Monday, July 27, 2015

C-14 Dates for Qur'ans

In contrast to the press hype, scholars of early Islam have not been bowled over by the Birmingham Qur'an fragments carbon-dated to 645 CE or before.  This is partly because, as Juan Cole noted, we have much more complete seventh-century manuscripts in Yemen.  Beyond that, however, C-14 dating provides a date for parchment, not the text on the parchment, and there are reasons to believe the text was regularly later.  To quote Qur'ans of the Umayyads by Francois Deroche:

"The famous “Qurʾan of the Nurse” is one of the best-documented manuscripts at hand.  Its colophon and its deed of waqf allow us to know that the copy was completed in 410/1020.  An analysis performed on a piece of parchment taken from the manuscript helped to evaluate the accuracy of the measurements.  A French laboratory determined the radio carbon age of the parchment as BP 1130±30.  This result was then calibrated and gave a date range comprised between 871 and 986 AD, with a probability of 95%.  The most probable dates, arranged in decreasing order of probability were 937, 895 and 785 AD.  The closest result, that is to say 937 AD, is separated by eighty-three years from the date provided by the colophon.  If we use the upper limit of the date range,that is to say 986 AD, the difference still amounts to fifty-four years, that is to say half a century."

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Five Recent Arabian History Books

In linking to Ron Hawker's "5 Great Books on Archaeology in the UAE," the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia asks after other people's favorite books on Arabian history.  In thinking about this, I found myself adding some limits.  I considered books only on periods before the first Saudi state and omitted those dealing specifically with Muhammad and the internal politics of the rightly guided caliphs.  I also considered only English, for while I can think of both Arabic and French titles that have influenced me, I can't say I really keep up with historiography in those languages except when the latter are published by Brill.  (Most recent German works I can think of fall into the excluded categories, and I know nothing about works in Russian except that they exist.)

What I then realized is that the past five years have seen several path-breaking books bringing innovative insights to the Arabian past.  Here, in order of publication, are the five which leaped out at me:

1.) Ibadism: Origins and Early Development in Oman, by J.C. Wilkinson

I keep encountering people who don't realize how this book has material relevant to their own work.  This book is a masterpiece which serves in many ways as a history of Oman for around a thousand years from around 200 until 1200.  As in his earlier work, Wilkinson situates religion and politics in a material context, and skillfully develops the tribal framework which was crucial to the historical actors.  His overview of Omani source material is also the best available.

2.) Imperial Power and Maritime Trade: Mecca and Cairo in the Later Middle Ages, by John Meloy

The Arabia of what Islamicists call the "High Middle Period" is still among the most neglected eras, but Meloy has done an excellent job at bringing local history sources and epigraphy to bear alongside Mamluk sources to portray the political economy of the Hejaz during the 15th century.  A key factor was the wealth from the Indian Ocean trade, which the sherifs of Mecca controlled and distributed to their advantage in maintaining influence with the population while also acting in a dynamic power relationship with the Mamluk sultains in Cairo.  In its focus on the practice of politics in late pre-Ottoman Islamic states and the role of maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean littoral, it is also the rare book published on Arabia that contributes meaningfully to questions important to scholars working on other areas.

3.) Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry that Shaped the Gulf, by Robert Carter

I actually reviewed this on my blog last year.  This is an excellent book which sets out to be a comprehensive overview of the Gulf's pearling industry and an argument that this industry is the most significant element in Gulf history.  Although the author does not read the languages of the region, the information it includes is impressive, and both the overarching argument about significance and lesser ones along the way are thought-provoking.  Any historian studying the Gulf in any period, including modern times, should be familiar with it.

4.) The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500-1000, by Timothy Power

Also important to broader questions is this book by Timothy Power.  I reviewed it for the Journal of Arabian Studies in 2013, and found it a solid contribution which culminates the developing field of Red Sea Studies up to that point in time and situating it within the broader narratives of regional and even world history.  A strength is that Power capably combines both written and archaeological evidence to shed light on, for example, the development of the Islamic state and the economy of the caliphate.  One thing I don't understand, though, is why the title says "500-1000," since the book actually starts with 315 CE.

5.) The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and His People, by Aziz al-Azmeh

This book is not for the faint of heart, as I've been through it twice and don't feel I've fully digested it.  It is on the list because the third and fourth of its long chapters represent the best available synthesis of the current state of knowledge about late pre-Islamic Arabia, which is usefully set in a wider regional context in the rest of the book in tune with the author's aim to explain the rise of Islam as both religion and empire.  It is one of those books where even if you don't agree with everything in it, you will still find much to like and many references you might not otherwise encounter.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Patricia Crone (1945-2015)

Yesterday Patricia Crone died at the age of 70.  I mention this because she is clearly her generation's most significant scholar of early Islamic history, for even though many of her early conclusions from the 1970's and 1980's look shaky with time, she set the agenda within which all other scholars in the field have had to work.  Something like this point was made by Fred Donner in a retrospective review of Hagarism, a book she co-wrote with Michael Cook, in a MESA publication published near the middle of last decade.  What he said was more or less that while the authors did not arrive at the right conclusions, they asked the right questions, pushing both against the idea that the Arabic primary sources from the 800's are unproblematic tools for reconstructing the history of the 600's and recognizing that Islam arose in the conquest of the late antique Middle East rather than being a sort of out-of-nowhere bolt of remote Arabian lightning.

On the latter point, it is now customary for books on the medieval Islamic world to dedicate increasing space to the Middle East before Islam. Ira Lapidus's A History of Islamic Societies dedicates 18 pages to the topic out of about 450 on Islamic history before 1800.  Jonathan Berkey's The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800 has 53 of its 269 pages before Muhammad, and that title is misleading since only a brief epilogue goes past 1500.  Historians studying the 7th and 8th centuries today must take account not only of Arabic sources, but of Syriac, as well.

A good overview of her influence is found in Chase Robinson's essay "Crone and the End of Orienatilism," available online here and published earlier this year in a collection of essays in Crone's honor.  Building off Robinsin, I would like to highlight one point.  Among Crone's works is Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, which I have often used in world history classes, to both the profit and anguish of students.  As Robinson notes, in this we can see part of her background in asking based on general patterns of history what made the Islamic world distinct.  My related point is that in important ways, it and its relationship to her other work shows how she represents an advance over her predecessor as a scholarly trendsetter, Marshall Hodgson.  Hodgson's magnum opus was the three-volume The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization.  It is this civilization model of history which Crone helped Islamic Studies to transcend.  As seen most clearly in her last book, the award-winning, Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism, her conception of historical communities is less bounded and more comparative.  What a previous generation saw as distinct civilizations are porous both spatially and temporally, and Maori preachers and evolues of the French colonial empire might be points of comparison as easily as Judaism and Christianity.  This is a modern development found in many areas of history which have abandoned civilizational analysis, but in Islamic history, it is Crone's ratting the set consensus that made it both necessary and possible.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Mongol Impact on Islamic Jurisprudence

One of the more important recent books in Middle East Studies is Guy Burak's The Second Formation of Islamic Law.  From its origins until the period of the Mamluks, Islamic law was a highly flexible body of rulings based on often creative individual application of its principles of jurisprudence to reach what in the eyes of the jurisprudents were appropriate conclusions.  However, the Ottoman dynasty began exercising a tighter control over it, appointing official muftis whose rulings became normative throughout their realm, as well as approving official texts for legal education and reference.

Most of Burak's book is taken up with how this process played out, but in his conclusion he steps back and takes a longer view both chronologically and geographically and argues that the Ottomans were simply one case of a post-Mongol shift in approaches to Islamic jurisprudence.  Burak notes that other Eurasian polities, notably the Mughals, Timurids, and Uzbeks, followed similar Islamic law policies to those of the Ottomans.  He traces this back to Mongol views of Chinggis Khan as a divinely chosen legislator, noting how dynasties which followed the Mongols developed their own legal theories based in part on Mongol ideas.  In the Ottoman case, their shaping of Islamic jurisprudence took place through kanun, or dynastic law, a term similar to and sometimes used interchangeably with the Central Asian tora and yasa.

The origins of the Ottoman Empire are tied to the wreckage of the Mongols as much as the Byzantines, and even though they claimed to have arrived in Anatolia fleeing the Mongols, there is evidence they were actually at one time subservient to the Mongols.  It is also a little-known fact in the West that all male members of the dynasty had the title "sultan" before their names, and which distinguished the actual ruler was the Central Asian title "khan" after it.  My friend Timothy May has written a book on the myriad ways the Mongol conquests changed the Eastern Hemisphere and set the stage for the encounter with the Western.  It wouldn't surprise me if Burak's ideas turned up in a future edition.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Lebanese Guest Workers Organize

I don't know much about Lebanon, but apparently it has the same restrictive guest worker system as the Gulf states. They have formed a union to work for improved conditions:
But inside (the Migrant Community Center), walls are plastered with fliers about upcoming educational events for migrant workers, and "Know Your Rights" pamphlets are liberally displayed. Recently, the centre has become a meeting space for the Domestic Workers Union, a fledgling organisation that is the first of its kind in the Middle East.
Founded in January, the union - intended as a voice for Lebanon's approximately 250,000 migrant domestic workers, who comprise about five percent of the country's population - made its first public appearance in early May, with a march in downtown Beirut to commemorate International Labour Day. Members used the event to call upon Lebanon's labour ministry to formally recognise the union...
The Domestic Workers Union has a number of demands, including a minimum wage and a maximum number of work hours per week. The union is also calling for an end to the kafala system, under which employers can prevent workers from changing jobs or leaving the country...
But the labour ministry has still not formally recognised the union. Lebanese Labour Minister Sejaan Azzi threatened to have security forces disrupt the union's founding congress, and in a statement to the media shortly after the congress, he deemed the union "illegal".


Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Bedouin Dogs' Ritual Purity

Last year, I blogged about the change in urban Middle Eastern Muslims' views of dogs, when in the early 1800's they went from valued contributors to human society to ritually and clinically unclean beasts who needed to be driven away.  In his The Arab of the Desert, Harold Dickson, the former British political agent in Kuwait, wrote that among Kuwaiti Bedouin, whether the dog was ritually pure depended on what type of dog it was.

According to Dickson, the greyhounds called in Arabic saluqis, which were widely used for hunting, were considered clean, while the watch dogs who guarded the tents and livestock were not.  Because of their ritual impurity, the watch dogs were never allowed in the tents, while the saluqis could even sleep in the women's quarters  Saluqis were also prevented from interbreeding with other dogs.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Things Moshe Dayan Said

According to Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East (p. 478), Moshe Dayan said the following about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank:
The situation between us is like the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and the young girl he has taken against her wishes.  But when their children are born, they will see the man as their father and the woman as their mother.  The initial act will mean nothing to them.  You, the Palestinians, as a nation, do not want us today, but we will change your attitude by imposing our presence upon you.
In other words, Israel was raping the Palestinians, but it was somehow a good kind of rape.  Nice and creepy, that.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pro-Assad Foreign Fighters

This article brings home the fact that even though foreign fighters among Syria's rebels get more press, the Assad regime is probably more dependent on them, starting with Hizbullah:
The Assad family dictatorship is running out of soldiers and is becoming increasingly reliant on mercenaries...
In order to prevent the collapse of Syrian government forces, experienced units from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah began fighting for Assad as early as 2012. Later, they were joined by Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis -- Shiites from all over, on whom the regime is increasingly dependent. But the longer the war continues without victory, the more difficult it has become for Assad's allies to justify the growing body count. In 2013, for example, Hezbollah lost 130 fighters as it captured the city of Qusair and has lost many more than that trying to hold on to it. Indeed, Hezbollah has begun writing "traffic accident" as the cause of death on death certificates of its fighters who fall in Syria.
The Iraqis have almost all returned home. Rather than fighting themselves, they largely control the operations from the background. The Iraqi militia Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, organizes the deployment of Pakistani volunteers in Syria. But no ethnic group is represented on all of the regime's fronts to the degree that the Afghan Hazara are. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but some 700 of them are thought to have lost their lives in Aleppo and Daraa alone. What's worse, most of them don't come completely of their own free will.
Up to 2 million Hazara live in Iran, most of them as illegal immigrants. It is an inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate, from which the Pasdars -- as Iran's Revolutionary Guards are called -- have recruited thousands for the war in Syria over the last year and a half.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Netanyahu and the Courts

The Economist notes a looming battle over judicial review in Israel:
Israel’s Supreme Court has long been a solid pillar of the Jewish state’s democracy, holding to account governments of all political stripes. But as the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, puts the finishing touches to his fourth coalition after an election in March, he is preparing for an unprecedented fight to muzzle the court. The outcome of the contest—between politicians and judges, and between nationalist and universal values—could tear his government apart, and determine the future character of Israeli politics.
A new coalition is likely to be agreed on in the next few days. Five of its six parties are committed to vote for new legislation that would fulfil the long-held aspiration of right-wing and religious parties to limit the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws passed by the Knesset.
Mr Netanyahu favours an “override clause”, under which the court could overturn laws only if eight or more judges vote to do so (currently a simple majority of the bench, for big cases usually 11 judges from a total of 15, is needed). Even then the Knesset would be able to push the law through with another vote. He also plans to expand the judicial appointments committee, which chooses all of Israel’s judges. By adding a minister and an additional Knesset member to the existing nine-strong committee, politicians would gain the upper hand; the legal profession currently has a majority, with three Supreme Court justices and two members of the bar association. The change could open the way for the government to pack the court.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Muqrin Replaced

Tonight's breaking news out of Saudi Arabia is that King Salman of Saudi Arabia is removing Crown Prince Muqrin from the line of succession.  I predicted when Salman ascended that this might happen, and it represents what was already implied by Muhammad b. Nayef's appointment then as deputy crown prince: that descent from the "Sudairi Seven" is the principle for reducing the number of grandsons of King Abd al-Aziz who are eligible for the throne.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Ottoman Sources on Armenian Genocide

The mass killings of Armenians during World War I constitute a genocide.  There is no way around this unless one asserts that to qualify as a genocide an event must be like the Holocaust, in which case there is only one genocide.  If we use the main text of international law, however, then we need only have "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," by which means the Armenian Genocide counts, as does the earlier Herero Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and several others.

A book which should remove all doubt on this matter is Taner Akcam's The Young Turks' Crime Against Humanity, which performs the service of demonstrating to any reasonable satisfaction that a genocide was committed using entirely Ottoman accounts, including from Turkish archives which have become much more open over the last decade.  Although there have been several waves of cleansing, detritus revealing what happened still remains, especially in some of the provincial archives which were less thoroughly vetted.

To follow one thread Akcam puts together, the records of the Ottoman Parliament show that one MP who briefly served in the Cabinet told of a two-track method of giving orders regarding the Armenians, where deportation orders would be officially circulated, followed by specially delivered orders, often oral, to liquidate the deported populations.  There is ample evidence the second types of orders were given.  Two provincial governors offered a refusal to implement secret orders as their reason for resigning.  Several others insisted on having the orders in writing so that they could use them if they were ever called to account.

Many Ottoman government documents discussing Armenian deportations clearly lapse into expectations that the deportees will actually die, as with a reference to the fact their children are "soon to be orphans."  In one cable to a governor, Talaat Pasha, who as interior minister was responsible for implementing the genocide wrote, "The Armenian question in the eastern provinces has been resolved.  There is no need to sully the nation and the government's honor with further atrocities."  This clearly indicates an awareness that atrocities had been committed.  There are also orders not to kill members of other Christian groups because they are not Armenians, which suggests the orders would have been different if they were.

In carrying out the genocide, the Young Turk government was implementing a "Five to Ten Percent Policy" according to which no region of Anatolia should have more than that percentage of Christians.  As nationalist movements broke up the Ottoman state during the 1800's, the new Balkan states became avowedly Christian, and began the outbursts of ethnic cleansing that would continue until the end of the 20th century.  Although thanks to the Sochi Olympics the Circassian Genocide in 1860's Russia is the best known, hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed or driven out of the Balkans, as well, during the half century before World War I.

A characteristic of nationalism is an emphasis on cultural homogeneity, and so the Young Turks' were concerned in part to make Anatolia as homogenous as possible.  Muslims, it was thought, could be Turkified, and so they were, with forced Turkification the policy toward the Kurds even under the Turkish Republic.  Christians, however, were seen as a minority population which would always be set apart by religion, and so would also pose a risk of fracturing what remained of the state.  This was the reason the Young Turks' began their own ethnic cleansing campaign to reduce the population to their desired percentage.  Some populations, notably the Greeks, could simple be pushed into another state.  There was no Armenian state, however, and so annihilation became what was variously referred to as a "fundamental and permanent solution" or one that was "comprehensive and absolute."

There was much suffering among all ethnic groups of the declining Ottoman Empire, and still is today as its former territories continue to see a loss of once rich diversity.  The Armenian Genocide, however, was unique in the region, beyond an ethnic cleansing, and apparently an atrocity even to the man who supervised it.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

A Blind Chessmaster in Damascus

In her book Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, Sara Scalenghe mentions the visit of the blind Hammad al-Basri to Damascus in 1529:
He was known for his skills as a chess player, skills of such repute that the most celebrated players of Syria, Egypt, and the Hijaz traveled to Damascus to compete with him.  Al-Basri not only defeated them all but also inspired awe with his ability to play five opponents on five different chessboards simultaneously.  Some skeptics doubted his blindness, a suspicion that al-Basri would assuage by covering his eyes before each game.  Understandably, such feats gained him great fame and, eventually, the honor of playing in the presence of the sultan in Istanbul.
I suspect that this was not the first time Damascus hosted a blind chess players, as for centuries the Middle East has had a tradition of the blind achieving great intellectual heights.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Saudis and the Brotherhood

The Economist notes Saudi Arabia's lessening hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood and situates it in a shifting geopolitical context:
The shift was evident as early as the king’s funeral, at which Abdullah’s successor, Salman, welcomed Rashid Ghannouchi, the Brotherhood’s main ally in Tunisia. Then in February the Saudi foreign minister, Saud bin Faisal, said: “We do not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. Our problem is with a small group affiliated to this organisation.”
This more conciliatory tone reflects the attitude of King Salman. But it is also prompted by a foreign policy that now sees Shia Iran, not the weakened Brotherhood, as the kingdom’s gravest threat, to be countered with Sunni unity. This is most evident in Yemen, where the Saudis have assembled a broad coalition of Sunni countries—from Qatar and Turkey, which support the Brotherhood, to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which vehemently oppose it—to fight the Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels. Iran has provided Sunni states with a common enemy and an excuse to put aside their differences, at least for now.
Winning the contest against Iran in Yemen and Syria may depend on Saudi Arabia and its allies working more closely with Islamists. The Brotherhood is prominent in Syria’s exiled opposition, which gets help from the Gulf. The Houthis recently arrested dozens of leaders of Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Brotherhood, after accusing the Saudis of calling them into battle.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

An Alawite Lost Generation

Ruth Sherlock reports on the heavy losses suffered by the Alawites, Bashar al-Assad's support base in Syria:
In a series of exclusive interviews, Alawites from the coastal province of Latakia, the sect's heartland, have told the Telegraph of how they are now trapped between jihadists who consider them apostates, and a remote and corrupt regime that told them the war would be easy to win...
The scale of the sect's losses is staggering: with a population of around two million, a tenth of Syria's population, the Alawites boast perhaps 250,000 men of fighting age. Today as many as one third are dead, local residents and Western diplomats say. 
Many Alawite villages nestled in the hills of their ancestral Latakia province are all but devoid of young men. The women dress only in mourning black. 
"Every day there at least 30 men returned from the front lines in coffins," said Ammar, who spoke to the Telegraph using a pseudonym to protect himself and his family. 
"In the beginning of the war their deaths were celebrated with big funerals. Now they are quietly dumped in the back of pick-up trucks." 


Sunday, April 05, 2015

Former Ba'athists in ISIS

Today people are talking about Liz Sly's Washington Post article on the role of former Iraqi Ba'athists within ISIS:
Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group.
They have brought to the organization the military expertise and some of the agendas of the former Baathists, as well as the smuggling networks developed to avoid sanctions in the 1990s and which now facilitate the Islamic State’s illicit oil trading...
The public profile of the foreign jihadists frequently obscures the Islamic State’s roots in the bloody recent history of Iraq, its brutal excesses as much a symptom as a cause of the country’s woes...
Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, the former officers became more than relevant. They were instrumental in the group’s rebirth from the defeats inflicted on insurgents by the U.S. military, which is now back in Iraq bombing many of the same men it had already fought twice before. 
The entire article is worth reading, and highlights elements of continuity between Iraq before and after Saddam Hussein which are too often overshadowed by the dramatic changes at the top. (I previously discussed some of these here.)  Although Ba'athist ideology was secular, the actual Ba'ath parties were more institutions by which entrenched regimes maintained power, and so Iraq's freely adopted a form of internally aggressive salafism during the 1990's.  From there, it was an easy shift into the salafi-laced anti-American insurgency and ultimately ISIS today.  I suspect this is some of what is covered in Amatzia Baram's recent book Saddam Husayn and Islam, which I have not read.

This does not mean that ISIS is simply the reconstituted Ba'ath or Sunni insurgency from ten years ago.  The organization has at times and in places distanced itself quite strongly from elements of Ba'athism and Saddam Hussein's regime.  Nonetheless, it is recruiting from the disaffected Sunni heartland of Iraq which was the Ba'athists' social base, and which has lots of former military and intelligence men whose training allows them to take over key positions in the organization.

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