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Advice to Middle Eastern studies students Advice to Middle Eastern studies students
by Joseph Gatt
2019-11-26 10:22:44
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Islamic and Middle Eastern studies are a very broad study area. Through this article, I hope to very briefly break down the major so you (and your classmates) can make the best out of your studies.

Breaking down Islamic Middle Eastern studies

Islam has three components:

Islam is a religion. Islam is a culture. And Islam is a national/political system.

Islam is a religion. When you study Islam, you want to take religion in its abstract form as well as how that applies in real life. In its abstract form, Islam has its Quran and Commentary on the Quran that have strict rules in them. While you may want to read the Quran (reading the Quran will take around 12 hours of your time) you also want to look around and see how the rules are applied around the Muslim world.

mideas01_400Islam is a culture. Not everything about Islam is in religion. Islamic culture has its arts and way of life. You may note that culture is often inspired from religion itself, but varies a great deal from country to country. Indonesia has a very different conception of Islam and culture than, say, Pakistan. Turkey has a very different conception of culture than Saudi Arabia. By culture you may want to look at local food, how it all evolved from Halal food but gave birth to diverse culinary traditions. You may want to look at fashion, how Islamic fashion rules vary a great deal from country to country. You also want to look at how the different festivals are celebrated around the Islamic world. 

Islam is a political system. The main mistake a lot of people make is to believe that only Arab nations and Iran have something to do with Islam. There are a great number of lesser-known countries with strong Islamic traditions, including Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Guinea, Senegal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Maldives, Albania, Bosnia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and a great many other countries. So you have 50+ states that have political systems inspired from Islamic tradition, and you want to see what they have in common and what their differences are.


Historically, we could group Islam into 4 or 5 broad historical periods:

-Pre-Islamic times. Egypt of course had a great civilization, the Vandals and Romans conquered North Africa, the Persians had a great civilization.

-The Caliphates: Eventually, Islam was born and built powerful armies that conquered North Africa, the Middle East, and made agreements with the Mongols in Central Asia and with kings in Malaya to adopt Islam. This period lasted roughly from the 7th century to the 13th century.

-The colonial empires: starting from the 13th century, the Ottoman Empire swallowed big chunks of the Caliphates. Then starting in the 19th century, France and the UK started conquering the Middle East. European conquests started with Napoleon, and by 1919 pretty much the entire Arab and Muslim world was under French, British or Russian control.

-Fourth period: the republican/semi-republican nation-state period. This is when Arab states, starting between 1945 and 1975 were formed, and gained independence from France and the UK. Some Muslim states remained Kingdoms, while most became republics. Perhaps all Arab states joined the non-aligned movement during the cold war, and all Muslim states adopted the following position: strong charismatic leaders, who concentrate leadership in very few hands, and who micromanage the state.

-Fifth period: after 9/11 and with the advent of the Internet, Arab leaders started competing with non-state actors: large corporations, organized crime, terrorist organizations and local gangs all started competing with the Republican institutions for power.

The Arabic language

When studying the Arabic language, you need to know that there are two categories of Arabic:

-Quranic Arabic, which is used in media news programs, in political speeches, and by some Arabs who have Asperser’s syndrome.

-Vernacular Arabic: the Arabic spoken in Gaza is more like Egyptian Arabic while the Arabic spoken in the West Bank is more like Jordanian Arabic.

-Quranic Arabic is used in the print press and in official documents.

-Vernacular Arabic is used in blogs, chatrooms and on Facebook and social media.

-Arab men and women tend to be aggressive and lie compulsively when they speak in Arabic. The aggressiveness can be a morbid type of aggressiveness, and sometimes when they speak with you they could give you the impression that they will kill you in the next five minutes. Also, you will find conversation with Arabs to be very frustrating, as most times they accuse other people of telling “lies” even when people are telling them the truth. Arab men and women often don't believe anyone, and can get aggressive with you if they think you are not telling them the truth (which is like a lot of times.)

Fail-proof way of learning Arabic is asking an Arab to “teach” you conversation. The method you want to use is one where the Arab asks you questions that you answer in Arabic, the Arab then corrects your grammar and vocabulary. If the Arab asks you 50 or 100 questions per session, you should be fluent in no time. If you get enough partners like that, you could become fluent in Arabic in about a year or so. But remember that a language is a lifelong process, so you want to practice speaking Arabic the rest of your life.

Final advice: don't try to read Arab newspapers before you learn how to speak Arabic. Arab newspapers have the same credibility as North Korean newspapers in most cases, so you will have to read very carefully between the lines. If you want to learn to read Arabic, you want to snoop into chatrooms and read blogs in Arabic. The Arabic tends to be of an easier grasp and the feelings and news tends to be more truthful and sincere. So you want to find soccer blogs of fashion blogs or cooking blogs and start reading those, before perhaps reading personal blogs that you find funny or interesting. I remember one gay Arab blogger who had a fun blog, and one food blogger who was very witty about the food he tasted in the Arab world.

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