Medieval History and Policy Makers: Or, What Use *Is* a Medieval History Degree?

It’s been about two weeks since #MedievalFiorina was a thing, and I’ve been devoting some time every other day to figuring out how medieval historians can actually advise policy makers (a question to which I can actually bring some first-hand perspective, if not bonafide experience) . It’s a three-part effort, so I’m splitting it into different posts, and will put them up as I finish them. Here’s part 1.

Part 1 Islam, Dae’sh, and History

Three thoughts crossed my mind when I read that Carly Fiorina said she could handle ISIS because her bachelor’s degree was in medieval history. One, it’s good to hear that someone besides fellow historians believes that medieval history is actually worth something in this world. Two, oops, the wrong candidate from the wrong party just endorsed medieval history. This should be interesting. Third, yeah, she’s playing to the base, or at least to the audience that she thinks will respond to conceiving of our enemies as caricatures from a barbaric past (she was more satirical about medieval history’s public potential last year).

Predictably, there’s been a brief debate over Fiorina’s assertion since the story was run by ABC News. I say “brief” because there really isn’t much of a story here, and there are really only three columns worth reading—David Perry’s in The Guardian, Bruce Holsinger’s in The New York Times, and Andrew Holt’s on his blog. The rest, such as at or, aren’t worth your time (but since the links are there, I bet you click on them now…). Twitter naturally exploded for about five minutes, and provided the kind of brief entertainment at which it excels (honestly, the satire was clever, and made me chuckle).

However, instead of doing what everyone else did (basically emulating Jon Stewart and failing miserably…there’s only one), I’d like to seriously take up the bigger question, which is what policy makers could actually learn from medieval history, and how historians could actually advise policy makers. After all, that’s the big question that continues to haunt the historical profession particularly—it is debatable whether history even “has a future,” though I think most commentators (including both Little’s and Zaretsky’s columns in that hyperlink) get it no more than half right.

It’s also a question that isn’t answered easily, and I agree with Andrew that David (and Bruce for that matter) doesn’t actually engage with it very well, in the end. That’s mostly, though, because it is a very difficult question to address, and often the most we can do is follow in Patrick Geary’s footsteps, his The Myth of Nations being the greatest example of how modern claims on the Middle Ages are often thinly-veiled masks for presentist political agendas.

Be that as it may, washing our hands of current claims on our subject won’t work, in good part because our value usually derives from society’s belief that we have something to tell them. If we have nothing to say publicly except “get away from my subject,” we doom ourselves to irrelevancy. To draw on my (otherwise great) West Point experience, this gets worse the closer to government one is, so that your teaching can easily become a “lesson book”, rather than humanistic inquiry (some civilian instructors actually were worse about this than some officers). West Point faculty actually do value the humanities, but in general the pressure remains high to justify your existence in terms of outcomes. Eventually I just gave up and told my cadets that the humanistic study of history would sharpen their minds and make them better people, and they’d be better officers automatically because of that. That was also the year I got my highest teaching evaluations ever.

I still believe adamantly in that approach in a liberal arts college setting, which is what West Point is, at least on what was my side of the house. But it ducks the issue, which still remains: what possible value can I add to the policy side of things? Both personally, at the annual convention of the Society for Military History, and anecdotally, e.g. from a historian friend who was the sore thumb in a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan, I’ve observed that while historians and policy makers can be friends and are both fascinated by history, they have fundamentally different reasons for studying it. The basic historical lesson of warfare, we would often joke at West Point, was that war is hard. And the cadet who wrote that in his or her final exams should be promoted straight to general.

All well and good, because that helps condition your mind, which as Clausewitz says is crucial preparation for war (and government); but it is still at one remove from the act of will that translates mind into matter. It is of no immediate help to making policy decisions. As I told my cadets on many occasions, “I’m a historian, I can shrug and say ‘it’s complicated.’ You actually have to make decisions, and that’s a different kind of situation entirely.” And it requires a different kind of study, a different focus, and above all a different outcome from your study. And that’s simply for military history, that doesn’t even touch the Middle Ages.

But defense and policy studies reference the Middle Ages more than you would think, and if you read articles that discuss the medieval’s relationship to the modern, Fiorina’s remarks seem very mundane. To return to the Fiorina Case, then, the proposition therein is that because ISIS claims to be medieval they are medieval, because they act in medieval ways, and therefore if you know the Middle Ages you will have some insight into how to fight them. Really, it’s the relevance of history that’s on trial here, and that’s what I want to examine. In this post I want to give some thoughts on ISIS (Dae’sh) as medieval actor, while in subsequent posts I will look at some data of how pre-modern history in general is used in policy, before finally giving some thoughts as to how I as a medieval historian could give relevant advice to policy makers that goes beyond quoting The Princesss Bride.

To borrow a useful military phrase, here’s the BLUF (bottom line up front):

  1. ISIS is, in fact, considerably medieval, but a) so are the moderate voices, b) so what, Islam was just as contested in the classical period, and c) the Western historical method is in fact one of our greatest strengths in the current ideological war against ISIS.
  2. Fiorina’s remarks weren’t actually the theater of the absurd: she has a point. And removing ourselves from this debate simply makes historians as irrelevant as many claim we already are.
  3. Medieval history should, in fact, be required reading for policy makers in this age of multi-polar power structures, as well as the mélange of state, non-state, and hybrid actors. It also assists in understanding the interplay of economics, religion, and political identity outside of our 19th-century nationalist perspective in ways that no other discipline or field can quite replicate.

Let’s start with ISIS (Dae’sh). There are two camps as to what ISIS is: one is Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” and the other is John Terry’s “Why ISIS Isn’t Medieval.” For some of my friends, Terry’s article is the last word (though it doesn’t actually say much about historical Islam); for others, Wood’s remains spot on (though, as Cole correctly argues, to claim as Wood does that ISIS is “Very Islamic” is to make a “theological, not sociological” observation). Other pundits and historians have made their cases over the last eighteen months, on both sides—Kevin McDonald, “Islamic State’s ‘medieval’ ideology owes a lot to revolutionary France,” Norman Housley, “There is nothing ‘medieval’ about Islamic State atrocities—they’re just brutal and cruel,” and  Amir Ahmad Nasr, “ISIS isnt’ the real enemy. The ‘Game of Thrones’ medieval mindset that birthed it is.” Clearly, there is disagreement on this issue.

So what about ISIS is “medieval”? Actually quite a bit, as Nasr argues above, and Çevik argues below. Crucifixion, in the common sense of hanging a body, dead or otherwise, was a common punishment in the Roman, Persian, and early Islamic empires (Holsinger is wrong to confine it to Rome—see Andrew Marsham’s article in “Further Reading” below). Then there is the group’s interpretation of how to treat non-Muslim dhimmi, which to many conservative commentators seems very medieval. Scholars such as Bosworth argue forcefully that dhimmi were “never anything but second-class citizens in the Islamic social system,” however vague the Qur’an’s strictures on them were.  And the fact of the matter is that for dhimmi communities there really was nowhere else to go but down. On the other hand, Malik’s Muwatta’ 17:46 suggests that the jizya burden wasn’t in practice much heavier than zakat on Muslims, as Amira K. Bennison discusses in The Great Caliphs, p. 122-3. The difference was, the zakat was meant for improvements, while the jizya was meant to “humble” the people of the Book.

And of course there is jihad, which calls to mind all kinds of medieval images. It is certainly a fraught concept, and al-jihad al-asghar (lesser jihad) seems, in fact, to have been a component of the early conquests. Even Cook, however, admits that the famous “Verse of the Sword” (sura 9:5) was restricted by the early jurists to pagan Arabs, in contrast to later generations’ more expansive interpretations. This later jurisprudence occurred particularly after the Abbasids took power in 750, and Carole Hillenbrand’s magisterial The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives gives a useful overview of this development. For example, Al-Shafi’i (d. 820), in the Risala, says, “The jihad, and rising up in arms in particular, is obligatory for all able-bodied (believers), exempting no one, just as prayer, pilgrimage and (payment of alms are performed…”(Hillenbrand, p.97). In two of the most famous collections of hadith, a-Bukhari’s (d. 870) and at-Tirmidhi’s (completed in 884), those volumes devoted to jihad record sayings that mostly don’t refer to al-jihad al-akbar (greater jihad), but clearly refer to warfare, as do most early references to the term (Lewis, pp.29-30). To say then that, from its earliest beginnings to its pinnacle, Islam did not have some kind of endorsement of violence on behalf of faith is rather disingenuous.

Yet it remains quite a leap to go from that to ISIS; “[b]ecause holy war is an oblig1899-43076ation of the faith,” says Lewis, “it is elaborately regulated in the shari’a.” These regulations unequivocally delegitimize ISIS tactics. So, whether or not Islam is a “religion of peace” (and several Catholic commentators have recently argued that it is not) is a different point entirely (and their claims generally betray a shallow reading of Islamic texts that they would never accept for the Bible or the Patristics). Islam emerged in completely different socio-political circumstances than Christianity, and in fact had to grapple with extraordinarily difficult questions about creating and regulating society at a far earlier age than Christianity. It engaged the world, and was from the beginning a much more total system than Christianity’s rejection of the world [edit: yes, a sloppy turn of phrase; think of it as Chadwick phrased it, in the sense of counter-culture]. It was also hardly unique in using or endorsing violence, as Robert Hoyland’s outstanding book In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, argues (p. 64).  Unlike Christianity, Islam did not have the luxury of existing for a couple hundred years as a persecuted sect in a large empire, and those passages in the Qur’an that sanction violence (whether defensive or offensive, depending on your ideological perspective) are ultimately no more remarkable than the growth of the cult of St. George in the 600s, or Theophanes’ account of Byzantine “holy war” against the Persians. Islam, in a sense, was always in the world, and had to address problems of war and conquest. Simply recognizing these facts, as Jonathan A. C. Brown argues in Misquoting Muhammad (pp. 5-7), should go a long way to reminding us that Islamic history is complex.

In short, you can rightly condemn ISIS teachings on jihad and dhimma, but don’t pretend that they are simply drawing their interpretations out of thin air: they’re not. And this is where Terry’s article “Why ISIS Isn’t Medieval” is very wide of the mark: the appeal of ISIS partly rests in its simplifying and distorting, not in creating wholesale. The myth of a unified golden age is a very medieval, even ancient, technique. In this sense, ISIS is rather medieval, if by that you mean insisting on an ideologically unified past as Abbasid-era jurists often did. (For surveys of the Abbasid “revolution” as it is often called, see these links: review essay 1997, Agha 2003.)

Lot4187 Islamic Coins Umayyad Kharijite Rebels, Anon Silver Dirham al-Kufa

Actually, the Abbasids aren’t a good example, because there is an earlier group in Islamic history that ISIS bears a closer resemblance to. Neslihan Çevik, writing in January 2015, argues that

ISIS bears the closest resemblance to, in fact it looks like a carbon copy, of the Kharijites of the seventh century, especially its radical branch, the Azraqites, followers of Nafi al-Azraq. Azraqites were the first in Islamic history to terrorize the populace with horrendous, violent acts and were the first to make a distinction between true Muslims versus nominal Muslims. That they were the first “terrorists” of Islam and the first to make such a distinction is not at all a coincidence as the latter induced the former.

Needless to say, Azraqites considered themselves the only true believers within the entire Muslim world of the time…

Now, I’ll leave the aptness of this comparison to the experts. But, running with it for a moment, this is precisely, I would argue, where historians have an opening, and almost an obligation, to step in and do battle on the page, because, again as Çevik argues, “[t]here is, however, one simple fact that linear logic misses – something belonging to the past does not make that thing authentic or true.” The issue is not whether or not ISIS is medieval: the issue is demonstrating to curious and idealistic Muslim youth that being “medieval” doesn’t guarantee “authenticity,” because that authenticity was itself manufactured several times over between the 7th and 9th centuries, and because the Kharijites did not speak for all Muslims (though the movement was widespread: see Gaiser 2010 and especially Gaiser 2009 for recent studies with historiography). Simply insisting that there is no medieval ISIS connection hasn’t been persuasive so far, and is actually bad history. But it is also bad history, I would submit, to simply say, as some do, that, hey, violence is in the Quran, therefore the case is closed. Doesn’t that amount to an abjuration of the historical method, treating Islamic texts with a lack of critical analysis such as we wouldn’t accept from our students? Recognizing that what we’re really uncovering here are debates and conflicts within the early Muslim communities and empires should, as Çevik argues, actually be a source of strength, not of weakness (see Kalin 2005 for analysis of both kinds of mistakes).

I have long wondered if the great issue for Islam as a global religion is its relationship to its own history. Debates over whether Islam is a “religion of peace,” which is what a lot of the “what is ISIS” debates really are, illustrate the emotional and logical complexities of the situation: for example, Tariq Ramadan and Christopher Hitchens’ 2010 debate, linked to above and here, contains many good points on both sides (it’s a surprisingly restrained encounter). Also of interest is the Intelligence Squared debate of 2010 (much less restrained), in which a panel composed of Zeba Khan, Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Doulas Murray debated many of the same issues. Historians, even non-specialists such as myself, need to be involved in this, not because Dae’sh has no connection to the first two centuries of Islam, but because their connection is a tenuous and extremist one. Denying a connection actually closes down debate and rings false because it denies what is manifestly true: the first Arab empire was driven ideologically, contextualize it though we may. But nor should historians, especially non-specialists such as myself, read Islamic texts simply in order to sharpen our historical axes. Not only is that bad history, it cuts the ground from under the many moderate Muslims who are waging jihad against ISIS and extremism to make a better world.

In other words, history in general, and medieval history in particular, must speak to policy and current affairs. To that extent, Fiorina’s remarks make some sense.

To be continued…

[Note: updated with a few more links and clarifying sentences, 1830 hrs, Oct 19]

Leave a Reply