Teaching the Arab Conquests II

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Walid Tahir for al-Shuruq newspaper http://www.shorouknews.com/caricature/#37

Some colleagues have commented elsewhere on my previous post “Teaching the Arab Conquests in the Wake of Isis” and here are more reflections in reply.

Whereas perhaps earlier Western academics had presented the Arab conquests as violent and military, more recent scholarship has changed the emphasis considerably. So rather than present the seventh century conquests as military expansions egged by religious zeal and blood-thirst and meant to kill the “other,” more recent scholarship places the “Arab” (rather than Muslim) Conquests in a paradigm of late antique Middle Eastern developments. In that paradigm, the Arabs had already begun moving out of the Arabian peninsula a century or more before the major conquests, many tribes had settled in southern Syria and southern Iraq and had converted to some form of Christianity (usually not the creed of the Byzantines). Both empires had regimes associated with official organized hierarchical religious establishments. In that narrative too, the rivalry between the two main empires, the Byzantines and the Sasanians, had left both regimes somewhat exhausted and had created a political vacuum that peripheral and frontier peoples could potentially fill. The Arab tribes in the seventh century came to be united under the banner of a new religion and formed a wide alliance that meant their energies needed to be directed outwards rather than at each other, so they continued the push and expansion out of the peninsula (which had already begun). It is important for the authors writing within this paradigm to stress that the vacuum was not created by the Arab-Muslims. It’s not the Arabs who destroyed the classical cities and their theatres and city councils and so on. They came because there was a vacuum. And they came eventually to form a civilization to fill some of the cracks.

Of course these are narratives written for Western readers and students, written in a context removed from Cairo.

I assign various of these readings: so chapters from Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers also chapters from his older books Early Arab Conquests and Narratives. Donner (and Kennedy to an extent in his more popular book The Great Arab Conquests and more recently Hoyland in In God’s Path) all de-emphasize the influence of Islam as such and push more to the foreground the late antique context of imperial warfare and Arab (and other frontier peoples) expansion into settled areas in the sixth and seventh centuries and so pre-Islamic Arab settlement in Syria especially and Arab raids etc. They de-dramatize the rise of Islam. The rise of Islam in this narrative gave the Arabs leadership, political unity, religious zeal, promises of rewards in an afterlife, and promise of booty in this life. But it wasn’t the cause behind the conquests. Recent scholarship argues against seeing the rise of Islam as a dramatic watershed in the history of the region, and instead argues for a continuation of gradual developments that had started before. And I think this is what students raised in the contemporary Middle East (regardless of faith) don’t appreciate. They want, they expect, the early Muslims to have been different -and “better”- than their contemporaries. They expect the rise of Islam to add to the drama of the narrative. They expect the early Arab-Muslims to be heroes according to modern values. (And in this they are also heirs to the cult of the companions, itself a later historical development.) To tell them that the early Arab-Muslims acted in ways that are similar to what the Byzantines and Sasanians were doing shocks them. It must be corruption then, because “they” shouldn’t have done that. They unwittingly reproduce the later propaganda of the Abbasids against the Ummayyads. So they don’t appreciate why wars were involved, whether in Abu Bakr fighting the Ridda tribes or in the Conquests. And even when we read classical sources, such as Baladhuri’s Futuh al-Buldan or Tabari’s Tarikh, that complicate what these wars meant at the time and that break it down to various means of forging an alliance and confederation and building a state, rather than blood and gore just for nothing, many of them still can’t place the wars in this wider context. And then they see that “Abu Bakr” al-Baghdadi is borrowing a page from the historic Abu Bakr… When I suggest that one problem is in trying to recreate the seventh century in the 21st, some argue that the historical experience itself is flawed. I think this is in part due to the lack of historical depth in how people at least in today’s Egypt approach the past. There is a sense of flatness that I can’t quite articulate. But you see it in how people very straight-facedly see themselves as one with seventh century Arab Muslims or other historical actors, they identify an “us” that is baffling. For students it’s also probably in large part due to the little, confused history they’ve been studying in schools. They also essentialize “Islam”. The latter is a trying point for those of us trained in a post-Orientalist paradigm.

Of course this semester those who voiced their opinion more loudly were those who wanted to condemn the historical experience. One wonders how many of the silent ones are on the other end of the spectrum.

Dr Aziza Ellozy, in commenting on my previous post, wrote: “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’ve been mulling this over the past few days. I am reminding myself of several well-established pedagogical points.

The main one is that learning is a process. We all know that. One needs to remember that not only does it take time, and not only does it not end in the classroom, it doesn’t end with a course. It could very well continue after the students finish the requirements for a given course. At least one hopes so. I am sure we all cherish those emails that comes months if not years later from former students telling us they’ve been thinking of something we discussed in class aeons before.

The second reminder is that we meet different students at different points of this process, and therefore how we approach them must differ. It’s self-evident but it needs reminding every now and then. So perhaps in an intermediate-level undergraduate class it’s ok if students are a bit unsettled, or slightly confused as to ask questions, if they are left with question-marks. And perhaps they are too young to know my opinion. But perhaps also I wouldn’t be doing them a service by giving them my own answers to complex questions. This confusion should prompt them to search, read, look for answers and develop their own opinions One risk is: what if they are too lazy to search for answers? I don’t know. I think these are the students that fill the gaps with clichés and entrenched packaged ideas. And that’s ok. There will be students who take class after class with you and repeat the same clichés again every semester. People are different; students are different. They don’t all have to question everything all the time. They won’t.

I’m preaching to the converted, I know! But we all need a reminder sometimes.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching the Arab Conquests II

  1. this is truly one of the few interesting and refreshing reads I’ve come across today. given that humanities degrees are deemed impractical and of little worth by many Egyptian parents, I’m curious to know why your Egyptian students major, or even take classes, in history. are history courses, for instance, considered easy electives? or do your students generally find the subject matter engaging and worth of their time and attention?

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    1. Ah, you touch a raw nerve here: this idea that the humanities -and history- are not relevant to the modern world. People want “skills”, especially transferable skills. So we’re told. And parents don’t want to pay high fees to teach their kids irrelevant things. To answer your question, my university is a liberal arts college so there’s a general education core of courses that all students, regardless of majors, need to choose from. It also includes a specific Arab studies component. So that’s how I get a majority of my students.. Of course they still get to choose, my guess is sometimes they choose the courses they think sound fun, or interesting, or easy. There are also some students majoring in history, often combined with other subjects. I think many are interested in history, but especially “religious history” (as opposed to history of religion). After 2011 there was definitely a palpable rise in the interest in the past, you could feel it in the classrooms. Recently there’s a clear interest in religious discourse, which also feeds into an interest in history.

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  2. First off, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I know it’s a travesty that the humanities across the arab region are looked down upon and generally dismissed as irrelevant or relatively easy to be only pursued by those who are not smart, or succesfful, enought to do science majors. However, I tended to think that this attitude is not that common at liberal arts universities like yours or the AUB, for example. Simply, because most of the enrolled students, I suppose, do receive western-style schooling, prior to uni, which goes to greath length to educate their students on the practical merits of subjects like history or literature that valorize questioning and push students to understand and visualize the links between their present reality and other contemporary or historical contexts. Nevertheless, your answer does shed some real light on a reality I find intriguing but troubling at the same time.

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