[P6349] Race in the Medieval Middle East

Created by Hannah Barker
Tuesday, 11/30/21 2:00 pm


This panel will focus on racially connoted processes of othering as they manifest in medieval Arabic textual and visual sources. Bringing together evidence of early racialist discourse and practice from a variety of medieval Arabic settings, this session will provide an overview of current research on the issue and allow for fruitful exchange and comparison. The panel also aims to show that the genealogy of racialist discourse in the MENA region offers important clues for the interpretation of modern race thinking and its societal ramifications.

Diversity was a significant characteristic of medieval Islamic societies. Besides being home to long-established religious and ethnic minorities, these societies also attracted a steady stream of foreigners through commerce and scholarly exchange. Political dynamics throughout the medieval era, from peaceful to confrontational, further contributed to the movement of people into and out of the MENA region. Finally, slavery and the practice of concubinage greatly impacted the composition of societies in the medieval Islamic world. The historical record documents how groups and persons from elsewhere were regularly incorporated into the region’s social fabric. At the same time, these sources also reflect racialized rhetorics that sought to exclude those deemed to be non-Arabs.

The concept of “race” was long thought of as a product of Western modernity. However, historians have recently shown that the intellectual world of the European Middle Ages already featured racialized ideas that sought to distinguish and rank humans on the basis of perceived essential differences. Modern race thinking grew out of these ideas and must be understood in this broader historical context. In the field of Middle East studies, discourses of “race” - both contemporary and historical - remain somewhat marginal. Racism poses pressing problems in societies throughout the contemporary Middle East and North Africa, as examples such as the mistreatment of domestic workers and the marginalization of minorities of African descent highlight. A thorough understanding of these issues requires scholars to examine the historical origins of contemporary strategies of othering that exclude groups and individuals deemed to be non-Arab.


Art/Art Hist; Hist; Lit



Hannah Barker

(Arizona State University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Chair; Organizer; Presenter;

Magdalena Moorthy Kloss

(Austrian Academy of Sciences)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter; Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Peter Webb

Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;