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First lecture in the ACMES lecture series "Race, racism and racialisation in the Middle East and Europe". Speaker: Dr. Rachel Schine, University of Colorado.

Event details of Race-making in Early Arabic Fiction
Date 4 March 2021
Time 17:00 -18:30

The formative Islamic period witnessed a rapid uptick in intercultural encounters and exchange, as well as the rise of new trades in enslaved people and the demographic shifts introduced by recently conquered populations, all of which left their imprint on Arab-Muslim historical writing in its various forms. This talk demonstrates that, in conjunction with these changes, techniques of racialization change across narrative time in popular Arabic epic traditions, particularly in the transition between the jāhiliyya (pre-Islamic period) and the coming of Islam.

Amid various genres of premodern Arabic writing that were positioned outside of adab (elite literature), siyar sha‘biyya (epics) are particularly useful for studies of racialization due to the vast range of characters, cultures, and geographies that they incorporate, anchored by successive cycles of heroes who share a common lineage. As their generations progress, the protagonists of the sīras—many of whom have hybrid and subaltern identities—adapt to how race operates in new temporalities and guide their fellow characters to do likewise. The arc from the jāhiliyya to Islam in the epic Sīrat al-Amīra Dhāt al-Himma tells a fraught story of “racial uplift,” in which previously disenfranchised Black Africans living in the Arabian Peninsula, under the tutelage of the text’s elite Black-Arab hero, are able to use the institutions of Islamic kinship to attain greater station. Through analyzing the progression of racialized time in popular epic, I find that emergent legal and social systems that crystallized in Islam’s early period (7th-12th centuries) are used in Arabic storytelling to construct race and to articulate aspirational histories for racial others.

Rachel Schine holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. She is presently a postdoctoral associate and instructor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations. Her current book project, Black Knights: Arabic Epic and the Making of Medieval Race, explores the origins, literary functions, and social histories of black protagonists in Arabic popular literature, and particularly in the language’s longest epic, Sīrat al-Amīra Dhāt al-Himma. She has published on topics relating to racialization and kinship in Arabic storytelling in, among others, the Journal of Arabic Literature and al-‘Usūr al-Wustā: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists

This lecture will take place online via Zoom. If you want to attend, please register by sending an email to


ACMES Spring Lecture Series

The series Race, racism and racialisation in the Middle East and Europe is inspired by the global Black Lives Matter protest movement. The various lectures explore the complexities of race, racism and racialisation, their intersections with other inequalities, and emerging spaces of resistance and solidarity.

4 March 2021, 5 PM
Dr. Rachel Schine, University of Colorado
Race-making in Early Arabic Fiction

25 March 2021, 5 PM
Prof. Rabab Abdulhadi, San Francisco State University
Black-Palestinian Solidarity

8 April 2021, 5 PM
Dr. Sarah Bracke, University of Amsterdam
Europe’s ‘Muslim Question’: A Biopolitical Approach  

22 April 2021, 5 PM
Dr. Deniz Yonucu, Technische Universität Berlin
Policing and Resistance in the Racialized Urban Spaces of Istanbul

20 May 2021, 5 PM
Annual ACMES lecture
Prof. Amade M’charek, UvA
Beach Encounters and Forensic Evidence: Migrant Death, Colonial Currents and the Art of Paying Attention