ISIS and Medievalism: An Interview with Dr. Sharan Newman

ISIS and Medievalism – An Interview with Dr. Sharan Newman

Since the events of September 11, 2001, westerners (in general) have been much more focused on the Islamic world than before. The “war on terror” that followed over the next decade, much of which was centered around the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, became an all consuming focus of western media during that time. Almost everyone had some sort of personal connection to the war, whether through a relative, friend, or neighbor that served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Consequently, through their personal associations and almost non-stop media coverage, Americans and other westerners became far more interested in events in the Middle East and elsewhere as they tried to make sense of not only the violence of 9/11, but also the wars themselves and the extraordinary number of Islamist terrorist attacks that took place during this period. For some, it seemed Samuel Huntington’s so-called “Clash of Civilizations” was playing out in a clear and observable way.

Naturally, the scholarly community in the west has paid considerable attention to these events as well. They are a curious bunch and generally tend to pay a higher degree of attention to current events than most people, regardless of their disciplines. In this case, how could they not? Historians, political scientists, scholars of religion, and many others have devoted their lives to the study of topics related to the events of the last thirteen years.

In particular, the expertise of medieval historians, who otherwise tend to work on relatively obscure topics that few people see as relevant for the modern age, have suddenly seen their opinions and research find a newfound relevance for the modern world. Indeed, the first sign of this came in the immediate wake of 9/11, when President George W. Bush referred to his declared war on terrorism as a “crusade,” which perked the ears of crusades historians everywhere. Osama bin Laden and his ilk had beat him to the punch, as Islamists had been referring to westerners as “crusaders” long before President Bush ever uttered the term. Since then, in many instances, the modern “war on terror” or “clash of civilizations” has seemingly borrowed its rhetoric wholesale from the medieval past and attempted to use it to shape the modern framework for understanding east-west relations.

Numerous historians have addressed this point, including myself in a brief recent blog post titled “Obama as the ‘Dog of Rome’: ISIS and Crusading Rhetoric”. Indeed, the contributions of specialists in the disciplines listed above (and others) in dealing with the many issues related to the “war on terror” have done much to highlight the value of degrees in the humanities (or social sciences) in a world that otherwise has seemed to rate them as inferior to technical degrees. What can the typical computer programmer tell us about the roots of historical hostilities between Russia and Ukraine? Is an engineer trained to explain the origins of the Sunni-Shi’a split that still divides the Islamic world? For these things, you need people trained in the often-maligned humanities to be able to understand the causes of these events and, consequently, how they might be addressed.

One medievalist currently engaged in research on these topics is Dr. Sharan Newman. She is an author and historian, with a Master’s degree in Medieval Literature from Michigan State University and a doctorate in Medieval History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is also a member of the Medieval Academy and the Medieval Association of the Pacific. Sharan is perhaps best known for her highly informed and award winning novels on the Middle Ages. In writing them she has done research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris where she is a Grand Lecteur, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique France Méridionale et Espagne at the University of Toulouse and the Institute for Jewish History at the University of Trier, as well as many departmental archives.

Over the last decade, Sharan has been devoting her considerable research skills to historical works on medieval topics. In this, she has been remarkably successful as few novelists have been able to make the transition to serious historical works in the way she has. It began in 2005, when she wrote a non-fiction book titled, The Real History Behind the Da Vince Code (Berkley, 2005), which considered and dispelled various myths associated with the popular book and movie. For this she appeared on a number of radio and television programs internationally and several documentaries about the book. She then went on to publish another popular non-fiction work dispelling modern myths titled The Real History Behind the Templars (Berkley, 2007), which was followed by her biography of Melisende, the crusader queen of Jerusalem, titled Defending the City of God: A Medieval Queen, the First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014).

DaVinci Templars Melisende

More recently, Sharan has turned her attention to current events in the Middle East, particularly those associated with the rise and rhetoric of ISIS (or more recently, the “Islamic State”). She has been blogging about the topic, highlighting in particular the claims of ISIS to represent authentic Islamic beliefs as a result of their claims to correctly adhere to Sharia Law. Moreover, on account of such claims, ISIS has been referred to by its critics as “medieval,” which, to the chagrin of trained medievalists everywhere, has become an adjective for describing something as bad, primitive, or particularly brutal, as if that represented the totality of the Middle Ages. Sharan wanted to put such claims to the test, so she began researching the claims of ISIS and others in relation to the medievalism of the modern Islamic State. What was her conclusion about the accuracy of such claims? Is Isis medieval?

“Well, sort of.”

Sharan has kindly agreed to answer some questions related to her recent research on ISIS.

Question 1: Sharan, what drew you to consider the rise of ISIS as it relates to the study of medieval history? What most interested you about the topic?

The Arab Spring exploded as I was working on Defending the City of God. It was impossible not to compare the experience of contemporary inhabitants of the Middle East to that of those living there at the beginning of the twelfth century.

When the first Crusaders came, the average villager had already endured invasion by the Turks and the internal warfare among the local lords. So, especially in what is now Syria, they were attacked again in the midst of an ongoing civil war. The Damascus chronicler ibn al-Qalanisi wrote for the year 1101 “The Franks advanced to Saruj… and killed and enslaved its inhabitants, except those of them who escaped by flight.” Sound familiar? Later al-Qalanisi, describes a Muslim ruler of Mosul “… his treatment of the citizens [was] unpraiseworthy so that a great multitude fled from his province because of his tyranny.” These are two of hundreds of reports from Christian and Muslim sources. The events, the places, are still the same. I found it hard to remember if I had read something in a medieval source or yesterday’s paper.

My focus continues to be on the lives of ordinary people caught in the middle of a war that they don’t want or understand. How did they survive? What did they think about those invading from two sides? What happened to the minority groups? There are many questions that can be asked with just as much relevance today as in the past.

Question 2: How are medieval historians, in your view, uniquely qualified to contribute to discussions about modern events in the age of the “war on terror”?

Well, three of my mysteries dealt with what happens to a country when the ruler takes an army and huge amounts of money to wage a losing war in the Near East. The parallels were obvious to me but no one seems to have noticed the similarity of the Second Crusade to the wars in Iraq. There are many medievalists, including Crusade scholars, who realize that the basis for these conflicts is not colonial partitions (although that didn’t help) but ancient religious and philosophical differences, added to ethnic and tribal loyalties. An understanding of the roots of the society helps to understand the continuity of the dispute as well as how ISIS is deviating from it.

Question 3: How accurate are claims that ISIS is “medieval”? I know you previously mentioned that such claims are “sort of” accurate. Could you explain that a bit here?

In its own propaganda, ISIS claims to be reinstituting a Sunni caliphate based on Islamic law. A quick study of the medieval caliphates would show great political instability, sectarian differences and brutal in-fighting. The term “Caliph” is used for the successor of the Prophet and that is almost certainly what ISIS has in mind. But for much of the Middle Ages, the Caliphs in Baghdad were mainly powerless figureheads. Although the Caliphate is a Sunni creation, the Shi’a Buyids of Persia controlled the Caliphs for many years until they were driven out by the newly converted Sunni Turks. Caliphs were deposed, blinded and murdered as it suited those who held the real power. However, it isn’t the historical reality that ISIS believes but the ideal of a Caliph who rules absolutely, dispensing wise justice and ensuring that the laws of Islam (as they interpret them) are obeyed.

They haven’t mentioned which of the four branches of Islamic law they intend to base the new caliphate on. I haven’t seen any evidence that they know. They may prefer the oldest, Hanafiite, system which presumes that God is rational and so, reasoning by analogy, one can discern the intent behind the somewhat enigmatic Shari’a. The history of the interpretation of the Koran and Hadith is long and unbelievably complicated. A recent book does an excellent job of explaining it. Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, by Sadakat Kadri. He gives the reasons for the development of Islamic law and the ways in which it is being manipulated today.

I must admit, as I mentioned in my blog, that the rules of war followed by ISIS do have medieval echoes. Until the early modern period, soldiers were paid with booty and women. Conquered people were enslaved and their possessions taken. Important prisoners were ransomed, if possible. This wasn’t just a Muslim custom as these were the accepted practices of ancient and medieval European armies as well. Those taken captive under such circumstances were often subjected to torture and rape. We see similar behavior now, in the horrific kidnapping and treatment of girls (and boys) in Nigeria and the selling of captive Yazidhi women in Iraq as slaves. The soldiers of ISIS and Boko Haram are using a view of medieval “rules” to do what all bullies do. They are taking out their sense of powerlessness on those weaker than they. In rape, the victim is merely an object to the rapist. The real target is those who have wronged the perpetrator. This is another topic that has been heavily written about although I might add parenthetically, nothing much has been done.

Question 4: Are you considering all of this as the subject of a potential future book? If not, then why not? If so, what do you see, at this point in your research, as one of the most important points you would want to make in such a book?

I am currently working on a novel based on what I can find about the daily lives of peasants and villagers during the early 12th century. Also, I’m putting together a proposal for a nonfiction explanation of the tremendous variety of religions and cultures in that tiny strip from Turkey to Egypt and how they survived to the present, despite over a thousand years of conquests. I am fascinated by the groups that have held to their traditions no matter what.

To return to the inception of this discussion, it bothers me that many in the West tend to see all Muslims as a cohesive unit out to conquer the world, just as it bothers me that many in the East see all Westerners as crusading Christians out to destroy their way of life. Studying medieval history is essential to clarifying the immense complexity of the situation today.

For more, see Sharan’s blog at
See especially her recent comments on ISIS.