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Get to know Petra Sijpesteijn and discover why there is no single ‘Islam’

The continual flow of news about violence strongly influences our perception of the Middle East. The Arab world has much more to it and more in common with the West than we think.

Read more about the research of Professor Petra Sijpesteijn into the complex Middle East and discover the world behind the flashpoints.

Discover the world at Leiden University.

Research: from papyri to protest graffiti

The call for Sharia, the Arab Spring: conflicts in Muslim countries are almost daily news. This strongly colours our impression of the Middle East, when there is so much more to the Arab world. Petra Sijpesteijn, Professor of Arabic and director of the Leiden University Center for the Study of Islam and Society, studies the relationship between Islam and political power in the Middle East from Islam’s origins in the seventh century ce. She also looks at how Muslims and non-Muslims have viewed this relationship over the centuries.

Ancient papyri: the e-mails of the past (Source: Leiden University Library)

Sijpesteijn’s research helps us understand more about the intriguing world of the Middle East, including today’s flashpoints. ‘You see that what Islam means in everyday life differs all the time. There are just as many Islams as there are Muslims.’ Leiden University has been researching the Arab world for centuries, and in 2013 celebrated the 400th anniversary of its first in Arabic.

Sijpesteijn not only studies the language but also social and socio-cultural aspects of human behaviour. She looks at the messages on papyri – the e-mails of the past – but is also interested in today’s protest graffiti in the Middle East. About today’s wars she says, ‘The current climate is the culmination of long-term processes including political and economic developments, colonial history and wars. The conflicts do not ensue from Islam as much as from the circumstances.’ She studies the Arabisation of the Middle East, in the early period in particular. The rich Arab culture still leaves traces on our society: much of our current knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy originates from the Middle East, as does our knowledge of irrigation systems and medicine. Words such as checkmate, cinnamon and sugar come from there too, and the distillation of alcohol is an Arab art.
Where did it begin? In the seventh century ce, tribes from the Arabian Peninsula conquered parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Now, 14 centuries later, there are 26 Arabic-speaking nations and Islam is the second-largest religion in the world. How did this happen and what occurred in the intervening centuries? Sijpesteijn emphasises that the Arabs did not impose Islam with fire and sword, ‘Everything changed with their arrival. They introduced their language and new rules of law, but that is not to say that people had to become Muslim. Religious minorities in the Middle East enjoyed more freedom in the Middle Ages than their counterparts Europe at the time.’
If you study the history of the Middle East in Leiden, you do not only learn about this region: ‘When you learn about a foreign culture, you also look differently at your own history. We take a critical look at prejudices such are implicit in the question “Why Islam is intolerant?” Students thus become aware of their own prejudices.’

Research themes: ancient texts explain today’s issues

The infancy of Islam

For a long time, many historians thought there was nothing to say about the infancy of Islam in 7 ce and the first 150 years that followed, because it was only much later that Islamic theologians and historians wrote about what was thought to have happened during that period. Petra Sijpesteijn uses papyri to reconstruct the early history.

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How does a text travel through time?

Which Arabic texts have been passed down through the centuries? And why these precise texts? Petra Sijpesteijn researches the journey manuscripts take. ‘The transfer and reception of documents reveals much about the culture of an era.’

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The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims

Petra Sijpesteijn seeks the motives of non-Muslims to join the Islamic community, and looks at how they went about doing this. More knowledge about the process can provide an understanding of today’s, sometimes troubled, relationship between different religious groups in the region.

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Islamisation and Arabisation

When the Arabs conquered the greater part of the then known world in the seventh century, Arabic also spread as the language of religion and government. However, the processes of Arabisation and Islamisation did not proceed at the same pace. Petra Sijpesteijn researches why this was.

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‘Thanks to the sand, hundreds of thousands of time capsules were preserved’

Teaching: discover how different a world can be

‘A stay in an Arab land often gives students a rude awakening. They experience at first hand how different a world can be and what that says about their own world,’ says Sijpesteijn. Graduates in Middle Eastern Studies end up all over the place. They become journalists, academics or expats at a company such as Shell, or find work at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service or embassies abroad. ‘Each year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tries to have at least one Arab expert in its diplomatic training.’

Petra Sijpesteijn in discussion with her students (Photo: Marc de Haan)

Middle Eastern Studies is a varied programme. In a series of lectures on ninth-century Bagdad, Sijpesteijn zoomed in on fashion, sport, cooking and the inhabitants’ thoughts on sex and love. She invited the writer Hafid Bouazza, who translated a ninth-century text on the latter topic, to the final lecture. In the bachelor’s programme, all students spend at least one semester in an Arab country, in recent years at the height of the Arab Spring. The situation became so tense that a number of students had to leave cities such as Cairo sooner than planned. ‘Luckily, they all returned unharmed, and they learnt a lot: not just how complex the reality often is, but also how to hold your own in crisis situations.’

More programmes in the field of the Middle East and Islam

International Studies : Looking for an international programme that will enlarge your world? That will familiarise you with world regions and their history, culture and politics? Are you open to other customs and ideas? In the English-taught Bachelor’s programme in International Studies, you study the history, culture, politics and economy of a world region and learn the language that is spoken there.

Middle Eastern Studies : What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘Middle East’? The war in Iraq? Turkish accession to the European Union? Or that lovely diving holiday in Egypt or Tunisia? Choose Middle Eastern Studies and discover the full wealth of the Middle East.

Ancient Cultures of the Mediterranean World : Get to know the distant past of cultures in the Mediterranean in Ancient Cultures of the Mediterranean World. Learn about the culture of ancient Egypt and the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, research the languages and cultures of Mesopotamia and Anatolia or deepen your knowledge of the world of the Bible.

History : What drove people to act and what were the consequences? How does this relate to our contemporary times, full as they are of conflict and new developments? Discover, analyse and establish links.

Religion Sciences : There are something like a thousand different religions in the world, big and small. Why are there so many? How did they develop? In the Religion Sciences programme, you consider Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hindu, Buddhism, Ancient Religions, new religious movements and new-age movements from a neutral perspective.

More researchers of the Middle East

  • Peter Akkermans
  • Gabrielle van den Berg
  • Maurits Berger
  • Jelle Bruning
  • Léon Buskens
  • Jos Gommans
  • Holger Gzella
  • Ahmad al-Jallad
  • Nico Kaptein
  • Ronald Kon
  • Heleen Murre van den Berg
  • Tsolin Nalbantian
  • Jan-Michiel Otto
  • Asghar Seyed-Gohrab
  • Frans Theuws
  • Jacques van der Vliet
  • Erik-Jan Zürcher

Peter Akkermans Professor Near Eastern Archaeology

Digs in Syria and Jordan. Finds forgotten cultures in the desert from 9000 years ago and Arabic inscriptions from long before Islam.

Gabrielle van den Berg University lecturer in Persian

Researches the living Persian epic tradition.

Maurits Berger Professor of Islam and the West

Studies Islam and Islamic law in Western Europe.

Jelle Bruning Lecturer

Researches the new Islamic capital of Egypt in the seventh to ninth century.

Léon Buskens Professor of Islamic Law

Anthropologist of Sharia. Researches Islamic law in theory and practice.

Jos Gommans Professor of Colonial and Global History

Works with Petra Sijpesteijn on a comparison of pre-industrial global empires to establish what made them a success.

Holger Gzella Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic

Hebrew and Armenian, like Arabic, are languages of the Middle East.

Ahmad al-Jallad University lecturer in Arabic linguistics

Studies Arabic languages and dialects from before the arrival of Islam until today.

Nico Kaptein University lecturer in Islam

Researches Islam and the local culture, including in Indonesia.

Ronald Kon Lecturer in Arabic language and literature

Reading an Arabic language for the first time under his guidance is a milestone for students.

Heleen Murre van den Berg Professor of Global Christianity

Researches the different Christian groups in the Middle East.

Tsolin Nalbantian University lecturer in Modern History of the Middle East

Specialised in minorities, identity, state formation and nationalism in the Middle East.

Jan-Michiel Otto Professor of Law and Governance in Developing Countries

Led project on Sharia and national law in 12 Muslim countries from Africa to Indonesia.

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab Associate Professor of Persian Language and Literature

Researches old and new Persian literature and its political function.

Frans Theuws Professor of Medieval Archaeology of Europe

Researches the transition from late antiquity to the Middle Ages and mass population movement in Europe.

Jacques van der Vliet Professor of Coptic

Researches Coptic, the historical language of Egyptian Christians.

Erik-Jan Zürcher Professor of Turkish Studies

Researches the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.

Impact: understanding between worlds

With her work, Petra Sijpesteijn tries to generate greater understanding between our world and that of the Middle East. She makes regular media appearances to comment on developments, gives lectures and organises meetings to bring together students from different places. She shows that the Western and Middle-Eastern civilisations have influenced each other more than we think.

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Western influences in the Middle East.

The world of...

Discover the world in Leiden. Leiden’s researchers collaborate with colleagues throughout the world, often from other adjacent disciplines. Petra Sijpesteijn travels to archives, participates in archaeological digs, gives lectures at conferences and visits her colleagues all around the world. The world map below shows a number of Petra Sijpesteijn’s global contacts (zoom in on the map to see the markers more clearly).