Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule. He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.). He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today. So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents. But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:
The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned. As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended. Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized. As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.
Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive. The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.
Islam did not develop in a vacuum. This is not pejorative, nor indeed contrary to the traditional Muslim account of its own origins. The traditional Muslim view is that Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and others were all prophets preaching Islam, but that Jews and Christians corrupted their scriptures. So one might expect certain continuities, and indeed, the Qur’an refers to Jews and Christians and presents Allah as instructing Muhammad to consult the “people of the book” if he is doubtful about the revelation he has received (Yunus 10:94). It is well known to scholars of the origins of Islam that the Qur’an adapts various biblical accounts and refers to various figures found in the Bible, but this contact between Islam and other religions did not cease with the final form of the Qur’an, but rather intensified.
After Muhammad’s death, his followers conquered a large part of the world and came to rule over societies of non-Muslims. One would then expect even more extensive contact between Muslims and non-Muslims. One result of this contact is the importation into the body of Islamic tradition of the isra’iliyyat, accounts from Jewish or Christian tradition regarding biblical figures. The anxiety of early Muslims imitating non-Muslims is shown in the hadith (traditional account) which ascribes to Muhammad the prohibition of imitating Jews or Christians. In one of several formulations, this injunction reads, “He is not one of us who imitates other than us. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians.” (Note: hadith accounts are often not genuine, and often reflect conditions and questions that arose after Muhammad’s death.)
But “imitation” is too restrictive a model to describe the relationship between Islam and other religions of the regions ruled by Muslims, whichever direction that “imitation” is posited. It is also the case that our evidence rarely allows us to establish that “imitation” occurred. Instead, we can speak reasonably confidently of certain aspects of shared culture.
Consider the importance of Jerusalem. Of course it is the holy city of Judaism, the place where the Temple was built and G-d dwelt on earth. It is the holy city of Christianity, the place where Jesus was crucified and rose again from the dead, where the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost and inaugurated the Church. According to traditional Islamic accounts, it was also the first holy city of Muslims and the direction that the earliest Muslims were to pray (the first qibla), before Muhammad changed Muslim prayer to be in the direction of Mecca. It is often presumed that the change of qibla relegated Jerusalem to the status of third holiest city of Islam, after Mecca (Muhammad’s home town) and Medina (Muhammad’s adopted city). But in fact, three and a half centuries after Muhammad, an important Muslim author named al-Muqaddasi (i.e. “from Jerusalem”) wrote that Jerusalem was in fact more important than Mecca or Medina because Muhammad ascended to heaven from there and God would bring all creation there for judgment! (Al-Muqaddasi acknowledged, however, that Muslims were a minority in the city.) Thus the cultural importance of Jerusalem was shared, if differentiated, among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Other examples of shared culture include the aesthetics and gendered architecture mentioned in a previous post.
As a historian, I take it for granted that Islam has a history. Even at the highest intellectual stratum, certain thinkers thought (and, more importantly, wrote) at specific periods of time. They did so in particular cultural contexts, and cultural contexts which included not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) is one of the heroes of the Salafi movement (so-called “Islamic fundamentalism”), though he lived seven centuries after Muhammad, at exactly the half-way point between Muhammad and the present. He is known for his voluminous writings and polemical rejection of everything Islamic that did not have the most spotless pedigree. He wrote polemics against a wide variety of popular Muslim devotional practices, such as celebrating saints’ birthdays at funeral shrines, and opposed honoring mosques (even that at Jerusalem) too highly. He opposed any similarity to non-Muslim religions, and often opposed practices by arguing that they were influenced by Muslim religions. Here is a Muslim thinker for Muslims.
But like all thinkers, Ibn Taymiyya wrote in a cultural context. He wrote a polemic against Christianity (كتاب جواب الصحيح لمن بدّل دين المسيح, “The right answer to whoever corrupts the Messiah’s religion”), in response to fears that Muslims would convert to Christianity in light of a Christian polemic against Islam in Arabic. When he left his native Harran for cities further south, such as Damascus, he must have stopped for a rest in a town which was almost entirely Christian at that time: Qara, one caravan stop south of Hims. He opposed Muslims doing things that he had seen Christians do, because he wanted Islam to be a distinct religion that could stand on its own two feet without supporting itself with non-Muslims. His writings must be placed in a context which includes non-Muslims; to read them without that context, as many Salafis do today, makes Ibn Taymiyya into a monster who simply glorified in calling other religions nasty names. But instead he used polemic, as did his various contemporaries, to protect what he valued against what worried him. He was worried that the Islam of his day was not independent enough, and too similar to the religions of Christians and Jews.
And if so strong a Muslim exceptionalist as Ibn Taymiyya must be read in light of a mixed-religious context, then the normal Muslims against whom he is arguing, who are engaging in devotional practices which Ibn Taymiyya labels imitative of non-Muslims, must even more be seen in a religiously diverse Middle Eastern context. This becomes apparent when one reads the travel accounts of Muslim travelers such as Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217) and Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9), as they discuss different local variations of Islam, and how Muslims of different regions interact with the non-Muslims there. Ibn Jubayr, during a very brief stay in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, was scandalized at how easily Muslims adjusted to being ruled by non-Muslims, and he devoted a couple passages to arguing from Islamic tradition that Muslims are obliged to leave a region conquered by non-Muslims. Ibn Battuta describes the various ways in which the Muslim Turks ruled Anatolia in the fourteenth century, when much of the population was still Greek Christian, and he complains both that he cannot find Muslims who speak Arabic, and that people in one city suspect him of being a heretic, because they never saw anyone of his branch of Sunni Islam. Anatolian Muslims knew how to live with Greek Christians, but not Maliki Sunni Muslims.
The reason why Muslim sources so rarely discuss non-Muslims is not that there were few non-Muslims, but that the Muslim authors took the non-Muslims for granted and considered them literally unremarkable. Nevertheless, the fact that Islam developed over centuries in a religiously diverse society had a poorly understood but readily apparent impact on the shape even of religion, to say nothing of government, law, society, culture, and art. The history of Islam, like the history of every human phenomenon, cannot be understood without a broad analysis of the society as a whole.
The head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, one of five claimants to the ancient title Patriarch of Antioch, passed away on March 21, and was soon buried in Saydnaya outside Damascus. (“Mor” is an honorific title meaning “my lord,” given to all Syriac bishops.) The council of bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church selected on March 31 his successor (official announcement), the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of the Eastern United States, Mor Cyril Karim, who will take the regnal name Mor Ignatius Aphrem II Karim. The new patriarch was born in Qamishli, on the Syrian border with Turkey, according to an article published on the archdiocese website, and as patriarch he intends to move back to Damascus, which has been the seat of the patriarchate since the mid-20th C (before that is was briefly in Homs, and from 1293 to 1915 it was at Dayr al-Zafaran outside of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, although until 1445 there was a rival Syrian Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus).
Of course, there is still a civil war going on in Syria, though the statement by the Patriarch-elect that “I believe [that] me moving to Damascus will give Syriac-Orthodox and other Christians hope to remain in our beloved Syria, a country that is named after our nation” indicates he hopes to help the Christians in Syria rebuild after the violence. Nevertheless, since he has been the metropolitan of the eastern USA, it would not be surprising if the Syrian government were to view him with some suspicion. This disjuncture may be one of the factors which underlie the fact that out of 41 votes from the council of bishops he only received 23 (56%), a small majority. He will certainly need to build bridges with sectors of the episcopate which favored other candidates if he is to lead the Syrian Orthodox Church effectively through this crisis.
The council of bishops was also noticeably missing a key voice: Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, who along with the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji of Aleppo was abducted a year ago. Before his abduction, some were saying that Ibrahim might make a good patriarch some day, and I have even heard speculation that Ibrahim’s abduction was orchestrated by a group outside the church which wanted to prevent him from becoming patriarch! (Middle Eastern expats are great for generating conspiracy theories.) In any event, it is unclear whether the election of a new (and comparatively young) Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch will affect the attempts to locate and release the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo. But I expect it will be on the new patriarch’s list of goals.
I haven’t been blogging much recently, in large part due to other duties (including securing employment), but also due to not feeling I needed to contribute much to the discussion of the unsurprisingly fruitless “Geneva 2” dialogues, convened with the nearly impossible goal of halting the Syrian Civil War, or the ongoing Turkish political contest between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s government and his opponents, allegedly spearheaded by Fethullah Gülen‘s movement.
Now, of course, all eyes are looking to the Crimea to see whether it will play the role that Serbia played in the outbreak of World War I, exactly a century ago this summer. (Those who scoff at the thought that a large war might break out should know that similar disbelief also preceded the first two world wars.) But while the world looks away, actors in the Syrian Civil War may try to take advantage of their freedom from scrutiny. The regime army is forcefully pressing the offensive to capture Yabrud and the Qalamun ridge, both to cut off rebel supply lines from Lebanon and to link the two loyalist strongholds of Damascus and the coast. Meanwhile, the extreme end of the rebellion, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has issued a proclamation from its headquarters in al-Raqqa on the Euphrates that Christians under their rule must choose between conversion to Islam, paying jizya (a special humiliating tax on non-Muslims), or death. And the jizya tax is no merely nominal fee; it’s a substantial toll.
But the world’s distraction with the Crimea may prove an opportunity not only for those within Syria, but for outside actors as well, since not all countries are equally distracted. Syria’s most important international ally, Russia, now has its military committed to a cause much closer to home than the Syrian Civil War, while the Western allies of the non-jihadi opposition (especially the USA and the UK) are also thinking more about the Ukraine than small Mediterranean countries these days, even if they have not (yet) committed to a military response. On the other hand, both regime and rebel allies within the Middle East (Hezbollah and Iran on the regime side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the rebel side) are perhaps less concerned with the developments far to their north than they are with the progress of the conflict close to hand. So right now the Crimean crisis may be reducing the scale of international involvement in the Syrian Civil War, limiting it to a regional level (although still with plenty of regional money flowing around and far too many casualties). On the other hand, it would be easier for the USA than for Russia to split its attention between the Crimea and Syria, due to its greater distance from Ukraine and its lesser military commitment, so the Americans may decide to try to make this an opportunity to force through their own desired outcome to the Syrian Civil War while the Russians are in less of a position to object.
(Indeed, some voices in the USA are actively urging increased and swift American action to take advantage of Russia’s diversion. This piece reminds readers that, as awful as the Crimean crisis is, more people continue to be killed in Syria than the Ukraine. But the most interesting portion of the analysis for me was the suggestion that the Russian invasion of the Crimea might make China more interested in compromise on Syria. On the other hand, this piece seeks Russian consistency regarding the Ukraine and Syria and finds it in “putting [Russia’s] own interest ahead of peaceful solutions regardless of what the US and international community wish to see as an outcome.” It is hardly a surprise, and hardly unique to Russia, to put one’s national interests ahead of the welfare of outsiders; indeed, President Obama has appealed to US national interests to justify military intervention in Syria.)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be aware of his vulnerability to increased American attention while Russia is distracted with the Ukraine, which may be why he recently commended the Russian invasion of the Crimea (perhaps as much to remind the Kremlin that he exists; his statement of support will certainly not change any other country’s mind in favor of Russian intervention) and why the government has started drumming up displays of “popular” support for the president. (This interpretation would suggest that the Syrian regime is not as self-confident as suggested by this article, although I found the piece very helpfully thought-provoking.) But Vladimir Putin certain cares far more about the Ukraine than about Syria. Since I’m a historian and not a prophet, I don’t predict the future, but the international crisis north of the Black Sea may rapidly change the landscape of possibilities east of the Mediterranean, depending on which countries prove most adept at dividing their attentions.
As the US Congress appears to be inclining towards authorizing a unilateral and, by most standards, illegal military strike against Syria, here are some points that seem to be forgotten or overlooked in the news I’m reading:
1. One of the US government’s main concerns with the Syrian conflict has been that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists such as al-Qa’ida. The presumption that al-Qa’ida does not already have chemical weapons is a crucial piece of the reasoning which blames the Syrian regime for the attack in the Damascus suburbs two weeks ago. Yet attacking Syria, as President Obama is now proposing, will weaken the Syrian Army’s ability to defend those chemical weapons arsenals. Since the most effective opposition fighting forces are jihadis affiliated with al-Qa’ida, terrorists are the ones most likely to benefit from any US attack on Syria. It is worth contrasting John Kerry‘s assertion that “There is a real moderate opposition that exists” and 15-20% of the opposition are extreme with the view of an analyst located in Dubai: “For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist.” In light of al-Qa’ida’s dominance of the Syrian opposition, a US attack on the Syrian regime will increase the feasibility for jihadis to seize chemical weapons. In other words, a US attack on the Syrian military will increase rather than reduce the threat of chemical weapons deployment against American civilians.
2. A foreign attack on Syria would be a very significant escalation of the conflict. As I indicated last week, no foreign country has specifically and publicly attacked Syria during this civil war without first being attacked by Syria. Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War, both for and against the regime, has been limited to financial and material supplies and the provision of some foreign fighters acting under the commands of Syrian leaders, with only two exceptions. Those two exceptions are Turkey, which has returned fire randomly into Syria whenever a Turkish civilian has been hit by bullets coming cross the border, and Israel, which has refused to acknowledge its targeted air strikes of what it alleges were rockets destined for Hezbollah. For the US or any western country to attack with its own military would escalate the war beyond even a regional conflict into a world conflict.
3. When President Obama was first attempting to build support for attacking Syria, he proposed a “brief” or “surgical” military intervention as “a shot across the bow” in order to send a message to Assad without getting too involved. Now the Senate Foreign Relations committee is recommending the President be authorized for 60 days, two months, for a war of limited duration. A shot across the bow demonstrates one’s ability to kill without actually killing anyone, and I suppose the parallel case in Syria would be to bomb the uninhabited desert east of Damascus. In seeking Congressional support, President Obama has also greatly broadened his notion of US engagement in Syria, which is exactly what the American public fears.
4. The Obama administration released an unclassified document outlining why it believes the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapons attack, intended to convince domestic and international skeptics of the obligation to punish Assad. Most of the evidence cited in this document supports the assertion that chemical weapons were used, without specifying by whom. Part of the argument is that the opposition couldn’t have done this, but the report treats the opposition as a unified group, and in particular it does not engage with earlier reports that al-Qa’ida has used chemical weapons in neighboring Iraq (here and here, to cite only Western media). Much of the evidence in the report is only referred to in vague ways (“We have intelligence,” “streams of human, signals, and geospatial intelligence,” and “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate”) which will not convince a skeptic, but perhaps these bits of evidence cannot be revealed without endangering our informants. That unfortunately leaves the argument largely still in the “trust us” category, which does little to assuage concerns.
There is one piece of evidence cited in next-to-last paragraph of the US intelligence report which could clinch the case against Assad: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.” If it exists and is authentic, this document should be enough to convince skeptics such as Russia that the charges against the regime are not merely “rumors.” If this is truly an intercepted communication, then presumably it can be released without endangering the interceptor, who is neither the sender nor the recipient. It should be reasonably straightforward for an Arabic linguistics expert to authenticate the language as educated Syrian Arabic of a sort likely to be used by senior officials. And yet this document has not been released, and Russia is not convinced.
5. Although the US (and the British Prime Minister) have declared a potential attack legal, the United Nations has disagreed. Not only the opinion of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the man tasked with ending the conflict, even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said US military intervention would only be legal in self-defense after UN Security Council approval. The basis of the legality argument requires either that the United States be declared the universal police officer, which understandably no other country has recognized, or that in general any country can attack any other country if it thinks doing will help some people, perhaps at the expense of others, which is a dangerously low bar to international military conflict. While a possible attack will not open President Obama to prosecution before the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, this is because the US will presumably use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent the case from being referred to an international court. The irony is that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is advocating an illegal military action which will be sheltered from prosecution only by his country’s self-interested obstructionism in the United Nations, which is something Western media usually ascribe to Russia and China rather than the US.
6. There has been much talk about American “credibility” in the international community. But credibility has far less to do with following through on threats and much more to do with holding on to principles even when they are inconvenient. Since it is clear that the US military used chemical weapons in the Iraq War, the message sent to the international community by a US strike allegedly in response to chemical weapons use is that no one else is allowed to break our monopoly on extreme violence. Is this the message the US government really wishes to send? The international community expects US foreign policy to selfishly seek its own narrow interests at the expense of other countries. As an international friend of mine said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.” The only way to break this perception is to act in accordance with clearly stated principles such as the rule of international law even when it is distasteful and inconvenient, rather than using military means to oust regimes (even heinous and criminal regimes) that we have declared to be our enemies.
The Bottom Line
I believe a US attack on Syria would increase the death and violence of the Syrian Civil War and would escalate the conflict into a world-wide affair. I do not think that the Syrian regime is fine or that the use of chemical weapons ought to go unpunished. But I believe that the United States of America is not the body to enforce the chemical weapons ban, apart from authorization by the United Nations. The fact that Russia and China have been obstructionist in that body does not authorize us to ignore it; instead Syrian blood is on their hands, but we must engage Russia and China diplomatically to break their deadlock. By attacking Syria the United States will not support the chemical weapons ban, because its attack will be perceived as simply US self-interested foreign policy.
While I have been writing this post, those who stand to benefit from a US strike on Syria have taken the ridge above a Syrian village and shelled the civilian population below. Does the United States really want to aid these particular rebels?
Despite the fact that all the Middle East analysts I have read have concluded that a Western military intervention in Syria would be indifferent at best and disastrous at worst, France, the UK, and the US threatened swift attack on Syria in retribution for the chemical weapons attack which occurred a week ago outside Damascus. The UK and the US governments have announced that that they think they have found a legal justification for attacking Syria: the bad humanitarian situation may justify killing people to prevent a worse humanitarian situation.
It is just as true for governments as for individuals that when someone who wants to do something says “It’s legal,” that legality won’t necessarily stand up in a court of law. The only universally recognized legal justification for military action is self-defense (although the use of that justification has gotten progressive more far-fetched in certain areas). A mandate from the UN Security Council is not exactly a legal justification, but does ensure that the intervention won’t start the next world war.
And does the humanitarian justification make sense? If it could be known that fewer people would die as a result of a military attack than not, perhaps it could be justified in terms of raw numbers. But the best that can be said is that such a justification is unknowable. The worst is that Russia is sending its own navy to the Mediterranean, Iran has threatened Israel, and it sure looks like a Western military strike on Syria would not reduce the war but increase it. That fear is why, although almost all Middle Eastern countries have sided with the opposition against Bashar al-Assad (Lebanon exceptionally remaining neutral), no Middle Eastern country has gotten on board with an outside military strike on Syria. Not even Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which are supplying arms to the rebels. Indeed, the Lebanese foreign minister warned of the consequences, Egypt has declined to participate, Jordan has refused to be involved, and the Arab League, while condemning the attack and blaming it on the regime, has not advocated an outside attack. I think the humanitarian justification for attacking Syria is a flimsy pretext which will get a lot of people killed.
I agree that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished. But no single country acts as the world judge. The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is charged with finding an end to this conflict, said today that a US-led military intervention without a mandate from the UN security council is illegal. Punishment for the use of chemical weapons is a matter for the international community, represented by the UN and particularly by the International Criminal Court.
It is also not as clear to me as it is to President Obama that the Syrian regime is the only combatant which might have gotten their hands on chemical weapons. In particular, if one of the various al-Qa’ida linked groups or other foreign jihadi rebels got their hands on chemical weapons, I doubt they would feel much compunction about using it. The fact that they would know that Assad would be blamed for the attack would only sweeten the temptation for them. Foreign intelligence services would not necessarily acquire reliable information that jihadis had chemical weapons until after they were used. In other words, the fact that US intelligence does not believe the opposition possesses such weapons does not in fact imply that this attack was perpetrated by the regime.
A Western attack on Syria would also be a significant escalation in the war. While plenty of other countries have been involved in the Syrian Civil War, with only two exceptions that involvement has been in the form of arms or other supplies to the Syrian government or the rebels. The two exceptions are Turkey, which on a couple occasions when Turkish citizens have been killed by spillover fire has returned random fire into Syria, and Israel, which on at least four occasions has conducted air raids on military targets while publicly refusing to comment. No other country has directly involved its military in fighting within Syria. For western countries such as England, France, or the US to attack Syria with their own military, publicly and openly (unlike Israel) and without having come under attack first (unlike Turkey) would be a significant escalation of foreign involvement in the conflict.
This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is considered legal by those attacking (Russia, Iran, and China would disagree). This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is of limited duration or with specific targets in mind (although one US policy-maker acknowledged that there will be civilian casualties). Such a significant escalation would no doubt encourage other countries to escalate their involvement. A Western attack on Syria is not a Middle Eastern policy issue; it is a world policy issue. A Western attack on Syria would not save lives.
The situation in Syria is awful, but as one commentary put it, “Outsiders have no tool to fix Syria.”