Alex J. Novikoff

Alex J. Novikoff is Assistant Professor in Medieval History at Rhodes College, Memphis.

How did you become interested in Muslim Spain?

I first became interested in the history of medieval interfaith relations when I was an undergraduate student, and over the years I have gravitated increasingly toward Spain because of the quite unique coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. From my interest in all things Iberian, and in the aftermath of 9/11, it quickly became apparent to me that I would need to learn more about the Muslim world if I was going to be a serious medievalist. I delved further into the history and historiography of Muslim Spain, I studied classical Arabic in Morocco, and with the help of a Mellon grant I led a faculty group to the Middle East (Israel, Jordan, and Cyprus) in order to explore the history of medieval Christian-Muslim relations during the period of the crusades. I have multiple areas of scholarly interest, but the astonishing cultural achievements of Muslim Spain remain for me one of the most fascinating epochs in history. I was therefore delighted to be asked to write this book.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?

I value the importance of great individuals and ideas in history, but I have become increasingly convinced of the supreme importance of 'cultural history' as a tool for making meaningful sense out of the major developments of the past. These days I call myself a cultural historian, and in my other work on medieval scholasticism I have sought to uncover how the reception of ideas and performance of knowledge produced many of the cultural achievements that we too easily ascribe to unique individuals, texts, or institutions.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?

The medieval Muslim world produced an immense body of written works covering the field of literature, poetry, theology, science, mathematics, and history. Great strides have been made in the past generation translating these works into English, but more is needed. I also believe that historians need to broaden their fields of research and reach beyond the confines of their narrow topical and disciplinary specializations. It is healthy and fruitful for historians to delve into areas beyond their initial training, and doing so provides great comparative perspectives on that material that one knows best. Too many scholars, unfortunately, can’t be bothered.

Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?

There are many figures in history that I would love to meet in some imaginary time travel, but the one who comes to mind relative to the history of Muslim Spain (although he lived in North Africa) is Ibn Khaldun, who lived in the second half of the fourteenth century. His family left Spain following the Christian Reconquest of Seville in the middle of the thirteenth century. Today, Ibn Khaldun is considered one of the fathers of history, sociology, and economics. His theories of social conflict and social cohesion, based on his study of sedentary life versus nomadic life among the Arab peoples, are of extraordinary depth and sophistication. The great British historian Arnold J. Toynbee was surely correct when he called his work, the Muqqadimah, 'a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.'

What is your favourite book?

I’ve always had a particular fondness for autobiography, and those of Saint Augustine, Peter Abelard, and Benjamin Franklin have each marked me in different ways. I suspect that this derives from my more general conviction that all history is in some sense autobiography. ■