MESA Rountable

The program committee of the 2011 Middle East Studies Association annual meeting has accepted Abigail Balbale’s round-table proposal “Is Iberia a Middle East Topic?”  The round-table will take place at the meeting in Washington D.C., December 1-3, 2011. The speakers are:

Brian Catlos (University of Colorado-Boulder)

Camilo Gómez-Rivas (American University in Cairo)

Antoine Borrut (University of Maryland-College Park)

Abigail Balbale (Harvard University)

Yuen-Gen Liang (Wheaton College, MA) as moderator.


Islamic Iberia only figures marginally in standard elaborations of Middle Eastern history. Studied in isolation or as a distant satellite of truly Middle Eastern powers, it is rarely treated as a Middle Eastern topic in its own right. This roundtable asks whether Iberia can be seen as a source of Middle Eastern history rather than simply a region “under the influence” of Middle Eastern powers. How does the study of Iberia change if we consider it to be Middle Eastern rather than European? How does Middle Eastern history shift if we imagine Iberia as central rather than peripheral or European? And how is European history affected if Iberia is Middle Eastern instead of European? In honor of the thirteen-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula, we explore the ramifications of examining Spain’s and Europe’s history alongside that of the Middle East.

The history of Islamic Iberia has frequently focused on its uniqueness, both geographical and cultural. As a long-lasting and important locus of Christian-Muslim interaction, and with its location in Western Europe, al-Andalus traditionally has been seen by both historians of Europe and of the Middle East as an exceptional place. The result is that Iberia often falls into a netherworld of liminality – incomparable to its neighbors on either side, by virtue of its Islamic past and its eventual fall to the Christians. Scholarship on Iberia tends to focus on spatially and temporally limited political and cultural forms that emerged at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Yet, from 711 through to the Early Modern period, parts of Iberia were more closely connected to Islamic powers across the Mediterranean than to Christian powers across the Pyrenees, and people and material moved freely throughout Islamdom. Some Middle Eastern historians have noted the parallels between political and cultural processes occurring in Islamic Spain and in the Islamic heartlands, in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, and during the time of the dissolution of the caliphate. In the narrative of Medieval Middle Eastern history, however, Spain rarely warrants more than a footnote. Our roundtable will address the questions and problems arising from these divergent understandings of the Middle East. Individual discussants focus on diverse periods and places, and approach the question of Iberia’s relationship to the broader Islamic world in various ways.