Reading Race in Medieval Arabic Literature a talk by Rachel Schine

How might we pursue comparative, critical study of premodern processes of racialization? This talk will cover the main methods, meanings, and sources that I engage in examining racialization in the Islamic Middle Ages, as well as some past and present problematics of doing so within the Euro-American academy. I primarily consider Arabic literature’s corpus of popular epics (siyar sha‘biyya) and their several Black heroes. These works of mass appeal were collectively composed beginning in the 12th century and were geographically and temporally diffuse. I argue that epics use their Black characters to proffer aspirational histories of Islam: the Islamic world community, or umma, is depicted in triumphant narratives as always already adept at growing and assimilating difference, and thus it can continue to be so. An interdisciplinary approach drawing on religious studies, Black studies, histories of science, and Arabic philology, among others, illuminates the multiple racial resonances of these sources and their didactic visions.

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