AKU-ISMC Assistant Professor Sarah Bowen-Savant presented a paper at the International Seminar on the Religious and Political Uses of Genealogies in Islamic Societies, held at the Universidad de Alcala, Spain, on 7 - 8 November 2008. The conference was organised by Helena de Felipe of theUniversidad de Alcalá with the assistance of Angelica Soleiman.
The Seminar involved a range of different speakers from Hungary, Japan, Tunisia, the USA and the UK, who explored matters related to the multiple uses of genealogy in Muslim societies. In traditional Arab-Muslim societies, and, to some extent contemporary ones, genealogies have played a significant role in the construction of social values.
Bowen-Savant’s paper was entitled ‘Damning the Memory of Persia’s Pre-Islamic Past, Fostering Loyalty to Islam: Genealogy and Tradition in Early Islamic Iran’. The paper examined the phenomenon of the ways in which genealogy can be used to ‘damn’ a people, with particular reference to the damning of pre-Islamic Persians.
“The terminology of damnatio memoriae is adopted in recognition of what the Roman example suggests: there are certain ways of marking a person’s name that seek either to erase or make him ignominious,” Bowen-Savant explains.
The paper examined two cases –the first is that of the Qur’anic Pharaoh who is discovered to have been from Persia, though rarely given a genealogy as proof of his ancestry. In the second case, the figure of Nebuchadnezzar – who destroyed the temple of Jerusalem – is given a Persian Kayanid genealogy.
Seminar participants reflected on matters related to the multiple uses of genealogy in Muslim societies. A first approach considers the formal aspects of genealogies – how the genealogical narrative is written down, and how oral sources are manipulated and used by genealogists. The seminar addressed ways in which this complex process can to be understood in a variety of geographical, historical and historiographical contexts.
The central topic of the seminar was the religious and political uses of genealogies. The claim for links with the Prophet’s family, although well researched, is of paramount importance. On the other hand, dynastical uses of prestigious genealogical origins linked or not to the Prophet’s descent, are frequent in Muslim history.
Through a comparative approach to the uses of genealogy by different dynasties in several periods, the seminar aimed to gain a deeper understanding of how and why genealogy has been used politically and religiously within Muslim contexts.
Over the coming year, the organisers plan to publish a volume which brings together the papers and conclusions formulated during the seminar.
Coordinator, Planning & Academic Development
Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations