Teaching the Arab Conquests in the wake of ISIS

Mamluk horsemanship BL

My friend and colleague Maha Bali inspired me to start a teaching blog. Let me back-track: Maha and I were speaking about reflection; reflecting on teaching and how there’s hardly a “good time” to do this. I find myself coming up with good ideas for how to do things better usually in the second half of the semester, in the wake of mid-semester blues. By that time I’m in the middle of the courses, I have a good over-view of how we got where we are, and I can imagine how it’ll end, but also brilliant idea on how it could’ve been done better. I open file after file named “ideas for the future” tagged with various course numbers. I want to try them THEN, but it’s too late, the syllabus is set, the students are in the middle of things etc. I then usually get another bout of inspiration at the end of the semester and the beginning of summer, I almost don’t want to start the summer break because I’d rather keep the momentum going. “Almost,” I wrote, don’t get ideas! Sometimes come September I remember to check those files, sometimes not.

Now, Maha, brilliant pedagogy expert that she is, told me she found that reflecting as we go along to be much more beneficial, rather than setting aside a specific time of the semester to do so. Instead, she blogs about teaching, every day, here. Or, at least as she goes along the semester. So I thought to myself: “ok, let’s try this out.”

On my mind today is this:

Teaching the Arab Conquests in the wake of ISIS

Ever since I started at my university, I’ve been assigned to teach a course on the rise of Islam and the Caliphates. I’m a medievalist by training, so it’s not far off. But rather than assign me the chronological course that covers my people, the Mamluks, my colleagues gave me early Islam. I found myself learning much, of course, developing an interest in the material. Maqrizi is still my favorite historian but I’ve learnt to appreciate Tabari (not least because of the blessed souls who’ve translated his Histories into English, making it easier to assign selected readings from the text in an English-language university). Tabari and I have a friendship now. The course is relatively popular, but it goes up and down. I sometimes get international students who come to our university for a semester study-abroad. There are a couple of programs that require it of their students so they take it. But the make-up changes considerably from year to year. I have a good bunch this year. I also have Isis.

Now traditionally, one of the challenges of teaching this course in my university is that many students come to class with familiarity of some aspects of the religious narrative. I try to help them distinguish between the religious and the historical, I’m not sure how successfully. This is not a course on faith or theology, I tell them. I try to help them read the sources for themselves and at least ask questions about how the narrative is constructed. I walk on thin ice. I am consciously walking on thin ice.

But now there’s Isis. Why is Isis a problem, you ask? On the one hand it’s a boost because it makes what we study relevant. It answers the implicit questions students of history are always asking: so who cares? So what? So what that this happened 14 centuries ago? Or: so what if the accounts were written one or two centuries after the events? Isis shows that there is some relevance. But what?

In class this week, we’re discussing Ridda and Conquests of the Middle East, a question that is floated by some students was: so why are so many people upset with Isis? Why do you find Isis an anomaly? And, from one student: “People should condemn the historical experience as they condemn Isis now.”

As I skate on my thin ice I babble things on the ethics of historiography and on the social-historical context. Is it fair to judge historical actors by our own standards? Don’t values change? (“No, they shouldn’t,” says that student. “Principles are principles, ya doctor.”) That’s a question for Philosophy, I argue. But if we compare the Arab conquests to the Romans’ or to the Persians’ or to the Mongols, how do they fare? Wouldn’t that be a more fair comparison? They want me to say something like: The Arab conquests were “wrong” or were “against Islam.” And I don’t want to pass judgment like this.

And then I come across students’ ideas on what “religion” is. There are so many things that they assume are “against religion.” I tell them that “religion” changes, what we mean by the term and how we understand it and how we perceive it and practice it, changes from one society to another. But, they continue to argue, “Islam” does not change. Oh dear. There are ideas like “war is against religion.” Hmm. Or “slavery is against religion.” So we shatter some myths. We talk about time and historical context. But then there’s Isis.

I remember vaguely the summer furor among my nerdish colleagues over the article in the Atlantic. And there were rebuttals.

So how does one rebut this? By referring to the historical context in which the conquests and Ridda occurred. By comparing it to then contemporary historical experiences? And by referring to multiple view points in the tradition? So just as there was war, there was Sufism? What? And what does one do with the Sufis who joined the wars on the frontiers?

And then how far should one, ought one, as a teacher, step back?

I tend to prefer to step back, to leave them with a question-mark and a “maybe.” I am reluctant to state my own views. One time I got that as a negative remark on my student-evaluation forms. But I know I’m also a bit like that in my own writing. Is this wrong? Or right? For a teacher I mean?

How would you teach the Ridda and the Conquests in the wake of Isis? And are there any particular readings you recommend to further the discussion?

4 thoughts on “Teaching the Arab Conquests in the wake of ISIS

  1. Amina I love what you are writing about, I am very very interested in what you teach as I struggle myself with how to answer similar questions that students have (although in the context of science). Like you , I tend to step back and leave them with a question mark. They are too young to know what I really think.

    I will continue following what you write as I do Maha’s blog (although I admit i can’t follow all … it is just too much) and I have already learned quite a bit from this just one posting.

    Thank you Maha for inspiring Amina!


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