Episode 82: What Writing Can Tell Us About the Arabs before Islam

Host: Christopher Rose, Department of History, UT-Austin
Guest: Ahmad al-Jallad, University of Leiden

TaymaniticIn most world history survey courses, Arabia is introduced for the first time only as backstory to the rise of Islam. We’re told that there was a tradition of oral poetry in Arabic, a language native to central Arabia, and that the Qur’an was the zenith of this oral tradition. New evidence, however, suggests that Arabia was linguistically diverse, that the language we’ve come to know as Arabic originated in modern day Jordan, and that the looping cursive writing system that’s become the language’s hallmark wasn’t the original system used to write it. What to make of all this?

Guest Ahmad al-Jallad co-directs archaeological/epigraphic projects in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, uncovering new inscriptions thousands of years old, and shares his research that’s shedding new light on the writings of a complex civilization that lived in the Arabian peninsula for centuries before Islam arose.

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Episode 75: The Birmingham Qur’ān

Host: Samantha Rose Rubino, Doctoral Student, Department of History
Guest: Christopher Rose, Assistant Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Birmingham Qur'an ManuscriptIn the summer of 2015, an obscure Qur’ān manuscript hidden in the far reaches of the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham grabbed attention worldwide when carbon dating revealed that the book was one of the oldest Qur’āns known to exist. In fact, it might have been written during the lifetime of the Prophet Muḥammad … or might it even have been written before Muḥammad’s lifetime?

Guest Christopher Rose (yes, our regular co-host) has been following the headlines and puts the discovery of the Birmingham Qur’ān within the larger field of Islamic and Qur’ānic Studies, and explains how the text might raise as many questions as it answers.

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Roundtable: Antiquities in Danger

Moderator: Christopher Rose, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Featured Guests: Stephennie Mulder, Department of Art & Art History / Middle Eastern Studies
David Stuart, Department of Art & Art History / Mesoamerican Center
Debora Trein, Department of Anthropology

Placeres-Looting2-335x500Straight from the headlines: ISIS destroys the temple of Bal at Palmyra. Looters steal friezes from Greco-Roman sites in Ukraine under the cover of conflict. A highway is built through an ancient Mayan city in the Guatemalan highlands, the legacy of decades of near-genocidal internal conflict. Why is the loss of human patrimony important, especially in the context of the loss of lives? How can we begin to explain why both are worthy of our consideration? And what can high school or college educators and their students do about it?

Our first roundtable features three experts from the University of Texas who’ve taken the destruction of sites where they’ve worked and lived seriously, and are working to raise awareness of the importance of antiquities in danger around the world, and share simple steps to raise awareness about the problem and how to get involved.

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Episode 70: Race, Slavery & Abolition in Iran

Host: Christopher Rose, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, UT-Austin
Guest: Beeta Baghoolizadeh, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania

East African slave woman, 19th century.

The untimely death of a black man causes a stir in the press, causing intellectuals and activists to point to a long history of slavery and institutionalized racism in America. This isn’t a headline from 2015 (although it could be); it’s a description of how the Iranian press treated the assassination of Malcolm X. Iran, like many countries in North Africa and West Asia, has its own history of slavery, one that has been slowly forgotten in the century since its abolition; a history that is finally coming to light with a new generation of Iranian and Iranian-American historians.

Beeta Baghoolizadeh, a UT alumna who is now a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania, shares both the history of abolition in Iran and some personal observations on the difficulties of researching a topic long considered taboo in Persian society.

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Episode 67: How Jews Translate the Bible and Why

Host: Christopher Rose, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, UT-Austin
Guest: Leonard Greenspoon, Professor of Near Eastern Civilizations and Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, Creighton University

Saadia Gaon (882-942) is considered the father of Judeo-Arabic literature; his translation of the Bible into Arabic enabled the large portion of Judaism living in Arabic speaking lands to engage with the sacred texts.

Any student of a foreign language knows that the process of translating a text can be laden with unexpected choices about words, sentence structure, and phrases that don’t make sense in the target language. Now imagine the added pressures of translating a sacred text whose language is well known and imbued with religious significance and symbolism. Our guest Leonard Greenspoon from Creighton University has done just that with translators of the Jewish Bible over the centuries.

In this episode, Dr. Greespoon takes us on a fascinating journey into a Jewish perspective on how and why translating the Bible is necessary, and how and why it matters.

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Episode 63: Ezra and the Compilation of the Pentateuch

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Richard Bautch, Associate Professor of Humanities, St Edward’s University, Austin

The authorship of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament–known as the Torah or the Pentateuch–has been traditionally attributed to Moses. This raised some questions, however: would the most humble of men really describe himself as such? During the Enlightenment, scholars identified four distinct authors of the Pentatuch, creating the long-standing “Documentary Hypothesis.”  In the past twenty five years, a new trend in Biblical Studies has begun to challenge this long held view.

Guest Richard Bautch from St Edward’s University in Austin is one of the scholars taking a new look at the Biblical figure Ezra and his relationship to this critical text. In this episode, we discuss current thinking about the formation of the Pentateuch during the time of Ezra.

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Episode 62: Sunni and Shi’a in Medieval Syria

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Stephennie Mulder, Assistant Professor of Art History and Middle Eastern Studies, UT-Austin

After the decline of the Fatimids, the medieval Middle East entered a period called the Sunni Revival, in which Shi’ism was officially discouraged and Shi’i institutions were closed and replaced with Sunni institutions. Or, at least, that’s what the official chroniclers tell us. The buildings themselves tell us a different story–one that tries to bring decades of conflict to an end by accommodating different beliefs.

Art Historian Stephennie Mulder has spent the past decade working in Syria and shares a new look at history of Sunni and Shi’a in Syria during the medieval period; and how both histories are threatened by ISIS and the Syrian Civil War.

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Episode 61: The Fatimids

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Shainool Jiwa, Head of Constituency Studies, Institute for Ismaili Studies, London

Manuscript depicting Fatimid soldiers. 11th century.

Around the first millennium of the Christian era, a small group of Ismaili Shi’i Muslims established a dynasty that rapidly conquered North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. At the height of their power they conquered Egypt, where they founded the city of Cairo, and their Imam-Caliphs had their names read out in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, rivaling the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. And yet, despite three centuries of rule by a powerful Shi’i empire, North Africa remained—and remains—Sunni with nary a trace of its Shi’ite past.

In this episode, guest Shainool Jiwa from the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London illuminates an often overlooked chapter in the history of Islamic sectarianism, one in which religious differences were used to unify diverse populations under the rule of a minority government, rather than to divide and alienate them.

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Episode 58: Islam’s First Civil War

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Shahrzad Ahmadi, Doctoral Student, Department of History

Miniature depicting Aisha (in the howdah) at the Battle of the Camel.

In 7th century Arabia, the Islamic community was nearly torn apart by a civil war over the assassination of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (d. 656), and the accession to the caliphate of Muhammad’s adopted son Ali, supported by Uthman’s assassins. The events of the first fitna, as it is known, are often portrayed as a struggle over the right to rule the Islamic community, but it was much more—a power struggle between Muhammad’s wife Aisha and Ali, and a dispute over who had the right to avenge the murder of Uthman.

In picking up where Episode 57 left off, guest Shahrzad Ahmadi describes this tragic turn of events that sent shockwaves through the nascent Islamic community, and that continue to reverberate today.

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Episode 57: The Succession to Muhammad

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Shahrzad Ahmadi, Doctoral Student, Department of History

Persian miniature depicting courtiers pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr as leader of the community after Muhammad's death.

Nearly every world history textbook on the market explains the origins of sectarianism in the Islamic world as a dispute over the succession to Muhammad. Sunnis, they say, wanted an egalitarian society in which the leader was chosen from the people; the Shi’a, however, wanted the leadership of the nascent Islamic community to remain within Muhammad’s family. It seems simple—but is it really?

In the first of a series on the origins in Sectarianism in Islam, UT’s Shaherzad Ahmadi expands on this vastly oversimplified version of the story to introduce us to the key players involved—and to the intense rivalry between Aisha, Muhammad’s favorite wife, and his adopted son Ali.

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