Tag Archives: Jews

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

The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria

I just published an opinion piece on Muftah.org entitled “The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria” which begins:

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.

(Read the article…)

Non-Muslim Significance? In the Company of Others…

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.

Non-Muslim Significance? The View from Below

Historians have a source problem.  In order to talk about the past, we need sources.  Anything else is just fiction.  But the available sources are not neutral, evenly distributed, or representative.  Sources that exist had enough going for them that they were created in the first place, and then available sources are the selection of all created sources which have survived the many possibilities for destruction over time.  The first clause favors the creation of sources from the viewpoints of those who have power, wealth, leisure, and sufficient education.  The second clause favors the preservation of sources which are continuously in use, well treasured, or buried in Egyptian sand.  Both of these limitations affect pre-modern history more forcefully than modern: literacy rates were lower, so fewer people were able to preserve their viewpoints, and the acid of time has eaten away more of what was written.  But even sources for modern history only represent the powerful enough and literate enough classes, and some modern sources still disappear before they can be copied.

The result is that dominant classes produce a disproportionate weight of source material.  This is why, despite the fact that men and women have made up nearly equal proportions of almost all human populations, the vast majority of pre-modern sources were written by men (and were usually primarily about men).  The majority of pre-modern sources were written by the ruling class (or by members of the educated class who wished to be ruling) or even more narrowly by government employees, and again, almost always about the ruling class or the state.  The upper crust has never evinced much curiosity about how the rest live, and for much of human history the rest have been too busy trying to live to be able to preserve very much of anything in writing.  The result is that, until the middle of the 20th century, almost all history being written was the history of the rulers.  Since the mid-20th century, the mystery of the rest of the population has intrigued historians who have attempted to answer questions about the lives of women, children, farmers and other workers, slaves, ethno-religious minorities (such as European Jews), social deviants, and various other groups which are under-represented in the source materials which survive.  History is the history of the society, not merely of those segments with the power to create and preserve source materials.

What does any of this have to do with non-Muslims in the Middle East?

Sources written by and for non-Muslims open up to historians viewpoints which are under-represented in Middle Eastern history.  Almost all the widely known sources in Middle Eastern history, before the 19th C, were written by the ʿulamaʾ, the Islamic religious class who were experts in questions of religion and also almost always in the employment of the state (or wishing to be).  They were useful to the state because they were literate (and state records require literacy, as do diplomatic correspondences) and because they could justify the state’s legitimacy to the ruled.  But just like the preponderance of Medieval European sources being written by clergy, this shared religious class shapes the nature of the source materials.  These ʿulamaʾ had very little interest in non-Muslims except when they got in the way (and thus the ʿulamaʾ wrote polemical treatises about how Muslim rulers should not employ non-Muslims, which only a few Muslim rulers in fact agreed with).  Thus the “mainstream” sources in Middle Eastern history present a falsely unified picture of a dominantly Muslim society.

This mirage of cultural unity has not been interrogated by Middle Eastern historians, but in the magisterial work of Marshall Hodgson has been canonized as the “reality” of the medieval Middle East.  (His Venture of Islam is truly a magnificent accomplishment, and half a century later is still a touchstone for so much scholarship, and he outdid most of his heirs in putting the Middle East in the context of world history.  It’s just the assertion that the medieval Islamic world was “culturally unified” from Morocco to Indonesia is not only false; it’s preposterous.)

In medieval Europe, historians can turn to the Jewish sources and increasing numbers of vernacular sources to act as a check on the clerical sources, in order to attempt to counter-balance any clerical balance.  Still, this is very difficult for the early and high Middle Ages.

In the Middle East, highly literate non-Muslim elites produced reams of sources ranging from the Cairo Geniza to the world chronicles of Bar ʿEbroyo, and they usually did so without large amounts of government patronage (often in a language which the government could not read, providing broader freedom of expression).  These sources allow us to verify and check the court histories produced to flatter the rulers or the confessional bias of too narrowly religious histories.  They are thus an invaluable resource for triangulating the past relative to the dominant religious discourse.  Yet they remain under-studied, often considered the domain only of sectarian scholars and odd ducks who don’t deal with “mainstream” Middle Eastern history.  But sources by non-Muslims, written in whatever language, are as much about the history of Middle Eastern society as any source from the ʿulamaʾ, and they provide perspectives which cannot be found among sources written by the ʿulamaʾ.

While the modern period provides a broader range of non-elite sources by Muslims, thus making non-Muslim sources less distinctive for the purpose of counter-balancing ʿulamaʾ sources, even in the modern period non-Muslim sources serve a distinctive function.  As non-Muslims became a demographic minority, they often (though not always) experienced greater isolation from the resources of the state and what services it offered.  Nevertheless, non-Muslims in the Middle East were frequently disproportionately literate, relative to Muslims with similar financial means and access to the government.  Due to this greater downward penetration of literacy, non-Muslim sources can reveal a broader range of what was going on among the lower ranks of Middle Eastern society, and non-Muslims can act as a “canary in a coal mine” to reveal all sorts of phenomena which would be otherwise invisible to historians.  Thus non-Muslim sources are especially valuable to Middle Eastern sources for providing a non-governmental perspective, and in modern times even a “view from below.”