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New Approaches to Studying and Teaching Islamicate History

Panel XIII-19, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • I am currently teaching a class using the framework provided by the popular gaming series “Assassins Creed.” This class was also inspired by the articles Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History edited by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott, as well as other pedagogical literature related to gamification of education. The “Assassins’ Creed” digital games focus on modern characters inhabiting individuals throughout history in order to accomplish both narrow and global missions. The game is loosely inspired by popular perceptions of the history of the Nizari-Ismailis (the Assassins). The class that I am teaching was aimed at upper division undergraduate history majors at a regional comprehensive institution in the city of Los Angeles, with a large population of Middle Eastern heritage students. Like the creators of “Assassins’ Creed” I also used the history of the Nizari-Ismailis as a framework to understand history. Each week students confront a specific incident or idea associated with the history of the Nizari-Ismaili community. Students form teams based around characters from the “Assassins’ Creed” games; one team represents the viewpoint of the Nizaris; another team plays those who oppose them; a third teams focuses on other parties from the same period but not directly involved with the Nizaris; and the fourth team represents a modern perspective. The teams research characters using both assigned readings, and sources that they find themselves. They then role play their chosen characters and are confronted by teams representing other points of view in a debate-type setting. This strategy allows students to “travel back in time” and understand some of the most important events and historical processes through the eyes of individual people involved. The idea is to encourage students to look at the history of the Islamicate world from a variety different viewpoints. If the strategy of role-playing succeeds, students will gain a broader and more visceral understanding of what is to many students a very unfamiliar historical landscape. For my paper for MESA 2023, I propose to give a largely qualitative analysis of the outcomes of this experimental class.
  • Modern understanding of the Crusades owes its theoretical formulation and its formation as a discipline to the very first international body devoted to the study of the Crusades, the Société de l’Orient Latin, founded in 1875 by the French count Paul Riant (1836-88). From a point of supposed origin—the Jerusalem Crusade summoned in 1095—Riant postulates an originary form valid for all Crusades. An organic model of an individual life from birth to death provides Riant with the guiding metaphor for all Crusades. To this day, the organic model reigns supreme in the academic study of the Crusades, wholeheartedly embraced by the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East, which, in its publications, adheres to a birth-to-death coverage of the Crusades, “from the First Crusade (1095-1102) to the fall of Malta (1798).” There was never any attempt to determine “what contemporaries understood by crusading.” The goal of Riant, as well as subsequent scholars who theorized about the Crusades, was simply to devise an easy and quick way to identify Crusades. Jonathan Riley-Smith has been more candid that most in what his efforts to give meaning and definitional structure to the Crusades have produced. “They provide,” he says, “a model for identifying [a Crusade],” equivalent to a diagnostic tool by which to recognize a Crusade. No research program was ever engaged in to determine how the earliest conceptual framework for understanding the Crusades was arrived at. This conceptual framework surpassed any theory advanced to explain the Crusades by modern scholars. It was no mere theory, diagnostic, or conjecture. Rather, it was a comprehensive system, predicated on the intelligibility and systematicity of historical data, by which the many and varied actions of Latin expansion in the central, western, and eastern Mediterranean from the middle of the eleventh century to the early twelfth century were woven together into a whole. The master-weavers of this conceptualization of the Crusades were Pope Urban II (r. 1088-99) and ʿAlī ibn Ṭāhir al-Sulamī (d. 500/1106), and this paper bases its arguments upon their contemporary writings. This paper will answer three questions: What commits Urban and al-Sulamī to the supposition of the systematicity of historical data? How do Urban and al-Sulamī resolve the epistemological problem of the one and the many in the Crusades? Why is modern scholarship of the Crusades fixated on origins—a preoccupation of the eighteenth century?
  • When the Rustamids collapsed and the Fāṭimids occupied their capital Ṭāhart in northwestern Algeria in 909 CE, the Ibāḍī Berbers sought refuge in the southern oasis of Sadrāta, whence they moved to the Mzāb and founded Ibāḍī townships between 1011 and 1053. In the same period, the Banū Hilāl arrived in present-day Algeria through the coast and desert with titles to property (iqtā‘). After they populated the region side by side, shaking hands in some matters and denying truces in others, their respective historical memories became contingent on different interpretations of a single migration and its motivation. The Banū Hilāl were framed as proponents of dissolution and destruction of state– a narrative informed by Fāṭimid sources then later affirmed by medieval scholars like Ibn Khaldūn. Situating the Banū Hilāl myth has not only been a matter of assessing the nature of early Arabization of North Africa but has also directly shaped the historiography of a forgotten oasis city whose oppositional narratives project back onto larger questions of indigeneity and sense of belonging that bear great stakes. The history of the Sha‘ānba, descendants of these Banū Hilāl in the Mzāb, mirrors the same colonial and post-colonial debates. A web of complex relationships between the nomadic and sedentary, Arabophone and Berberophone, that are dually influx and interconnected, was lost in colonial ethnography. New questions based on this case study may lead us to fresh reflections on a myth that has ceased to regenerate: What are the lasting effects of the Banū Hilāl myth within the historiography of the Mzāb? How have the descendants of the Banū Hilāl in the Mzāb asserted their own narrative?
  • While the study of diplomatics and archival practices based on documents from medieval Egypt has been a steady feature of scholarship on the Middle East for many decades -- with the important work of S.D. Goitein and others -- that of documents from medieval Iran, Afghanistan, and the wider Islamicate East is still in its infancy. This paper will focus on documents from Afghanistan written in the 12th and 13th centuries CE which I call "the Bamiyan Papers" and that are being studied by the Invisible East program in Oxford. These are largely administrative and legal documents that deal with issues of tax and the internal functioning of the state, including the police and fiscal departments. I explore, also, the phenomenon of institutional memory: the production of internal institutional documents, their processing for action, archiving, and eventual shedding. We will see through the often-hazy screen of large institutions, and gain insight into how state employees carried out their daily work in ways no narrative history can. The paper will underline the importance of largely underused and publicly and digitally available documents—such as, internal memos, dispatches to the field, and petitions to headquarters—as sources for understanding the history of rural administration and institutions in the region.
  • Co-Authors: Laila Shaheen, Jason Izadi
    The Abbasids: History, Heritage, and Memory is a new course offered at the University of British, Columbia. Centered on the MENA region during the so-called ‘Islamic Golden Age,’ the course addresses a significant regional and temporal gap in the university curriculum. The course is still in its infancy, and we are therefore interested in two key research questions: (1) what is the student experience of diversity and cultural learning in this course? (2) What pedagogical frameworks, activities, and resources can we modify to support students across cultural backgrounds in the classroom and in the research experience and to foster an interdisciplinary community? To address these questions, we analyze survey data and course evaluations from former students and adopt a “Students as Partners” (SaP) approach, in which the student partners collaborate equally with the faculty member to contribute to pedagogical design with their own valuable sets of expertise and in which all decision-making is achieved collectively. We argue that SaP work is valuable to helping destabilize outdated assumptions that a teacher’s role in the classroom is primarily as a top-down lecturer and instead takes seriously that students offer powerful insights into course design and pedagogy within their own positionalities and learning-, disciplinary-, and cultural- expertise. We also argue that this approach offers important opportunities for empowering student experiential learning and for fostering diversity and inclusivity on North American campuses. In this presentation, we will share and reflect on our experiences of the SaP approach, what we learned from surveying former students in the course on key issues of cultural sensitivity, centering research in the classroom, and developing interdisciplinary conversations about the Islamic past, and what we learned from our partnership on this project as intellectual equals. The pedagogical conversations that this project raises have important implications for classrooms that engage with Islamic history and the history of the MENA region. Firstly, this work takes seriously the intersection between pedagogy and research and positions collaborative pedagogical design as an important form of academic knowledge production. Secondly, our project demonstrates the importance of teaching culturally sensitivity in the classroom and of challenging harmful biases and Eurocentric attitudes towards the study of the Islamic past as part of ongoing work to decolonize the Academy. Finally, our work calls attention to the importance of supporting the Middle Eastern immigrant experience among undergraduate students in Canada and how North American universities might work towards this goal.