Peter Webb - Making War Ethnic: Arab–Persian Identities and Conflict on the Euphrates Frontierhttps://www.academia.edu/109034249/Making_War_Ethnic_Arab_Persian_Identities_and_Conflict_on_the_Euphrates_Frontier
Battles and ethnic identities seem natural companions in theory. Both engage strong emotions, both are conceptualized in binary oppositional terms of “us” versus “them,” and via memories of battles, ethnic groups can plot their history in heroic terms explaining how “we” as a people emerged from the crucible of conflict, how strong “we” are, and how “we” have always fought “them.” But the well-known vicissitudes of collective memory readily recraft past events to harmonize them with a community’s present circumstances. In practice, therefore, battles may not always be as ethnically charged in the thick of the fight as they come to be memorialized afterwards. This chapter studies the memorialization of the Battle of Dhū Qār, a pre-Islamic clash on Iraq’s Euphrates frontier ca. 610 CE, which acquired a prominent and evolving significance in Muslim historiography.
The stages of Dhū Qār’s memorialization reveal a 300-year process whereby dim and mutable reflections of a pre-Islamic battle were gradually reshaped to convert a frontier clash waged by a limited group of subgroups of the Bakr against a composite force of Sasanian border guards into new guises that changed in step with the evolving organization of elite community in the Middle East. First, in the Umayyad period, the Caliphate’s military elite imagined themselves as the people of Maʿadd, and they harnessed memory of Dhū Qār, reshaping it into a collective achievement, amenable to their efforts to unify the Caliphate’s elite. Hence they could reorient memory of the battle from the narrow confines of the glory of a single tribe, or even just particular branches of that tribe, into a glory of Maʿadd, and as a harbinger of the Sasanian collapse from which the Marwanid-era elite derived their worldly authority. Then, as the Marwanid dynasty gave way to the Abbasids, senses of peoplehood were changing, as Maʿaddites and others were being reorganized into a new form of Arab community, underwritten by the now well-articulated doctrines of Islam. In turn, Dhū Qār was re-memorialized as a victory for the Arab people with explicit connections to the Prophet Muhammad and Islam’s rise.
As groups who memorialized Dhū Qār and made its memory their own became more powerful and better articulated the trappings of ethnic identity, so the macro-historical significance of the battle increased. The story of Dhū Qār’s historiography thus takes us to the heart of early Muslim-era myth-making which reconfigured memories of the past not just to explain the rise of Islam, but also to create an antiquity for Arab identity formed by consolidating tribal histories into a composite ethnic story of all Arabs. And in sum, Dhū Qār is a prototypical site of memory: its permanence in history has little relation to what actually transpired, but instead derives from the staying power of the people who later laid claim to it.