Borderlands in Islamic and Ottoman History

Eastern Mediterranean
Course Description: 

This class combines a basic survey in Islamic history based on lectures in the first half with seminar discussions on assigned readings in the second half of the each class that examine scholarship and approaches to Islamic borderlands and frontiers from early Islamic conquests in the 7th century to the rising threat of European colonialism in Ottoman Empire /Middle East in the nineteenth century.  Though it does focus on borderlands in Islamic societies, the theoretical and methodological vigor it draws on from across the social sciences makes it relevant to all students interested in borderlands, imperial contact zones and colonialism, as well inter-imperial power struggles and its impact on center-periphery relations.  While the class centers on Islamic empires throughout history, its comparative element makes the class as much about Balkan, Byzantine, Hapsburg, Russian, Ukrainian, British, and French history as it is pre-Ottoman and Ottoman history.

Since the rise of Islam rulers of Islamic polities demonstrated a “flexible imperialism” in conquered territories and borderlands; however, the “vanquished” peoples, their institutions, and their traditions often “conquered” the Muslim conquerors themselves.  Thus, the history of rapidly expanding Islamic frontiers is far from a linear success-story but much more complicated than the term “syncretism” many scholars working on Islamic polities stretching from western Europe to India use to describe Islamic history.   Islamdom’s absorption of diverse cultures and peoples inevitably led to the emergence of local Islams that were not always acceptable to the religious establishment closer to the centers of Muslim power in the hinterland.  In many cases, these “peripheral” Muslims along the frontiers became symbolically “central,” and often, redefined their entire polities from the interstices of the Islamic world.  This course will explore how Muslims in the borderlands negotiated religious, economic, and social resources with each other and non-Muslim groups both within and outside of their polities.  

Learning Outcomes: 

This course will provide students, both specialists and non-specialists in Islamic history, with a basic working knowledge of Islamic imperial history and the spread of Islam. It will also provide students with methodological and theoretical frameworks to study borderlands, borderland populations, and the cultural, social, and religious boundaries that revolve around these contested spaces. Thus, thematically the issues and scholarship discussed in this class can be applicable to students who work on different geographical borderlands not only throughout history but outside the Islamic world as well. Our approach to borders and boundaries will acknowledge a profound diversity within the Islamic world and study specific social groups that lived in these borderlands, such as the fighters of “greater jihad” (mystics, Sufis) who in the early Muslim ribats shared space with the fighters of “lesser” jihad (frontier soldiers), the futuwwa and ahi brotherhoods of pre-Ottoman Anatolia, the gazis and the akritai on the Ottoman-Byzantine border, the vast Muslim and Christian groups whose loyalties the Ottomans competed for with Christian imperial rivals in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Europe, the Crimea, as well as the greater Black Sea and Mediterranean worlds in general – and beyond. This course will focus on select case studies ranging from Spain to Central Asia. Students will be introduced to the historical and anthropological literature on the concept of “frontiers” and “borderlands,” as well as to the concepts of “conversion,” “syncretism,” “hybridity,” “legal pluralism,” and “creolization” crucial to studying inter-confessional, ethnically diverse contact zones. Being a course on borderlands and frontier milieus, this course will naturally compare and contrast Empires – especially the Ottomans with their Islamic predecessors as well as their Byzantine, Safavid/Qajjar, Hapsburg, Russian, British,and French rivals.