Jesse Izzo joined Stanford in the fall of 2019 as Lecturer and Visiting Scholar at the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. He is a historian of the medieval Middle East. Below he shares his research interests, teaching, and the path that led him to studying the region.
How did you become interested in studying the medieval Middle East?
I came to my interest a bit circuitously—by way of the western European Middle Ages. For whatever reason, from a very young age I loved all things from that world. When I was an undergraduate my childhood fascination began to develop into something a little deeper and more sophisticated. I wrote a senior thesis on the Knights Templar, a military-religious order with its origins in the Crusades and the so-called “crusader states” of Syria, then went on to do a master’s degree to delve further into those topics. It was while doing my master’s that I first started to think in earnest about the wider regional context in which these crusader states were embedded.
When I was getting ready to start a Ph.D. program, the first phone conversation I had with my advisor began with him asking: “How do you feel about learning Arabic?” That turned out to be a watershed moment. I had honestly never considered the possibility, but I was really excited by the suggestion, and studying Arabic became a major part of my doctoral training.
Obviously, Arabic is far from the only language of the Middle East, or of the Islamicate world; nor is the Middle East—now or ever in the past—an exclusively Muslim space. With that said, it is an incredible passport to the history of the Middle East and the world of medieval Islam. So while the original intention behind learning Arabic had been to reframe the way I thought about and understood the crusader states, it quickly and inevitably became so much more, opening up a whole new field of research and teaching for me.
How does your work inform our understanding of the region?
In a couple of ways. First, I very much belong to the school of thought that views the medieval Islamicate, Byzantium, and the Latin West as sibling civilizations, all of which were heirs to the legacies of classical Antiquity and the ancient Near East. Second, one of my hobbyhorses is this: please don’t blame medieval people for modern problems! Yes, of course many tensions and fault lines in the modern Middle East—take sectarianism or religious intolerance as examples—have a very long history. But the process of historicizing (rather than essentializing) means being attentive to specific context, particularity, and the subtle dynamic of change and continuity over time. So, in my view, with something like, say, Shia/Sunni hostility, yes, there definitely is a medieval origin. But that hostility has sometimes been more and sometimes less operative across a vast range of time and space, always being activated or deactivated depending on specific context. Thus, if we see sectarian tension as a salient feature of the modern Middle East, I tend to be of the mind that we must look to modern history in order to explain it (even if knowledge of a deeper history helps us understand it). Moreover, while a desire to trace the origins of the modern world is certainly part of the reason we study the remote past, it is not the only reason. We also study it to see how unlike the worlds of the past were to our own. This helps us escape the mistake of assuming everything has been leading inexorably towards this moment, our moment, and it could not have happened otherwise. Studying the medieval past and trying to understand it on its own terms can help us to denaturalize the present in productive and helpful ways, allowing us to view our own times with a different eye.
What are some of your current research interests?
I’m especially interested in thinking across traditional regional and disciplinary boundaries. Scholars of medieval Europe and the medieval Middle East have usually worked in isolation from each other, but I see myself as really committed to the challenge of working across that divide. I have several research projects ongoing, but the big one is my book, Franks and Mamluks: Diplomacy, Politics, and War in Medieval Syria. Previous scholarship has tended to see Frankish–Mamluk relations principally through the lens of monolithic, oppositional ethnic and religious binaries: Christian versus Muslim; East versus West; European versus Arab or Turk. But my book argues that the relationship between Frankish Syria and Mamluk Egypt cannot be understood in such stark binaries. Instead it must be appreciated as something more ambiguous, nuanced, and subject to the vicissitudes and fluctuations of a complex trans-regional system of commerce, diplomacy, and war that spanned virtually all of the Eurasian continent.
What classes will you be teaching in the upcoming academic year?
In the fall I’ll be teaching a course called “Peace and War in Medieval Islam.” We’ll be paying attention not only to actual peace and war (i.e. political events), but also their normative conceptualizations within the Islamic tradition. In the winter I’ll be teaching a course called “The Mamluks: Slave-Soldiers and Sultans of Medieval Egypt.” The slave-soldier was a widespread and fairly unique feature of the Islamic world, and nowhere was the phenomenon as consequential as in Egypt, where these mamluks managed to set up an imperial dynasty that lasted nearly three hundred years. Incidentally, no previous experience with pre-modern, Islamic, or Middle East history is necessary for either class, so if you are a student thinking about enrolling in either: come on in, the water is fine!
What inspires or motivates you in your work?
I can honestly say—and I think most historians feel this way—that I’m motivated first and foremost by love of the game (so to speak). Robert Irwin, an eminent scholar of the medieval Middle East, wrote a book some years back that examined the emergence and institutionalization of the field. He called it For Lust of Knowing. To me, that title pretty much says it all: there is a kind of “lust of knowing” that impels all scholars, and certainly most historians I’ve known, myself included.