Objectivity and Its Role in Historical Study

Before delving into the reading material for this module, I need to say one thing.  In reading Haskell’s assessment of Novick’s work, it immediately brought to mind a common problem I see when telling my friends/acquaintances that I’m a history major with an interest in pursuing a Master’s degree.  I am often told that they couldn’t study history “because it’s so boring”.  I cannot help but equate Novak’s perspective on history as dispassionate and detached as part of the reason many of our friends, coworkers and family members found the study of history so distasteful and uninteresting during their own time at school.  For me, and likely for many of my classmates, history is alive and full of excitement – and it’s because of the passion many of us have encountered in our readings, our interactions with other historians and our own personal path towards a history degree.

I cannot accept the view Haskell explains from Novick’s book of detachment as dispassionate evaluation.[1]  Rather, I find myself siding firmly on Haskell’s side when he explains that rather than removing passion from our pursuit and study of history, we must simply make sure that our passion and zeal puts us on a collision course with ideals and concepts that conflict with our own.[2]  While Haskell explains that Novick most likely agrees with a definition that equates objectivity with neutrality and/or indifference, Haskell advocates for historical study that is not without passion and can be seen through the lens of personal perspectives while still retaining the ideal of objectivity and intellectual honesty.[3]  While bias is present in each individual regardless of their field of study or attempts at objectivity, Haskell rightly points out that honesty, integrity and fairness can still be required without limiting or silencing individual voices or perspectives.[4]  From a historiographical perspective, it is by viewing history through the lens of individual perspectives, thoughts and bias that allows history to evolve its previous conceptions and give light to new ideas and interpretations of past events.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through my time studying history at SNHU, it’s that history is not static – it is fluid.  Two people can examine identical sources and come to radically different conclusions based on how they interpret those sources.  While historical facts and events can, in some instances, remain fixed, the way we view and interpret those events does not have to be fixed with no hope for differences of opinion and interpretation of them.

Within this module’s reading, I find myself firmly on the side of Haskell’s interpretation, recognizing the need for increased passion in the field of history, but maintaining the standards of objectivity within that passion, and demanding the values of integrity, honesty and fairness that many fields other than history similarly dictate.

[1] Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novik’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory 29, No. 2 (May, 1990): 134, accessed October 1, 2017, JSTOR.

[2] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 134.

[3] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 131.

[4] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 133.


Islam in the Modern World

While this week’s reading may initially seem to be more progressive than a lot of the conservative ideology previously covered in other resources this term, I do not agree that it can actually be labeled as progressive.  It is certainly not a shift towards more liberal interpretations of the Quran, the Hadiths or centuries worth of clerical jurisprudence.  Instead, I see the surprising stance presented this module about both artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery as merely loopholes through which to shove previously established dogmas and understandings.  To frame my meaning in terms of a much more familiar (to most of us) religious context, we see a lot of progressive branches of Christianity attempting to fundamentally change and challenge various verses and doctrines found within the Bible, admitting in many cases that previous understandings were incorrect, and often acknowledging the harm those misunderstandings have caused others.  That is not, however, what we see happening in Islam, contrary to what Abdullahi An-Naim advoctates for in his essay, calling on the need for understandings of Shari’a law to be fluid.[1]

In Islam, we see scholars finding loopholes around firmly entrenched interpretations and understandings in light of increased knowledge, technology and science.  We don’t see them admitting to misinterpretation or error, merely finding ways around precedent as in the case of transsexualism and the fact that it is accepted in Iran specifically because the Quran does not directly address it.[2] While it was surprising for me to learn about not only the legality of sex reassignment surgery in Iran, its frequency and also its relatively early inception compared to other nations, the logic behind it was heartbreaking.  While there are no doubt legitimate transsexuals in Iran that have benefitted from this policy, there is equally no doubt that a large number of people who would identify as gay or lesbian have opted for the label of transsexual in a desperate attempt to escape both the social stigma of homosexuality and its potentially lethal criminal consequences.[3]  In a culture and society where being gay is not only deeply shameful to the individual and their family but also illegal, seeking escape by a willingness to be certified as transsexual is a desperate bid for even a small portion of individual freedom, expression and potential safety – although safety is far from guaranteed.[4]  While difficult to say it is striking how many similarities there could potentially be between Iran and the United States in terms of the stigmatization of gender bias in the case of MtF transsexuals verses FtMs.  Safety is hardly guaranteed even here, and it is far more socially acceptable to be a FtM transsexual than the other way around – a clear example of how much further our society has to go to truly embrace notions of gender equality and a distancing of stigmatism based solely on gender bias.

Finally, it was a remark by Morgan Clarke that caught my attention this week to wrap up a particularly difficult (for me personally as a gay non-believer in the United States) module.  He argues that no one can truly be called a liberal when they truly believe that God has set forth a standard which defines unequivocally the right way to live, but then goes on to highlight the importance of continuing to readjust the understanding of that standard.  If that readjustment or “evolution” of beliefs does not occur, the core belief will cease being relevant within the context of our ever-changing modern world.[5]

[1] Abdullahi An-Na’im, “the Dichotomy Between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies,” in Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World, ed. Mahnaz Afkhami (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 58.

[2] Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. ¾ (2008), 27.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 35.

[5] Morgan Clarke, “Children of the Revolution: ‘Ali Khamene’I’s ‘Liberal” Views on in vitro Fertilization,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 34, no. 3 (2007): 302.

Islam: The Lasting Influence of Few Men

Author Fatima Mernissi was onto something I think is critically important to understanding Islam from a Western point of view when she wrote in her book “Is it possible that Islam’s message had only a limited and superficial effect on deeply superstitious seventh-century Arabs who failed to integrate its novel approaches to the world and to women?  Is it possible that the hijab, the attempt to veil women, that is claimed today to be basic to Muslim identity, is nothing but the expression of the persistence of the pre-Islamic mentality, the jahiliyya mentality that Islam was supposed to annihilate?”[1]

What Mernissi seems to be explicitly saying in this pivotal passage seems to be that after the death of Muhammed, Islam’s future leaders deviated from the inherent message Muhammed and his immediate followers so much that the Islam that exists today descended from an incorrect understanding of Muhammed’s message – so much so that the imposition of the veil which has become a symbol of Muslims around the world has grossly misunderstood its original message and purpose.  There was a lot of information in these few chapters, and reading these brief passages gave me the desire to read the entire book (and I’ve ordered it on Amazon as a result – as well as an English translation of the Quran).  As she rightfully points out in both the introduction and the first assigned chapter, understanding the message of Islam requires a lot of digging on the part of the believer – and the same would necessarily (if not more so) apply to an outsider.[2]  The main message, in my opinion, from the collection of readings from this week is that there is more to Islam than merely focusing prematurely on its seemingly misogynistic leanings in the modern world.  From Muhammed’s treatment of his wives – especially Aisha – to the original purpose of the veil (as Mernissi points out to separate two men), it’s clear that at least in theory Islam did not start out as purely patriarchal or misogynistic.[3]

In my personal life, I often debate with people for fun, and I always roll my eyes when I hear arguments about taking things out of context.  In this specific instance, however, when regarding the woman’s place in Islam – especially considering Islam’s message of questioning everything and everyone (a concept incredibly foreign in a lot of Christian culture) context is incredibly important.[4]

I think, given the concepts and the historical context from the readings this week, it is entirely possible that Islam only scratched the surface of change in an already placed Arab culture – a culture that was reinforced as Islam spread and was influenced by similar cultural ideals in Persia and across the Mediterranean.  These influences reinforced a disparity between the sexes, allowing for the focus on hadiths and traditions that would place women below men rather than their spiritual equals and fostering a sense of misogyny that would last into the centuries to come.

[1] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (Cambridge; Perseus Books, 1991), 81.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Ibid, 93.

[4] Ibid, 76.

Ethics vs. Pragmatism in Islam’s Age of Expansion

The readings this week highlighted an aspect of Islam that I was unware of but that links it with both Christianity and Judaism – the matter of interpretation.  Being raised in a strict Christian home, I grew up believing that there was a singular Christianity, a singular Judaism and a singular Islam – although, to be fair, I wasn’t exposed to much of the theology of the last two options.  Growing up, however, and developing my own understanding of the religious around the world, I was surprised to see that far from being one singular understanding of Christianity there were, in fact, thousands.  The last I checked, there were over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone – and that’s only one of the world’s major religions.  Islam, however, seemed vastly more cohesive until I began the readings for this week.

When focusing on the theologies of Islam, particularly in regards to women’s rights, their place and how they are viewed in Islamic society, Leila Ahmed rightly points out that, despite current conflicting views continuing through today, the majority of Islamic thought occurred in a time period that allowed cultural and societal norms to influence religious ideology.[1]  If Ahmed’s rendering and study of women is Islamic history is accurate, the regulations, seclusions, veiling and other “oppressive” measures did not originate when Islam did, but came after the death of Muhammed once the mantle of religious leadership passed to others.[2]  While that at first seems strange for someone living in the 21st century’s Westernized world, it makes sense when compared to other religious traditions.  According to Ahmed, one of the very things that sets Islam apart from other monotheistic beliefs was the fact that women are explicitly addressed in Islam’s sacred writing – the Quran.[3]  She points out that this indicates – at least at the beginning stages of Islam – that women and men were viewed equally, not only by Muhammed himself, but by the writings that were to become Islam’s most sacred and authoritative text.  It’s also interesting to note that women within Islam itself argue against the stereotype that Islam is sexist due to the way in which they read, interpret and understand the Quran for themselves, regardless of the more prevalent interpretations that were practiced in Islamic society throughout history and even today.[4]  The key to understanding this dilemma, however, seem to be in understanding that those in positions of leadership, authority and power within Islam are not the ones who focused on the ethical and spiritual aspects of the religion, but rather those who focused on the pragmatic ones – particularly, as Ahmed points out, within the Abbasid period.[5] This period fundamentally changed the way that women were predominately viewed in Islamic society, and was powerful enough to be carried throughout history through the present day in many predominately Muslim nations.[6]  Understanding why this key change took place seems to rest on understanding Islam’s massive growth, assimilation of other cultural and societal norms outside of Arabia and the ruling/political elite responsible for writing much of the texts, interpretations and understandings that are prevalent in Islam throughout the world today.[7]

[1] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 64.

[2] Ibid, 64.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Ibid, 65.

[5] Ibid, 67.

[6] Ibid, 67.

[7] Ibid, 67.

Gender, Class and Society in Early 18th Century New England

The mid-18th century saw a developed and gradual change away from previous norms in terms of class, economic development, wealth, status and gender roles that appears to have often gone unnoticed.  As these changes took place, colonists in New England adapted in various methods to new cultural expectations and purposes in ways that reflect the shifting understanding of gender, religion and status.  Some accepted this change far more gracefully than others, and there appears to have been conflict not only along gender lines, but along religious lines and understandings as well.

The article from Chamberlain highlighted the diminishing influence of Puritan religious ideologies as social distinctions between genders became more and more pronounced.  In the early days of the New England colonies, there was really little difference between public and private affairs, so when Jonathan Edwards sought to prosecute young men for sexually charged speech, it is natural that he would expect little resistance.[1]  What he found, however, was a growing disparity throughout New England between men and women, and what was considered socially acceptable for each.[2]

Changing economic relationships also highlighted the need of the clergy to try and curtail the accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake, and to try and channel that money into charitable means.[3]  Doing so, however successful, served to dehumanize those less fortunate by focusing on the blessings and increase of charity for the sake of public piety, rather than the needs of those who were in desperate for help in a harsh and often unforgiving climate.[4]  For the ministers of the flock, however, tying economic prosperity with piety served to further the charitable leanings of society and religion, but also increased the clergy’s influence and rebounding from a gradual waning trend.[5]

Most interestingly to me, however was the view of gender and social roles studied by Kathleen Bradon in her article about Native American Women converting and becoming a part of Christianity in New England.  Though gender roles were not as rigidly defined among many Native American communities as they were thought to be in the Christian communities of New England, there did seem to be distinct differences between the roles of women and men among Native Americans.[6]  It is arguable, however that the supposed rigid gender roles in Puritan society were not quite as well-defined and dogmatic as stereotypical history would have us believe.[7]

Despite all of these shifting trends in New England society, it is clear that there was still a defined social norm for gender as well as class, and religion still had a steady foothold throughout society as the New England colonies pushed relentlessly on towards the inevitable revolution.

[1] Ava Chamberlain, “Bad Books and Bad Boys: The Transformation of Gender in Eighteenth Century Northampton, Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2002): 179-203.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christine Leigh Heyrman, “The Fashion Among More Superior People: Charity and Social Change in Provincial New England, 1700-1740,” American Quarterly 34, no. 2 (1982): 107-124.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kathleen Brandon, “Gender as a Social Category in Native Southern New England,” Ethnohistory 43, NO. 4 (1996): 573-592.

[7] James E. McWilliams, “Butter, Milk, and a ‘Spare Ribb’: Women’s Work and the Transatlantic Economic Transition in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 82, no. 1 (2009):5-24.

Cross-Cultural Exchange

It’s clear from the early readings of this module that a lot had changed in the landscape and structure of Native American communities prior to their first contact with European explorers or settlers reached North America.[1]  As contact between Europeans and Indians increased, however, the nature of their contact and relationship changed depending on the settler (even potentially the settler’s country of origin), the end desired result, the circumstances of the contact and even which Native American culture they encountered.[2]  Native Americans were a varied and diverse collection of people, social groups, trade arrangements and cultures for centuries prior to the introduction of European people, and different groups reacted to each other in varied ways.[3]

Native American societies had drastically shifted in the centuries prior to the first European settlers in North America due to economic, political or environmental pressures of a combination thereof.[4]  In many ways these pressured seemed to influence or define the manner in which they interacted, allied or fought against the Europeans that they encountered in later centuries, and many Native American cultures experienced periods of intense instability, violence and conflict with other tribes in nearby areas.[5]

The Spanish are the first European contact that many Native American tribes in the south encountered, and these explorers carried with them epidemic diseases that decimated large swaths of Native American population throughout the region, forcing them to abandon villages and homes and establish alliances with other tribes.[6]  While many Europeans, namely French traders, sought exchange relationships with Native tribes, the Spanish used a different tactic, viewing Europeans as superior to the barbarians of the Americas, seeking to control them and demand tribute.[7]

While Native American values were centered on exchange relationships, many European encroachers on the land viewed it as theirs for the taking, despite the centuries-long claim native tribes had on the land in question.[8]  It is this aspect of Native American history that tends to disturb me – the arrogance and superiority of many Europeans to claim a land that was already inhabited by ancient and rich cultures and to claim it as their property, regardless of the fact that it was already occupied, in some cases for hundreds of years.  That being said, however, many settlers carried on peaceful exchange and mutually beneficial relationships with many native tribes, at least for a time.  Had those relationships failed to exist, it’s possible that many English settlers in particular may have not survived the diverse and strange climate that they first found themselves in as they ventured to the new world.

[1] Neal Salisbury, “The Indian’s Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” The William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1996): 435-458.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Case Study: Arsuf

Approaches to Combat: I thought this week’s module was fascinating – although I may be biased because I am fascinated with the history of the Crusades and the rise of Islam in general.  Arsuf is a battle I had heard about in passing, but I was unware of the details, and studying history from a tactical standpoint is new to me, but I really, really enjoy it.  Since Salah al-Din approached the battle with only light infantry and regular cavalry and Richard approached it with infantry and knights/heavy cavalry, I think that the inequality of not only the number of fighters but the methods that could be employed by those fighters certainly contributed to the eventual outcome – although this may not be a clear-cut victory in Richard’s favor as one may think.[1]  Salah al-Din’s strategy at the beginning of the battle seemed to be to lure the Crusaders into a trap by bombarding them with projectiles, hoping to draw them into a trap by attacking unprepared[2].  This tactic failed.  Richard, conversely, demonstrated patience and extreme foresight both before and during the battle.[3]  The discipline displayed by the Crusaders at the onset of this battle is admirable, to say the least.  Salah al-Din’s strategy of harassing and provoking the Crusaders not only did not prompt them to attack, but it also exhausted his own troops against a larger force.[4]  When the surge finally did occur, the Hospitallers were able to create a hole in Salah al-Din’s front line.[5]  Although Salah al-Din attempts to surround the charging knights, a second cavalry charge by the Knights Templar forces Salah al-Din to move back or else have his forces face encirclement.[6]

How did various Approaches determine the Battle’s outcome: Salah al-Din’s approach was a good one, given the previous displayed temperament of a lot of the Crusader forces he had faced in the Holy Land earlier.  In many previous battles throughout the Crusades, the Crusaders had been lured into battle, away from defensive structures, away from satisfactory food and water supplies and into the heat of the desert.  By attempting to provoke the larger Crusader force into battle against Salah al-Din’s smaller but lighter and faster force, Salah al-Din did indeed have a shot at success.  This failed however, due to Richard’s ability to adapt, adjust and use his superior numbers and heavier cavalry to his advantage.  The Muslim army exhausted itself in close combat by barraging the Crusaders with missiles constantly and were unable to sufficiently deflect the eventual charge.[7]

Disparity between Richard’s Victory and his ability to capture Jerusalem and why

Although the Battle of Arsuf seems like a clear victory for the Crusaders in terms of sheer numbers of casualties (7000 on the Muslim side versus 700 on the Crusader side), the outcome ultimately was not as cut and dry as sheer numbers would suggest.[8]  Richard was never able to capture Jerusalem, and although he never faced Salah al-Din in battle again, Salah al-Din aimed to prevent Richard from his ultimate prize by adopting a “scorched earth” policy, denying Richard the much-needed resources for besieging Jerusalem.[9]

[1] Webb, Jonathan, “Battle of Arsuf, 1191,” The Art of Battle.com, Internet, available from http://www.theartofbattle.com/battle-of-arsuf-1191/, accessed 17 January 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.