Tag Archives: Europe

An Iraqi Jewish Voice on Zionism in 1938

[This is a newspaper editorial I assign in my Modern Middle East class.  The Iraq Times was an English-language newspaper in the British Mandate of Iraq and afterward, and the author of this editorial was a Jewish lawyer in Baghdad, part of what was then a large Jewish community.  Before World War II, the British Mandate of Palestine was charged with setting up a self-governing state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but instead created rising tensions between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the region.  These tensions led to the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the Jewish militias’ participation in World War II, the subsequent Jewish terrorism to drive England out of Palestine, the Intercommunal War, the foundation of the State of Israel, and the first Arab-Israeli War.  I have not edited the letter other than changing the indent style and adding links to explain his allusions.  I am not endorsing his arguments, but the editorial presents an interesting viewpoint which is easily forgotten in the landscape of today’s ongoing debate on the subject.]

The Iraq Times, November 5, 1938

CORRESPONDENCE: America and the Problem of Palestine

To the Editor.

Sir, – May I be permitted a word of comment on the recent announcement in your columns that a certain number of American Senators, Representatives, and State Governors have petitioned in favour of the National Home in Palestine? Continue reading

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The End of Christianity in Mosul

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its hold on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and is busy converting the metropolitan center to its own extremist brand of Sunni Islam.  Last week the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself Caliph Ibrahim, issued an order for Christians in the city to (a) convert to Islam, (b) pay the jizya tax on non-Muslims at an unspecified rate, or (c) be killed, although some awareness of the option to leave was displayed in the order as well.  Reports that a church was torched are of uncertain veracity (see a careful analysis of the photos circulating around the web at this blog), but images showing an Arabic ن (for نصارى, nasara, meaning “Christians”) spray-painted on various houses indicate that these houses were available to be seized.  Nor are Christians the only ones to suffer: reportedly some Shiite men have disappeared, Shiite families have been told to flee or be killed, and Shiite homes have been emblazoned with another Arabic letter, ر for رافضي (rafidi) something like “heretic scum,” while reports are also circulating that ISIS has destroyed the Sunni shrine and tomb of Nabi Yunus (the biblical prophet Jonah) in the ruins of ancient Nineveh to the east of the Tigris).  In this climate, most Christians chose to leave Mosul for the comparatively tolerant lands of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, although refugees have reported being robbed of all their belongings at the checkpoint leaving the city.

The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, who is presently the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of any denomination in Iraq, commented on the expulsion of the Christians, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” Continue reading

What is History?

The past doesn’t change, right?  So once we know what happened, what else is there to do?  What do historians do, anyway?

The history profession has many critics, but even many of its fans cannot figure out what historians do, other than teach.  I recently visited family and encountered these questions more explicitly than I had in the past.  As a historian starting an assistant professorship, these are questions I expect to hear from my students, and to which I hope to provide them with an adequate answer.

We might grant that the past doesn’t change, but to do so we need some large caveats.  While what happened does not happen differently (unless time travel is in fact possible, according to Back to the Future), our access to what happened is indirect.  New sources are being discovered which reveal additional aspects about parts of the past which were unfamiliar.  Discovery of new data is one of the important functions of historians.  And if you wish to learn anything outside of the past 500 years or outside of that portion of the world dominated by English speakers, you will need trained experts to interpret the evidence and translate it into a language you can understand.

But discovery of new data is only a small portion of what historians do, although it is always exciting when it happens.  A larger portion of the historian’s job is to interpret the data which is already known.  Okay, so we know that in 1258 the Mongol general Hulegu (grandson of Chinggis Khan) conquered Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph.  So what?  Why is that an important event?  Who cares?  The historian’s job is to answer these questions.  This conquest put a final whimpering end to the myth of unity in the Islamic world.  For three centuries already the caliph in Baghdad had been a puppet in Baghdad with little real power, yet Sunni thugs who wanted to appear as legitimate rulers would send letters to Baghdad claiming to ask for recognition from the caliph, which the caliph rarely if ever refused.  And thus, at least for the region west of Libya, there was a notion that all Islam was united under one caliph.  After the Mongol pagan Hulegu killed the last Abbasid caliph, a new Abbasid caliphate was quickly established in Egypt (whose successors continued, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, in Istanbul until 1923), which achieved recognition within lands ruled from the Nile valley. But to the north in Anatolia and to the east of the Euphrates, areas now ruled by Mongols, Muslims religious thinkers learned how to get along without a caliph in their political theories.  The events of 1258 forced some rapid rethinking of the relationship between religion and politics in the Islamic world.

That’s the significance question, but historians also care about the causality question: why did the events of 1258 happen as they did?  Why did the Central Asian steppe nomads conquer most of Asia and part of Europe, but not India, Palestine, Egypt, or Western Europe?  It’s easy to say that they ran out of gas, but why then?  Why there?  Western European sources from the 1240s to the 1260s show clear concern that the Mongol juggernaut would roll over them next.  And why did the events of 1258 have the particular effects they did, rather than some other effects?  Why didn’t all Muslims in Iraq rise up in revolt at the death of the caliph and attempt to establish a new caliphate, as some are doing today in northern Iraq?  Causal questions are difficult, because the phenomena involved are many-faceted, and there are many variables that we don’t have access to in the evidence that survives (and historians are bound to the surviving evidence; that is what distinguishes them from authors of historical fiction).  Because questions of causality are difficult, they occasion much debate, as questions of significance also do, and historians debate these questions.

One might naively suspect that the causality and significance questions could be settled once and for all, and then historians would move to more recent topics.  But this has not happened, and will not happen, for a few reasons.  One reason is that we interpret the evidence of the past through our present understanding of the world.  As we understand better, or perhaps just differently, “how the world works,” so our understanding of the evidence for the past changes as well.  Historians are necessary to help sift out narratives about the past which depend on theories about the world which have been disproven.  For example, a theory about the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 13th C which remains popular today is the environmental theory put forward by René Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes, according to which all Central Asian nomads grew up in a climate which forced them to be natural warriors with a desire to conquer the sedentary lands around them, and whenever the military of those sedentary lands degraded in quality, conquest from the steppe lands was inevitable.  This is to say that the Mongol conquests did not depend at all upon what happened where the nomads lived, but was exclusively a function of what happened in the “civilized lands.”  This is clearly wrong, and yet it remains popular, because it was written in a seductively clear narrative which was mass-marketed.  Historians need to challenge this notion.

Another reason these arguments will never cease is that we investigate history to learn more about the present.  As the present changes, so too does our view of the past; things that previously seemed very significant suddenly seem less so, or vice versa.  When a descendent of Hulegu, Ghazan Khan, adopted Islam, this is seen as a significant event.  (Personally, I doubt it was very significant).  When Ghazan’s brother Oljeitu rejected Sunni Islam for Shi’ism, this is seen by some as a significant event, precisely those people who look at Middle East conflicts today and see them as sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, while others think the switch was largely cosmetic on Oljeitu’s part (how much did he know about Islam anyway?).  Cultural forces which previous generations assumed were universal motivators, such as religion, have been considered in some recent historical scholarship to be just a front for “the real motives,” usually economic or sociological.  Historical causality and significance are difficult and elusive topics, and hence historians are always attempting to come to a better understanding of them.

But I think the most important job of the historian is not these, precisely, although these questions play a role in it.  The most important job of the historian is to help society come to terms with the quantity of the past.

There is a lot more information about the past than any single person can hope to understand, no matter how thoroughly she or he devotes a lifetime to the pursuit (and some people need to earn a living, and see friends and family).  The abundance of information about the past creates the problem that no one can fully understand it.  It’s also true that no one can know all the things that are going on in the world right now, so scientists create models of the physical world to enable us to understand why things happen a certain way, and to allow us to interact with the world around us.  Much more has happened than is happening (because whatever is happening is past just as quickly), and so historians create models and frameworks to organize our understanding of the past.  These mental models and frameworks are necessary to make sense of the past, to reduce the overwhelming details into stories which tell us about our world and what makes it the way it is.

People create mental models to understand their world somewhat reflexively; it’s one of the amazing things about being human.  But these models are not necessarily correct, no more than any other explanation after the fact is necessary correct.  So just as amazing, to my mind, is the propensity for people to create erroneous models of the past.  And historians argue about these models, to see which is better.  To come back to Hulegu’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258, we know it had an effect.  But was that effect significant enough to merit distinguishing all that went before it in the Middle East from all that went after it?  Or did the year 1200 have more in common with 1300 in most of the Middle East than either did with 900?  Historians debate this.  (I have debated this.)  This is the debate about periodization: where should we put the pauses in our accounts of the past in order to make the most sense?  And while historians rightly think that too much effort has been put into “getting the periodization right,” since different phenomena will inevitably have different natural stopping points, periodization is just one aspect of the question of which mental model makes the most sense about the past.

Many people continue to believe history is just a series of names and dates, and no doubt this is how history is commonly taught.  Meanwhile, historians see history as a series of debates, where the dispute is not (usually) about what happened or didn’t, but about larger questions, such as why it happened, why it matters, and what is the best framework for understanding this event in the larger trajectories of human experience.  Such questions transform history from a deadening litany of the dead into a living and changing collective attempt to understand better the world in which we live today.

“Middle Eastern Christians? Who cares?”

Most people outside the Middle East do not realize there are Middle Eastern Christians.  Oh sure, there are Christians in the Middle East, at least some Western diplomats who might be Christians, or aid workers, or perhaps even missionaries, but they are Christian in the Middle East, not Christians from the Middle East.  They are foreigners and outsiders in the “central Islamic lands.”  In the places I have lived in the USA and in England, at least, the presumption is that Christianity is an exclusively Western (American and European) religion, and the Middle East is entirely Islamic, with the exception of the state of Israel since 1947.

Middle Eastern historians know better.  They know that the lands conquered by the early Muslim armies in the 630s and 640s contained a lot of Christians and Jews (indeed, west of the Tigris, the majority of the population was most likely Christian), and this population did not evaporate.  They know that there were significant Christian populations, and significant Christian individuals (often in the employment of the state) for centuries.  They know that the Cairo Geniza is an unparalleled collection of documents from the pre-modern Middle East, and was collected in an important synagogue in Old Cairo.  They know that the Jewish population of Israel did not all come from Europe, but also emptied out of Middle Eastern capitals like Cairo.  In other words, it is common knowledge among Middle Eastern historians that there are and always have been non-Muslims in the Middle East.

Yet Middle Eastern history is more often known by another title, “Islamic History,” and even if the facts in the preceding paragraph are common knowledge, they are presumed by most Middle Eastern historians to be largely irrelevant.  In this regard, most Middle Eastern historians are no different than the general public: both groups presume that anything relevant about the Middle East is a statement about Islam, and if there were or are non-Muslims, these are a vanishingly small minority who have missed the memo that the Middle East belongs to Islam.  From this dominant perspective, interest in Middle Eastern Christians is at best a quaint eccentricity, and at worst a sinister politically motivated distortion of what we “know” to be important about “the Islamic world.”

I disagree.  The study of non-Muslims in the Middle East, including Christians, is an important part of Middle Eastern history.  There are many reasons one could give for this view; in upcoming posts I will give four reasons.

Lost in Space?

Space exploration and Islamic fatwas do not generally occur in the same news article, but a difference of opinion has emerged between Mars One, a Dutch company hoping to fund human colonization of Mars with a reality TV show, and the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE), a government agency for the United Arab Emirates which issues fatawa (sing. fatwa), or pronouncements on the acceptability or unacceptability of something according to Islamic law.  (It is only an added bonus for English speakers that the English acronym for the group opposing the Mars One mission sounds like the name of the Greek goddess of “Earth.”) GAIAE warns that Muslims going on a one-way trip to Mars may be tantamount to suicide, prohibited in Islamic law, while Mars One has responded by appealing to the “rich tradition of exploration” in Islam, and particularly the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta.  It is unusual for companies plotting science-fiction-esque adventures to appeal to medieval authors, so I couldn’t resist observing the conjunction.

The basic question is whether the planned one-way trip is tantamount to suicide.  Mars One is making no plans for the people to return home, so either they will die on the way to Mars or upon landing, or they will live the rest of their days on the surface of the Red Planet, which may be a longer or shorter duration depending on how long the machinery lasts and whether any of their fellow colonists goes berserk in the relative isolation.  But it believes the benefits will outweigh the risks.  The GAIAE cites Qur’anic verses against killing oneself, and expresses the worry that knowingly embarking on a one-way journey which will certainly end in one’s death, probably sooner than if one had stayed on Earth, also runs the risk of falling under the Qur’anic condemnation.  In other words, in this instance the GAIAE is worried to protect Muslims from the hazards of final judgment.

(Digression: Some non-Muslim observers may be surprised to read that suicide is categorically prohibited in Islam, given the news reports of the use of suicide attacks by al-Qa’ida and other Muslim terrorist groups.  In fact, even suicide missions for a good cause are prohibited according to almost all interpretations of Islamic law, a point which shows how far from mainstream Islam the jihadi ideology of al-Qa’ida really is.  Suicide missions became acceptable among the Assassin sect of Shiites in the 11th century, but remained largely absent from Sunni Islam until the 1983 Beirut truck bombing.  Even today, as a recent poll by the Pew Forum showed, the vast majority of Muslims around the world regard suicide attacks as unjustifiable, at least when targeting civilians.)

So where does Ibn Battuta come in?  Mars One’s response to the fatwa from the GAIAE cites the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler as evidence for “the rich culture of travel and exploration of early Islam.”  Moving into medieval Islamic history (and travel accounts such as that of Ibn Battuta in particular) steps into my area of specialist knowledge.  Certainly Islam has an extensive history of travel, in large part driven by the far-flung success of the early conquests and the requirement that each Muslim of possible travel to Mecca as a pilgrim for the Hajj.  It has much less of a tradition of exploration specifically.  Ibn Battuta did make a point to say that he tried to avoid traveling the same road twice, but he himself set out on his journey as a restless twenty-year-old performing Hajj to get away from home.  He also never traveled to a land uninhabited by people (although he passed through uninhabited areas).  He wanted to reach the famed “Land of Darkness” far to the north, where the sun never rises, although he was in fact unable to embark.  (The “Land of Darkness” was also thought to be inhabited.)  And Ibn Battuta’s travels across the width and height of the Islamic world were unique, hardly a “rich culture,” at least of exploration.  The dearth of medieval or modern Muslim explorers venturing “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is, I suspect, less due to a suspicion of exploration, and more due to the fact that Islam developed in the center of the Eurasian-African land mass, with lands inhabited from remotest antiquity all around them.  The fact that most modern explorers were European has to do with Europe’s geographic boundary status (indeed, most explorers came from the fringes of Europe) as well as Europe’s industrialized disposable wealth.

Space colonization would raise other issues for Muslims to figure out, of course, such as how to pray in the direction of Mecca (the present system relies on the surface of a globe) and what to do with the requirement of Hajj where there is no means for travel to the Earth.  I suspect Islamic legal scholars have already tackled that latter question for Muslims stranded somewhere on Earth with no means of travel, which could be generalized, and I have no doubt that they could reach satisfactory answers to the other questions as well.  If we live long enough to see substantial human colonies outside of Earth’s gravity well, it will be interesting to see how these issues develop.

In the meantime, it strikes me that Mars One has made an attempt, but not a very convincing one, to respond respectfully to the GAIAE’s fatwa.  They misunderstand what Ibn Battuta did, and he is the only Muslim “explorer” whom they name; for other examples they turn to Marco Polo (also no “explorer” in the modern sense, but certainly an adventurer and something of a free-lancer), and then modern American astronauts.  The response also quotes the Qur’an apart from the tradition (sunna) of interpretation, as if anyone can quote it and claim its meaning for themselves.  While some conservative Protestant Christians believe that Bible should be read and quoted with just its simple words, Muslim legal scholars always interpret the Qur’an in light of the long commentary tradition (tafsir) on each verse.  (I also don’t see how this particularly Qur’anic verse, which says simply that the creation of the sky and the ground is one of God’s signs, “encourages Muslims to go out and see the signs of God’s creation” – emphasis mine.  It’s more the fact of creation, visible from anywhere, which is the single sign.  When the Qur’an encourages Muslims to do something, it uses a verb, typically in the imperative, like every other medieval text.)  I doubt the GAIAE will be persuaded by this response, although they may take up the invitation to review the plans more closely.  For now, the disagreement remains whether a one-way journey away from Earth, certainly ending in death before returning home, but perhaps (if they did everything correctly and everything lines up well) only after a number of years living in a new abode on a new planet, is morally equivalent to suicide.