Course: Arab-Islamic History: From Tribes to Empires
Length: 9 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
Instructor: Miri Shefer-Mossensohn
You and I are about to embark on a journey through 1,000 years of history. This is a pre-modern case of global history, spanning three continents and the lives of millions. We’ll visit some of the sites where historical events occurred. We’ll learn about regimes; we’ll learn about people– men, women, children, who walked the streets of the Middle East. We’ll be accompanied by some of the best scholars of the pre-modern Middle East– colleagues from Tel Aviv University and from other institutions here in Israel, the US, and the UK. You’ll have ample opportunities to enter the historian’s lab and have hands-on experience in playing the historical detective yourself by reading excerpts from historical works and looking at paintings, artifacts, and buildings. These will allow us to piece together a picture of the past– the stories of individuals, their lifestyles, their common perceptions, their customs, and allow us, eventually, to explain the profound changes in political organization, in social interaction, and in religious affiliation.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken several courses touching briefly on the history of various pieces of the medieval Muslim empire. This one was a lot more focused and a bit more extensive, and I finally feel like I’m beginning to get it. I still have trouble keeping all the threads straight, since a lot was going on in a lot of places – the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, Iran, central Asia, north Africa, Iberia – among a lot of people – Arabs, Samanids, Buyhids, Fatimids, Andalusians, Seljuks, Berbers, Mamluks, Sassanids, Persians, Mongols – and much of it overlaps as groups assimilate, migrate, conquer, or get conquered. But I feel like I’ve made a solid start, and since I created a Cerego set for the course, I’ll be reminded of all of it from time to time and will retain at least the basics of who, what, when, where, why.
The course begins with five weeks of history, starting from Mohammed and moving to the entry of the Ottomans. Yes, there were leaders and battles and invasions, but there were also little family dramas that played out in political reality, along with dramas of how that political power was legitimized and exercised across an empire consisting of many different groups, and the ways in which the empire maintained unity. Then we looked at cultural aspects: how people lived, religious details, the Translation Project, and the flourishing of arts and sciences in the Middle East, while keeping in mind the interplay between history and culture.
Each week featured a variety of learning media: Video lectures, of course, but also written documents, punctuated by beautiful manuscript illustrations (and available as PDFs for those, like me, who want to copy everything so we can refer to it forever), and interviews with a variety of academic specialists. All of these were followed by brief, ungraded knowledge checks which are useful for highlighting central points. A graded quiz finished off each week.
I was impressed by the final exam, which was weighted at 60% of the final grade. Most of it was information retrieval, but the context of the questions made it a bit more of a challenge than just a rephrase of the material, and several questions required combining individual facts. I even discovered two errors in my Cerego cards thanks to the final – which makes me worry: how many more errors lurk unfound?
A unique feature of the course was the ungraded Historian’s Lab. Each week, a source document (in translation) or artifact was provided, along with some questions relating to the week’s topic for forum discussion. I was a bit lost here, and very intimidated by the evident expertise, so I didn’t add anything but gained some insight from comments of other students, sometimes confirming and often expanding my initial impressions. It’s a handy way to provide an extra challenge in the course, since most moocs have students at every level from absolute novices to accomplished scholars.
I of course was drawn to the manuscripts and descriptions of the different scripts used over the centuries, though this was a very small part of the course. I smiled throughout at the pseudo-animation of various manuscript illustrations, sometimes a collage of separate images, with slight movements and sound effects running over the lecture. Because I follow several medievalists on Twitter, I sometimes see images from Arabic, Persian, or Turkish manuscripts; a week ago Emily Steiner (@PiersAtPenn) tweeted images from the Book of Kings, which we just covered this week. Combine that with Peter Adamson (@HistPhilosophy, of HoPWaG fame) being in a non-Western philosophy phase at the moment and retweeting a photo of a contemporary statue of Avicenna from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, just yesterday, and I’m really glad I took this course. In fact, I’m ready for more!