History of the Modern Middle East (Richard Bulliet)

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I love listening to audio recordings of lectures, especially of university classes. I prefer them to books because I can put them on my phone and then listen to them while walking around, which prevents me from falling asleep (something that happens often when someone with a video-game-rotted brain tries to sit down and read a book). I prefer them to audiobooks because listening to someone read straight from a book is even more boring than actually reading the book yourself. Of course there are bad lecturers who just read straight from their notes or whatever, but a good lecturer is able to deliver the same information and ideas in a more conversational style, which is more interesting to listen to and also easier to follow.

One of my favorite audio-recorded lecture series is History of the Modern Middle East by Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet. HMME was given as an undergraduate history class at Columbia in Spring 2009 (so in particular it doesn’t cover the Arab Spring). It consists of 26 lectures which are about 75 minutes apiece (for a total of a little over 30 hours). Bulliet covers a wide variety of topics related to the Middle East, but also spends quite a bit of time discussing whether the Middle East is even a real thing (see below for his answer to the question of whether Georgia is in the Middle East!).

Before I go into a more detailed review, let me say that I recommend this course without reservation to anyone who reads this blog.

strip mall ottoman fountain

The Modern Middle East

Topics: The course is called History of the Modern Middle East. This title is a bit of a misnomer. It should really be called History of “the Modern Middle East”, with a set of quotation marks. This is not just a class on the history of the Middle East, but also a class on the historiography of the Middle East, i.e. the different ways in which history has been presented and the different stories that have been told. For example, when did people (Europeans, really) start talking about the “Middle East” and when did they start thinking of it as “modern”? One particularly important recurring topic is the place of Iran in the story of the Middle East. Iran wasn’t a part of the Ottoman Empire and it never came under direct European control, so historians have had a difficult time fitting it in with generalizations that  were made about Turkey, Egypt, etc. Another important topic is Islam, especially the ways in which it was ignored by historians right up until the Iranian Revolution.

Professor: Bulliet (an American) is primarily a historian of Iran, but has written books on a wide array of topics, most notably on the development of early technology like animal domestication and wheeled vehicles. He is prone to going off on long, boring tangents about, say, different types of camels (though he’s self-aware enough to mention that most people find that kind of thing boring). He tells a lot of anecdotes about living in Turkey and Iran in the 1960s and 1970s, and apparently he speaks Persian, Turkish, and Arabic. His lecture style is casual without being superficial and irreverent without being gimmicky. In general, he comes across as a very friendly guy. Encouraged by this, I actually sent him an email asking him whether he thought Georgia was in the Middle East. With his permission, here is his answer (with emphasis added by me):

Is Georgia part of the Middle East? A reasonable question if one believes the Middle East is a real thing. But I do not. In my view, the term Middle East became standard after World War II American shorthand for “Muslim world not under French, British, Dutch, or Soviet domination.” When the colonies of the first three gained independence, the utility of the term began to unravel. India and East were too far east to count as Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa too far south. So scholars over here experimented with other terms: West Asia, leaving out North Africa; SWANA, for Southwest Asia and North Africa; and MENA, for Middle East and North Africa. These were all awkward and did not supplant Middle East. As for Middle East as a term, it gained circulation as a wartime British term—Middle East Supply Center in Cairo—that had greater utility than Near East, since the formerly Ottoman and then German occupied Balkan countries had always been included in Near East, but obviously could not be included in a British army spatial designation. The Americans inherited this usage, born of military necessity, and some scholars have written essays trying to explain what it means in some “absolute” sense. I don’t think the Middle East has an “absolute” meaning, and I suspect that it will no longer be the dominant term fifty years from now.
As a consequence, I think you should feel free to include Georgia in the region if it pleases you. It doesn’t have to make total sense. Given the attention now accorded Ethiopia, Armenia, and Georgia, as the eastern Christian fringe of Late Antiquity, it might even be a useful inclusion since the lands that provided both adversaries for the Arabs and converts to Islam (or refuges for non-converts) can reasonably be lumped with the classical caliphate for some purposes. As an Iranian historian, I certainly feel comfortable lumping Georgia with Iran and the Caspian and Central Asian Muslim states from 1300 onward.  Historians of that period have paid too little attention to Georgia.  Soviet scholarship, of course, inherited the Czarist geographical borders and a presumption that those borders were ineluctable, but that was  simply a matter of political expedience.

So there you have it. Now, back to the lectures.

Difficulty: Given their frequently meta-historical character, these lectures demand a fair amount of background knowledge about the Middle East. I don’t know if that was expected of students in the class from the outset or if that background was to be provided by assigned readings. I didn’t do any readings because 1) I don’t have the syllabus (let me know if you do!) and 2) I’m not trying to read anything — that’s the whole point of listening to the recordings! Besides this, Bulliet repeatedly makes references to maps that the listener can’t see, so it’s imperative to understand the geography of the region.

Sound Quality: Unfortunately, the sound quality of these recordings is terrible. It sounds like somebody in the back of the room was recording him without his knowledge. I like to listen to lectures while walking around, and for this course I found that I couldn’t hear him if there was even a little traffic nearby. I actually resorted to editing and improving the sound quality myself using Audacity. It’s a pain in the ass, but it makes listening much easier.


Links: Here’s a link to the recordings, and here’s another of Bulliet’s classes, History of Iran to the Safavid Period. There are also some miscellaneous Bulliet lectures up on Youtube, which are generally worth listening to as well. Here’s a video of Bulliet being interviewed in the 80s by someone who looks like he’s guarding a dark secret:

Notes: Here are my notes from these lectures. They are very crude in form, they contain many incomplete thoughts, and they may occasionally include things that I was thinking about while listening, rather than the actual content of the lectures. Still, they may be of interest to other listeners.

I’ll update this as I add more notes (I’ve listened to all the lectures already, but I didn’t take notes the first time around).


  1. Introduction

What is the “history of the Modern Middle East”? Is it a history of modernity in the Middle East, or is it a history of the Middle East during some particular time period?

When should such a course begin? Traditionally, it would have begun with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. But that’s an Orientalist approach. When we demarcate historical periods, should we only use events internal to the region being studied as benchmarks? Or can we use external events?

“Modern” was first applied to countries rather than the region as a whole, e.g. with books like “The History of Modern Egypt”, “Four Centuries of Modern Iraq”. “Modern” here basically means “colonial”.

“Middle East” comes from WW2. Ottoman lands were previously referred to as the “Near East”, but when SE Europe was conquered by the Germans, the British needed a new term to refer to their Arab possessions.

In the book “The Emergence of Modern Turkey”, “modern” means “like Europe” (with democratic institutions, etc. Until the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the study of ME history was hijacked by modernization theory, which interpreted everything in light of the ME’s hypothesized eventual Europeanization.

Modernization theorists didn’t study or pay attention to Islam because they assumed it would eventually become marginalized (as Christianity has in modern Europe). At the same time, however, influential Islamist intellectuals were beginning to gain popularity.

A comparison between American Evangelicalism and Saudi Wahabiism.

  1. The Big Bang and the Big Crunch Theory of Islamic History

Islamic history is like the cosmological history of the universe, with periods of inflation followed periods of contraction. There have been four periods of inflation

In the beginning, Islam consisted only of the Quran.

The first inflation was the creation of the sunnah, a collection of stories (hadiths) about Muhammed’s life and actions. These were often used to address mundane questions, e.g. “What shoe should I put on first after I pray?” and “Is it permissible to eat garlic/horse/whatever?” There were thousands and thousands of hadiths, many of which were peculiar to certain areas. Different traditions of hadiths developed, and contradictions began to arise.

The first contraction of Islam was the culling of hadiths that were considered of unreliable provenance. The remaining hadiths were standardized and shorn (perhaps on purpose) of their geographical origin.

The second inflation was the creation of different legal schools (sharia). The differences between these schools, which resulted in how the interpreted the Quran and the sunnah, were often violent and chaotic. Thus the second contraction was the settling of these differences and the establishment of four main schools.

The third inflation was the rise of the Sufi brotherhoods. They are usually described as “Islamic mystic” groups, but in fact they also functioned as social and cultural organizations. They were once quite widespread and varied. In the third contraction, they began to come under fire both from Wahabi and Shia conservatives as well as from modernizers. This culminated in Ataturk’s elimination of Sufis from Turkey.

The fourth inflation, which is ongoing, has been the increase of media through which Islam is taught and learned. In the past, Islam passed down at a local level by teachers whom the students knew personally. The printing press and especially the Internet have changed that, allowing a much broader and less reputable variety of opinions about Islam to proliferate. The fourth contraction might be a reining in of all this and a standardization of the distribution of doctrine.

In general, while Christianity seems hopelessly prone schisms and splintering, Islam has always had a tendency towards regularity. When it overextends into too much diversity, it corrects itself and irons out the wrinkles.

  1. Geography and Inequality

This one is kinda meandering. Topics covered: the physical geography of the ME, different types of camels, the spread of Islam, Christians living under Muslim rule, “Islamo-Christian civilization”, two reverse east-west cultural divides, the place of Muslims in European national histories, and the nature of inequality among civilizations

GEORGIA is mentioned (along with Armenia and Ethiopia) as a Christian enclave surrounded by Muslim territory.

  1. Inequality vs Difference

How basic differences between Europe and Middle East become manifested as inequality

European landed aristocracy come from a warrior caste. This ultimately comes from the Indo-European tradition. This is not a universal trait; in ancient Egypt and Sumeria, for example, the kings were religious figures.

In the Middle East, soldiers were not rulers, but were marginal people: tribesmen, or even slaves (mamluks).

Islamic law prohibited the enslavement of fellow Muslims, so boys were seized from Christian lands and raised as obedient soldiers, further entrenching their marginal status. In the Ottoman case, these soldiers were the Janissaries.

Some Arab states today maintain resemblance to medieval Mamluk states (neo-Mamluk).

The Little Ice Age affected Ottoman lands more harshly than it did Europe.

Europe developed paved roads and and four-wheeled vehicles and suspension originally in order to provide comfort to groups of wealthy traveling women.

  1. Land Ownership

This one was a little hard to follow.

From around 1000 AD on, ME experienced less war than Europe and less crime and violence in general. Wars were fought mainly on the frontiers, against Christians. Turks and Persians occasionally fought, but Arabs didn’t.

When wars decreased in frequency and scope, soldiers were only paid during war times. In the “off-season”, they resorted to “banditry”. This functioned as a local form of taxation.

Tax farming: the Ottoman government sold taxation rights in order to reduce the cost of the tax collecting bureaucracy (this was also done in Europe).

Religious law lost its power in Europe because of the many wars of religion. In ME, this didn’t happen, so religious law stayed in effect.

Europeans believed that the despotism and lawlessness of ME rulers showed the injustice of Islamic law, but the Muslim public seems to have felt that the law as it affected their daily lives was just overall.

Sharia, muftis, fetwas

  1. Gunpowder Empires and the Canonical History of the Middle East

This is the “master narrative” that is usually found. The whole story is in quotation marks.

  • Ottomans
    • gunpowder empire
    • conquest state
      • geographical limits
        • financial problems
        • military decline
          • decentralization
          • warlords
  • Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt –> Rise of Muhammad Ali
    • MA’s victory over the Saudis in the Holy Cities
    • Imitation of French army
    • Establishment of military schools, factories, etc
      • “Beginning of modern education in Egypt”
    • MA captures the Levant
    • MA poses a threat to the Ottoman sultan
      • European intervention
        • Dismantling of Egyptian war schools and industry
  • Modernization of the Ottoman military
    • Attempts at creation of new regiments and units thwarted by resistance on the part of existing troops
      • Destruction of Janissary Corps in order to introduce modern military
    • Greek War of Independence
  • Tanzimat reforms

Problems with the traditional account

  • What was the true intent of European interference in Ottoman Empire?
  • Financial problems relating to the maintenance of the military were not unique to the Ottomans.
  • France invaded Algeria the same year that MA invaded Syria.
    • How does North Africa fit into this story?
  • How do Iran and Russia fit into this story?
    • Why were there near-simultaneous revolutions in Turkey, Iran, and Russia?
      • Muslims in Russia

GEORGIA is mentioned as a source of Mamluk soldiers in Egypt.

  1. The Sword, the Pen, and the Turban

The OE is one of the ancien regimes, akin to European ancien regimes. When did OE start being thought of as something different?

Leibeier thesis

Millet system – Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Muslims (monolithic?), since medieval times

Actually, millet system was invented in 19th century (with older roots). Why?

System of Islamic judges

Other branches (army and bureaucrats) get money from taxation. Where does the money for judges come from? Waqf (trust, foundation)

To what extent were the men of the turban independent of the state?

dar al Islam vs dar al harth

Legal aspects of jihad

MA abolishes waqfs in Egypt. Compare this with treatment of church in French Revolution

Religion is important, but it was often not considered. Example: where did the Shiites in Iraq come from? Nobody asked this. It was assumed that Islam had a primordial organization.

Increasing European business in ME

Capitulations – trading terms

Europeans were under the jurisdiction of the consul: extraterritoriality


  1. The Islamic Universe of Social Discourse

How should we look at religious change? Top down? But at some point, the center loses its relationship with outlying areas. A large part of governance does not derive from the regime.

Anthropologists put forward the mosaic model, arguing against analyses that would cover the whole ME. But it wasn’t really a mosaic — more like a patternless pile of pebbles.

What’s the middle ground between top-down analysis and the useless mosaic model?

Four patterns of social hierarchy (there are others too) circa 1820


Tribe (with disclaimers)
Rest of the world
Not all tribes are nomadic; rather, based on group solidarity centered around a khan who is able to organize military power
Tribes are sometimes subordinate to the state, sometimes opposed
Friction between tribal identity and modern states urging settlement and disarmament
Bourgeois (urban based elite)
Politics of the notables
Talk of the regime always stops when you get to the level of the city (not including istanbul)
Did notables persist through time (1400-1800)?
Urban based, non institutionalized structure of government that persists through changes in imperial regime
Regime appoints provincial governor, judge, and local garrison commander
What do the notables leave behind? Mosque complexes
Passing down of reputation for piety rather than wealth (because of difficulties with inheritance in Islamic law)
Trading wealth for piety
The notables act as a liaison between the public and the government
Ottoman cities were less vulnerable than European cities
Notables might not be Muslim
Notables > city people > country people
Sentiment focuses on the city, rather than region or state
City types, city jokes
Villages become cities in the 1800s (Alexandria, Beirut)
Division between urban (Muslim brotherhood) and rural (Taliban) Islamic movements
Religious leadership > believers > nonbelievers
Everyone knew who they were. No “quest for identity”
Triangulation of identity vectors
Everybody’s place is common knowledge
Neighborhoods not distinguished by wealth
Preemption reinforced neighborhood relationships
Islamic universe of discourse; assumption that Islam was the primary discourse
As this assumption disappears, the ease of interaction among hierarchies lessens
Relationships stop working by the 20th century
New hierarchy: western stuff
Western institutions had no natural place in this discourse
Does another discourse supplant Islam?
Nationalism? Iranian revolution challenged this
New Islam is the successor to the old Islam; phase change in Islam, nationalism in period of uncertainty
Did nations exist? Turk and arab were formerly derogatory
Urban centers resisted nationalism / city centered nationalism
  1. Secular Nationalism
Why are “secular” and “nationalism” always together? Why not religious?
Religious nationalism is easier for Christians because islam is inherently supranational
Secularism vs laicism (anti clerical): separation vs state control
ME secular means anti clerical
In the period of ottoman decentralization, Nationalism is more likely to develop where rulers are non muslim. Eg Albania, Egypt vs Greece, Yugoslavia
Compare with Greek and Serbian nationalism
Muslims become the other, against Christians
Greece turkey population transfer involved mostly Greek speakers
Similar in Bosnia, muslims declared alien to the nation
Is this a coincidence?
Islamic nationalism?
Umma — imagined community
Dar al islam– territorial jurisdiction
Common language? Only among Arabs. But Arabic script connotes islam
Maybe Christianity is better suited to nationalism because it allows local jurisdiction
Or maybe it would be better to say that religion has nothing to do with nationalism
Iranian nationalism?
Dar al Islam is too big for nationalism
Vatan means fatherland for turkish nationalism, but for Arabs it means where you’re born, ie hometown
Distinct from devlet, millet, umma
For Arabs, what is the appropriate level between the city and the whole empire?
  1. Assessing Change over Time
How can historical change be measured?
Availability of translations in Iran
How did people find out about the world?
How quickly did “modernization” take place after the tanzimat?
Translations didn’t appear all that quickly
Idea of ottomanism
Histories of the Ottoman Empire
Organization of the Islamic conference (digression)
Measuring change by choice of first names
  • first names of graduates of Harvard
  • first names of members of Turkish Parliament
Choice is a microcosm of all social pressures
Can we define a rate of secularization?
  1. Change and Popular Culture in the Late 19th Century

This one is kinda boring.

  1. Iran in the 19th Century
Geographical diffusion of change
Geographical isolation of Iran
Self imposed religious isolation — Shiism declared around 1500 by Ismail Safavia
Safavid, zan, qajar
Violent succession struggles — sons appointed to governorships, law of fratricide (earlier abandoned by ottomans)
First middle eastern creation of a noble aristocracy because of Fat’h Ali Shah with more than 100 children
Aristocracy suppressed under Reza Shah, who came from peasantry
Stable dynasty until 1920s, but without a robust bureaucracy (unlike ottomans)
 Safavids claimed religious legitimacy (from a Sufi brotherhood)
Qajars came from turkish tribes (kizilbash)
Digression about 12th imam and apocalypse
Ismail safavia was believed by some to be god
Qajars made no claim to Imamate or even to the safavia order
Shiite clergy recognized the shah but didn’t swear allegiance
They maintained spiritual authority and close contact with the people
Founding and persecution of Baha’i
Baha’i as enlightenment religion
Being messianists, Baha’is and Babis were violently opposed by the Shiite ulama
Many Baha’is converted from Judaism, not islam
Many anti Baha’i conspiracy theories in Iran, somewhat mirroring European antisemitism
Qajar persecution of Baha’is helped their legitimacy in the eyes of the clergy
Relationship between Qajars and clergy is different from ottomans, but similar to Saudis
Internal Shiite clergy debate resolved — akhbaris and usulis

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