This week, the Ajam Media Collective, a prominent website known for its coverage of issues broadly relating to Persian culture, featured Christine Baker’s research into Islamic sectarianism in their “Emerging Scholarship” series, which works to showcase the research and interests of new scholars emerging in academia who focus on the social worlds, histories, and traveling cultures of Central and West Asia.
Baker’s work focuses on the origins and development of ideas of Islamic “sectarianism” in the 10th-century Middle East. She studies the medieval articulation of different forms of Shi’i identity through the lens of two medieval Shi’i states that both rose to power in the 10th century, the Fatimid Caliphate of North Africa (909–1071) and the Buyid Emirate of Iraq and Iran (945–1055).
In the interview, Baker noted that “We have a tendency—when there is anything going on in the Middle East today that involves Sunnis and Shi’is—to always want to trace it back to the origins of Islam. We always want to go back to ‘the event’ which occurred in the seventh century when the prophet Mohammed passed away, and there was debate over who should lead the Muslim community. This is the event to which Sunnis and Shi’is trace the difference between their sects; back to this core event. However, when we always go back to this event we forget that it took centuries for different forms of Islamic identity to develop. You cannot talk about conflicts in the Middle East today—Shi’is in Iraq, the development of ISIS, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah [etc.]—and draw some kind of straight line back to the seventh century and say ‘Aha! That explains what’s happening now.’ It does not mean that there is no relevance, but it’s [more] complicated. These [sectarian differences] are things that developed over time. … “To a large degree this narrative of sectarian conflict—going back 1,400 years to the lifetime of the death of the prophet Mohammed—it serves a political purpose. [In] that it allows us to see the Middle East as riddled with conflict, [and that] it has always been like that so perhaps we can ignore the role of Western foreign policy in some of these conflicts. In addition to serving [this] political purpose, I also think that ideas such as the development of different kinds of religious identities are complicated, and often in the media…they’re looking for simplistic explanations. So ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Shi’is’ are coming up, and they want to say well ‘who are Sunnis and Shi’is?; Oh, well they arose because of this thing that happened in the seventh century.’ Which, again, is true but … it does not necessarily help us understand the nature of what is happening today.”
As part of a series of History department research presentations, Baker also recently gave a talk in the History Department about her research.