The caliphate emerged in the seventh century as a form of political succession to the Prophet Muhammad. The early caliphs aimed to lead the spiritual community that had united under the Prophet’s authority. Within decades, the caliphate was contested by rival parties with radically different understandings of its parameters. Should the caliph be the arbiter of righteous spiritual activity, or a political ruler on the model of pre-Islamic kings and emperors? Should the caliph inherit his position, or be elected by his peers based on his piety? These arguments played out differently across the growing territories under Islamic rule and have recently reemerged with the so-called Islamic State, whose minting of Islamic coins echo earlier strategies of caliphal legitimation even as their destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage departs radically from historical attitudes. This course examines the visual and material culture of the many groups that have claimed the caliphate, from the first caliphs until the present. We will focus on objects associated with the Prophet Muhammad and the early caliphs (many of which had long afterlives), as well as coins, manuscripts, luxury objects, inscribed textiles, palaces, and mosques made by or for later caliphs. Close examination of these objects and spaces reveals the intersection of religion, political power, and material culture, and sheds light on the emergence of a conception of “Islamic art.” A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is planned.

About this course:


This course forms part of an innovative new program of webinars in Islamic Material Culture, centered at Bard Graduate Center, the Universities of Hamburg and Bonn, and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. This program is a collaboration among numismatist Stefan Heidemann, papyrologist Andreas Kaplony, archaeologist Bethany Walker and cultural historian Abigail Balbale that aims to offer students and scholars of the Islamic past comprehensive tools to approach its material culture.

The Material Culture of the Caliphate will be offered in person to students at Bard Graduate Center (and students at institutions participating in the New York doctoral consortium), and simultaneously online via interactive web presence to students around the world.


Prerequisites and application:
Fluency in spoken and written English. Otherwise, there are no prerequisites. The course is open to all advanced students in B.A., M.A., and PhD programs, and to historians, art historians, and archaeologists working on the Islamic world or related topics.

Participants joining via the web should have a computer, reliable internet access and a headset. Students from Hamburg should sign up in the campus system 'Stine' and contact Abigail Balbale or Stefan Heidemann as early as possible to register and get the necessary introduction into the technology.

Students from outside of the Bard Graduate Center and Universität Hamburg are welcome and have to apply with a short CV and a motivation letter in English by September 1, 2015. These should be emailed to Abigail Balbale or Stefan Heidemann. Preference is given to students from universities within the network "Islamic Material Culture:" Universität Hamburg, Ludwig Maximilian-Universität München and Universität Bonn.

The course is limited to 12 students total, in order to ensure a lively and interactive discussion.

Assignments and expectations:
Regular attendance and participation are required. Please email ude.drab.cgb|elablab.liagiba#ude.drab.cgb|elablab.liagiba in advance if you anticipate missing class. The readings will be available on the course wiki, and students are expected to have completed the readings before each class. One student will be asked to lead each seminar, and to post discussion questions based on the readings on the course wiki by the Tuesday before class.

The final project for this class may be a traditional 20-25pp. (double spaced, i.e. 5,000-6,000 words) seminar paper, OR it may be a digital assignment of substantial rigor. Digital assignments can include: GIS mapping of important objects, places or events relating to the caliphate, with explanatory text and a short analytical essay; a digital exhibition of objects, spaces or texts relating to the subjects of the course (with accompanying writing); a short video; or any other means of presenting historical evidence and analysis digitally that excites you. All topics and forms of final projects must be discussed in advance with me. It is my hope that these final projects may be showcased online at the conclusion of the course.

This course will meet on Thursdays from 9:30am-12pm EST (15:30-18:00 Hamburg time) on the following dates:

September 10, September 17, September 24, October 1, October 8, October 15, October 22, October 29, November 5, November 12, November 19

Final projects or papers will be due on December 17.


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