Getting Started

It’s important to start our study of the “medieval Middle East” and “early Islamic” history by understanding the words we use because they are problematic.

First, the terms “medieval” and “Middle East” assume a Western perspective. “Medieval” refers to the period between two ages, that is: between Antiquity and the Renaissance. So it doesn’t really make sense to organize non-European history as “medieval,” as if everyone in the world responded to a cultural movement that happened in Europe. Similarly, the “Middle East” as a phrase was coined by Europeans. Think about it: what is the “Middle East” east of? It is “Middle” because it is closer to Europe than the “Far East” (China and Japan). The terms “Middle East” and “Far East” were made in Europe to organize how Europeans think about regions outside of Europe.

The word “Orientalism” refers to the descriptions of the Middle East seeped in unquestioned Western perspectives. The word comes from a famous book written by Edward Said:

Said argued that the Western perspectives don’t adequately reflect the complexities of Middle Eastern history and culture. Rather, Westerners project stereotypes the Middle East, focusing for example on over-sexed tyrants and violent despots. Western descriptions of the Middle East are flat: they don’t allow for differences and change over time and space.

Western stereotypes about the Middle East didn’t emerge in a vacuum. People who write/wrote about the Middle East reflect the colonial perspectives of Europe and the United States, seeking to explain the supposed inferiority of the Middle East in order to justify invading and ruling over it.

For a quick summary of Orientalism, watch this video (2.5 minutes):

Why is this a problem? Try flipping the tables. Read about the US the way that we hear about the Middle East. Do you think this article adequately explains BLM or the 2020 protests?

The words we use matter. So what’s a good alternative to “Middle East”? Recently, there has been a push to switch to the term SWANA: Southwest Asia and North Africa. By using a geographical identifier, we can bypass the relational organization (that is: we don’t define the region based on its relationship to Europe). However, just as no one in 9th-century Baghdad ever used the word “medieval,” so too is SWANA a modern concept. One of the ways we can push back at Orientalism is to use terms that are found in our sources, to start to understand the people who lived in the past and the ways in which they organized their world.

Sources written in the 9-10th centuries use the term “Islamic.” This term has its own problems, but at least it comes directly from the period and people we are studying. Before we adopt the term “Islamic” and run with it, though, we need to be clear how people used it in the past and how we are going to use it. Some Arabic texts refer to “the Realm of Islam,” which contrasts with “the Realm of War.” But these terms usually show up in juridical texts. History and geography texts sometimes use “the Kingdom of Islam,” “the lands of Islam,” commonly shortened to just “Islam.” These terms all refer to territories controlled by Muslim rulers. They don’t necessarily mean that the majority of people living in those territories were Muslims. They also don’t refer solely to the “Middle East.”

One criticism of using the term “Islamic” is that people assume that it’s about religion: “Islamic” history, then, is the study of the religion of Islam or the history of Muslims. However, we should also keep in mind that conversion to Islam was a slow and uneven process; very few regions in the early Islamic world were majority Muslim. The term “Islamic” history might also suggest to the modern observer that religion was the most important way to categorize people living in the “Islamic” world. In response, another scholar named Marshall Hodgson introduced the term “Islamicate” to refer to people and objects that we could understand within the context of the Islamic world. The term reminds people that not everyone or everything living in the Islamic world was Muslim or related in some way to the religion of Islam.

So if everything is problematic, how do we move forward? We start by recognizing the problems. I use “Islamic” because that’s what appears in our sources. However, in this setting I do not understand “Islamic” to refer strictly to the religion of Islam. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus lived in the Islamic world. I use the term “Islamic” in the sense of the geographers: the lands of Islam, where the rulers were Muslims. I do use “Middle East” and “medieval,” but sparingly. My reasons for this are practical. If we all came into the study of this history with blank slates, then we would have an easier time dispensing with such words entirely. But I think it is important that we use understandable terms as students start to learn about the Islamic world and as scholars reach across disciplines to learn about other regions. We can’t expect people coming into the field for the first time to magically know the definition and parameters of “early Islamic history.”