Religion and society in the Middle East
Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Iran
Image of mosques, a church, and a synagogue. [Source: unknown]
Critical to understanding the modern Middle East is an appreciation of the rôle that religion has played in the societies of the region since Antiquity. In this course, we will examine the way that religion has functioned in Middle Eastern societies, beginning with ancient Near Eastern cultures, including ancient Israel, the Christian Roman Empire, and the Zoroastrian Sāsānian Empire of Iran. We will study the rise of Islam and its own patchwork of religious traditions, as well as the various Islamic societies that emerged—from the earliest Islamic empires to the Ottoman and Iranian Empires. The class will conclude with a thorough look at religion in the Middle Eastern landscape today, covering topics such as religion in Turkey, Iran, and Israel, minority identities, the challenge of nationalism, the Bahāʾī faith, radical Islam, and collective memory. Throughout the course, we will touch upon several recurring themes, including states’ use and abuse of religion, the nature of religion as a primary marker of identity, and varying patterns of religious expression in the region.
Early Islamic history, 600–1258
Iranians protesting in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2009 elections. [Source: Wikipedia
Fundamental to the understanding of contemporary Iran is a proper appreciation of the two Twentieth-Century revolutions that changed indelibly the nature of political rule in the country. Each of these events, the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) and the Islamic Revolution (1978–1979), reflected the culmination of several decades of interaction between traditional elements of Iranian society and forces of modernity and change; each of them also saw the coalescence of a familiar coalition of internal actors: the clerical establishment, the mercantile class, and the intelligentsia. In this class, we shall follow the internal developments of Iran as it went from Qājār autocracy in the Nineteenth Century to the Islamic Republic today. Specific topics of discussion include the Bābī revolt, the Tobacco Protest, the Constitutional Revolution, the attempted coup
by Moḥammad Moṣāddeq, the 1955 anti-Bahāʾī pogrom, and the Islamic Revolution. Ultimately, we shall shed light on the red thread running throughout all of these events: the tension between the political and religious authorities in Iran.
The Mongol conquest of Baghdad, 1258. [Source: Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Orientabteilung, Diez A, f. 70]
The emergence and early rule of Islam greatly shaped the development of not only the Middle East, but of the entire world. This course surveys the birth of the Islamic world, including the genesis of Islam and Islamic civilisation, the profound changes of the Arab-Islamic conquests, and the rise and rule of the first Islamic empires, and continuing until the Mongol Conquest in 1258. We will examine culture, politics, and society in classical Islamic society, as well as the larger historical trends that defined the period. Specific topics of exploration include the rise of Iranian Islamic dynasties, the challenge of the Crusades, the development of Shīʿī and Sunnī Islam, the emergence of Ṣūfī mysticism, and the experience of non-Muslim minorities.
Menachem Begin and Anwar as-Sādāt signing the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, mediated by US President Jimmy Carter. [Source: Carter Center
The Arab-Israeli conflict attracts a disproportionate amount of attention in the news media, international politics and law, and the socio-cultural sphere, despite the fact that numerous other inter-ethnic tensions have generated far higher casualties and involve more significant players on the global scene. This course examines the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict in an attempt to place it in its historical context, while tracing its developments from multiple angles in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of the complex dynamic that constitutes ‘the conflict’. We will conclude the class by looking at several contemporary dimensions of the conflict, including the potent forces of radical and political Islam, the involvement of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the continued evolvement of Israeli and Palestinian identities.
The Making of the modern Middle East
Religion and politics have intertwined in Islam since the founding of the faith in the early Seventh Century. In this course, we will examine the modern phenomenon of political Islam within the historical context of the concept of political rule in Islam. We will begin by charting the course of the emergence of Islamic civilisation and the development of the caliphate and continue with discussions of mediæval political philosophy, separate Sunnī and Shīʿī elaborations of temporal rule, and religion and state in the pre-modern Islamic world. Thereafter, we will trace the Islamist response to modernity through its many forms—including the radical and the pluralistic ones—across the Islamic world, including South and Central Asia, West and East Africa, Palestine, Iran, and Turkey. We will conclude with a thorough look at technology and other tools used by contemporary Islamists, as well as an analysis of the future of political Islam. Throughout the course, we will observe and consider the dissonance between contemporary Islamist activity and classical political philosophy.
History and development of Israeli society
As the ‘cradle of civilisation’ located at the juncture of three continents, the Middle East is home to a wide range of cultures, religions, and ethnicities that make the region so interesting, yet so complex. This survey course will introduce students to the modern Middle East, beginning with the important changes of the Nineteenth Century and continuing through the period of European dominance into the age of independence and the contemporary Middle East. Throughout the course, we will examine various themes, especially the important and recurring force of religion. Some of the topics that we will cover include the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian Revolution, the Persian Gulf Wars, and radicalism, while placing them within the broader framework of the modern Middle East. We will conclude by addressing recent developments in the region and its outlook for the future. [Intermediate-level course]
Minorities of the Middle East
Israeli Jewish girl and Palestinian Arab woman at the Tel-Aviv beach, August 2012. [Source: Reuters]
Despite the fact that the Zionist enterprise and its offspring, the State of Israel, have existed for only slightly more than a century, the long history of the Jewish people, the wide dispersion of its members, and the tensions and relations with other inhabitants of the region, have generated a society multifaceted and complex far beyond its short lifespan. In this course, we will chart and analyse the history and development of Israeli society, from its beginnings in the Zionist idea and the culture that existed in Ottoman Palestine during the late Nineteenth Century to the present day. Approaching the subject of Israeli society through the lens of history allows us to observe broad trends and to track changes, not only in its composition, but in its culture, maturity, and impact, as well as to make forecasts about the decades to come. Furthermore, by telling the history of Israel through its variegated, vibrant, and varying society and by studying the topic through a perspective different from most politics-centred approaches, we will obtain a better appreciation of how and why the country, its history, and its people have evolved as they did. Specific groups that we will study include early Zionist pioneers during Ottoman and British rule, Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants, Palestinian-Israelis, non-Jewish communities in Israel (Druze, Bedouin, Bahaʾis, and Circassians), recent Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and foreign labourers and migrants. We will also examine thematic topics, such as religion and state, gender and sexuality, and contemporary popular culture.
A course focusing on the dynamic between state and minority, both historically and contemporarily, by looking first at the changing rôle of minorities in the last two thousand years and then examining the various minorities—religious, ethnic, cultural—that make up the diverse patchwork of the region.
A survey of the history of Shīʿī Islam, its theological precepts, political developments, and cultural achievements.
History of Zionism
Jews and Christians under Islam
Within the space of less than a century, the Zionist enterprise achieved its ultimate goal of an independent Jewish country, the modern State of Israel. This class examines the important developments of this process, from the initial seeds of Zionism in Nineteenth-Century Europe to the painful birth pangs of the Jewish state amidst the challenges and dangers of the 1948 War, known to Israelis as the ‘War of Independence’. As this course focuses on the rebirth of Israel as a modern reincarnation of an ancient Jewish polity, we will avoid placing excessive attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict, although we will examine the Palestinian-Arab dimension as it relates to the emergence of the Israeli polity. Instead, we will study more carefully historical, political, economic, and social trends within the Zionist community both in the geographic land of Palestine and abroad. We will also touch upon the roots of several contemporary tensions, as well as the creation of the diverse and complex mosaïc of Israel society. By avoiding the ‘conflict prism’, we hope to arrive at a clearer perspective on the origins of the State of Israel, a better appreciation of the events and movements leading up to its establishment, and some ideas regarding Israel, its citizens, and its neighbours today.
Jews of the Ottoman Empire
Jewish delegation to an Ottoman sultan.
Since its founding the early Seventh Century, Islam has maintained a complex relationship to the Jewish and Christian traditions that preceded it. On the one hand, religious figures and texts consciously built upon their monotheistic foundations, linking Muslims to Jews and Christians in worship of the same God, tracing Muḥammad’s genealogical ancestry to Abraham, and alluding in the Qurʾān to stories and messages from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels. On the other hand, as a successor religion, Islam differentiates itself from the prior traditions in order to provide its adherents with a unique and superseding message. This tension finds expression in the different and differing attitudes towards Jews and Christians—known as ‘Peoples of the Book’ and ‘protected minorities’—in Muslim society. Their experience has ranged widely, including periods of productive harmony, considerable toleration, and harsh persecution. Likewise, Jews and Christians adapted variously to their Islamic surroundings, contributing to their societies in the fields of philosophy, science, trade, culture, and more. In this course, we will survey the major themes of Jewish and Christian lives in the Islamic world from its origins to the present day, with a hope towards understanding better the challenges and realities of the contemporary Middle East.
A survey of the history of the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire, their relations with the state, their cultural achievements, and their legacy, from the early Romaniotes of Istanbul through the great wave of immigrants following the Spanish Expulsion to the changing patterns of life during empire’s last century.
The Middle East through film
Israeli society through film
The Middle East is rarely out of the focus of press cameras from around the world. Daily reports on political violence and instability, with wider repercussions, attract widespread attention. But how do Middle Easterners see themselves and their societies? This course will provide a framework for answering this question by studying the modern Middle East—alongside the cinema that has emerged from the region. In addition to covering the history of individual countries, we will examine various themes, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, religious resurgence and political Islam, gender and sexuality, and Middle Eastern minorities. We will watch films from a variety of perspectives and in a number of languages, including Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish, and Kurdish. We will conclude by addressing recent developments in the region and its outlook for the future.
Ottomans and Ṣafavids
Israeli society is marked by complex, competing, and overlapping identities, reflecting the diversity of the Jewish diaspora and resultant ‘ingathering of exiles’, the contribution of non-Jewish minorities and challenges of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and new global and transnational cultures and trends. Since the early years of Zionist activity in the Land of Israel, these dynamics have manifested themselves on the silver screen, revealing how Israelis view themselves, the world around them, and how they wish to be viewed. Israeli cinema has thus served as a forum for Zionist and Israeli dreams, as well as an outlet for criticism of existing realities. In this course, we will study Israeli society through the films it has produced—dramas, comedies, musicals, and documentaries—telling both the history and the present of the country through its cultural output. Specific themes that we will study include the founding of the society and the state, the absorption of Middle Eastern Jews and Holocaust survivors, tensions between the individual and the collective, attitudes towards Arab-Israeli citizens, Palestinians, and foreign Arabs, the rôle of religion in society, current challenges facing Israeli society. Throughout the semester, as we watch and discuss films, we will repeatedly ask and seek to answer how Israeli cinema represents the cultural memory of its society.
A survey of the history of the two most important Islamic ‘gun-powder empires’, examining their origins, their interactions, their relations with Western states, the relationship between state and religion, and their legacies.
An investigation into the dynamic world of Israeli politics, from the pre-state Yishuv to the present-day. The course concludes with a simulation, in which students represent various political parties and compete in a mock election.
Mediæval Indian history
Critical to understanding the background to the diverse and vibrant societies of contemporary India is an appreciation of the penetration of Islam to the region and the rise and peak of Mughal rule. In this course, we shall examine the course of South Asian history from the early Muslim invasions of the Eighth Century and the Central Asian conquests of the Tenth Centuries to the imperialisation of Islamic rule under the Tīmūrid Mughals, who combined Iranian, Central Asian, and Mongol-Tīmūrid influences with local Indian patterns. In addition to covering the political history of the period, we will study various aspects of social, economic, and cultural trends, paying attention to subaltern groups, marginal societies, and the growing European presence.