Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Things I learned teaching "Crusade and Jihad" this fall

Since September I have been teaching a special topics course on Crusade and Jihad. In my very first teaching jobs, courses on the Early and High Middle Ages at the University of Toronto, the Crusades certainly came up (in the early medieval course they were one of the very last topics); but that was a quarter-century ago. I did not rely on my past understandings of the Crusades this time around, but read a lot of new material, most of which has appeared since 1990 or even 2000. I am particularly grateful to Thomas Madden for putting together a collection called The Crusades: Essential Readings and Christopher Tyerman for his huge new narrative history, God's War.

Here are the new thoughts and perspectives that I gained concerning crusading as a result:

1. Back in the day, I had a very French and English view of the Crusades. Now I take the Germans a lot more seriously. Next, the Italians.

2. I was fascinated by the number of northern European fleets that took part in early Crusades, fleets that were organized across what we think of as national boundaries. It is particularly interesting because we know very little about the people who had the clout and connections to put together such fleets. The maritime world was apparently a different political sphere entirely.

3. The connection between crusading and Imperial ideology fascinates me. This perspective I owe to Christopher Tyerman, who carefully analyzed and described the involvement of King Conrad, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor Henry VI, and Emperor Frederick II. Not to mention the would-be Emperor Charles of Anjou.

4. Having not read a lot of German accounts the Crusades, Tyerman's book was the first to make me aware how odd it is that we (or at least I) take almost without thinking the side of Frederick II’s enemies when evaluating the significance of his crusade to Jerusalem.

5. Perhaps most valuable to me is that reading lots of primary and secondary accounts of wandering crusading armies renewed my awareness of warriors as constituting for some purposes a separate society, battening on the settled communities through which they traveled. This awareness will come in useful when I write my next book, Men at Arms.

As far as what I learned about jihad this fall: I learned, thanks to Carole Hillenbrand, David Cook, Patricia Crone and Capt. John "Garick” Chamberlin, among others, that there's a lot to learn and that systematic historical discussion is just getting underway.

Image: a French king and a German emperor fight a sultan.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

David Cook's Understanding Jihad

Not long ago I praised David Cook's book Martyrdom in Islam for shedding considerable light on important aspects of the evolution of Islam. I've now read his Understanding Jihad and am perhaps more impressed by this earlier book.

Once again Cook takes a single important issue in Islam and traces its significance over the centuries. Here he argues that the notion that military activity in the name of Islam is the "lesser jihad" and that (peaceful) religious and moral struggle is the "greater jihad" does not show up in texts written in Islamic languages for Islamic audiences. Indeed, the notion that the initial conquests in the name of Islam have always been taken as a confirmatory miracle demonstrating the truth of the Quran and its revelation, and as a result Islamic audiences have always been influenced by the notion that Islam would eventually spread across the whole earth and that fighting would be a legitimate part of that process. That notion made it particularly difficult for Muslims to tolerate 19th century European conquest of the Dar al-Islam and makes such incursions as the founding of Israel or the invasion of Iraq even more humiliating than they might be otherwise. He also argues that the rather muted response by Muslims (most of whom are no more bloodthirsty than anyone else) to the self-righteous claims of Muslim jihadists is rooted in the feeling that jihad is a legitimate and core part of the religion.

As in Martyrdom in Islam, Cook uses lots of primary materials and ranges over most of the Islamic world, putting jihad into all sorts of interesting contexts. Recommended.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam: a recommendation

I soon hope to be talking about the ancient and medieval history classes I will be teaching in the fall, but right now I'm reading material on early and current Islamic history. Some of the books I picked up in the last month or so were not worth mentioning here. But on Saturday I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 42nd International Congress for Medieval Studies, and bought two really good looking books at promotional prices.

One was The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin by Boha al-Din ib Shaddad, who actually knew Saladin and whose work has been published in Ashgate's series Crusade Texts in Translation. I'm looking forward to it.

Right now, however, I'm in the middle of a truly excellent book by David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam. (See cover above.)

I teach the history of Islamic civilization, not the history of the religion, Islam, but of course you can't do one without saying quite a bit about the other. The great challenge of my course is to make the connection between doctrine, the emotional impact on believers of that doctrine, and
the historic energies that have been generated by attempts to implement Islam, or to alter it.

This is tough and I'm not sure that I've ever done more than a mediocre job. I don't have deep background in the subject, just a lot of nerve and a burning certainty that someone should teach this material in Ontario universities.

So I am very happy indeed to find a book this good, which I may use for classes in the future, and will certainly order for our library.

It strikes me as an excellent second book on Islam for anyone really interested in Islam from a historical or religious studies point of view. The first would be any one of a number of books that briefly and systematically discuss the beliefs, the rituals, the institutions, and the historical development of Islam over the centuries. There are several good short books of this sort. Cook's book goes over some if not all of the same material from a different angle, since he is interested in describing the characteristics and effects of the Islamic concept of martrydom, and putting them all in historical context.

He does a fabulous job of this. I've learned all kinds of useful things that longer and presumably more complete books had not made clear to me. I've read lots and lots about the Sunni-Shiite division, but I feel I understand their mutual hostility and incomprehension better, now that I've read Cook.

I note that our own NU library has a Cook book called Understanding Jihad and I look forward to reading it. He also seems to have two more books on Muslim apocalyptic.

One question: if David Cook can write this cogently and accessibly on such important subjects, why is he only an assistant professor at his home institution?

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