B.A. (Manitoba), B.A. (London), M.A., Ph.D. (McGill)
I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada and obtained my first degree in 1961 from the University of Manitoba. The undergraduate course was interrupted for a year spent with my family in Khartoum, Sudan, the year after the country’s independence from British rule in 1956. The University of Khartoum accepted visiting students, and one of my courses, Geography, provided the opportunity to join student field trips to many parts of this large, fascinating and most recently tragic, country. The total experience was transformative and the catalyst for my lifelong interest in the history and cultures of the Arab and Muslim world. Hence my second bachelor’s degree (1965) was in modern and classical Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, England. A summer course in Lebanon (1962), studying colloquial Arabic at what was known locally as ‘The British School for Spies’, probably didn’t advance my language skills as much as entice me to take unplanned leave for the next twelve months to study and travel through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. This informal ‘year abroad’ ended in my teaching English to Arab and Afghan students in the summer programme of the American University of Beirut.
From SOAS I returned to Canada for post-graduate study at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University in Montreal where I obtained my Masters degree (1968) and then my Doctorate (1974). During this period while trying to finish the doctorate, I held temporary posts at the American University in Cairo (1972-74) as Assistant Professor and Deputy Director of the Centre for Arabic Studies; this was followed by two terms teaching at Cairo’s Ain Shams University and then the summer semester’s teaching in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia (1975).
This appeared to complete preparation for what became the longest stage of my career, here at Lancaster University which commenced in 1976, first in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies. Having just settled in, the higher education sector faced savage cuts in funding by the Thatcher Government (1981) that resulted in Lancaster alone losing several language disciplines, including Arabic. My career seemed in jeopardy, but fortunately, Lancaster’s renowned Religious Studies Department had a vacancy which allowed for my transfer in 1983. Among the several new courses devised and taught by myself was one on the Modern Muslim World, also offered for a number of years jointly to postgraduate students in the Department of Politics. So, I may claim to have had a foot in two disciplines of the present PPR department. The years 1990-91 and 1993-94 were spent as Research Professor, Instituto de Filologia, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC), Madrid, funded by the Spanish Department of Education. During the final semester of 1994 I taught at Barcelona’s newly-founded university of Pompeu Fabra. Promoted to Professor of Islamic Studies at Lancaster in 1996, I took up a Wellcome Foundation research grant (1997-98) while briefly serving as Head of Department of RS. In 2005 I retired as Professor Emeritus.
Fortune smiled again, extending my active career, when I was appointed Visiting Professor in the Department of Arabic, Leiden University, the Netherlands for a semester in each of the following three years (2006-08) teaching both undergraduate and postgraduate students.
It was no straightforward matter deciding how to apply one’s training in ‘Islamic Studies’ to a professional career. In the 1960s and 1970s, unlike the present day, a university place seemed attractive. Selecting an area within the vast expanse of the Islamic world as one’s ‘speciality’ was in part influenced by the ‘Oriental’ language(s) laboriously acquired while the same awkward label could apply also to expertise in the medieval, modern, or contemporary periods (or all of them).
During my postgraduate years in Montreal, the war of June 1967 broke out between Israel and the Arabs. My initial reaction of puzzlement and then shock were caused by the seeming hysterical response in the Canadian media’s crude demonization of the Arabs. My response was to research the origins of the conflict prior to Israel’s creation in 1948, publish some articles and then a book, The Unholy War: Israel and Palestine 1897-1970 (Introduction by Maxime Rodinson, 1971) later expanded as A Sentence of Exile, (1977). During the same period I also wrote pieces on contemporary events in Lebanon and Egypt and on Orientalism as well as one on “The status of the study of women in the Muslim Middle East” in the Journal of Comparative Studies of History and Society, 24 (1982) 642-59. A pair of essays written a decade apart, “Political activism and the Islamic tradition”, Awraq, 9 (1988), 179-202 and “Ali Abd al-Raziq revisited”, Awraq, 19 (1998) 79-96, reflected the growing academic interest in and public concern for the contemporary mix of the political and religious spheres. Both appeared in the journal sponsored by the Spanish Foreign Ministry. These examples all reflected an enduring interest in the relationship between the modern political and religious spheres in Islam.
By contrast, both of my graduate dissertations reflected a totally different area of interest: early medieval Islamic history. The MA examined Arabic historiography and the PhD being a socio-economic study of the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th- 10th centuries. Two articles resulted from this post-graduate labour: “The third century (AH) crisis of the Abbasids”, Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, 20 (1977), 282-306 and “The pre-Buyid amirate: two views from the past”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 8 (1977) 339-48. Later, a book of translation from Arabic dealt with the same historical era. Entitled The Revolt of the Zanj: AD 869-897, (SUNY Press, New York, 1992, 230pp), it comprised volume 36 of the complete collaborative translation of the famous early Muslim historian, al-Tabari (d. 923), TheHistory of Kings and Prophets. This historian was the subject of an earlier article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, (1974), Vol. 17, 890-91.
In the early 1980s, that critical juncture in my career, having stumbled upon some articles from the 1930s and 1940s, I submitted three short pieces to non-mainstream publications (1982-85) that resulted in the discovery of what came to be an utterly absorbing field of interest: medieval Arab culinary culture. I had first, however, to deal with a sense of chagrin as to whether the inner workings of the medieval kitchen could be viewed a serious academic undertaking? It was Fernand Braudel who soothed my conscience with his description of material civilization as “the repeated movements, the silent half forgotten story of men and enduring realities, which were immensely important but made so little noise.” My initial research efforts were brought together in a paper for the School of Abbasid Studies, University of St Andrews, and published in their Occasional Papers series with the overly pretentious title “Prolegomena to the Study of Cooking in Abbasid Times: A circuitous bibliographical essay”, No.1 (1986) 30-39. The very pretentiousness doubtless concealed a degree of residual embarrassment.
My career’s next stage was both planned and fortuitous but nonetheless decisive. The 1985 meeting of the Middle East Librarians Committee (MELCOM) was being held in Dublin’s fine Chester Beatty Library. The planned part was my advance reading of Professor Arberry’s Handlist of the Library’s medieval manuscript holdings. One entry, entitled simply Kitab al-Tabikh or Cookbook, was enough to justify my ordering a microfilm of the work. The unplanned bit was being introduced by a mutual friend to a Spanish colleague from Madrid, Manuela Marin, an Arabist and expert on Andalucian history who, like me, had an interest in material culture. Although substantial portions were missing from the beginning and end of the Dublin text, it was clearly an important, albeit anonymous, work and we decided editing even an incomplete text was worthwhile. Sometime later, I obtained the microfilm of another culinary work from the Cambridge University Library, fully titled Kanz al-Fawa’id fi tanwi’ al-mawa’id (Treasury of benefits in the varieties of table preparations), and comparison with our Dublin text revealed, to our surprise, a complete version of that partial manuscript! Now, with knowledge of the title, a survey of Arabic catalogues resulted in locating another fully titled MS in Cairo and, although anonymous, it was also complete. The final edited version of the work appeared in 1993 as volume 40 of a prestigious series of medieval Islamic works published in Germany, giving the proper order of editorial responsibility as Manuela Marin and myself. We collaborated on half a dozen other publications, including co-editing and contributing to the volume resulting from an international conference held in Xatiba, Spain, La alimentacion en las culturas islamicas, Madrid: AECI, 1994.
The collaborative experience, relatively rare in our field, was fundamental to my own further development giving me a richer appreciation of medieval studies in general and of ‘peoples’ history’ in particular. My first major article was on the staff of life, “Bread, cereals and society”, Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, 30 (1987) 255-285. This was followed by a shorter piece on “Cuisine” in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the Middle East and North Africa, (1988). Over the following period (1990-2002) I contributed a dozen entries to the 2nd Edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill: Leiden) that included two long articles on “Matbakh” , the kitchen, and “Tabkh”, on cooking techniques with shorter pieces including “Clarified butter”, “Sugar”, and “Saffron”. Finally, the moment was due to publish an article which had been gestating for some years on the fundamental relationship in medieval Islamic societies between the domestic kitchen and the public pharmacy, “Dietetics in medieval Islamic culture”, Medical History, 43/2 (1999) 228-240. Brill also published the Encyclopedia of the Qur’an (2001-06) where I contributed another dozen entries including lengthy ones on “Agriculture and vegetation” and “Food and Drink”. More recently, my article “Cookery” appeared in The New Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 4 (2010), 751-63. And, ever hopeful, I await the appearance of my article, “Food in Antiquity: the Islamic Dimension” in Wilkins and Nadeau’s Companion to Food in the Ancient World, which has been ‘in press’ for seven years.
In only one publication could I claim to have satisfied both a passion for the medieval period and a more sober concern for modern times and contemporary events. This was An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge: CUP, 1995) which also proved to be my most successful publication, a second enlarged edition appearing in 2003, with translations into Italian (1995), Spanish (1998), Estonian [!] (2003) and a special South Asian edition in 2004. As with many colleagues, irrespective of one’s individual specialism, the events of 9/11 forced a refocus upon current political movements. This was first expressed in an essay entitled simply “Islam” in Religions in the Modern World (ed. Woodhead et al, 2002, 182-203) and in a revised, expanded version for the second edition, 2009, 238-63. The essay “Manichean madness: The West vs the Rest”, Journal for Cultural Research, 10/1 (2006) 69-83, formed a post-9/11 critique of selected western assessments of what was then being labelled a ‘Clash of Civilizations’; this also appeared in Spanish translation.
The new 21st century, during which I have been mainly ‘retired’, has given me time to publish work on other approaches to medieval food culture. First was an edited volume of articles, previously published by others, covering three areas reflecting the book’s title, Patterns of Everyday Life, which expressed the basic human needs of shelter, clothing, food and drink. It was Volume 10 of a 47 volume series on The Formation of the Classical Islamic World (General Editor, Lawrence Conrad, Ashgate Publishing Co., 2002) and also comprised a lengthy editorial Introduction and bibliography. The next book was a departure in some ways. The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer (I.B. Tauris/Chicago University Press, 2010), related the life of the 14th century Moroccan world traveller who had attracted my attention owing to his avid curiosity for food customs and hospitality among the peoples he visited, to which I devoted a separate chapter. Finally, my latest volume, titled at length, Brill Reference Guide to Food Culture and Health in pre-Modern Muslim Societies (Brill: Leiden, 2011), presents edited articles from the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam on these themes, together with a lengthy editor’s introduction covering the historical background.
What of the future? My latest article was “Ibn Battuta on the ‘shedding of blood’ in the Delhi Sultanate”, al-Masaq, 24/3 (2012) 279-92, dealing with an issue only lightly treated in the book. Ibn Battuta’s judgement of the Sultan was deeply ambivalent despite his appointment by the ruler as a religious judge (qadi ) throughout his 10-year sojourn in India. He praised the Sultan’s generosity from which he benefited. But he condemned the violence which accompanied the ruler’s exercise of power of which he was nearly victim himself. Both perceptions were embedded in contemporary, 14th century, Islamic norms. Focusing now on our own deeply troubled times a complex question arises: does an assessment of 21st century Islamic jihad create any similar ambivalence in the judgement of either current participants or its critics?