Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies


Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies was established in 1980 through an amalgamation of the old Departments of Arabic, Turkish and Persian (established in 1912, 1950 and 1951 respectively).

Old map of Arabia

However Arabic was taught at Edinburgh as far back as the middle of the 18th century when students were attracted to the study of the classical languages and the cultures of the Middle East offered by James Robertson, Professor of Oriental Languages from 1751 to 1792. Arabic has been continuously taught since 1880.

Since that time a series of scholars have ensured that both the Department and the University have maintained a reputation for academic achievement and teaching excellence in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. These include Professor Sir William Muir (Principal of the University), Qur'anic scholar Dr Richard Bell, Professor L P Elwell-Sutton in the field of Persian studies, and Professor W Montgomery Watt who, from his appointment as Lecturer in Arabic in 1947 until his retirement as Professor in 1979, made an outstanding contribution both to Islamic scholarship and to the development of the Department.

In the area of Islamic Studies by far the most distinguished scholar of his day was Sir William Muir, KCSI, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1885 to 1903, whose Life of Mahomet went into several editions and for English-speaking peoples long remained the standard biography of the Prophet. For medievalists his celebrated work The Caliphate, first published 1881, remained essential reading for many years.

Early 20th century to the 1970s

During the 18th and 19th centuries Arabic attracted primarily theological students who recognised the relevance of Semitic philology to their discipline. Persian was taught to meet the requirements of the Indian Civil Service. Muir's historical interest presaged a gradual shift away from the treatment of Arabic and Islamic Studies as little more than elements in a Christian theological curriculum. The first step in this direction came with the appointment of Dr Edward Robertson as the first full-time lecturer in Arabic in 1912. Robertson is mainly remembered for his part in cataloguing the Islamic manuscripts acquired by the University Library through the generosity of John B Baillie, grandson of the collector Lt-Col John Baillie of Leys and of the Indian Civil Service. Among the most valuable and best-known items in this collection are the world history of the Mongol vizier Rashid al-Din, written and illustrated in Tabriz c. AD 1306, and the collected poems of Hafiz of Shiraz.

Robertson was the much respected teacher of a young Edinburgh man who was to achieve international renown as an Islamic scholar. This was H A R (from 1954, Sir Hamilton) Gibb, who became Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford and who is known to a wide circle of readers of works on Islam and Islamic civilisation, notably through his Modern Trends in Islam, of which there is a well-known Arabic translation.

From 1921 Arabic was taught by Richard Bell, a scholar of Qur'anic studies. Among his students was R B Serjeant, a native of Edinburgh, who became the Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in 1970 and who subsequently donated his entire library to the University of Edinburgh. An authority on the Arabian Peninsula, Professor Serjeant enjoyed an unrivalled reputation for fieldwork that has preserved a remarkable record of traditional ways of Arabian life. Another well-known student of Edinburgh is C E Bosworth, who became Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester.