Seeing Islam as a Historian Sees It: A Mediterranean Frame Tale

From Firenze University Press Journal: CROMOHS

Ramzi Rouighi, University of Southern California

Historians of the medieval Mediterranean have handled the category Islam (Ar. islām) in ways that weaken our grasp of the past.1Some of the reasons for this regrettable situation stem from the difficulty encountered in rendering the richness and complexity of usage across many languages and contexts. Other problems stem from employing modern frames to convey medieval usages. And yet others result from the pervasive unsystematic use of the category in modern historiography. While this situation is not unique to this category or to this subfield of history, the medieval Mediterranean stands out because ‘Islam’ is constitutive of its mapping of the past and because the very existence of Mediterranean Studies is tied to a critical reassessment of the historiographic positions that excluded, marginalised, or othered Islam in the past and those that continue to do so today.

Since its appearance in early Arabic sources, the category Islam has been the subject of continued and vigorous debate. Medieval authors did not settle on a single meaning or agree to use the category in a consistent manner. Modern historians have not done so either. Rather thanproceed bydefining the term, situatingthe active manipulation of the category by medieval and modern intellectuals seems more manageable and suitable, and has the benefit of shifting the focus to the study of the circumstances that illuminate particular usages. Since historians do not customarily state their ‘working definitions’ clearly or explicitly, doing soalso seems sensible.

Mediterraneanists who work with Latin texts know that medieval Latin authors did not use the Arabic word islām,unlike their contemporaries who wrote in Arabic. This means that when they use the category ‘Islam,’ these medievalists are not simply reporting a usage found in their sources. Instead, they are referring towhat they consider to be Latin equivalents of the Arabic original — or at least of a selection of Arabic usages they find authoritative, representative, or attractive for some other reason. Oftentimes, the use medieval Latinists make of Islam derives from their application of modern ways of framing the category as a religion, civilisation, polity, world, culture,etc. As it happens, there has never been a consensus on what ‘religion’ or ‘civilisation’ etc. refers to, or on how to apply these notions when studying premodern societies.

As they are not always transparent, such manoeuvresgreatly complicate the task of understanding how Islam has been constituted in Mediterranean Studies, and thus that of formulating a systematic and critical approach to the question of its utilisation inhistorical arguments. That is why, although the historiography of the medieval Mediterranean is the primary ‘archive,’ the question here is not how historians interpret a particular set of texts, but rather what a young historian might learn about the handling of the category Islam from the modern historiography of the medieval Mediterranean.Modern scholarship on the medieval Mediterranean does not take its cues from modern historiography in Arabic.

If it did, the use of the same Arabic wordsin medieval texts and modern historiography and their translations into other languages would require examination. Rather, and for historical reasons, English is the dominant language in the field. This means that, in general, English-language studies inflect historiographic debates more than those in other languages. Naturally, considering only a small number of these studies for the purposes of a short essay does not equate to an exhaustive or fair representation of a rich and diverse historiography. However, for thepurposes of drawing attention to a set of historiographic phenomena, it makes sense to select from broadly read contributions to the field. And since many Mediterraneanists rely primarily on Latin sources, it seems relevant here to examine how specialistshandle the absence of the word Islam in Latin.


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