Tag Archives: mosques

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading


Found: 1918 List of Mosul Religious Buildings

An unnamed Chaldean scribe in the city of Mosul finished a Syriac manuscript (now in the Vatican) on “the middle day” (i.e. 16) of March, 1918, in the closing months of World War I on the Middle Eastern front.  The manuscript was paid for by “the priest Peter Hakim of Amid,” who had presumably fled his home city (now called Diyarbakır) during the massacres a few years before.  There are many Syriac manuscripts copied in the early 20th C, but this manuscript has a difference: after identifying Mosul as the place where the manuscript was copied, the scribe added a list of religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim.  In particular, he lists fifteen churches, four monasteries, and over fifty mosques in and around the city.

In light of the destruction of many religious sites in Mosul, both Christian and Muslim, by ISIS in the past two months, I thought it would be interesting to give some of the highlights of the list in my own translation from the Syriac and Garshuni list (which remains unpublished):

Continue reading

World Cup

I was in Aleppo during the last World Cup.  It was the end of June 2010, before the “Arab Spring” and before the Syrian uprising.  Flags were everywhere, mostly Brazilian flags.  The Assad regime’s normal sensitivity to the public display of other country’s national symbols was waived for the World Cup, when Aleppines of every creed and none advertised which team they were cheering for by flying flags from their balconies or even hanging them from their upstairs neighbors’ balconies to completely shade their own.  Newsstands were selling flags of all sorts of countries for the fans.  To look around the neighborhoods I visited, it seemed that top-ranked Brazil had the largest number of fans in Syria’s commercial capital.  One warm summer night, I was kept awake by shouting in the streets below and firecrackers; this was the victory celebration for the fans of one team or another.  When the Netherlands eliminated Brazil in the quarter-finals, some Dutch friends of mine joked that they should not go outdoors.

After over three years of civil war, it’s hard to remember the rhythms of normal life in Syria before.  Although the US government tried to isolate the Syrian regime as a Russian ally and a supporter of terrorism, because of its alliance with Hezbollah, many Americans thought of Syria, if at all, as a tourist destination with some amazing Roman ruins and medieval mosques.  The violence has made Syria more notorious now, linked with chemical weapons, dictatorship, and terrorism.  The colorful flags of the 2010 World Cup have been removed, replaced in most of the country by the more sober red, white, and black of the Assad dynasty and the all-black standard of the al-Qa’ida affiliates.  The violence being committed now will leave long shadows on the Syrian population, even after the fighting stops.  But once the fighting stops, however it stops, the Syrians will need to rebuild a civil society.  And to do so, they will need to remember a day when sports loyalties generated good-natured rivalries which could be advertized in green, yellow, and blue from open balconies.

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 Advantages of Marginalia

Religious minorities serve a valuable function in allowing scholars and careful thinkers to distinguish religious from social and environmental factors in their analysis.  If, to take a counter-factual, it were the case that all Muslims were Middle Eastern and all non-Muslims were not, then it would be unclear whether any given aspect of Middle Eastern society was related to Islam as a religion, or related to the type of government, or geographic factors, or anything else.  One could reason about the nature of the causes, of course, but in the absence of disjunctive populations (the non-overlapping lobes of a Venn diagram), it would not be possible to test these hypotheses.

Fortunately, this is a counter-factual, despite the sloppy thinking of many who simply equate “Middle Eastern” with “Muslim.”  In the first instance, it is a counter-factual because not all Muslims are Middle Eastern.  Something that is true of Moroccans and Indonesians, for example, is more likely to be due to a common Islamic understanding than due to environmental factors distinctive to the eastern Mediterranean basin.  Something thought to be “Islamic” but unique to the Middle East is less likely to be related to the religion.  But the other half of the conditional is equally false: not all Middle Easterners are Muslim.  If something is true only of the Sunnis and Shiʿites in the Middle East, then religion seems a more likely factor than if the same is true also for Jews and Christians in the Middle East.

For example, much of “Islamic” art is stylistically very similar to decorations in Christian manuscripts, which is not surprising since at least into the medieval period many of the workers producing “Islamic” art for elite Muslim patrons were themselves Christian.  It was not unusual for Syriac manuscripts into the 20th C to open with a textual decoration resembling a monumental doorway, and the architecture of many mosques shared features in common with Middle Eastern churches from late antiquity onward.  The distinctive Arabic calligraphic style, on the other hand, depended on the Arabic language and script, which most non-Muslim literate elites did not adopt until after the calligraphy had begun to develop in the medieval period.  Now, however, it has been adopted by Christians as well as Muslims.

(Parenthetically, the existence of Christian groups outside of Europe also provides an opportunity for European historians to distinguish which aspects of their medieval culture were due to Christianity and which were due to the fact that the medieval European nobility were a barely civilized thug-ocracy.  The Jewish population of medieval Europe can also play a disambiguating role analogous to the various non-Muslim groups of the Middle East.  But that is for European historians to benefit from.)

Another example, this time from women’s history, shows that not even aspects of religion can be safely assumed to be explainable by religion alone.  Women in medieval mosques were assigned to pray in the back, behind the men.  There is a hadith in which Muhammad reportedly said that the best rows for women to pray in are the back ones, and the best rows for men are the front ones.  Since these traditional sayings were considered normative in medieval Islam (or at least some of them, in certain ways), the case seems to be closed: the religion of Islam was the cause for women being relegated behind the men in religious services.  But before we leave the subject, we might observe that in Christian churches in Iraq until the early modern period women were also placed in the back of the sanctuary, and two doors in the side of the church provided separate entrances for men and women.  (Interestingly, the Bible was read from a platform on the gender line, while communion was consecrated at the front altar.  I haven’t yet figured out whether women went forward to receive communion or whether communion was brought to the women’s side.)  Now, these Christians were not likely reading the hadith collection, nor regarding it as normative.  Is the gender divide of medieval Middle Eastern religious architecture, Christian as well as Muslim, due to religion, or due to trans-religious cultural assumptions regarding gender and space?

Failure to pay attention to the disjunctions in the Venn diagram leads to a disproportionate tendency among scholars to explain aspects of Middle Eastern society with reference to Islam.  The result relegates non-Muslims to insignificance, but it does so due to an unarticulated circular argument.  Only closer attention to Middle Eastern non-Muslims would allow scholars to discern the true significance and social effects of Islam.