Christine Baker on Historical Understandings of Sect and Sectarianism in Islam

Emerging Scholarship is a series showcasing the research and interests of new voices emerging from academia that focus on the social worlds, histories, and traveling cultures of Central and West Asia.

Christine Baker received her PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin (2013). She is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on Islamic history, specifically the history of sectarian development in Islam. She serves as the book review editor for the Middle East Medievalists.

Her current book project, “Before Islamic Sectarianism” demonstrates the diversity and fluidity of medieval Islamic identity and challenges the notion of rigid sectarian conflict in the medieval Islamic world. We spoke with Christine Baker at the Middle Eastern Studies Association conference in Washington, D.C., in November 2014.

1) AjamMC: Welcome to another installment of Emerging Scholarship here at Ajam Media Collective. I’m happy to say that joining us today is Dr. Christine Baker. Christine, I’d like to begin by asking you to elaborate on what you have described to be the dominant narrative of sectarianism in Islam.

CB: When I say a “dominant narrative” of sectarianism in Islam, what I mean is that we have a tendency — when there is anything going on in the Middle East today that involves Sunnis and Shi’is — to always want to trace it back to the origins of Islam. We always want to go back to ‘the event’ which occurred in the seventh century when the prophet Mohammed passed away, and there was debate over who should lead the Muslim community. This is the event to which Sunnis and Shi’is trace the difference between their sects; back to this core event.

However, when we always go back to this event we forget that it took centuries for different forms of Islamic identity to develop. You cannot talk about conflicts in the Middle East today — Shi’is in Iraq, the development of ISIS, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah [etc.] — and draw some kind of straight line back to the seventh century and say “Aha! That explains what’s happening now.” It does not mean that there is no relevance, but it’s [more] complicated. These [sectarian differences] are things that developed over time.

2) AjamMC: I’m happy that you referred to some of the contemporary political entanglements in the region, because that is a perfect segue to my second question. Which [regards] the value of this dominant narrative. In other words, the work that it does. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what this work is. If only to explain why it is dominant.

CB: Yeah, I think that to a large degree this narrative of sectarian conflict — going back 1400 years to the lifetime of the death of the prophet Mohammed — it serves a political purpose. [In] that it allows us to see the Middle East as riddled with conflict, [and that] it has always been like that so perhaps we can ignore the role of Western foreign policy in some of these conflicts.

In addition to serving [this] political purpose, I also think that ideas such as the development of different kinds of religious identities are complicated, and often in the media…they’re looking for simplistic explanations. So “Sunnis” and “Shi’is” are coming up, and they want to say well “who are Sunnis and Shi’is?; Oh, well they arose because of this thing that happened in the seventh century”. Which, again, is true but … it does not necessarily help us understand the nature of what is happening today.

I actually study the Medieval articulation of different forms of Shi’i identity. And I do that through the lens of … these two Medieval Shi’i states that both rose to power in the tenth century. One is called the Fatimid Caliphate of North Africa, and the other is the Buyid Emirate of Iraq and Iran.

3) AjamMC: Well now that’s really interesting, and would you be able to elaborate on precisely who these political actors were. What were these two states? … What was the significance, if any, of the fact that they happened to coincide? And, if I am not mistaken you actually referred to the tenth century … as the “Shi’i Century.”

CB: Exactly!

AjamMC: So could you elaborate on these two states, and their implications for this “sectarian lens” by which we understand Islamic history today?

CB: So, you’re completely right: scholars often refer to the tenth century as “the Shi’i Century” … because it was during this period that these two Shi’i states rose to power and came to dominate most of the Middle East. The Fatimids rose to power in North Africa in the very beginning of the tenth century. They declared a ‘Caliphate’ in Kairouan in 909 CE, but they arose out of an underground Shi’i missionary movement that was active across the Middle East: in Syria, in Iran, in southern Iraq, in Yemen, and in North Africa. Eventually, the Fatimids go on to conquer Egypt, conquer most of Syria, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. And they’re actually the dynasty that founds the city of Cairo. They were an Ismaili Shi’i dynasty and they were in power from 909CE to 1171CE.

The Buyids rose to power in almost the exact same time — which I have always found to be really fascinating — the Buyids were a Persian kin group from an area just south of the Caspian Sea: so that is the mountains of Northern Iran. They were converted to Islam by Zaidi missionaries, in probably the late 9th Century … The Buyids and other groups in the region had acted as missionaries for lots of different small states in Iran. By 945 CE [they] were powerful enough that they had conquered large portions of Iran, and then also conquered the city of Baghdad, which was the capital of a Sunni Abbasid Caliphate there. And it was very interesting, because … despite the fact that they were Shi’i  and they ruled Baghdad, they maintained the position of the Sunni Abbasid Caliph while they were in power. And they were in power for more than a hundred years: they ruled over Baghdad until 1055 CE. …

These two dynasties … do a lot of the work of articulating different forms of Shi’i identity in the Medieval Period … These two states sponsor different kinds of ritual, and intellectual scholarship that help lead to the articulation of, you know, what it means to be an “Isma’ili Shi’i” versus a “Twelver Shi’i.”

AjamMC: So they consolidated these sectarian identities.

CB: Exactly, and it was the competition between these two different Shi’i states that helps lead to the consolidation of different sectarian identities. And one of the things that is actually really interesting about these two states is that they both rose to power due to the efforts of non-Sunni missionaries on … the peripheries of the Islamic world.

4) AjamMC: Speaking of non-Sunni missionaries, in our conversations prior to this recording it struck me when you elaborated this, because frankly I’m not very knowledgeable of this history. So perhaps you can elaborate on the role of these non-Sunni movements: specifically, their role in what you describe to be “conversion” and “Islamicization”?

CB: Sure. So, we think that the Middle East became predominantly Muslim in about the 10th Century, but we don’t have a tremendous amount of information about how that process occurred. And one of the things that I noticed when I was studying the Fatimids and the Buyids, is that both of these Shi’i states came to power out of non-Sunni missionary movement in sort of these peripheral areas.

AjamMC: Now were these movements Shi’i as well?

CB: They were Shi’i of different types, yes, and [there] were also movements that you might call “proto-Shi’i” … missionaries who revered the family of the prophet Mohammed.

When I say that the non-Sunni movements had a really important role in the conversion and the Islamicization of the Middle East, I mean that there were large regions of the Middle East that either were not yet converted (by the early 10th Century) or were only nominally converted. So, for example in North Africa, many of the Berber tribes were considered to have become Muslims in the 7th Century Islamic conquests — when they accepted the political dominance of Islam — but there was not necessarily a mechanism for teaching these people about what it meant to be a Muslim, how do you practice Islam. One of the things that I found is that you have missionaries — predominantly Shi’i missionaries, many of them were Isma’ili, but also Zaidi missionaries — traveling into these peripheral areas such as North Africa, Yemen, the mountains of Northern Iran; areas where the central Islamic state (the Abbasids) didn’t have as much political control. And often times they’re traveling there to get away from persecution from the central Islamic state, but a side-effect of this is that they’re also using their knowledge and expertise to teach the people there about Islam … they’re teaching the people about what it means to be a Muslim. And in areas such as … the Caspian region of Iran, this region was not yet converted. So they played a part in the conversion of these territories to Islam.

5) AjamMC: So this was sectarian religious identity forming, in effect, on the margins of this state apparatus; or if not “on the margins,” not directly at their behest.

CB: Yes. And what I find interesting is that the question of whether or not it was sectarian — whether or not is was “Orthodox” or Heterodox” — was not significant! For example, the people who lived in these regions wanted more information about Islam, [but] there wasn’t a mechanism to get them that information. So … there is a story from one of my sources about a Berber group from North Africa who travel to Mecca (to go on Haj), but in addition they’re looking for a teacher. They want someone to come back to their village, which is somewhere [that is] several days journey from a major city, it’s not a place where there is a school, it’s not a place where they maybe even have a mosque yet. And they want a teacher to come back and teach them about Islam … and they say, when they meet this [Shi’i] missionary in Mecca, what they tell him is [that] they want someone to come with them to teach their elders about Islam. They don’t need a teacher for their children, they need a teacher for their elders.

And for people like this I don’t think that they were predominantly concerned with questions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. They want someone who knows the Quran, who can tell them stories about the prophet and his family, about how to practice, about what holidays to celebrate and how to do that. They’re not overly concerned with these elite debates about what is orthodox or heterodox Islam.

6) AjamMC: That’s remarkable. So we’re discussing a particular time period here (the 10th Century) … you’re elaborating on the manner in which knowledge of this religion was circulating, and the processes by means of which people were beginning to identify. So here’s a question: why is it that we continue to look at this period of time through a sectarian lens when clearly sectarianism was not … on the minds of so many people. Or rather, to put it differently, the “ism” of sectarianism was not so politically heated and not cause for national politics?

CB: As a Medievalist I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the term of “national politics” in the 9th and 10th Centuries. But I totally understand what you’re saying. I think that part of [the problem] is an issue of sources. For the 10th Century we don’t have a tremendous number of sources, and so traditionally when people study the 10th they will use sources from the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries to augment the contemporary 10th Century sources. One of the things that I noticed that was really interesting — when I was studying these two states, the Fatimids and the Buyids — was that people who are writing during the 10th Century did not seem particularly with the sectarian identity of these states. Yeah, they were aware that they [these states] were Shi’i. And there were times, especially in really early Fatimid history where they emphasize their Shi’i identity much more. But then, as they make the transition from a missionary movement to an actual medieval state, they start to emphasize the sectarian identity less. In Shi’i accounts [and] in Sunni accounts of these states, they’re not [very] concerned with the fact they’re being ruled by Shi’is…

And what I realized [while] using sources from the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, those are the sources that recast the 10th Century [in terms of] a sectarian narrative; because after the end of “the Shi’i Century” you have the rise of an emirate called the Seljuks. They are a Sunni emirate. They take over Baghdad, and they say that they are “saving the Sunni Abbasid Caliph from the Shi’is.”

And this is also when you have the development of institutions to spread Sunni Islam, schools that spread throughout the Middle East specifically to teach about Sunni Islam. So [when] these sources write about the 10th Century, they present it as a sectarian narrative: as a period of incredible conflict between Sunnis and Shi’i, “when Shi’is ruled over Sunnis, and it was terrible!”

But that’s not the voice you’re getting from those actual 10th Century sources. What you’re getting [from them] is a picture of a Medieval Islamic world where Islamic identity was incredibly diverse, and that was OK.


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