University of Bergen

Research focuses

Gateliv, KairoOur main focuses of research:

Middle Eastern studies in Bergen has traditionally been divided geographically in a 'southern tier', Islam in Africa; and in particular the Sudan; and a 'northern tier'; Turkey and the region Iran-Central Asia.

Bergen's relations with the Sudan are of a special character, and require some extra comment. They derive from the early days of Middle Eastern studies in Bergen, when several of those who later became affiliated to Bergen not only did research in the Sudan, but also taught at the University of Khartoum, and in one instance, took his Ph.D. there. These relations with the Sudan go beyond the Arts and Social sciences, and include co-operation in the fields of Medicine, Dentistry and other faculties.

In later years, they have been strengthened through the provision of scholarships in Bergen for young Sudanese researchers; thus six Sudanese have finished their doctorates in Bergen, in the fields of Archaeology, Geography, History and Social Anthropology, and more are being prepared. In the early 1990s, the then director of the National Records Office at Khartoum had a secondary position as Professor in History at Bergen University. At any given time, there will be a number of Sudanese scholars at work in Bergen, at the CDS, the Middle East Centre, or at the various departments involved.

The particular nature of our relationship with the Sudan is thus not only that it has been broad in number or researchers and departments and research milieus involved; but also that it has been truly reciprocal. While the University has been able to channel scholarly resources to the Sudan, it has even more drawn from and been influenced by the research being done in the Sudan by Sudanese scholars. This influence can be seen in several of the research areas developed in Bergen over the years.

In spite of the political developments in the Sudan which has limited institutional links with the University of Khartoum, it is hard to envisage Bergen without a Sudan interest. Efforts were spent on maintaining and developing existing personal and direct relations with Sudanese scholars, even when reducing institutional and official links. The level of Sudan research carried out in Bergen can be seen in the list of projects. After the success of the peace negotiations in the Sudan, new projects of cooperation between Bergen and Sudan are under preparation. Bergen will also host the 2006 international Sudan Studies conference.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, the political situation in the Sudan necessarily reduced the research activity, allowing, interests to diversify within Islamic Africa, and the Indian Ocean region has developed into a second regional focus.

Indian Ocean
The Indian Ocean focus grew up, partly from the Sudan milieu, partly from independent research on East Africa and South-East Asia in the late 1990s. Its main bases have been in Anthropology, History as well as Archaeology which has been active in East African studies for some time. Within this area, two independent larger projects with external funding has taken place, one from Anthropology until 2000; the other in History starting as the first came to an end. Research on the Indian Ocean focuses on its importance as a medium of cultural and economic co-operation, and therefore includes studies of the regions that border it, from East Africa to Southeast Asia. It thus studies both aspects of migration and trade and of intellectual links between the peoples of this vast region, linking to an alternative view of 'globalization'.

Turkey and Central Asia
The third regional focus has been especially dominant in the social sciences, in particular Anthropology, where Turkey was an important focus for its long-standing Migration project. However, there is currently increasing interest also among historians and other philological studies in Turkey, Caucasus and Central Asia, an interest that already has a strong basis among the philologists involved in studies on Russia and the former Soviet Union.

The Interaction of Islam with Society
The major topical focus has been the interaction of Islam with society. The study of 'Islamic societies' often takes one or the other as a given factor, focusing on its 'impact' on the other: Either seeing 'Islam' as an unchanging entity which social groups promote or reject; or inversely tracking the inevitable 'decline' of Islamic thought by a teleological 'historical development' of modernization.

The projects grouped together within this research agenda instead take a dynamic approach to the relationship between the development of Islam as religion and ideas, and the evolution of society. Neither Islamic thought nor social forces are fixed entities, developments in one link to changes in the other. This is true as well of the mystical and political movements of Africa and the Middle East in the past as it is in the ideas of Muslim immigrants to Europe today.

These projects look at this relationship from various angles, historical and contemporary, in widely different geographical areas, from the margins of the Islamic world in the south to the Muslim minorities in the north, and from a number of different methodological approaches, from Islamology to Anthropology. By combining the study of ideas with the study of society, it is easier to see the Muslim world through the eyes of its actors.


Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (SMI)
Phone + 47 55 58 26 47, fax + 47 55 58 98 91, e-mail: post@smi.uib.no
Postal address: SMI, University of Bergen. PO Box 7800 Bergen, Norway
Visiting address: SMI, 5th floor , Stein Rokkans Hus, Nygårdsgaten 5, 5015 Bergen