Week 26 – Studying Ancient Arabian History


Hmm.  Sounds different than saying, “We’re studying Islamic Empires,” doesn’t it?

This is not my favorite unit to teach, which is such a shame because it is one of my favorite units to teach.  The reason why it is not my favorite is because I spend a lot of time swimming upstream against “The Middle East”.  (In my mind, the there was a “Dun-dun-duuunnn” sound effect in my head.)  I don’t teach modern history, thank goodness.  I wouldn’t have the patience for it.  Ancient atrocities and general bad behavior are fun.  Modern ones? Not so much.

To some extent I feel like I’m teaching German history in the middle of World War II.  This analogy is totally inaccurate and yet totally correct.  Students can come in with so much trash in their heads about what it means to be Muslim, with little to no respect for the culture’s history, and with offensive epithets ready to spit out at a moment’s notice, most of which they learned from Facebook and Fox News.  Islam is the new “bad guy.”  (I feel like I need a shower to get the yuck off just from writing that.)

You have to put your foot down on that crap from the get-go.  I tell them that I love people.  When you love people, you do not disparage them.  I have friends who are Christan, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Zen Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Shinto, you name it.  I have taught Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Palestinian, Saudi, and Yemenite children. I have never taught a “bad child” yet.  I tell my students that I will go to the mat to protect those children just the same as I will go to the mat to protect the ones sitting with me right now. I will not allow those people to be generalized into one group of “bad people”.  It stops at the door.  So once all the students are clear on the rules, we can start with the lessons.

The next thing I tell them is that, as a historian of ancient civilizations and societies, I base all of my curricula on texts from both historians and archaeologists.  I do not make up information or make inferences.  I try hard to keep my bias as a modern reader of the news media from coloring my reading of historical sources, so that what is happening today does not interfere with or obscure my understanding of what was happening 1,500 years ago. I bring in the texts that I have studied and show the students what I thought was reliable and what was dubious. (I’ve been doing this all year, but it is really important here.)  If a reliable text does not give me an answer, I put that question in my “unanswered” box and keep looking for research that can answer my question.

In this way, I show my students how I can move from Theology to History and back again.  A historian of ancient civilizations must be familiar with the theological tenets and with the traditional stories of the culture they are studying, but scholars call those concepts “History” at their peril.  (I’m talking to you — you people who believe Julius Caesar was writing history and not propaganda. So why am I picking on the Romans? For the Romans, their all-encompassing belief that they were the best, and deserved to be the best, essentially was a religion, a theology of sorts. So a historian has to be able to separate the propaganda that Julius Caesar wrote in his role as a political historian from the rest of the historical record that shows how he was busy knocking over the Celts for their gold.)

I think it is of supreme importance to begin with Pre-Islamic Arabian societies, and I look to Karen Armstrong to help me here.  Her book, Muhammad, is very, very useful.  I distilled it into a PowerPoint presentation that teaches students words like badawah, ghazu, muruwah, asibiyyah, karim, and hajj.  (If you want to know what these terms mean, go look them up.  You might learn something.) These words help my students begin to understand that the ancient Arabian culture was very different from anything we have studied before.  Also, having those terms helps them feel less lost.  When students feel less lost, they feel less scared, and less threatened.  It also helps them be better prepared to understand who Muhammad was and how he changed the landscape of what is now the Middle East.

If you feel that you don’t know that much about Islam, I suggest this: The 72 Virgins Are A Lie (And Other Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Islam).  It’s by Seth Green, it’s short, and it does a nice job of giving you a quick, entertaining lesson from a fellow nerd.

Long live nerdy historians!


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