What is Islamic History

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Efforts to define the concepts “Islam” and “history” have separately engendered rich debates with long intellectual genealogies. Both debates serve as a foundation for this essay's attempt to delimit the subject of “Islamic history.” However, the essay also argues that a close examination of the interaction between the two categories offers its own insights. Chief among these is the argument that a reliance on subjects’ self‐ascription as “Muslims” for definitions of “Muslim” and “Islamic” is far more than the empty or “nominal” approach that some critics have described. Rather, Islamic self‐ascription is historically entangled, both an artifact of historical processes and an evocation of them, even an integral element of the phenomenon it seeks to define.

The essay begins with an evaluation of the “islams not Islam” approach to defining the Islamic, rooting the argument not only in self‐ascription—a common social‐science tool for category definition and boundary making—but also in Islamic historical traditions themselves. It then demonstrates this historical rootedness through an unusually difficult test case: Chinese‐language Islams that eschewed the words “Islam” and “Muslim.” After proposing a definition of “Islamic history,” one that is particularly open and expansive, the article outlines some common characteristics of Islamic history across its many forms, asking what makes it distinct and where it can contribute to a global comparative historiography. Finally, it argues that when we generalize about these traditions, describing the features most widely shared among them, we find an Islamic history that reflects and substantiates the centrality of self‐ascription in delineating the scope of Islam.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-19
JournalHistory and Theory
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2019


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