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Islam and history

Understanding the history of Islam and Muslim societies sheds a clear light on the complex and changing social structures of the Middle East, including the current trouble spots whose effect spreads all the way to Western Europe.

Formal and informal sources

What did it mean to be a Muslim in various historical periods? How were Muslim societies organised and how did people interact? And what does this mean for modern-day Muslim societies? Petra Sijpesteijn, Professor of Arabic Language and Culture, studies both official texts and ‘informal’ sources to try to find the answers to these questions.

Pilgrimage letter

Een van de oudste Koranfragmenten van de Universiteit Leiden
One of the oldest Quran fragments
found in the Leiden University collection

Unlike legal, scientific and literary texts, informal sources such as excavated household goods, ship’s documents, petitions and love letters were not intended to be kept. When they resurface centuries later, they can tell us a lot about how social relations have evolved over time. One example is the letter that an Egyptian wrote on papyrus to a friend around the year 700, approximately 70 years after the death of Mohammed. In free translation, it says: ‘Come on, join me for a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Caliph called us to go and I think it’s important. Oh, and by the way: can you arrange the camels?’ This letter provides important information about the early days of Islam; it is a first piece of evidence that the hajj was already a duty for Muslims at the time and it teaches us about the practical matters and concerns that accompanied the hajj.

Religious freedom

Papyruses – the e-mails of the time – show that Muslims and non-Muslims lived in peace for long periods of time. They were each other’s neighbours, business partners and friends, and they sometimes inter-married. Contrary to what is often suggested today, Islam was not imposed with fire and sword during the expansion of the Arab Empire. ‘A lot changed in the Middle East as a result of the arrival of the Arabs. They introduced their language and new rules of law. But this did not mean that everyone had to become a Muslim,’ emphasises Sijpesteijn. In the Middle Ages there was more freedom for religious minorities in the Middle East than in Europe.

Islam comes in many forms

Historical research on Islam makes it clear that the last 1500 years have witnessed countless variations on lived Islam. For Petra Sijpesteijn this is a very important fact. ‘There is no such thing as ‘the Muslims’ or ‘a single Islam’. It is precisely the pluriformity and the human changeability of Muslim societies that I want to emphasise in my research. In this way I hope to contribute to reducing the fixation on religion in the current tensions in the Middle East and in Western Europe. It would be much more useful to focus on the many factors that may be at the root of problems in the here and now, because ultimately that is where the solutions can be found.’