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Changing Social Identity with the Spread of Islam: Archaeological Perspectives.

Changing Social Identity with the Spread of Islam: Archaeological Perspectives. Edited by DONALD WHITCOMB. Oriental Institute Seminars, no. 1. Chicago: THE ORIENTAL INSTITUTE, 2004. Pp. 101.

What can we learn from material culture about the spread of Islam? In particular, is there anything in material culture that would indicate the presence of Muslims? Have Muslims had a distinctive lifestyle that would have left a record in material remains, and what would this have to do with changes in social identity? Such questions raise the general issue of the relationship between material culture and the identity of people, and the specific issue of the religious basis for social identity. The slim volume under review presents five case studies that analyze material remains dating to the early Islamic period, at different times and in different places, by the participants at a seminar at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in May, 2003. Since Islam spread to different places at different times (as it still does), these studies range from the seventh to the sixteenth century C.E. and from West Africa to Central Asia. There is an introduction by Donald Whitcomb, who argues that there can be archaeological evidence for social change and that Islamic archaeology is not just a chronological term for the historical archaeology of the Islamic period, but involves an Islamic context for social and economic developments.

In the first study Jodi Magness uses the difference between typical village layouts in Roman and Byzantine Palestine and those of two settlements on the edge of the desert in Palestine dated to the eighth and ninth centuries C.E. as evidence for the presence of a new, different population. The modular units of the early Islamic period consist of an inner room and outer room or courtyard; the rooms are all the same fairly small size; and there is no indication of a second story or insulae. Magness sees this as reflecting a village structure organized around family units rather than around elite individuals, and it is no surprise that this would be understood as tribal in nature and origin. The problem with this, of course, is that tribal populations were not new in the region, so why is that kind of settlement not evident earlier? As Magness suggests, the standardization of these units indicates some kind of organization, and these settlements deserve to be compared with the housing at mining sites. That is, these settlements may have been the locations of agricultural development where imported labor was housed, such as captives brought from Anatolia and settled in Palestine in the eighth century.

The second study is on Ascalon by Tracy Hoffman, who uses Julian of Ascalon's mid-sixth-century legal text, On the Laws or Customs of Palestine, to provide a context for the archaeological remains. Although Hoffman compares Julian's work on Ascalon to the use of the Cairo Geniza for the domestic architecture of Fustat, Julian in fact tells us nothing about Ascalon in the early Islamic period. Hoffman gives an overall impression of continuity in the architecture and city plan of Ascalon and of a gradual change from Byzantine pottery to distinctive Islamic glazed wares. As she puts it, "whatever the makeup of the population in the Early Islamic period, the inhabitants lived in and used as much of the city as had the population in the Byzantine period" (p. 49). In other words, the material record at Ascalon has nothing to say about the spread of Islam or changes in social identity. What it does suggest is the existence of long-term trends and changes that may have been contemporary with the rise and spread of Islam, but may have had little or nothing to do with Muslims.

Yuri Karev notes, in the third study, that the dar al-imara in eighth-century Samarqand represents a new architectural tradition in Central Asia. Its organization of rooms around a central courtyard comes from the Umayyad buildings in Syria.

The emergence of early Swahili identity at Shanga in East Africa is examined by Mark Horton in the fourth study. This is based on the existence of a masjid dated to about 1000 C.E., an earlier stone masjid from about 900 C.E. with seven earlier timber masjids below it going back to the eighth century, coins with Arab names, and burials oriented to the qibla from the early ninth century. Were the earliest Muslims in East Africa immigrants or local converts? Horton's argument for early conversion is controversial and his evidence for the possible presence of Ibadi and Shi'i Muslims is very thin. He acknowledges that it can be very difficult to distinguish Islamic from non-Islamic societies in the archaeological record and that archaeologists and historians alike tend to see "a seamless transition from pre-Islamic times, and claim that Islam had little impact on a society that already had many features akin to Islam" (p. 88). Only the location of masjids and burials reliably indicate conversion.

These issues are also addressed for West Africa by Timothy Insoll in the concluding study, on early Islam at Gao. For Insoll a lack of differentiation in the material record is evidence of cultural syncretism. He sees conversion occurring in phases together with syncretic adaptation; the nomads were first, followed by urban populations with sedentary farmers (the majority), for whom syncretism was crucial, converting last. According to Insoll, "Throughout sub-Saharan Africa the agency of syncretism has been adopted as a mechanism to reconcile Islam with older traditions in an ongoing process of reconstructing social and religious identities" (p. 101). In other words, one should not expect differentiation in the material culture that would signal the presence of Muslims.

On the whole, the message of these studies is not encouraging if one hopes to find material evidence of the early presence of Muslims anywhere. Masjids, burials, and inscriptions are the best evidence, but any building with a niche in approximately the right direction is in danger of being said to have been a masjid. A good example of burial possibly revealing conversion to Islam is the Visigothic cemetery near Cuenca, where twenty-three Muslims were buried on their right sides, heads to the south, and facing east, along with many Christians. Since the Muslims were buried with some of their possessions in the Visigothic manner, they may have been converts. Only their position and orientation identify them as Muslims, but it is significant that Muslims and Christians shared a graveyard (Thomas Glick, From Muslim Fortress to Christian Castle [New York, 1995], 43).

The main reason the early presence of Muslims is difficult to find in the archaeological record is not because we don't know where or how to look for it; it is because it isn't there. Outside of Arabia, Muslims have been a minority of immigrants at first and have tended to assimilate to the local material culture. Local converts to Islam have tended to keep their own material culture. Religion is only one among many bases for social identity. Nevertheless, Whitcomb and the participants in the seminar are to be thanked for addressing these issues. This volume would have been improved by a general conclusion and an index.


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Author:Morony, Michael G.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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