Arabic-Islamic Epic and Reading Medieval Race

Date & Time: Thursday, November 18, 2021, 12 p.m.
Location: Zoom

Rachel Schine

Many scholars and audiences have remarked on the fact that a number of central heroes in Arabic epics (siyar sha‘biyya) are Black—often to the surprise of and in contrast with the rest of their Arab families and tribes—however the motivations and histories behind this remain largely unexplored. The birth story of "Sīrat al-Amīra Dhāt al-Himma’s" signature Black hero, ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, offers the most intricate account of non-hereditary blackness to appear in the literature of the sīras, and arguably in medieval Arabic literature in general. His later adventures query the limits of structures of inclusion in the Muslim community, particularly in instances of rapid demographic change and expansion, such as the conquests in which he participates. The explanation for ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s enigmatic birth, though, works in the reverse, giving us a case in which structures of exclusion are brought into sharp relief: he is ultimately said to be Black because he was conceived, illicitly, while his mother was menstruating. In this talk, we will think through the question of why a hero might be given this ambivalent origin story, whence come the notions about racial construction and reproduction embedded in it, and what it elucidates about the plural ways blackness could signify in the premodern Arab-Muslim world, and even in a single text. 

About the Speaker

Rachel Schine holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the humanities at NYU, Abu Dhabi. She previously served as a postdoctoral associate and instructor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations. Her current book project explores the origins, literary functions and social histories of Black protagonists in Arabic popular literature. She has published on topics relating to racialization and kinship in Arabic storytelling in, among others, the "Journal of Arabic Literature" and "al-‘Uṣūr al-Wusṭā: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists."