress for the opening of the faculty of agriculture and the faculty of human medicine in 2016, and probably the media faculty,” Youssuf said. According to him, the university also has plans for a significant science program as the school expands.
Significantly, the university will also offer courses in Kurdish cultural studies.

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Saturday, April 09, 2016

Kafala Reform Impact

The Economist has a useful summary of how reforms to the system of employer sponsorship of migrant laborers has improved wages and job mobility in the United Arab Emirates:
In late 2010, however, Saqr Ghobash, the UAE’s reform-minded minister of labour, issued a decree allowing workers with contracts expiring after January 2011 to look for work elsewhere after they had served out their contracts. Some employers grumbled, aware that this would raise the cost of labour...
They found that the impact of the new rule was big and fast. Workers’ real wages jumped by more than 10% in the three months after their contract expired, whereas before the change they barely moved at all.
Even though the reform made it easier for workers to change jobs, the fraction of workers renewing their contracts increased. More than twice as many workers did go to a new employer, but this was because far fewer of them left the country altogether after their contract expired. Over the first three months of the reform, the rate at which people returned home dropped by about four percentage points, from a baseline of around 12%. Workers’ original employers, Mr Naidu explains, were offering higher wages to persuade them to stay on, while higher overall earning power was keeping more workers in the country.
Unfortunately, these changes still do not affect domestic workers.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Iran's New Assembly of Experts

Among the best analyses of Iran's recent elections are those by Farideh Farhi and Shervin Malekzadeh.  The conduct of the elections themselves is as potentially significant as the results.  Both Farhi and Malekzadeh highlight the role of alliances and political pragmatism.  As Malekzadeh reports:
Everywhere I went in Tehran last week, I heard the same theme: moderation and standing firm before the forces of radicalism. My interlocutors expressed a sense of resignation if not outright cynicism toward the elections and what they might bring in terms of needed change to Iran. Participants in Iranian elections realize that this is not liberal democracy. At the same time, just as they had in 2013, many Iranians expressed to me their overwhelming conviction that voting was the only way forward if Iran wanted to avoid the fate of its neighbors in the region, above all that of Syria. Participating in a system, no matter how flawed, was better than having no system at all.
And as Farhi says:
More than anything else, the two recent elections suggested that the time is over when one side thought it could get rid of the other side for good or even temporarily through force or a highly manipulated electoral process. Not that some sort of force majeure was not tried. The Guardian Council, dominated by clerics who themselves were candidates, unabashedly disqualified most opponents who could have won through their name recognition.
But their opponents, instead of withdrawing or sulking, made the strategic decision to participate in an alliance that had proven successful in receiving 51 percent of the vote in the 2013 presidential election. And then they made the tactical decision to connect together, particularly in the city of Tehran, by repeatedly asking voters to support everyone on the so-called 30+16 lists (the first for the parliament and the second for the Assembly of Experts). This was tactically necessary because, in the case of RSG’s Tehran parliament list, only a few top names were known. The rest were unknown in terms of their names or points of view and had to be voted in blind based on who was on top of the list or who supported the list. The Assembly’s list also had unknown names, but problematically a few names were connected with dark parts of the Islamic Republic’s history (i.e. early post-revolutionary executions and the murder of intellectuals and dissidents). So voters had to be convinced that voting for the whole list, while unsavory, was worth the elimination of others deemed even nastier.
The defeat of hardliners for the Assembly of Experts was especially striking:
Rohani and centrist ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani easily won seats in the Assembly of Experts, the chamber of clerics that chooses and supervises Iran's most powerful official, the supreme leader. 
In all, reformist-backed candidates claimed 52 of the assembly's 88 seats, according to the Interior Ministry, including 15 of 16 races in Tehran. In doing so, they managed to unseat several prominent hard-liners, including the current chief of the assembly, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, and Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah Yazdi.
My sense is that over the past couple of decades, Iran's conservatives have been most reluctant to allow Reformists a shot at the Assembly of Experts and the Council of Guardians, the latter being the body which vets candidates and legislation.  Two points about this past election stand out, though.  One is that "reformist" has in some ways been defined sharply rightward since Khatami's presidency.  Hassan Rouhani may offer verbal support to parts of Khatami's cultural agenda, but he has never acted on it and his real roots are close to Supreme Leader Khamene'i.  The second is that Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi was a rival to Khamene'i.  It may be that Khamene'i has decided that a tactical Rouhani-style alliance with reformists is the best way to eliminate rivals to his right and maintain his allies in power.

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Friday, February 05, 2016

Nationalizing the Keffiyeh

Ted Swedenburg's Memories of Revolt is primarily about the ways the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine was remembered in later decades, but within that framework it has a lot of interesting snippets of information about both Palestinian and Israeli identity.  One example of this is his discussion of how the keffiyeh, the usually black-and-white checkered square scarf/headdress, became a Palestinian national symbol.

In early 20th century Palestinian society, the keffiyeh was worn by peasants and Bedouin, and thus went with low-class and rural society seen as traditional as opposed to the modern, urban middle- and upper-classes sporting fezzes.  At the time of the Arab Revolt, the rural fighters not only wore them as what they generally wore, but wrapped them around their faces to preserve anonymity.  The problem, however, is that when they entered towns and cities, that rural dress made them conspicuous.  Swedenburg explains what happened:
On August 16, 1938, when the revolt was reaching its apogee and beginning to take control of urban areas, the rebel leadership commanded all Palestinian Arab townsmen to discard the tarbush (fez) and don the kufiya.  Rebel headquarters in Damascus announced that this was to "demonstrate the complete solidarity of the residents of the country with the struggle and as a sign that everyone in the country is a rebel."  British officials were amazed that the new fashion spread across the country with "lightning rapidity."  While the order was issued in part to help (rebel fighters) blend into the urban environment, it was equally a move in the wider social struggle within the national movement.  One rebel commander, harking back to the Arab Revolt and Damascus battles over headgear, asserted that whereas the fez was associated with Ottoman Turks, the kufiya was the headgear of the Arab nation.
The last reference is to the fact that during the Arab Revolt associated with World War I, many supporters of Faysal's armies wore keffiyehs in place of the fezzes associated with the Ottoman Empire.  In the case of the Palestinian national movement, though, the opposition between keffiyeh and fez was primarily one of social class, in which many of the urban notables were forced to declare symbolic loyalty to the rural peasantry.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Algeria's Murky Presidency

The Economist calls attention to the fact that with Algeria's President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika not seen in public for two years, many say that recent shake-ups mask a palace coup:
Mr Bouteflika can hardly speak and is said to communicate by letter with his ministers, who nevertheless insist that the old man is compos mentis and in charge. But several close associates of the president aren’t buying it. Having not seen Mr Bouteflika for over a year, they have demanded a meeting with him—so far to no avail. Missing person is right, they say.
Algerian politics is nothing if not murky. For decades a cabal of unelected power brokers has run the show. Known as le pouvoir (the power), the shadowy clique is composed of members of the economic, political and military elite. But with Mr Bouteflika’s health in decline, there appears to be a struggle within the group over who will succeed him...
Algerians have grown accustomed to mystery. Few knew that Houari Boumédiène, Algeria’s second president, was even ill until he died in 1978. At the time, Mr Bouteflika was seen as a potential successor, only to be passed over by the army. Two decades later the generals finally tapped him for the job.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Conversion and Personal Status Law

Al-Monitor reports on Jordanian Christian men who convert to Islam so as get better divorce settlements:
While a man who converts to Islam and divorces his wife is easily able to remarry, a Christian divorcee seldom has the same freedom. The Jordanian Catholic courts rarely recognize divorces conducted by Shariah court judges, in essence keeping Christian women chained in a marriage that no longer exists. Only when Mary switched from Catholicism to Greek Orthodoxy did a church judge finally grant her a divorce in 2015, two years after her husband divorced her in a Shariah court.
Christian women whose husbands convert to Islam face additional discrimination beyond child custody Since only Muslims can receive financial inheritance from other Muslims, according to Article 281 of Jordan’s Personal Status Law, a Christian wife and children face challenging economic conditions after the death of a husband or father. All Christian family members are forbidden to inherit from Muslim relatives...
The sheikh also said that a Muslim father has the right to overrule a Christian mother’s objection to changing the religion of their child from Christianity to Islam if the child is under age seven. When Al-Monitor asked why the Muslim father’s wishes held more weight than the Christian parent, Omari defended the policy, stating, “Islam believes in all of the previous prophets, including Jesus and Moses, but Christians don’t believe in the Muslim Prophet Muhammad."
Similar to Mary's situation, Sarah’s husband announced his conversion from Christianity to Islam in April 2015, when he filed for divorce. Sarah is most worried about the fate of her 3-year-old son. Her lawyer told her that her ex-husband will automatically gain custody of the boy when he turns 7 because Sarah is Christian. In an interview at Sarah’s home, she expressed her frustration to Al-Monitor: “I just want my child to stay with me [like they do with] Muslim women. They are mothers, and we Christians are not mothers? We are the same,” she said.
The important framing for this article, of course, is that medieval religious codes frame Jordan's personal status law.  It is worth mentioning, however, that personal status matters have actually been an important factor in conversion throughout history.  There is evidence that some Christian men have always converted to Islam hoping to practice polygamy.  Christian women have also converted to Islam to escape marriages to Christian men, since Christianity has historically opposed divorce but classical Islamic jurisprudence forbids a Muslim woman to be married to a Christian.  Similarly, a prohibition of non-Muslims owning Muslims as slaves has meant that converting to Islam could be a path out of slavery for those slaves owned by a Christian or Jew.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Israel's Jordanian Workers

Israel is beginning to recruit Jordanian guest workers to replace Palestinians:
On Dec. 2, Hebrew radio Kol Israel announced that the number of Jordanian workers in Israel had recently increased from 150 to 500, in a step by the Israeli Ministry of Labor to prepare for the upcoming recruitment of 4,000 Jordanian workers.
The beginning of the influx of Jordanian workers to Israel coincides with a report issued Oct. 24 by the Jordanian Department of Statistics. The report pointed to the high unemployment rate of 13.8% among Jordanians, while 50% of jobs in the Jordanian labor market are occupied by foreign workers...
Why didn't Jordan consult the Palestinian Authority (PA) before agreeing to send workers, so Palestinians would not interpret the act as Jordanian acceptance of Israeli's policies toward them?
The Israeli step to recruit Jordanian workers coincides with the dismissal of dozens of Palestinian workers from their jobs in Israel...
Shaher Saad, secretary-general of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, told Al-Monitor, “There is an Israeli policy to dismiss Palestinian workers to blackmail the Palestinian people and put pressure on the PA to make political concessions related to halting the intifada.

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Saturday, November 07, 2015

Joseph and the Pyramids

Ben Carson is hardly the first person to claim the the pyramids were Joseph's granaries.  It was exceptionally common during the Middle Ages, before modern archaeology.  Jason Colavito runs down the history of the idea.  Here is what he says about the Islamic world:
The oldest Islamic attestation of the granaries myth that I know of is Al-Idrisi’s History of the Pyramids (c. 1150 CE), which was likely reporting it from a Christian source; however, I have read that earlier Islamic authors dismissed the granaries claim as unfounded. Prior to that, Islamic lore generally considered the pyramids to be antediluvian structures, or at least vastly ancient, and the storehouses to be much more recent.
The most common Islamic theory about the pyramids is actually that they were built by the prophet Idris (Enoch) as storehouses to preserve knowledge and treasure from the coming Great Flood.  The medieval Egyptians knew their contents, for we read in travel accounts that digging for treasures there was a common occupation in Cairo and its antecedents.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Last week, The National ran an article on archaeological work at Buraimi in Oman, which is believed to be the site of medieval Islamic Tuw'am:
For Power the site is important not just because it is at risk, but also because he believes it sheds light on a period when a local, and now largely overlooked, Wajihid dynasty held sway over a vast territory that extended from the Arabian Gulf to Yemen and all the way to Multan, in modern day Pakistan...
"It’s when the Abbasids established Baghdad as a crucible of Islamic civilisation and created new forms of material culture that were exported across the Indian Ocean and beyond – and that’s what we have here in Buraimi."
One of the main questions for Power and his collaborators on the project, such as Nasser Al Jahwari of Sultan Qaboos University, is to establish the age and size of the site.
“A mosque and a falaj and a cluster of quite large and well-built houses, a reasonable ninth or 10th century village, was found on the site of the new Sheikh Khalifa Mosque in Al Ain by Dr Walid Al Tikriti, and our site lies directly to the east of that.
“There is the possibility that they are a part of the same settlement. The question is whether this is a low-density settlement spread out over a large area with lots of little discrete villages and hamlets or a single settlement that’s quite densely built up all the way through.”
Power also notes the significance of Tuw'am (or Tawam) going back to pre-Islamic times, and says that the identification of Tuw'am with the al-Ain/Buraimi oasis cluster is conjecture.  I admit I am guilty of assuming it was more than that.  Power's study of the primary sources has led him to believe that it was actually a regional term extending all the way to the sea, with a specific settlement by that name within it.  This is a well-known pattern in Gulf history, seen in the components of the UAE in modern times and also in Kazima, the medieval Persian of Kuwait which I have been involved in researching.

The article, though, is unusually well-done for media reporting on historical scholarship.

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