I intend for this unit to be taught in my 9th grade Honors World Civilizations course at a magnet high school in New Haven, Connecticut. The class periods are 82 minutes long and meet every other day. The World Civilizations curriculum for the city of New Haven was designed to give students a basic understanding of world history in their freshman year of high school. The goal of the curriculum is to afford the students the tools and context to understand sophomore United States History (which begins with Exploration and ends with the Civil War). This is a daunting task, given that the timeframe of the course spans all but the last 500 years of human history. The curriculum writers tackled this challenge by compromising between depth and breadth.
The curriculum is broken into thematic units, which cover major historical trends and concepts without dictating the region or historical material that is required to meet the standards. For example, the second unit of learning requires that students understand the rise of civilizations in river valleys, but does not require that teachers focus on any one specific river civilization. Under this curriculum one teacher might focus his entire unit on Mesopotamia, while another might compare Egypt to China as river civilizations. The standard is intentionally broad enough to allow teachers to choose depth or breadth of coverage in any given unit. While the thematic approach reconciles some of the material difficulties teachers tend to have with teaching all of world history in a single course, it fails to address the largest challenge of all.
The largest challenge of teaching world history as a single course lies in the vast amount of material that one must deal with in order to fairly represent the history of the entire world. That being the case, it is nearly impossible to do justice to any one topic without doing some injustice to another. This leaves teachers in a very difficult position. We are forced to limit our study of any one civilization, culture, or time period to little more than a snapshot. We must sprint through massive quantities of historical fact, data, and representations in order to give only the broadest understanding of human events.
This method of studying history is particularly troubling to history teachers as they understand the value of depth, and the importance of understanding all of the available facts before coming to a judgment. We are forced to ignore stories, or events that might give a great deal of historical understanding in order to explain the whole of human events in anything resembling a coherent way.
There are many strategies a teacher can use to deal with this problem, but they all come with drawbacks. Maps, timelines, and PowerPoint summaries are useful in condensing historical material, but they are all limited in one way or another in their ability to convey historical understanding and strengthen the literacy skills necessary for historical study.
At its heart, history is a discipline based on documentary evidence, in particular, primary sources. Whatever the utility of a map for illustration, a timeline for temporal orientation, or a PowerPoint summary for speed of delivery, the meat of any good history course is in primary sources, and the skills necessary to read, evaluate, and synthesize them into one's own understanding.
Unfortunately, primary source use is often limited in high school history courses to short excerpts, or quotes. Though this is a necessary evil due to the quantity of material and the time available, it need not detract from the value of primary source use. If the right sources are chosen, and the right excerpts are read, students can gain all of the benefits of reading a long primary source without spending months reading it. For this reason this unit relies heavily on one extensive and complete primary source, which I have excerpted to provide maximum pedagogical utility in a manageable amount of reading.
In New Haven, the sixth unit of the curriculum is designed to be taught in March and focuses on the rise of regional civilizations. This unit serves as a bridge between the units on world religion and empire, which conclude in March, and the unit on the rise of the global economy, which wraps up the year. As a result of their previous unit on world religion, my students will already have a basic understanding of Islam, and its beginnings.
While the curriculum allows a teacher to choose between empires and civilizations from around the world, I have chosen to write this unit with a focus on the Islamic world. This makes curricular sense for me, but also allows this unit to be useful in any world history classroom. I am focusing on the travels of one man, and using those travels to highlight larger themes in the Muslim world of the European Middle Ages.
Certainly it would not be a stretch to describe the early Islamic empires as both a geographic and temporal bridge. The trade networks established by Muslim traders linked the East, principally China and India, to the West, principally Medieval Europe more concretely than ever before. This naturally led to a rise in trade, but also, spurred the Renaissance in the trading centers of the Mediterranean. The early Islamic Empires also served very successfully as a temporal bridge between the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the rebirth of Europe in the Renaissance. These bridges make it almost imperative to study the Islamic world in this context, and at this point in the year.
Given my students' existing understanding of the rise of Islam, I have chosen to circumvent the political state of the Islamic world between the year 656, in which the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam split over succession to Muhammad (Armstrong, Karen, A History of God. (Random House Publishing: New York NY. 1993) pg. 158.) and the 12th century, during which the Islamic world was largely politically stable. This is a good example of the bargains necessary in a world history classroom. Certainly the political history of the Umayyad Caliphate, and the Abassid Empire are important and useful in the context of world history. It is difficult however to justify taking the month it would require to begin to understand them fairly.
For that reason I decided to focus on the travels of a single man, Abul-Husayn Muhammad ibn Ahmed ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Muslim who made the Hajj in the year 1183. He traveled from Spain, to the Middle East and back, keeping a detailed record of his journey. He artfully describes each stop on his journey within the poetic tradition of the Arabic language. This allows his writing to be both descriptive and artistic, and grants the reader a colorful and extensive understanding of the places he visited (Broadhurst, Roland trans, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr Goodword Books: New Dehli, India. 1952)
In that he traveled most of the Islamic world of his day in the course of his travels, Ibn Jubayr offers exactly the kind of snapshot necessary for a high school world history teacher to teach the Islamic world. His work makes it possible to introduce students to the realities of daily life, and the systems that functioned, without getting lost in a lengthy discussion of the political realities of empire.
Aside from the quality of his descriptions, Ibn Jubayr also clearly demonstrates the centrality of faith in the life of a Muslim in that time period. His constant repetition of phrases like "May God show favor on them," allow his reader to see his faith in action. Whether this is an outright declaration of faith, or a plea to readers, it offers a valuable insight into history. These phrases also allow a teacher to highlight the importance of understanding religion as a means of understanding one's perspective. These factors make his writing ideal as primary source documents for use in a ninth grade classroom.
Ibn Jubayr will allow me to introduce a large variety of disparate topics through the study of one primary source. While this obviously serves a curricular goal, it will also allow me to focus on necessary and relevant skills in historical interpretation. Regardless of the content, reading primary sources serves a chance to teach the students about the nuances of perspective, and bias. They also allow us to practice the craft of history through critical interpretation of facts and viewpoints.
The difficulty with most primary sources is that primary sources are disinterested in the fact that I am looking for specific information in my lesson. They are also remarkably unconcerned with the fact that I have a limited amount of time to teach these topics. Jubayr allows me to circumvent that problem. He is so thorough and so concise that excerpting his work does not gut it of all meaning. It is entirely possible to select specific excerpts without losing the value of a single voice and without sacrificing the valuable historical content of his work.
These excerpts will operate as a starting point for historical exploration. We will follow Ibn Jubayr across the Mediterranean Sea, and throughout the Holy Land and Mesopotamia. This will give us a chance to review areas that we have covered before. The students will have studied Rome, Egypt and Mesopotamia, so this will serve as an opportunity to understand continuity in the ancient world. Furthermore, this will allow for a jump to modern times, as Ibn Jubayr travels through Baghdad and Israel on his way home.
With these excerpts in hand, the students will view history through his eyes, allowing them to identify with the humanity of his work. Given this much more personal approach, students will be asked to step into his shoes, and link what they find to their own personal experience. This personal connection will serve as the gateway to our focus on the skills of historical literacy.
I intend to augment the work of Jubayr with a number of modern and secondary sources. We will use our text, McDougal Littell's
World History: Patterns of Interaction
, along with video, internet, and map sources to draw a picture of the Islamic world that includes not only a travelogue, but also an understanding of the technological, artistic, educational, trade, administrative and governmental structures in the Islamic world. In this way the students will have the opportunity to compare the world presented by Ibn Jubayr, with the world understood by modern historians. Thereby granting the students a deeper understanding of history as a discipline as well as the specific history of these regions and this regional civilization.