Notes on Identity in the Medieval Islamic World

The “medieval Islamic world” is a difficult concept to define. Traditionally, scholars have used the phrase dār al-Islām (literally the “Abode of Islam”) to denote the lands under Muslim rule or, alternatively, the lands in which Muslim institutions were maintained. In the dār al-Islām, we are told, borders were porous and freedom of movement was expected for all Muslims to such a degree that, in theory, one could travel from Iberia to the foothills of the Himalayas largely unimpeded. Most significantly, within the dār al-Islām, religious identity (Muslim vs. non-Muslim) was—in theory—a far more important defining marker than any concept of race, class or ethnicity. As such, in many ways the term dār al-Islām designates a cultural or religious unity (or an idealized notion of that unity) rather than a unified political entity. Dār al-Islām was usually defined in explicit contradistinction to the dār al-harb (literally “the abode of war”), denoting the region where non-Muslims ruled. According to various Islamic political theorists and jurists in the Middle Ages, it was the objective of Muslims to bring the dār al-harb within the sphere of dār al-Islām. The instrument through which this would be accomplished was either jihad (military expansion) or da‘wa (missionary activity).

This framework for understanding medieval Islamic history certainly mirrors the understanding of medieval Muslim historians, jurists, geographers and political thinkers. However, the reference to the medieval Islamic world through the (Islamic) juristic construction of “dār al-Islām,” while certainly important to understand, is unsatisfactory for the modern historian for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it fails to take into account that for the greater part of the medieval period many of the lands designated as “Islamic lands” were, in fact, populated by significant communities (or majorities, in some regions) of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others. The utilization of “dār al-Islām” generally ignores the presence, institutions, contributions and significance of these communities. Another reason for the inadequacy of the term is that it enforces the theoretical notion that religious identity was the supreme defining marker of the regions being discussed while ignoring the increasing important of sectarian, social, cultural and linguistic identity. While most certainly important as an idealized notion among Muslims, the notion of the “ummah” is not the most useful analytical category for a historian seeking to understand the diversity of the medieval world. In any case, this remains an open question for me and the utilization of the phrase “medieval Islamic world” is not necessarily more satisfactory than the traditional framework nor do I view the term “Islamicate” as a particularly significant improvement.

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