Topics in Islamic History (HIST*4820)
Code and section: HIST*4820*01
Term: Fall 2015
Instructor: R. Worringer
This course explores the historiographical complexities involved in studying that segment of the “Orient” known as the Eastern Mediterranean, and its Islamic heritage. Emerging out of a peculiar set of circumstances in which the pioneers of Islamic history in the West were typically biblical and religious specialists with knowledge of the “dead” languages of Eastern literatures, these scholars of the Middle East who explored Islamic culture and civilization in earlier centuries shaped the field in dramatic ways. Their influence can still be felt in today’s often exoticized, objectified Western views of the region and its inhabitants. What factors affected their views of the Middle East, of Islam, and of Muslim peoples? What is “Orientalism” in its various manifestations as defined by Edward Said and others? How does this phenomenon continue to influence academic paradigms and Western pop culture images of the Islamic world today? Does Orientalism play a role in other fields of non-Western history (i.e. South Asian, Southeast Asian, or East Asian Studies)?
We explore Western images of an erotic East frozen in time: from the medieval to early modern European condemnation of Muhammad the Prophet as a manipulative idolator preaching a religion merely to satisfy personal desires, to the sensual, lascivious harem of the stereotypical Muslim tyrant – the Ottoman Sultan, his brutality towards women, and his overindulgences in wine and young slave boys. Machiavelli’s political model, informed by the image of the so-called “Grand Turk,” was given momentum by 16th century Venetian ambassadorial reports to the Senate and Doge concerning the goings-on in the Ottoman palace among members of the ruling elite; this became Montesquieu’s “Oriental despot” that 20th century Marxists would later expand upon in order to explain the Asiatic mode of production – their explanation for the particular type of non-capitalist, socio-economic underdevelopment that constrained the Middle East. These images often clouded historical realities. They have proved difficult to surmount in the present political climate where Hollywood movies and non-neutral news media continue to capitalize on or else perpetuate among people in the West a state of ignorance of and fear towards Islam as an unyielding religion and towards Muslims in general as fanatic terrorists bent on jihad.
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