Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Urwa's Muhammad, Part I

In 2008, Andreas Gorke and Gregor Schoeler published a book summarizing their research into the accounts of the life of Muhammad attributed to Urwa b. al-Zubayr.  Since then, the debate over their findings and methods has continued.  One thing I like about their work, though, is that none of what they conclude is authentic material involves the miraculous.  (If I understand them correctly, lots of miraculous doings and embellishments were added to Urwa's accounts by Abu al-Aswad, one of those who passed them on.  Other embellishments were made by al-Zuhri, who served at the Umayyad court for over half a century.)  An account of a miracle would not invalidate it, since plenty of people believe they have experienced them, but to this post-Enlightenment historian the fact that there aren't any is striking.  To take the biggest example, Urwa does not have an account of Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse to lead other prophets in prayer and speak with God.

Gorke and Schoeler's method leads them to believe that Urwa taught of seven major events in the life of Muhammad.  There is additional Urwa material, but given their methods very short traditions or those without a lot of later attestations are harder to work with, and they did not undertake it for this book.  It is, of course, also possible that longer traditions Urwa originally passed on have been lost.  In other words, rather than "This is what Urwa said," we should probably say, "Urwa said all of this, and probably some other stuff we can't be certain about."  The seven major events also represent key developments in standard accounts of Muhammad's life found in the later biographies.  For this reason, I occasionally draw upon those standard accounts for connective tissue.

1.) First Revelation - Urwa's account, according to the authors: While meditating on a nearby mountain, Muhammad had a vision and heard a voice commanding him to recite what was the first Quranic revelation, the first five verses of sura 96.  Muhammad's reaction was fear and despair that he was mad, and confided only in his wife Khadija.  Khadija then had Muhammad consult with her cousin Waraqa, who was educated, had become a Christian, and studied the Bible.  Waraqa tells him that he has had a divine revelation similar to that of Moses.

Muslim tradition identifies the Archangel Gabriel as the agent of revelation, but the authors conclude this was added later.  I suspect Waraqa was thinking of the Burning Bush Moses encountered on Mt. Sinai.  According to the traditional Muslim accounts, early 7th-century western Arabia had lots of people who were aware of the major religions of the Middle East, were not convinced of any of them, and yet filled with spiritual longing for the God of whom they spoke in different ways.  These people, called hanifs, meditated on mountains in the hopes of gaining wisdom.

2.) Flight to Medina - The authors conclude with certainty that Urwa taught that as more and more people converted to Islam, the Meccans turned against them with increasingly intense persecution, and that some began seeking asylum in Ethiopia with the Christians.  Thereafter the situation for Meccan Muslims briefly improved, but only briefly, and other Muslims began going to Medina.  Abu Bakr wanted to emigrate, but Muhammad asked him to remain.  Muhammad then went to Abu Bakr's dwelling every day, but on the day of the flight went at a different time, cluing Abu Bakr in that something was up.  Muhammad was worried that lots of people might be around, but Abu Bakr told him it only his family was there.  Muhammad then revealed his plans for emigration, and when Abu Bakr asked if he could, as well, was told he could.  Abu Bakr ordered two camels, which Muhammad insisted on paying for.  Leaving Mecca, the two men spent several days in a cave, where Abu Bakr's son brought them news from Mecca.  Finally, they found a trustworthy pagan guide to help them reach Medina, where they initially stayed among the B. Amr b. Awf tribe.  Amir b. Fuhayra, a shepherd who worked for Abu Bakr, showed them the cave and then went with them to Medina.

Nothing is here said of the arc of Muhammad's early career, but standard Muslim tradition is that he kept his revelations mostly to himself and a few close confidants for several years before a revelation ordering him to preach to all the Meccans.  Abu Bakr, a wealthy man in Mecca, would become the first caliph.  Nothing is here about a role for Ali, whom Shi'ites believe should have been Muhammad's successor.  Again, in the more developed biographies, the Quraysh had decided to kill Muhammad, by coincidence on the night he departed, and Ali slept in his bed so they would not realize he was gone.  Urwa's letter to Abd al-Malik is the only source in his corpus for the standard explanation of why he chose Medina to flee to:  that people there had heard of his wisdom, some had begun converting to Islam, and that all were willing to extend a covenant of protection if he came there.

3.) Battle of Badr - I can't find where the authors lay out precisely what they think is definitely authentic Urwa material about this event, which the developed biographies place a couple of years after the flight to Medina.  The most important account is Urwa's letter to the Umayyad Abd al-Malik; the letter indicate Abd al-Malik was seeking information about Abu Sufyan, the then-pagan leader of the Umayyad clan in Mecca who played a role.  According to Urwa's reply, Muslims and Meccans were in conflict, and the former raided the latter's flocks and merchant caravans.  Abu Sufyan was leading a merchant caravan back from Syria, which the Muslims intended to raid.  Most of the letter recounts manuvering around and intelligence gathering.  The Meccans expected a raid, and so sent out a force of about 1000 to defend the caravan.  The 300 or so Muslims found themselves in a pitched battle, which they won, though there were casualties on both sides.

Unfortunately, I can't find much at all in this chapter about why there was a conflict between Muslims and the Meccans.  There are accounts that Muhammad went to Medina with the intention of fighting Mecca from the beginning.  More common, and far better known among Muslims, is the tradition that this resolution came afterward, and that a Quranic revelation authorized it.  A commonly cited reason is that the Meccans had seized the properties of those Muslims who left the city, and so the Muslims felt entitled to take wealth back from the Meccans.  This sort of raiding was common in Arabia; think about cattle rustling and train robberies in American Westerns.  Things only became really intense when people started getting killed, as happened here.  Perhaps that is why, in a short but well-attested tradition, Urwa is mentioned as saying that Badr was the first battle against the Meccans, which is how it is remembered today while the raids are little-known.

This post is getting long, so I will deal with the other four events definitely handled by Urwa tomorrow.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reconstructing the Historical Muhammad

During the 1800's, Ernest Renan wrote that "Islam was born in the full light of history."  Modern historians would beg to differ.  The earliest extant sources which record his life were written in the mid-750's, over a century after Muhammad's death.  (We have somewhat later recensions, but these almost certainly do a respectable job of preserving the 8th-century material.)  The most commonly read one, that of Muhammad b. Ishaq, died in Baghdad under the Abbasids, where he worked under al-Mansur, ruler of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen.  That is a bigger gap both culturally and chronologically than we find between Jesus and the gospels.

Based on this, some historians have proposed significant differences between the Muhammad of history and that of Muslim historical memory and devotion.  Patricia Crone, for example, has argued that he lived not in Mecca and Medina, but in the far northwest of Arabia near the Byzantine frontier, and supports the conclusions of another revisionist historian that his opponents were not polytheists, but rather followed a monotheism which Muhammad and his followers found flawed.  While I have not read the debate over the second proposition in perhaps a decade, I reject her geographic relocation.  This is partly because no one has to my mind proposed a convincing reason to go back and relocate him to the Hejaz.  Crone says in the linked article that later Muslims wanted to show he had no Jewish or Christian influence, but contact with Jews and Christians is nonetheless found throughout the traditional Muslim accounts of his life.

One benefit historians of early Islam do have is a form of source citation called the isnad.  This is a chain of authorities through which a given source learned of the event in question.  This does not solve all of our problems with the sources, by any means.  For one thing, the standard of using isnads developed only gradually.  Much as Christians made up accounts of Jesus and the apostles, so did Muslims, and for a variety or reasons both savory and unsavory.  They then, of course, forged the chain of authorities, as well.  The huge multi-volume sets of canonical hadith one sees on library shelves are only a small part of what once circulated, a part which was declared authentic by a few Muslim scholars (two in particular) during the 9th century and gradually accepted as such in the centuries following.  Most modern historians believe the compilers of these collections did not go nearly far enough in weeding out forgeries; some will even assert that there are no authentic hadith whatsoever.

The hadith corpus is actually different, however, than prophetic biography.  The former has served primarily to build up the range of Islamic law through accounts of how people were to perform rituals or how Muhammad responded to questions and cases.  The biographical tradition is more concerned with events that served as foundational to the community: in the idea of a prophetic community of which later Muslims were heir, as propaganda for or against later political leaders based on the conduct of their ancestors, and as the key to interpreting the Qur'an, which was revealed at particular times when Muhammad sought out divine wisdom in general or guidance in particular situations.  (I should note, though, that which revelations go with which occasions is often a matter of hadith.)

In an essay in this book, Andreas Gorke discussed several ways historians working primarily with the prophetic biographies are approaching their sources.  One is analogous to the "criterion of embarrassment" used by scholars of the historical Jesus.  The idea goes that later Muslims would not invent something that put Muhammad in a bad light.  Gorke identifies a problem with using this approach: You tend to wind up assuming that everything that makes Muhammad look bad is true and everything that makes him look good is later apologetics.  I'd go even further and say that we have no secure grounds on which to say what would and would not have been made up across the long decades people were making things up.  An interesting example of the problems with thinking you can comes from the story that the First Crusade massacred the Muslims in Jerusalem.  Historians today reject it, but the account is not found in Muslim sources.  It comes from a Christian source (I forget which) who thought he was idealizing the Crusaders by making them sound as much like the Maccabees as possible.  We know this because we can easily compare the Crusades source with the text of Maccabees and see the deliberate parallels, but for the century after Muhammad, we don't have that.

Another method is to look for archaic language, an example of which I described here.  Qur'anic Arabic is often extremely obscure, and even the 9th and 10th century commentators often admitted they were not sure what some of its words meant.  The Constitution of Medina is also regarded as authentic mostly on those grounds.  There appear to be some authentic letters of Muhammad to people in northwestern Arabia (perhaps supporting Crone's views), though certainly not all the letters attributed to him to people all over the Middle East.  Finally, many, but not all scholars, accept as authentic some letters which a man named Urwa b. al-Zubayr wrote to the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, who came to power in the Muslim civil war of the 680's and reigned until 705.  More on these in a moment.

The other way combined what Gorke actually describes as two.  One is to look at different versions of accounts about Muhammad's which have a common link.  For example, Ibn Ishaq's biography mentioned above is found in recensions by both Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari.  There are some differences, but the idea is that where they match is probably authentic material from Ibn Ishaq.  From this you could then compile a bunch of Ibn Ishaq material, albeit understanding some of the material you rejected as being only in one later source might be authentic, or that where later sources contradict each other someone might have what Ibn Ishaq actually said, or that he might even have changed his mind and the later sources reflect differences between points of his life.

Based on this method, Gorke is one of several scholars who has set about trying to reconstruct the information about Muhammad that was passed on by Urwa b. al-Zubayr.  Who is Urwa b. al-Zubayr?  He was the prophet Muhammad's nephew, the son of a prominent Companion of the Prophet, grandson of the first caliph Abu Bakr, and nephew of Aisha, a daughter of Abu Bakr and Muhammad's youngest wife.  Although himself born about 15-20 years after Muhammad died, he obviously had good sources, and himself usually claims to have gotten his information about Muhammad from Aisha.  The idea is that the Urwa b. al-Zubayr corpus can serve as a useful bedrock for reconstructing the Muhammad of history.

This method gets criticized.  For one thing, the isnads involving Urwa might be forged.  Urwa may have handed down incorrect information, either deliberately for personal or political reasons or accidentally.  Even if he reliably transmitted from Aisha and others who knew Muhammad, human memory is often unreliable, seeing early events through the prism of later developments and moods.  Nonetheless, it strikes me as the most promising direction currently undertaken in the field.  Tomorrow, I'll post about the conclusions these scholars have drawn.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Suleyman Shah's Tomb

Turkey controls a tiny exclave about 20 miles south of its border, an exclave around the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Osman, consider the first Ottoman ruler.  Ishaan Tharoor writes about how it matters today:
So potent was the symbolism of this Ottoman ancestor's tomb that the new Turkish republic concluded an agreement in 1921 with France, then Syria's colonial ruler, guaranteeing Ankara's ownership over the site. Since at least the 1970s, when the tomb was relocated following the damming of the Euphrates, a Turkish guard has been posted there to protect it.
The arrangement over the tomb, in most circumstances, would be a curious footnote of history. But it now may be at the heart of a battle in one of the more intense fronts of the brutal, three-year-long Syrian civil war. The site is not far from the border city of Kobane, where the extremist fighters of the Islamic State have been advancing on Syrian Kurdish militias. The battles of the past few weeks prompted the single most dramatic refugee exodus of the whole war: a conspicuous moment, given that the conflict has displaced roughly a quarter of all Syrians.
As Syrian Kurdish militias struggle to resist the Islamic State, it's believed that the tomb has been encircled by Islamic State forces and that the Turkish soldiers guarding it have been taken hostage. Details are a bit murky. 
Kurds accuse Turkey of tacitly supporting ISIS in the region, which the Turks vociferously deny.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Unity Government for Gaza

The big news out of Cairo today is that Hamas has agreed to let the Palestinian unity government run the Gaza Strip:
Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah reached an agreement on Thursday by which the unity government run by President Mahmoud Abbas would take "immediate control" of the Gaza Strip, negotiators in Egypt-mediated reconciliation talks told reporters...
The information was confirmed by Azzam Al-Ahmad, the head of the Fatah delegation and Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official based in Cairo.
The Gaza ceasefire struck in August between Israel and the Palestinians included stipulations that the Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, should take over civil administration in Gaza from Hamas...
The talks between the warring factions was also crucial for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, that suffered great devastation in the war with Israel. The Palestinian Authority said in a study reconstruction work would cost $7.8 billion, two and a half times Gaza's gross domestic product.
The linked article provides more details, and situates the Hamas-Fatah talks in the context of upcoming Israel-Palestinian talks for which the Palestinians hope to present a united front.  What stands out, though, is that Hamas is no longer in control of the Gaza Strip. Recall that while this unity government is backed by Hamas, in practice, it is dominated by Fatah, and Hamas is probably driven to go along with this Fatah domination because of its international isolation after losing Syrian support and being cracked down on by the Sisi government in Egypt.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Dogs of Cairo

Some of the most fascinating recent research in Middle Eastern history has been in the field of environmental history.  I have blogged previously about work on climate change in the region by Sam White and Ronnie Ellenblum, as well as a bit on the wood supplies which sustained Ottoman Egypt, using a work by Alan Mikhail.  Mikhail's most recent book, The Animal in Ottoman Egypt, is a fascinating contribution to the growing field of human/animal relationships.  One of its three broad sections concerns dogs.

Despite the book's title, this section also draws significant material from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital.  It chronicles how, during the early period, there were disputes about whether dogs were pure, based primarily on a Quranic verse and several hadith in which dog saliva was said to be unclean and require washing away.  However, the most common review reflected in written sources from the time quickly came to be positive, noting their intelligence and usefulness, and highlighting the important roles they played in human society as guardians and hunting companions who often in stories sacrificed themselves for humans.

Mikhail demonstrates, through both images and written testimony, that dogs were everywhere in Istanbul and Cairo from the 16th through the 18th centuries.  They roamed the streets in packs, supported by religious endowments and government officials who valued them as consumers of garbage and a defense against rodents.  In addition to special watering troughs and feeding stations, there were laws to protect them from human violence.  Many people kept dogs as guards and carriers.  Religious writings were quoted on the beneficence of dogs for society, including the story that the prophet Muhammad prayed among dogs and a dog guarded the cave of the Seven Sleepers.

After 1800, things changed.  As Mikhail chronicles, this was actually part of a broader change in which animals of all species came to play less of a role as rural laborers, replaced by humans working en masse for other humans on large estates, especially with the rise of mechanization.  As other animals were squeezed out of the labor force, so were dogs.  Improved policing and sanitation removed their guarding and garbage-eating functions.  Dogs instead came to be seen as noisy and uncontrollable disease carriers, and authorities in both Egypt and Istanbul tried to eliminate them.  Religious writings were also quoted on their undesirability.  This radical new anti-canine ideology seems to have taken root among Egyptians within a single generation.  People began attacking them on the streets, and comparing someone to a dog became an insult in ways not previously attested.

Mikhail's book is, of course, not all about dogs.  I have already mentioned the shift by which animals lost their roles in the rural labor force.  In his conclusion, he considers how part of modernity is also the sidelining of certain classes of humans.  Machines can replace some humans as much as machines and humans replaced animals in the past.  Much as animals came to be acceptable only when managed in "useful" contexts, economically and culturally undesirable humans were enclosed in state institutions, such as hospitals for both physical and mental health.  If this is an ongoing process for a couple of centuries now, then where is it leading us?

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Khorasan Group

Recent news reports have mentioned the U.S. targeting the "Khorasan Group."  Aron Lund writes about who exactly they are.  First, the name:
Khorasan is not an organizational name or even some exotic acronym, but an ancient Islamic historical term from the far east of the Muslim world. It is used today by al-Qaeda (and others who are fond of archaic Islamic terminology) to describe the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran region.
This is needlessly obscurantist.  Khorasan is a long-standing geographic term that existed before Islam as the term for the eastern region of the Sasanian Empire.  Today it is the name of Iran's large northeastern province.  Old religious usages have nothing to do with it.  Lund is probably right about this, however:
Whatever one decides to call it, this is not likely to be an independent organization, but rather a network-within-the-network, assigned to deal with specific tasks. Most likely it has no fixed name at all, and the “Khorasan Group” label has simply been invented for convenience by U.S. intelligence or adopted from informal references within the Nusra Front to these men as being, for example, “our brothers from Khorasan.”
Meanwhile, the meat of Lund's explanation:
According to the New York Times, the “Khorasan Group” moniker specifically refers to a small number of al-Qaeda veterans under the leadership of one Muhsin al-Fadhli, who may or may not have been killed in these air strikes, but who was, without a doubt, a high-priority target...
Fadhli, who is a Kuwaiti al-Qaeda veteran has lived in Iran for several years...Fadhli himself apparently relocated to Syria, where U.S. intelligence now believes he heads a small core of elite operatives drawn both from the Nusra Front and the wider al-Qaeda network—what the United States terms the “Khorasan Group.”
Centered in northwestern Syria, Fadhli’s team has joined or attached themselves to al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front franchise, the leadership of which is known to include several such veteran international jihadis (for example, its spokesman Abu Firas al-Souri, a Syrian veteran of the Afghanistan war who lived in Yemen until 2013). However, the Fadhli team is not necessarily fighting frontline battles or spending much time on the Nusra Front’s domestic concerns. Rather, they are alleged to have used the protection provided by the Nusra Front’s fighters to build a capacity for international attacks against the United States and other Western nations, for example by siphoning off some of the Nusra Front’s foreign recruits who have access to Western passports...
In other words, what has emerged around Fadhli is not an organization in its own right, but rather a sort of external operations division within, or on the fringes of, the Nusra Front, probably operating under the direct supervision of Zawahiri’s international al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

ISIS Recruitment in Tajikistan

Here is a bit from Jamestown Foundation on how ISIS is gaining recruits in Tajikistan:
Earlier this month, it was widely reported that the Islamic State had appointed a Tajikistani national to be Amir of Raqqa—the “capital” of the territory under the group’s control (BBC Tajik, September 2). Little is known about the alleged “Tajik Amir.” However, many fear that if the appointment is true, it would be a major propaganda coup in the effort to recruit more Tajikistanis to fight.
Some observers blame the uptick in recruiting on anti-Shia propaganda funded by the Gulf States. Satellite stations such as “Wesal TV” have Persian-language services designed to reach Sunni populations in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. In one video, a popular host, Shaykh Abdul Rahim Mollazadeh, can be seen accusing Iran of propagating Shia thought in Tajikistan, which he denounces as “intellectual cancer and lies” (YouTube, April 19). While Tajikistan’s population is predominantly Sunni, the sectarian identity has become increasingly salient in recent years as evidenced by a high-profile incident of Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, an influential cleric and political figure, who was accused of secretly being a Shia (see EDM, January 12, 2012). 

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Houthis Rise in Sana'a

Over the past few days, members of the Houthi movement in northern Yemen have made their presence felt in the capital of Sana'a, taking over several government installations.  The immediate cause for this was the government's reduction of fuel subsidies, which raised the price of gasoline and perhaps other forms of oil-based energy to consumers.  As broader background, the Houthis have for a decade now represented grievances of the largely Zaydi Shi'ite region of Sa'dah, the economy of which was badly hurt by tightening border controls between Yemen and Saudi Arabia which cut it off from its main markets.  Opponents of the Houthis accuse them of wanting to restore the Zaydi imamate and its privileging of the social class of sayyids, who claim descent from the prophet Muhammad.

Al-Jazeera reports on a deal signed today which may end the fighting:
According to the documents obtained by Al Jazeera about the deal, the president will have to appoint a new government within a month from sealing the deal. Three days after the deal is signed, the president would appoint two advisors, a Houthi and one from the South and also appoint a new prime minister. The deal also stated that a new constitution would be drafted on the basis of consensus...
Broadly, the deal, brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar, would see the government reduce the price of gasoline at the pump to YR3,000 (almost $14), a 25 percent decrease from the YR4,000 ($18) it was raised to in late July (in mid-September, Hadi cut the fuel price to YR,3,500 ($16) but the Houthis have demanded a further decrease). It would also see the current transitional government dissolved and replaced with what Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi saw as a more representative body, and in which the Houthis were given a number of cabinet positions - possibly as many as its biggest rival, al-Islah party, Yemen's Islamist party.
The deal would lead to the formation of a committee to review stalled progress on policies agreed upon at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month series of peace talks held between most of Yemen's major political stakeholders in 2013 and 2014. Another committee would be formed to oversee Houthis' withdrawal from Sanaa, Amran to the north, over which the Houthis consolidated control in July, and al-Jawf, northeast of Sanaa, the bulk of which the Houthis now control after a recent wave of fighting.
Notice the reference to an advisor from southern Yemen.  In important ways, Yemen's current travails stem from the aftermath of the country's 1990 unification, which many in the former South Yemen have come to see as domination by the north.  Both the Houthis and southern secessionists in a movement called al-Hirak have grievances with the corrupt government in Sana'a, which is still run by the circle of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who oversaw unification and ruled the united Yemen until being forced out in the Arab Spring.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Essay on Primary Source Use

Below is an essay assignment from my Spring 2013 "Modern Middle East" course.  It is on Hanan Kholoussy's For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt.



HIS 344: History of the Modern Middle East
Hanan Kholoussy Essay
Due Date: March 27, 2013, Noon (hard copy)
Electronic submission through D2L Dropbox

Consider the following from among the exhortations I am developing as a history professor:

1.)    Amateurs talk about events; professionals talk about sources.
2.)    The production of primary sources is itself part of a historical process.
3.)    A key to being a good historian is to learn all you can about the people who produced your primary sources.
4.)    The best research often involves not just multiple primary sources, but multiple types of primary sources.
5.)    Culture is always both reproduced and redefined in every generation.

In this essay, you are to focus on the author’s use of primary sources more than the topic of the book.  Specifically, you are to write about how the author’s (usually general) knowledge of the people behind these sources, her use of different types of sources, and awareness that they are part of history and not just records thereof contribute to her making her points throughout her book.  This essay must be 4 pages, assuming double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman or a similar font.  Five lines over or under this limit is acceptable.

Criteria for Evaluation

1.)                Proper essay structure
2.)                Solid and/or insightful points which fulfill the assignment
3.)                Clear and effective writing, including well-explained major points with supporting details
4.)                Drawing on examples from throughout the book
5.)                Proper citation of all information in Chicago/Turabian footnotes
6.)                Proper syntax and diction with minimal typos
7.)                Reflections on primary source use inspired by but going beyond what Kholoussy did which forms part of intro or conclusion (optional)

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Keralites in the Gulf

Kerala is a state in southwestern India, the southern portion of the old Malabar coast.  It is also the leading source of Indian labor in Gulf states.  After reading that, I spent a couple of days in Qatar, and every Indian worker whom I asked was from Kerala.  To flip the perspective around, Gulf News reports that 90% of Kerala's diaspora is in the Gulf:
Some 90 per cent of Kerala’s 2.36 million-strong diaspora is in the Middle East, says a study released here on Wednesday...
The study shows that the UAE has attracted 38.7 per cent of the Kerala emigrants and retains its top position. However, its relative share has declined from 41.9 per cent in 2008.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia had increased its relative position, accommodating 25.2 per cent Malayalis.
Kuwait and Qatar are the other Gulf countries that have increased their relative share of Kerala emigrants...
He said the glamour associated with Gulf emigration was still very strong among youngsters from the southern state.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Palestinian Christians in Lebanon

Lately I have been selectively reading Julie Peteet's Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps.  One thing she goes into is the interaction between the Palestinian society transferred to refugee camps in Lebanon and that country's sectarian politics.  As soon as the refugees started arriving in 1948, Lebanon's dominant Maronites looked to bolster Christian numbers by offering citizenship only to Palestinian Christians.  Here is a bit of a interview with a Christian which Peteet includes:
At that time, the Israelis were pushing the Arabs of Haifa down to the port and into boats.  As my parents tell it, it was mass chaos and a number of people drowned being pushed into overcrowded boats.  My parents were able to find a taxi to take them to the border.  They went directly to Sour in south Lebanon.  We didn't know anyone there.  But what they found as soon as they got there was a bunch of Lebanese Christian men looking for Christian refugees.  They offered to give them assistance and take them to (the Beirut suburb of) Jounieh.  My parents told us that the Lebanese Christians helped us because they wanted us to increase the number of Christians in Lebanon.  So that's how my parents ended up there.
In Jounieh, my father and some of the other Palestinian Christian men tried to determine how many Palestinians were in the area because they wanted to open a school for the children.  In conjunction with UNRWA, they opened a school in the Christian camp of Dbiyyeh.  That's where the Christian Palestinians who were peasants were settled.  It was church land in the Christian area.
A pattern one sees is that, as Palestians from religiously mixed areas of northern Israel entered Lebanon, they became segregated by religion as the Christians, who again dominated Lebanon at that time, adopted the Palestinian Christians in a move interpreted as trying to use them to stave off Christian demographic decline relative to Muslims.  At first Christians and Muslims among the refugees tried to maintain their links from their home country, but over time distance and divergent experiences caused those attempts to fizzle out.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Muslims and Churches in 7th Century Syria

In Hugh Kennedy's The Great Arab Conquests, he has a bit about Muslim-Christian coexistence around worship buildings in the wake of the Arab conquests:
The clause (in the surrender agreement for Homs, Syria) about giving up a quarter of the church for use as a mosque may seem curious and perhaps improbable: after all, how could these two religions, whose followers had just been engaged in violent warfare, end up by sharing the main religious building in the town?  We are told, however, that it also happened at Damascus, where the Muslims used half of their cathedral as the first mosque.  Only at the beginning of the eighth century, sixty years after the conquest, were the Christians expelled and a purpose-built mosque constructed.  Even then, compensation was paid and the Christians made a new cathedral in the church of St. Mary, about half a kilometer east of the mosque, and this remains the cathedral of the Melkite (Greek Orthodox) community of Damascus to the present day.  Interestingly, we find archaeological confirmation of this practice from a small town in the Negev, Subeita.  Here there are two large, finely built Byzantine churches.  In the narthex or porch of one are the foundations of a small mosque.  We can tell it is a mosque because of the mihrab, the niche showing the direction of Mecca, which is clearly visible.  All this evidence suggests that, after the political defeat of the Christian forces, the two religious communities could and did coexist, if not in harmony, at least in a state of mutual tolerance.
As far as the former Byzantine territories go,  contemporary Muslim apologists are accurate to point out that there was more freedom of religion under the caliphate than under the Byzantine Empire.  Since ISIS is in the church-destroying business, though, I still have to ask:  Does "Caliph Ibrahim" think the caliphs he as a Sunni recognizes as "rightly guided" erred in their policies towards Christians?  Some of the buildings his forces have destroyed were around during this period.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Syrian Rebels Against ISIS

Hassan Hassan has a great article today about Syria's rebels in the context of the struggle against ISIS.  Here is what he says about the strictly military situation:
Significant rebel coalitions have already been formed to help in the fight against ISIS, and preparations for the zero hour seem to be in full swing. On September 10, seven groups affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front, among them Kurdish and Arab fighters, announced a small yet symbolically significant coalition to fight ISIS in eastern Syria. On Monday, five sizable fighting groups in Idlib announced a merger, named al-Faylaq al-Khamis (The Fifth Legion), saying they would adhere to strict military discipline and use the Syrian revolutionary flag, which indicates a rejection of Islamist ideology. The Syrian Revolutionary Front, which was key to the expulsion of ISIS from much of the north earlier this year, also announced that it would send “convoys after convoys” to areas under ISIS control to defeat the jihadi group...
Rebel forces from the north can help fight ISIS from the ground, under air cover and intelligence and with logistical assistance, but local forces will be vital in retaking areas currently under ISIS control. Many of the fighters from Deir ez-Zor, for example, left the province to fight near Damascus after ISIS entered their areas in June. Local forces who have surrendered to ISIS have little appetite to rise up against the group unless they know that it will be too weakened to return to their areas and retaliate against them, as it did to several villages and towns in recent weeks...
Rebel forces from the north can help fight ISIS from the ground, under air cover and intelligence and with logistical assistance, but local forces will be vital in retaking areas currently under ISIS control. Many of the fighters from Deir ez-Zor, for example, left the province to fight near Damascus after ISIS entered their areas in June...
In addition, the sponsors’ effort to provide funding only to loyal groups has already produced remarkable results, primarily the weakening of the Islamic Front, which turned to little more than a brand that has no operational reality. Ahrar al-Sham, for example, had been steadily weakening even before nearly all its top leaders were killed on September 9 in an attack at one of the group’s bases in Idlib’s countryside.
Such efforts to tighten the noose around extremist groups—at least for countries like Saudi Arabia—will be part of a long-term effort to build an organic army that would be part of a future Syria. According to sources1 in the Gulf region, the need for establishing a “Sunni peshmerga” is key to the regional countries’ current strategy. There are already reports that thousands of rebel fighters will be trained in Jordan and the Gulf; Saudi Arabia has reportedly agreed to host training for the rebels inside the kingdom. This force, despite its name, is not meant to have a sectarian agenda, but it would be designed as an army that can police and protect Sunni-dominated territories in Syria and Iraq. The plan to establish “Sunni peshmerga” will exclude Islamist groups, even if they project a moderate tone. 
Is it just me, or are some of the groups whose power has dwindled(penultimate paragraph) the same ones lining up to be on our side (first paragraph)?  Either way, the U.S. is going to get used by groups hoping to be our allies against ISIS and be left in charge of territory and weapons afterwards.

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Conflict Begetting Conflict: ISIS This 9/11

I don't post about 9/11 every year, because I usually don't feel I have anything new or important to say.  This year seems to call for it, in part because of the sharp rise to prominence of al-Qaeda's former Iraq affiliate, which now claims to be the (implied one true) Islamic State, and tries to urge all Muslims to migrate to it.

I can't, however, shake my hatred of the situation, not only of the rise of ISIS, but the way conflict fuels more conflict, and necessary evils often thrive, even if they are still evil.  Al-Qaeda itself did not rise from a vacuum, but rather made organizationally incarnate an ideology developed in Afghanistan during the 1980's war, when those influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood's program of Islamic identity-based activism hooked up with those influenced by the puritanical law-centered Islam brought by volunteer fighters from Saudi Arabia.  It was then fueled by perceptions of the sanctions placed on Iraq in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War, perceptions engineered by Saddam Hussein manipulating the situation so that lots of innocent Iraqi suffering could be advertised.

Al-Qaeda entered Iraq with the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, and ISIS, a moniker I prefer to  "Islamic State" in solidarity with those who deny their claims, having been beaten in Iraq, gained new life from the civil war in Syria.  There, another evil dictator, Bashar al-Assad, enabled it, letting transnational salafi jihadists out of prison and avoiding taking them on directly so he could claim that al-Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers were his major enemies.  Although President Obama has pledged to find Syrians to work with who are in neither the al-Qaeda nor the Assad camp, I am dubious that any are strong enough, and such a policy will certainly prolong a civil war that has already claimed 200,000 lives.

In other words, thirteen years after 9/11, evil is on the march.  Civilizational hatreds run wild across social media.  I suspect that if contained, ISIS in Iraq at least will collapse under its own weight.  Much human suffering would happen in the meantime, with northern Iraq's religious demography probably never being the same.  It is an open question whether this will be the crisis which makes Iraqi democracy by causing the downfall of budding strongman Nouri al-Maliki and the rise of a prime minister seemingly more committed to being a leader of all Iraqis.  Perhaps, however, there is a sort of hope in the unity with which most reject ISIS:
IS has achieved something scarcely conceivable in the Middle East by uniting the bitterest of foes in a common purpose. Such diverse actors as Europeans and Kurds, the embattled Syrian regime along with many of the rebels opposing it, Turkey, a slew of Arab states, as well as Israel and the Iraqi government itself have all clamoured for American intervention. Even Iran, though unenthusiastic about the Americans’ return to a theatre that it has worked hard to squeeze them out of, has accepted a tacit, temporary alliance with the Great Satan.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Kirkuk Future Postponed

I don't remember if I said it on this blog or not, but back in June, I speculated that the biggest long-term consequence of ISIS seizing Mosul would be the Kurds seizing Kirkuk and probably pushing for statehood.  Enough has happened since then that the view is clearly wrong.  Even in Kirkuk, ISIS remains the priority:
Talk of the city's future stopped in light of events, until Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, on June 30 called for a referendum on the annexation of Kirkuk, sparking angry reactions in the Iraqi capital. Ultimately, however, Barzani's statement was also put on the back burner, after IS sparked a larger confrontation with the peshmerga on the Nineveh plains and threatened Erbil, prompting US and international military intervention.
After that, the convulsive rhetoric between Baghdad and Erbil changed. The different tone coincided with the appointment of Haider al-Abadi as prime minister-designate, and military cooperation between the peshmerga and Iraqi forces. This cooperation resulted in advances on a number of fronts, and in particular, led to taking control of the town of Amerli, south of Kirkuk, and then moving to open the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway...
Although the Turkmen prefer for Kirkuk to be an autonomous region, they too have view the picture from a different angle today with IS in the picture. According to Hussein, "The best solution is for Kirkuk to be an autonomous region. Given that Kurds comprise a majority, they would have an upper hand in the administration, alongside the Arabs and Turkmen, for at least around 10 years. Later on, the issue of its fate could be raised again. Yet currently the situation of Kirkuk is very sensitive, so we can't discuss the issue. The enemy is just 15 kilometers from the city center, and any mistake or misunderstanding would mean no Kirkuk or its fate to discuss."
None of the Kirkuk Arab politicians who spoke to Al-Monitor touched on the issue of the city's fate, the magnitude of the current crises superseding specifying a position on Article 140. Mohammed Khalil al-Jubouri, head of the Arab group in the Kirkuk Provincial Council, issued a statement Aug. 29 calling for the formation of a special force that would include the city's minorities to expel IS from Kirkuk's eastern and southern regions. "The Arab tribes of Hawija and al-Dibs confirmed their opposition to the organization [led by Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi. They formed forces to fight it, and must be aided and supported militarily and logistically," he said.

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