Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Embedding Conquest: Naturalising Muslim Rule in the Early Islamic Empire (600-1000)

What made the early Islamic empire so successful and have we missed the story by neglecting crucial evidence? The 7th-century Arab conquests changed the socio-political configurations in the Mediterranean and Eurasia forever. Yet we do not really know how the Arabs managed to gain dominance of this vast, ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse area which had its own, long imperial traditions, and to make this a sustainable enterprise. What built the empire, and what held it together?

Duration
2017  -   2021
Contact
Petra Sijpesteijn
Funding
ERC Consolidator Grant ERC Consolidator Grant

Scholarship to date has overwhelmingly relied on ‘literary’ sources in Arabic (e.g. chronicles, legal treatises, theological tracts), composed centuries after the conquests and shaped by court politics at their time of writing. This has created a false impression of the embedding of Muslim rule as a top-down process, directed from the centre, built on military coercion and control through administrative systems. Now, however, ‘documentary’ sources in multiple languages on papyrus, leather and paper from all over the empire (e.g. letters, contracts, fiscal accounts, petitions, decrees, work permits) are becoming increasingly available. These sources, whose impact has been limited by linguistic and disciplinary boundaries, offer a direct, contemporary view of how the empire worked on the ground, and how political and social structures were experienced, modified and appropriated by its subjects.

This project will uniquely incorporate all available documents reflecting Muslim rule from the first 400 years of Islam, to reconstruct the system of social relations that enabled the crucial transition from a conquest society to a political organism that survived the breakdown of central caliphal control, and remains the region’s benchmark model today. It will critically advance our understanding of a world historical event, make a radically new contribution to empire studies, and connect and synergise area studies and disciplinary inquiry.

Documentary sources

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Local elites

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Administration

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Empire studies

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The projects on empire studies listed below are related to the Embedded Conquest project.

"Persia and Babylonia: Creating a New Context for Understanding the Emergence of the First World Empire"

The Persian Empire (539-330 BCE) was the first world empire in history. At its height, it united a territory stretching from present-day India to Libya - and it would take 2,000 years before significantly larger empires emerged in early modern Eurasia. What explains its success? How did the Persians manage to keep their empire together, while earlier states had collapsed? The PERSIA AND BABYLONIA project will introduce a vast new data set and a novel approach in order to answer these questions.

More information can be found on the project's website.

"Turks, texts and territory: Imperial ideology and cultural production in Central Eurasia"

The eleventh century marked the emergence of the originally nomadic Turks as a new political elite in the history of Central Asia and the Middle East. Under their powerful patronage a new political culture arose in the Islamic world, inspired by an imperial rather than an exclusively Islamic outlook. This shift brought Persian into the limelight as a new cosmopolitan and imperial language across Central Asia, North India, Turkey and Iran. Until a few decades ago, the received view was that the Turks, as nomadic rulers with a military background, needed Iranian bureaucrats to effectuate their rule over sedentary societies, and hence sedentarized themselves and adopted Persian culture in a one-way acculturation process. Though this view has been challenged in recent years, the idea of a dichotomy between the nomadic, uncivilised Turk, representing the "sword", and the sedentary, civilised Iranian, representing the "pen", persists in academic debate. Turks, texts and territory aims to further challenge this binary view by bringing in the vast but understudied resource of cultural production, approached as an integrated phenomenon, across media, languages and genres.

The spatial framework will be provided by five representative Silk Road cities, situated at present in different nation states: Kashgar, Samarkand, Ghazna, Tabriz and Konya. As capitals and nodal points of five medieval Turko-Persian empires, each of these cities represents a particular stage in the development of imperial ideology and its expression by means of literary and artistic production, as preserved in various examples of cultural heritage, cherished today as symbols of national identity. The aim of this project is to map the interaction between imperial ideology and literary and artistic production in a diachronic and synchronic perspective and to contextualize policies of heritage in the modern nation states which emerged from the premodern Turko-Persian world.

More information can be found on the project's website.

"Mobility, Empire and Cross Cultural Contacts in Mongol Eurasia"

The project seeks to explain why, how, when and to where people, ideas and artifacts moved in Mongol Eurasia, and what were the outcomes of these huge movements. Studying the Mongol Empire in its full Eurasian context, the project combines a world history perspective with close reading in a huge array of primary sources in various languages (mainly Persian, Arabic and Chinese) and different historiographical traditions, and classifies the acquired information into a sophisticated prosopographical database, which records the individuals acting under Mongol rule in the 13th and 14th centuries. On the basis of this unique corpus, the project maps and analyzes mobility patterns, and the far-reaching effects that this mobility generated.

More information can be found on the project's website.

For more information, please contact emco@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

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