Isis and the Middle Ages

A fellow Georgia medievalist and Dartmouth grad, Allen Fromherz of Georgia State, wrote an article for the American Interest last month on “Isis vs. History.” The whole thing is worth a read, but keep in mind that it will be your “one free article” at AI for the month.

ISIS vs. History

What the rise and fall of a 12th-century Islamic empire does (and doesn’t) tell us about the rise (and fall?) of ISIS.

For many good reasons, professional historians mightily resist comparisons between recent events and the distant past. Our training teaches us to respect the principles of the 19th-century founder of source-based history, Leopold von Ranke, who professionalized the discipline to focus as much as possible on the past as it was. History, he believed, should be written for its own sake, not treated as a ghost of itself in service of the present, nor strip-mined for jewels of supposed relevance to current objectives or concerns.

We do not always succeed in this, but at our best we try to avoid the facile and misleading uses of history that non-historians all too readily deploy in the service of some other goal than good scholarship. Case in point: Not long ago, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina claimed that her bachelor’s degree in medieval history would help her “defeat ISIS”: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages.”

Fiorina’s comments set off a rare storm of comment in the relevant halls of the academy. Not one medievalist, or any historian for that matter, supports her contention that the medieval past is particularly well described or defined by its level of violence. Most these days would argue that the concept of the “medieval past” is little more than an artificial punctuation to separate the period between the fall of Rome from the 15th century age of discovery and the subsequent rise of modern nation-states.

A similar negative reaction attended a March 2015 Atlantic article by Graeme Wood, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The article similarly mooted a form of ISIS “medievalism.” That was enough to set the small and eclectic but wonderful world of medievalist social media atwitter in righteous indignation.

The main problem with these comparisons, as Stephen John Stedman recently noted, is the lack of any careful or precisely drawn context for making them. The result is the all too easy use of wildly inaccurate stereotypes about particular past periods. In this case, the stereotype is that “everything in the Medieval past, especially medieval Islam, was brutal and violent.” But far from being an age of brutality, the “medieval period” of Islamic history was defined by its relative tolerance. One of the greatest of cities in 10th-century Europe was Muslim Córdoba. Astonished Christian visitors such as the itinerant German nun Hrostsvita of Gandersheim recognized Córdoba as an “Ornament of the World.” Its shine came from the fact that Córdoba had street lamps that glowed at night, reflecting the running water of fountains and the light of knowledge and science from a library that rivaled ancient Alexandria. Although lower in status under Islamic law, minorities were not only protected in Islamic cities like Córdoba but often ascended to positions of great influence, such as the Jewish leader, scholar, poet, and physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who served as de facto minister of foreign affairs for the blue-eyed Caliph of Córdoba, ‘Abd al Rahman III (the Umayyad Caliphs often intermarried with Gothic, Christian royal families in the north of Spain).

More at the link.