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Irfan Shahîd

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 15:12 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Irfan Shahîd and his wife Mary at the 2010 Dumbarton Oaks holiday party.

Irfan Shahîd first came to Dumbarton Oaks as a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies in 195455, and he has since returned as a Visiting fellow (1960–61 and 1972–73), a visiting scholar (1975–76), and an associate fellow (1979–84 and 1999–2008). Over the last fifty years, Shahîd has worked to create a comprehensive account of the intersection between the Greco-Roman, Arabic, and Islamic worlds, from the fourth to the seventh century. Recognizing that there was a dearth of scholarship on Arab-Byzantine relations, Shahîd made it his lifework to remedy this deficiency. Since the 1980s, he has been working on a series titled Byzantium and the Arabs, much of which he accomplished here at Dumbarton Oaks.

Born on January 15, 1926, in Palestine, Shahîd left the country a couple of years before the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 to study at St. John the Baptist College, University of Oxford. He received his BA in Literae Humaniores (Classics) and Greco-Roman History in 1951. At Oxford, Shahîd was inspired to explore the role of the Arabs in Roman history, and his undergraduate work helped lay the foundation for his later scholarship. He then attended Princeton University, earning a PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies in 1954.

After completing his doctoral work, Shahîd went to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Although his exchange student visa had expired just after he completed his doctoral work, a private bill introduced in Congress granted Shahîd permanent citizenship, thus allowing him to continue his academic work in the United States. While at the Institute, he met the renowned medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, who helped him to select and define the research topic that would dominate the remainder of his scholarly life. Shahîd combined his interest in Arab-Roman history with Kantorowicz’s suggestions, resulting in an examination of the role of Arabs in the rise of Western Europe. Given the rather ambitious scope, Shahîd came to the realization that before dealing with Arab-Byzantine relations in the seventh century, he would first have to establish a broader foundation. Thus, he split his project into several volumes. The first of these examines Rome and the Arabs from the time of the settlement of Pompeii to the reign of Constantine. It was followed by an investigation into relations between the Byzantines and the Arabs from Constantine to the reign of Heraclius, published as Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth Century, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century, and Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, volume one and volume two, parts one and two. The final volume, in preparation, explores the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests. In a 1959 letter to Ernst Kitzinger, director of Byzantine Studies from 1955 to 1966, Shahîd described the scope of the project that he had established for himself: “The fall of the Roman Empire in the West to the assaults of the Germanic tribes has been carefully studied; but the same cannot be said of the assault of the Arabs against the Eastern Roman Empire which resulted in the occupation of its Oriental and African provinces.”

Shahîd worked to turn the existing basic Arab-Islamic chronology into a complete history, producing a body of work that Sidney Griffith, a professor and scholar of Arab Christianity, called “a major step forward in our knowledge of the history and culture of the world in which Islam was born.”

Speakers at the 1970 Byzantine Studies Symposium, “Byzantium and Sasanian Iran,” left to right: Irfan Shahîd, A. D. H. Bivar, Averil Cameron, Philip Grierson, Andreas Alföldi, Richard Ettinghausen, Elias J. Bickerman, and Richard Frye (seated)
Speakers at the 1970 Byzantine Studies Symposium, “Byzantium and Sasanian Iran,” left to right: Irfan Shahîd, A. D. H. Bivar, Averil Cameron, Philip Grierson, Andreas Alföldi, Richard Ettinghausen, Elias J. Bickerman, and Richard Frye (seated)

After finishing his 1960–61 fellowship, Shahîd decided to remain in Washington, D.C., joining the faculty of Georgetown University in 1963 as the Oman Professor of Arabic and Islamic Literature. He continued to apply for and receive various Dumbarton Oaks Fellowships to continue his work, and he was immensely appreciative of the resources afforded by “the unparalleled Byzantine library, the support of colleagues, and the quiet setting.”

Shahîd’s scholarship also drew praise from Walter Kaegi, a fellow historian and scholar of Byzantine studies. Kaegi wrote, in regard to Shahîd’s 1989 volume, Byzantine and the Arabs in the Fifth Century:

All in all, this is a fundamental, well-researched, learned work that will serve scholars for a very long time. It is a mine of information. The author has accomplished a major scholarly task, the explication of the sequence of references to Arabs within and without the Byzantine Empire in the fifth century. It is an indispensable tool for others who seek to unravel the momentous events and context of the sixth century.

During his associate fellowships, Shahîd completed the two parts of the volume Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century. He has retired from Georgetown University, and is now professor emeritus. Shahîd continues to work at Dumbarton Oaks as an honorary affiliate fellow of Byzantine Studies, and he is finishing the first part of the third volume of his series, finally reaching the climax of his work: the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests.

Read more in Irfan Shahîd’s oral history interview.