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Medieval influences

  • 28 April 2021

For Dr Ahab Bdaiwi, Gonville & Caius College’s Cook-Crone Research Bye-Fellow, working at the University of Cambridge is “like being in the paradise of medievalists”.

“I’m interested in ideas. And specifically the continuities of ideas passed down from the learned cultures of antiquity into early medieval societies, particularly Muslim societies,” Dr Bdaiwi says.

“As someone who lives and breathes all things ancient and medieval, Cambridge is like being in the paradise of all things old and great, particularly the medieval colleges like Caius.”

Dr Bdaiwi’s research has three main strands: the origins of Islam: studying the intellectual, religious, and philosophical ideas and concepts that form the earliest layers of the faith; secondly, medieval Arabic philosophy and theology: undertaking research on topics such as the nature of the soul and metaphysics; and, thirdly, the religious and intellectual dimensions of medieval Shiʿi Islam, its texts and canons, learned traditions, and doctrinal development. 

He has followed in the footsteps of Patricia Crone, an Honorary Fellow of Caius whose bequest enabled the Cook-Crone Bye-Fellowship to be awarded on an annual basis.

Dr Bdaiwi adds: “She was the one of the first to push us to re-evaluate the origins of Islam and its early shaping and development. I was particularly attracted to her introductory but ground-breaking studies on Quranic monotheism and paganism.”

While on his research leave from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, Dr Bdaiwi’s main project has been his book, Echoes of Late Antiquity in Medieval Islam. In the book, he tries to show how medieval Muslim thinkers and intellectuals saw themselves as Muslim as well as inheritors of ancient ideas, whether Greek, Christian, or Jewish.

Dr Bdaiwi is also working on another book, Monotheism and Paganism in Late Antique Arabia, which seeks to study anew the concepts of monotheism and paganism in the Qurʾan and in Arabia, in the periods shortly before and after the advent of Islam.

He received his PhD from the University of Exeter and worked as a lecturer in medieval Islamic and Iranian history at the University of St Andrews prior to taking up a university lectureship in Leiden, which he describes as “the citadel of all things Arabic and Islamic, as far as academia is concerned”.

In his classes, Dr Bdaiwi labours hard to get his students interested in the medieval world and to appreciate the value of tradition, stability, and continuity, sometimes turning to visual aids to make his point.

He adds: “The awe-inspiring architectural formidability and augustness and grandeur of medieval colleges and universities, for example, is far more impressive and long-lasting than the godawful vacuousness that characterises much of contemporary art, learning, and architecture.

“We take it for granted that we are modern creatures, but we forget that we have inherited so much of the medieval past. To deny this simple but often-ignored fact, is to deny who we are.

“No-one can deny the profound role played by medieval religion, medieval ideas, and medieval philosophy in the shaping of modern human societies and their thinking. I rarely hide my personal outlook that things were simply better in the medieval past.”

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