Dr Sarah Bowen Savant, Assistant Professor at AKU-ISMC presented the Robert S. Mason lecture at Georgetown University on 23 April. Her lecture, Remembering Founding Moments: The Case of Early Islamic Persia, explored work she has undertaken on tradition, memory, history and hermeneutics in the case of Iran to consider social functions of traditions about communities’ founding moments.
Bowen Savant’s paper explored the case of the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran — and more broadly, traditions that recall a community’s founding moments in violent ways — to probe the social functions of traditions about those founding moments.
Framing the discussion within the Iranian context, the paper sought to speculate on the dynamics of historical reconstruction and memory, looking to issues of agency and choice vis-à-vis authority. It also sought to consider the relationship between historical reconstruction as an act of memory production, and a study that considers the interpretation of memories of a community’s past as meaningful and useful.
Further, the paper explored historical examples that illuminate the Iranian case in particular, but also the social functions of traditions about the founding moments of particular communities.
“Defeat by another people becomes the site of reflection on loss, impermanence, and the potentialities of a history otherwise imagined. So, too, the remaining physical place of loss – whether a battlefield; a resting-place, ambushed; or a breached city wall – become eternal monuments to the brief, yet irreversible moments of defeat. Even when the victor’s conduct in war is judged acceptable, from the point of view of the loser, the cause animating his victory is rarely accepted as having been just,” Bowen Savant explained.
“Many Arabic traditions passed on by Muslim Iranians relating to, and for the three hundred years following, the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran presents an apparent counter-example to these norms. More often than not, the traditions glorify violence against Iranians and take apparent satisfaction from the Iranians’ defeat.”
Bowen Savant noted that this is largely true across accounts of the origins of Islam, whether the tradition is recalling events of Arab or Iranian descent. In this case, Bowen Savant expressed, it is especially remarkable that Iranians were beginning to convert to Islam in significant numbers at that moment in history.
“To be exact, one might expect traditionalists, with the aim of converting others, to have pursued the more common strategy of reconstructing the past to show the seamlessness of the transition to Islam, and thus, the initial, and continuing, attractions of Islam to Iranians.”
Bowen Savant also mentioned that there are significantly different situations in the contemporary Iranian context, where reconstructions of the conquests have stirred Iranians’ sympathies with pre-Islamic Iranians, rather than the Arab-Muslims, and energised Arab nationalism – as was experienced during the Iran-Iraq war.
Dr Sarah Bowen Savant is an historian of religion whose academic interests include early Islam and the Study of Religion. She received her MA from the University of Chicago in the History of Religions and her PhD from Harvard University under the Committee on the Study of Religion.
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