Arabic, Persian and Turkish Studies

Research projects conducted by the department of Arabic, Persian and Turkish studies.

Erik-Jan Zurcher

Fighting for a Living

This three-year research programme is a comparative study of military recruitment in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, 1500-2000 CE. The innovative character of the project lies in the fact that it will primarily analyse military recruitment and service in terms of labour relations.

The purpose of the project is to investigate the circumstances which have produced starkly different systems of recruiting soldiers in a range of different parts of the globe, as well as to analyze the social and political implications that the different systems have had in a number of states and societies.

The literature of military history is huge, but, apart from the descriptions of battles and campaigns that makes up the bulk of the works in the field, the majority of the other studies that have appeared in the past century (and primarily since World War I) concentrates on the development and application of military technologies, both in the sense of “hardware” (weapons, fortifications, ships) and in that of “software” (military drill, tactics and strategies). Fighting is rarely defined as a form of work.

However, military employment seems to offer excellent opportunities for international comparison. Where many forms of human activity are restricted by the conditions of nature or the stage of development of a given society, organized violence is ubiquitous. Soldiers, in one form or another, are always part of the picture, in any period and in every region. What makes diachronic and global comparison of forms of military labour especially enticing is the fact that they offer such a rich variety of types of labour relations.

The project will be based on a comparison of case studies. The comparative framework will be constructed both in time and in space. The selection of the cases we will be made in conjunction with the five sample years around which the IISH Global Labour History programme has been built: 1500, 1650, 1800, 1900 and 2000 so that we will be able to integrate the results of this project with the larger programme. The cases for the comparative project we will study are bounded by four large geographical areas: Europe, Middle East, South Asia and China.

The project is executed by 19 scholars from seven countries and will involve three workshops and a publication in book form.The backbone of the project is formed by a collaboratory, an electronic environment in which the participants will be able to communicate, share resources, and consult and comment on each other's work. The collab's site can be found at:

The basic question that will be answered in the course of the project is this:

Which circumstances have determined the transition to, or the dominance of, a particular type of military employment in different societies at different times?

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab

Vidi project
Poetry and the justification of violence

Without the element of mysticism in his philosophy Khomeini would never have achieved a position of power. Mystic concepts dating back to the Middle Ages play a significant role in 20th century Iranian politics. In his Vidi project, Asghar Seyed-Gohrab will investigate precisely what role that is.

Petra Sijpesteijn

ERC, starters grant
The Formation of Islam: The View from Below

NWO, internationalisation humanities (2009-2012)
Late Antiquity and Early Islam: Continuity and Change in the Mediterranean 

This project, which is being be carried out in close cooperation with the universities of Oxford (contact: Prof. Robert Hoyland) and Princeton (contact: Prof. John F. Haldon) and the UMR 8167 (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS, University Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV, University Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris I and École Pratique des Hautes Études, contact: Prof. Annliese Nef), explores the dynamic transitional period from late antiquity to early Islam in the Mediterranean basin (sixth to tenth centuries).

The disintegration of the Roman Empire in the seventh century set in train some of the most profound and long-lasting historical changes that the Mediterranean has ever witnessed. While the Frankish and Byzantine empires seem to be dutiful legatees of the Roman heritage, the Arabs, by contrast, appear to remake their Romanised territories with a culture and religion formed in the vacuum of the Arabian Peninsula, far away from the villas and cities that symbolised Roman civilisation. Severing its ties with the two other successor states thus left the Islamic empire free to follow its own, somewhat lonely itinerary. But this view is based on several fundamental misconceptions. Their diverging paths come less from intrinsic differences than from the dislocations attendant on territorial expansions and contradictions, the gradual reorganisation of economic and social structures, and the interaction with subject populations.

This project examines the Mediterranean basin during these four centuries as a whole, looking for common experiences, comparable historical processes and divergences. The project giving geographical and chronological limits to this collective program, three topics have been chosen that promise to yield especially fruitful results from such a comparative and large-scale approach. Each topic will be the subject of a roundtable meeting to which scholars from the above mentioned institutions will be invited to speak on a specific theme or subject from their own specialist background. The resulting publications will aim in this way to offer a full and focused approach, filling numerous lacunas in our knowledge of this period.

The first topic “Authority and control in the countryside” will be explored during the first roundtable meeting in Leiden University organised by Prof. Petra M. Sijpesteijn and Marie Legendre (September 13-19, 2010) and will deal with the organization of the countryside, its connection to urban centers, and the extent of control from the ruling centre over rural areas. Particular interest will be devoted to the functioning of monasteries, commercial centers and large estates, the identification of alternative centers of power and agents, and the role of economy, taxation and trade.

Program: Authority and control in the countryside

The second topic “Religious minorities and authorities” will be discussed in 2011, in Oxford university (organised by Prof. Robert Hoyland), focusing on the position of religious minorities in empires, the power of religious authority, the interdependence of religious and worldly rulers and how this affected the larger constituencies of believers. The third roundtable meeting will concentrate on “Political legitimacies between Late Antiquity and Early Islam” and take place in Paris at the Sorbonne in 2012 (organized by Annliese Nef).

The project will result in three cooperative publications based on the papers presented at the three meetings.

For further information, please contact Marie Legendre:

Harry Stroomer

NWO, small project (2009-2013)
Title to be anounced

Nederlandse Taal Unie (2008-2010)
Nederlands-Riffijns Woordenboek

Last Modified: 09-12-2015