“New discoveries change old perceptions and generate new questions that keep us moving forward” – 5in10 with Peter Webb
Peter Webb taught classical Arabic Literature and History at SOAS (2009-14) and at the American University of Paris (2013-14). He has published a number of scholarly articles and book chapters on Arabic Literature and Muslim Narratives of pre-Islamic History, and with the Saudi Archaeologist, Saad al-Rashid, he co-authored Medieval Roads to Mecca, a history of the early Hajj. He is currently Fellow of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices at Forum Transregionale Studien, investigating on monumental architecture of Mamluk Cairo by exploring the semiotic nexus of text and image in architecture and the relationship between the experience of using a space and the act of reading.
What was surprising to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
When I was growing up in Canada, Latin and classical history were important components of my education. Experiencing a Mediterranean past in my North American present convinced me of the value in trying to gaze beyond our own time and space, and the questions that then started forming would shape the path of my career. We learned that the Roman heroes of our classical study clashed periodically with peoples to the East, and while we rarely glimpsed into that Eastern space, I noticed that the Romans rarely ‘won’ those clashes, and so my curiosity grew. Who were these peoples? Their worlds were clearly more substantial than anyone was letting on. My curiosity led to enrolment in a BA Arabic program, eventually a PhD in Arabic, I have since also learned Persian, and I am still looking for answers.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator („elevator pitch“)?
My research is divided between two fields. The first (the subject of my PhD and forthcoming book Imagining the Arabs) is about Arab identity: why did people start calling themselves ‘Arabs’, how did one become an Arab in early Islam, what did the word ‘Arab’ mean, and how have its meanings changed over time? My second project (started this year in Berlin) studies text and space in the monumental architecture of Mamluk Cairo. What were the functions of calligraphy on buildings? Did people ‘read’ the buildings when they visited them, and if so, what messages did buildings pass to them? This project aims to decode the so ubiquitous calligraphy in architecture and ornament in the Islamic world and explores the relationships between word and image.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
New discoveries change old perceptions and generate new questions that keep us moving forward. I think academics do well to ensure that each stage of their journeys is formative.
How is it, to do research in Germany?
I sense a real, and generous commitment to the Humanities in Berlin. The array of forums, research platforms and other groups create enjoyably unexpected assemblies of international scholars conducive to developing each of our projects while revealing a little more of the world which we usually do not see in our home institutions.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
Classical Islamic history is often caught amidst modern polemics. Manifold groups each would like to claim ownership over knowing what Islam and the Middle East ‘really were’ or ‘really should be’, and while it is inevitable that memories of the past will be appropriated by the present, the polemics sometimes essentialise the subject and block our access to the rich achievements and cultural triumphs of Muslim societies in the past. We need to listen more carefully to the voices from the past to hear their own stories.
Recent publications of Peter Webb:
Al-Jāhiliyya: Uncertain Times of Uncertain Meanings, Der Islam, 2014.1, 69-94.
Poetry and the Early Islamic Historical Tradition, in Poetry and Warfare in Middle Eastern Literatures, Hugh Kennedy (ed), London: IB Tauris, 2013, 119-14.