Monday, July 10, 2017

New Quatrain

This morning I wrote a new quatrain for my big Credo poem. It only makes sense in the context of earlier quatrains, which can be found here.

You don't have to understand it.
It's much deeper than one man.
Even though no mind has planned it,
It's worth more than any plan.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 4

The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 4, Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Robert Irwin, 2014. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume abandons historical narrative in order to describe the literature, philosophy, science, law, government, theology and other aspects of Islamic societies from the time of Mohammed to 1800.

It's natural to start this review with Islam itself. It's clearly descended from both Christianity and Judaism, but the latter was known to pre-Islamic Arabs better than the former. About half of the population of early-7th century Medina were Jews, though we don't know what share of them were ethnically-Arab converts.

The Quran's picture of Christianity is garbled. For example, at one point it seems to suggest that the Trinity is composed of God, Jesus and Mary.

The language of the Quran is described here as "difficult, to say the least. Its syntax is often puzzling, and the vocabulary, to later speakers of Arabic, is frequently obscure."

As I've mentioned in an earlier review, some scholars think that Islam's holy book was written in Mesopotamia or the Levant a century or two after the Arab conquest. One of this volume's chapters argues against this by saying that the landscape depicted in the Quran is consistent with the Arabian desert.

The hadith (reports about Mohammed's words and deeds) sometimes contradict the Quran. I was surprised to learn that in such cases Muslim authorities tend to follow the hadith.

One interesting feature of Islamic law is that it was normally promulgated by religious scholars and not by states.

This book contains some amusing quotes from colonial British officials about Muslim law as they found it in India:

"Reflecting an entrenched state culture of monopoly over violence, Cornwallis"..."argued that too often criminals escaped punishment under the rule of Islamic law, a situation that would not be allowed to obtain under what he must have seen as an efficient state discipline. His voice echoed Hastings’ complaint that Islamic law was irregular, lacking in efficacy and ‘founded on the most lenient principles and on an abhorrence of bloodshed’.

In the first decades of Islam Muslims did not refer to Mohammed's example as a model of behavior (his sunnah) any more frequently than to the example of his successors Abu Bakr and Umar. But then the prophet's sunnah overwhelmed all others as a basis for recorded legal judgements.

Mohammed must have been prominent in Arabia during the latter portion of his life. After death his importance decreased in the normal human way, but a few decades later he became a one-in-many-millions exception - a man whose fame and impact grow over centuries.

"Almost from the beginning, Christians embraced doctrines - Jesus as the son of God, Christ as the pre existing Logos, the doctrine of the Trinity - which required complex theological explanation and justification." [...]

"Set against such doctrines, Islamic faith seems remarkably simple."

I don't think Islam has less supernatural stuff to be explained. Interestingly, the amount of debate about the daily practice of religion - what kind of food, clothing, music, business, etc. it allows - is greater in Islam and Judaism than in Christianity.

On the whole, coercion played a smaller role in the spread of Islam than of Christianity. The Quran states that "there is no compulsion in religion", and Muslims always considered it natural that non-Muslim communities would live within Muslim states, governing their internal affairs. On paper Islam is much more opposed to paganism than to "religions of the book", but in practice both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were accommodated. For Muslims the crucial thing is that the state should be governed by a Muslim ruler.

This book explains the spread of Islam in what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh by saying that these were "fringe areas, on the socio-ecological frontier of Hindu agrarian society", and that they were "not properly integrated into the Hindu caste system." In other words, Islam's competition was less culturally formidable there.

"Islamic names"..."in our sources increased among the Sials in the Punjab from 10 per cent in the early ninth/fiteenth century to 56 per cent in the mid eleventh/seventeenth, and reached 100 per cent in the early thirteenth/nineteenth."

Early on the biggest splinter group in Islam were the Kharijites. They insisted that the leader of the Muslim community should be elected, and that merit should be the only qualification for leadership. The Muslim mainstream rejected these ideas, and the caliphate quickly became hereditary. A moderate form of Kharijism called Ibadism survives today in Oman.

"Muslim asceticism, unlike the Christian variety, was never categorical in its renunciation of the world. Monasticism, according to the Quran, was a Christian innovation which God ‘did not prescribe for them’"

The closest Muslim parallel to monasticism is Sufism, whose khanaqahs (sometimes translated as convents) were usually located in cities and whose adherents were allowed to marry. They were interested in self-denial, however, as well as in mysticism. One of their characteristic behaviors was trying to get closer to God through ecstatic dancing and repetition of God's names. The Sufis compared their relationship with Allah to romance, sometimes using erotic imagery. They had many "saints" whose tombs they venerated.

Like Christian monks, the Sufis were divided into orders, which had distinctive dress codes. But unlike Christian orders, the Sufi ones were decentralized. An order's many branches were effectively independent.

There is a pattern here. Here is how this book describes Muslim religious schools:

"The institutions themselves had little impact on instruction or the curriculum. The transmission of religious knowledge depended on the informal ties established between teachers and students, just as it had in the centuries before the madrasa made its appearance. One did not ‘enrol’ in a madrasa; one attended classes given by a particular teacher which happened to meet in one (although those classes might also take place elsewhere: in a mosque or a home, for example). Similarly, one did not ‘graduate’ from an institution; instead, one received an ijaza, a ‘licence’ to teach or to transmit a particular text issued by the master with whom one had studied."

A prior volume mentioned the lack of formal republics with written constitutions in the Muslim world. Strong formal institutions require trust towards non-relatives and a certain level of fussy literal-mindedness.

Teaching in the Muslim world "began and ended with prayers. The teacher would sit on a cushion or a chair with his back to a wall or a pillar, and his students would sit cross legged in a semi circle before him. As the student succeeded in his studies he was invited to sit closer to the teacher."

A teacher "would dictate the book to his students, who might write it down, but almost certainly would commit it to memory - in time such pedagogical texts came to be written in rhyme to help the memory. Subsequently there might be an explanation of the text, depending on its nature. The completion of the study of the book would involve a recitation of the text with an explanation. If this was done to the teacher’s satisfaction, the student would be given an ijaza, a licence to transmit that text, which has been well described by Berkey as ‘a personal authority’ over the text. On that ijaza would be the names of all those who had transmitted the text, going back to the original author."[...]

"It might be asked why person-to-person transmission of knowledge, involving recitation out aloud, should persist in a society where scholars were highly proficient in reading and writing, paper was plentiful and book production a major activity. The problem was that there was scepticism about the written word, the understandable scepticism of an oral society, in which an individual might be in the most literal sense bahr al ulum, an ocean of knowledge."[...]

"The enormous emphasis on person to person transmission of knowledge should not lead us to think that self-teaching did not take place. It tended not to happen in the traditional sciences, where issues of authority were crucial and where teachers and students were often supported by institutional stipends and scholarships. But in the rational sciences and in adab [Glossy: belles lettres] studies self-teaching was not uncommon."

An obvious explanation that this book omits is that a societal preference for person-to-person teaching gave employment to lots of teachers, who had a self-interest in perpetuating that preference.

"An enduring feature of discussions of elementary education was the beating of pupils. That excessive corporal punishment was a problem is clear from the recollections of men from all parts of the Muslim world."[...]

"It is said that a woman who learns [how to] write’, went a Mamluk market inspector’s manual, ‘is like a snake given poison to drink’." If I ever write a review of a feminist book, I'll use that as an epigraph.

Some of the best-regarded works of Arabic literature are poems composed in the century or two before the advent of Islam. These were first written down in the 8th century however, and some scholars doubt that they're really pre-Islamic. After the Arabs conquered most of the Middle East there was a market for literature that portrayed them in their most romantic, pristine state, as brave desert warriors.

Travel accounts were popular, but most of them were about Islamic countries. Compared to Europeans, Muslims had little interest in "the other". Here's an amusing description of one of the exceptions to that rule:

"Muhammad Rabıq’s Safına yi Sulaymanı, describing a Safavid embassy to Thailand in 1685-8, is imbued with the spirit of Iranian superiority. In its constructed dichotomy of Iranian culture versus local barbarism it goes so far as to state that the Siamese had only recently turned from the realm of bestiality to that of humankind."

For a long time after Gutenberg's revolution printing in Arabic letters was forbidden in the Ottoman realm.

"The reasons for abstention from printing, which had an enormous negative impact on the future of the empire, included religious conservatism and protection of the social and economic interests of the professions of calligraphers, illustrators, binders etc., the people who produced the books."

Non-Muslim minorities were allowed to print their own books and some Muslim books were printed in Europe and imported to the Middle East. But the first Ottoman Muslim printing press did not appear until 1727.

Even after that "printing did not take off immediately, and printed books were not popular. The printing press, after changing hands, closed down in 1211/1797. In its sixty-four years of existence it had printed only twenty-four books, the last book appearing in 1209/1794."

Medieval Islamic libraries were similar in size to the ancient Greco-Roman ones:

"...the neo-Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba are said to have had 400,000 books, and comparable numbers are given for the libraries of Fatimid Egypt, Abbasid Baghdad and Buyid Shıraz."

The Islamic study of science began in the late 8th century when the Abbasid caliphs started to commission translations of ancient Greek works. Translations continued to be made for over two hundred years.

'While there is no easily identifiable single motivating factor for this movement, it has been suggested that a ‘culture of translation’ present in a ‘Zoroastrian imperial ideology’ was inherited, adopted and furthered by al Mansur and his successors, who had strong familial and cultural links to Persian influences."[...]

"The acquisition of paper making technology in 132/751 from Chinese prisoners of war helped the translation movement flourish."

The Arabs seemed to understand the world-historical importance of what they had done. A physician to Saladin is quoted here as saying, in the 12th century, that "...if it had not been for al Mamun,‘medicine and other disciplines of the Ancients would have been effaced and obliterated just as medicine is obliterated now from the lands of the Greeks, which had been most distinguished in this field.’"

In subsequent centuries Muslims advanced beyond the Greeks in a few areas and fell behind in others.

Predictably, there was a heated debate over whether Greek knowledge - pagan, at times coldly rational and materialistic - was compatible with Islam.

One Muslim scholar claimed that "Science and the attainment of knowledge in all their levels are "..." the means to the end of ultimate human happiness in an immaterial uniting and conjoining with the Agent Intellect."

Sounds a bit like the tech singularity. But in general the medieval Islamic philosophy described here felt as boring and useless to me as the modern Western kind. Hilariously, the Arabs adapted the Greek term "philosophy" into their language as "falsafa".

After the golden age of Baghdad (late 8th through 10th centuries) the interest in science started to decline.

"...apart from the odd will o’ the wisp, such as the translation into Persian in the early nineteenth century of Newton’s Principia by a scholar in the Farangı Mahall tradition, the areas where the rational sciences flourished seemed to offer little hope. Their study was in its way as conservationist as that of the traditional sciences."

By traditional sciences the authors mean the textual study of the Quran, the compilation of reports about the prophet's life, jurisprudence, etc.

"We have noted, furthermore, the enduring suspicion of the rational sciences, which meant that by the eighteenth century their study in any substantial sense had come to be confined to Iran and northern India."[...]

"In comparative history, it has been proposed that the European Renaissance arose in part as a reaction to scholasticism; but in Islam events followed a reverse order - a ‘renaissance’ came first and a kind of scholasticism’ followed."

Why did Islamic culture stultify at some point during the middle ages? I don't know, but nomadic invasions are a possibility. Mongols, Kazakhs, Buryats, etc. are utterly unimportant in today's global politics, so the hair-raising deeds of their ancestors can now be described in an extremely unemotional way:

"The grazing had no boundaries save those imposed by natural conditions, and artificial borders were merely obstacles. So too were the inhabitants, with their inconvenient habits of putting up buildings and walls and digging ditches across the land. For the nomad the land was more use unpeopled."

The worst invasion was, of course, the one started by Ghenghiz Khan. Normally nomadic societies were less autocratic than those of the settled Middle East. But Ghenghiz was an exception - an absolute ruler who demanded the kind of total obedience that shocked contemporary writers.

Since the nomads were much better at animal husbandry than peasants, there was no sense for the latter to compete with them in that arena.

" general the production of animals and the growing of crops were two distinct activities, carried out by different people on different types of land. There was no trace of the integrated (or mixed) farming of medieval Europe, in which the same land and labour were used to produce both crops and large animals."[...]

"As far as one can tell from the sources, even the production of textiles, pottery and baskets, as well as much of the processing of foods, was carried out mainly in urban workshops. Rural dwellers, therefore, seem to have depended on the cities for most of their tools, cloth, pots and much else."[...]

"The built environment of the Islamic city"..."appears to have certain definable characteristics. The most obvious of these was the apparent absence of formal planning, the narrow winding streets, the closed-off residential quarters. The main arteries of such a Muslim city were narrow and sometimes stepped because they were not designed for wheeled vehicles. Medieval Muslim society almost disinvented the wheel: it was the pack animal and the human porter that shifted goods, not the cart. This meant that there was no need for wide, well-engineered streets of the sort that Roman towns had required."

Good roads between cities make wheeled vehicles more useful. Did the quality of Middle Eastern roads decline after the start of the nomadic invasions?

"If there is one feature of the human geography of the Muslim world in the pre-modern period which distinguishes it from that of western Europe, India or China it is surely the presence of large numbers of nomadic or transhumant peoples."

How much upkeep did ancient roads need? Did the use of wheeled vehicles decrease in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire? The volume of commerce and the degree of specialization of artisans certainly did.

"Textile manufacture was the most important industry in the Muslim Middle East and probably the largest provider of employment in most towns."[...]

"Though he acknowledges the crafts as a fundamental component of urban life, it is clear that neither Ibn Khaldun nor other contemporary Muslim scholars held the practitioners of the crafts in high esteem."

For several centuries after its founding in 762 the most important city in the world outside of China was Baghdad.

"Because it stood at the head of what was still the richest area of agricultural land in the world, the alluvial lands of the Sawad of southern Iraq, and because it lay at the centre of a network of waterways, the growth of the city was not constrained by problems of food supply, and the population may well have reached half a million by the beginning of the third/ninth century."

Being the capital of a still-united caliphate didn't hurt either.

Early Islamic cities were rarely walled. "This apparent disregard for physical security was reflected in the fact that sieges of towns were rare and that military dominance was usually secured in battles between field armies in open terrain: military leaders were often reluctant to cramp their armies inside fortifications."

This book associates the reappearance of city walls with the Seljuk invasion of the late 11th century, but that's not much of an explanation.

The early Arab conquerors fought on foot, though they used horses and camels to get to the battlefield. According to this book, stirrups appeared in the Middle East around 700 AD. And starting in the 9th century Mongoloid, Turkic-speaking mounted archers were the main fighting force in the Muslim world. But that's too early to explain the reappearance of city walls.

"Islamic cities were"..."distinguished by the separation of commercial and residential areas: there was no tradition of living above the shop, and the suqs [Glossy: markets] were usually closed and deserted at night. Most Islamic cities too shared the tradition of secluded residential quarters, sometimes gated, with narrow cul-de-sac lanes leading to blank walled houses which looked inward on their courtyards; it was very different from the public, sometimes ostentatious, housing of the western city.

"The closed residential quarters were a result of the Muslim concern with the privacy and sanctity of domestic family life, which had to be protected from prying eyes."

The higher the social class, the more secluded were its women.

"...not even their names could be known by strangers. An efficient way of shaming men was to name their womenfolk in satirical poems"[...]

"When, in 841/1438, Egypt suffered from plague and famine, the Mamluk sultan Barsbay asked the religious scholars (ulama) about the causes of these misfortunes. Their answer was unanimous: the presence of women in the streets was the first reason for God’s punishment on the Egyptian realm."

If a rich family hired a male teacher to educate its women, it was customary for him to be separated from his students by a curtain.

"...senior women, in a post-sexual phase of their lives, were not subjected to strict gender segregation, and therefore they could teach freely to male disciples."

Men don't like to waste resources on other guys' children. It's sometimes said that Middle Eastern men cover up and lock away their women more than Europeans do because Middle Easterners have less trust towards non-relatives. If you assume that every man will try to steal your wife the moment you look away, Darwinian logic requires you to hide her behind burqas and walls. I'm sure that lower class men in those societies would have liked to keep their women out of sight too, but lacked the resources to do it. Poor families needed women's labor.

Polygamy was expected among rulers but very rare in the rest of the population.

"A woman in a good economic position could make her own choice for a second or third marriage, while her first marriage was generally arranged by her family."

Unlike in Europe, the children of concubines and slaves were considered legitimate and had the same rights to their father's estate as the children he had with his wife. Contraception was generally legal. Prostitution was occasionally banned but "flourished uninterruptedly".

"...heterosexual anal intercourse was severely condemned by moralists such as Ibn al Hajj (d. 737/1336), and by Sunnı schools of jurisprudence, with the exception of the Malikıs, who allowed it if the wife consented"[...]

"Legally, the most important illicit sexual act was zina, a term describing vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman who was not his wife or his concubine. Any child born from an adulterous relationship was illegitimate."[...]

"Homoeroticism has been identified as an inherent characteristic of Muslim societies; and the amount and quality of homoerotic classical Arabic poetry could be offered as a proof for this assertion."[...]

"Love for handsome boys was, as in Greece, part of the accepted cultural view in secular high-class circles, and no shame was involved in admiring good-looking ephebes. Sex segregation left unmarried sexually active men with no alternative but to solicit sex from boys, their own slave girls and prostitutes."

So there were alternatives to boys. I don't know if sex segregation really was the cause of the traditional Middle Eastern/Mediterranean attitude to homosex.

" contrast to Christian views on the matter, to be sexually attracted by one’s own sex was not considered by Muslim thinkers as unnatural or abnormal. Homosexual inclinations escaped condemnation, as long as homosexual acts are not practised; in this case, sinners had to expect the penalty for zina."[...]

"Socially, a man’s reputation was not besmirched for being an active homosexual, but a passive one was considered to be a pervert, and his inclination to be penetrated a serious illness. But among certain groups, such as the Mamluk military caste or the Sufi communities, homoerotic liaisons and homosexual attachments were fairly common. The great Egyptian historian al Maqrızı suggests that conjugal ties were weakened by the frequency of homosexuality among Mamluks, and that wives took to wearing men’s clothing to attract their husbands."[...]

"While male homosexuality is well documented, lesbianism rarely attracted the attention of Muslim authors, who approached this sexual activity with great reluctance with the exception of erotic literature, in which some vignettes on lesbians can be found."[...]

"Lesbian sexual acts were of course severely condemned, but homoerotic attachment between women did not threaten the genealogical capital of families, and they were usually kept in the private domain of households."[...]

"Frequently associated with marginality, transvestites would work as actors and, more commonly, as pimps."[...]

"Apocalyptic traditions linked the upheaval of the last times to the existence of powerful and assertive women, who would behave in an immoral way; the spread of homosexuality is another sign of the approach of the apocalypse."

The fact that most Muslims still believe that cannot be entirely ascribed to their mean IQ. South America's mean is comparable to that of the Muslim heartland, yet Islamic cultures are much more traditional. They resist things that most societies don't. It's something to remember any time one is tempted to be dismissive about Islam.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3. Edited by David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume is about the history of the eastern Islamic world, defined as everything from Iran to Southeast Asia, from the 11th through the 18th centuries.

In this period Central Asian nomads had an enormous impact on most of these lands.

"Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the two major independent Muslim powers in the Middle East were still ruled by Turkish dynasties: the Ottomans, of course, but the Qajars of Iran were also, in origin, of Turkish descent. Indeed, it may be said that apart from the Zand interlude of the eighteenth century in part of the country, Iran as a whole had no ethnically Persian rulers from the arrival of the Saljuqs until the accession of Reza Shah in 1925 - very nearly 900 years."

Throughout this time most of India - the north more often than the south - was also ruled by Muslims of Turkic origin.

It seems that Turkic tribes were converted to Islam by Sunnis. They became associated with this strain of Islam at a very early stage, certainly by the 11th century. They revived Sunnism's fortunes in the Muslim heartland at a time when it seemed to be losing its fight with Shiism.

The Mongol invasion of the Middle East was much more destructive than the Saljuk (Turkic) invasion that preceded it.

The Mongols "were not as quick as the Saljuqs had been to appreciate the character and virtues of civilised life away from the steppes. They had arrived in vastly greater numbers, with no educational preparatory period on the borders. This may be part of the explanation for the ferocity of the first Mongol invasions: they had not yet understood that allowing agriculture and cities to continue in existence could be to their advantage as the new owners." [...]

"Not all of these actions were new - the massacre of soldiers after battle, permitted looting and the destruction of fortifications were all familiar. It was in the systematic organisation of conquered populations that the Mongols stood out, and in the ferocity with which they punished recalcitrant cities. In such cases the population was divided up among the soldiers to be killed, with the exception of women and children to be enslaved, young men for levies, craftsmen and the religious classes, who were spared." [...]

"Considering the consequences of resistance, it is remarkable how many cities opposed the Mongols." [...]

"The fact that Chinggis Khan could send out small contingents in different directions is a testament to the exceptional loyalty of the Mongol army; the defeat of one army did not threaten Chinggis Khan’s control over his followers. This sort of discipline was a phenomenon unknown in the recent experience of Iranian cities. The Mongols moreover enlarged their army through local alliances and levies - some levies rebelled, but others fought efficiently and participated enthusiastically in punitive massacres." [...]

"The vast majority of the Mongol army at this stage was clearly composed of light cavalry, meaning horsemen who were lightly armoured (with armour mainly composed of cloth and leather, but sometimes with iron components, with partially metal helmets; some had iron armour), carrying bow and arrows and some basic weapons for hand to hand warfare, and mounted on small, but sturdy steppe ponies. The Mongol trooper would set off on campaign with a string of such ponies, apparently around five, in order to change mounts during both long distance travel and battle (and perhaps provide meat also for himself and his fellow soldiers). The tactic of choice was wave after wave of cavalrymen advancing while firing, and then wheeling around to permit the advance of another wave of similar troops.

This might be accompanied by an attempt to encircle the enemy, facilitated by both the large numbers and the mobility of the Mongols. The aim was to break the will and formation of the enemy by these repeated attacks, and only then to engage in hand to hand combat or to chase after them if they fled, in either case probably inflicting greater casualties than the previously mentioned barrages."

The Mongols had a superstitious aversion to spilling royal blood, so when they captured Baghdad, they rolled up the caliph in rugs and kicked him to death instead of beheading him or piercing him with a sword.

In fairness, the Mongols did not only destroy. Their conquest of most of the civilized world facilitated cultural contacts between its distant parts. They brought Chinese astronomers to the Muslim lands, one of whom became the head of an observatory in Samarqand. And they brought Middle Eastern researchers to China, who established the Office of Western Medicine and an astronomical observatory there.

"...from the early Yuan period on, until the arrival of Jesuit astronomers in the seventeenth century, Islamic astronomy would play an important role in the history of Chinese science."

The Mongols even tried to bring paper money, a Chinese invention, to Iran:

"Its introduction was carefully planned, proclaimed in Ramadan 693/August 1294, and implemented a month later, but the population refused to accept it. Commerce shut down and violence erupted on the streets, so the experiment was cancelled."

The extraordinary organization and discipline of the Mongols did not last long after Chinggis Khan's death:

"Since neither Islamic nor Mongolian tradition favoured primogeniture, there were frequent succession struggles, and the Mongol period was one of particularly intense factionalism. Not many men of power, whether bureaucrats or commanders, died of natural causes. The only way to achieve an orderly administration was to rule for a long time, and here Mongol rulers were handicapped by their excessive consumption of alcohol. Leadership required constant feasting, accompanied by the drinking of both fermented and distilled alcohol. The resulting alcoholism was a common cause of death, and both the Great Khans and the Ilkhans had unusually short reigns."

In the late 14th century a Mongol warrior named Temur, aka Tamerlane, recaptured much of the old glory during 35 years of incessant campaigning, leaving towers of severed human heads along the way. He conquered Iran and Central Asia, crushed the Ottomans, obtained the submission of the Byzantine emperor at Constantinople and died while planning to invade China.

Temur and his descendants were extraordinarily generous patrons of the arts, helping to create a culture "whose impact on the subsequent development of almost every field of artistic endeavour, in both the eastern and western Islamic world, was entirely out of proportion to the Timurid dynasty’s relatively limited duration and geographical scope."

Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan

Temur's mausoleum
Temur, facial reconstruction based on exhumed skull.
I liked this quote about a Central Asian ruler of this time: "In the forest of courage, he was a lion hunting tiger; in the sea of generosity his hand rained pearls." [...]

"...the charismatic figure of Temür and the Timurid cultural legacy have become of great relevance to the construction of their national identity by the modern Uzbeks of the post Soviet republican period."

This would have baffled Temur himself:

"In Central Asian sources of the period, the amırs are usually identified by a tribal name [...] never as ‘Uzbek’, a generally derogatory or condescending term applied to an unlettered person, a bumpkin or rustic. It was outsiders who used the term ‘Uzbek’, and often in a pejorative sense, to refer to the entire state, its rulers and their military supporters."

Of course, Temur's empire dissolved as soon as he stopped breathing.

"Since the decline in the central authority of the Abbasid caliphate, ruling dynasties, even formidable ones like the Saljuqs, the Mongols and the Timurids, rarely lasted for much more than a century, and often less"

This contrasts with the more durable Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires in the Muslim world, as well as the French, Spanish, English and Russian nation states which arose at roughly  the same time.

"What is the explanation for this? The most obvious point is that they were ‘gunpowder empires’. The argument is that, with the increasing sophistication and expense of gunpowder weaponry, only large states could afford to keep up to date, which endowed such states with a decisive political and military advantage. By contrast, in the era of the dominance of the composite bow, which every nomad cavalryman possessed, any ambitious chieftain could attempt to put together a force which, when it reached a sufficient size, could hope to be the equal of any other. Hence in part, perhaps, the comparatively ephemeral nature of many pre-1500 states."

So it's not that firearms created large states. Those periodically popped up throughout the middle ages - just think of Charlemagne in Europe. What firearms did instead was make large states more durable and centralized. Knights and nobles could no longer hide behind their armor and castle walls, plotting revolts against the king. So they were defeated, and then "domesticated" by him.

The degree of success of the transition to firearm technology 500 years ago seems to correlate with mean IQ levels today, implying that modern geographical differences in IQ go back centuries. Europe did best. The Ottomans were second, with Iran, India and Southeast Asia lagging behind them. A lot of the gunsmiths in the Turkish realm were Westerners, yet in India and Southeast Asia Ottoman gunsmiths predominated.

"Safavid Iran, it has been argued, ‘succeeded in remaining independent because it did not allow itself to get drawn into the kind of war that only the Ottomans could win. Its reliance on cavalry instead of firearms was the secret to its survival.’"

The steppe nomads fared worst of all:

"There were to be no more steppe empires after Tamerlane’s, and the vast area that had produced the Turks and the Mongols was eventually divided between the sedentary empires of Russia and China."

Firearms could have only been manufactured in a sedentary society. Also, the settled world had a much larger population. Once organized into huge, centralized states, it could keep the nomads at bay.

By bringing back powerful states, guns increased peace and prosperity. There's an obvious parallel with nuclear weapons in the 20th century.

What about the large, stable, centralized states that existed before guns: Rome, China before the nomads started invading it? Perhaps mounted warriors weren't as effective in antiquity as they became in the middle ages. But I don't know enough about the evolution of equestrian military technology to be sure of this.

Since the Mongols were pagans when they arrived in the Middle East, they had no special respect for Arabic as the language of the prophet. They employed Persian bureaucrats though, so under their rule Persian rose in importance.

"Such traditions were transplanted into India, and there, too, Persian became the language of government so ineradicably that even in the nineteenth century it was still thought necessary to teach Persian to young British recruits to the service of the East India Company." [...]

"This is not to say that Arabic lost its prestige: as the language of the Quran, of law and of theology, its position was unassailable. But for literature, for poetry, for history, for civilised discourse generally, Persian became the language of choice over a vast geographical range, enormously larger than anything that might be considered to be Iran in a political or ethnic sense." [...]

"That there was a decline after the early Islamic centuries, in some sense, was undeniable, but it was an Arab and an Arabic, not a general Islamic, decline. The young Albert Hourani asked Philip Hitti why his celebrated History of the Arabs of 1937 contained so little on the period between the Ottoman conquest and the nineteenth century. ‘There was no Arab history then,’ was the reply. The centre of the Islamic world had shifted out of the old Arab heartlands, and so likewise should the attention of the historian. The centre shifted, in fact, to the Persian world."

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was that "all six of the collections of hadıth that carry the greatest authority in Sunnı Islam were compiled by third fourth/ninth tenth century scholars from north east Iran and Central Asia."

This book traces the development of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, which made Shiism that country's state religion around 1500. After the Safavids' decline there was a period of civil war, which ended when Agha Muhammad, a member of the Qajar tribe, emerged on top, reuniting the country in the course of several decades of tireless campaigning.

The interesting thing about him is that he had been castrated at the age of 5 after he was captured by a rival clan. Think of the qualities that soldiers expected from their leaders at that time. Now imagine his voice and beardless face, the jokes told in soldiers' camps. And yet he did it. Famous for extraordinary cruelty, even by the standards of his age, he beat every rival on his path to power.

Agha Muhammad
For most of the period covered in this book Iran was much poorer than India, so it experienced a huge outflow of talent - poets, administrators, clerics - towards its eastern neighbor.

A 17th century French monk named Raphael du Mans compared Persia to "a great caravanserai with two doors: silver entered through one in the west, only to exit through another in the east and pass into India, ‘where all the money in the Universe is unloaded as if into an abyss’".

The book quotes other Western writers, going back to Pliny the Elder, making the same observation. The spice trade was a small part of the reason. India was the world's chief manufacturer of cotton textiles. Cotton was grown in Iran and Central Asia too, but those regions could not compete with the subcontinent in the quality and price of finished cloth.

After the discovery of the Americas a huge share of the silver and gold mined by the Spaniards ended up in India. The West's ancient trade deficit with that country only disappeared when the Industrial Revolution allowed Europeans to make cheap textiles of their own.

Arab traders brought Islam to small parts of India early on, but the first large Muslim states were founded there by Turkic nomads. India's climate and terrain were unsuitable for actual nomadism, so these people quickly settled down. They fought on horses which they imported from their Central Asian homeland, but these often had to be replaced because they did not live long in Indian conditions. The same was true of the conquerors themselves:

"Among the invading Turks, the most substantial losses of manpower were probably caused by exposure to the almost entirely new disease pool comprising malaria, smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague and a host of others of the hot and humid climate of the densely settled plains of India rather than by warfare as such."

Babur, a Turko-Mongol commander who founded the Mughal Empire in India, preferred to rule it from Afghanistan.

"He and many of his men were appalled by the environment and society of India. In fact, many of his begs or commanders fled back to the temperate climate of Kabul immediately after their Rajput victory. Babur himself did not have that luxury, and in his memoirs he recorded his acerbic evaluation of his conquests. Noting, first of all, that the trans-Indus region known as Hindustan was a ‘strange kingdom … a different world’ where even the rocks were unique, he went on to indicate that the only thing he liked about Hindustan was its wealth and its seemingly limitless human and material resources. He particularly hated north India’s flat, featureless landscape, with its lack of geometrically precise gardens bisected by waterways, and despised much of what he knew of Hindu society. Many of his most provocative critiques are contained in one brief passage, in which he writes that: The people of Hindustan have no beauty; they have no convivial society, no social intercourse, no character or genius, no urbanity, no nobility or chivalry. In the skilled arts and crafts there is no regularity, proportionality, straightness or rectangularity."

This book explains Babur's complaint about the lack of convivial society in India as a sign of his disgust with the caste system. Turkic nomads were more egalitarian than either Indians or Middle Easterners.

Babur's memoires are called here "a masterpiece of concise and straightforward Chaghatay prose, revealing an endearingly complex personality who lived in difficult political times."

Islam had a special appeal to lower caste Indians because unlike Hinduism it stresses equality of all men before God.

"The first great Islamic scholar to comment on the Indic world, Abu Rayhan al Bırunı (973-1048), noted how radically it differed from Islamic (or Christian) civilisations: ‘On the whole there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves: at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy."

Ancient Europeans and Middle Easterners did not fight any religious wars either. That seems to be unique to monotheism.

Among India's Muslim scholars the natural sciences - astronomy, medicine, etc. - were more popular than elsewhere in the Muslim world, and purely Quranic scholarship was less common.

Akbar, Babur's grandson, experimented with syncretism and religious tolerance, inviting accusations of apostasy. He allowed some of his Indian wives to practice Hinduism and adopted a modified form of vegetarianism.

"By the end of his life Akbar had subdued a territory that may have included more than 100 million people, nearly comparable to the population of Ming China, the only contemporary state that rivalled Mughal India in territory, population and wealth. At about the same time the populations of the Ottoman and Safavid states comprised an estimated 22 and 10 million people respectively, while Uzbek territories probably held no more than 5 million."

This and the following pictures are from Lahore in what is now Pakistan.

Jahangır, Akbar's son, also wrote an autobiography, "and while it seems to reveal a shallower individual than his great-grandfather the work is nonetheless still a rich, complex text."

He confessed in it to being an alcoholic and an opium addict, which, according to this book, was not unusual among the Mughal and Safavid ruling classes. Interestingly, Turkic royal women drank too.

"Temür’s wives were present at his receptions and drank and got drunk with men present, even with the Spanish ambassador Clavijo in 808/1405."

Why didn't Islam prevail over Hinduism in the long run? I think that at the elite level India already had a pretty sophisticated culture which did not feel itself to be inferior to Islam. It wasn't a martial culture, hence the ease with which Turkic nomads conquered it, but intellectually and commercially it was quite accomplished. And the Indian masses could look up to this native tradition.

This was even more true in China, where Islam fared much worse than in India.

Arab traders had been visiting the far east long before Muhammad. Muslim communities in coastal Chinese cities go back to the early centuries of Islam.

"Around 290/900 there were direct passages from the Gulf to China in one ship, though other trade was done in several ships. By the end of the eleventh century direct trade in one ship had ended. The trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to South East Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China."

This important move towards segmentation was partly a result of unsettled conditions at both ends of the route as powerful empires declined, and partly because traders realised that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places."

The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia and China was mostly due to these traders.

"A rather rare case is cited of one Li Yansheng, identied in Tang sources as ‘an Arab’ (Dashiguo ren), who passed the civil service exams in 847, and was recommended to a post at the palace. The incident sparked a debate among Chinese scholars about the meaning of ‘being Chinese’ in the wake of this appointment."

When the Mongols conquered China, they brought some Muslims with them:

"Qubilai instituted a systematic classification of population according to ethnicity: Mongols had the highest status, western and Central Asians (se mu) came second, then northern Chinese. In theory, the highest offices were reserved for the Mongols and se mu, who also enjoyed tax privileges and the right to bear arms."

Think of that when someone tells you that ethnicity is a modern invention. Muslims suffered in the inevitable nativist, anti-Mongol backlash.

Islam fared better in Southeast Asia, especially in countries where Chinese cultural influence was weak.

I think that this could be telling us something about the future: as long China continues its upward trajectory, Islam will have little impact on it. Individuals don't abandon winning cultures. In fact, if China ends up dominating the world the way European powers did before WWII, Islam's self-confidence, even in the Arab world itself, could fall back to its mid-20th-century levels.    ř

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 2

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 2, edited by Maribel Fierro, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10.

This volume covers the history of the western Islamic world - the area between Syria and Morocco - from the 11th through the 18th centuries.

It's natural to compare it to European history of the same period. The barbaric invasions which plagued Core Europe during the Dark Ages ended around 1000 AD, but continued in the Islamic world for quite a while afterwards.

Arab nomads from the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym tribes devastated the Maghreb in the 11th century before settling there permanently. As a result the area under cultivation shrank, partly replaced by pasture. The cities declined. The famous North African historian Ibn Khaldun compared this invasion to a plague of locusts.

The Bedouinization of Egypt is blamed here, along with the plague, for the fall in land revenues from 9.5 million dinars in 1376, to 1.8 million in 1517.

Two Berber tribal groups, the Almoravids and the Almohads, succeeded each other in conquering the Maghreb and Muslim Spain from the 11th through the 13th centuries. Turkic nomads conquered Anatolia and Syria in the 11th century:

"This nomadic invasion was especially devastating to the Byzantine village populations who were exposed and undefended. Consequently they increasingly abandoned their lands."

Mongols seized Iran and Iraq in the 13th century.

As the urban culture of Europe began to revive, its Islamic counterpart continued to get hit by waves of nomads. I don't think that's the main reason why Europe overtook the Muslim World in the later Middle Ages, but it must have been a contributing factor. If the Mongols reached as far west in the 13th century as the Huns did in the 5th or if the Viking Age recurred after 1000 AD, things might have turned out a little differently.

Starting in the 9th century and for a very long time afterwards Muslim states paid their armies mostly by granting warriors the revenues of specific tracts of land. In contrast to European feudalism, Muslim soldiers did not own these tracts. For example, most of the time they couldn't pass them on to their children. Still, it's interesting that in the Middle Ages both Christendom and Islam preferred this system over the Roman (and modern) model of governments paying soldiers (from "solidus", a Roman coin) with money that they collected through taxes.

Medieval Muslim states did collect taxes, but maybe there was a limit to how much money they could obtain this way? In the Middle Ages the military was the most expensive, the most resource-hungry part of the government. Perhaps in the absence of large bureaucracies and with rebellions a common occurrence, an experienced killer with a sword taking what he needed from the peasants himself was the most efficient way to finance these armies. And I'm assuming that this gentleman took a lot of it in kind. Perhaps the medieval money economy simply wasn't large enough to support a lot of people paid in cash.

The Muslim armies of this period were either tribal, bound by the altruism that comes with close kinship, or of Turkic slave origin. Young Central Asian boys were sold into slavery in the steppes and brought to the core Muslim lands to be trained to fight on horseback. When they matured, they were freed and given the quasi-feudal estates that I mentioned earlier. Most of the time these people, called Mamelukes, fought for Arab or Persian masters, but on occasion, most famously in medieval Egypt, they seized power for themselves.

Egyptian Mamelukes barely spoke Arabic, retaining their Turkic language, names and costume. Their mixed-race sons, called by an Arabic term that means "wanderers between two worlds", were not allowed to reach high positions in the army. If they pursued military careers, they had to do it in the auxiliary non-Mameluke units. The next generation of real Mamelukes, the heart of the army, was again recruited through slavery.

The steppe dwellers' inborn machismo was not the only reason for their domination of Muslim militaries:

"Such freedmen, with few ties to their natal families or clans, were thrown back upon the loyalty to their owners or former owners".

Both the Crusaders and the Mongols were defeated in the Middle East not by natives, but by these Central Asian warriors.

"the Zangid Nur al Din"..."was reported to say that only the arrows of the Turks were effective against the Crusader army."[...]

"Moreover, there was the prejudice expressed by authors like Abu Hamid al-Qudsı (d. 888/1483) at the end of the ninth/ fifteenth century, that Arab Egyptians were unmartial people and not able to protect themselves. Therefore the Turks would cheerfully shoulder the burden of the holy war and devote their lives to the defence of the community of believers."[...]

"As the mostly Turkish-born mamluks defeated their Central Asian Mongol ‘cousins’ in 658/1260, Abu Shama (d. 665/ 1268) stated that ‘against any (evil) thing there is a cure from its own kind".

"...experiments with black military slaves were only short-lived, possibly owing to the fact that the white military slave, the mamluk, enjoyed a far higher reputation in the Muslim world than the black household slave, the abd."

At some point Mamelukes began to be bought in the Caucasus. This book implies that this was because the Black Death hit the steppes worse than hard-to-access mountain valleys. In 1382 there was a coup in Egypt, with a Circassian Mameluke sultan replacing a Turkic one.

For much of the Mameluke period civil administration in Egypt was mainly handled by Copts, who were already a minority then. Their success occasionally led to anti-Christian riots. I'm fascinated by remnants of formerly large religious communities, the people who refused to convert when everyone else did. Many became successful: Parsees, Lebanese Christians, Russian Old Believers, the last native English Catholics, and apparently the late medieval Copts too.

One of the most important storylines in this volume is the rise of the Ottomans. The Seljuk Turks conquered Anatolia in the 11th century, but their state was broken up by dynastic conflict and Mongol expansion. A number of small Turkic states took its place in Asia Minor. One of them, in the north-west of the peninsula, was headed by the Ottoman family. It first shows up in the historical record at the end of the 13th century.

One of the causes of the Ottomans' success was that they avoided the dynastic fragmentation that was so typical in the Middle Ages. Some of it was luck. After the deaths of several important sultans one son was able to kill all of his brothers, preventing the division of the realm. In some periods this was institutionalized, the junior heirs being strangled in the palace at the senior heir's accession. In other periods there were wars between princes.

The early 16th century was the Ottomans' peak, an era remembered with nostalgia by subsequent generations of Turks. The empire they created was more centralized than any Islamic state before it. Its army was 100,000 strong.

The Ottomans were able to defeat the Mamelukes partly because the latter resisted the adoption of firearms. They were too attached to their self-image as mounted warriors. In fact, they were the only people in Egypt who were allowed to ride horses.

In the late 17th century the Ottomans switched from rowed to sailing warships because the latter could carry more firepower. However, they were never good at oceanic travel, losing the Indian Ocean trade to the Portuguese and their Dutch and English successors, and were conspicuously absent from America. According to this book, the Moroccan sultan Ahmad al Mansur, who ruled in the late 16th century, planned "to join England in the acquisition of American territory", but this came to nothing.

The Ottomans added the Balkan peninsula to the lands of Islam before being stopped at the gates of Core Europe, just like the Arabs 800 years before them. Was this because Core Europeans were better at defending themselves than peripheral Europeans? Or because the unconquered territories were too far from the Muslim center for effective campaigning to be successful? In the latter case Core Europe could simply be the area that was never screwed up by Arab, Berber, Turkish and Tatar-Mongol conquests.

Who staffed the Ottoman Empire during its heyday?

"Viziers and other members of the military–political class were usually of Rumelian origin, that is from the Balkan Peninsula. It was only during the late tenth/sixteenth and eleventh/seventeenth centuries that men of Caucasian origin emerged as rivals to the Rumelians in the contest for political office. The legal–religious elite tended to come from Anatolian Turkish families, as did the secretaries that manned the sultan’s chancellery. It was also Rumeli and Anatolia that furnished the majority of troops and crews for the imperial army and imperial fleet, and provided most of the materials and cash to support military and naval enterprises".

"...the sultans preferred, wherever possible, to appoint governors from among the men of non-Muslim origin who had received their education in the palace, and hence had no source of patronage except the sultan."

Many of these men were Balkan natives who were captured by the Turks as boys.

"Although few Arabs entered the higher ranks of the Ottoman legal establishment or army outside their home provinces before the late nineteenth century CE, Ottoman governors and chief judges usually had local Arabic-speaking deputies." [...]

"Nationalist Arab historians have generally consigned the Ottoman centuries to their people’s darkest age, with Ottoman imperialism prefiguring later Western imperialism in the region."

The Ottomans never conquered Iran, which became their main Muslim rival. The Persian history of this period is treated in a different volume, but I'm guessing that this long-term confrontation was the reason why Shiism became Iran's official ideology at this time. Iran's rulers would have needed to differentiate themselves from the Ottomans and to challenge their claim to leadership of worldwide Islam.

The Ottomans' control in the Maghreb was never as tight as in the empire's core. Before the Turks arrived in that region, the Spaniards seized many of the towns on the North African coast.

"The fear of suffering the same fate as Oran (where Cardinal Ximenez had orchestrated the massacre of 4,000 inhabitants and the capture of 8,000 others, before consecrating the two main mosques as Catholic churches in May 1509) led most of the other threatened ports to surrender without a shot."[...]

"What were these conquerors looking for? Whether these new vantage points were a means of consolidating the reconquista or were a basis for the colonisation of the country is hard to judge. If it is true that Spain had a policy towards Africa, this was thwarted by the people of Algiers’ calls to the intrepid Turkish sailors, the Barbarossa brothers."

By the way, the Normans occupied the coast of Algeria for 25 years in the 12th century. Throughout history this region escaped many attempts to Europeanize it. A related bit of info, which I didn't know until I read is book, is that the Crusaders made a serious attempt to conquer Egypt.

The Barbarossas mentioned above had been privateers, and the Ottoman provinces that were created in the Maghreb in the wake of their campaigns against Europeans drew the greatest share of their income from piracy.

Most of it was of course confined to the Mediterranean, but "In 1037/1627, the pirates from Algiers sacked the coast of Iceland and reached England in 1041/1631."

Since the 11th century a large majority of commercial shipping in the Med was conducted by Europeans. Muslims rarely visited Christian ports, while the reverse was commonplace. But according to this book Muslim piracy was about as common as the Christian kind. A lot of the North African corsairs were converts from Christianity though, natives of Sicily, Calabria, Corsica and similar places who had become "professional Turks" in the Maghreb. Many came to the region when they were captured by a previous generation of pirates.

"Scholars now calculate that between 1500 and 1750 at least a million European Christians were captured either temporarily or permanently in North Africa."

Before setting sail these pirates, who preferred to call themselves holy warriors, solemnly visited the shrines of various Muslim saints. Jubilant crowds greeted them on their return. The golden age of the pirate economy on the Barbary coast was the 17th century.

In some periods the military elite of Algiers functioned as a quasi-republic. Real republics, with formal constitutions, seem to have been absent from the Muslim world though. City states occasionally popped up, but not as often as in Christian Europe.

At the end of the book there is a chapter about the ulama, Islam's learned men.

"Comparison with the university traditions of the Christian West are not always helpful, for in the Islamic societies there were indeed no universities, degrees or syllabuses as such."

There were madrasas though, which made their first appearance in Baghdad in the 11th century.

Muslims had a tradition of compiling huge biographical dictionaries of scholars.

" the dictionary entries, the list of teachers that each alim studied under conveys exactly the same meaning as the degree awarded by a Western university. An aspiring alim had to choose his teachers carefully according to their rank and reputation, for by studying under them he would acquire something of their personal authority, and he would become one more link in a chain of inherited recognition."

As in the West, rulers and rich merchants donated money to madrasas and individual learned men. One potentate in Timbuktu is mentioned here as giving a scholar "a farm with thirteen slaves and 80 mithqal of gold – more than the average price for a slave – for the purchase of a copy of the Qamus, a classical Arabic dictionary."

Of course having read this, I had to look up this dictionary and Arabic dictionaries in general. Already by the 13th century they had one which contained 80,000 head words and which fills more than a dozen modern volumes.

Back to Islamic education:

"This formally unstructured system of learning underwent a great change during the Ottoman period, when the ulama became state functionaries through a process that filtered out the less suitable candidates. The final result was a powerful hierarchical structure of a sort previously alien to the world of Islamic scholarship."

I'll end with a few remarks about the piece of scholarship currently under review. As in the first volume, the authors of the individual chapters did not coordinate with each other much. The same material is sometimes covered by more than one researcher. Worse than that, an important event - the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans - was not covered by any of them, having simply slipped through the cracks of editorial topic assignment.

The style is sometimes unnecessarily verbose and square-headed in the typical modern social science way, yet at other times elegant - it all depends on the author. The material is fascinating throughout. Anyone who has a lot of interest in the story of Islam should read these books.    ř

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pretty Pictures

I often re-tweet cool-looking pics. Today I decided to look through them, picking out the best. However, endless scroll turned out to have an end, at least in IE and Chrome on Windows 7, so I was only able to see my tweets since the start of this year. I've been using Twitter since April of 2014, so this is a small percentage of what I was looking for.
If I hadn't drawn my avatar myself, I might have considered changing to the above. 

There's more after the jump.

The Islamist Trend

This morning I clicked on the Derb's article about the Westminster Bridge attack. The following passage is about the 1960s:

"Islam was even less of an issue. Muslim countries themselves were either keen to modernize or sunk in medieval apathy. For those trying to modernize, Islam was a dusty relic of the past that was only holding them back. That’s why you had these secular dictatorships like Nasser’s Egypt or Ba’ath Syria."

It's very true. So when and why did Islam become cool again in these countries? The first thing that pops into my mind in answer to that is the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But why would a Shia development affect Sunnis? And what was the cause of the Iranian upheaval?

The conventional answer to the latter question is that the shah was too secular and spent too much money on himself. But secularism was the path to success, not exile, in mid-20th century Middle East. And Oriental potentates have always lived lavishly. I'm now reading the second volume of The New Cambridge History of Islam, and it talks about a ruler of Morocco who fathered more than 500 sons. Middle Easterners don't cut down tall poppies, they (well, to some extent "we") heap ornate, mellifluous praise on them. While sometimes plotting against them in secret, true, but that's not because of any distaste for inequality per se.

So what changed?

One theory is that when the West became self-critical, other cultures stopped looking up to it. If it doesn't respect itself, why would anyone else respect it?

From roughly 1500 till the middle of the 20th century, when the West dominated the world militarily, politically and technologically, it was natural for other cultures to imitate it. And secularism was one of the things that they imitated towards the end of that period. But then the West's elites became culturally relativistic and started arguing that the West's success was 1) a lie ("Chinese gunpowder, Islamic science!") 2) a series of atrocities (as if Arab, Mongol, Turkish or Chinese successes weren't that). Western culture's self-confidence was broken, and soon after that its neighbors' respect for it was lost.

I'm guessing that's the main reason for Islam's comeback. Neoconnery must have been a contributing factor. The neocons fought for regime change in Middle Eastern countries in order to create havoc in the enemy's camp. It just so happened that when they started doing that, most Middle Eastern rulers were secular and Islamism was a rising undercurrent. So by overthrowing the current rulers the neocons ended up accelerating the Islamist trend.

What could end this trend, besides radical technological change? China's rise. Perhaps in 20 years everyone will be looking up to the Middle Kingdom.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Back to Gambling

Today I spent $146.80 on Marine Le Pen shares at I bought some shares for $0.35 and some for $0.36. If she wins, I'll get $1 per share.

Why? Gambling is fun. Marine could be a single WikiLeak away from l'Élysée. And I'm not going to get upset at losing $146.80 anyway.

My past record at such activity is mixed. I made dozens of Intrade bets years ago, coming out roughly even overall. Before that, around 2002, I made some bets on stock index futures, again coming out approximately even. So I'm not pretending to be any sort of an oracle here.

Setting up an account turned out to be much easier with Predictit than with the now-defunct Intrade. With the latter I had to get a bank check, which is a different thing from normal personal checks. Then I had to mail it to Ireland and wait for them to credit it. Predictit accepts credit cards.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review of The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1, edited by Chase F. Robinson, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This book covers the period from before Islam's rise to the 11th century. It begins with a substantial overview of the early Byzantine and late Sasanian empires, which became the arenas of Arab expansion soon after the start of the Muslim era.

A lot more is known about the Byzantine Empire than about the Sasanian one. The ancient Greek historical tradition, which went back to Herodotus and his predecessors, survived until the 7th century. Sasanian historical writings are much more meagre. Also, more archeological work has been done in the Mediterranean than in Iran.

It seems that the demographic, economic and cultural decline which affected Western Europe during the Dark Ages was felt in the Eastern Roman Empire as well, though to a lesser extent.

Instead of disappearing, most eastern cities shrank. Inside them fora, major thoroughfares and other public spaces were built over with private houses. Rubbish was dumped in buildings that fell out of use. Theaters, gymnasia, water supply systems and public baths were abandoned, while churches proliferated. In the countryside the area under cultivation decreased. The volume of trade went down, as did its range. Economies became more local. Anatolia and the Balkans suffered worse than other parts of the Eastern Empire.

Climate change may have been partly to blame:

"By about 500 CE the climatic situation was changing, with colder and wetter conditions persisting up to the mid ninth century."

You have to realize though that the complexity of elite Greek culture peaked in the 3rd century BC and then declined for many, many centuries afterwards. I'm willing to believe however that the coldness and wetness of the Dark Ages exacerbated pre-existing downward trends.

There's less data on Iran, but according to this book, "...the Sasanian world in general appears to have experienced a slow demographic downturn from the later third century onwards, as settlement surveys and sherd distribution analysis would seem to suggest..."

The Sasanian dynasty replaced the Parthian one in Iran in the 3rd century AD. It was more hostile to Rome than its predecessor, eventually killing three Roman emperors in war. Until the 7th century the Sasanians didn't try to occupy Roman territory though, raiding for booty and captives instead. They abducted tens of thousands of Roman citizens, many of them skilled craftsmen, in order to settle them in their realm.

"Roman prisoners of war built many of the roughly twenty Sasanian bridges and dams that are still to be seen today."

According to this book, the fiscal and military reforms of Diocletian and his successors were meant to make Rome more capable of dealing with the Sasanian threat. From what I understand, they were also attempts to bring internal order to the Roman Empire after the crisis of the 3rd century.

By the way, the estimates of late Roman taxation levels that are cited here range from 5%-7% to 25%. This reminded me that there are economists who assign numbers to the Roman GDP. The idiocy of these people is profound. Forget tax rates, there's a lively debate among historians on whether the city of Rome had 1,500,000 or 150,000 people at its imperial peak.

Both the Roman and Sasanian empires had multiethnic populations, but only the latter was politically ethno-nationalist. The ethnically non-Iranian parts of the Sasanian realm were called Aneran (un-Iran), and "ideologically, the people of Aneran remained second class inhabitants of the empire."

The Zoroastrian religion was much less universalist than Christianity, much more concerned with a specific country and people - Iran and Iranians.

The Sasanian shahs portrayed themselves as the heirs of an enormously long line of past Iranian rulers, although the names of individual Achaemenid kings were already forgotten by then. They did have a legend of the evil conqueror "Alexander of Rum" though, and another one that reinterpreted Alexander as a Persian prince.

Projecting modern ideological biases onto the past in a similarly closed-minded way, the authors of this book called the "distinct, quasi-‘nationalistic’ Sasanian Iranism" "a big drawback".

During the Byzantine-Sasanian wars Arab tribes were recruited as allies by both sides.

"...thanks to Roman-Persian rivalry Arab tribal society had become much more militarised than it had been in the past, and, just as important, much more conscious of the possibility of gaining access to the wealth of the settled Near East."

In the Persian-Byzantine war of 602-628 the Sasanians captured Egypt, the Levant and much of Anatolia. But then the Byzantine emperor Heraclius concluded an alliance with Turkic nomads, who rode in from the north to save him from total defeat. He was then able to recapture old Byzantine provinces right before losing them again to the Arabs.

"Muslim success may owe something to Roman war weariness, but that is a rather nebulous concept, possibly more appealing to scholars at their desks than to the sort of young men who actually filled the ranks of the Roman army. More important may have been the lack of ready cash. Heraclius had had to fight Persia without the revenues of Egypt and the Levant."

Unlike the Byzantine Empire, the Sasanian state was entirely destroyed by the Arabs.

"The reasons for the priority for the conquest of Iran rather than the rump of the Roman empire might be the following: (a) it was Iran that had posed a steadily growing threat to the H.ijaz throughout the Prophet’s lifetime; (b) Islam acknowledged its affinity with Christianity, but could not but set itself against Zoroastrian dualism; (c) Iraq was much more exposed to counter attack across the Zagros than was Palestine, shielded as it was by Syria to the north. The issue of priority is crucial. For it is plain that Byzantium was ripe for the taking by the early 650s, and that it was ultimately saved by the outbreak of civil strife within the caliphate in 656. Then, and only then, were the Byzantines able to revive their spirits and reactivate the ideology of a Christian, Roman, world-shaping power." [...]

"In contrast to the large-scale, resource-intensive and protracted campaigns that were so typical of Byzantine-Sasanian warfare of the sixth and early seventh centuries, and which in at least some places resulted in widespread violence and social dislocation, the Islamic conquests of the mid seventh century read like a series of relatively short engagements (the great battle of al Qadisiyya is said to have lasted three days), which were made by relatively small and hit-and-run armies that rarely laid sieges of any length or produced casualties in large numbers. In many and perhaps most cases in the Byzantine provinces, local elites cut deals that avoided large scale violence."

The figures given by the Islamic sources for the numbers of Arab combatants are "often in the hundreds or low thousands; even a large army, such as the one that fought at al Qadisiyya, probably numbered no more than 10,000 or 12,000 men."

Wild nomads had been periodically conquering the centers of civilization since pre-historic times. They were more macho and used to war than settled peoples. A larger share of their male population had been in the saddle since childhood. Most settled folks were farmers instead. So really, the only unusual thing about the Arab conquest was its later religious impact.

This book repeatedly stresses that almost everything we know about Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam was written two to three centuries after the fact, and not in marginally-literate Arabia, but in the old centers of Near Eastern civilization, in Syria and Iraq, by people who strove to justify their views of the politics of their own times.

Christian and Jewish sources confirm that there really was a man named Muhammad who made prophetic claims and who created a state in the early 7th century, but very little else can be said about him with certainty. By the way, it's mentioned here that the word Muhammad ("the praised one") was probably an epithet applied to him after the start of his religious career.

Western historians started questioning the official Christian views of the beginnings of Christianity back in the Enlightenment era. Since Islam was far less relevant to Western politics until recently, the same sort of academic skepticism wasn't applied to it until the last decades of the 20th century.

After the Byzantine and Sasanian armies were defeated, most of the civilian populations of the conquered areas accepted Arab rule without a fight. The new power's financial demands were modest. Life in the Christian communities of the Middle East went on as usual. Until the end of the 7th century the old Greek- and Persian-speaking bureaucracies continued to function without much interference from the Arab authorities.

"In sum, the Arab conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia was rather like a summer thunderstorm"..."terrifying while it lasted, but soon past and the damage promptly repaired."

For several decades after the conquest the Arabs did not try to convert the subject peoples to "Islam", whatever that meant at that point. When non-Arabs first started joining, they had to be incorporated into Arab tribal lineages by Arab patrons. The universality of Islam took some time to develop.

"Early Islam, outside the Hijaz, was the elite religion of a tribally-organised military. During the period of conquest the Islamic religion possessed only a rudimentary theology, which was probably even more basic among military units. Contemporary Byzantium might have perceived the conquest as a menacing rebellion and if they had noticed the religious dimension at all - an Arab heresy of Judaeo-Christian origin." [...]

"As for Islam, sophisticated Christian observers initially regarded it as little more than the inchoate cult of a few thousand barbarians; it could hardly threaten so deep-rooted and richly-elaborated a faith as Christianity."

While reading this book, it was fascinating for me to watch the various features of what we now understand as Islam emerge for the first time in the documentary record.

A papyrus receipt from Egypt dated with the year 22 (643 AD) is the first known use of the new Muslim calendar. Starting in 651 AD the phrase "bism allah", which some will remember from the Bohemian Rhapsody and which means "in the name of God", appears on some coins. But the word "allah" was used by pagan Arabs before Islam and continues to be used by Christian Arabs today.

For some years after the conquest Iranian coins continued to be struck with the images of Zoroastrian fire temples on one side and the names of old, dead shahs on the other. Starting about 661 AD the names of the shahs were replaced by those of the Arab-appointed governors, but the fire temples remained! Contemporary coins in the formerly Byzantine territories retained the Christian cross.

Caliph Muawiyah (661 - 680 AD) issued coins proclaiming him "the commander of the faithful", but with no other religious messages. A Christian source mentions him restoring a church in Edessa after it was damaged by an earthquake in 679.

In 680, after Muawiyah's death, there was a struggle for power, which led to a civil war among the Arabs. One of the claimants to the caliphal title, ibn Al Zubayr, wanted to emphasize his close ties to Muhammad's family and to the latter's real (or imagined) ideas, and through these to the origins of Arab rule in most of the Middle East.

Between 685 AD and 688 AD ibn al Zubayr issued coins in Iran that said "Muhammad is the messenger of God". But the portrait of the old shah and the fire temple still remained. Around 689 AD Zubayrid authorities created a coin which marks the first known appearance of "the shahada", the central Muslim message that "there is no God but God". In 691 they finally removed the Zoroastrian fire temple from these coins.

Ibn al Zubayr was defeated and killed soon after this, but his numismatic innovations were picked up by the winners. From that point on the symbols of the Arab state always conformed to what we now recognize as Islam.

If the religious ideas of the Arab conquerors were hazy at first, why did they later coalesce into something much more definite, and something so different from and opposed to Christianity and Judaism? This isn't really explored in this book, but I would point to the obvious fact that the Arab empire was a rival of Byzantium. So while monotheism was definitely the trend of the time, the Arab version of it was under no compulsion to follow the Byzantine model.

Also, the old cities of the Fertile Crescent which the Arabs conquered contained lots of intellectuals who were more than willing to engage in doctrinal debates which eventually defined, refined, and extended the new state's ideology. And to increase legitimacy, they would have tended to project their ideas back onto Muhammad, the state's founder.

As time went on, the non-Arab majority of the empire began to convert to the new, rapidly-evolving religion because it was the ideology of power. It's estimated here that Iran, for example, became majority Muslim around the middle of the 9th century AD. Egypt is thought to have become majority Muslim in the 9th century as well.

Simultaneously the descendants of the conquerors intermarried with the locals. There was a change of dynasty in 750 AD, which involved troops from Iran, probably of mixed Arab/Persian character, replacing Syrian Arab troops as the basis of the caliphal army. This new dynasty, the Abbasids, downplayed the Arab identity of the empire in favor of the Muslim one, which was by then already understood by many to be universalist.

As people of Arab descent became a minority among Muslims, Muslim armies and Islam's governing elite, the beduins reverted to their old poverty and obscurity. In a few centuries their alienation form the structures created by their ancestors became so strong that they started to rob the caravans of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, and occasionally even plundered the Kaaba.

Various Iranian Muslim groups rose to power at different times. Then, in the 9th century, Muslims started raiding the Central Asian steppe, capturing Turkic slaves in order to employ them as professional soldiers. Steppe nomads were always good at war, so it's not surprising that in time they ended up dominating the military profession in most of the Islamic world. The enslavement of these nomads seems only to have been OK if they were pagans. Spaniards had a similar attitude to slavery in the Americas in later centuries.

One of the most interesting episodes of this period was the revolt of the Zanj:

"This Arabic word denotes blacks originating from the East African coast. Large numbers of East African slaves had, in the later first/seventh century [Glossy: Muslim/Christian calendar], been brought to work in southern Iraq under harsh conditions. In the third/ninth century we find gangs of Zanj kept in conditions of acute hardship and misery and working in the marshlands (al bat.apih.) of lower Iraq, removing the nitrous topsoil (sibakh) to reclaim the land for cultivation."

The Zanj revolt was led by an Arab who promised them "revenge against their oppressors, riches and slaves of their own" and who "made good on these promises to a remarkable extent" in the next few years.

"The local and caliphal authorities were unable to defend against the Zanj, who moved swiftly on interior lines, hidden by the swamps. They seized the main cities of lower Iraq and neighbouring Khuzistan, including Basra, Wasit, Abbadan and Ahwaz. They slaughtered many inhabitants, but did not occupy these cities permanently: all the Abbasid forces could do was to enter these ruined centres of early Islamic civilisation and survey the devastation."

This revolt was only suppressed with great difficulty. While rebellions were numerous, almost all of them were ideologically Islamic. The only exceptions were the Muslim-Christian conflict in Spain and the unsuccessful attempt by a man named Mardavij to revive a Zoroastrian state in Iran in the early 930s AD.

In the later 9th century the caliphate, which was never very centralized, began to definitely break up into a patchwork of virtually-independent states.

This book's editor dealt with that by devoting separate chapters to various Islamic regions. However, the authors of these chapters did not coordinate among themselves, so they often recounted events that affected more than one region separately, needlessly repeating things.

I was struck by this description of the Ibadi imamate in Oman:

"In its structure and ideas the Imamate differed considerably from the Caliphate. There was no ruling family and no hereditary succession. It was a tribal community in which the leader was elected by a group of elders (namely, religious scholars), took his decisions by consultation, had no privileged position, and had only limited authority to compel military service."

This is very unusual for the Middle East, whose politics, like daily life, normally revolves around extended families instead.

The chapter on Syria mentions the survival of a pagan, astral religion in Harran, near the modern Syrian-Turkish border, into Islamic times. We normally think of late remnants of paganism as hiding in remote, inaccessible areas like the Caucasus, Afghanistan or the Kurdish mountains, but Harran was a substantial town in a well-settled region.

The chapter on Egypt explained to me for the first time how Nile irrigation worked:

"Out of the flood had emerged the system of ‘basin’ irrigation, under which the floodwater was formed into artificial lakes by long earthen banks to allow it to soak into the soil. A collective effort was required to build the banks, and to open and close the entrances each year."

Of course I knew about the Nile floods, but when I saw the word "irrigation" in reference to Egypt, I always imagined canals, not this.

There seems to have been more immigration and settlement of Arabs in Egypt than in the other parts of the empire. They took local wives in the Spaniards-in-America fashion, and the authors attribute the gradual decline of Egyptian Christianity and the Coptic language to that more than to conversion.

The area where Arabs encountered most resistance early on was the Berber Maghreb. And this makes sense: who would be a match for desert nomads if not other desert nomads?

"In contrast, the narrative of the conquest of Hispania in 92/711 recalls a similar pattern to the invasions in Byzantine and Sasanian territories: after one pitched battle and the defeat of the king’s army the Visigothic administration crumbled, clearing the way for an Arab rule which consolidated with remarkable ease and no serious challenges."

After the death of a Visigothic king of Spain named Witiza his sons fought against an usurper named Roderic. It seems that they were the ones who invited the Arabs and their Berber allies to the country. The Muslims defeated Roderic and, having taken power, confirmed the extensive land holdings of the sons of Witiza. Their descendants through a female line became the leading Muslim families in Seville in later centuries. The intermarriage of the Visigothic elite with the commanders of the conquerors seems to have been common.

Coins struck in Spain by the victors in 711 AD featured the shahada in Latin: "Non Deus Nisi Deus Non Deus Alius."

The survival of the Persian language in Iran is made particularly remarkable by the fact that Latin was dying in Muslim Spain:

"In a celebrated text a Cordoban Mozarab called Alvarus complained that in his time only one among a thousand Christians was able to write a letter in Latin." [...]

" the fourth/tenth century Christian sacred books were being translated into Arabic in significant numbers, which bears witness that even among Christian populations that language was more widespread than Latin."

Of course some Spanish Christians fought Muslims in the north, but there were cases of extraordinary defiance in the south as well:

"The voluntary martyrs thus presented themselves to the judge of Cordoba, hurling blasphemy and abuse against the Prophet and Islam in the full knowledge that this left the official no choice but to condemn them to death in application of the law. As a result almost fifty Christians were executed in Cordoba between 850 and 859."

One of this volume's final chapters reviews the history of the Western study of Islam. It says that a lot of progress was made during the Cold War, when Western governments needed specialists who could help them influence Muslim countries. They increased the funding of the study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, and that eventually trickled down to historic research in the same way that the funding of military technology during the same era indirectly led to scientific advances.

This implies that the area of Islamic studies may produce remarkable results in the next couple of decades, as some of the smarter members of the enormous horde of failed spooks bred by Western governments after 9/11 slowly grope their way out towards the light of historic scholarship.     ř