Archive for the 'Islam' Category

Eastern Christianity and sacred space

January 19 2014

Transcript of a good piece by William Dalrymple, BBC Radio 4, December 20 2013. There’s also a podcast (BBC A Point of View series).

“There used to be widespread sharing of sacred space. I have seen Syrian Christians coming to sacrifice sheep at the Muslim [Sufi] shrine of Nebi Uri. While at the nearby Christian convent of Seidnaya, I found the congregation in the church consisted not principally of Christians but instead of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded wives. As the priest circled the altar with his thurible, the men prayed as if in the middle of Friday prayers at a great mosque. Their women, some dressed in full black chador, mouthed prayers from the shadows of the narthex. A few, closely watching the Christian women, went up to the icons and kissed them. They had come, so they told me, to Our Lady of Seidnaya, to ask her for children. Now that precious multi-ethnic and multi-religious patchwork is in danger of being destroyed forever.”

My links. (Is Nebi Uri near Seidnaya?) Similar patchworks have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, in the Balkans.

In India, sacred space is still sometimes shared. I have been with a young Hindu in Chennai who took me into the San Thome Basilica and said a prayer there. He said he went into mosques too. This isn’t rare in India.

Some Palestinian Christians give their children names like Omar. Old post [and see comment below]. It would be nice if European Christians did, too, but it might sound rather pretentious and Beckhamish.

I love Malaysia, but it contains some peculiarly small-minded Muslims. Last October, a court there ruled that non-Muslims would be prohibited from using the word Allah, even though Christians and Hindus had been using it for centuries to refer to their gods.

One should speak of christianities, not Christianity:

Ottoman people and Orthodox churches (old post).

Hashish 2

August 30 2013

The Assassins were a militant branch of the Ismāʿīlīs [Shiites who seceded from the main group in the eighth century because of their belief that Ismail, the son of the sixth Shiite imam, should have become the seventh imam, hence Seveners] who were organized by Hasan-i-Sabbāh about A.D. 1090. Their method of action was the assassination of princes; and they did their work impartially, for the list of their victims includes their fellow-Ismāʿīlī the Fātimid Caliph al-Āmir [the Ismaili Shia Fatimid Caliphs ruled from the Atlantic to the Red Sea 909-1171], whom they assassinated in A.D. 1130, as well as a host of Sunnīs and Christians. The word “assassinate” itself is derived from the name of the Assassins, and their name is derived in turn from the hashīsh or hemp-fumes with which their desperadoes used to intoxicate themselves before making their attentats. For Hasan-i-Sabbāh and the Assassins, see Browne, E. G.: A Literary History of Persia, vol. ii (London 1906, Fisher Unwin), pp. 201-11, and Yule, Sir Henry: The Book of Ser Marco Polo, 3rd edition (London 1903, Murray, 2 vols.), vol. i, pp. 139-48.)

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (footnote)

Roads to Mecca

August 24 2013

The stations on the two pilgrimage routes of the ʿAbbasid Age from ʿIrāq to the Hijāz – one route taking off into the Arabian steppe from Kūfah and the other from Basrah – are plotted out in Spruner-Menke Hand-Atlas für die Geschichte des Mittelalters und der Neueren Zeit, 3rd. ed. (Gotha 1880, Perthes), Map 81.

Here is that map: the two long, lonely roads with their stations and wells are clearly marked.

Kufa was an Arab cantonment on the border between the Arabian desert and Iraq. The fourth of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, Ali, had moved his capital there from Medina in order to confront Muawiya, the governor of Syria, in battle at Siffin on the Upper Euphrates (657). This was the end of the great age of Medina which had begun in 622 with the Hijra. Ali was later assassinated (661).

Muawiya persuaded his son, Hasan, to renounce rights to the Caliphate. Ali had been the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad. Shia Muslims believe that the succession should have continued through him. Kufa is one of their holy cities in Iraq, along with Kadhimiya, Karbala, Najaf, Samarra.

Muawiya (Muhammad had married his sister, but he was not otherwise closely related to the Prophet), established the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus.

The Abbasid caliphs moved the capital to Baghdad after overthrowing the Umayyads everywhere except in Iberia (al-Andalus), where they survived, until 1031, in the Caliphate of Cordoba.

Basra had been founded by the second Rightly-Guided Caliph, Umar, while confronting the Sassanids.

A more northerly route from the Euphrates to Damascus and then south, “the King’s Highway”, is described here (old post). At the Gulf of Aqaba, the Highway would branch westwards across Sinai and south-eastwards into Arabia.

The road from Damascus to the Hejaz and beyond to Yemen was an ancient one.

Muhammad himself conducted caravans from Mecca to Damascus and back as the employee of his future wife, Khadijah. The most probable dates of his journeys [into Roman territory] are the peace-years between 591 and 604.

Paul Lunde, from Caravans to Mecca, Saudi Aramco World, November/December 1974 edition:

“Until the 19th century there were three main caravans to Mecca. The Egyptian caravan set out from Cairo, crossed the Sinai Peninsula and then followed the coastal plain of western Arabia to Mecca, a journey which took from 35 to 40 days. It included pilgrims from North Africa, who crossed the deserts of Libya and joined the caravan in Cairo. The other great caravan assembled in Damascus, Syria, and moved south via Medina, reaching Mecca in about 30 days. After the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, this caravan began in Istanbul, gathered pilgrims from throughout Asia Minor along the way, and then proceeded to Mecca from Damascus. The third major caravan crossed the Peninsula from Baghdad.”

The Baghdad caravan went via Kufa. The Hejaz Railway (map), part of the Ottoman railway network, followed the route of the Damascus caravan and was an extension of the line from the Haydarpaşa Terminal in Istanbul (Asian side) beyond Damascus. Work began in 1900 under Abdul Hamid II, with German help. The intention was to go as far as Mecca. The line reached Medina on September 1 1908, the anniversary of the Sultan’s accession, but had got no further than this – four hundred kilometres short of its goal – when war broke out. In 1913 the Hejaz Railway Station was opened in central Damascus. There was a branch line to Haifa.

The Emir Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, viewed it as a threat to the Arabs, since it provided the Turks with easy access to their garrisons in the Hejaz, Asir and Yemen. A section of it was blown up by TE Lawrence during the Arab Revolt. After the fall of the Empire the railway did not reopen south of the Jordanian-Saudi Arabian border. There is talk of reopening it now.

The Berlin to Baghdad Railway (post here) was being built at the same time. It, too, was incomplete in 1914.

Old posts:

Six German atlases

Shiite pilgrimages

Appointment in Samarra.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Reynold Alleyne Nicholson

August 23 2013

Reynold A. Nicholson, in his Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose, [footnote: Cambridge 1922, University Press.] gave me a glimpse of a Classical Islamic literature that I was unable to read in the original.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Five prophets

August 21 2013






Five portraits from the Holy Land. Clive Lawton, narrator, writer. Mark Savage, producer. BBC Radio 4, August 12-16.

Saul, David and Jonathan (old post).

A tea-party in Delhi

June 20 2013

When the news [of the abolition of the Caliphate] reached Delhi – where [...] the Caliphate had been revered for seven hundred years [since the formation of the Delhi Sultanate] with a naïveté seldom corrected by first-hand acquaintance – the shock declared itself in a dramatic incident at a Red Crescent tea-party which offers a burlesque counterpart to the tragic scene in Saint Jerome’s cell at Bethlehem when the Christian scholar received the news of the fall of Rome.

“A mission from the Turkish Red Crescent Society, which was collecting funds in India at the moment when the news of the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate arrived, found it advisable to cut short its activities and return home. (The Times, 5th March, 1924; Oriente Moderno, IV, 3, p. 181). The news was actually received during a tea-party at Delhi, where the members of the Turkish mission were being entertained by their Indian co-religionists. Upon the recital of the telegram containing the text of the Turkish Law of the 3rd March, [1924,] [his bracket] all but two of the Indians present immediately left the room.”

Footnote refers to the previously cited

Toynbee, A. J.: Survey of International Affairs, 1925, vol. i (Oxford 1927, University Press), “The Islamic World since the Peace Settlement” [...].

Jerome died near Bethlehem in 420. What is the source for the scene in his cell?

The shock felt by those hearing of the destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad in 1258 is also compared with the shock of hearing of the fall of Rome in 410.

The Indian telegram service will close on July 15.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

The resilience of the Caliphate

June 19 2013

The main line of Sunni Caliphs – Rightly Guided, then Umayyad, then Abbasid – came to an end when the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258.

A surviving member of the Abbasid house was installed at Cairo under the patronage of the newly formed Mamluk Sultanate three years later.

In 1517 the Ottoman Turks took the last nominal Abbasid Caliph at Cairo into custody and transported him to Constantinople.

When he died, the Caliphate was virtually in abeyance. The first time Caliph was used as a political instead of symbolic religious title by the Ottoman Sultans was in the peace treaty with Russia at the end of the war of 1768-74, as a way of allowing the Turks to retain moral authority in territory they had ceded, notably the Crimea.

Around 1880 Sultan Abdul Hamid II reasserted the title as Russian expanded into Central Asia. His claim was most fervently accepted by the Muslims of British India.

The Khilafat movement (1919-24) was a vain pan-Islamic protest campaign launched by Muslims in India to persuade the British government to protect the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate. The Ottoman Sultanate was abolished in 1922, the Caliphate in 1924.

At the time when the present chapter was being written, it looked as if this had really been the end of the Caliphate, for an immediate attempt on the part of the Hāshimī King Husayn of the Hijāz to assume the office (on the eve, as it turned out, of his own ejection from his ancestral patrimony by Ibn Saʿūd) was – in spite of the Sharīf’s unimpeachable Qurayshī lineage and his sovereignty, at the moment, over the two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina – as dismal a failure as most of his other enterprises. Nor did any practical action result from a Caliphate Congress held at Cairo on the 13th-19th May, 1926.

Yet, even if this forecast were to prove correct – though, in the light of previous history, it would not be safe to sign a death certificate for so resilient an institution as the Caliphate until it had been in abeyance for at least a quarter of a millennium [footnote: Its latest interregnum had lasted from the death of the last Cairene ʿAbbasid Caliph Mutawakkil in A.D. 1543 to the drafting of the Russo-Turkish Treaty of Küchuk Qaynārja in A.D. 1774.] – the marvel would be, not that the Caliphate should have petered out at last, but that, on the strength of having been an effective sovereignty over a span of less than two hundred years, [footnote: From the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632 to the death of the ʿAbbasid Caliph Amīn (imperabat A.D. 809-13), in a civil war with his brother and supplanter Ma’mūn (imperabat A.D. 813-33) over the heritage of their father Hārūn-ar-Rashīd (imperabat A.D. 786-809).] it should have been able within that time to acquire a prestige sufficient to keep it alive, and twice revive it, [footnote: i.e. at Cairo in A.D. 1261 and at Constantinople in A.D. 1774.] for another eleven hundred years [footnote: Reckoning from the death of the Baghdādi ʿAbbasid Caliph Amīn in A.D. 813 to the deposition of the Constantinopolitan ʿOsmanli Caliph ʿAbd-al-Mejīd in A.D. 1924.] during which it never emerged from the state of political impotence into which it had begun to decline in the reign of Hārūn-ar-Rashīd’s son Ma’mūn (imperabat A.D. 813-33).

The revival of the Caliphate is often predicted today, in Brummie, Indonesian and other accents.

Ma’mūn is written thus in the OUP text, not as Maʿmūn.

At times in Muslim history there have been rival caliphs, notably those of the Ismaili Shia Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa, 909-1171.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Essence and accidents

May 26 2013

How, in an Oikoumenê that was being united on a literally world-wide range within a Western framework, were Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus to make further progress in disengaging the essence of Religion from the accidents? The only way open to these fellow seekers after spiritual light was the hard road of spiritual travail along which their predecessors, with God’s help, had arrived at the degree of religious enlightenment represented by the living higher religions at the stage in which they found themselves at this crucial moment in Mankind’s history. By comparison with the stage embodied in Primitive Paganism, the state of relative enlightenment to which the adherents of the higher religions had attained by a date midway through the twentieth century of the Christian Era manifestly represented a marvellous spiritual advance; yet, marvellous though it might be, they had now become aware that they could no longer go on living parasitically on God’s past mercies to their forefathers and on their own forefathers’ past spiritual endeavours to win a fuller vision of God, and a closer communion with Him, for themselves and for their children. They knew that they could no longer rest on their predecessors’ spiritual labours because, in their generation, they were being racked by a conflict between heart and head which they could not leave unresolved with impunity, and which could be resolved only by a fresh spiritual move forward.

As the pilgrims girded themselves to take the hard road again, they might draw some encouragement from divers past successes of Mankind in discarding veils which had served as windows in their time. In default of fuller light, there had been a glimmer of spiritual enlightenment in the faint translucency of Man’s vision of God through the animal creation. In the demonic physical energies of untamed wild beasts Man had caught a glimpse of a divine power surpassing Man’s own strength; in the hunter’s game and in the shepherd’s flock he had caught a glimpse of God’s beneficence as the giver and sustainer of life; and a primitive worship of God in animal form had lived on to play a leading role in the religion of the Egyptiac Civilization. Yet, in the World as it was in A.D. 1952, this dim “theriomorphic” vision of God, though still a living reality for unsophisticated souls at the lower levels of Hinduism, was on the whole on the wane. In the Christian consciousness the lamb, the dove, and the fish stood, not for literal likenesses of God, but for poetic images of His ineffable nature – just as the rock on which the Church was built according to the Roman Catholic Christian belief was not a literal stone like the stone that had once embodied the Emesan divinity Elagabalus or the stone that still supported the wall of a Meccan Kaʿbah.

There were, however, some relics of past stages of enlightenment which might not prove so easy to purge away. The Muslims, who had resolutely rejected all visual representations of God in the physical likeness of living creatures, including “the human form divine” [Blake, The Divine Image], had not yet summoned up the resolution to break with that older and cruder phase of idolatry which had been embedded in Islam by the founder Muhammad himself – against the grain of his own prophetic mission – when he had given his sanction to the adoration of the Black Stone as part of a compromise with the vested interests of an ancien régime at Mecca. [Would Muslims say “revere” rather than “adore”?] Even the puritanical Wahhābī reformers, who had twice entered Mecca as conquerors pledged to purge Islam of idolatrous accretions, had left the Black Stone untouched both in A.D. 1804 and in A.D. 1924. To Christian minds the Muslims’ reluctance to part with the Black Stone seemed a quaint anachronism in glaring contradiction with the abhorrence of idolatry and devotion to monotheism that were the twin beacon-lights of Islam; and, conversely, Muslim minds found stumbling-blocks in the idolatry and the polytheism which, as they saw it, were still being practised by Christians, as well as by Buddhists and Hindus. In Muslim eyes the Christians’ persistent idolatry betrayed itself in the visual representation of God in the forms of a man, a bird, and an animal, and their persistent polytheism in their doctrine of the Trinity and their cults of the saints, while in a Protestant Christian’s eyes the sacrament of the pagan mysteries survived in the Catholic “Sacrifice of the Mass”, and the worship of the Great Mother had been withdrawn from Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Cybele, and Inanna only to be paid, by Catholic devotees, to the same Mother of God under the name of Mary. [Footnote: [...] Catholic Christians, of course, did not admit the Protestant allegation that their adoration of Mary amounted to the worship of a goddess. According to the Catholic Christian doctrine, Mary was one of God’s creatures, and the qualities that Catholics adored in her were gifts to her from her Creator.]


This was the challenge that confronted the followers of the historic higher religions in a world in which they had suddenly been brought to close quarters with one another and with a Modern Western Science owing to the rapid spread of a secularized Western Civilization over the whole habitable and traversable surface of the planet. In the year A.D. 1952 the living generation of Mankind did not yet know how they were going to negotiate this next stage of their present “climbers’ pitch”; still less did they know whether they would succeed in scaling it; but they could see that they stood no chance of succeeding unless they could settle their latter-day conflict between Heart and Head, and that therefore a sincere and earnest attempt to recapture a lost spiritual harmony was an indispensable prelude to grappling with the formidable precipice that towered above them.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Two Maghrebis

May 1 2013

A belief that the whole life of the Universe was governed by “the Law of God” was the qiblah of a Judaic Weltanschauung that was the common heritage of the Orthodox Christian, the Western Christian, the Arabic Muslim, and the Iranic Muslim societies; and a theocentric philosophy of history derived from the intuitions or inspirations of the Prophets of Israel and Judah and the Iranian Prophet Zarathustra was bequeathed to Western Christendom in Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei and to the Arab Muslim World in Ibn Khaldūn’s Prolegomena to his History of the Berbers – two works of spiritual genius which unmistakably reflect one single common outlook and whose mutual affinity can only be accounted for by their indebtedness to a common source, since Ibn Khaldūn was as ignorant of his Christian predecessor and fellow Maghribī’s theodicy as Augustine was of Muqaddamāt that did not see the light till more than nine hundred years after the Christian North African Father’s death.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The match

April 20 2013

Since the domestication of the Arabian camel, nearly 2,000 years before Muhammad’s day, Arabia had been traversible, and ideas and institutions had been seeping into the peninsula from the Fertile Crescent that adjoins it on the north. The effect of this infiltration had been cumulative, and, by Muhammad’s time, the accumulated charge of spiritual force in Arabia was ready to explode.

Passage at greater length.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Akbar and the Hindus

January 14 2013

Akbar recognized that a Muslim regime in India could not survive for long if it failed to win the assent of its Hindu subjects. In 1564 he abolished the poll-tax on non-Muslims. He demonstrated his power to the Rajput descendants of the Huns and Gurjaras by taking Chitor in 1567-8 (this once impregnable rock was not proof against artillery), but, having intimidated the Rajputs, Akbar conciliated them, and this was wise, since they were the most martial of the Hindu peoples before the rise of the Marathas and the Sikhs, and Rajasthan, where the Rajputs had congregated since the Muslim conquest of the Jumna-Ganges basin in the twelfth century, was the nearest to Delhi of all the regions in India in which the Hindus had preserved their autonomy.

However, Akbar’s conciliatoriness to his Hindu subjects was not prompted solely by political considerations; it was partly inspired by an ambition to break down the traditional barriers between the historic higher religions. Akbar initiated a series of debates between representatives of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Roman Catholic Christianity, and in 1582 he promulgated a new religion of his own, the Din-i-Ilahi (“the Divine Religion”), which, so he hoped, would unite all the older religions by transcending each of them.

The first call on Akbar’s time and energy was necessarily the organization and expansion of his empire. Akbar profited by the administrative and financial ability of the Bengali Afghan Emperor Sher Shah Sur, who had evicted Akbar’s father Humayun from India in 1539-40. In his brief reign (1540-5), Sher Shah had created an excellent administrative and fiscal organization and postal service, and these assets were inherited from him by Akbar.

Mughal mnemonic

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Constantinople and Vienna

December 4 2012

Twin sieges. Of Constantinople by Arabs: 674-78 and 717-18. Of Vienna by Turks: 1529 and 1682-83.

The Arabs never returned to the walls of Constantinople, nor the Turks to Vienna.

The rout of Pan-Islamism by Nationalism

November 21 2012

The apparent triumph of our Western Political Nationalism in the Islamic World since the beginning of the twentieth century of our era – and, conspicuously, since the outbreak of the general war of A.D. 1914-18 – is a remarkable testimony to the assimilative power of our Western Civilization and to the inability of the Islamic Civilization to hold its own against it. For the Pan-Islamic Movement, which was set in motion under the patronage of the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph ʿAbd-al-Hamīd (imperabat A.D. 1876-1909) as an attempt to enable the Islamic World to repel the Western offensive, was not only good strategy on its merits (on the principle that “union is strength”); it was also in the true line of the Islamic tradition; for, from the time of the Hijrah, which was the crucial event in the career of Muhammad and in the history of the institution that he founded, Islam had been a unitary society which embraced both the two Western social fields of Church and State; and, after the founder’s death, the unity of Islam in its political aspect had been incarnated in the Arab Caliphate [...]. Thus the Pan-Islamic attempt to restore the political unity of Islam, under the historic aegis of a Caliphate, in face of a formidable external menace to the Islamic Society’s very existence, might have seemed a promising stroke of statesmanship; and the rapid rout of Pan-Islamism by an irresistible outbreak of Nationalism in the Muslim ranks is a surprising denouement.


A Study of HIstory, Vol IV, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Shiite pilgrimages

October 14 2012

The inauguration of pilgrimages on an oecumenical scale which accompanied the propagation of the higher religions to the ends of the Earth was inevitably followed by a reaction in favour of pilgrimages of a narrower range. Any pilgrims would be tempted to travel less far afield, into less strange and hostile social milieux, if they could be assured that, in choosing an easier option, they would be earning an undiminished amount of spiritual merit; and their ecclesiastical pastors and masters might be inclined to give them such assurances under the influence of mixed motives, including a circumspect reluctance to lay on their sheep’s shoulders a burden too grievous to be borne, [footnote: Matt, xxiii. 4.] as well as a politic desire to keep their flock within geographical bounds within which they would not be exposed to any rival religious influences. For these reasons, every secession of a sect from a universal church, and every emergence of a secular civilization from an ecclesiastical chrysalis, was apt to be followed by the establishment of new goals of pilgrimage, nearer home, as at least partial substitutes for the Haramayn [ie the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina], Jerusalem, or Bodh Gayā [the site in Bihar where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment].

A classic example of the narrowing of a pilgrimage-horizon was to be found in the history of the holy places of the Shīʿah. Within less than a hundred years of the date of the Hijrah, Mecca and Medina, the two oecumenical Islamic holy cities in the Hijāz, had been partially supplanted, as goals of pilgrimage for Shīʿī Muslims, by two sectarian holy cities in ʿIrāq – Najaf and Karbalā – that had been sanctified by the martyrdoms of an ʿAlī and a Husayn; and these ʿIrāqī cynosures of the Shīʿah had afterwards been supplemented by the tombs of an Imāmī Shīʿah’s seventh and ninth imāms, Mūsā al-Kāzim and Muhammad al-Jawād, at Kāzimayn. When, in the sixteenth century of the Christian Era, the career of the Safawī Imāmī Shiʿite empire-builder Shāh Ismāʿīl [reigned 1501-24] resulted in ʿIrāq’s losing to Iran the position, enjoyed by ʿIrāq for more than eight hundred years down to that date, of being the principal stronghold of this “Twelve-Imām” variety of Shiʿism, and when, thereafter, ʿIrāq itself fell under the dominion of the Safawīs’ Sunnī arch-enemies the ʿOsmanlis, it became the policy of a Safawī imperial régime to discourage its Shīʿī subjects from making pilgrimages even to the historic holy places of the Shīʿah in an Arab ʿIraq that was now in hostile Ottoman Turkish Sunnī hands, and to divert their hungry eyes with the lure of competitive cynosures inside the Safawī Empire’s political frontiers. Persian pilgrims heading for Karbalā and Mecca were provided with alternative goals en route at Qumm and Qāshān in a Persian ʿIrāq where they could slake their spiritual thirst at a lower cost in money, fatigue, and danger without having to descend from their temperate native plateau to the sultry lowlands at its western foot, or to make the arduous transit of the Arabian desert between the Shīʿī Muslim holy cities on the Lower Euphrates [Najaf and Karbala] and the oecumenical Muslim holy cities in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea. Better still, these Persian Shīʿī pilgrims could be induced not merely to stop short of the Qiblah, but to turn their backs on it, by being directed towards the Mashhad of the Imām Rizā in Khurāsān, in the north-eastern corner of the Safawī dominions.

Isn’t the Qiblah a direction rather than a point?

Shah Ismail I, Uffizi, Florence

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Hulagu’s hesitation

October 2 2012

Though Hūlāgū Khan was a pagan under the influence of a Nestorian Christian wife [...], he did not take the ʿAbbasid Caliph’s life without some searchings of heart:

“The awe with which the institution of the Caliphate was regarded, even in these days of its weakness, may be realised by the fact that, cruel and bloodthirsty savage though Hūlāgū was, even he hesitated to put to death the Successor of the Prophet, for the Muhammadans who accompanied him in his army in the expedition against Baghdad had warned him that, if the blood of the Khalīfah was shed upon the ground, the World would be overspread with darkness and the army of the Mongols be swallowed up by an earthquake” (Arnold, op. cit., p. 81). [Arnold, Sir T. W.: The Caliphate (Oxford 1924, Clarendon Press) [...].]

He killed the last Abbasid there nevertheless. Three years later, in 1261, the Mamluk sultans appointed a nominal Abbasid Caliph in Cairo. In 1517, the Abbasid Caliph of Egypt, Al-Mutawakkil III, was transported to Constantinople, and Sultan Selim I announced himself to be a Caliph.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Thou shalt not

September 20 2012

I asked a Thai in Dubai whether he enjoyed living there. His answer, “Can not, can not”, reminded me of Blake.

Muslim riots in Calcutta

September 14 2012

At least four people were killed in Calcutta in 1969 as a result of remarks made by Arnold Toynbee about Muhammad:

Calcutta 1969

This was in the final weeks of Ayub Khan, so the incident should probably be seen in a wider context of violence.

Modern straits

September 8 2012

In [the modern] post-Christian Odyssey there was more than one passage to be negotiated and more than one kind of ordeal to be faced.

The two spiritual dilemmas, the “straits” Toynbee told us we needed to negotiate in 1952 – he imagines Greek sailors negotiating the straits of Messina and of Gibraltar – can be restated in modern terms, with some realignment of metaphors.

Following in Odysseus’ wake, these Phocaean seafarers would have first to negotiate the straits between Sicily and Italy without approaching either an Italian shore where they would be pounced upon by the monster Scylla or a Sicilian shore where they would be engulfed by the whirlpool Charybdis [...].

[But] if they were to reach the boundless waters of a globe-encompassing Ocean, these voyagers must put to sea again [and] make for the Straits of Gibraltar between the Pillars of Hercules, where this pair of menacing mountains, towering above the African and the European shore and threatening, from either flank, to fall upon any ship audacious enough to run the gauntlet without their leave [...].

In the interpretation of this parable in terms of the Western Civilization’s prospects, the finding of a passage between Scylla and Charybdis signified the negotiation of the Western World’s immediate problem of finding some way of avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification. Mid-way through the twentieth century of the Christian Era the Western Society was in imminent danger of destroying itself by failing to stop making War now that a demonic drive had been put into War by the progress of a Western physical science; and it was in hardly less imminent danger of stultifying itself by seeking asylum from War and Class-Conflict in Circe’s pig-sty. [...]

“Avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification” is the nuclear and ecological strait.

And how can people become richer without losing some of their humanity? Scylla threatens to pounce on you for romanticising poverty. Charybdis wants to suck you into a global Dubai.

In this spiritual ordeal the forbidding Pillars of Hercules were a pair of rival authoritarian and dogmatic faiths, both of which alike were offering to the storm-tossed voyager an everlasting Nirvāna in their stony bosoms and were threatening him with the eternal punishment that had been inflicted on the Flying Dutchman if he were to be so impious and so fool-hardy as to reject their offer and sail on past them out into the blue. From the one shore this ultimatum was being delivered to Western souls by a Christian heresy in which the stone of Communism had been substituted for the bread [footnote: Matt. vii. 9; Luke xi. 11.] of the Gospel, and from the other shore by a Christian Orthodoxy in which the body of Christ, [footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 27; Eph. iv. 12.] who had “come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”, [footnote: John x. 10.] had been petrified into a pillar of salt [footnote: Gen. xix. 26.] by a backward-looking ecclesiastical tradition. To dare the passage between these two frowning Pillars of Hercules was a venture that might daunt even a mariner whose moral had been fortified by a previous success in making his way safely between Scylla and Charybdis.

The new Pillars of Hercules are, on one side, convinced post-communist atheists and, on the other, religious men of “passionate intensity”.

When I was in my twenties, most of my contemporaries professed “agnosticism” when asked about religion. They lacked “all conviction”. Today, their nominally if that Christian equivalents in the UK – partly because of the recent example of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, partly because encouraged by Dawkinses and Goldacres – are confident enough to profess outright atheism.

Plus ultra!

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The Silk Road

June 22 2012

Maps of the Silk Road differ and are often approximate if not inaccurate. Nor is there one Silk Road. I’ll take this one, which appears to be in the public domain, as a simple reference. It shows the main route from Chang’an, now Xi’an, in Shaanxi province, going north and south of the Taklamakan desert or Tarim Basin. The westernmost city in modern China here is Kashgar or Kashi. From there the road passes through Tajikistan (and perhaps Kyrgyzstan) into Uzbekistan – in other words, through Sogdiana – and from there into Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria.

This does not show an alternative southern route which began west of Kashgar and passed through Bactria, north of the Hindu Kush, before rejoining the main route north of Merv.

Another road left China to cross the Karakoram into what is now Pakistan.

The Silk Road is not a steppe route. It runs south of the steppe. It is a mountain and desert route.

Buddhism entered China on the Silk Road via the Kushan Empire in the first century of the Christian era.

Critical Muslim

June 19 2012

Newish Granta-format quarterly published by the UK-based Muslim Institute.

Editors: Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab.

International advisory board: Karen Armstrong, William Dalrymple, Anwar Ibrahim, Arif Mohammad Khan, Bruce Lawrence, Ebrahim Moosa, Ashis Nandy.

I worried about the title at first, but I suppose the implication is fair.

Issue 1: The Arabs Are Alive

Issue 2: The Idea of Islam

Issue 3: Fear and Loathing

Issue 4: forthcoming on Pakistan


Critical Muslim 3

Imperial Messenger

May 12 2012

“Look, I’m a little confused. Do the math for me. You are wearing an Islamic head covering, you are obviously a religious person, but you were educated in an American university and now you are bringing the Internet to Kuwait. I don’t quite see how it all adds up.”

“A Russian journalist, circling the Coke machine, under the CNN screen, speaking Russian into a cell phone, in NATO headquarters, while Kosovo burned – my mind couldn’t contain all the contradictions.”

“The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been – but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.”

Three Friedman quotations, I assume accurate, in a review at New Left Project by David Wearing of Belén Fernández, The Imperial Messenger – Thomas Friedman at Work, New York, Verso, 2012.

Risibly inane. Friedman is never deep, and he is prejudiced against Arabs even if he believes in their decency as potential Americans. But he is not always as bad as this. He is right about some things, like America’s obsession with al-Qaeda.

Other titles in Verso’s Counterblasts series: Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte, The Imposter – BHL in Wonderland, and Derrick O’Keefe, Michael Ignatieff – The Lesser Evil?

Recent posts on Friedman at Pulse.

Earlier post here.

Holland and Bowersock

May 8 2012

(Now it sounds like a law firm.) Tom Holland’s reply to Glen Bowersock in the Guardian. I mentioned Holland’s new book about the Romano-Persian endgame and the origins of Islam a couple of weeks ago.

Both articles are worth reading, but severe limitations of space mean that they are skirting around questions about early Islam that really demand 7,000-word articles in the New York Review of Books, not a few inches in a daily. The arguments deserve to be outside scholarly journals, but as presented here are hardly comprehensible to ordinary readers. I don’t know who is right, but I had wondered about a few things in Bowersock’s “dyspeptic” piece. His superior phrase “with the publisher” about some early Qurʿanic manuscripts found in Sanaʿa: could there therefore already be a consensus about what they meant? His insistence that QRSh means only to congeal or clot, not to gather people: some language-instinct made me wonder whether that was so. But Bowersock is a major scholar. I just wish this discussion could be aired properly.

There is some simple background in this blog:

Since the domestication of the Arabian camel, nearly 2,000 years before Muhammad’s day, Arabia had been traversible, and ideas and institutions had been seeping into the peninsula from the Fertile Crescent that adjoins it on the north. The effect of this infiltration had been cumulative, and, by Muhammad’s time, the accumulated charge of spiritual force in Arabia was ready to explode.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The Great Transition

April 27 2012

Peter Brown (currently at Princeton) reviews

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th-9th Century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 14-July 8.

I don’t know how I have missed other pieces by him recently in the New York Review of Books, but here is a list. He is one of the few historians whose collected works I’d consider for desert island reading.

“We have been taught to see late antiquity and [the early period of Islam] in exclusively religious terms. In the words of Finbarr Flood, the period has suffered from an ‘excessive focus on religiosity.’ Anna Ballian warns us not to assume that ‘religion permeated every aspect of medieval society and in importance far outweighed secular matters.’ For this was by no means the case. There was always room for a ‘religion of the world’ – a tenacious conviction that there was more to life than piety. There was also something thrilling and almost numinous about wealth, good health, and the gift of children.”

We look at Iran this way today. If you go there, there is also sensuality, and fun to be had. In a week in Tehran in 1994 I never even heard a call to prayer.

The exhibition covers some of the ground of Holland’s new book (April 25 post).

Holland and Davies

April 25 2012

Not a Jermyn Street shirt shop, but authors of two books I would like to read.

Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, Little Brown, 2012 will get the same mass readership as his others: Rubicon, Persian Fire, Millennium. The Romano-Persian Endgame and the Birth of Islam could be an alternative subtitle.

Michael Scott, Telegraph: “‘Is it possible,’ [Holland] asks, ‘that Islam, far from originating outside the mainstream of ancient civilisation, was in truth a religion in the grand tradition of Judaism and Christianity – one bred of the very marrow of late antiquity?’” Well, yes. Is that controversial?

Contents of Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Allen Lane, 2011:

Tolosa: Sojourn of the Visigoths (AD 418-507)

Alt Clud: Kingdom of the Rock (Fifth to Twelfth Centuries)

Burgundia: Five, Six or Seven Kingdoms (c. 411-1795)

Aragon: A Mediterranean Empire (1137-1714)

Litva: A Grand Duchy with Kings (1253-1795)

Byzantion: The Star-lit Golden Bough (330-1453)

Borussia: Watery Land of the Prusai (1230-1945)

Sabaudia: The House that Humbert Built (1033-1946)

Galicia: Kingdom of the Naked and Starving (1773-1918)

Etruria: French Snake in the Tuscan Grass (1801-1814)

Rosenau: The Loved and Unwanted Legacy (1826-1918)

Tsernagora: Kingdom of the Black Mountain (1910-1918)

Rusyn: The Republic of One Day (15 March 1939)

Éire: The Unconscionable Tempo of the Crown’s Retreat since 1916

CCCP: The Ultimate Vanishing Act (1924-1991)

Ben Wilson, Telegraph.

Ritual, reason and revelation

April 14 2012

In the encounter between a dawning philosophy and a traditional paganism there had been no problem of reconciling Heart and Head because there had been no common ground on which the two organs could have come into collision. The pith of Primitive Religion is not belief but action, and the test of conformity is not assent to a theological creed but participation in ritual performances. For the vast majority of the faithful, the correct and alert execution of their ritual duties is the alpha and omega of Religion; primitive religious practice is an end in itself, and it does not occur to the practitioners to look, beyond the rites which they perform, for a truth which these rites convey. The truth is that the rites have no meaning beyond the practical effect which their correct execution is believed to have upon the human performers’ social and physical environment. The so-called “aetiological myths”, which purport to explain a traditional practice’s historical origin, are not taken as statements concerning matter[s] of fact that can be labelled “true” or “false”; they are taken in the spirit in which, in a more sophisticated state of society, a child takes a fairy-story or a grown-up person takes poetry. Accordingly, when, in this primitive religious setting, philosophers arise who do set out to make a chart of Man’s environment in intellectual terms to which the labels “true” and “false” apply, no collision occurs so long as the philosopher continues to carry out his hereditary religious duties – and there can be nothing in his philosophy to inhibit him from doing this, because there is nothing in the traditional rites that could be incompatible with any philosophy.

Awkward situations do, no doubt, occasionally arise, as when, in a ritually conservative Athens, the intellectually adventurous Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (vivebat 500-428 B.C.) got into trouble for having made public his opinion that the heavenly bodies were not living gods but inanimate material objects. A more celebrated case was the prosecution, conviction, and judicial murder of Socrates by his Athenian fellow countrymen in 399 B.C. on three charges, [footnote: Plato: Apologia Socratis, 24 B.] of which the second was that Socrates did not pay due worship to the gods who were the official objects of worship at Athens, and the third was that he paid worship to other divinities who were strange gods. Yet it may be doubted whether legal proceedings involving Anaxagoras would have been taken, some twenty years after the Clazomenian philosopher had ceased to reside in Athens, if these had not served the current political purpose of “smearing” Pericles; and it may equally be doubted whether Socrates would have suffered the death-penalty that Anaxagoras escaped if Socrates’ attitude towards religion had been all that his enemies had had against him. Socrates was – and remained to the last – a scrupulous performer of his ritual duties; and, on the religious counts, Aristophanes’ malicious caricature of him in The Clouds might have remained the limit of the penalty exacted from him, if he had not also been under fire in 399 B.C. on another count – the political charge of “corrupting the young” – which, significantly, figured first in the indictment. Socrates was the victim, not so much of conservative Athenian religious fanaticism, as of democratic Athenian resentment over the final defeat of Athens in the long-drawn-out Atheno-Peloponnesian war and democratic Athenian vindictiveness towards a fascist-minded Athenian minority who had seized the opportunity opened to them by the discrediting of the democratic régime through military defeat in order to overthrow the democratic constitution. Socrates’ past personal association with Critias, the moving spirit among “the Thirty Tyrants”, was the offence that the restored democratic régime could neither forget nor forgive. It was Politics, not Religion, that cost Socrates his life.

Where the issue was not confused, as it was in Socrates’ case, by political animus, Philosophy and Primitive Religion encountered one another without colliding. The death of Socrates was an exception to a rule of which the life of Confucius was a classical example. Confucius reconciled a conservative reverence for the traditional rites of primitive Sinic religion with a new moral philosophy of his own making by presenting his personal ideas as the meaning which the rites had been intended to convey. Fortunately for himself, Confucius found no Sinic Critias to be his political pupil in his own lifetime; and – thanks to this failure, which was the great disappointment of his life – he died peacefully in his bed. Confucius’s attitude and experience were characteristic of the normal relations between Philosophy and Primitive Religion; but a new situation arose when the higher religions came on the scene.

The higher religions did, indeed, sweep up and carry along with them a heavy freight of traditional rites that happened to be current in the religious milieux in which the new faiths made their first appearance; but this religious flotsam was not, of course, their essence. The distinctive new feature of the higher religions was that they based their claim to allegiance, and their test of conformity, on personal revelations received by their prophets; [footnote: This was true in some degree in practice even if not in theory of the “Indistic” higher religions as well as the “Judaistic”. Ipse dixit came to be a criterion of truth, not only for the followers of Jesus and Muhammad, but also for the followers of Siddhārtha Gautama and of the philosophic prophets of a post-Buddhaic Hinduism.] and these deliveries of the prophets were presented, like the propositions of the philosophers, as statements of fact, to be labelled either “true” or “false”. Therewith, Truth became a disputed mental territory; for thenceforward there were two independent authorities – on the one hand prophetic Revelation and on the other hand philosophical or scientific Reason – each of which claimed sovereign jurisdiction over the Intellect’s whole field of action; and, when once the hypothesis that the spheres of Revelation and Reason were even partially coincident had been accepted – and both parties did accept this as axiomatic – it became impossible for Reason and Revelation to live and let live on the auspicious precedent of the amicable symbiosis of Reason and Ritual. “There is a peculiar agony in the paradox that Truth has two forms, each of them indisputable, yet each antagonistic to the other.” [Footnote: Gosse, E.: Father and Son, chap. 5.] In this new and excruciating situation, there were only two alternative possibilities. Either the two rival exponents of a supposedly one and indivisible Truth must convert their rivalry into a partnership by agreeing that their expositions were mutually consistent, or, finding themselves unable to agree, they must decide the ownership of an apparently unpartitionable disputed territory in an ordeal by battle that would have to be fought out until one or other party had been driven right off the field.

The Hellenic world and China have been the only two places where advanced philosophy has preceded “higher religion” (if we regard the Vedic origins of Hinduism as belonging to that category).

Where did the conflict occur in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions? Is there even a serious gulf between philosophical/scientific and religious thought in the Indian tradition? In Hinduism, revelation is implied in the terms Apaurusheyatva and Śruti. Can one speak of revelation in Buddhism?

Anaxagoras, young crater near the lunar north pole

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Leone Caetani

April 12 2012

“Certainly Muhammad was guilty of errors, some of which were involuntary, but others not; besides these, he also perpetrated not a few acts that would be classified by us to-day as common crimes inspired by the basest of human passions; but it will be the task of future generations of historical critics to elucidate how far, in all this, the Prophet’s personal responsibility is engaged, and to what extent his acts are, on the contrary, to be regarded as being an impersonal expression of the specific conditions of a society that was still in a primitive stage of development. Our own belief is that the errors and defects discernible in the Prophet, and in the religious system that he created, are to be attributed to the society in which he lived. To this society Muhammad was superior in many respects, but in others he was its native child and, as such, was necessarily a party to all its vices, imperfections and prejudices.” [Footnote: Caetani, L.: Studi di Storia Orientale, vol. iii (Milan 1914, Hoepli), p. 295.]

Words which do not quite square with “but others not”.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Ignatius’s prayer

April 11 2012

The surrender of Man’s will to God was the first and last commandment of a religion whose Founder had chosen this watchword to be its name; and islām was offered for love’s sake in the prayer of Saint Ignatius Loyola:

“Suscipe, Domine, universam meam libertatem; accipe memoriam, intellectum et voluntatem omnem. Quidquid habeo vel possideo, mihi largitus es; id tibi totum restituo, ac tuae prorsus voluntati trado gubernandum. Amorem tui solum cum gratiâ tuâ mihi dones, et dives sum satis, nec aliud quidquam ultra posco.”

[Footnote: In The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, edited by Rickaby, S. J., Joseph (London 1915, Burns & Oates), p. 209, the original Spanish text is given with the following English translation:

“Tomad, Señor, y recibid toda mi libertad, mi memoria, mi entendimiento, y toda mi voluntad, todo mi haber y mi poseer: vos me lo distes; á vos, Señor, io torno, todo es vuestro, disponed á toda vuestra voluntad. Dadme vuestro amor y gracia, que esta mi basta.”

“Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, all I have and possess: you have given it to me; to you, O Lord, I return it; all is yours; dispose of it entirely according to your will. Give me your love and grace, because that is enough for me.”]

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Indonesian shadows

October 17 2011

Toynbee is sparing with references to Spengler in the Study and doesn’t mention him in the Acknowledgements and Thanks.

A four-page annex in Volume XII deals with one of his ideas.

Spengler’s concept of “pseudomorphosis” (“Deceptive Cultural Formation”) is one of the most illuminating of his intuitions. It throws light, for instance, on the relation between a satellite civilization and the society into whose field it has been drawn.

In essence the idea is a simple one. When two civilizations are interacting with each other, their meeting may be on an unequal footing. At the moment one of the two may be the more powerful, the other the more creative. In this situation the more creative civilization will be constrained to conform outwardly to the more powerful civilization’s cultural configuration, like a hermit crab who fits himself into a shell that is not his own. But an observer would be allowing himself to be misled if here he were to take appearances at their face value. He must look below the surface, study what underlies it, and take due note of the difference between the two. “The hands are the hands of Esau”, [footnote: 2 Gen. xxvii. 22.] but only because they have been disguised in order to deceive. “The voice is Jacob’s voice.” That is authentic, and it is therefore telltale, provided that the listener is not bent upon being deceived.


Didn’t Spengler’s conception of pseudomorphosis often imply the constraining of a vital new culture by an ingrained older one, with the creativity on the new rather than the old side?

Since the fifteenth century of the Christian Era, Islam has captured (sic) Indonesia. In this case the conversion has been accomplished by peaceful missionary enterprise, not by force of arms, and therefore has not provoked the militant opposition that it did arouse among Hindus in India. Nevertheless, Islam in Indonesia has not succeeded in supplanting, below the surface, the Indian culture – Hindu and Buddhist – which had been paramount in Indonesia for more than a thousand years before Islam’s arrival there. A present-day Indonesian Muslim reminds himself of his Hindu cultural heritage by assuming a Sanskrit name in conjunction with his Arabic one; and he celebrates the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (the Mawlid) by entertaining himself with puppet-plays [wayang kulit or shadow plays] in which the characters are the heroes of the Mahabharata. Here we can watch the Indian culture, which the Indonesians have never ceased to cherish, breaking through an Islamic veneer. The Islamic surface of present-day Indonesian culture is, in fact, a “pseudomorphosis”. But so, too, was the Indian culture which preceded Islam in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula and which, in the Hinayanian [roughly, Theravada] Buddhist version of it, is still paramount on the South-East Asian mainland in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. [Vietnam follows the Mahāyāna, or Northern Buddhism, which it took from China.] In South-East Asia the dissemination of Indian culture, like the later dissemination of Islam in the insular and peninsular parts of the region, was a peaceful process. But the Indian Civilization in South-East Asia experienced the same fortune that Islam experienced there later. The Indian Civilization, too, failed to supplant the previously prevailing local cultures. Below the surface these continued to hold their own. In South-East Asia the exotic forms of Indian architecture, art, and religion have been adapted to express a native South-East Asian content. [Footnote: See D. G. E. Hall: A History of South-East Asia (London 1955, Macmillan), passim.]


“In many parts of Indonesia, the celebration of the Mawlid al-nabi ‘seems to surpass in importance, liveliness, and splendour’ the two official Islamic holidays of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.”

Quotation from Herman Beck, Islamic Purity at Odds with Javanese Identity: The Muhammadiyah and the Celebration of the Garebeg Maulud Ritual in Yogyakarta in Jan Platvoet and Karel van der Toorn, editors, Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour, Leiden, Brill, 1995.

Garebeg Maulud in Yogyakarta (and elsewhere?) commemorates the Prophet’s birthday. The Muhammadiyah is the second-largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia. The largest is the Nahdlatul Ulama.

Balinese wayang performance, image from Gustavo Thomas Theatre; Bali is Hindu anyway: Islam didn’t penetrate there, but wayang kulit is popular in Java too

There is almost nothing about Southeast Asia in the first ten volumes of the Study. Toynbee may have acquired Hall’s book as background reading for his journey round the world of 1956-57. I bought it as a 1,000-page paperback in Bangkok c 1990.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

Ashoka and Akbar

October 1 2011

Chandragupta Maurya 322-298 BC

Bindusara 297-272 BC

Ashoka the Great 273-232 BC

Dasaratha 232-224 BC

Samprati 224-215 BC

Salisuka 215-202 BC

Devavarman 202-195 BC

Satadhanvan 195-187 BC

Brihadratha 187-185 BC

In Hellenic terms, the Mauryan Empire comes between Alexander and the Indo-Greek Kingdom. Capital: Pataliputra (post here) or modern Patna.

I could do a mnemonic for the Great Mughals, but don’t think I can manage the Mauryans.

Ashoka is famous because he was an emperor who [...] put into practice our common human sense of fraternity. He is justly recognised as being a morally outstanding figure, because the sovereign power that gives such an unusual opportunity for treating one’s fellow creatures as one’s brothers also makes it unusually tempting to disobey one’s conscience and unusually difficult to act in accordance with it, even if one has the will.

Ashoka will continue to be remembered because he put conscience into practice in the exercise of his political power. This is all the more notable considering that, unlike ourselves, Ashoka lived in the Pre-Atomic Age and therefore did not have the obvious urgent utilitarian incentive, that our generation of mankind has, to renounce the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Waging war with even the deadliest of the weapons then at Man’s disposal, Ashoka would have run no risk of getting his own subjects exterminated, not to speak of bringing annihilation upon the human race as a whole. He could have been sure of enjoying this material kind of impunity if, for instance, he had chosen to follow up his conquest of Kalinga by going on to conquer the southern tip of the Indian peninsula and the adjacent island of Ceylon [neither of which the Mauryans reached, though Chandragupta is considered the first unifier of India]. To seize opportunities of rounding off their dominions by pushing forward to so-called “natural frontiers” is one of the standing temptations besetting the rulers of states. And in this case, Ashoka could have plausibly represented to himself that he would be waging war in the cause of peace. He would be bestowing on a whole subcontinent the peace that comes from political unification.

Instead of thinking and acting on these conventional lines of raison d’etat, Ashoka, as we know, was moved to action of a very different kind. He was moved – and this for the rest of his life – by a moral revulsion against his crime of having incorporated Kalinga in the Maurya Empire by an aggressive war of conquest. He was horrified at the spectacle of the wickedness and the suffering that he had let loose by his act of aggression. He stood convicted, in his conscience, of having sinned against his sense of brotherhood, and he responded by making a complete break with his dynasty’s and every dynasty’s traditional policy. Ashoka’s break with tradition was the more remarkable considering that the criminal policy of using war as an instrument for empire-building had not been peculiar to the Mauryas. It had been common form for every ruler, anywhere in the World, who had had the power to practise it. Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta had had Alexander’s bad example to incite him; Alexander had had Cyrus’s bad example, and so on, in a regressive chain of Karma, back to the Egyptian and Sumerian empire-builders in the third millennium B.C. In contrast to these predecessors of his, Ashoka devoted the rest of his life, and the whole of his political power, to putting his sense of brotherhood into action.

He was a chakravartin.

In renouncing war, Ashoka did not abandon the aim of unifying mankind, but he pursued this aim thenceforth by missionary, instead of military, methods. He did intervene in Ceylon, and not only there but also in the vast tracts, west of his empire’s western frontiers, that were being fought over, in Ashoka’s time, by Alexander’s pugnacious Macedonian Greek successors. Ashoka intervened outside his empire’s political frontiers by spreading knowledge of the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, and he recognised no “natural frontiers” for his missionary activities, short of the limits of the inhabited portion of the Earth’s surface. Today, Buddhism has adherents all over Eastern Asia; and the spiritual brotherhood among Buddhists has been, and still is, one of the great unifying forces in the World. The sense of Buddhist brotherhood seems to be growing in strength today. At least, this is the impression made on me, three years ago, when I visited what are, I suppose, the two chief Buddhist holy places on Indian soil: Sarnath and Bodh Gaya. The ubiquity and vitality of Buddhism can, of course, be traced to a number of causes, but one of these causes is certainly Ashoka’s change of heart in the third century B.C. – his change of heart and his translation of this experience into action.

Ashoka’s actions also illustrate the point that, in India, the human sense of fraternity is not limited to a fellow feeling for other human beings. If I am right, Ashoka abolished the Imperial Hunt, placed his court on a vegetarian diet, and made the slaughtering of animals illegal for his subjects on fifty-six days in the year. The strength of this large-hearted tradition in India is attested by the extraordinary fact that, 1800 years after Ashoka’s day, the self-same three measures – all reflecting an Indian recognition of a brotherhood with non-human forms of life – were enacted by another emperor of India, Akbar.

Akbar had been a great huntsman himself. He became a vegetarian in deference to Hindu sensibilities.

The Indian religious influence that moved Akbar to take these measures appears to have come from a Jain, not a Buddhist, source (Buddhism had lost its last foothold in India not much less than 400 years before Akbar’s time). All the same, it was an Indian influence; and what one might perhaps call the “Indianisation” of Turkish Akbar’s spirit in the course of his life in India is an impressive illustration of the Indian spiritual tradition’s power to captivate foreigners when they come within its range. Except for Timur’s transitory raid, Akbar’s forebears had not set foot on Indian soil till Akbar’s own grandfather, Babur, had invaded India. Babur himself had spent too large a part of his life west of the Khyber Pass ever to be able to feel at home on Indian ground. As for Babur’s grandson, Akbar had been brought up as a Muslim; and Islam, like the other two religions, of the Judaic family, is exclusive-minded and intolerant by comparison with the religions and philosophies of Indian origin. Yet the influence of India on Akbar went so deep that he worked out for himself a religion of his own. Akbar’s Din Ilabi was characteristically Indian in its large-hearted catholicity.

Though Akbar, like Ashoka, renounced war on animals, he did not also make Ashoka’s renunciation of war against human beings. No doubt this would have been harder, from a practical point of view, for Akbar than it was for Ashoka. Ashoka had inherited an empire whose authority was well established. Akbar had refounded an empire which his father had lost after his grandfather had won it. A renunciation of war against human beings would probably have cost Akbar his throne, and might have cost him his life as well. Yet we may guess that Ashoka would still have done what he did do if the accident of birth had put him in Akbar’s place instead of in his own.

In the Atomic Age, the spirit that we need in our statesmen is surely Ashoka’s spirit. We can no longer do without unity. But we can also no longer afford to pursue this indispensable objective by methods of coercion. Conversion, not coercion, is, in our day, the only means that we can employ for uniting mankind. In the Atomic Age, the use of force would result, not in union, but in self-destruction. In this age, fear, as well as conscience, commands a policy that Ashoka, in his time, was inspired to follow by conscience alone.

Chakravartin, possibly Ashoka, plus or minus year 1; Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh; Musée Guimet, Paris; Wikimedia Commons

One World and India, New Delhi, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Orient Longmans Private Ltd, February 1960

Someone so sunk in stale books

August 3 2011

Qunfuz on Shaikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a Syrian cleric and traditionalist. “Someone so sunk in stale books that he fails to notice the real world in front of him.”

“As such, he’s a lot better than the modernist Salafis who have recently proliferated in the hothouse made by Saudi money and rapid urbanisation, deracinated Muslims whose ugly, intolerant, rule-based version of religion strips away Islam’s history, philosophy, mysticism and morality. Salafists preach obedience to the wali al-amr – whoever is in power. As a result they contributed absolutely nothing to the struggle against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But now that Mubarak has fallen, Salafis seek to profit from the new situation. Last Friday, along with the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, they hijacked a rally in Tahreer Square, where they chanted against a secular, civil state and emitted such diplomatic slogans as ‘We’re all Osama.’”

The sight of Mubarak on a bed in a cage today was shocking. So was the sight of his sons. I have met and listened to Gamal.

Not Al-Buti, but an Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir. He looks as if he reads books too.

Calls to prayer

July 31 2011

Bells of the Große Kirche, Emden. Adhan by Muadin Hafiz Mustafa Özcan, Turkey.

The Indian summer of the Caliphate

July 20 2011

In the history of the Arab Caliphate the celebrated “Indian Summer” in the reign of Hārūn-ar-Rashīd (imperabat A.D. 786-809) [a contemporary of Charlemagne] shines out so brilliantly thanks to the depth of the darkness in which this pool of light is framed. The splendours of an ʿAbbasid Caliph who was profiting by the cumulative results of the labours of a long line of Umayyad predecessors are set off on the one hand by an antecedent bout of anarchy in which Hārūn’s Abbasid forebears had wrested [750] the Caliphate out of the Umayyads’ grasp, and on the other hand by a subsequent débâcle, in which Hārūn’s ʿAbbasid successors fell into a humiliating bondage to their own Turkish body-guard.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

June 1 2011

I once spent an evening with him and found him good company. Wikipedia page. HARDtalk. His YouTube footprint can help Western non-Muslims understand what Islam means to Muslims. Here he talks about Toynbee to the Oxford University Islamic Society at the Sheldonian in 2010 and refers to Toynbee’s concepts of Herodianism and Zealotism. The essay in question is Islam, the West, and the Future in Civilisation on Trial, OUP, 1948.

East and West

May 27 2011

Though, in all persecutions, there are, no doubt, always many weaker vessels who [...] fail to stand the ordeal, the followers of the higher religions have been conspicuous, on the whole, for their steadfastness and courage when put to the test.

The Christian Church was put to this test by the Roman Empire; the Mahāyāna by the Chinese Empire in its avatar in the age of the T’ang Dynasty. Both churches responded by producing martyrs; but the Christians in the Roman Empire seem to have been more steadfast than the Mahayanian Buddhists in China in standing a more severe ordeal; and this apparent preeminence of the Christians in a common heroism is, indeed, what was to be expected. We should expect both the Mahāyāna and Christianity to shine in facing persecution, since the distinguishing mark of the higher religions is, as we have seen, their voluntary acceptance of Suffering as an opportunity for active service. At the same time we should expect the persecution itself to be sharper, and the endurance of it more heroic, in the western than in the eastern half of the Old World because the temper of life in South-West Asia and in the Graeco-Roman Society was more tragic and more intransigent than the temper in either India or China. In appraising both the comparative mildness of the T’ang imperial government and the comparative softness of its Buddhist victims, we must make the allowance for this general difference in psychological climate. It would be unwarrantable to assume that the T’ang régime was more virtuous than the Roman régime was, or that the Buddhist martyrs were less heroic than the Christian martyrs were.

The same difference in temper between the two halves of the Old World comes out in other historical parallels as well. For example, Christianity and Buddhism were, each, expelled from its homeland by a rival younger religion which had derived its inspiration from the older religion that it was opposing and evicting. Christianity was expelled from South-West Asia by Islam; Buddhism was expelled from India by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism whose philosophy bears indelible marks of its Buddhist origin. But the advance of Hinduism at Buddhism’s expense in India in the age of the Gupta Dynasty was accomplished as peacefully as the previous advance of Buddhism at the expense of a pre-Buddhist Indian paganism in the age of the Maurya Emperor Açoka. By contrast with this Indian record, the supplanting of Christianity by Islam in South-West Asia and Egypt in the age of the Arab Caliphate was a story of pressure and penalization – though, by contrast with the treatment of subject Jews and Muslims in Christendom, the treatment of subject “People of the Book” in Dār-al-Islām has been honourably distinguished by its comparative tolerance.

The Chinese nurse

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Greater Syria

May 18 2011

The succession of concentric waves in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam spread over the face of the World, one after another, from an identical centre of dispersion in a “Greater Syria” embracing Palestine and the Hijāz [...].

Faisal, a man of the Hijaz, aspired to unite the whole of this Greater Syria after 1918.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

What it is like to be Shiite

March 19 2011

Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest.

Recommended at Marginal Revolution.

The Arab return

March 9 2011

Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Arabs never really achieved independence, for a variety of reasons. Corrupt elites in authoritarian Arab states have plundered the people’s wealth, obeyed the dictates of hostile superpowers against the people’s will, and entirely failed to build reasonable education or social welfare institutions. Civil society has been stifled. Now it seems that the Arab people are entering the power equation, and true independence may be at hand.”

There is a bigger picture here. After the Abbasid Caliphate, the Arab countries were to a great extent controlled by non-Arabs: Mongols, Mamluks, Persians, Ottoman Turks, Europeans and at the end by unrepresentative elites supported by the West. Libya has been a maverick, but the Berbers, too, had come under Ottoman and European control. This is, in a way, an attempt at a return.

Edmund de Unger

February 15 2011

I happened to meet him, in London and Venice. “Edmund de Unger, who has died aged 92, was one of the greatest collectors of Islamic art in the postwar era; the comprehensive collection that he assembled over half a century would be almost impossible to form today in the light of the extraordinary rise in the market.”

The end of the Abbasid Caliphate

February 9 2011

The shock administered by the fall of Rome in A.D. 410 to the citizens of a transient universal state which they had mistaken for an everlasting habitation [footnote: Luke xvi. 9.] has its counterpart in the shock suffered by the subjects of the Arab Caliphate when Baghdad fell to the Mongols in A.D. 1258. In the Roman World the shock was felt from Palestine to Gaul; in the Arab World, from Farghānah to Andalusia.

“It is difficult to estimate the bewilderment that Muslims felt when there was no longer a Caliph on whom the blessing of God could be invoked in the khutbah [Friday sermon]; such an event was without precedent throughout the previous history of Islam. Their suffering finds expression in the prayer offered in the great mosque of Baghdad on the Friday following the death of the Caliph: ‘Praise be to God who has caused exalted personages to perish and has given over to destruction the inhabitants of this city. … O God, help us in our misery, the like of which Islam and its children have never witnessed; we are God’s, and unto God do we return’.” [Footnote: Arnold, Sir T. W.: The Caliphate (Oxford 1924, Clarendon Press), pp. 81-82.]

The intensity of the psychological effect is even more remarkable in this than in the Roman case, for, by the time when Hūlāgū gave the ‘Abbasid Caliphate its coup de grâce, its sovereignty had been ineffective, for three or four centuries past, over the greater part of the vast domain that was nominally subject to it.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

“I will die today”

January 31 2011

I have heard a couple of the street protestors saying this. It must be an Arabic expression. I can’t find it in the Quran.

Does it come from a letter by Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid Empire, to his Ottoman opponent Sultan Selim I in 1514?

“I know the Truth as my supreme guide,
I would sacrifice myself in his way,
I was born yesterday, I will die today,
Come, whoever would die, here is the arena.”

That is all I can find. Would a phrase by a Persian Shiite have gained such currency in the Arab world? Was what I heard a coincidence? Shah Ismail’s words are powerful and appropriate anyway.

Islam and Zoroastrianism

January 17 2011

The Prophet Muhammad prescribed the religious toleration of Jews and Christians who had made their political submission to the secular arm of Islam, and he gave this ruling expressly on the ground that these two non-Muslim religious communities, like the Muslims themselves, were “People of the Book”. It is significant of the relatively tolerant spirit which animated a Primitive Islam that, when the Arab conquests brought the Zoroastrians of Iran, as well as the Christians of Syria and Egypt and Mesopotamia and ‘Irāq, under Islamic domination, the privilege originally reserved for the Jews and Christians was tacitly extended to the Zoroastrians – though these were not “People of the Book” in the strict technical sense of believers in the inspiration of the Jewish or Judaistic Scriptures. In tolerating the religion of their Zoroastrian subjects the Primitive Muslim conquerors stretched a point of theological exegesis because they recognized that in fact Zoroastrianism was a “higher religion” of the same order as Judaism and Christianity and Islam itself, and that therefore any attempt on their part to stamp Zoroastrianism out by force would result, in proportion to the extent of its material success, in debasing and defaming the Islam in whose name the persecution would be conducted.

We are directed to a footnote in the next volume, which says:

Officially “the People of the Book”, who, according to the Shari’ah, were entitled to religious toleration if once they tendered their political submission to the Islamic state, included the Jews and the Christians but not the Zoroastrians. In practice, however, the Zoroastrians were accorded, as a matter of grace, the toleration which the two Biblical sects received as a matter of right. In the Qu’rān the Zoroastrians are only mentioned in the following passage:

“Surely those who believe [i.e. the Muslims] and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians and the Magians and those who associate [others with Allah, i.e. the polytheists] – surely Allah will decide between them on the day of resurrection.” – Surah xxii. 17.

Brackets in original. Magians, ie Zoroastrians. The translation is not identified, but the passage seems to come from a then-recent rendering by an Egyptian scholar, Muhammad Habib Shakir.

For Qu’ranic references to “People of the Book”, go here.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939 (footnote)


January 15 2011

[The] Sinic art of turning the trick of literary Archaism [imitation] from a barren conceit into a potent charm, whose compelling power can strike down to the subconscious fundament of the Soul and then stir it to the depths, will be no secret to any Jewish or Christian or Islamic writer who has had the good fortune to have been equipped for his work by being educated in accordance with the tradition of his forefathers; for the language of the Bible or the Qur’ān will have been imprinted on his memory in his childhood as indelibly as the language of the Sinic Classics on the memory of the Far Eastern litteratus; and a mind thus inalienably enriched with the treasures of its native spiritual heritage will be master of that alchemy which knows how to evoke something new out of an allusion to something old or, in other words, how to transmute an act of mimesis into an act of creation.

A Study of History, Vol VI , OUP, 1939