In the 18 months since we started New Lines magazine, we’ve published longform essays, reportage and memoir. The idea has been not merely to tell untold stories about the Middle East and the wider world but to tell them in unexpected, even unimagined ways.
It has been an evolving experiment, one in which we have explored different ways of telling stories about the world around us, from newsletters to podcasts to other forms of writing; as well as investigating different parts of our global village, from the end of America’s longest war in Afghanistan to the continuing war in Ukraine.
From today, we’re moving to expand our coverage of global affairs with the creation of a new series of essays, devoted to widening that lens further. We call them historical essays. But they are much more than that.
Intellectual history is a process of rediscovery and reinterpretation. What we think we know is really, as Victor Hugo once wrote, merely an echo of the past. Sometimes, we hear that echo clearly; other times, we only dimly perceive its meaning or misunderstand it completely.
For us, these new historical essays are a chance to shine a light on under-reported ideas, events and personalities from the past that reflects on the present. Big ideas, anchored in history, engagingly written.
What, then, would make a good historical essay? What can readers expect and what should contributors pitch?
Consider, as an example, the “Mardin fatwa” by the 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya.
For a long time, what Ibn Taymiyya meant by the fatwa was widely accepted. In the context of Mongol raids on Muslim cities, Ibn Taymiyya wrote that it was permissible to fight the Mongols, even though they had converted to Islam, because they were un-Islamic in the way they ruled. This ability to “excommunicate” Muslim rulers has found fertile ground among militants ever since: it was used as justification by the militants who assassinated Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and reappeared in the literature of jihadist organizations like al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
In the 21st century, however, the Mauritanian scholar Abdullah bin Bayyah has cast doubt on whether Ibn Taymiyyah wrote the Arabic word “fight” in his fatwa. Bin Bayyah found the oldest surviving version in a Damascus library and declared that the fatwa had been misused. Centuries of conflict had turned on a typo — Ibn Taymiyya, it turns out, wrote “treat,” not “fight.”
The Mardin fatwa is perfect fodder for a historical essay: a little-known historical incident with vast political repercussions that reverberates down to the present day.
What else makes a historical essay? Counterintuitively, not history alone. We’ve called them historical essays because the other contender titles — intellectual essays, idea essays, or “illuminations” — didn’t seem to fully capture the sense of discovery we’re aiming at.
History is concrete and familiar and we wanted to be sure we were giving our readership and our contributors a firm footing on which to work. We’re writing this letter, after all, in part to solicit contributions from writers. But history is only one starting point for these essays. Others could be anthropology, linguistics, music, food, wine or poetry.
As an example: in the days after his death, we published this obituary of the Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri. Were we to publish an essay on his life and work now, we would delve further into the influence Fakhri’s religious training had on his music. Religious music had a profound effect on the rhythms of popular Arab music of the 20th century, in a way that has been all too rarely explored.
We’re still developing the concept of these historical essays, but we know what they’re not. They’re not polemics, selectively sledgehammering history into the present; nor are they vehicles for activism, presenting only a partial telling of the past.
Nor are they merely stories about the past. The essays must have modern relevance; they must, in some way, contribute to understanding our present. This understanding need not be overt; an essay can “gesture” at the modern world, without drawing an explicit parallel.
The broader goal is to contribute to wider public conversation, not merely about the Middle East but about the vast, interlinked civilizations beyond it.
It’s an opportunity to showcase writing in the service of public intellectualism, not merely about current affairs but about their historical context. Think of it as public history. Creating a space for public historians would be a project worthy of the ambitions of the magazine.
With all that said, what do we need from you? Simply put: your ideas. Both writers and readers. We’re interested in hearing your pitches and your suggestions for potential contributors. (If you’re not sure, read our Submissions page here.) We’re excited to share these essays with you in the coming weeks. We’re even more excited to see how you, our contributors and readers, will develop and define this new genre.