How do contemporary events shape the ways in which we read, understand, and interpret historical processes of identity formation? How can we resist framing conflicts of the past through frameworks of the present? What role does historical memory play in the forming and framing of group identity? In her book Medieval Islamic Sectarianism
(Amsterdam University Press, 2019), Christine D. Baker
, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, engages these questions by exploring the formation of sectarian identities in the tenth century medieval Middle East and North Africa.
The tenth century, which is often deemed the “Shi’i century” because it witnessed the emergence of two major Shi’i empires, gave rise to a new challenge for the existing Sunni Abbasid Caliphate. There were the Fatimids of North Africa who came to dominate from the western end of the caliphate, and the Buyids of Iraq and Iran who come to dominate from the eastern end, and each one claimed their political legitimacy by positioning themselves against the Abbasid rulers. But how exactly did they do that?
Christine cautions against reading the political conflicts between these empires through the lens of modern sectarian identities and urges us to examine them in their own right. In this way, we avoid the risk of reinforcing a false narrative of primordial Sunni-Shi’i conflict, and are able to consider more accurately how those empires legitimated themselves and delegitimated the other.
Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University.