Christine D. Baker, Medieval Islamic Sectarianism (Arc Humanities Press, 2019). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Christine Baker (CB): I became interested in this topic because, when I was in graduate school, I slowly became more and more surprised at the Sunni-centrism of the narrative of medieval Islamic history. The more I read, the more it seemed evident to me that we present an altogether too tidy vision of the development of different forms of Muslim identity. In this, I was inspired by Richard Bulliet’s excellent book, Islam: The View from the Edge, which challenged scholars to find new narratives of Islamic history that did not center the Sunni caliphate.

Further, I had been long fascinated by the Fatimids and the Buyids, two Shi’i states that rose to power in the tenth-century Middle East during a time when many people were converting to Islam for the first time. Although there is a fair amount of scholarly attention paid to the Fatimids, the Buyids are relatively understudied and there is very little written on the two dynasties together. Researching these dynasties and the impact they had on the articulation of different forms of Shi’i identity made me want to write about the role that these two states played in this process.

Finally, I wanted to offer a book aimed at more general readers that would help them understand the development of different forms of Muslim identity (and the role played by ruling states).

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

CB: In addition to analyzing the history of medieval Islamic sectarianism and the history of the Fatimids and the Buyids, this book grapples broadly with questions of the formation of Sunni orthodoxy and notions of “heterodoxy” in Islam. I attempt to interrogate the idea that Sunni orthodoxy was fixed and stable notion before the tenth or eleventh centuries and examine other forms of Islam, many of which do not fit neatly into a Sunni-Shi’i binary. I also address how medieval states articulate their legitimacy and the role of historical memory in that process.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work

CB: This is my first book, but most of my previous publications have either focused on the Fatimids and Buyids, with broader ideas of how medieval authors crafted historical narrative. In this book, I use the tools of narrative analysis to examine how the Fatimids and Buyids articulated their legitimacy and made claims to authority that would appeal to a diverse audience.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CB: While there is new research in this book that I hope will be interesting for scholars of medieval Shi’ism, the book is intended for a non-specialist audience. There are many excellent books on Islamic sectarian identities, but I wanted a book to write a book that explored the extremely complex process of developing different forms of religious identity and how those identities played a significant role in political authority. I am hoping that this book will provide an easy source for graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and scholars in related fields to understand the uncertainty in what we know about the development of different forms of religious identity in the medieval Islamic world.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CB: I have two main projects that I am currently working on. First, I am assembling an edited volume entitled Diversity in Medieval Islam with Dr. Eric Hanne (Florida Atlantic University). This edited volume is bringing together scholars who work on non-Sunni and/or non-Arab perspectives in the medieval Islamic world to show the significance of these movements within the articulation of medieval Muslim societies. Second, I am working with two colleagues (Dr. Erin Colin and Dr. Michelle Sandhoff) at my own institution, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, on collecting oral histories of Muslims who live outside of major urban centers in order to see how living outside of cities affects the development of Muslim communities.

J: How has this research influenced your teaching? 

CB: I am the only faculty member with a specialization in Middle Eastern history at my institution, so I tend to teach classes focused mostly on the modern Middle East (because these are the topics where there is the most student demand). While I do not often teach within my own subspecialty, I have found that researching competing (and sometimes complementing) forms of Islam greatly informs how I cover Muslim identities for a student audience. In this, I try to emphasize the overall diversity of the Muslim experience in all time periods. While Sunni Islam plays, of course, an incredibly significant role in Islamic history (both medieval and modern), I aim to teach students not to generalize too much about religious identity and be open to many different forms and interpretations of faiths of all kinds.

Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)

Surveys of medieval Middle Eastern history designed for students and non-experts…still often present what renowned historian Richard Bulliet called the ‘view from the centre’:

The view from the center portrays Islamic history as an outgrowth from a single nucleus, a spreading inkblot labeled ‘the caliphate’…. [which], in seeking to explain the apparent homogeneity of Islamic society in later centuries, itself something of an illusion, projects back into the days of the caliphate a false aura of uniformity, leaving untold the complex and strife-ridden tale of how Islamic society actually developed.

I hope to provide a view of the development of different forms of sectarian identity that shines a light on the complexity and diversity of early Islamic society.

In this book, I will focus on the tenth century, a period in Middle Eastern history that has often been referred to as the “Shi’i Century,” when two Shi’i dynasties rose to power. This era often seems like an anomaly: a period when, for a short time, Shi’is grabbed the wheel of Islamic history but were quickly ousted. Following from this assumption, historians often call the period after the Shi’i Century the “Sunni Revival” because that was when Sunni control was restored. I will argue, however, that these terms present a misleading image of a unified medieval Islam that was predominately Sunni. By looking at the development of terms like Sunni and Shi’i, as well as how they were used by Muslim states, we will learn about the lived experience of countless medieval Muslims.

Historians have long debated about the formation of medieval sectarian identity and I am not the first one to argue that, even in the tenth century, the term Sunni tends to be misleading because religious scholars often used it to indicate whatever they viewed, personally, as Muslim orthodoxy. There have also been excellent critiques of the idea of the Shi’i Century and the Sunni Revival. Richard Bulliet argued that what has been called the ‘Sunni revival’ was actually only the first stage in the creation of institutions to standardize and disseminate the ideas that would later become the markers of Sunnism and, historian Jonathan P. Berkey noted that, “like many grand historical themes, this one is perhaps a bit too neat and simple.” Most recently, Art historian Stephennie Mulder observed that, even at the height of the so-called “Sunni Revival,” Sunnis and Shi’is alike sponsored and venerated shrines dedicated to members of the family of the Prophet later held up as uniquely Shi’i. Despite these sound critiques of the “Sunni Revival.” The story of the tenth century is still predominantly told as a sectarian narrative, divorced from the overall history of the medieval Islamic world, which helps feed into the overall view of sectarian hostility in Islam. This book will reintegrate the Shi’i Century into the broader narrative of medieval Islamic history and trace the complexities of sectarian identities in order to dispute Sunnism’s early dominance over the concept of orthodoxy and challenge the idea of sectarian conflict dating back to the origins of Islam.


This book analyses the crystallization of Sunni and Shi’i identity and how these Muslim sects developed over time. But, in order to do that, we will focus on analyzing how medieval dynasties articulated their authority and legitimacy. Deconstructing how medieval rulers claimed power (which is what we mean by ‘authority and legitimacy’) allows us to see what was important to the people over whom these medieval dynasties ruled. This approach might seem like an indirect way of approaching how medieval Muslim communities defined their sectarian identities. But religious identity played a significant role in medieval political legitimacy—medieval rulers often claimed to be chosen by God in some way—so examining how these rulers used their faith to talk about their right to rule gives us insight into what the people they ruled would have thought about their faith. In addition, many of the peoples of the medieval Islamic world did not leave behind sources attesting to their feelings about sectarianism, so this approach allows us to glimpse their views on the matter and not only focus on the opinions of elite religious scholars.

But what, exactly, do we mean when we talk about authority and legitimacy? Whole books have been devoted to this very topic but, stated simply, authority is power. The power to create law, collect taxes, go to war, and enforce obedience. There are different kinds of authority, of course. We will focus on the authority of the caliph, but other people held different types of authority in the medieval Islamic world: people like military leaders and religious scholars. The caliph needed these people to support his authority.

Legitimacy is linked with authority: it encompasses the system of government used to claim the right to exercise authority. Governments claim legitimacy in different ways. For example, modern democracies base their legitimacy on elections. The government has the right to tax, make laws, and go to war because it was elected by a majority of the people. In the medieval world, rulers often based their legitimacy on the spiritual authority of God. The king/caliph/emperor had the right to rule because he was chosen and supported by God.

In medieval societies, rulers made clear statements claiming their right to rule and used symbolic ways of communicating their authority through art, architecture, and ceremony. As the Muslim empire expanded, the ways that the caliphs claimed legitimacy changed. At first, when the Muslim community was small and homogenous, it was easier: even if not everyone always agreed, the community knew the first four caliphs for their loyalty to the Prophet and the piety of their faith. These two attributes, plus the fact that they were selected by leaders within the community, gave them legitimacy in the eyes of most Muslims. (Some Muslims argued that, to be legitimate rulers, they also must be related to the Prophet.)

Furthermore, when discussing authority and legitimacy, it is significant to consider the audience for these claims. Even medieval rulers needed to make claims that would appeal to a wide variety of constituencies. As the Muslim empire expanded to rule over a more heterogeneous population, most of which was not Muslim, they had a harder task. Non-Muslims would not grant the caliph legitimacy because of his piety or relationship with Islam. The caliph had to act how people would expect a medieval ruler to act. In general, the Umayyads and the ‘Abbasids (as well as the Fatimids and Buyids) borrowed ways that pre-Islamic empires, like the Byzantines and Sassanids, had claimed their legitimacy. Since the Byzantines and the Sassanids had ruled over the region for centuries, they had established protocols for claiming authority that would be recognizable by the diverse peoples of the region. Muslim dynasties based a lot of their authority on Islam, but also used architecture, regalia, rituals, and ceremony that would be recognized as markers of legitimacy to a non-Muslim audience.

Despite the ways that the caliph would need to appeal to a wide variety of peoples, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to maintain his power, historians tend to focus on how religious scholars responded to the caliph. We do this because religious scholars tend to be the group we know the most about in medieval Muslim society: they wrote most of the sources that survive. So we know a lot about what they thought about sectarian identities, but we do not always have clear ways to find out what other people might have thought. Most people, especially non-elites, did not leave behind written sources, so it can be difficult to determine their views. In this book, we will examine how the Fatimids and Buyids used or did not use their sectarian identities to claim legitimacy in order to ‘read between the lines’ to see what kinds of messages were acceptable to broad medieval audiences.

The era of the Fatimids and the Buyids offers a unique opportunity to examine ideas of identity in medieval Islamic society because the tenth century witnessed tectonic shifts within the very idea of ‘Muslim society’. First, it was the period when the Middle East became predominately Muslim for the first time, bringing more non-Arabs (and their ideas) into the Muslim faith. Second, Fatimids and Buyids domination of the region represented a massive break with the earlier unity of the Islamic world under one caliph. And third, because the Fatimids and Buyids identified as Shi’i, their competition and the reaction of Sunni political elites and religious scholars helped crystallize different forms of sectarian identity.

Analyzing how the Fatimids and Buyids, two Shi’i dynasties, claimed their legitimacy over a diverse population of Muslims and non-Muslims allows us to glimpse the myriad of ways that the people of the tenth century viewed themselves and their identities. The caliph had to express his right to rule in a way that resonated with the people he ruled. In the ‘Shi’i century’, we might expect medieval Muslim rulers to foreground their sectarian identities, but they did not. We also might expect that critiques of these Shi’i states would focus on their Shi’i identity, but they did not. This book looks at what that can tell us about sectarianism and medieval Islamic society.