Christian Sahner: Islam spread through the Christian world via the bedroom

There are few transformations in world history more profound than the conversion of the peoples of the Middle East to Islam. Starting in the early Middle Ages, the process stretched across centuries and was influenced by factors as varied as conquest, diplomacy, conviction, self-interest and coercion. There is one factor, however, that is largely forgotten but which played a fundamental role in the emergence of a distinctively Islamic society: mixed unions between Muslims and non-Muslims.  

For much of the early Islamic period, the mingling of Muslims and non-Muslims was largely predicated on a basic imbalance of power: Muslims formed an elite ruling minority, which tended to exploit the resources of the conquered peoples – reproductive and otherwise – to grow in size and put down roots within local populations. Seen in this light, forced conversion was far less a factor in long-term religious change than practices such as intermarriage and concubinage. 

The rules governing religiously mixed families crystallised fairly early, at least on the Muslim side. The Quran allows Muslim men to marry up to four women, including ‘People of the Book’, that is, Jews and Christians. Muslim women, however, were not permitted to marry non-Muslim men and, judging from the historical evidence, this prohibition seems to have stuck. Underlying the injunction was the understanding that marriage was a form of female enslavement: if a woman was bound to her husband as a slave is to her master, she could not be subordinate to an infidel.

Outside of marriage, the conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries saw massive numbers of slaves captured across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Female slaves of non-Muslim origin, at least, were often pressed into the sexual service of their Muslim masters, and many of these relationships produced children.

Since Muslim men were free to keep as many slaves as they wished, sex with Jewish and Christian women was considered licit, while sex with Zoroastrians and others outside the ‘People of the Book’ was technically forbidden. After all, they were regarded as pagans, lacking a valid divine scripture that was equivalent to the Torah or the Gospel. But since so many slaves in the early period came from these ‘forbidden’ communities, Muslim jurists developed convenient workarounds. Some writers of the ninth century, for example, argued that Zoroastrian women could be induced or even forced to convert, and thus become available for sex.

Whether issued via marriage or slavery, the children of religiously mixed unions were automatically considered Muslims. Sometimes Jewish or Christian men converted after already having started families: if their conversions occurred before their children attained the age of legal majority – seven or 10, depending on the school of Islamic law – they had to follow their fathers’ faith. If the conversions occurred after, the children were free to choose. Even as fathers and children changed religion, mothers could continue as Jews and Christians, as was their right under Sharia law.

Mixed marriage and concubinage allowed Muslims – who constituted a tiny percentage of the population at the start of Islamic history – to quickly integrate with their subjects, legitimising their rule over newly conquered territories, and helping them grow in number. It also ensured that non-Muslim religions would quickly disappear from family trees. Indeed, given the rules governing the religious identity of children, mixed kinship groups probably lasted no longer than a generation or two. It was precisely this prospect of disappearing that prompted non-Muslim leaders – Jewish rabbis, Christian bishops and Zoroastrian priests – to inveigh against mixed marriage and codify laws aimed at discouraging it. Because Muslims were members of the elite, who enjoyed greater access to economic resources than non-Muslims, their fertility rates were probably higher.

Of course, theory and reality did not always line up, and religiously mixed families sometimes flouted the rules set by jurists. One of the richest bodies of evidence for such families are the biographies of Christian martyrs from the early Islamic period, a little-known group who constitute the subject of my book, Christian Martyrs under Islam (2018). Many of these martyrs were executed for crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy, and not a small number of them came from religiously mixed unions.

A good example is Bacchus, a martyr killed in Palestine in 786 – about 150 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Bacchus, whose biography was recorded in Greek, was born into a Christian family, but his father at some point converted to Islam, thereby changing his children’s status, too. This greatly distressed Bacchus’s mother, who prayed for her husband’s return, and in the meantime, seems to have exposed her Muslim children to Christian practices. Eventually, the father died, freeing Bacchus to become a Christian. He was then baptised and tonsured as a monk, enraging certain Muslim relatives who had him arrested and killed.

Similar examples come from Córdoba, the capital of Islamic Spain, where a group of 48 Christians were martyred between 850 and 859, and commemorated in a corpus of Latin texts. Several of the Córdoba martyrs were born into religiously mixed families, but with an interesting twist: a number of them lived publicly as Muslims but practised Christianity in secret. In most instances, this seems to have been done without the knowledge of their Muslim fathers, but in one unique case of two sisters, it allegedly occurred with the father’s consent. The idea that one would have a public legal identity as a Muslim but a private spiritual identity as a Christian produced a unique subculture of ‘crypto-Christianity’ in Córdoba. This seems to have spanned generations, fuelled by the tendency of some ‘crypto-Christians’ to seek out and marry others like them.

In the modern Middle East, intermarriage has become uncommon. One reason for this is the long-term success of Islamisation, such that there are simply fewer Jews and Christians around to marry. Another reason is that those Jewish and Christian communities that do exist today have survived partly by living in homogeneous environments without Muslims, or by establishing communal norms that strongly penalise marrying out. In contrast to today’s world, where the frontiers between communities can be sealed, the medieval Middle East was a world of surprisingly porous borders, especially when it came to the bedroom.

Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World by Christian C Sahner is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Amin Saikal on Iran Rising

Saikal Iran Rising coverWhen Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world, as demonstrated in part by the 2015 international nuclear agreement. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

What did international observers predict would happen in Iran after the 1978-79 revolution? Why did things turn out differently?

The Iranian revolution marked a momentous development in world politics, challenging the regional order and America’s dominant position in the Middle East. A new Islamic Republic of Iran, under the theo-political leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, replaced the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. It condemned the US for supporting the Shah’s autocratic rule and disparaged America’s regional allies, including Israel. It locked horns with Washington—something that has continued to date, though in different intensity from time to time.

Khomeini established a unique Shia-based system of Islamic governance. In a bloody power struggle following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini swiftly and forcefully eliminated or marginalised groups and individuals who had actively participated in the revolution, but did not agree with his brand of Islamism. The resultant post-revolutionary turmoil, and the Islamic regime’s unorthodox theocratic behaviour on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, led some analysts to conclude that the regime was an aberration and could not possibly endure.

However, the regime has now lasted for forty years, surviving numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. Three key variables account for this. First, the internal elasticity and external flexibility of the regime’s system of governance enable it to both claim religious legitimacy and act pragmatically to survive. Over time, it has become less ideological and more pragmatic. Second, changing conditions within Iran and internationally have enabled the regime and its supporters to take advantage of American policy failures in the region—including, most importantly, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and on the Israeli-Palestinian front—to expand its regional influence. Third, it has built up hard and soft power capability in support of an asymmetrical defensive strategy.

How has Iran’s Islamic regime weathered the international sanctions against it?

The Islamic regime has been under American sanctions since the “hostage crisis.” On 4 November 1979, a group of militant student supporters of Khomeini overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 of the embassy’s diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel hostage. The episode lasted until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981. The Islamic regime used the crisis to consolidate power, humiliate the United States, and pierce Pax Americana in the Middle East. Washington severed all ties and imposed sanctions on Iran.

The regime coped with this— along a bloody, and costly war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—by extracting more from the Iranian people and by pragmatically strengthening ties with the Soviet Union (and subsequently its successor, Russia) and China, despite the regime’s serious aversion to godless communism. It also entered closer cooperation with India. It engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and took steps to circumvent the sanctions.

When the UN later imposed sanctions, and the US and its European allies ratcheted up their sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the regime pursued the same approach. It is now forced to act in a similar fashion once again, to counter President Donald Trump’s efforts to tame the regime in line with American interests.

Trump’s sanctions imposed following his withdrawal in May 2018 from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are indeed very severe. Targeting the core elements of the Iranian economy, they are designed to strangle the regime economically and force it to change behaviour that Trump has branded as destructive and destabilising in the region—and therefore contrary to America’s interests. Trump’s actions will seriously hurt Iran’s already fragile economy, causing more hardship for ordinary Iranians. But they are unlikely to affect the regime to the point of submission, given its theocratic nature and the Iranian people’s tradition of fierce nationalism in the face of an outside threat or assault. After all, it was not the US-led international sanctions—imposed on Iraq following the February 1991 US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation—that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule, but rather the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

How would domestic policy changes lead to foreign policy changes?

A majority of the Iranian people are crying out for improved living standards. Economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, international sanctions, and the residual effects of war with Iraq have led to high unemployment, inflation, and declining living conditions. As public pressure has built, the clerical leadership has responded by allowing occasional economic and social reforms. At the same time, it has been able to blame the US and its allies for Iran’s economic woes and keep most Iranians on their toes in a conflated Shia and nationalistic posture.

President Trump’s blatant support for public protests—primarily over the economic situation, and also the clerical domination of power—has conveniently enabled the regime to attribute Iran’s problems to America’s hegemonic and imperialist designs on the Iranian people. As the regime has defied the US, it has sought good relations with countries that have not shared Trump’s hostile attitude. These include, prominently, the other signatories to the JCPOA (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), which have remained committed to the nuclear agreement, with a promise to override America’s ban on third party’s business dealings with Iran.

Can the history of the Islamic Republic help us understand Islamic governments in other countries?

Not necessarily. Iran’s system is heavily informed by Khomeini’s Shia version of Islam and is linked to Iran’s peculiar traditions. Neither the three other Shia-majority countries (Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain) nor any of the Sunni-majority states, whose citizens form the bulk of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, have emulated Iran’s system of governance. For a combination of sectarian and geopolitical reasons, only Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and some Shia sub-national groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—not to mention certain Iraqi Shia militias—have sought close relationships with Tehran.

What about US-Iran relations?

The United States has tried everything short of direct military confrontation to contain the Iranian Islamic regime since its advent—and so far has failed. President Trump has promised that his latest round of sanctions will debase the regime economically and politically. But the likelihood of this happening seems remote. Realising this, President Obama pursued a policy of engagement rather than confrontation toward the regime. This led to the JCPOA, a landmark diplomatic achievement and a shot in the arm of the reformist and pragmatic factions in Iranian politics, led by President Hassan Rouhani, to strengthen their position in the power structure.

Trump’s actions have once again energised the hardline clerics and their supporters, associated with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to maintain their centrality in governing Iran and beef up their stance against any form of rapprochement with the United States or reformation of the Iranian system. The main question is: If his present measures fail and his own presidency survives, given the magnitude of his domestic problems, will Trump move toward military confrontation? War would be disastrous for all sides, as Iran has invested heavily in an asymmetrical fighting strategy to make an attack on it as costly as possible for its perpetrator.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton) and Modern Afghanistan. He lives in Canberra.

Gift Guide: Biographies and Memoirs!

Not sure what to give the reader who’s read it all? Biographies, with their fascinating protagonists, historical analyses, and stranger-than-fiction narratives, make great gifts for lovers of nonfiction and fiction alike! These biographies and memoirs provide glimpses into the lives of people both famous and forgotten:

Galawdewos Life of Walatta-Petros book coverThe radical saint: Walatta-Petros

Walatta-Petros was an Ethiopian saint who lived from 1592 to 1642 and led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. Written by her disciple Galawdewos in 1672, after Walatta-Petros’s death, and translated and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner, The Life of Walatta-Petros praises her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader, providing a rare picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans—especially women—before the modern era.

This is the oldest-known book-length biography of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century, and one of the earliest stories of African resistance to European influence. This concise edition, which omits the notes and scholarly apparatus of the hardcover, features a new introduction aimed at students and general readers.

 

Devlin_Finding Fibonacci book coverThe forgotten mathematician: Fibonacci

The medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci, is most famous for the Fibonacci numbers—which, it so happens, he didn’t invent. But Fibonacci’s greatest contribution was as an expositor of mathematical ideas at a level ordinary people could understand. In 1202, his book Liber abbaci—the “Book of Calculation”—introduced modern arithmetic to the Western world. Yet Fibonacci was long forgotten after his death.

Finding Fibonacci is Keith Devlin’s compelling firsthand account of his ten-year quest to tell Fibonacci’s story. Devlin, a math expositor himself, kept a diary of the undertaking, which he draws on here to describe the project’s highs and lows, its false starts and disappointments, the tragedies and unexpected turns, some hilarious episodes, and the occasional lucky breaks.

 

The college president: Hanna Gray Gray_Academic Life book cover

Hanna Holborn Gray has lived her entire life in the world of higher education. The daughter of academics, she fled Hitler’s Germany with her parents in the 1930s, emigrating to New Haven, where her father was a professor at Yale University. She has studied and taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She was the first woman to serve as provost of Yale. In 1978, she became the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, a position she held for fifteen years. In 1991, Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to education.

Gray’s memoir An Academic Life is a candid self-portrait by one of academia’s most respected trailblazers.

 

The medieval historian: Ibn Khaldun Irwin_Ibn Khaldun book cover

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin presents an Ibn Khaldun who was a creature of his time—a devout Sufi mystic who was obsessed with the occult and futurology and who lived in a world decimated by the Black Death.

Ibn Khaldun was a major political player in the tumultuous Islamic courts of North Africa and Muslim Spain, as well as a teacher and writer. Irwin shows how Ibn Khaldun’s life and thought fit into historical and intellectual context, including medieval Islamic theology, philosophy, politics, literature, economics, law, and tribal life.

 

The novelist and philosopher: Iris Murdoch Murdoch_Living on Paper book cover

Iris Murdoch was an acclaimed novelist and groundbreaking philosopher whose life reflected her unconventional beliefs and values. Living on Paper—the first major collection of Murdoch’s most compelling and interesting personal letters—gives, for the first time, a rounded self-portrait of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and thinkers. With more than 760 letters, fewer than forty of which have been published before, the book provides a unique chronicle of Murdoch’s life from her days as a schoolgirl to her last years.

The letters show a great mind at work—struggling with philosophical problems, trying to bring a difficult novel together, exploring spirituality, and responding pointedly to world events. We witness Murdoch’s emotional hunger, her tendency to live on the edge of what was socially acceptable, and her irreverence and sharp sense of humor. Direct and intimate, these letters bring us closer than ever before to Iris Murdoch as a person.

Browse our Middle Eastern Studies 2019 Catalog

Our new Middle Eastern Studies catalog includes a groundbreaking history showing how Egyptian-Israeli peace ensured lasting Palestinian statelessness; a definitive political picture of the Islamic Republic of Iran; an exploration of frequently neglected aspects of Iranian spirituality and politics; and a bold new religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East that places ordinary Christians at the center of the story.

If you’re attending the Middle East Studies Association meeting in San Antonio this week, visit the PUP table to see our full range of Middle Eastern studies titles.

Seth Anziska Preventing Palestine book cover

How and why Palestinian statelessness persists are the central questions of Seth Anziska’s groundbreaking book, which explores the complex legacy of the Camp David Accords. Combining astute political analysis, extensive original research, and interviews with diplomats, military veterans, and communal leaders, Preventing Palestine offers a bold new interpretation of a highly charged struggle for self-determination.

 

Amin Saikal Iran Rising book cover

When Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

 

Alireza Doostdar Iranian Metaphysicals book cover

Since the late nineteenth century, modernizing intellectuals, religious leaders, and statesmen in Iran have attempted to curtail occult practices and appeals to saintly powers as “superstitious,” instead encouraging the development of rational religious sensibilities and dispositions. However, these rationalizing processes have multiplied the possibilities for experimental engagement with the immaterial realm. The Iranian Metaphysicals shows that metaphysical experimentation lies at the center of some of the most influential intellectual and religious movements in modern Iran.

 

Jack Tannous Making of the Medieval Middle East book cover

In the second half of the first millennium CE, the Christian Middle East fractured irreparably into competing churches and Arabs conquered the region, setting in motion a process that would lead to its eventual conversion to Islam. The Making of the Medieval Middle East recasts these conquered lands as largely Christian ones whose growing Muslim populations are properly understood as converting away from and in competition with the non-Muslim communities around them.

Trump’s Assertiveness vs. Rouhani’s Resistance

by Amin Saikal

President Donald Trump has acted to diminish the Iranian Islamic regime over its nuclear program, missile industry and regional influence. He has given Tehran an ultimatum either to succumb to his demands or face unprecedented punishment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has rejected Trump’s actions to withdraw from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), and to reimpose sanctions as “psychological warfare.” The US and Iran are now locked in a diplomatic confrontation that could lead to a confrontation with devastating consequences.

Ironically, this is the first time in the history of US-Iranian hostilities since the advent of the Iranian Islamic regime nearly 40 years ago that Washington, rather than Tehran, is isolated in world politics as a result of an American president’s actions. Not only the other signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – but also most of the other states in the world have sided with Tehran. The European signatories and America’s traditional allies have taken extraordinary steps to salvage the JCPOA. They have gone so far as to invoke an old “blocking statute” to protect their countries’ businesses dealings with Iran and have instructed their companies either to defy American sanctions or run the risk of being sued by European Union member states. They have also opened a mechanism to enable those businesses affected by sanctions to sue the American government in the national courts of member states.

Whatever the European powers’ measures and the degree of sanction defiance by Russia and China as the other two strong supporters of Iran, as well as the Iranian government’s efforts to circumvent the sanctions, as it has in the past, Trump’s actions can still entail serious economic and political implications for Iran. The Iranian economy was in a fragile state prior to the reimposition of sanctions; it is now bound to receive more hard blows. This in turn is likely to increase public disenchantment with and protests against the Islamic regime.

However, the Islamic regime is unlikely to be brought to its knees, for four important reasons. The first is that Iran has endured soft and hard sanctions since the early days of its transformation into an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. The regime has vigorously diversified Iran’s economy and trade. It has succeeded in making the Iranian economy less dependent on oil exports, and has expanded trade relations with friendly powers, including China, which has become Iran’s largest trade partner. It has engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and mastered different methods of sanction-busting, including barter trading, and transactions through third countries where it wields influence, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The second is that despite its theocratic and administrative shortcomings and corrupt practices, the regime is well entrenched. It has built sufficient coercive instruments of power to deal with any widespread public uprisings. The clerical forces and their associates that dominate the power structure have done everything possible to guard themselves against a revolution similar to the one that caused the Shah’s downfall and brought them to power.

The third is that the regime has successfully used the “threat” from the United States and its regional allies, Israel in particular, for public legitimation and mobilisation, and this factor remains at its disposal. Many segments of the Iranian society are unhappy with the regime and may well desire a better alternative, but when Iran is threatened by an outside force, a majority of them have rallied behind the government of the day. The more that Trump pressures and threatens Iran, the more he plays into the hands of the regime to invoke a combination of historically fierce nationalism and Shia Islamic devotion among the Iranians.

The fourth is that in the unlikely event of the Islamic regime crumbling through popular uprisings, this will not serve the interests of the United States and its regional allies. It could produce uncontrollable outcomes for not only Iran but also the region. The regime’s removal without a smooth power transition could generate a much worse national and regional situation than did the overthrow of the Shah’s autocracy.

The Trump leadership, egged on by Iran’s arch enemy, Israel, and backed by another regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has touted the use of force as an ultimate means to change the behaviour of the Iranian regime. However, Tehran has secured a strong deterrence against such an option as well. It has garnered adequate prowess though a combination of hard and soft power within an asymmetrical warfare strategy to make an attack very costly for its perpetrator. It has secured a network of regional protégé forces that includes most importantly the Lebanese Hezbollah, which possesses some 120,000 rockets of all kinds, capable of hitting targets in Israel and across the region. This deterrence factor should make the US and Israel think twice before they resort to the use of force.

Trump has sought to subdue the Iranian regime, but at the cost of America’s isolation from even its traditional European allies. The US has become an oddity in world politics. This had never happened since the rise of the US to globalism following the Second World War.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic by Princeton University Press.

Hans-Lukas Kieser on Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide

PashaTalaat Pasha (1874–1921) led the triumvirate that ruled the late Ottoman Empire during World War I and is arguably the father of modern Turkey. He was also the architect of the Armenian Genocide, which would result in the systematic extermination of more than a million people, and which set the stage for a century that would witness atrocities on a scale never imagined. Here is the first biography in English of the revolutionary figure who not only prepared the way for Atatürk and the founding of the republic in 1923, but who shaped the modern world as well. In this major work of scholarship, Hans-Lukas Kieser tells the story of the brilliant and merciless politician who stood at the twilight of empire and the dawn of the age of genocide.

Though you have written a number of books in history, this appears to be your first biography. What led you in this direction?

I have written a variety of biographical articles, all related to the modern Levant. Yet, this is indeed my first book-length biography. There were two main motivations for writing me this biography of Talaat Pasha.

First, Talaat was the main political actor in the 1910s, the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when he led a single-party regime. All those interested in that area in modern history must therefore be able to know him well. Yet, oddly, there doesn’t exist any non-Turkish biography of this paradigmatic politician.

Second, the last Ottoman decade and its wars, including the Balkan Wars, the Great War, the Armenian genocide, and the war for Asia Minor, have remained a Pandora’s box in need of historical clarification. I navigate with my readers through turbulent and complex, dramatic and impactful times, always focusing on the mastermind Talaat as well as late Ottoman Istanbul and its provinces. The Ottoman capital was the center of a still-huge Empire, a hub of European diplomacy, and a hotspot of international dynamics.

What is an example of Talaat Pasha’s influence still being felt in Turkey today?

A blatant legacy is ongoing genocide denial based on arguments already made by Talaat in 1915. Another legacy is favoritism instead of meritocracy, because leader-centered partisan regimes need systemic corruption to maintain their power. Talaat’s leadership had blended imperial pride, Turkish nationalism, and Islamism. Turkey’s current re-embrace of charismatic leadership and its post-Kemalist return to political Islam is not surprising if we understand that Talaat had been a first father—before Kemal Atatürk—of post-Ottoman Turkey. The “Kemalist revolution” did not undo pre-republican fundamentals. In his effort to concentrate power, the current president Erdogan largely draws on patterns and ideologies used by these historic leaders, both marked “sons of an Empire.” Whereas both Talaat and Atatürk had claimed a progressive departure from religious conservatism, Erdogan identifies also with the conservative legacy of Sultan Abdulhamid II and other sultans before him.

How do modern Turks reconcile the positive things that resulted from Talaat Pasha’s actions with the atrocities that he perpetuated?

Talaat’s corpse came pompously back from Berlin to Turkey in 1943, in a joint venture of Adolf Hitler’s and İsmet İnönü’s governments. Lauding books and articles by former party friends were published in the years afterwards. Talaat, the former grand-vizier, won thus again public credit as a patriot and great statesman. Streets, schools, and mosques were named after him. Nevertheless, he remained associated with the Great War: a lost war little-remembered in Kemalist Turkey, except for the victory at Gallipoli. The atrocities against non-Turkish Ottoman citizens in and after the Great War were almost totally repressed from public memory. For such a spirit, almost no negative things must be reconciled with the progressive revolution achieved by the unique Atatürk, prepared by Talaat. Compared to previous governments, the current AKP regime publicly remembers much more the Great War, that great jihad and its battles. Yet, it does this without soul-searching or an acknowledged need and effort of reconciliation—because, in Erdogan’s words, there was “never genocide or ethnic cleansing in our history.”

What are some of the things you’d like readers to take away from this book?

I’d like my readers to take away from this book interest in, respect for, and better knowledge of topical challenges of the late Ottoman world, today’s Middle East. These are challenges that subsist to this day because their peaceful solution surpassed the political resources and the will of the contemporary rulers. More than a hundred years later, consensual polities for people from different religions, but with equal rights, are still utopian. The Levant, the cradle of monotheism, is under the spell of competing apocalyptical expectations.

Also, I’d like my readers to revolt in spirit and intellect against attempts at doing away with, instead of meeting, universal challenges, and against disfiguring historical truths for state and personal interests. Talaat pioneered patterns of miscarried modernity, in particular demographic and economic engineering including genocide. Inspired by his party friend Ziya Gökalp, a modern prophet of Turkish-Muslim greatness, Talaat had given up in the early 1910s on seeking a democratic social contract, starting instead comprehensive press control and prosecution of rivals. Talaat’s rule made Asia Minor a “national home” for Muslim Turks, excluding other peoples rooted in the same geography. Talaat thus shaped politics in the post-Ottoman Levant for a hundred years to come.

Hans-Lukas Kieser is associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle in Australia and adjunct professor of history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. His many books include Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East, World War I and the End of the Ottomans: From the Balkan Wars to the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey beyond Nationalism.

Michael Brenner explains why a Jewish State is “not like any other state”

BrennerIs Israel a state like any other or is it unique? As Michael Brenner argues in In Search of Israel, the Zionists attempted to put an end to the millennia-old history of the Jews as the archetypical “other” by creating a Jewish state that would be just like any other state, but today, Israel is regarded as anything but a “normal” state. Instead of overcoming the Jewish fate of otherness, Israel has in fact become the “Jew among the nations.” Israel ranks as 148th of the 196 independent states in terms of geographical area, and as 97th in terms of population, which is somewhere between Belize and Djibouti. However, the international attention it attracts is exponentially greater than that of either. Considering only the volume of media attention it attracts, one might reasonably assume that the Jewish state is in the same league as the United States, Russia, and China. In the United States, Israel has figured more prominently over the last three decades than almost any other country in foreign policy debates; in polls across Europe, Israel is considered to be the greatest danger to world peace; and in Islamic societies it has become routine to burn Israeli flags and argue for Israel’s demise. No other country has been the target of as many UN resolutions as Israel. At the same time, many people around the world credit Israel with a unique role in the future course of world history. Evangelical Christians regard the Jewish state as a major player in their eschatological model of the world. Their convictions have influenced US policies in the Middle East and the opinions of some political leaders in other parts of the world.

Why does Israel attract so much attention?

The answer lies in history. Many people call Israel “the holy land” for a reason: it is here where the origins of their religions were shaped. The Jewish people too are regarded as special: they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the world’s dominant religions. In Christianity and in Islam, Jews were both seen as a people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected by God. While over the last two hundred years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained. That the Jews became victims of the most systematic genocide in modern history lent them yet another mark of uniqueness. After two thousand years in exile, the fact that Jews returned to their ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded the people and place with additional mystique.

Did the Zionists view themselves as unique?

The irony is that the Zionist movement was established at the end of the 19th century precisely in order to overcome this mark of difference and uniqueness. Many Zionists claimed that they just wanted to be like anyone else. Chaim Weizmann, longtime leader of the Zionist movement and Israel’s first president, was quoted with saying: “We just want to be another Albania,” meaning a small state that nobody really cares about. Even Israel’s founding document, the declaration of independence, says that Israel has the right to be “like all other nations.” But at the same time the notion of being different, perhaps being special, was internalized by Zionists as well. Many of its leaders argued that a Jewish state has a special responsibility. Even the most secular among them regarded Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations” as a crucial part of a prophetic tradition.

Does this mean that Zionism was a religious movement?

Not at all. Most of its early leaders were strictly secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, knew no Hebrew and in fact very little about Jewish traditions. But he wanted to establish a model state for humanity, and saw the formation of Israel as an example for the liberation of African-Americans. Long before any other state granted voting rights for women, he let women be active participants in the Zionist congresses. He drew a flag for the future Jewish state that had seven stars, symbolizing a seven-hour-workday for everyone. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was a Socialist and rejected organized religion. But just like Herzl, he believed in the mission of a model state that could spread the prophetic ideals of universal peace and equality among the nations.

Why then is Israel seen by many today not as a model state but as a pariah state?

Herzl discussed other potential destinations, such as Argentina and British East Africa, as refuge for the persecuted European Jews. But the only place Jews had an emotional connection with was the territory they had originated from. Over centuries, Jews prayed for their return to the land of Israel. But it was not an empty land. The Arab Palestinians soon developed their own ideas of nationhood and rejected the growing Jewish immigration. In the meantime, antisemitism increased in Europe and other countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came too late to save the lives of millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But by then, most of the world recognized the Jews’ right to their own state in their ancient homeland, as reflected in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Yet the Arab world did not see why they should pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. The situation reflected the parable of a person (the Jews) jumping out of the window of a burning house (Europe) and hitting another person (the Palestinians) on the street in order to save his own life. The ongoing conflict of two peoples over the same land, combined with the special significance of this land in the eyes of the world, led to a situation where even outsiders have strong opinions. For Evangelical Christians, Israel fulfills a divine mission, while for others, especially in the Arab world, Israel is regarded as a foreign intruder in the tradition of the medieval Crusaders and modern Imperialists.

So, can Israel one day become just a “normal state?”

To begin with, let me qualify this question. The idea of a “normal state” is a fiction altogether. Every state sees itself as special. But it is true that some states receive more attention from the rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another Albania in the eyes of the world, or relegated in our attention to its place among the nations between Djibouti and Belize? I do not believe so. The history of Jerusalem is different from that of Tirana (Albania’s capital), and the Jews have attracted so much more attention than nations of comparable size. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the limelight of media attention. However, let us not forget: The people in Israel live their everyday lives just like everywhere else. They worry about their jobs and about their sports teams, they want their children to be safe and successful in school, and they dream of a peaceful future. In this deeply personal sense, Israel has become a state just like any other.

Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lilian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His many books include A Short History of the Jews.

Robert Irwin on Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography

IrwinIbn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin provides an engaging and authoritative account of Ibn Khaldun’s extraordinary life, times, writings, and ideas.

Who was Ibn Khaldun?
Wali al-Din Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332 in Tunis. In his youth he was tutored by some of finest scholars of the age before going on to occupy high offices at various North African courts and at the court of Granada in Muslim Spain. He became, among other things, a diplomat and a specialist in negotiating with the Arab and Berber tribesmen of the North African interior and on occasion he led the tribesmen in battle. Later he moved to Cairo where he was to occupy various senior judicial and teaching posts under the Mamluk Sultans. In 1401 he had a famous meeting with the Turco-Mongol would-be world conqueror Timur (also known as Tamerlane), outside the walls of Damascus which was under siege by Timur. Having escaped becoming Timur’s honored captive, he returned to Egypt. In 1406 he died and was buried in a Sufi cemetery in Cairo. Despite his active career in politics, law, diplomacy, and teaching, he is chiefly famous for his great book, the Muqaddima, (the translation of which is currently published in three volumes by Princeton University Press, as well in a single-volume abridgment).

Why is Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima so important?
This big book asked big questions. The Muqaddima started out as a study of the laws of history and it has gone on to win great praise from modern historians. Arnold Toynbee described it as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.’ Hugh Trevor-Roper agreed; ‘It is a wonderful experience to read those great volumes, as rich and various, as subtle, deep and formless as the Ocean, and to fish up from them ideas old and new.’ The Muqaddima has attracted similar praise from philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and Islamicists.

Ibn Khaldun began by asking how do historians make mistakes in their interpretation of events and what kinds of information should be recognized by historians as good evidence or bad evidence. Then he set out to understand the origins of civilization and the causes of the rise and fall of dynasties. As he continued his investigations, his book broadened out to become what was effectively an encyclopedia of Muslim society and culture.

Given his importance, there are already quite a few books on Ibn Khaldun. What is new about yours?
There are indeed so many translations of Ibn Khaldun and books about him that something like half the history of Orientalism can be deduced from the contrasting readings of the Muqaddima produced by such scholars as Silvestre de Sacy, Quatremère, Von Kremer, Monteil, Gibb, Hodgson, Hourani and Gellner. Some of the books by my predecessors are pretty good and I owe debts to those who have gone before me. Nevertheless many of their readings of the Muqaddima have been selective and have stressed and, I think, overstressed the logicality of Ibn Khaldun’s admittedly powerful mind and in doing so they have neglected the inconsistencies, ambiguities, and eccentricities that make the Muqaddima such a fascinating text. Mine is the first book to focus closely on the importance of the occult in Ibn Khaldun’s thought and his intense interest in methods of predicting the future. It is also the first to bring out the importance of North African ruins and the moralizing messages that he took from them. Although he was an outstanding thinker, he was also a man of his time and there has been a tendency to underplay the North African and strictly Muslim context of the Muqaddima. I have also sought to bring out the distinctive quality of Ibn Khaldun’s writing by contrasting it with famous texts by Froissart, Machiavelli, Vico, Montesquieu, Spengler, and others.

His ideas have been described as anticipating those of Montesquieu, Comte, Darwin, Marx, and Toynbee, among others. So was he a ‘modern’ thinker?
As new disciplines evolved in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their leading scholars frequently sought to create intellectual lineages for their chosen subjects and so Ibn Khaldun came to be hailed as ‘the world’s first anthropologist’ or ‘the first ever cultural historian’ or as a ‘proto-Marxist.’ Though there is some justice in such tributes, the quest for relevance can be a dangerous thing, as an overemphasis on similarities may conceal or distort past ways of thinking and living. As the novelist L.P. Hartley observed, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Ibn Khaldun’s remarkable ability to formulate general laws based on the close observation of discrete phenomena gives his thinking the delusive appearance of modernity, but he wrote in the service of fourteenth-century Islam. Moreover there is no evidence that he influenced Montesquieu, there is no continuity between Ibn Khaldun’s sociological formulations and those of Comte and there is no indication that Ibn Khaldun had anticipated Darwin’s ideas about the survival of the fittest.

Why did you write this book?
It feels as though I have been living with Ibn Khaldun since I first read the Muqaddima as a student in the 1960s. So it was high time that I took a close look at the assumptions and vocabulary that underpinned his thinking. To spend so much time with a polymathic genius has been both demanding and exhilarating. But there is also something else. As already noted, his Muqaddima is encyclopedic in scope. It not only covers history and philosophy, but also religion, social studies, administrative structures and title-holding, geography, economics, literature, pedagogy, jurisprudence, magic, treasure hunting, diet, dream interpretation, and much else. So a study of his masterpiece can serve as a panoptic guide to Muslim thought and life in the Middle Ages. There is nothing to match it either in the Islamic world or in medieval Christendom.

Robert Irwin is senior research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His many books include Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents and Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics, and the Sixties, as well as seven novels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Omnia El Shakry: Genealogies of Female Writing

Arabic

Throughout Women’s History Month, join Princeton University Press as we celebrate scholarship by and about women.

by Omnia El Shakry

In the wake of the tumultuous year for women that was 2017, many female scholars have been reflecting upon their experiences in the academy, ranging from sexual harassment to the everyday experiences of listening to colleagues mansplain or even intellectually demean women’s work. Indeed, I can vividly recall, as a young assistant professor, hearing a senior male colleague brush off what has now become a canonical text in the field of Middle East studies as “merely” an example of gender history, with no wider relevance to the region. Gender history rolled off his tongue with disdain and there was an assumption that it was distinct from real history.

Few now, however, would deign to publicly discount the role that female authors have played in the vitality of the field of Middle East studies. In recognition of this, the Middle East Studies Association of North America has inaugurated new book awards honoring the pioneering efforts of two women in the field, Nikkie Keddie and Fatima Mernissi. I can still remember the first time I read Mernissi’s work while an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. Ever since my freshman year, I had enrolled in Cultural Anthropology courses with Soraya Altorki—a pioneering anthropologist who had written about Arab Women in the Field and the challenges of studying one’s own society. In her courses, and elsewhere, I was introduced to Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments, an ethnography of poetry and everyday discourse in a Bedouin community in Egypt’s Western desert. Abu-Lughod’s narrative was sensitive to questions of positionality, a lesson she both drew from and imbued with feminism. A second piece of writing, this time an article by Stefania Pandolfo on “Detours of Life” that interpreted the internal logic of imagining space and bodies in a Moroccan village gave me a breathtaking view of ethnography, the heterogeneity of lifeworlds, and the work of symbolic interpretation. 

In hindsight I can see that these early undergraduate experiences of reading, and studying with, female anthropologists profoundly impacted my own writing. Although I would eventually become a historian, I remained interested in the ethnographic question of encounters, and specifically of how knowledge is produced through encounters­—whether the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized or between psychoanalysis and Islam. In my most recent book, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, I ask what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement. Rather than conceptualizing modern intellectual thought as something developed in Europe, merely to be diffused at its point of application elsewhere, I imagine psychoanalytic knowledge as something elaborated across the space of human difference.

There is yet another female figure who stands at the door of my entry into writing about the Middle East. My grandmother was a strong presence in my early college years. Every Friday afternoon I would head over to her apartment, just a quick walk away from my dorm in downtown Cairo. We would eat lunch, laugh and talk, and watch the subtitled American soap operas that were so popular back then. Since she could not read or write, we would engage in a collective work of translation while watching and I often found her retelling of the series to be far more imaginative than anything network television writers could ever have produced.

Writing for me is about the creative worlds of possibility and of human difference that exist both within, but also outside, of the written word. As historians when we write we are translating between the living and the dead, as much as between different life worlds, and we are often propelled by intergenerational and transgenerational bonds that include the written word, but also exceed it.

Omnia El Shakry is professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt.

Alexander Thurston on Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

ThurstonBoko Haram is one of the world’s deadliest jihadist groups. It has killed more than twenty thousand people and displaced more than two million in a campaign of terror that began in Nigeria but has since spread to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon as well. This is the first book to tell the full story of this West African affiliate of the Islamic State, from its beginnings in the early 2000s to its most infamous violence, including the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls. In an in-depth account of a group that is menacing Africa’s most populous and richest country, Alexander Thurston also illuminates the dynamics of civil war in Africa and jihadist movements in other parts of the world. Read on to learn more about this deadly terrorist group and what is being done to stop them.

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a jihadist group, or rather cluster of groups, that emerged in northeastern Nigeria in the early 2000s. The group has called itself by various names, and “Boko Haram” is a nickname given by outsiders—it means “Western education is forbidden by Islam.” The nickname refers to a central theme that its founder Muhammad Yusuf used in his preaching, namely the idea that Western-style education (and democracy) were anti-Islamic. Boko Haram was involved sporadically in violence before 2009, but its transformation into a sustained insurgency occurred that year, when Yusuf and his followers clashed with authorities. Yusuf was killed during the initial uprising, but his followers regrouped under Abubakar Shekau and began to commit regular assassinations and attacks the next year. Boko Haram began to hold significant amounts of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014, which prompted Nigeria’s neighbors to intervene more strongly. In 2015, back on the defensive, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). Boko Haram continues to stage attacks in Nigeria, as well as in the neighboring countries, especially Niger. In summer 2016, a public schism emerged in the group, with one faction remaining loyal to Shekau and another following Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi, who has pledged to reduce civilian casualties and refocus Boko Haram’s efforts on fighting states and militaries. Boko Haram is most infamous for its mass kidnapping of 276 teenage schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.

How has the Nigerian government responded to Boko Haram?

The Nigerian government has used a heavy-handed, military-focused approach to Boko Haram. The approach involves serious and systematic human rights violations—extrajudicial killings, collective arrests, detentions without trial, and torture. This approach has itself become a driver of the crisis, antagonizing civilians and reducing their willingness to work with authorities. In some cases, a desire for revenge has even pushed some civilians into joining or working with Boko Haram. Nigerian politicians repeatedly debated and haltingly pursued the idea of dialogue with Boko Haram starting around 2012, but it was not until 2016 that negotiations bore some fruit, resulting in two waves of releases/prisoner swaps of some of the “Chibok girls.” The current president, Muhammadu Buhari (elected 2015), has been quite eager to declare Boko Haram defeated, but its attacks continue to trouble the northeastern part of Nigeria.

What are the biggest misperceptions about Boko Haram?

One key misperception is the idea that Boko Haram is a direct consequence of demography, poverty, and underdevelopment in northern Nigeria. That thesis does not explain why Boko Haram emerged in the northeast, rather than elsewhere in the north, nor does it explain why there are not many more movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria’s neighbors, which suffer from many of the same problems. In a related way, many observers continue to believe that Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was a nonviolent critic of Nigerian government corruption; in truth, he rejected the entire premise of Nigeria’s secular state, and he flirted with violent jihadism from an early point in his career. By the time Yusuf’s message was fully developed, he was not calling for reform in the existing order, but for a complete overhaul of the system.

Another key misconception, however, is the claim that Boko Haram is merely an extension of the global jihadist movement—that it was created and managed by al-Qaeda, or that it now is merely a branch of the Islamic State. The reality is more complicated; Boko Haram’s early contacts with al-Qaeda were patchy, and al-Qaeda had trouble getting Yusuf and Shekau to follow their advice, so much so that al-Qaeda seems to have broken off contact with Yusuf well before the 2009 uprising, which was a disaster for Boko Haram. Given the flaws in these simplistic hypotheses—the poverty hypothesis or the global jihadism hypothesis—there is a need to develop more complicated understandings of Boko Haram. That’s what my book tries to do.

What are the key arguments of your book?

The main argument is that Boko Haram reflects a complicated intersection of politics and religion in northeastern Nigeria, and that this intersection can only be understood by examining developments at the local level, especially in the city of Maiduguri and the surrounding state of Borno. Political developments that contributed to Boko Haram’s rise included the implementation of “full shari‘a” in northern Nigerian states in the early 2000s, a highly competitive gubernatorial election in Borno in 2003, and bitter memories among northern Muslims regarding intercommunal violence dating back to the 1980s. Religious developments involved a rapidly shifting “religious field” in northeastern Nigeria. Yusuf’s rise coincided with new opportunities for young preachers to gain prominence as key scholars in Maiduguri were either aging and passing away, or were absent because they were studying in the Arab world.

Another, related argument is that although Boko Haram horrified and antagonized almost all Muslims in northern Nigeria, it did not come out of nowhere. Boko Haram and Yusuf picked up on ideas that had been circulating for several decades, particularly the idea that Nigeria needed to become an Islamic state, and the idea that Western-style education was undermining the moral fabric of northern Nigerian society.

In what way does religion matter for Boko Haram?

When the relationship between religion and jihadism gets discussed in the media and popular outlets, analysts often focus on the question of whether individuals really believe in what they’re saying—whether jihadists are pious and well-informed about religion, and whether recruits join jihadist groups out of conviction or opportunism. To me, those debates are of limited interest because it’s difficult to get inside the minds and hearts of individuals, and to know what they really believe. So for me, the most important way to think about religion’s role in jihadism is in terms of the “religious field”—the totality of actors and institutions vying to define and shape a religious tradition in a particular setting. Whether or not Boko Haram’s leaders and followers are truly religious and pious, they certainly see themselves as operating in a religious field. Their vocabulary, their propaganda, the leaders’ interactions with followers, and often the targets of their violence all reflect a self-conscious invocation of religion and Islam, or at least Islam as Boko Haram tries to define it. A big part of the book is an effort to show how Boko Haram found a niche in northern Nigeria’s religious field, and how it has tried to reshape the field around it.

ThurstonAlexander Thurston is visiting assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown University and the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.

Browse Our New Middle Eastern Studies 2018 Catalog

Our new Middle Eastern Studies catalog includes a fascinating study of a 14th century Arabic encyclopedia, an incisive analysis of the clash between nationalism and Islamism, and a new, comprehensive history of Sufism.

If you will be at MESA 2017 in Washington DC this weekend, please stop by booth 33 to pick up a copy of the catalog, and see our full range of titles in Middle Eastern Studies.

The thirty-one volumes of Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition are among the flowers of the encyclopedic tradition in the medieval Islamic world. In The World in a Book, Elias Muhanna explores the cultural context within which this monumental work emerged, its structure and content, and its reception both in the Islamic world and in Europe.

The World in a Book, by Elias Muhanna

In Making the Arab World, Fawaz Gerges (author of ISIS: A History) analyses the conflicting roles of nationalism and Islamism in the history of the modern Middle East, as represented by two strikingly different figures: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb.

Making the Arab World, by Fawaz Gerges

Sufism, by Alexander Knysh, presents a comprehensive history of this enduring ascetic, mystical strand of Islam, from its emergence during the golden age of Islam to the modern day. Considering the tradition from the perspective both of adherents and outsiders, Knysh presents Sufism in all its richness and complexity.

Sufism, by Alexander Knysh

Omnia El Shakry: Psychoanalysis and Islam

Omnia El Shakry‘s new book, The Arabic Freud, is the first in-depth look at how postwar thinkers in Egypt mapped the intersections between Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic thought.

What are the very first things that pop into your mind when you hear the words “psychoanalysis” and “Islam” paired together?  For some of us the connections might seem improbable or even impossible. And if we were to be brutally honest the two terms might even evoke the specter of a so-called “clash of civilizations” between an enlightened, self-reflective West and a fanatical and irrational East.

It might surprise many of us to know, then, that Sigmund Freud, the founding figure of psychoanalysis, was ever-present in postwar Egypt, engaging the interest of academics, novelists, lawyers, teachers, and students alike. In 1946 Muhammad Fathi, a Professor of Criminal Psychology in Cairo, ardently defended the relevance of Freud’s theories of the unconscious for the courtroom, particularly for understanding the motives behind homicide. Readers of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s 1948 The Mirage were introduced to the Oedipus complex, graphically portrayed in the novel, by immersing themselves in the world of its protagonist—pathologically erotically attached and fixated on his possessive mother. And by 1951 Freudian theories were so well known in Egypt that a secondary school philosophy teacher proposed prenuptial psychological exams in order to prevent unhappy marriages due to unresolved Oedipus complexes!

Scholars who have tackled the question of psychoanalysis and Islam have tended to focus on it as problem, by assuming that psychoanalysis and Islam have been “mutually ignorant” of each other, and they have placed Islam on the couch, as it were, alleging that it is resistant to the “secular” science of psychoanalysis. In my book, The Arabic Freud, I undo the terms of this debate and ask, instead, what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem,” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement.

What I found was that postwar thinkers in Egypt saw no irreconcilable differences between psychoanalysis and Islam. And in fact, they frequently blended psychoanalytic theories with classical Islamic concepts. For example, when they translated Freud’s concept of the unconscious, the Arabic term used, “al-la-shuʿur,” was taken from the medieval mystical philosopher Ibn ʿArabi, renowned for his emphasis on the creative imagination within Islamic spirituality.

Islamic thinkers further emphasized similarities between Freud’s interpretation of dreams and Islamic dream interpretation, and they noted that the analyst-analysand (therapist-patient) relationship and the spiritual master-disciple relationship of Sufism (the phenomenon of mysticism in Islam) were nearly identical. In both instances, there was an intimate relationship in which the “patient” was meant to forage their unconscious with the help of their shaykh (spiritual guide) or analyst, as the case might be. Both Sufism and psychoanalysis, then, were characterized by a relationship between the self and the other that was mediated by the unconscious. Both traditions exhibited a concern for the relationship between what was hidden and what was shown in psychic and religious life, both demonstrated a preoccupation with eros and love, and both mobilized a highly specialized vocabulary of the self.

What, precisely, are we to make of this close connection between Islamic mysticism and psychoanalysis? On the one hand, it helps us identify something of a paradox within psychoanalysis, namely that for some psychoanalysis represents a non-religious and even atheistic world view. And there is ample evidence for this view within Freud’s own writings, which at times pathologized religion in texts such as The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. At the same time, in Freud and Man’s Soul, Bruno Bettelheim argued that in the original German Freud’s language was full of references to the soul, going so far as to refer to psychoanalysts as “a profession of secular ministers of souls.” Similarly, psychoanalysis was translated into Arabic as “tahlil al-nafs”—the analysis of the nafs, which means soul, psyche, or self and has deeply religious connotations. In fact, throughout the twentieth century there have been psychoanalysts who have maintained a receptive attitude towards religion and mysticism, such as Marion Milner or Sudhir Kakar. What I take all of this to mean is that psychoanalysis as a tradition is open to multiple, oftentimes conflicting, interpretations and we can take Freud’s own ambivalence towards religion, and towards mysticism in particular, as an invitation to rethink the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion.

What, then, if religious forms of knowledge, and the encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam more specifically, might lead us to new insights into the psyche, the self, and the soul? What would this mean for how we think about the role of religion and ethics in the making of the modern self? And what might it mean for how we think about the relationship between the West and the Islamic world?

FreudOmnia El Shakry is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt and the editor of Gender and Sexuality in Islam. Her new book, The Arabic Freud, is out this September.