Often spotted conversing with his students in James Blair Hall, Abdul-Karim Rafeq, professor of Arab Middle Eastern Studies in the College of William and Mary’s history department, has spent over 40 years contributing to this dynamic field of history. While he has spent much time inspiring students in the classroom, his work on Syrian history has earned him much respect and admiration from his colleagues. Such appreciation led to the recent dedication of a Festschrift Award in his name — an honor given only to a select few.
“I am humbled by the publication of the Festschrift to which 30 scholars from diverse countries and cultures have contributed,” Rafeq said in an e-mail. “What brought them together is a shared belief in the value of scholarship that transcends national borders and ethnic and religious barriers. The Festschrift represents the mutual respect among scholars.”
Published by Brill Publishers in August 2010, the Festscrift, titled “Syria and Bilad al-Sham under Ottoman Rule,” is the 43rd book in a series that studies the six-century history of the Ottoman Empire and its relation to surrounding territories. According to Rafeq, the book’s proposal surfaced at the international symposium of the German Institute in Beirut and the French Institute in Damascus in late spring 2004.
“The idea of the Festschrift [was] to honor my work on the economic and social history of Syria during four centuries of Ottoman rule — 1516 to 1918 — using primarily the by-then little-used Islamic court records,” Rafeq said. “The Islamic court was the only official court for all [of] the population — Muslims, Christians and Jews — until [the] mid-nineteenth century when European-style courts began to be introduced alongside the Muslim court, such as the Commercial Court. [I have studied] the court records [because they] shed light on the inner structure of the traditional economies and societies of the countries under Ottoman rule through detailed cases presented at courts, including probate inventories.”
Rafeq has also studied the work of Ottoman courts in land tenure and religious endowments. He has researched the impact of European mercantilism on the traditional societies of 19th-century Middle East, as well as the economics behind the Muslim pilgrimages to holy cities. Astonishingly, a complete bibliography of his research spans 12 pages of the Festschrift.
He credits his parents and teachers for giving him the opportunity for this academic success.
“I was fortunate to have studied with highly dedicated teachers [and] scholars in all three institutions [at the American Presbyterian College, the Syrian University and the University of London.],” Rafeq said. “I also owe a lot to my parents who labored hard to provide me with [a] good education.”
But it was not until his time in graduate school that Rafeq considered teaching in various American universities.
“While studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, I made the acquaintance of several American graduate students who later on became professors in American universities and invited me to conferences and to teach in America,” Rafeq said. “The … universities [where I would teach] were excellent institutions for research and doctoral studies.”
And indeed, as a history professor at Damascus University in Syria, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago and the University of California – Los Angeles, Rafeq began to excel in his field. He eventually joined the College’s history department and has since enjoyed his 22-year tenure. During his time at the College he has met students whom he describes as “excellent, competitively chosen [and] almost hand-picked.”
Yet in the post Sept. 11 world, his classes — two 100-level survey courses on Middle Eastern history — have become the spotlight for discussions on recent conflicts in the Middle East. He has incorporated primary source documents such as court records, local and foreign travel accounts and diplomatic dispatches into his lectures to aid his students in understanding the essential roots of today’s many complicated problems.
“The 21st century is usually described as the century of ethnic and sectarian warfare that is straining the ability and indeed the structure of nation-states,” Rafeq said. “Our study of the past teaches us how the religious and ethnic communities co-existed with each other over the centuries … Because of its [religious and ethnic] taboos, Middle East history teaches us about the need for compassion, tolerance and understanding among peoples and nations if we want to eliminate the causes of inner warfare and to allow the people to live in peace with each other after justice is served.”
Fortunately, Rafeq has succeeded in doing just precisely that. By encouraging scholarship among historians of various diverse cultures and many ethnic backgrounds, he has paved the way for other scholars to bring unity between those scholars of the West and those of the Middle East.
“I [have done] my best to contribute to the history of Syria and the Middle East in general,” Rafeq said. “I [have] never refrained from sharing my knowledge with other scholars, especially with those starting their career in studying Middle East history, no matter to which nationality they belonged.”