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Sami Zubaida

(Elected 2010)


Sami Zubaida is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, and also holds posts as Professorial Research Associate at the Food Studies Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Research Associate at the London Middle East Institute at SOAS.

His research involves the religion, culture, politics and law of the Middle East, with particular attention to Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. His other research interest is food history and culture, ranging comparatively over Europe, the Middle East and India.

Born in Iraq, Sami Zubaida went to school in Baghdad before studying at the Universities of Hull and Leicester. He is the author of the recently published Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East. Professor Zubaida’s earlier books include Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East; A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East; and Law and Power in the Islamic World.

As a Visiting Hauser Global Professor of Law in 2006, Sami Zubaida taught Law and Politics in the Islamic World at New York University School of Law. In 2008 he was Shaykh Zayed Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the American University of Beirut, and in 2009 he delivered the Peter Green Lecture on the Modern Middle East at Brown University, USA. In 2011 his public lectures included speaking at Ravenna University, Italy; at the International Association of Media and Communication Research Conference, Istanbul; and delivering a keynote lecture at the Arab Thought Forum, Jordan.


Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Sami Zubaida was born and brought up in Baghdad. He studied for his BA at the University of Hull and an MA at the University of Leicester. In 1972, he joined forces with Paul Hirst, whom he had taught at Leicester, and Bernard Crick, to found the Department of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, and was to teach there continuously until his retirement, and, as Emeritus Professor, even beyond that. Along with Paul Hirst and colleagues from History and Philosophy, he founded the BA in PPH, a degree that truly integrated three different disciplines, investigating political forms and processes in a way that brought to bear both philosophical rigour and historical perspective. These are the qualities that Sami Zubaida’s own work opulently conjoins.

Sami Zubaida’s academic career has coincided with a new era of conflict between the West and the Middle East, and he has devoted much of that career to work that tries to loosen solidified prejudices and undo locked understandings on both sides, if sides are indeed what they are. He has been for many years one of the most widely-read and respected analysts of the history and politics of the Middle East in the world. His Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (1989), which went into its third edition in 2009, was written in the decade that followed the popular revolution in Iran in 1979, a revolution that suggested to many, in the West and the Middle East alike, that the revolution has sprung spontaneously from an Islamic essence, that was the slumbering, but inextinguishable essence of Muslim peoples, masked by flirtations with inauthentic Western ideas like nationalism and communism.  In the book, Sami Zubaida mounts his challenge to the idea that the Islamic world has a logic and historical destiny that is fundamentally separate from and alien to that of the West, arguing that the new force of ‘political Islam’ is in fact a thoroughly and characteristically modern phenomenon.

In his inaugural lecture on becoming a Professor at Birkbeck in 2004, entitled ‘Cosmopolitans, Nationalists and Fundamentalists in the Modern Middle East’, he insisted on the, to some, uncomfortable truth that ‘cosmopolitanism is the product of empires’, that it was the Ottoman and British Empires that brought together into large and largely tolerant urban centres, many different peoples of different histories, faiths and political dispositions.

Where many have sought in recent years to emphasise the dramatic difference between the ‘worlds’ of the West and the Middle East, Sami Zubaida has sought to show the complex similarities, remarking, for example, that ‘the great majority of Muslims in Britain or France are just as Muslim as most other people are Christian, in other words not very much’. Recently, he delivered the Peter Green lectures at Brown University, in which he spoke against the idea that the essence of Iraq lay in its religion and sectarian divisions, suppressed under the tyranny of the Ba’th party, and ferociously and irresistibly insurgent once that suppression was removed. Rather, he emphasised the complex secular and nonsectarian history of Iraq.

He has emphasised in his work not only the difficulty of reducing complex societies to the fact of their being Islamic, but also the complexity and variability of Islam itself. Islam, for example, is popularly supposed to ban interest, but Sharia courts in the countries of the Ottoman empire only disallowed interest payments over 15%. Similarly, the idea that Muslims do not drink alcohol is historically very new – one of the most popular and influential books on medicine included a chapter on wine.

In Law and Power in the Islamic World (2003), Zubaida investigates the interrelationship between law and political power in the societies of the Middle East. At the centre of the book is an examination of the origins and evolution of the Sharia, and the corpus of texts in which is has been embodied. In this book, Zubaida shows how the idea of a fixed and absolute body of Sharia law, handed on invariantly, is a fantasy – and one ironically shared by West and East alike.

His most recent book, Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East, draws together many of the themes of his career. The essays that make up the book attempt to ‘desacralize’ the Middle East. Pointing to the many different forms of tradition and social organisation, and their expression in social institutions and art-forms the book aims to take its readers, as its title says, ‘Beyond Islam’. He argues that it makes as little sense to see the food, art, science and systems of government of all these many Middle Eastern countries as essentially Islamic as it would be to see the history of Europe and America as an essentially Christian history. Islam is therefore not to be seen as a distinct culture and civilisation in need of being ‘understood’ by the West. Rather than seeing Islam in terms of the hypothesis of a clash of civilisations, or as some kind of archaic antagonist to modernity, Zubaida points to the complex ways in which Islam combines with and responds to modernity.

As against those who would celebrate the purity and continuity of cultures, he has always insisted on their evolving complexity and unevenness. Nothing is ever all just one thing. Sami Zubaida ended his inaugural lecture by calling for a recognition, against the homogenising flood of globalising discourse, of ‘the unique contribution of Middle Eastern cosmopolitan culture’.

Since at least the 1990s, Sami has had a deep interest in the civilising effects of food and culinary culture, writing essays on many different aspects of the food of the Middle east and, more recently, of India. In 1994, he co-edited A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East.  This is far from a merely academic matter for Sami. Once, during a departmental awayday, his head of department, the political biographer, and my predecessor as College orator Ben Pimlott, proposed that the department opt for the prix fixe menu. ‘We are talking about food here’, retorted Sami: ‘it is no time to be thinking about money’. During the 1980s, new arrivals in the college such as myself were lured on dark evenings in late January to the Senior Common Room, an institution not yet swept away by reforming zeal, by the prospect of the Birkbeck Burns Night supper. It is true that George Birkbeck founded his first Mechanics Institution not in London but in Glasgow, but I like others was a little puzzled as to how such an event might have found its way into the Birkbeck calendar. Haggis was ceremoniously served and unceremoniously consumed, and the evening lengthened out with the languorous tasting of fine malt whiskies. It was the first time in my life I had ever eaten haggis, or indeed drunk so many different whiskies in the space of a single evening. It was also the first time I had ever heard Robert Burns’s Address to a Haggis, solemnly intoned over the steaming, odorous beast:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

You have guessed by now that the onlie begetter and master of ceremonies at this event, delivering this and the ensuing seven verses of the address in his warm, Iraqi-Hibernian brogue, was Sami Zubaida. I am glad to be able to record my personal gratitude for my introduction to this essentially Scottish exile tradition by an Iraqi expatriate in Bloomsbury.

Sami Zubaida has lectured or held visiting posts in Cairo, Beirut, Istanbul, Berkeley, Paris and New York. He is a founding member of the journal Economy and Society and has been on the editorial board since 1971; he is also a contributing editor for Middle East Report. He has been a long-standing Research Associate in the Centre for Near and Middle East Studies at SOAS and a member of the Board of Directors of the London Middle East Institute at SOAS.

Sami Zubaida brings to the study of Middle Eastern cultures a rare and impressive broadness of view – he speaks with equal knowledge and authority about Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. His work has carefully, patiently urged his readers against the simplifying temptations of fantasy and formula. His writing is like him: patient, appreciative, unshowy, meticulous, but unswerving in its unwillingness to sacrifice the complexity of affinity and affiliation to the easy path of denunciation. As a colleague, Sami Zubaida has always had a cheerful and courteous interest in and knowledge of the work of others, whether in his own field or beyond it, in a local and academic version of the hospitality he has explored and upheld in his own work.

The poet Ammu Ibn al Ala wrote of the man who both lives and dies in Baghdad ‘It is as if he moves from one heaven to another’. For too long that judgement has been hard to credit. But it seems fitting that a son of Baghdad, the cradle of civilisation, should have played such a large part in clearing, in his thought, his teaching and his writing, the path of civilisation that, despite everything, according to contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, is the only one that remains truly open.  Nobody could exemplify in his work, his sunny demeanour and his ‘honest, sonsie face’  the amicable ethos of this college more perfectly than Sami Zubaida and so it is with great personal pride, thanks and pleasure that I welcome him now as Fellow of Birkbeck.