Identities & Islam

On 19th-20th April the University of Southampton Faculty of Humanities hosted Identities & Islam: The First UK Early Career Symposium on Islamic Archaeology – an event created by myself and Sarah Inskip in the Department of Archaeology.

Prof Alan Walmsley delivering the keynote presentation at the symposium. Photo: Phil Riris

What is Islamic Archaeology?

The term Islamic Archaeology, though it is sometimes used to mean archaeological research relating to the religion of Islam itself (as opposed to the archaeology of Christianity, Buddhism, etc.), is more often a term for the archaeology of societies in which Islam is the dominant religion.

The field has gained prominence in recent years, though it has a long history of playing second fiddle to preceding ancient cultures. Early pioneers such as Ali Bahgat Bey, K. A. C. Creswell and Ernst Herzfeld attempted to bring the Islamic period heritage of countries such as Egypt and Iraq to a level of importance equal to that of more ancient civilisations. Yet not only has Islamic Archaeology remained more peripheral to the interests of governments and academia, but there many problems in the approaches of these early scholars.

Most often the art and architecture of the Islamic world were studied as objects of great beauty and skill, but with little serious consideration of the society that had produced them. Where early scholars did reflect on the people “behind the artefact” in Islamic Archaeology, it was often an Orientalist assumption of what “Islamic society” is and was.

This is something that our keynote speaker, Prof Alan Walmsley of the Materiality in Islam Research Initiative, University of Copenhagen, reflected upon at the symposium. He described the ‘cultural baggage’ we have inherited as scholars, and highlighted the progress we have made so far from the asocial views of early scholarship to a more considered and critical study of not just objects but the variety of individuals and groups that made up the Islamic world in the past.

The medieval city of Fustat, modern Cairo, was excavated by Ali Bahgat Bey in the early 20th century. The area excavated at this time is slowly being encroached upon by development and landfill (left of photograph) Photo: Matthew Harrison

Why an Early Career Symposium on Islamic Archaeology?

Sarah and I chose the theme of this symposium ‘Identities and Islam’ to draw out the vibrant new research from those who are taking such a critical perspective – to explore through material culture the diversity in expression of Muslim identity in the past, and also how religion interacts with other aspects of identity – cultural, ethnic, political, regional, personal.

The symposium marks the start of a series – the Early Career Symposium on Islamic Archaeology. We were aware that though young researchers in the field are becoming more numerous, there are no regular, generalised conferences dedicated to Islamic Archaeology and material culture that are accessible to them. We wanted to make an on-going series of events that were inclusive and affordable, uniting researchers in archaeology, architectural history, art history and museum studies, to create a new academic community.

The event was a great success in many respects. While we had branded the event as a UK symposium, our interest was far wider – particularly France, Spain and Italy. To keep the event inclusive we also allowed delegates to attend ‘virtually’  meaning they could watch papers live over the web. This was very popular, with 56 people registered across 16 countries – from Brazil to Malaysia. Creating dialogue between researchers in European institutions and those of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia is essential to the development of the field, and it is something we want to develop as the symposium series continues.

Organiser Sarah Inskip enjoying a lively debate with Jose C. Carvajal (University of Sheffield) and Antonio Rotolo (University of Granada) at the symposium. Photo: Phil Riris

Identities & Islam : Personal Reflections

There were 14 papers across two days from a range of disciplines and career stages.  

Many papers highlighted the connections and exchange within the Islamic world in the past, between opposing sects and empires, and beyond with the Christian world. One recurring issue was the meaning of artistic and architectural similarities – who was responsible for the exchange of ideas (artisans, architects or wealthy patrons), what were they trying to communicate about their identity, and how widely was their message understood by others?

We also had new perspectives on the transition to Islam, as seen through the archaeology of industry and of everyday life. In certain aspects of people’s lives and in particular regions we could see unbroken continuity with the Classical world and in some cases suggestions of the re-emergence of even older local traditions.

Yet in other contexts there were overt and definitive expressions of Muslim identity and changes in lifestyle that went hand in hand with changes in faith. Interestingly, one of the ways in which we saw this most clearly at the symposium was in evidence relating to the body – either through bodily activities leaving traces on the bones of Muslim populations, or through architectural evidence of changing regimes of cleanliness and hygiene.

The evidence for both continuity and change in identities with the coming of Islam cuts to the heart of one of the central problems of the field of Islamic Archaeology. On one hand we should be wary of thinking of all aspects of life in these societies as ‘Islamic’ – of assuming some monolithic, cultural model defined by religion that ignores variability across space and time. There is, for example, a long tradition of discussing the “Islamic house” and the “Islamic city” in the medieval and modern Muslim world. In contrast, let us think about how useful and appropriate the terms “Christian house” and “Christian city” would be in similar contexts?

On the other hand one cannot underestimate the importance of the concept of the ummah, the uniting nation of Islam that transcends political and geographic barriers. Moreover, one cannot assume that the religious and secular life are easily separated in these societies. Islam was a religious, political and legal force – and as such had profound and complex implications for many aspects of personal identity beyond those of faith, and ways of living beyond acts of worship.

What was so inspiring about the symposium was being able to see the emerging community of researchers who are are aware of these issues, are being critical in their outlook on the medieval Muslim world, and are moving forward to do innovative research that reveals the complexity of these societies.


The First UK Early Career Symposium on Islamic Archaeology was made possible by support from the University of Southampton Faculty of Humanities, The Barakat Trust, Maney Publishing and Beta Analytic

For more information see the symposium blog