German Medieval Studies and the Arab World: Overcoming Disciplinary and Epistemic Boundaries within the Humanities

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Jenny Rahel Oesterle (History, University of Regensburg, Germany)

Jenny Rahel Oesterle El-Nabbout. Photo: private.

I am a medievalist, specialized in the history of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. I have worked and received training at several universities throughout my career and am currently teaching at the University of Regensburg. My discipline, medieval history, has undergone relatively fundamental changes in recent years, which are, in many aspects, tied to productive and sometimes critical challenges that other disciplines of the humanities are also currently facing. Four of the driving forces that have led to these changes in the discipline of history, especially medieval history, were brilliantly summarized by Steffen Patzold in his talk at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities:[1] the effects and chances of digitalization, interdisciplinarity within the humanities and between the humanities and the sciences, the danger of the political instrumentalization of history and, finally, transculturality – a field that is also being intensely discussed in all disciplines of the humanities. The latter is especially related, in medieval studies, to the attempt to broaden the spatial scope from Latin Europe to the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle and Far East, and to rethink history from the perspective of entanglements, connectivity and intercultural contacts. In this essay, I would like to deal with this last field in more detail.

Transculturality: Broadening the Spatial Scope of Medieval Studies in Germany

The integration of the Arab World (and other world regions) was rarely a concern in medieval research and teaching at German universities until the beginning of the 21st century.[2] Since my first encounter with medieval history as a student at a German university from 1997 onwards, the ‘Middle Ages’, I was taught, were spatially located in the Latin ‘Reich’, sometimes also including France, England, and randomly Byzantium and Eastern Europe. However, the history of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Far East were mostly not included – unless connections to Europe could not be neglected, such as during the period of the crusades. Understanding, for example, the Islamic caliphates as a form of medieval rulership[3] and, thus, a ‘legitimate’ research field would have been rather exotic, sometimes even deprecated as a potential topic of medieval research.

The reason the medieval history of the Arab World was not considered part of the medievalist’s training is that the former was placed separately in another discipline, i.e. Islamic/Middle Eastern studies, which itself covers a wide spectrum of topics, from literary studies and linguistics to religion and Islamic law.[4] This disciplinary separation between history and Islamic/Middle Eastern studies has a long tradition in the German context and goes back to the emergence and formation of the humanities and its disciplines in the 19th century.[5] Scholars in each of the two disciplines produced groundbreaking editions and studies. However, a historian working on the medieval Middle East would have been rather misplaced in most German history departments – while, simultaneously, not finding the right disciplinary place in an institute for Islamic/Middle Eastern studies with a scholarly focus, for example, on philology, linguistics, literary studies, law or religion.

This situation has improved a lot since the beginning of the 21st century. Scholars of both disciplines have engaged in inter- and cross-disciplinary projects[6] and turned the attention towards ‘transcultural’ and even ‘global’ medieval history[7] that includes the Euro-Arab-Mediterranean, African, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern realms. They have focused on many different topics, to mention just a few: trade routes, migration, knowledge transfer, minorities, maritime history, the role of islands and interreligious contacts.[8] Very often, these studies strongly rely on interdisciplinarity, on regional and linguistic expertise, introducing different methodological approaches, such as comparisons, writing shared and entangled history, and experimenting with alternative and more inclusive epochal concepts, such ‘First Millennium’ and ‘Late Antiquity’.[9]

Quo VadisTranscultural Medieval Studies’?

Talking about Islamic caliphs at a conference of German medievalist in the year 2021 no longer needs justification, yet the challenges of transcultural medieval research in Germany persist. In this respect, I will pick a few aspects that I consider most relevant.

(Medieval) history of other world regions – for example, the Arab World – is still not yet central in the teaching curricula at universities. However, the next generation of historians, may they become school teachers, academics, or journalists, will naturally work in an increasingly diverse society in Germany. The statement of the global historian Julia Hauser (in this blog series), that teaching global history could lead to a “potentially more equitable approach to conviviality” in future multireligious, multiethnic societies, is also true for premodern transcultural history. This is not only the case with teaching topics that are linked to transculturality at first sight. When I teach ‘classical’ medieval classes, I regularly include comparative sessions in the syllabus with immense didactical effects: whoever studies the political impact of Latin-Christian traveling kingdoms (Reisekönigtum) through a comparative lens of capital-based political structures, such as in the Islamic caliphates, might better understand the central European political form of rulership in all its complications, advantages and disadvantages.

It is, of course, also a problem of language competences: history students rarely read Arabic or other non-European languages. Teaching and research still lack reliable, critical editions of Arabic sources translated into German that university teachers and scholars can take hold of. A visionary and intensely needed commented anthology of primary sources on transmediterranean history in Arabic, English and German is currently in preparation by the medievalists Daniel König and Theresa Jäckh at the University of Konstanz.

Finally, it is appalling how the discussion circles of Arab and German medievalists have remained almost disconnected until now. The research of our Arab colleagues is still relatively unknown in Germany, especially the ones based at non-Western universities in the Arab World, and particularly from ‘less easily accessible’ regions, such as Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The article of the Iraqi-Kurdish medievalist Haidar Lashkry in this blog series reveals the flourishing scientific activity of medievalists at a small university in Iraq, one that most medievalists in Germany are not aware of. Medieval historians in Germany are still mostly discussing and researching about Arab history without consulting the works and opinions of their Arab colleagues (which is, of course, also related to the lack of language skills, hence, the necessity of encouraging and enhancing translations). Arab medievalists are rarely present at German conferences and vice versa; collaborative publications are also rare.[10] “Intercultural learning communities”[11] are, thus, still a future vision. I here second Julia Hauser’s statement in this blog series, that there is a potential for Arab–German co-operation in (medieval) historical research, and I add, specifically to explore common but simultaneously different scientific history and mutual perspectives on one’s own and each other’s history, i.e. the history of Europe from Arab eyes and the history of the Middle East from the perspective of European scholars under the respective scientific treatment of one’s ‘own’ historical past.

However, from the various collaboration projects I conducted with Arab and German partners, for example in Iraq,[12] I also learned about existing difficulties, not least with practical issues, such as finding the right expert via sometimes poorly developed websites and establishing a lingua franca (while English is not commonly used by scholars in many regions of the Arab Word, using Arabic remains a challenge for most scholars in Germany). War and postwar conditions make it difficult for researchers to get access to research literature and sources, travel and sometimes even correspond digitally. The article of the Kuwaiti colleague Abdulhadi Alajmi (in this blog series) emphasizes methodological obstacles that Arab medieval scholarship is facing, but, at the same time, it reveals the critical, innovative approaches of ‘a new generation’ of Arab colleagues in the field of (medieval) history. In both Germany and the Arab World, (medieval) history can become politically instrumentalized: How do we scholars respond to problematic claims of teleological ties from medieval empires to present-day nations? “Should one praise Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin) as a Muslim warrior or disparage him for not establishing a state for the Kurds?” asked the Kurdish-Iraqi medievalist Haidar Lashkry in his contribution to this blog series. We, Arab and German medievalists, must resort to scientific methods to deal with these highly problematic instrumentalizations of our past, such as, the simplification of the crusades as western imperialistic movements, on the one hand, and the proclamation of a heroic defeat of the Islamic expansion in the battle of Tours and Poitiers (732 AD), allegedly ‘saving’ Europe from becoming a Muslim continent, on the other.[13] However, we might have to start to discuss an even more fundamental question: Is the ‘Middle Ages’ (al-ʿuṣūr al-wusṭā) an appropriate concept to grasp period(s) beyond Europe (and even with regard to Europe, the concept is criticized), or is it merely a ‘western’ approach to periodize history?[14]

I strongly believe that it is essential to overcome not only disciplinary but also epistemic boundaries and, as Christian Junge puts it in his contribution to this blog series, to be “no longer content […] with doing research on the MENA region but seek to do research with the colleagues from that region”, i.e. to collaborate in facing obstacles and thinking about options to explore medieval history together. A still powerful tool is the formation of long-term reliable partnerships with colleagues at different Arab and German universities – some of them are mentioned in this article – which will hopefully have a snowball effect for successful scientific adventures in researching and teaching medieval history in the coming decades.


[1] Steffen Patzold, “Die Zukunft des Mittelalters: Zur Relevanz der Mittelalterforschung im 21. Jahrhundert” (“The Future of the Middle Ages: On the Relevance of Medieval Research in the 21st century”), presentation at the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, September 2019, [accessed 10.8.2021].

[2] This is also the case for other areas outside of the Latin realm; I will focus in this essay on one of my research fields, the medieval Middle East.

[3] See, for example, the studies of Wolfram Drews, Karolinger und Abbasiden von Bagdad: Legitimationsstrategien frühmittelalterlicher Herrscherdynastien im transkulturellen Vergleich, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2009; Almut Höfert, Kaisertum und Kalifat: Der imperiale Monotheismus im Früh- und Hochmittelalter, Frankfurt a. M.: Campus, 2015.

[4] Prominent research is done on the Medieval Middle East in the discipline of Islamic/Middle Eastern studies. This is true for generations of scholars from the 19th century onwards until now.

[5] Sabine Mangold, Eine “weltbürgerliche Wissenschaft”. Die deutsche Orientalistik im 19. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004.

[6] See also the latest report on the ‘state of the art’ by the German Association of Medievalists (Mediävistenverband): Wolfram Drews, Matthias Müller and Regina Toepfer (eds.), Mediävistik 2021: Positionen, Strategien, Visionen, special issue of Das Mittelalter: Perspektiven mediävistischer Forschung 26/1, 2021, especially the editors’ introduction “Mittelalterforschung als gesellschaftliche und interdisziplinäre Herausforderung: Zukunftsperspektiven des Mediävistenverbandes – mit einem Rückblick auf seine Geschichte”, 3–29, 12.

[7] The question is whether medieval history can already be termed as ‘global’, or if ‘transregional’ or ‘transcultural’ history is more convincing. Is there a ‘longue durée’ of global historical processes starting in the premodern period, as Thomas Ertl and Michael Limberger have argued, or is globality defined by an even more dense connectivity, as it might be described after 1500? See Thomas Ertl and Michael Limberger, “Vormoderne Verflechtungen von Dschingis Khan bis Christoph Columbus: Eine Einleitung”, in: Thomas Ertl and Michael Limberger (eds,), Die Welt 1250-1500, Vienna: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2009, 11-28, 19.

[8] See, for example, Michael Borgolte, Christen, Juden, Muselmanen: Die Erben der Antike und der Aufstieg des Abendlandes 300 bis 1400 n. Chr., München: Siedler Verlag, 2006; Drews, Karolinger und Abbasiden; Nikolas Jaspert, Die Reconquista: Christen und Muslime auf der Iberischen Halbinsel 711-1492, München: C.H. Beck, 2019; Nikolas Jaspert, Sebastian Kolditz, Reinhard von Bendemann and Annette Gerstenberg (eds.), Konstruktionen mediterraner Insularitäten, Paderborn: Brill, 2016; Daniel G. König, Arabic-Islamic Views of the Latin West: Tracing the Emergence of Medieval Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015; Höfert, Kaisertum und Kalifat; Dorothea Weltecke, Minderheiten und Mehrheiten: Erkundungen religiöser Komplexität im mittelalterlichen Afro-Eurasien, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020.

[9] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1971; Garth Fowden, Before and after Muhammad: The First Millenium Refocused, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014; see also Thomas Bauer, Warum es kein islamisches Mittelalter gab: Das Erbe der Antike und der Orient, München: C.H. Beck, 2018.

[10] There are, of course, some exemptions, such as a recent conference on Arabic historiography organized by Lutz Raphael and Amar Badji at the University of Trier.

[11] Wolf Lepenies, “Das Ende der Überheblichkeit”, DIE ZEIT, 48, 24 November, 1995; quoted also in Christian Junge’s contribution to this blog series.

[12] In cooperation with Bashar Ibrahim (Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait) in the context of the Arab German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). An interdisciplinary project with computer scientists and historians from the Universities of Baghdad and al-Nahrain is funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD; German-Iraqi Partnerships, Initiations 2021).

[13] See also the exemplifications of Patzold, “Die Zukunft des Mittelalters”.

[14] See also Bauer, Warum es kein islamisches Mittelalter gab.

Jenny Rahel Oesterle El-Nabbout is a professor of Medieval History at the University of Regensburg (since 2021). Her research focus is on the history of Medieval Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. She recently finished her ‘second book’ (Habilitation) on the persecution and the protection of refugees in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Her publications and research interests further include medieval court rituals in Latin Europe and the Islamic world, interreligious contacts in the medieval Mediterranean, medieval Arab historiography and cartography, and the history of historical Studies (Wissenschaftsgeschichte) especially in Germany and the Middle East. Jenny Rahel Oesterle El-Nabbout is an alumna of the Arab German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA).

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Abdulhadi Alajmi, History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography, 15.07.2021

Hala Auji, Outside Looking in: On Teaching Art History from the ‘Margins’, 22.07.2021

Marko Demantowsky, “Innovationitis” and Humanities, 23.09.2021

Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, On Contemporary Arab Philosophy as a Field of Study, 7.10.2021

Azelarabe Lahkim Bennani, How the Values of Modernity Contribute to Cultural Mediation, 14.10.2021

Citation: Jenny Rahel Oesterle, German Medieval Studies and the Arab World: Overcoming Disciplinary and Epistemic Boundaries within the Humanities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research,, 28.10.2021

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 28. Oktober). German Medieval Studies and the Arab World: Overcoming Disciplinary and Epistemic Boundaries within the Humanities. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 21. Mai 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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