Educating her students about Islamic culture and sharing her research worldwide are dual passions for Nassima Neggaz, Ph.D., an assistant professor of religion and Islamic studies at New College. This year, Neggaz is teaching numerous courses, including “Islam in Western Media: A Deconstruction,” “Illness, Healing and Medicine in Islam,” “Islam and Gender” and “Islamic Movements.” Neggaz holds a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Georgetown University; a master’s degree in Arab Studies (Politics) from Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies; and another master’s degree in Political Science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.
Q: How is teaching Islamic Studies different from teaching other disciplines, and what makes it so important and interesting?
A: Teaching Islamic Studies is an incredible journey for a simple reason: it is an area of study rather than a discipline. This means that we get to use a variety of tools from disciplines including History, Political Science or Linguistics, for instance. Islamic Studies is of utmost importance today. There is way too much misinformation in the media and absolutely no contextualization for what is happening in the broad region we call the Muslim world. There is also no curriculum in high school, and students come to me with zero knowledge and only impressions. This gives me the sense that I make a difference in my work, especially when I hear students tell me that their perceptions were transformed after taking one of my courses.
Q: An article you wrote, sketching the history of a Baghdadi neighborhood (from 750 to 1055 C.E.), was published in the journal Studia Islamica in May. Can you tell us a bit about this project?
A: When working on Mongol Baghdad, I examined accounts from the 13th to 15th centuries in Arabic and Persian, and I kept noticing mentions of a specific neighborhood of the city before the conquest of 1258 (it was called al-Karkh). The neighborhood was mentioned for its rebellions and violence, and seen as a major factor leading to the downfall of the Caliphate. It had been repeatedly destroyed and burnt down during the Abbasid period, at times being isolated from the rest of the city with brick walls surrounding it. That being said, there was not a single scholarly article on this neighborhood, so I started doing research to trace the history of the violence there. I ended up retracing the history of a Shi’i movement in this neighborhood, from the foundation of the city in 762 up until the end of the Buyid period in 1055.
Q: What impact does this publication have on your work at New College?
A: I have already received notes from several senior scholars of the Abbasid period, calling it “a very important contribution to the field” and a “tour de force,” further stating that “no one will be able to write about al-Karkh (or neighborhoods) without citing it.” From my standpoint, this article will be important for my future book, because it contextualizes critical elements I won’t be able to treat in the book, which deals with a different time period (1258 to 1533). The article is 51 pages long, and contains a map of the neighborhood of al-Karkh, crafted with the help of Cal Murgu, our digital humanities librarian. I will be talking about the article in the Abbasid History Podcast in the coming months for anyone who would like to hear more. The link is here.
Q: Have you been able to work with students on any of your projects?
A: I have not had a chance to do that yet, mostly because my projects are rooted in Arabic and Persian sources from the late medieval period (I would be able to do so if my students could read these sources). But I have involved a student in some of my research on Abu al-Fida, a Syrian Prince and historian of the Crusades; we examined a translation of his memoirs during a tutorial. I also worked with a student to prepare an article on the Iraqi city of Mosul for the Brill Encyclopedia of Islam (third edition). The student has been compiling and analyzing scholarship in English, German and French.
Q: Can you tell us about the book you are writing with Cambridge University Press?
A: The book examines the impact of the 1258 Mongol invasion of Baghdad on Sunni-Shi‘i relations and communal memories. This event was seen as the end of the world by many Muslims of the time: “the most bitter of events” and “a disaster among the most distressing of calamities” in the words of the 14th-century historian Baybars al-Mansuri (d. 1325). This is a short abstract of the book: “The monograph examines the construction of sectarian identities through the lens of historical narratives of the fall of Baghdad produced between 1258 and 1533. By analyzing the ways in which Abbasid, Mongol and Mamlūk historians described the events of 1258, the book sheds light on evolving perceptions of group identity, orthodoxy, and community boundaries among Sunnī and Shī‘ī writers.”
Q: Why do you think it is important to write about these findings?
A: The impact of Mongol rule on religious groups in the Middle East needs further work. The role of the Shi‘i vizier Ibn al-‘Alqami (d. 1258) has been the object of a polemic, which resurfaced widely after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Today a hashtag =A̸ lkami/Alqami and =A̸ lakima/Alaqima has spread on social media (Twitter, in particular) as a reference to the alleged continued betrayal of Sunnis by the Shi‘a. Historical inquiry into these sensitive topics is necessary and healthy, especially when noticing the amount of polarized speech online. It is important to understand context, and how sociopolitical events have impacted religious views and discourses.
Q: What’s next?
A: I am currently finishing two book chapters for two edited volumes: a chapter on revolts in the medieval Middle East (1200 to 1500), and a chapter on Abu al-Fida’ as a historian of the Crusades. I have also agreed to contribute to another edited volume on Religion and War, following a conference at King’s College. There are several other small projects underway, including participation in the Atlas des Mondes Musulmans Médiévaux with the French CNRS (viewable here), and several entries for the Brill Encyclopedia of Islam. I will continue working on my book manuscript once these are sent out. I have just published two other peer-reviewed articles this summer: one historiographical examination of the treatment of the death of the last Abbasid Caliph in both Eastern and Western accounts of the time (in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society), and one on current polemics in Iraq and the Middle East on the events of 1258 and the hashtag I mentioned earlier (in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies). I was also invited to write a foreword for an academic volume on Syria—both an honor and a pleasure.
Q: When you’re not studying medieval Baghdad or teaching Arabic, what do you do in your free time?
A: Travel is a big one. I was lucky to travel to over 50 countries and I lived in 12. I grew up bilingual, and I love foreign languages and being in an environment that is culturally different from what I am accustomed to. I work with five languages that I am proficient in (German, which I took early on as a child growing up close to the German border in Lorraine, France; French, my mother tongue; English; Arabic; and Persian). I love sports, especially swimming and Pilates, but also volleyball. I like to dance too, in particular to Middle Eastern music (from Turkey, Iran or the Arab world). I enjoy cooking and horticulture. And I have strong interests in interior design, calligraphy and fashion.