Between the Limits and the Gaps: Conceptualizing Frontiers in Medieval Arabic and Persian Geographies

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:20 PM
Cornet Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Robert Haug, University of Cincinnati
When medieval Arabic and Persian geographic writers described frontiers they tended to use one of two terms, ḥadd (pl. ḥudūd) or thaghr (pl. thughūr). Literally, these two terms translate as “limits” (ḥudūd) and “gaps” (thughūr) and they tend to be used in a manner roughly synonymous to the modern English “border” and “frontier” respectively. This paper will explore the “limits” and the “gaps” of the Central Asian frontier of the medieval Islamic world as represented by the Arabic and Persian geographic writers of the ninth and tenth centuries in order to examine the ways in which these writers understood and conceptualized the frontier as both a physical place and an abstract place imbued with meaning.

The Central Asian or eastern frontier of the early Islamic world encompassed a region with a complex political, religious, and cultural identity where a number of forces competed for authority, but when our geographic sources delimit the frontier, they condense this complex picture into a dichotomy most often between Islam and not Islam or between the caliphate and not the caliphate. In doing so, they fill the frontier with meanings that are perhaps unrelated to the realities on the ground. This paper will examine how these geographic writers approached the complexities of the Central Asian frontier society - especially during the ninth and tenth centuries, a period of political fragmentation – as a lens through which we may understand the ways these writers conceptualized the idea of frontier and, by association, the unifying factors of the Islamic world and the `Abbasid Caliphate. Special attention will be placed on the “gaps” which appear far from the “limits” or those spaces nominally surrounded by the Islamic world where either Islam or the caliphate had yet to or could no longer penetrate.