Writing the past, shaping the present: People, faith and city in late antique Iraq and Iran
The AKU-ISMC welcomes you to an evening celebrating the publication of three monographs by its faculty and research staff:
- Sarah Bowen Savant: The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory, and Conversion
- Philip Wood: The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq
- Isabel Toral-Niehoff: Al-Ḥīra: Eine arabische Kulturmetropole im spätantiken Kontext [Al-Hira: An Arab cultural metropolis in Late Antiquity]
Chair: Hugh Kennedy, Professor of Arabic in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
These monographs shed new light on under-studied aspects of the Late Antique Near East (ca. 400-1000), and contribute to a growing literature that shows how long-standing communities rewrote their histories, redefined their membership, and revised patterns of urban life. Whereas history is often told by the winners, these studies offer alternative perspectives on changes in the realms of culture, religion, politics, and economy: of Persians, as an ethnic group, redefined in relation to Arabs; of Christians, operating under Sasanian and then Arab rule; and of an urban population, in al-Hira, where Iranian, Arab and Syriac models for politics and identity competed and coalesced.
The authors will discuss their books, and particularly how pre-Islamic ideals of city life came to shape classical Islamic culture, and how much of this culture was shaped in the Fertile Crescent rather than the Arabian peninsula. Whether through intellectual strategies, narrative tropes or the rhythms of urban life, Iraq and Iran formed the backdrop for an intercultural transmission that gave Islam and the caliphate its mature identity.
At the core of these studies are a series of historiographical questions about the ways that knowledge about the past was researched, invented or challenged. How did historians seek to emphasise continuity or change in their own societies? How far did Muslim Iranians continue to ‘own’ a pre-Islamic past? How could Christians in Iraq negotiate the removal of their sometime patrons, the Sasanian shahs, and their replacement by a new, monotheistic overlord? What forces linked the different social constituencies of al-Hira to their king or to one another? All of these questions have at their centre the idea that the reception of the past is a way of articulating identity in the present, determining the boundaries that separate groups and the relationships that link them.
Location: The Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, 210 Euston Road, London NW1 2DA (Room 2.1)
The launch will be followed by a reception at the Royal Asiatic Society.
Monograph Overviews and Author Biographies
The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory, and Conversion (Cambridge University Press, September 2013)
Author: Sarah Bowen Savant
How do converts to a religion come to feel an attachment to it? The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran answers this important question for Iran by focusing on the role of memory and its revision and erasure in the ninth to eleventh centuries. During this period, the descendants of the Persian imperial, religious, and historiographical traditions not only wrote themselves into starkly different early Arabic and Islamic accounts of the past but also systematically suppressed much knowledge about pre-Islamic history. The result was both a new “Persian” ethnic identity and the pairing of Islam with other loyalties and affiliations, including family, locale, and sect. This pioneering study examines revisions to memory in a wide range of cases, from Iran's imperial and administrative heritage to the Prophet Muhammad's stalwart Persian companion, Salman al-Farisi, and to memory of Iranian scholars, soldiers, and rulers in the mid-seventh century. Through these renegotiations, Iranians developed a sense of Islam as an authentically Iranian religion, as they simultaneously shaped the broader historiographic tradition in Arabic and Persian.
Dr Sarah Bowen Savant
Sarah Bowen Savant is a cultural historian and an Associate Professor at the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (London). Her publications include Genealogy and Knowledge in Muslim Societies: Understanding the Past (2013), co-edited with Helena de Felipe, as well as book chapters and journal articles treating early Islamic history and historiography.
The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq (Oxford University Press, August 2013)
Author: Dr Philip Wood
This monograph uses a medieval Arabic chronicle, the Chronicle of Seert, as a window into the Christian history of Iraq. The Chronicle describes events that are unknown from other sources, but it is most useful for what it tells us about the changing agendas of those who wrote history and their audiences in the period c.400-800. By splitting the Chronicle into its constituent layers, Philip Wood presents a rich cultural history of Iraq. He examines the Christians’ self-presentation as a church of the martyrs and the uncomfortable reality of close engagement with the Sasanian state. The history of the past was used as a source of solidarity in the present, to draw together disparate Christian communities. But it also represented a means of criticising figures in the present, whether these be secular rulers or over-mighty bishops and abbots.
The Chronicle gives us an insight into the development of an international awareness within the church in Iraq. Christians increasingly raised their horizons to the Roman Empire in the West, which offered a model of Christian statehood, while also being the source of resented theological innovation or heresy. It also shows us the competing strands of patronage within the church: between laymen and clergy; church and state; centre and periphery. Building on earlier scholarship rooted in the contemporary Syriac sources, Wood complements that picture with the testimony of this later witness.
Dr Philip Wood
Dr Philip Wood is an Assistant Professor at the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (London). His research considers the intersection of political and religious ideas in the late antique Middle East. Prior to joining AKU-ISMC, Dr Wood taught the political and cultural history of late antiquity at Oxford and Cambridge universities as well as at SOAS where he focused on Martyrdom and Monasticism in the Near East within the Department of the Study of Religions. His first monograph, We Have No King but Christ: Christian political thought in greater Syria on the eve of the Arab conquest (c.400-585), was published with OUP in 2010.
Al-Ḥīra: Eine arabische Kulturmetropole im spätantiken Kontext [Al-Hira: An Arab cultural metropolis in Late Antiquity] (Brill, October 2013)
Author: Isabel Toral-Niehoff
Isabel Toral-Niehoff draws a vivid portrait of this Late Antique Arab metropolis, located on the frontier between Byzantium and Sasanian Iran. Based on new archaeological and textual evidence, this study documents al-Ḥīra’s historical impact far beyond its well-known role in literary history and describes its creation of a distinctly Arabic urban cultural symbiosis that drew on neighbouring civilizations. Al-Ḥīra’s multicultural synthesis is shown to be a direct precursor to the emerging city of Kufa, its Islamic successor, and Islamic city culture at large.
Dr Isabel Toral-Niehoff
Isabel Toral-Niehoff is a research scholar at the Freie Universitat Berlin and a Visiting Lecturer at the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (London). Dr Toral-Niehoff's research includes the Medieval Iberian Peninsula; she has published articles on Arab cultural literacy history and Christian and Pagan Arabic heritage, and the monograph Kitab Giranis (Munchen, 2004) on the Greco-Arabic transmission of magic.
Fleur Adolphe, Sarah Bowen Savant, Philip Wood, Isabel Toral-Niehoff, Charlotte Whiting