[The following is an excerpt from a recently published article in Medieval Encounters 13(3):385-412, 2007.]

In many disciplines, scholars would not dream of taking their terminology from the street. Even if they do not fully succeed in agreeing upon a given set of terms, they recognize that it is essential for each writer to use his terms with precision, and that an attempt to accommodate oneself to popular usage as reflected in a dictionary must be disastrous. Too often, historians (especially in the field of Islamics) still try to avoid recognizing such a necessity and are satisfied to be guided by whatever is ‘common practice.’ (Marshall Hodgson)

Marshall Hodgson, perhaps more than any other historian of the Middle East, knew that the venture of Islam was all the more difficult to describe due to the adventure in trying to escape the strictures of loaded terms. His neologistics, advocating the use of “Islamicate” to distinguish the cultural from the religious dimensions of a regional history, failed to gain a consensus, although his seminal three-volume study of Islamic history remains a valuable resource three decades later. In the current postmodern climate a number of outdated and outsized terms have fallen into disuse among historians. “Muhammadanism,” by the 1960s, and “Orientalism,” since the 1970s, cease to carry weight after being dressed down for their ethnocentric cultural baggage. “Middle East,” moreso than its linguistic sibling rival “Near East,” continues to float across disciplines and the media, in part because Southwest Asia inspires little interest outside geography. But there is still at least one more label that we could all do without.

To be blunt, I suggest that continued use of the term “medieval” in reference to Middle Eastern and Islamic history between the 7th and the 15 centuries, anno dominated, is anachronistic, misleading and disorienting. Since I am an anthropologist by training and demeanor, I have never been taught to hold anything “historical” as sacred. While I can look at a map of the known world and appreciate where a “middle” might be, depending on where one looks from, I have trouble seeing where an eternally fixed “middle” should rest on a timeline, unless historically relevant time has stopped for good. For the record, I am pleased to belong to an academic organization called MEM (Middle East Medievalists), and I do not intend that my colleagues should rush out and change the name, nor, assuredly, the rather catchy acronym. I offer this essay as a call for fine tuning our vocabulary in a manner that does not efface the Muslims whose history we study.

My concern with the meaning of “medieval” as a marker for Islam can best be elaborated by asking three specific questions. I will leave it to others to judge how rhetorical these are or should be? First, is the term “medieval” still considered useful by a consensus of historians for defining a thousand year period of European history? Second, is “medieval” appropriate for characterizing Islamic civilization other than as a convenient period marker? Finally, is there any comparable term that should be used for what essentially amounts to the entire length of Islam up to and past the abrupt Mongol-induced end of the caliphate in 1258 C.E.? Or is it better to fall back on a standardized periodization for what is presently styled the “medieval” Islamic Middle East? …

I obviously do not believe “medieval” is evil in a formal sense, especially given the Christian overlay of the term “evil” in Western secular discourse. Use of the term should not be seen as sin, grounds for being condemned to epistemological hell, but it should be recognized as a problematic academic practice that is no longer appropriate. Nor do I think those of us who have resorted to using the term “medieval” in reference to Islam are thereby closet Orientalists, latent haters of Islam in the Saidian sense. But I do suggest it is time – the recent millennial transition is a convenient watershed – to de-medievalize our study of the Islamic world. As I understand the etymological history and fading spirit of “medieval” as applied to the study of European history, continued use of this term for my own work on Islam is irresponsible. The argument by convenience rings hollow when the term itself carries such inconvenient ideological baggage. Africans are no longer automatic “negroes”; the indigenous people of “America” were never and are not now “Indians;” I do not focus my research on “Saracens”; there is thus little that connotes “medieval” in my reading of Islam. In future terms, should this world last another century, let alone a millennium, what would medieval Islam then be in the middle of?

Since the idea of a medieval Islam is not likely to self deconstruct, it needs to be confronted and deflated so that we can hopefully say in the near future that its usage has abated. Any unilateral choice of words I opt for as a single scholar is not going to constitute a movement. When I asked colleagues to comment on an earlier version of this argument, one suggested that I was opening up a Pandora’s box. I would prefer the metaphor of using one of the three wishes from the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, but nevertheless I am foolhardy enough to offer suggestions for arriving at some middle ground. First, we should seriously ask ourselves why it is so important to place a thousand years of Islamic history into a unit that must be encapsulated in a single time capsule. This is a vast stretch of time to lump into one chronological term, given the amount of historical documentation available. Is it wise to speak of a specifically medieval Islamic anything and at the same time wonder why the diversity in Islamic history is so little understood and routinely homogenized? In his comprehensive The Venture of Islam, Hodgson studiously avoids the term “medieval,” controversial in his mind, while noting how distortive it is not only of Europe but “of the world scene.” Neither does historian Marilyn Waldman mention “medieval” in her historical survey of the Islamic World for the New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Librarians may be ahead of some historians on this issue, since the subject listing of the Library of Congress nowhere uses the term “medieval” in reference to Islam or the Middle East…

Few of us who study Islamic history today choose to be identified as “Orientalists;” why do we not yet have the same reservations about being “medievalists”? To answer the moral question more directly, I am convinced that the term “medieval” is misleading when applied anywhere outside of Europe and necessarily derogatory when used to refer to Muslims of any time period. As Mahmut Mutman has argued, much of the previous academic approach to Islam has been based on the Orientalist binary of civilization vs. medievalism. This binary has recently been expanded in grandiose theories about the clash of civilizations. We may very well continue to use the term for “practical reasons,” but in so doing we run the risk of always defining Islamic history according to what was essentially happening somewhere else. Surely this is ethnocentric and an obstinate, some might say immoral, basis for studying history in the third millennium. The argument that history has been done this way for a long time is decidedly defeatist. Why assume that scholars – including Muslims – who study the history of Islam cannot argue for locally meaningful events in periodizing the history of the regions where Islam is relevant?

For some historians “medieval” may seem “the only convenient blanket term” to sum up the various dynasties before the Ottomans. Given the prejudice inherent in much previous historiography of things “medieval” and things “Muhammadan,” convenience may no longer suffice. If a term is misleading and carries prejudicial baggage (could anyone argue that it has not done this?), the issue should be conceptual clarity. If for awhile this causes inconvenience, so be it. It is better to gradually learn a new term than perpetuate a bad one. As Hogdson noted a quarter of a century ago, “It is more than the divided human attention can do to keep in mind a caveat that runs against one’s favourite presuppositions if those presuppositions are constantly reinforced by the very terms one uses. In such a case, new terms and new practices alone can take effect; the old, even amended, cannot usually transcend themselves.” Since the Renaissance view of “Rome” was not built in a day, it will take historians of the Islamic Middle East more than a day to redefine their subject’s time-bound boundaries.

Daniel Martin Varisco