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:
Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in the Islamicate Studies Symposium at the University of Chicago in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Marshall Hodgson‘s The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Hodgson studied at UChicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and taught there until his early death in 1968. The Venture of Islam was developed by Hodgson as an undergraduate textbook for the “Islamic Civilization” course he developed, and was posthumously published by the University of Chicago press. The conference was organized by Shiraz Hajiani and Mick Bechtel, two graduate students at UChicago, and it brought together scholars from various stages in their careers to reflect on Hodgson’s place in the field and where the field is going. Most of those invited had personal connections to UChicago, although some (such as I) were outsiders. I am very grateful to the organizers for extending an invitation to me.
The Venture of Islam is still the reigning synthesis in Islamic history, although the majority of those present indicated that it is too difficult to use directly in most undergraduate instruction. The genre of an undergraduate textbook forced Hodgson to synthesize more than most scholars do in their research, and his interest in world history led him to explain developments within “Islamdom” (states ruled by Muslims) in the context of developments across Afro-Eurasia as a whole. Very few scholars have even attempted Hodgson’s breadth of vision. This ensures that The Venture is still one of the most important books in Islamic Studies today.
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
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.
It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel. (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.) But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals. There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements). Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.
Nor are all Muslims alike. Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations. Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran. These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam. Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated. This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.
When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East. The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.” That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region. In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.
But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole. Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople. With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace. Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian. Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy). George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe). The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.
Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique. They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation. Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks. And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century. Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey. Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them. Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today. We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250. That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.
Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century. Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government. And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.” People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity. For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.
When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi went on national television on July 2 to rebuff calls for his resignation, he repeatedly stressed his “legitimacy” (الشرعية), apparently using the word 56 times in this single speech. His supporters are now protesting to demand his return to office using “legitimacy” as their watch-word. His detractors insist that Mursi lost any legitimacy due to his divisive and economically damaging politics.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War continues because the diplomatic log-jam has not been broken between countries who consider Bashar al-Assad the legitimate president of Syria and those who reject his legitimacy (some of which recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”).
In the ebb and flow of promises of military support and the accusations of promoting terrorism, there are two easy errors to make on the subject of legitimacy. One, all too common for observers from far away, is to ignore legitimacy entirely, regarding it as unimportant relative to the issues of people dying and suffering, and the question how to end the bloodshed. The other, all too common for participants and observers near at hand, is to consider legitimacy as something obvious, so that my view of legitimate government is the one that all right-thinking people must hold. On this view, anyone disagreeing with me over legitimacy is a terrorist, a propagandist, or a dupe for one. These two errors are not mutually exclusive, of course, and probably most people unreflectively hold to both, to one degree or another.
Legitimacy matters. In peace time, legitimacy is the difference between taxation and extortion. It is the difference between “necessary measures” and repression. Some degree of legitimacy for government is necessary to enable stable social functioning, since people do not wish to pay taxes to or register with a government they view as illegitimate. A loss of governmental legitimacy in the eyes of people with power will lead to an attempt to change the government. For that reason, legitimacy is a crucial part of any ruler’s staying in power.
This was understood well by Timur Lenk (d. 1405, better known in English as “Tamerlane”), the last great Central Asian warlord, who conquered from the borders of China to the Bosphorus Strait (in modern Istanbul). In his society, to be a legitimate ruler required two ingredients: giving your soldiers plunder, and descent from Genghis Khan (d. 1227), the Mongol conqueror whose grandchildren ruled from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately for Timur, he was not descended from Genghis Khan himself, so while he was effective in battle he could not rule in his own name. To get around this, he took a no-name Mongol who happened to be descended from Genghis and made him a puppet Khan, ruling in his name. When his Khan got uppity, he killed him and replaced him with one more docile. To increase his own standing in this society, Timur married a princess descended from Genghis Khan, acquiring the prestige of being a “son-in-law” (kuregen). On his last campaign rumors were even circulating that he himself was descended from Genghis, certainly fostered by the ruler, perhaps planning to dispense with the puppet khan and rule in his own name. Timur died en route to invading China, and he never ruled in his own name, but his sons did, so apparently the rumor worked.
In this progression from royal “protector” to royal son-in-law to would-be Khan, victory was not enough. These rumors were not to flatter Timur’s vanity but to assuage his worries about legitimacy, for he knew his troops would not fight in the name of a nobody, and anyone not descended from Genghis Khan was a nobody. If Timur had not very carefully cultivated these successive steps of legitimate rule, he would have been abandoned by his own army, as other Mongol and Turkic princes were at key moments in their own attempts to rule. Legitimacy is the glue that holds the state together. Legitimacy matters.
But as Timur’s example also shows, there are different ways of claiming legitimacy. So the opposite error, that of assuming that legitimacy is obvious to everyone, and every “right-thinking” person must agree with me, is also wrong-headed. Just as in civil society people disagree widely on the best way to solve issues such as the failing Egyptian economy or the priorities for urban development in Istanbul, so legitimacy is usually a subject of disagreement. Dynastic wars in medieval Europe and the Middle East occurred between rival family members who each claimed to be the “legitimate heir to the throne.” When Genghis Khan began to conquer Muslim-occupied territories in 1219, there was a debate among the Muslim religious leaders about whether the new “pagan” rulers were legitimate or not. A verdict of illegitimacy would entail a personal obligation upon every Muslim to resist the new government to the point of death. (Needless to say, those in favor of Mongol legitimacy won the argument, by claiming that their victory was given by Allah as punishment for Muslims’ sins and religious laxity.) In the modern period, civil wars happen precisely when large segments of the population disagree with each other about what is the legitimate government, and are willing to kill or be killed to make the point.
But legitimacy is also not a discussion where everyone gets a voice. Some people matter rather more where legitimacy is concerned. Timur was worried primarily about the opinions of the other Turko-Mongol military leaders who commanded the personal loyalty of their troops, who might turn against him and challenge him in battle. In 20th-century Turkey, democratic legitimacy for many decades was arbitrated by the military, which deposed any prime minister the generals deemed overly (and therefore illegitimately) religious. Legitimacy is argued by those who have the means to make themselves heard or the means to act upon their decisions, so while popular opinion often matters in civil society, it is never simply a matter of polling. Minorities and marginalized populations such as refugees are not the ones determining the legitimacy of the government.
In those Middle Eastern countries experiencing instability today, legitimacy is a key issue which needs to be recognized and addressed on its own terms. Legitimacy is not a war that can be won exclusively with funding or funneling arms, the favored strategies of Western diplomacy, and any country which wishes to intervene positively in the Middle East must engage with these debates directly.
In Egypt, supporters of Muhammad Mursi contend that legitimacy is granted exclusively through the ballot box, and a military deposing a president elected by even a narrow margin is necessarily a coup. Opponents of Mursi contend that democratic legitimacy requires “playing well with others” rather than playing “winner-take-all,” and Mursi’s decision to rush a constitution through a rump parliament consisting only of his party members and boycotted by other groups cost him whatever legitimacy was conferred at the ballot box. (They also often point to his presidential decree last November which made his actions above judicial review, which he eventually retracted in light of continued pressure, but only after the constitution was pushed forward.) Both sides have accused the West of betraying its democratic principles by siding with the other party, either by refusing to call the military’s ouster of the elected president “a coup” or by refusing to call Mursi “illegitimate.” To avoid increasing bloodshed, Egypt needs a nation-wide dialogue, involving supporters as well as detractors of Mursi, to establish the criteria for legitimate government.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him contended that legitimacy was measured in social stability rather than political participation or particular freedoms. (This is actually a very ancient defense of a ruler’s legitimacy, from the days when monarchs were considered to be the bridge between the gods’ favor and the prosperity of the land and its people.) But his attempts to enforce social stability by military force have progressively alienated those segments of the Syrian population who identified more with the people being killed than with the government. The rebels contend that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy due to the deaths of around 100,000 people in the civil war. Meanwhile the increasingly prominent role played by jihadis within the rebel forces have caused Assad’s supporters to believe his claims to be the bulwark between them and social disintegration, blaming those 100,000 dead on the rebels instead of the regime. The Assad regime, along with Russia and China, have viewed the West’s threats to arm the rebellion as illegitimate foreign trouble-making against the legitimate government. Meanwhile the rebels have felt betrayed by the West’s failure to provide greater firepower against the illegitimate regime.
Legitimacy also plays a vocal role in the protests in Turkey against the Erdoğan government’s development plans in Taksim Square. Supporters of Erdoğan insist on his electoral victory at the ballot box, labeling the protesters looters and trouble-makers, while his critics call him the prime minister of the 51% who voted for him, namely not the legitimate prime minister of all Turkey.
The lack of revolutions in a generation in Western Europe, and longer in North America, has made westerners complacent about government legitimacy. Sure, there are a few quacks on the far right and the far left who are trying to bring down the government, but most westerners feel these fringes are not much of a threat, and are amply dealt with by the police structures in the various countries. But the lack of serious challenges to government legitimacy in the West should not obscure analysts’ engagement with the issues around the presentation of legitimacy in the various Middle Eastern conflicts. In each case, a plausible account needs to be given within the cultures present as to how a legitimate government is to be instituted and maintained. This has not been done, but a lasting peace requires it. The conflicts in the Middle East will not be won by force alone. They will either be won with words, or postponed for later.
Also about Egypt:
- Egypt’s Crisis Explained in 8 Minutes (Video) [very informative, sometimes funny, really good]
- John Esposito, a prominent historian of the Middle East, argued that Egypt’s democracy will best be served by calling it a coup
Also about Syria: