Thursday, December 31st 2015
Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s calling ISIS “medieval,” reported Allen Fromherz,associate professor and director of the Middle East Studies Center at Georgia State University, “set off a rare storm of comment in the relevant halls of the academy.” His December 24, 2015, essay, “ISIS vs. History,” was published on the website of The American Interest. Similarly, a recent article by Graeme Wilson “set the small and eclectic but wonderful world of medievalist social media atwitter in righteous indignation.” Fromherz wrote that “For many good reasons, professional historians mightily resist comparisons between recent events and the distant past.”
Fromherz pushed back against such characterizations, citing Muslim Cordoba and Baghdad during the reign of the Abbasid caliphs. “These instances of Islamic power at its height show that economic growth, power, and success, along with a benign balance between creativity and stability, always seemed to attract cosmopolitanism, toleration, and diversity, which in turn then attracted more economic growth, power, and success. Before the Mongol catastrophes of the 13th century, that was the rule rather than the exception in Islamic civilization.”
Specialists will want to read his summary of the Almohad caliphate, which ruled areas of Spain and north Africa in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE, which he compares and contrasts with ISIS. Among his other comments:
- Obviously Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS, although he speaks to this pre-Mongol “golden age,” ignores the tolerance and diversity of the society the early Muslim Caliphs ruled.
- In fact, ISIS itself does not have the best relationship with history, either medieval or modern; it seeks to destroy the very context, diversity, and complexity that, for the most part, define the past.
- Medieval history conceived in its broadest sense as Islamic “Middle Ages” history, or any history that intervenes between the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the present or shows the role of non-Muslims, is abhorrent to ISIS leaders and to other extremist preachers. They have no interest in the past and its complexities.
- They care not about the context in which the Prophet lived, or about his desire to create a more just society.
- They know nothing about his determination not to allow a return to patriarchal violence in Arabia and beyond.
- In this way, they disparage history itself, wishing to dissolve it into abstruse doctrine and the overwhelming desire for the apocalypse.
- This is often what happens to “history” among extremist premillenarian religious groups, and there is nothing particularly contemporary, Islamic, or Middle Eastern about it.
- Examples populate history from many centuries and many places. History is destroyed and a purified vision of the past is put in the service of revelation, much in the same way National Socialism used history to shore up its ideology of the master race.
- ISIS is not interested in returning to the medieval past; it is interested in fusing past, present, and future into an apocalyptic alchemy of end times.
- By ignoring or even, in the case of Palmyra and other monuments or examples of tolerance and respect for diversity, destroying the past, not only have ISIS bomb makers failed to find the mythical Red Mercury, they failed to have any chance of creating a sustainable doctrine or ideology before they even got started.
And, for history majors:
- History can therefore be a victim of those who would strip-mine it and those who would immolate it. But comparing the past and present is not an entirely fruitless pursuit. Indeed, rejecting any comparisons is in a sense as absolutist and problematic as insisting on facile ones. Unfortunately, in search of ever diminishing returns from ever more sources, many historians have turned themselves into expert silos and echo chambers of obscurity, forgetting that context can also mean connecting one’s research to something of greater significance.