This forum aims to promote the humanistic study of urban religious cultures in the Middle East and North Africa during the Islamic era, i.e., in the period following the rise of Islam in the seventh century. It seeks to draw the attention of researchers to useful resources, and particularly to printed books, manuscripts, and images in the library collections of the University of Pennsylvania.
The Study of Religious Cultures in the Middle East and North Africa
Leading scholarship in the field of Middle Eastern and North African religious studies tends to start from the following four related assumptions about social dynamics in the region:
- First, the Middle East and North Africa, as historic centers of the Islamic world, offered a civilizational framework to which Muslims as well as Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslim peoples contributed.
- Second, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities did not develop historically as autonomous, self-contained entities; rather, they developed as integral and interconnected parts of Middle Eastern and North African societies. In other words, religious differences did not produce communities that functioned as social oases.
- Third, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish populations in the region historically exhibited considerable internal diversity. Moreover, religious affinity intersected with a range of other variables - including language, ethnicity, gender, and social status - to produce individual and communal identities.
- Fourth, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa were historically neither monolithic nor unchanging; likewise, inter-communal relations were never static. On the contrary, communities responded to ever-changing circumstances that reflected broader local, regional, and global trends. Population movements, shifting trade routes, epidemics, wars, new technologies - these developments and others had an impact on how communities lived and how the various segments of society related to each other.
Taking these assumptions into account, the challenge facing historians is to remain attuned to the nuances and complexities of the region's social and cultural landscapes.
Sources and Methodologies
In the Middle East and North Africa, as in all other parts of the world, the study of religious culture demands an interdisciplinary approach in keeping with the nature of the sources available. Available sources may include writings such as court records, census tables, memoirs, and prayer manuals. They may also include buildings - most obviously sites of collective worship as well as tombs, houses, and market places - or even material goods, such as ceramic pots and clothing. The researcher who works on the modern period is likely to find photographs or even mass media sources, such as movies and sound recordings. Depending on the nature of sources, historians of religious cultures may find themselves borrowing insights from literature, art history, anthropology, legal studies, and other academic fields.
The History of This Project
This website is part of a pilot project supported by the University of Pennsylvania and the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (PRRUCS), through a program that aims to develop the undergraduate curriculum in the cross-disciplinary study of religious cultures. Funds from this grant have also supported the digital scanning of rare manuscripts from the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and the purchase of microfilms of Middle East-related papers from the archives of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
Questions about the Penn library resources featured in this forum may be directed to Arthur Kiron
, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections
Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Department, NELC 335/535 (cross-listed as Judaic Studies 335 and Religious Studies 311): Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Relations in the Middle East: Historical Perspectives taught by Prof. Heather J. Sharkey. This seminar, open to advanced undergraduate and graduate students, focuses primarily on the modern (post-1800) period, when the rise and assertion of Western imperial power prompted far-reaching social changes in the Middle East. These changes led to important transformations and realignments in the political structures of the region, and had profound consequences for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peoples. The goal of this seminar is to provide a forum for critically examining the historical trajectories and inter-relationships of modern Middle Eastern and North African religious communities while giving students the opportunity to pursue original research. Students are encouraged to take advantage of the resources in Penn's library (including the special collections maintained at Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies) and to consult other Philadelphia-area resources, such as the Middle East-related documents in the archives of the Presbyterian Historical Society.