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  • Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan

    By Dr Arezou Azad | 03 Feb 14

    Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan by Arezou AzadIn her new book Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan, Dr Arezou Azad of Oxford University's Faculty of Oriental Studies provides the first in-depth study of the sacred sites and landscape of medieval Balkh, a city in the north of modern-day Afghanistan.

    Books spoke to Dr Azad about her research.

    What sparked your interest in the topic?

    I'd never have dreamt of becoming a historian-slash-author. Until 10 years ago, my career path had taken a very different course. I was set to help the United Nations in its peacekeeping and development efforts. But on the morning of 19 August 2003 everything changed. I was walking to work on a bright New York morning when I received a call from my sister in London. Had I heard the breaking news that the UN compound in Baghdad had been bombed? I remember thinking that it was surely just a benign attack, like the ones I had witnessed a month earlier when I was in that compound. But I was wrong: 22 UN civilians and contracted staff, and others visiting the compound – internationals and Iraqis, Muslims and non-Muslims, our loved ones, friends, and family members – were killed that day by al-Qa'eda operatives. Many more were wounded.

    I never imagined that what started off as a very sad period in my life would eventually spark a sort of intellectual liberation. I was gripped by the hunger for knowledge. I wanted to understand Islam. I wanted to know its origins, how it developed, and how we got here. I wanted to tell people about it, because I felt that we – the concerned public – just didn't know enough. I was particularly interested in the transition from Buddhism to Islam in Central Asia, because I thought it carried a powerful message on a historical process related to Islam that was little understood. Needless to say, I was naïve to think that there were ready answers or 'a' historical truth, but that's part of the process of growing up during your doctorate. I did learn, though, that what came in 622 AD, the year of the Prophet Muhammad's emigration from Mecca to Medina that marks the first year of the Muslim calendar, was not a pre-packaged Islam. Nor were the Islamic conquests immediate or the mere result of brute force by a primitive people. This is a narrative one hears far too often.

    What happened was far more interesting and complicated than that. The Arab conquests set in motion a process of transition – one that lasted several centuries and eventually resulted in an Islam that we can relate to today. What exactly happened in these crucial centuries of transition is the interesting bit to me.

    What story does the book tell?

    The story of Balkh that I tell in this book is a close-up study of the kind of transition I mentioned, but set during the early Islamic centuries in a land that was very special indeed.

    Balkh was a large and magnificent city at this time. It was centred in northern Afghanistan but ruled over a major area far beyond modern Afghan borders and stood at a crossroads of trade routes between India, China and the Middle East, making it a melting pot of nationalities, cultures and religions.

    This was a land at the eastern fringes of the still young Islamic world that had become known as Balkh the Beautiful, the Dome of Islam, and the Mother of all Cities.

    Balkh was a centre for Islamic mysticism and scholarship and was a popular site for Chinese and Indian scholars of Buddhism, and Tibetan saints traced their origins to a 'western kingdom' some suggest was Balkh. It was conquered by Genghis Khan in 1220, and today, European archaeologists are searching for the Greek city built at Balkh by Alexander the Great in 327BC. Balkh is also part of the Iranians' ancient past and is said by some to be the place where Zoroaster, prophet of the Zoroastrian religion, died. Balkh is somewhere that Christians and Jews also flourished, while indigenous gods were worshipped too.

    In brief, we are dealing with a real melting pot – a city of magnificent beauty, mercantile prominence at a crossroads along the so-called silk road, and intellectual excellence; an oasis city surrounded by a beautiful but harsh terrain; a London or a New York of its day, when there was no London or New York to speak of.

    Surely the fact that early Islamic Balkh was sacred to so many people and religions in such a wide area would tell us something about the course that its transition to Islam took? The story of its transition from a foremost centre of Buddhist worship and teaching to one of Islam was one worth telling, I thought. This became the subject of my research and forms the crux of this book.

    How did you carry out your research?

    In 2009, I travelled to Afghanistan and visited the site of Balkh in the north of the country. With the help of Philippe Marquis of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA), I was able to rent two cars driven by two excellent Afghan drivers who took us on the 10-hour journey to Mazar-i Sharif, the modern-day capital of Balkh province. We set off for the old site the next morning. The site is dominated by the impressive walls of the old city and is dotted with what appears like the archaeological remains of dozens if not hundreds of shrines; perhaps Buddhist stupas and early Islamic pilgrimage sites.

    Back in Oxford, I sought the advice of colleagues and ascertained that a local history of Balkh, called the Fada'il-i Balkh, or Merits of Balkh, had been largely overlooked. It was written by a Balkhi in Arabic in the late 12th century AD. The Persian adaptation of this text, which starts with a brief historical overview including a section on the 'sights and sounds' of Balkh, is the earliest surviving local history and forms the basis for my study.

    What were the main findings of your research?

    It became apparent that the author of this text took great pains to record where the city’s saints were buried. I soon found that their shrines were co-located across five sites in Balkh. These sites were situated at strategic points of the city – on elevated mounds and at city gates. The author emphasised their sacredness by citing hadith– accounts attributed to the Prophet and his Companions on them – relating to their protective and spiritual qualities.

    Finally, I understood that that these sites were not only where the 70 Muslim scholars and mystics were buried, but they were also where sacred men before the arrival of Islam had been put to rest. People like the biblical Job (Ayyub) and Abel (Habil) were alleged to be buried here, as was the mythical Iranian king Gushtasp. I also gathered from Chinese sources that Balkh's Buddhist saints (arhats) were buried here. Thus, the very sites that were holy before the arrival of Islam continued to function as sacred sites for Muslims. The sacredness was adopted, not newly invented. Buddhist codes and practices, for example, were no longer discernable, but the iconic value and symbolic power of the place continued, now under the guise of Islam.

    I then triangulated these accounts with the archaeological evidence. What emerged was a possible constellation of sacred sites along the cardinal points of the compass, and at elevated places within. This reminded me of the Buddhist mandala landscape that is represented in Buddhist temple architecture and paintings.

    And so, not only were Balkh's sacred sites adopted by the Muslim conquerors, but by default, its entire sacred landscape. This process took centuries to develop; it didn't happen overnight. But the story is powerful – it's about adoption and adaptation of holiness: the continuities of the old in a major transition to the new. What this tells us is that Islam was not an aberration or a deal-breaker, if you will, in its early centuries. Rather, it was an inheritor of what was already there, and a continuator of traditions, albeit in a new language and with a new set of codes.

    Why is there such continuity in the use and status of these sacred sites?

    It's a good question. Early 20th-century scholars, such as F. W. Hasluck, have tried to answer this question with regard to other sacred sites that were appropriated by new religions and were continued. Hasluck looked at more than a hundred sites in Turkey that had changed hands between Christians, Muslims and 'pagans' during late antiquity and medieval Islam. Perhaps there are political reasons for this. What could be more convincing of a new world order than the appropriation of a highly visible and iconic site? The message would be clear: 'We are in charge now, and our god has pacified your demons, and will be the master of this house of worship.'

    Beyond cut-and-dried Realpolitik, anthropologists have suggested that perhaps we humans are somehow respectful of sacredness. They refer to the 'numen', or divine presence, of a site. We wouldn't want to eliminate it where it exists, even if it emanates from the wrong religion, so to speak, lest this unleash its wrath upon us. We'd rather pacify and tame it, adopt it, and put its powers to 'correct' use. I'd imagine that both explanations work, and may have been at play here. And if we fast-forward to today, and consider that the current capital of Balkh, Mazar-i Sharif, hosts one of the holiest shrines for Shi'ites in a traditionally Sunni terrain, this too supports the idea that sacredness has no borders.

    Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍā'il-i Balkh was published by Oxford University Press on 12 December 2013.

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  • Legally Married

    By Dr Scot Peterson and Professor Iain McLean | 28 Nov 13

    Legally MarriedA new book examines same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom and United States in the context of the history of marriage law. This book aims to give readers the facts to inform a public debate that has often been clouded by assumptions and polarised argument.

    The authors are Dr Scot Peterson, Bingham Research Fellow in Constitutional Studies at Balliol College; and Professor Iain McLean Peterson, Official Fellow in Politics, Nuffield College, and Professor of Politics, University of Oxford.

    The Scottish and UK governments, and a number of US states, are to legislate to allow same-sex marriage, prompting both celebration and outrage. Some argue against it on religious or cultural grounds, others support it on grounds of equality and human rights, and still others disagree with the institution of marriage altogether.

    This summer same-sex marriage became available in four states in the US (California, Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota). In October, same-sex couples in New Jersey became the latest to be able to marry, so that 33% of the US population now lives in a jurisdiction that permits same-sex marriage. Next year the number will rise to 38% when same-sex couples can marry in Illinois, and the issue is a live one in other states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. The UK Parliament also voted this summer to permit same-sex couples to marry in England and Wales, with Scotland considering it next.

    Books asked the first author, Dr Scot Peterson, about the main findings.

    First, who is this book intended for, the layperson or the lawyer?

    It's intended for the educated layperson, not just lawyers. We think that it should be accessible to all those who are interested in focusing the debate about same-sex marriage in directions that are most productive. Primarily this means arguing about treating minority groups fairly, whether they are sexual minorities or religious minorities that approve of same-sex marriage, and respecting the religious free exercise rights of those who disapprove of same-sex marriage.

    How unique is the situation today where governments in the western world have started to approve same sex marriage? This has surely never happened before in history, has it?

    What's unique is the rapid pace of the change in attitudes on this subject. According to British Social Attitudes, a survey that has been asking about attitudes toward same-sex relationships since 1983, the number of people who think that sexual relations between people of the same sex is mostly or always wrong dropped in just 20 years from 75% in 1987 to 36% in 2007. Massachusetts, the first state in the US to approve same-sex marriage, did so in 2003; today 16 states permit same-sex marriage, and over 41% of the US population lives in a state that recognises either same-sex marriage or another broad form of legal protection for same-sex couples.

    What's not true – and this is another focus of the book – is that marriage has not changed over time. Originally a way of regulating the transfer of property, through inheritance for example, marriage has changed dramatically. During the English civil war, civil marriage was permitted with no church involvement. Then, from 1753 to 1836, the Church of England had a near monopoly. Aside from Quakers and Jews, anyone in England who wished to marry had to do so in a Church of England church, with a Church of England minister presiding. Civil marriage, and marriage in other Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, only became available again in 1836.

    The reason for the restrictions on marriage between 1753 and 1836 was to stop marriages between social and economic classes. Similarly, in the United States inter-racial marriage was banned in some states until 1967. And polygamy was legally permitted amongst Mormons in the US in the 19th century. Marriage has changed a great deal over time, and those changes have not been in one direction.

    Why have governments got involved at all in determining who can get married? It might be regarded as a matter for the church?

    Some members of the Church of England seem to think that this is the case. Indeed, some have argued that church law (of the Church of England) is binding on the state, but of course that's not a credible position in a multi-faith, liberal democracy like the UK. Marriage confers specific legal rights and duties on the two partners and their children. It might be better to ask what the church has to do with this legal relationship, and of course many countries in Europe require a civil marriage ceremony, even when it is followed by a religious one. When that is not the case, as in the US and the UK, the church is acting as an agent of the state when the minister celebrates the marriage. Thus, it seems quite logical that the government sets the rules. At the same time, religious freedom requires that clergy not be required to celebrate same-sex marriages.

    What laws provide the 'get-out' for ministers who don't want to perform on the grounds of their own religious views? Do you think these will be invoked very much?

    When legislatures, as in some states in the US and in the UK, pass laws to allow same-sex marriage, allowances are made for clergy and others. Legislatures' laws vary depending on how influential religious groups are. Some states like New York have very generous exemptions for religious groups, and even for service providers (florists, bakers and the like) who disapprove of same-sex marriage and don’t want to be involved in these weddings or the relationships that follow from them. In the UK, the government introduced what it called a 'quadruple lock' to protect religious organisations and their clergy. As my co-author Iain has pointed out, the lock only opens from one side. Thus, religious organisations have to approve of same-sex marriage before their clergy can participate in those ceremonies. But even if a religious organisation agrees to perform same-sex marriages, individual clergy can still opt out if they disapprove. And because the Church of England is established, it must follow its normal procedure if it changes its policy on same-sex marriages in the future (currently it does not recognise them). That means going to parliament for a separate law.

    The US is often viewed as more traditional as compared with a more secularly-minded UK population. Is it surprising that the issue of same sex marriage has had such traction with US politicians?  What has been the driving force in the US?

    Causal, chicken-and-egg questions like this are hard to answer. But it's important to remember that until 2009 no state legislature in the US had approved same-sex marriage. Up to then, states permitted same-sex marriage based on courts’ decisions. Three years later in 2012, voters in two states approved same-sex marriage for the first time in referenda. In the UK, the government held a consultation in 2012, and the bill, which was introduced earlier this year, passed with cross-party support and lopsided majorities in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Here, the government waited until the law could be changed without much controversy; in the US, courts first introduced the change, and in many states the question remains highly controversial. Some 29 US states' constitutions define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The bottom line is that if we discount judicial decisions (of a kind not possible in the UK), the progressive parts of the US and the UK seem to be moving at roughly the same pace, which is to be expected.

    Is the rest of Europe likely to follow suit on same-sex marriage?

    Actually, parts of Europe are way ahead of us. The Netherlands have recognised same-sex marriage since 2001. Currently nine countries in Europe, aside from England and Wales, recognise same-sex marriage. These countries do not fit a particular profile: they range from secularist countries like France to historically Roman Catholic countries like Spain. Just as in the United States, things are changing rapidly, with Finland and Ireland possibly the next countries to introduce same-sex marriage and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood about to introduce such a law. (Marriage is a devolved matter, so the decision in Westminster earlier this year only applied to England and Wales.) But the 'federal' character of Europe runs parallel to the US: nine nations have constitutional provisions defining marriage as between one man and one woman; Croatia will be holding a referendum on whether to introduce such a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on 1 December.

    In reality, how many same sex marriages are there likely to be in England and Wales now that the laws have changed?

    Of 14 million one-family households in England and Wales in the 2011 census, only 32,000 (0.2%) included a couple in a civil partnership. This compares to 7.7 million (53%) where the couple were married. So we're not likely to see a huge surge in the number of marriages now that same-sex couples can get married. However, to the individual couple involved the numbers matter little. Many couples felt that they were being treated unfairly by not being allowed to marry; they argued that no matter how equal civil partnerships were, they were still separate and therefore implicitly inferior. Three religious groups agreed with them at the time the law passed: Liberal Jews, Quakers and Unitarians (and Reform Jews have now joined that group). All three have a long history of insisting that their religious freedom demands that they be allowed to marry couples as they see fit. So this change in the law has advanced both the rights of same-sex couples and religious freedom in the UK.

    Legally Married: Love and Law in the UK and the US was published by Edinburgh University Press on 26 November.

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  • Is the future what it used to be?

    By Dr Jörg Friedrichs | 24 Sep 13

    The Future Is Not What It Used to Be: Climate Change and Energy ScarcityA new book by Dr Jörg Friedrichs, from the Oxford Department of International Development, argues that the future is not what it used to be because we can no longer rely on the comforting assumption that it will resemble the past.

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  • 'No time for children'?

    Co-edited by Ann Buchanan and Anna Rotkirch | 16 May 13

    Book by Ann Buchanan: No Time for Children A new book  explores the far reaching implications of the dramatic decline in fertility rates across the world. It includes the latest research from leading international academics who all seem to agree that the world population is likely to decline by 2050.

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  • Scotland's Choices

    By Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge | 19 Apr 13

  • 'Big Data'

    By Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier | 12 Mar 13

  • 'University Intellectual Property'

    Edited by Graham Richards | 18 Jul 12

    University Intellectual PropertyUniversities are increasingly looking to exploit the intellectual property created by their researchers both to meet the expectations of governments and to search for new sources of income. In this new book Professor Graham Richards, who retired from Oxford University in 2008 where he was Head of Chemistry, and has worked with spin-out companies since 1988, investigates the key issues surrounding intellectual property in a higher education setting.

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  • 'China’s Remarkable Economic Growth'

    By John Knight and Sai Ding | 16 Apr 12

    China's Remarkable Economic Growth by John Knight and Sai DingThe book is a culmination of a major research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to explore China's economic success. No other major country has grown so fast - by some ten per cent a year - for no less than three decades. The Oxford University researchers explore the consequences of this remarkable economic phenomenon and its social transformation in China.

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  • 'Mafias on the Move'

    By Federico Varese | 28 Mar 11

    Varese bookOrganised crime is spreading like a global virus as mobs take advantage of open borders to establish local franchises at will. That at least is the fear, inspired by stories of Russian mobsters in New York, Chinese triads in London, and Italian mafias rooted in places as diverse as Germany, Canada and Australia.

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  • 'Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking'

    by Richard Scholar | 10 Mar 11

    Richard Scholar bookThis new book aims to alert a wider audience to the work of the 16th century writer, Michel de Montaigne, as well as to offer an original thesis about his place in the wider history of 'free-thinking' in early modern Europe. Books on Montaigne intended for experts alone are in plentiful supply, and there is a new wave of popular writing on the author, but very little writing on Montaigne attempts to bridge the gap between the experts and the general reader. Dr Scholar's book aims to fill that void and has caught a new tide of interest in Montaigne.

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