Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Late Antiquity and early Islam

This NWO project, which is being be carried out in close cooperation with the universities of Oxford (contact: Prof. Robert Hoyland) and Princeton (contact: Prof. John F. Haldon) and the UMR 8167 (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS, University Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV, University Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris I and École Pratique des Hautes Études, contact: Prof. Anneliese Nef), explores the dynamic transitional period from late antiquity to early Islam in the Mediterranean basin (sixth to tenth centuries).

Petra Sijpesteijn

The disintegration of the Roman Empire in the seventh century set in train some of the most profound and long-lasting historical changes that the Mediterranean has ever witnessed. While the Frankish and Byzantine empires seem to be dutiful legatees of the Roman heritage, the Arabs, by contrast, appear to remake their Romanised territories with a culture and religion formed in the vacuum of the Arabian Peninsula, far away from the villas and cities that symbolised Roman civilisation. Severing its ties with the two other successor states thus left the Islamic empire free to follow its own, somewhat lonely itinerary. But this view is based on several fundamental misconceptions. Their diverging paths come less from intrinsic differences than from the dislocations attendant on territorial expansions and contradictions, the gradual reorganization of economic and social structures, and the interaction with subject populations.

The project

This project examines the Mediterranean basin during these four centuries as a whole, looking for common experiences, comparable historical processes and divergences. The project giving geographical and chronological limits to this collective program, three topics have been chosen that promise to yield especially fruitful results from such a comparative and large-scale approach. Each topic will be the subject of a roundtable meeting to which scholars from the above mentioned institutions will be invited to speak on a specific theme or subject from their own specialist background. The resulting publications will aim in this way to offer a full and focused approach, filling numerous lacunas in our knowledge of this period.

1. Authority and control in the countryside

The project's first topic, authority and control in the countryside, was explored during the first roundtable meeting hosted by Leiden University and organised by Prof Dr Petra M. Sijpesteijn and Marie Legendre (September 13-16, 2010).

The meeting dealed with the organization of the countryside, its connection to urban centers, and the extent of control from the ruling centre over rural areas. Particular interest was devoted to the functioning of monasteries, commercial centers and large estates, the identification of alternative centers of power and agents, and the role of economy, taxation and trade.

Click for the program.

2. Minorities: legal, cultural and economic perspectives

The project's second topic, minorities: legal, cultural and economic perspectives, was explored during the second roundtable meeting hosted by Oxford University and organised by Prof Dr Robert Hoyland and Prof Dr David Taylor from 28 to 30 September 2011.

“Minority” needn’t indicate powerlessness (e.g. Arab conquerors are a minority in terms of numbers but not lacking in power) and certain minorities are only perceived as such rather than being such in reality (e.g. Christians in early Islamic Middle East often designated a minority even though they would overall have been a majority in terms of numbers). These are the most obvious indicators of a “minority” (i.e. low numbers, powerlessness, perceived minority status). This roundtable meeting aimed at looking at the concept of minorities from the following three perspectives:

  • Minorities and the law: this subject has been much studied from the Islamic perspective, and in that sense we would like to hear more about how it worked in non-Islamic lands, as well as from the perspective of the minorities in Muslim-ruled lands, or else how it worked in contexts where there was a less clear-cut hegemonic culture or a more obviously multicultural dimension (e.g. Sicily, Spain, E. Iran/Central Asia).

  • Minorities and culture: how did minority groups manage to express their culture in the dominant cultural idiom (both for their own consumption and also, potentially, for the wider culture - ie did they manage to insert elements of their own culture into that dominant idiom such that it became consumed by all, not only by themselves) and how did the dominant cultural idiom percolate down into the minority cultural, how do we trace those influences in material culture.

  • Minorities and trade: from the later medieval period we have many information about the role that Jews and members of Italian and Crusader city states played in trade, but is there evidence for links between minority groups and trade or manufacture before that? Further east we have the example of Sogdian merchants, whose role in overland trade through Iran and Central Asia has been ably illuminated by Etienne de la Vaissière - but is there any equivalent for the West?

Click for the program.

3. Legitimacy and legitimization of political authority, 6th-10th century

The third and last meeting of this project, to be held in Paris from the 10th to the 12th of September 2012, will look into “Legitimacy and legitimization of political authority 6th-10th century”.

The characteristics of political legitimization and legitimacy in different political systems are a major theme of investigation. What were the instruments of political legitimization and the terminology of political legitimacy? How was political authority itself thought and presented, as well as the means for submitting to it or serving it? These interrogations require to question, and perhaps renew our categories of analysis as much as they demand a better evaluation of the role social sciences could play in this analysis.

It is generally admitted that ancient societies granted an important role to religion in the process of political legitimization, such a conception is increasingly revised but it raises some interrogations: is monotheism still specific in any way from that point of view? What about the relations between men of religion and the sphere of politics, and the structuration of these two fields of competence?

If the construction of political legitimacy has been especially tackled in order to investigate the emergence of what appeared as a new political authority, such as the Islamic caliphate, one can also investigate the period before the coming of Islam. Can we call into question the definition of late-antique political authorities in the light of the 7th century events? Did their evolution favor the birth of new ones? Is the birth of Islam the cause and consequence of major changes from that point of view? Do continuities predominate or are existing elements reinterpreted? What about discontinuities? Beyond this initial period, how does the continuous process of legitimization evolve and how does the Islamic empire develop in this respect?

A large number of sources allow us to address these themes (texts, numismatics, seals, palatial spaces, representations or symbols of authority…), each one opening to specific methodological interrogations. Scales of investigations are also diverse, from central authority to provincial or even local ones. This last point opens to the question of dynamics between political centrality and regions considered as remote or marginal.

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