Social Networks in the Early Islamic World

This project stems from the world’s largest alumni newsletter: in the mid-9th century, Thomas, the East Syriac Bishop of Marga (a region in modern day Iraq), decided he would collect as many stories as he could concerning those who graduated from his home-monastery of Beth Abhe.

Titled The Book of Governors, the resulting hagiography runs 685 pages and has just shy of 500 characters. It contains a treasure trove of information on topics ranging from Christian-Muslim relations to medieval economic history, ecclesiastical politics, and ancient pilgrimage routes. In recent years, humanists have increasingly applied techniques associated with social network analysis to historical sources. Social network analysis is a set of visualization and quantification tools that helps scholars study and display how groups are structured and group members interact. Despite its utility, it has rarely been applied to pre-modern history. The Book of Governors makes for a particularly intriguing and productive case study for pre-modern social network analysis. It is an amalgamation of evidence for what we’d consider historically plausible interactions (e.g. well-known abbots, caliphs, and theologians) alongside those we’d consider less plausible (e.g. teleporting trees, petrified dragons, and, in one case, a temporarily resurrected dog).

Core People