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.

IMES Today

Edinburgh's present international reputation in the field of Islamic Studies is closely tied to the name of William Montgomery Watt.

His Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam (1949) was the first of more than twenty books on Islamic subjects. Notable among these are his Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and Muhammad at Medina (1956), summarised in the single-volume Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman (1961). Among works that have explored the formation of Islamic thought and civilisation is Islam and the Integration of Society (1961) and a work of a somewhat different kind, but equally important was his Muslim Intellectual (1963), a definitive study of the great Muslim thinker Al-Ghazali.

Establishment of the Iraq Chair

Following Professor Watt's retirement there was a short period of uncertainty surrounding the future of Islamic studies at Edinburgh. Professor Watt's chair had been a personal chair - a mark of recognition of his scholarship. There was therefore no post to which there could be automatic succession.

The cloud of uncertainty, born of economic rather than academic considerations, was soon dispelled when the University of Baghdad provided a handsome endowment to establish a permanent professorial chair. For the goodwill behind this generous gesture the university doubtless owed much to the esteem and respect in which Professor Watt was held in the Muslim world as well as to its own traditions of fostering good relations and cultural ties with other nations.

In 1982 the new post, designated the Iraq Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies, was filled by Professor J Derek Latham, a well-known expert on Islamic Spain. Following Latham's retirement in 1988, Professor M Yasir Suleiman was appointed to the post in 1990 which he held until his departure in 2007. He was succeeded by Professor Marilyn Booth, who held the chair from 2009 to 2015, and Professor Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, who was appointed in 2016.