In Memoriam: Michael Winter

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We have received the sad news of the death of Michael Winter.  The following obituary was originally published in Mamluk Studies Review by Amalia Levanoni and Meir Hatina.




Professor Michael Winter, a widely-known figure in the field of the intellectual, social, and political history of the Middle East, passed away on September 1, 2020. He was 86 years old. Michael Winter was a devoted family man and gave generously of himself to his students, colleagues and friends. Winter left behind a rich research oeuvre that dates back to his student days in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There he encountered such luminaries as Uriel Heyd, David Ayalon and Gabriel Baer, who sparked his interest in the Mamluk and Ottoman Empires and the social history of the Middle East. In 1969 he began his Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, under the supervision of the renowned Islamic scholar Gustav von Grunebaum. In his dissertation (completed in 1972 and published as a book in 1982),[1] Winter analyzed the writings of the celebrated Egyptian Sufi ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī (d. 973/1565), thus shedding light on aspects of Egypt’s social and religious life in the sixteenth century, after the Ottoman conquest in 1517.  

         Upon returning to Israel in 1972, he joined the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel-Aviv University, and became one of its pillars until his retirement in 2004. Winter was highly prolific in a variety of fields but centered in particular on Egypt and Syria under the Mamluks and the Ottomans, with publications dealing with Sufism and Islamic thought, ʿulamāʾ, qadis and ashrāf (descendants of the Prophet), Arab and Ottoman historiography, the Jewish community in Ottoman Egypt, and education in the pre-modern and modern Middle East. 

      The wide scope of Winter’s research, backed by his marvelous command of Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, allowed him to explore a range of geographical spaces and social groups, such as clerics, administrators and military officers, dervishes and beggars, Jews and Christians. Winter’s diverse scholarship was manifested in his impressive list of publications, his dozens of articles, a considerable number of books and edited volumes, and numerous entries in the Encyclopedia of Islam. Winter was not only a prolific writer, but also a great teacher and educator who trained many generations of students, Jews and Arabs alike

        Winter’s publications intertwine religion, society, and state. His works reveal him to be a meticulous yet sensitive social historian who carefully examined the social manifestations of religion, both judicial and mystical. In this sense, Winter made an important contribution to the sociology and phenomenology of Islam, which went beyond a philological analysis of texts or an analysis of institutional structures by codifying and locating Islam in the human and social landscape. Thus, he injected richness and dynamism, power and vitality to the image of Islamic institutions and their representatives as they coped with serious challenges and bitter rivalry, especially in modern times, as embodied mainly by Islamic fundamentalism. 

         Winter also made major contributions to the study of the Mamluk (1250–1517) and Ottoman (1517–1798) periods in Egypt, which enabled him to map lines of continuity and change in the transition between the two eras in the key areas of religion, society, and politics.[2] Winter’s unique combined study of the Mamluk and Ottoman Empires was acknowledged in a volume published in his honor by A. Ayalon and D. J. Wasserstein (eds.), Mamluks and Ottomans: Studies in Honor of Michael Winter (New York: Routledge, 2006). Winter's scholarly achievements also included his familiarity with both Arab and Ottoman sources, archival and narrative, which enabled him to examine the interrelationship between the imperial center and the provinces, especially with regard to networks of learning and culture, as well as the images and representations of the Other as they concerned the Arabs and the Turks/Ottomans.

         Yet another sterling quality of Winter’s scholarship was his ability to sketch a panoramic picture of historical processes that captured social groups (urban, rural, and tribal) and interfaith relations (Muslims, Christians, and Jews). This is brilliantly illustrated in his book Egyptian Society under Ottoman Rule, 1517–1798 (New York: Routledge, 1992). At the same time, he also displayed an impressive talent for drawing micro-biographical portraits of ʿulamāʾ, Sufi shaykhs and administrators, and placing them in their broader, religious, and social context, as he did for the Egyptians ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī (d. 973/1565), Muḥammad Abū al-Anwār b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sādāt (d. 1228/1813), or the Syrian ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (d. 1143/1731), three key figures from the Ottoman period. The same goes for Winter’s writings on the Egyptian historian ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Jabartī (d. 1825), who, for him as well as for other scholars (such as Shmuel Moreh), reflected the transition of Egyptian society from a traditional to a more modern one in the shadow of the French occupation (1798-1801) and the rise of Muhammad Ali to power in Egypt in 1805. The study of modernity and various modern issues was no stranger to Winter either. He enlisted his vast expertise in the fields of classical and medieval Islam to explore contemporary phenomena such as Islamic political thought and the charged relationship between ʿulamāʾ, Sufis, and lay Islamists.

        Winter was a perceptive social historian who showed great respect for the texts he explored, but also sought to extract the human stories and contextualize them. He exhibited great intellectual curiosity, sensitivity and empathy towards his research subjects, with no hint of criticism or condescension. His descriptions of Sufism, its followers and rituals, for instance, always presented a complex picture of this popular culture by pointing to the marginal effects of begging and idleness or strange rituals, but acknowledging the Sufis’ productivity, close affinity to society, protection of the weak, and mediational roles in conflicts between social groups and authorities. Winter identified Sufism as a quiet retreat and an intimate connection to faith, both of which were assets he thought had not been lost even in an era of rising Islamic fundamentalism, with its puritan mindset.

       Winter conducted his research with a confident and eloquent hand, making extensive use of a variety of sources including archival documents, chronicles, fatwa compilations, biographical dictionaries, newspapers, and others. He rarely drew on theories and research methodologies from the social sciences, sociology and anthropology or the psychology of religion. This does not, however, detract from the wealth of data he let unfold before the reader’s eyes and the quality of his insights and observations, which were often the impetus for interdisciplinary studies and works in comparative religion. 

          Some of Winter’s works, including those from the early 1970s and 1980s, were watersheds for the growing field of social history of the Middle East, and shed light on the vivid Muslim public sphere,[3] a theme later developed in his research. In other publications, Winter pointed to the existence of ethnic identities in the Middle East, mainly in Egypt, even earlier than the nineteenth century, which witnessed the rise of nationalism. He also highlighted the emergence of a unique form of Islam in the Nile Valley, whose main conduits were al-Azhar and the Sufi orders. Winter also contributed immensely to the deconstruction of the stereotyped centralized and tyrannical image of the Ottoman Empire (“Oriental despotism”). He did so by characterizing the local power centers that played an active and constructive role in regulating the life of the Arab provinces of the Empire, in a give-and-take relationship with Istanbul, a phenomenon Albert Hourani called the “politics of notables.” Finally, in some ways, Winter was ahead of his time and paved the way for new approaches to topics such as Islamic conceptions of time or the human body, which later became important research genres.[4]

       Michael Winter remained involved in research even years after his retirement in 2004, and right up to his death in 2020, as text and pen were among his best friends. His frequent participation in international conferences instilled in him an enduring passion for writing. He was a sharp, prolific, and visionary scholar, but also a “mensch,” who was pleasant, gracious, and loved by all who knew him. We mourn the passing of a dear teacher and mentor. May his monumental scholarship guide us for many years to come. 


Amalia Levanoni, Haifa University

Meir Hatina, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem






[1] Michael Winter, Society and Religion in Early Ottoman Egypt: Studies in the Writings of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Books, 1982).

[2] Egyptian Society under Ottoman Rule, 1517-1798 (London and New York: Routledge, 1992). This book was translated into Arabic by Ibrahīm Muḥammad Ibrahīm (Cairo: al-Hayʾa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿĀmma li'l-Kitāb 2001).

[3] See also M. Hoexter et al. (eds.), The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2002).

[4] See, for example, Michael Winter, “Islamic Attitudes toward the Human Body,” in Jane M. Law (ed.), Religious Reflections on the Human Body (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 36–45.


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