History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 4)


The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009.   This is prefaced by my recap of Prof. Bulliet’s views on cultural dissemination around the Mediterranean basin, which he discussed in the last part of his lecture.

Fig. 1 Cultural diffusion around the Mediterranean Basin

Prof. Bulliet puts forward the four stages of conceptualizing cultural diffusion around the Mediterranean Basin.

Stage One. N-S, E-W cultural unity in the ancient world

Prof. Bulliet says that in the ancient world, the entire Mediterranean Basin was seen as one cultural zone which is referred to as the Greco-Roman or Classical Civilization.

Stage Two.  E-W cultural disunity in the Dark Ages

Christian civilization became split between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire in the 300s in the North (Europe), and 500 years later Islamic civilization became split between the West (maghrib) and the East (mashriq) in the 800s in the South (Middle East and North Africa or MENA).

Stage Three.  E-W cultural unification in the Middle Ages

There was the beginning of cultural interplay between East and West in Europe in the Middle Ages, as well as between the West (maghrib) and the East (mashriq) in the Middle Ages in the South, albeit with a similar time lag of about 500 years.

Stage Four.  N-S cultural unification in the Modern period

There is cultural interplay between North and South which is heading towards the recognition of an Islamo-Christian civilization that starts in the Modern period. It is not that there will not continue to be differences between EuroAmerica and MENA cultural zones, but the similarities will be seen to outweigh the differences in the same way that the Greek and Roman civilizations, although quite different from each other, could be seen as the two faces of one Classical civilization.

Now I continue with the notes from Prof. Bulliet’s lecture, this time on the subject of religious assimilation in Europe and MENA.

10. Religious assimilation in Europe and the Islamic World

But the historical fact is that of the current 30 or so European countries, at least 14 of them have been under Muslim rule for at least 100 years, and sometimes several hundred years. Islam is by no means a phenomenon of the South side of the Mediterranean Sea, in the same way that Christianity is by no means a phenomenon of the North side of the Mediterranean Sea. You had Christians in the areas conquered by the Arabs who remained for about two centuries as the majority, and persisted as minorities to the present day, although they are becoming less numerous. Islam in the Middle East and North Africa is a more homogeneous faith today than it ever has been in the past. The disappearance of non-Muslim groups has been a phenomenon of the last 150 years or so, pretty much from 1860 onward.

So you had Christians on the South side of the Mediterranean Sea who gradually become absorbed into Islam, you had Muslims on the North side of the Mediterranean Sea who gradually become relegated to a footnote in the national histories. The way these things are treated in the different areas is strikingly different, and informatively so. Non-Muslim groups in the Islamic group are incorporated conceptually within the worldview embodied in Islamic law by being classified as a “People of the Book” or ′Ahl al-Kitāb. This means a people who have a scriptural revelation analogous to or related to the Quran, and as such they are entitled to protection by the Muslim state that is called a dhimma’; the adjective that refers to them as people who are protected is a dhimmi. There are times when people who belong to these dhimmi communities, whether they are Zoroastrian, Jewish, or Christians of various stripes, or in some areas Buddhists as well, are compelled by the state to wear types of costumes, or observe certain restrictions in their ritual behaviors. But by and large the communities survived and you have comparatively infrequent periods of hostility against the non-Muslim minorities. That diminishes after 1860. In other words, before 1860 you have a greater harmony of Muslims and non-Muslims than you have after 1860.

1860 is usually comprised as a mark of a significant civil disorder in Damascus and other parts of Syria which broke out along religious lines with Christians and Muslims lining up against one another. It is hard to find early episodes as extensive, important, or symbolically striking as that one in 1860. You have these tolerated minorities in the Muslim world.

When it comes to the North, that is to say, the Christian world, you did have some places where Muslims lived in Christian societies. Venice, for example, had a certain number of Muslim residents. Poland had a significant Muslim population. You had Muslims serving in Polish armies under the King of Poland. But by and large there weren’t many Muslims in the North. In those countries that had a period where they were under Muslim rule, as you get into the 19th century, and the rise of nationalism, it becomes a standard political polemic that being ruled by Muslims was a Dark Age for however long it lasted. It should be forgotten, it should be condemned historically and looked upon as an evil period in the history of the State, whether you looking at the history Serbia, Greece, or the Ukraine. You can find similar demonization of Muslims and the Muslims are demonized in the interest of promoting the notion of a pure nationality which is Christian.

11. Europe coming to grip with Muslim past

Only one European state has come to grips with the reality of its Muslim past, and that is Spain. Spain did not have what could be called an enlightened approach to its Muslim past for a very long time, that is to say, through the rule of Generalissimo Franco. But after Franco’s death, you have an extraordinary rebirth of scholarship and interest among Spanish scholars and political figures in what had happened during those centuries when you had Muslim rule in Spain.

It increasingly became recognized that during those centuries you had a living together, a convivencia, that made it possible for Muslims, Christians and Jews to have culturally productive relations in Spain. This came to an end with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, with the destruction of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain in Grenada in 1492, and then a century and a half later, the expulsion of the remaining Muslims in Spain. The harmony that had once existed was rather brutally destroyed, and then it was rediscovered in quite recent decades. Nowadays people will hold conferences on the subject “what was so special about Spain? Why is it that Spain alone had people of different faiths who could live in harmony?” Well, of course, it wasn’t just Spain alone, but it is only Spain we know about in terms of its Muslim past because Spaniards have done research on it. It is an extraordinary and heartening intellectual intervention in the destruction of history to reimagine Muslim Spain.

12. S. D. Goitein’s study of medieval Jewish communities in Egypt

Almost everything that you can say about living together in Muslim Spain in the period of Muslim rule from the early 700s down to the end of the 1400s, you could say about Medieval Egypt. Christians, Muslims and Jews really got along extraordinarily well in Egypt. The finest study of a medieval society in the Muslim world is a five-volume work by the scholar S. D. Goitein entitled A Mediterranean Society. Goitein describes in exhaustive and exhausting detail the nature of every aspect of life and thought of the Jewish community of Cairo in the medieval period.

The reason he is able to do this is because the Jews of that time in that community (perhaps it was true of other Jewish communities in other times as well), had a norm in which they said it was wrong to destroy paper, parchment or papyrus that had writing on it because the writing might contain the name of God and it should therefore not be destroyed. This was paralleled by the practice by Muslims and other subcommunities of Cairo. Every time they had paper they wanted to discard they took it to a synagogue in the old Arab and Muslim community in southern Cairo called al-Fasad, which was the name of Cairo before it became Cairo. They deposited it in a room and that was room was called a geniza or treasure storeroom. A huge library built up in the geniza and then the synagogue was abandoned for hundreds of years. Then the geniza was rediscovered in the 19th century. Thousands of manuscripts and tens of thousands of fragments of everything from laundry lists to business letters, and so forth and so on, were discovered. So Goitein and quite a number of other geniza specialists since that time read through vast amounts of this material. They studied how the Jews lived in medieval Cairo which was a Muslim society.

One thing is apparent when you read through the five volumes. (Prof. Bulliet admitted he didn’t read volume five, but only through the first four.) There is no volume on hatred and warfare between the Jews and the Muslims. Instead you find that the Jews and the Muslims took one another for granted. They had business relations, a certain amount of social relations, and their community practices and day-to-day lifestyles were indistinguishable, except in ritual matters, from those of their Muslim neighbors. If we had a comparable work for the Christians of Egypt at that time, it would probably show pretty much the same thing. In other words, the notion of a living together, which was a wonderful notion when applied to medieval Spain, is not uniquely Spanish. You don’t require a special understanding to see why living together occurred there and not elsewhere, because it DID occur elsewhere. Now, it didn’t occur everywhere, but it is a more general phenomenon in the Muslim world than not, at least in the early Arab centuries.

By comparison, you don’t have a parallel degree of interaction in most of the parts of Europe that were under either a briefer period of Muslim rule or where modern ideology has favored a Christianity-oriented nationalism in modern times.

In the last part of his lecture which I present in my last and final post in this series, Prof. Richard Bulliet discusses

–the evolution from acceptance of inequality to the ideal of equality,

–the theory of geographical determinism as an explanation of global inequality,

–the long life of the idea of the birth and death of civilizations,

–inequality and how the European imagination explained it through the idea of exceptionalism, and finally

–the relationship between the idea of inequality and modernization theory so prevalent in the 1960s.

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