Tuesday, November 19, 2019

If I do not drink wine, God’s knowledge was ignorance

The humor of Omar Khayyam.

by Michael Isenberg.

When we think of the great figures of history, one trait that we tend not to think of is humor. After all, they were busy waging war, handing down laws, writing philosophical tomes, and making world-altering scientific discoveries. Surely these things are no laughing matter.

But of course that’s not true. They were human beings, and like all human beings, some are stiffs, others will have you rolling on the floor laughing. Abraham Lincoln was constantly telling jokes (There was a good one in the 2012 movie about him, starring Daniel Day Lewis, although I don't know if it's one of the jokes Lincoln told in real life. It involved Ethan Allen and a picture of George Washington in an English privy.). Churchill’s rejoinders against various antagonists, mostly female, are world-famous (“Winston, you’re drunk.” “Bessie, you’re ugly. And tomorrow morning, I’ll be sober.”) Ronald Reagan made the age issue in his re-election campaign completely go away with a well-timed zinger (“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”). Even his opponent was laughing.

Certainly humor is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). For westerners, that would be his poetry, The Rubaiyat. Omar was a scientist at a time when the Muslim world was in the throes of turning its back on science. So it’s no surprise that The Rubaiyat is a world-weary collection of verses. Among the themes are the futility of knowledge and the inevitability of death:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
          About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.

With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand wrought to make it grow:
          And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd—
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.” (1)

And yet, amid these grim sentiments, there are flashes of humor, no doubt Omar's way of dealing. Omar generally marshalled it in the service of rationalizing his wine-drinking, another way of dealing. Wine, of course, is prohibited in Islam.

I drink Wine; my Enemies, high and low,
Say—“Do not drink it; ’tis Religion’s Foe.”
          When I learned wine was a Foe, I answered—
“’Tis permitted to drink the Foe’s Blood, though.” (2)

In another bit of twisted logic, Omar argues that God doesn’t mind, and anyway, if Omar doesn’t imbibe, God would be diminished:

I drink wine, and every one drinks who like me is worthy of it;
My wine-drinking is but a small thing to Him;
          God knew, on the Day of Creation, that I should drink wine;
If I do not drink wine, God’s knowledge was ignorance. (3)

Besides, how can wine be a sin? God created it. It’s blasphemous to say it’s sinful! And if it is a sin, well, it’s God’s fault if we drink. He put temptation in our path.

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
          A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse—why, then, Who set it there? (4)

In any case, Omar has no intention of repenting:

They say to me, “May God give thee repentance!”
He himself will not give it; I will none of it; let it be far off! (5)

For more about Omar and wine, see my recent post, “A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, and Thou.”

Omar’s humor spilled over from his poetry into his real life. He perpetrated the only practical joke I’ve come across in my studies of the medieval Muslim world (which, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, are extensive). According to Zakariya Qazwini, who lived about a century and a half after Omar,

It was reported that a jurist went to him every day before sunrise, and he studied philosophy with him, but then if he mentioned Omar to other people, he spoke evil of him. Then Omar asked two drummers and the two trumpeters to come and he hid them in his house. Then when the jurist came as normal to read his lessons, Omar commanded them to beat the drums and blow the trumpets. Then the people came from every direction. Then Omar said, “O people of Nishapur, this scholar of yours comes to me every day at this time, and he takes lessons from me. He takes my knowledge when I’m there, and speaks of me as evil when I’m not.” (6)

In another, slightly earlier version of the story (7), the jurist was none other than Abu Hamid Ghazali, the era’s foremost scholar of shari’a, and a key figure in the eradication of science in the Muslim world. As we have other stories about Ghazali studying with Omar, and treating him dismissively, this is plausible. Ghazali’s sense of humor, BTW, tended toward insults.

This last story is from a somewhat later source, the Tarikh-i-Alfi, History of the Millennium, written in the 1580s to commemorate the year one thousand in the Muslim calendar.

It is related that there was in Nishapur an old College, for the repairing of which donkeys were bringing bricks. One day, while the Sage (i.e. Omar) was walking with a group of students, one of the donkeys would on no account enter the College. When Omar saw this, he smiled, went up to the donkey, and extemporized:

“O lost and now returned ‘yet more astray,’
They name from men’s remembrance passed away,
          Thy nails have now combined to form thy hoofs,
Thy tail’s a beard turned round the other way!”

The donkey then entered, and they asked Omar the reason of this. He replied, “The spirit which has now attached itself to the body of the ass formerly inhabited the body of a lecturer in this college, therefore it would not come in until now, when, perceiving that its colleagues had recognised it, it was obliged to step inside (8).

The author Tarikh-i-Alfi, Ahmad Tatavi, cited the story as evidence that Omar believed in reincarnation. This was a rather serious accusation, since most Muslims consider reincarnation to be heresy.

Sounds like Tatavi needed to get a sense of humor.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, featuring Omar Khayyam, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit(s): Pinterest

(1) Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 2nd Edition, London: Bernard Quaritch (1868), translated by Edward Fitzgerald, verses xxx-xxxi.

(2) The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Boston: L.C. Page and Company (1898), translated by Edward Heron-Allen, verse 38, adapted by me for rhyme and meter.

(3) Ibid, verse 75.

(4) Fitzgerald, op. cit., verse lxiii.

(5) Heron-Allen, op. cit., verse 64.

(6) Shams Tabrizi, Maqalat (Discourses), Tehran (1377 S.H.), 2nd ed., pp. 301-302.

(7) Qazwini, Zakariya ibn Muhammad, Athar al-bilad wa-akhbar al-‘ibad (Monument of Places and History of God’s Bondmen), Beirut:Dar Sadur, 1960, p. 475. Translation mine.

(8) Zhukovski, V., "Al-Musaffariyé: Containing a Recent Contribution to the Study of 'Omar Khayyām" (a translation of "Umar Khayyam and his 'Wandering' Quatrains"), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 30 (April, 1898), pp. 349-366.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Should Sharia be banned in the US?

It’s complicated.

by Michael Isenberg.

In 2009, a New Jersey woman went to family court to seek a restraining order against her husband. Both were Muslims, originally from Morocco. It had been an arranged marriage; the woman was still in her teens.

The details of the case are spelled out in court documents (Superior Court of New Jersey,Appellate Division. S.D., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. M.J.R., Defendant-Respondent. Decided: July 23, 2010) and they’re horrific. The woman accused her husband of assaulting and raping her on numerous occasions. Photographs were introduced in evidence. “They depict bruising to both of plaintiff's breasts and to both of her thighs, as well as her swollen, bruised and abraded lips. Testimony of Detective Johanna Rak, the person who took the photographs, established that the remaining photographs disclosed injuries to plaintiff's left eye and right cheek. She testified that bruising appeared on plaintiff's breasts, thighs, and forearm. Additional police testimony established that there were stains on the pillow and sheets of plaintiff's and defendant's bed that appeared to be blood.” The wife “testified that defendant always told her ‘this is according to our religion. You are my wife, I c[an] do anything to you. The woman, she should submit and do anything I ask her to do.’”

The judge, Joseph Charles, found that the woman “had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant had engaged in harassment…and assault.” Nevertheless, the judge refused to issue the restraining order. The ruling was overturned on appeal about a year later, but not before igniting a firestorm of public opinion because of the reason he gave for his decision: “The court believes that [defendant] was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices and it was something that was not prohibited.”

In other words—as many outraged people interpreted it—the court gave the husband a pass for raping his wife, because doing so was permitted under Muslim law, known as shari’a. [For the record, Islam prohibits rape, but frowns on a woman refusing sex to her husband. “The angels send their curses on her till she comes back.” (Bukhari Vol 7, Book 62, No. 122)]

A movement to ban shari’a in the United States had been simmering for some time—David Yerushalmi’s Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) posted draft legislation on its website in 2007. The New Jersey episode brought things to a boil. Further fuel was added to the fire by a Breitbart article about an Islamic Tribunal established in Texas in 2013 or 14.

In addition, statements had surfaced from various Muslim figures advocating replacing the laws of the United States with shari’a, including a 1998 quote from Omar Ahmad, founding chairman of the Council for American Islamic Relations: “Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran, the Muslim book of scripture, should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.” Although the statement was reported in the San Ramon Valley Herald at the time, Mr. Ahmad denies saying it.

The anti-shari’a movement had an effect. According to Wikipedia, thirty-four states have considered shari’a bans, some based on the SANE draft; nine states had gone so far as to pass one.

So are the proponents of these bans right? Should shari’a be banned in the United States?

Well, it’s complicated.

What complicates it is that shari’a--like the Jewish halakha--is a vast body of law covering every aspect of life, developed over hundreds of years by some of the greatest minds in the faith. Muslims often disagree among themselves as to what its provisions are. As Will Coley, former imam and director of the MALIC Center in Keene, NH, explained on one of my recent Facebook threads, “The differences of opinion within shari’a cover everything from what animals are allowed to eat, to when and how you should pray and how to hold your hands and how many times you should bow and all these things are shari’a.”

Some provisions of shari’a are innocuous, such as the directives about praying that Mr. Coley mentioned. Others are arguably beneficial. For example, in his book, Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb praised the restrictions in shari’a against undertaking excessively risky contracts, which he contrasted with the dangerous financial instruments that starred in the 2008 financial crisis. And some provisions of shari'a are just plain evil—like the so-called “Ordinance of Omar” which lay down the restrictions that make Jews and Christians living in the Muslim world second class citizens, or the laws concerning the treatment of enemies in wartime, which are literally medieval.

To complicate things further, what does “Ban shari’a” even mean? A wide range of measures have been proposed. Some may have some merit to them. Others are frankly un-American prohibitions on the free exercise of religion. A 2010 constitutional amendment in Oklahoma focused mainly on use of shari’a by the courts: the relevant section read, “The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international or Sharia Law.” The amendment passed, but was subsequently overturned by a federal court.

A Tennessee law was more wide-ranging. Quoting Mr. Coley again, “I actually testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during Tennessee's first go-around attempting to pass one of these bills. I also read the original bills that were floated around to different state legislators and the original bills that were accepted offered everything from banning the sale, purchase, and ownership of Qurans in the United States. Banning of the practice of shari’a means no prayer, no fasting, no marriage, no divorce. All of these things are covered by shari’a…the tea parties in East Tennessee actually opposed the anti-sharia bill in Tennessee because they read the bill.”

In its final form, the Tennessee law asserts “Jihad and sharia are inextricably linked, with sharia formulating and commanding jihad, and jihad being waged for the purpose of imposing and instituting sharia…Any person who knowingly provides material support or resources to a designated sharia organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall commit an offense.” In response to the public outcry against the bill, language was added to clarify that it “neither targets, nor incidentally prohibits or inhibits, the peaceful practice of any religion, and in particular, the practice of Islam by its adherents. Rather, this part criminalizes only the knowing provision of material support or resources…to designated sharia organizations…or to known sharia-jihad organizations with the intent of furthering their criminal behavior.”

IMHO, our guide for approaching questions of Muslim Law vs. US law should be the same guide we should use for every other question of whether to ban something: the Non-aggression Principle (NAP). The NAP is the notion that in a free society, everything is permissible so long as it doesn’t aggress against the rights of other people. It’s closely related to voluntarism, the idea any voluntary relationships among consenting adults should alway be permitted.

Some examples illustrate how this works in practice.

In Islam, an enormous amount of jurisprudence has gone into the subject of inheritance. Indeed, there are even examples in the literature of people posing inheritance puzzles to each other for fun. Among these laws is that “the male is the equal of the portion of two females (Quran 4:11).” So a son inherits twice what is sister gets.

In America, our law gives wide latitude to the deceased to spell out their bequests in a will. If a Muslim man, living in the US, writes a will, and he says in the will that his son gets twice what his daughter gets, then, we might not like the sexism of that (although bear in mind that the son is required to maintain his unmarried sisters financially), but the will should still be upheld by the court. Not because it’s shari’a, but because our own law respects wills—and it’s consistent with the NAP.

Other examples may be found in contract law. I actually had a dispute about this with Aynaz Anni Cyrus of the American Truth Project. She proposed banning shari’a in a speech to the Worcester Tea Party, and during the question period I asked, “I just want to understand what you have in mind when you say, ‘ban shari’a.’ For example, if two Muslims voluntarily make a contract with each other, and they write in the contract that, in the event of a dispute, it would be adjudicated according to shari’a, is that something you would ban?”

Again, the NAP would say that it’s a voluntary contract, of course it should be upheld. Indeed, that’s exactly the sort of thing that shari’a “courts” like Islamic Tribunal do—arbitration.

But Ms. Cyrus had a different point of view. “Yes, that needs to be banned,” she replied.

When pressed she changed the subject to child marriage.

You can see the exchange near the end of the video, at 45:45, but I recommend you watch the entire thing. Despite my disagreement with Ms. Cyrus on this point, I have a great deal of respect for her and she had a fascinating story to tell. She suffered tragically growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a place where the worst provisions of shari’a are strictly enforced. Her suffering was in many ways similar to that of the New Jersey woman I mentioned earlier. Ms. Cyrus eventually escaped and obtained American citizenship, which she appreciates in a way that only someone who lived under tyranny elsewhere can.

Which brings me back to the case of the New Jersey woman. Again, the course of action comes into sharp focus when viewed through the lens of the NAP. Clearly the scumbag who was her husband had violated her rights, in a most despicable way. She was entitled to the protection of the State of New Jersey, regardless of anything that may or may not be in the shari’a. The judge clearly erred in not issuing the restraining order.

Still, the case does not establish a need for a ban on the courts substituting shari’a for duly passed legislation—because it is already banned--which is why the appeals court overturned the decision. This has been the case since 1878, when SCOTUS upheld the conviction of a Mormon man for polygamy (Reynolds vs. United States). In the New Jersey case, the appeals court stated this in no uncertain terms: the trial judge’s “perception that, although defendant's sexual acts violated applicable criminal statutes, they were culturally acceptable and thus not actionable” was “a view that we have soundly rejected.”

If you’ve followed my writing for a while, you know that I have no illusions about the dangers of jihadism and political Islam, and I speak out against them frequently. But I do not support a shari’a ban. At best it’s a solution to a problem whose solution is already in place. At worst, it’s a violation of the freedom of religion of the millions of Muslims who merely want to practice their faith peacefully. If we did that, we’d be guilty of the very attacks on our freedom that we accuse the jihadists of. Let’s not destroy the village in order to save it.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit(s): Reuters

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Other Mideast Story

Protests are raging in Lebanon and Iraq. Here are the basics.

By Michael Isenberg.

The gruesome suicide of ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr Baghdadi as he fled US forces and detonated his suicide vest was a richly deserved and I hope painful end for the bastard. The world is a better place without him, and the story has rightly dominated the headlines from the Middle East during the past week.

But Baghdadi’s death has overshadowed another story, unnoticed by many in the West. Massive protests have virtually shut down two Middle Eastern countries: Lebanon and Iraq. The story is still unfolding, but as with any unrest in that part of the world, there is the potential for the consequences to echo across the globe. (There are other reasons that this story has received so little attention. I’ll come to that later).

The protest in Iraq had been planned for some months. But a couple events in the days leading up to the scheduled October 1 demonstration gave new urgency to it. On September 25 there was a protest outside the office of Prime Minister Adil Abd’ al-Mahdi to highlight the plight of the many Iraqis with advanced degrees who are unable to get jobs. The protest was brutally broken up by authorities. Then on the 27th, al-Mahdi announced his intention to transfer Lieutenant General Abd’ al-Waheb as-Saedi from the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force to the defense ministry. As-Saedi is a hero of the liberation of Mosul from ISIS terrorists; the decision sparked a firestorm of backlash on social media.

In the wake of these events, the planned demonstration mushroomed beyond all expectation, with demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square numbering in the hundreds of thousands and protests spreading to eleven other cities.

Government forces have hit back hard with an arsenal of water cannons, tear gas, and bullets (not the rubber kind). Internet service has been shut down to prevent protesters from learning the harshness of the measures and from using social media to coordinate their activities. The Green Zone, home to parliament, government offices, and foreign embassies, has been barricaded; the government has no intention of allowing a repeat of the 2016 storming of the Iraqi parliament. Unidentifed “security forces” raided the NRT and Tigris satellite channels and the Saudi al-Hadath channel, destroyed and confiscated equipment, and attacked employees, wounding at least one. The cost of the government crackdown has been high. According to The Economist, 250 people have been killed, as of the end of October,

Like the French Revolution, the protests in Lebanon were sparked by a government funding crisis. The Lebanese pound is officially pegged to US currency—1507 pounds to the dollar—and like many countries that interfere with the free market for currency, the result is disastrous. As a poor economy put downward pressure on the pound, the government drained its reserve of dollars in an effort to prop it up. Desperate for cash, the Lebanese government sought to borrow from the World Bank and other international agencies, which demanded harsh austerity measures in return. The resulting package of spending cuts and tax increases proved extremely unpopular—especially the tax imposed on VoIP telephone calls which became known as the “WhatsApp Tax.”

Although sporadic protests were held as early as September, things began in earnest following an October 17 cabinet meeting to discuss the proposals. The protests swelled. According to some estimates, a quarter of the country’s population has participated. Key roadways were blocked. A human chain stretched along the Mediterranean Coast for 100 miles, from Tripoli to Tyre. Although the violence in Lebanon has not come up to the level in Iraq, there have been some fatalities, and things have been getting worse in the last few days, as I discuss below.

Events came to a head October 29, when Prime Minster Saad Hariri declared himself at a “dead end” and resigned. He’ll stay on as a caretaker until a replacement is found. Protests, in the meantime, have shown no sign of slowing.

Commentators are at a loss to figure out what to make of it all. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen asks, “Is the region slipping into a new Arab spring?” While hedging on the answer, he notes that the issues which led to those 2011 protests are largely unresolved. The Economist noted that Iraq and Lebanon are only two out of numerous countries that have been deluged with mass protests recently, both inside the Muslim world (Algeria, Pakistan) and beyond (Hong Kong, France, and many others). Their writers were at a loss to find common elements in all these protests. After considering and rejecting numerous theories—rising inequality, shifting demographics, foreign conspiracies—they threw up their hands and subtitled their article “Something in the Air.”

Still, there are three grievances that permeate all the reporting from Iraq and Lebanon: corruption, unemployment, and pitiful public services.

Both nations have rigid governmental structures, with certain positions set aside for Sunnis, Shiites, and in the case of Lebanon, Christians. This sectarian spoils system is laid out in agreements that the various parties made to put an end to political violence—the Taif Agreement in Lebanon near the end of its civil war in 1989, and the political settlement reached in Iraq as the Sunni insurgency wound down in 2016/2017. In practice it has yielded a system of patronage jobs under the control of political leaders, who fill them with their relatives and supporters. The protesters demand a “technocratic” government, in which job assignments are made based on skills rather than political connections. Indeed, that is what Prime Minister al-Mahdi in Iraq promised upon taking office, but failed to deliver. This is why the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon hasn’t satisfied the protesters there: they want the whole system replaced.

Unemployment is high in both countries, especially for the young. As of September 2019, the International Labour Organization model estimates that the overall unemployment rate is 7.9% in Iraq and 6.2% in Lebanon. For young people, ages 15-24, the news is significantly worse: 16.5% and 17.6% respectively. These numbers have been consistent for a decade or so. Unofficial numbers are even higher. Last year, Lebanese President Michel Aoun claimed a whopping 46% of the Lebanese labor force is unemployed. The Iraqi economy is burdened by the destruction of infrastructure during fifteen years of war, while Lebanon, a country of some six million people, has had to absorb a million or more refugees from the civil war in Syria.

Both countries are plagued by unreliable infrastructure, and cannot depend on services that we take for granted in the West: trash pickup, electricity, clean water.

As much as I hear my left-of-center friends blame the United States for the travails of the Middle East, that is one thing I haven’t heard from the protesters. The US just doesn’t seem to be on their radar right now. No mention of America in any of interviews I’ve read, and I haven’t seen anything along those lines from the protesters on Twitter either (usual caveat: I’m sure it can be found, but it’s clearly rare).

But there is a country who the protesters do blame for their problems. This aspect of the demonstrations has been largely overlooked in what little press coverage there has been. But it became impossible to ignore Friday night, when rioters in Karbala, Iraq attacked a foreign consulate, threw burning objects over the wall, and replaced its flag with an Iraqi one. The consulate belonged to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran has its Islamist tentacles deep in both Iraq and Lebanon. Iranian-backed militias operate in both countries and Iranian puppets are influential in their governments. As the American Islamic Forum for Democracy’s Zuhdi Jasser pointed out in his podcast yesterday, “The demonstrations in Baghdad this week, as they grow, are a rejection of Iranian colonization of Iraq. They’re a rejection of the corruption of the radical Shia supremacism, of their Shari’a state that they brought from Iran, into Iraq and into Lebanon as Hezbollah has been controlling Lebanon and the same demonstrations are happening.”

Dr. Jasser also opined on why the demonstrations have received so little press coverage, especially compared to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government a year ago. “Those demonstrations do not fit the narrative. Remember the Obama Administration was knee deep, butts and elbows as they say (there’s another term for it but I won’t say it on my podcast), knee deep with the Iranian regime. Everything at the altar of that nuclear deal. Everything. So the narrative that Iran is not as bad as we think is something that the traditional legacy media is stuck in.”

Iran is clearly feeling the heat in Iraq and Lebanon, and is seeking to deflect it. Unlike the protesters, Iranian leaders are talking about the United States. In a speech to graduating army cadets October 30, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, “The U.S. and Western intelligence services, with the financial backing of reactionary countries in the region, are spreading turmoil,” and recommended that Iraq and Lebanon follow the example of his own country during similar protests in 2017 and 2018: unleash the rent-a-mobs and the military. “They (U.S. and Saudi Arabia) had similar plans for our dear country, but fortunately the people... came out in time and the armed forces were ready and that plot was neutralized.”

In Lebanon, Khamanei’s lap dog, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, apparently received his barking points. In a speech on October 25, he urged his followers to stop protesting and go home, warning darkly that they were being manipulated by American and Israeli conspiracies. Since then, Hezbollah supporters have attacked and driven away other protesters, smashing chairs, pulling down tents, and violently prying phones out of the hands of anyone who tries to video them.

It appears that Iranian supporters are engaging in similar violent tactics in Iraq. Some of “security forces” firing on the protesters wear black clothing and masks, their affiliations unclear. It’s widely believed that they are members of Iran-backed militias.

I wish the protesters every success in eliminating Iranian influence in their countries and restoring their economies. It will be an uphill battle however. The political settlements that are responsible for so much corruption were hammered out with great difficulty among enemies who had until then been at each other’s throats. They wouldn’t be easy to re-negotiate under the best of circumstances, and certainly not with powerful interests vested in the status quo. And if Iraq and Lebanon really want their economies to flourish, they need to unleash the power of free markets, rather than relying on government controls like pegged currencies. Sadly, capitalism is not popular in that part of the world. The real tragedy is that in two centuries of reforms and dashed hopes, the nations of the Middle East have tried everything but freedom.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit(s): Wikipedia/FPP under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0

For further reading—

  • 2019 Iraqi protests (Wikipedia). Many people look down on Wikipedia, but frankly, I thought in this case, they had some of the best coverage out there for giving the big picture.
  • 2019 Lebanese protests (Wikipedia)
  • Why are so many countries witnessing mass protests? - Something in the air (The Economist, Nov 4)
  • Iraq unrest: Protesters attack Iranian consulate in Karbala (BBC, Nov 4)
  • Protests in Iraq are met with violence (The Economist, Oct 31)
  • Pointing to Iraq, Lebanon, Khamenei recalls how Iran put down unrest (Reuters, Oct 30)
  • Amal and Hezbollah supporters overrun Beirut protesters (The National, Oct 29)
  • Is a new Arab Spring unfolding in the Middle East? (BBC, Oct 29)
  • Iraq protests: What's behind the anger? (BBC, Oct 7)
  • قوات أمنية تداهم قناتين فضائيتين في بغداد (Security forces raided two satellite channels in Baghdad, al-Hurra, Oct 5)
  • Reform This! with Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, Ep 43 | The Long War against Jihadists (Blaze Radio Network, Nov 4)
  • Monday, October 28, 2019

    The Death of Baghdadi: What Muslims are Saying

    I had expected this milestone in the Islamic State’s downfall to be met with some enthusiasm. Instead, it was met mainly with paranoia.

    By Michael Isenberg.

    As the news of the death of terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “caliph” of the Islamic State, spread across the globe yesterday, a friend of mine tagged me on Facebook. He wanted to share his opinion of the way President Trump announced it, and ask me what I thought about it:

    I love the fact that President Trump not only goes after our enemies, but also uses the world stage to HUMILIATE them by describing how they died; dragging children with them, crying, whimpering, and running like a coward.

    I believe *how* one dies in Islamic cultures is equally as important as how they lived. Wondering if my resident expert in this regard, Michael Isenberg, would comment this morning about this and Trumps announcement in general.

    Mike?

    I agreed with my friend’s notion that going out like a little b---h would harm Baghdadi’s reputation in the eyes of the Muslim world. Especially the part about being chased by a dog, an animal which is considered unclean in Islam. But since I was less sure about his high opinion of my own expertise, I thought it would be best, instead of handing down pronouncements like a stereotypical Orientalist, to let the Muslim world speak for itself. So I took to Twitter to learn what Muslims had to say. And there were some surprises.

    The usual caveat: Exercises like this can give real insight, but it’s not a scientific process. The best I can do is read enough tweets to get a sense of what people are saying (I spent a couple hours on that) and then try as conscientiously as I can to present a representative sample. Also (as I’ve already learned from the discussions I’ve had on social media since yesterday), while I take full responsibility for my own commentary, the tweets themselves are the opinions of the tweeters, and not me. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    So first of all, what I didn’t find. Much to my surprise, I didn’t see a single tweet from a Muslim impressed by Trumps’ bluster or scornful of Baghdadi’s cowardice. Not one. I’m sure there are some out there, but clearly they’re rare.

    So what did I find?

    There were some tweets to the effect that world is a better place now that Baghdadi is dead and will finally face his Maker:

    This one came from a surprising source:

    For many years, Representative Omar has been quite outspoken in her indignance that people expect her, as a Muslim, to condemn Muslim terrorism. In her (incorrect) opinion, it has nothing to with Islam, and therefore nothing to do with her. Not sure what it means that she departed from form this time.

    One has to admire the concise elegance of this one:

    Still, tweets of this type, calling out Baghdadi for the scum that he was, were rare. This also surprised me. Back when the Islamic State was at its peak, many in the Muslim world were eager to distance themselves from its atrocities, and the hashtag “Not in my name” trended. Because of that, I had expected this milestone in the Islamic State’s downfall to be met with some enthusiasm. Instead, it was met mainly with paranoia.

    It is common in some parts of the world that when something happens, it's never thought to be the result of social or economic forces, or coincidence, or even plain old stupidity. Rather, it must be a conspiracy of powerful interests plotting against the people. Which is perfectly understandable for anyone who lived through the hell that was the Islamic State. In any case, that view of the world is definitely in play in the case of Baghdadi's death. Many don’t believe he's even dead. The way he died was highly suspicious, they say:

    Numerous tweeters pointed out that we’ve heard this before and the news of his demise was greatly exaggerated. One even provided a graphic listing all eight previous deaths:

    Others had more of a sense of humor about it:

    But regardless of whether Baghdadi was really dead or not, many believe there is more to this than meets the eye. Trump’s announcement was merely a ploy, they say, to distract from the impeachment investigation, and criticism of his betrayal of the Kurds, and to secure his reelection:

    Many pointed out that this was not the first time something like this has happened going into a US presidential election:

    Of course it wouldn’t be a discussion about American elections without a certain sinister hand in the mix:

    Another theory: Erdogan knew where Baghdadi is, and coughed up the information as part of his deal with Trump to screw the Kurds:

    Given that the killing of Baghdadi came so closely on the heels of the Erdogan deal, there may be some merit to that one.

    Sadly, many Muslims feel that the death of Baghdadi will have little effect on the War on Terror. Like Hydra, cut off one head from the jihadist monster, and two (or more) take its place:

    Even sadder, not everyone seems to be unhappy about that.

    And some are positively triumphant. As the Quran promises “If you are patient and fear [Allah], their tricks shall not harm you.” (3:120)

    I believe the “Shami” referred to here is Abu Mahmud ash-Shami, also known as Sami al-Oraydi, a former al-Nusra official. Last month the US put a five million price on information about his whereabouts.

    Many in the Muslim world blame the US for the rise of terrorist leaders like Baghdadi:

    On this last point, I’ve argued previously that it’s complicated. There’s no doubt that what Bernard Lewis called “The Roots of Muslim Rage” is primarily motivated by the teachings of Islam, and not anything the West has done. But it’s also true that, thanks to its military incursions into the Middle East, the US has inadvertently created lawless areas in which Jihadists were free to operate. Just something to keep in mind as President Trump ramps up the US military presence in Saudi Arabia for a possible conflict with Iran. Which this last tweeter thinks is what this whole thing is about:

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Thanks J.N. for such a rich question.

    Arabic translations are my own. Persian translations are Google’s.

    Photo credit(s): BBC, Twitter

    Monday, October 14, 2019

    The Story of the Three Students

    How three friends grew up to become the most famous scientist, ruler, and terrorist of their age. But is it true? And what does it mean?

    By Michael Isenberg.

    CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE THREAD OF REASON.

    (L to R) Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk, Hasan-i Sabbah

    One of my favorite moments in my novel The Thread of Reason is when the hero, astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam, finally comes face-to-face with the terrorist leader, the mysterious Sheikh of the Mountain, and it turns out to be his long-lost school friend Hasan-i Sabbah.

    Recently a reader emailed me to ask, “Is Omar's prior relationship with the Sheikh your invention or based on history?”

    The answer is history. Sort of.

    It’s called The Story of the Three Students. The third, after Omar Khayyam and Hassan-i Sabbah, was the sultan’s vizier (prime minister) Nizam al-Mulk, who ruled an empire for thirty years, and wielded more power than the sultans he served, Alp Arslan and Malik Shah of the House of Seljuq. Every serious fan of Omar Khayyam knows the story because Edward Fitzgerald, who introduced Omar to the English-speaking world, included it in the preface to his translation of Omar’s poetry, The Rubaiyat.

    As far as I know, the oldest version of the story we have is from a biography of Hasan-i Sabbah, The Story of our Lord (Sarguzasht-e Sayyidna), which is believed to be based on his own autobiography. The translation from the Persian here is mine, which was a good trick, because I don’t actually know any Persian, modern or medieval, and Google Translate isn’t very good at it. It was a process.

    And the cause of the hatred and terror [between Nizam al-Mulk and Hasan-i Sabbah] was this:

    Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk, and our Lord studied together in a school in Nishapur. And they agreed in principle, according to the strictest rules of honesty and right conduct, to make a pact—sealed by drinking each other’s blood, that whichever of them became the greatest would strengthen and reinforce the other two.

    And so it happened, as told in the annals of the Seljuqs, that Nizam al-Mulk came into the vizierate. Omar Khayyam came to pay court to him and reminisce about their childhood together. Remembering the old pact, Nizam al-Mulk said, “I will make you the governor of Nishapur and the surrounding territories.”

    But Omar replied that the life of a great man is one of wisdom, virtue, and learning. “You have aspirations to rule an empire,” he said. “But to hand down prohibitions to the common people? I have no such ambitions. Set me on the road to fame and give me an annual stipend.”

    And Nizam al-Mulk bestowed upon him ten thousand dinars from the tax revenue of Nishapur, and this stream has flowed every year since then without decrease or obligation.

    And our Lord also came, from the city of Ray [near Tehran], to pay court to the Nizam. He reminded him, “Your eminence made me a promise.”

    Nizam al-Mulk replied, “You shall have authority from Ray to Isfahan.”

    Our Lord was an excellent choice for the job, but he wasn’t satisfied with the offer and turned it down. What he was expecting was a high-ranking position in the ministry. Nizam al-Mulk (who was backed into a corner) said, “Then you shall attend the Sahib al-Jalal, the Sultan.”

    But because he knew that our Lord aspired to the same dignity and level in the ministry that he held himself, Nizam al-Mulk kept a close eye on him.

    The story goes on to tell how Hasan-i Sabbah attempted to undermine Nizam al-Mulk by preparing a budget faster than Nizam al-Mulk could, how Nizam al-Mulk turned the tables on him by arranging to have a page filched from the account books so that the numbers didn’t add up, and how Hasan-i Sabbah was thereby driven out of the ministry. After a number of other adventures, including imprisonment and shipwreck, Hasan-i Sabbah took over the castle of Alamut, near the Caspian Sea, and became the first Sheikh of the Mountain, founder of the terrorist group known to history as the Assassins. The first person they assassinated: Nizam al-Mulk.

    Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

    A fascinating story, but how much is true?

    To address that, I start with what we know about its origin.

    The assassination of Nizam al-Mulk really did occur, 927 years ago today, October 15, 1092.* It was near the beginning of the Assassins’ century-and-a-half long reign of terror. The discovery of The Story of our Lord came at its end. Alamut surrendered to Mongol forces under Hulegu, grandson to Genghis Khan, in 1256.

    Siege of Alamut

    Before they razed the place, the Mongols let the Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvaini (1226-1283), who traveled with them, loose in the library, and it was there that he found The Story of our Lord. Juvaini’s partly first-hand account of Genghis Khan and the Mongol invasions, History of the World Conquerer (Tarikh-i Jahan-gusha), is one of our primary sources on the Assassins in general and Hasan-i Sabbah in particular.

    Yet, for whatever reason, it does not contain The Story of the Three Students. For that we have to wait several more decades, for the The Compendium of History (Jami at-Tawarikh) by Rashid ad-Din Hamadani (1247-1318), the Jewish-born vizier to Hulegu’s great grandsons. This book is very famous. When you see illustrations of Muslim historical events from some old manuscript, including the two on this post, chances are The Compendium is where they came from; there are a number of beautifully illuminated copies from the 14th & 15th centuries still extant. And The Compendium also incorporates The Story of our Lord in its entirety.

    So there are problems with the provenance of the story. We don’t have a version of it until a good 300 years after it took place, and there’s an unexplained gap between Juvaini and Rashid ad-Din.

    But those aren’t the only problems. More seriously, the chronology doesn’t work out. In all probability, Nizam al-Mulk was thirty years older than the other two, and couldn’t possibly have been at school with them. Or as Omar exclaims to his assistant upon coming across Hasan-i Sabbah’s original manuscript in The Thread of Reason, “How old do you think I am?”

    Granted, in some ways, it’s even more interesting if The Story of the Three Students is not true. Because that means someone made it up, which raises the question, “Why?” And whether true or not, people took the trouble to record and transmit it, which against begs the question, “Why?”

    Omid Safi, Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, offers an answer in his 2006 book The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry. The Politics of Knowledge was a groundbreaking work in deconstructing what has been called The Great Seljuq Myth, the notion that the Seljuq sultans, and their vizier Nizam al-Mulk, were the defenders of the faith: the guardians of Islamic orthodoxy and the protectors of the nominal head of the religion, the caliph.

    Professor Safi’s thesis is that the myth of orthodoxy was a narrative crafted for the purpose of propaganda, to confer legitimacy on the Seljuqs. Legitimacy is important for any government, but especially in the Muslim world, where there has been bitter warfare over who is the true successor to the Messenger Muhammad, almost from the moment that he breathed his last. And especially for the Seljuqs, who had only comparatively recently ridden in from the steppes of Central Asia and usurped power.

    In Safi’s view, The Story of the Three Students is such an outstanding example of the Great Seljuq Myth in action that he saves it for his concluding chapter, to summarize his thesis. Nizam al-Mulk symbolizes True Religion in this analysis. Omar Khayyam was somewhat less orthodox, a practitioner of the profane sciences. I’ve written previously about the controversy over his consumption of alcohol—something forbidden in Islam. But he cut a deal with the orthodox Nizam al-Mulk, so he’s okay, set on the road to fame. But Hasan-i Sabbah, who set himself up as a rival of Nizam al-Mulk, is anathema, outcast, the very embodiment of wickedness.

    This view of history as narrative is postmodernist in origin; Dr. Safi explicitly acknowledges debts to Edward Said and Michel Foucault. I’ve written in the past why I think Said and Foucault's work is bulls--t, but in this (very rare) case, the postmodern approach seems to be on to something. It will come as no surprise to readers of The Thread of Reason that Nizam al-Mulk, both as portrayed in the book and in real-life, was not very orthodox at times, and the sultan Malik-Shah even less so. One is left wondering how the Great Seljuq Myth became so widely accepted.

    Of course as a novelist, I have a somewhat different job than a historian: to entertain. And The Story of the Three Students is definitely entertaining. Not to mention that, thanks to Fitzgerald, it’s too famous to ignore in a book about Omar Khayyam. As for how I get around the chronology problem, I explicitly acknowledge a debt to Dr. Safi and his ideas about narrative in Islamic history. For the specifics, you’ll just have to read my book.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com.

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    *-Sort of. The Julian Calendar was in effect at the time, and the world has since switched to the Gregorian calendar, under which it would have been the 21st of October.

    About the illustrations:
    - Statue of Omar Khayyam by Hossein Fakhimi at the University of Oklahoma.
    - Bust of Nizam al-Mulk, Mashhad, Iran.
    - Engraving of the Elder of the Mountain, 19th century, unknown source, CC BY-SA 4.0.
    - “The Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk” in Rashid ad-Din Hamadani, Jami at-Tawarikh, Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, Hazine Library Manuscript #1653, folio 360b (14th/15th century).
    - "The Siege of Alamut" in Rashid ad-Din Hamadani, Jami at-Tawarikh Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division Orientale, Supplément persan 1113, ca. 1430-1434. Public Domain.

    Wednesday, October 9, 2019

    Brave Sir Donald Ran Away

    President Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria will be a disaster for the US. Here’s why…

    By Michael Isenberg.

    As I write this, Turkish tanks are massing at the border of Syria, and Turkish warplanes are pummeling civilian regions in the northeast part of that country.

    The president of Turkey, Islamist Recip Erdogan, explained the objectives for this operation two weeks ago. He stood up at the UN—whose mission, according to its charter is “the suppression of acts of aggression”—and announced his plans for an act of aggression. Specifically, he intends to forcibly carve off a 32 km slice of northern Syria which he described, in Orwellian tones, as a “peace corridor.”

    Mr. Erdogan has wanted to seize this Syrian territory along his southern border for some time. He claims that the YPG, the Kurdish militia units in northern Syria, are allied with the PKK, the extremist Kurdish Workers Party in his own country, although most observers outside of Turkey dispute that.

    The only thing that has been stopping Erdogan up to now is the presence of US troops in the region who are protecting the Kurds. President Trump tweeted today that there are only 50 US soldiers involved. Not a large deployment. Just enough to let the Turks know that war against the Kurds would mean war against the United States.

    Until Monday. Following a weekend phone conversation with Mr. Erdogan, President Trump announced that he was removing the troops. He spun the decision as part of an overall strategy to keep his campaign promises. “I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars,” he tweeted, “where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA.”

    But a press release from the Pentagon yesterday cast the decision in a very different light:

    The Department's position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability.

    Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety. We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time.

    It’s not hard to read between the lines here. On his phone call with Trump, Erdogan threatened to invade the “peace corridor” regardless of what the US did. Trump crumbled. He should have told Erdogan, "If a US soldier gets so much as a scratch at the hands of Turkish forces, we'll mine the f--king Bosporus." Nixon would have done it. But instead, brave Sir Donald ran away.

    He really needs to stop having these phone calls with foreign leaders.

    Pulling out of northern Syria is a terrible decision. As I wrote on Twitter, “The #Kurds allied with the US & fought & died in the front lines to defeat #ISIS. Now @RealDonaldTrump is throwing them under the bus. It's not right, and it's not good for the US. No one is going to ally with us if they see we don't stand by our allies.”

    Let me be clear: I don’t advocate US troops forcing regime change in Syria. That ship has sailed. Nor do I advocate some vague open-ended mission to pacify the entire country. But I do advocate a limited, well-defined mission in the northern part of the country to protect the Kurds. They earned that much from us.

    Trump compared the US role to a “policing operation” and I’d like to explore that metaphor. I agree that the US should never have become northern Syria's policeman. But it is unconscionable to take on that role, as we have done, and then, when a murderer and thief shows up on the stoop and starts kicking in the door, tell the poor homeowner, “We changed our mind. We don’t want to be the police anymore. Good luck to you.”

    The comparison of the Erdogan regime to a murderer and a thief who threatens the lives and property of the Kurds is not an exaggeration. Turkey already seized the western end of its “peace corridor,” the area around Afrin, last year (red area on map). According to the BBC, which cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “almost 300 civilians were killed in the eight-week battle, along with 1,500 Kurdish militiamen…At least 137,000 civilians fled their homes.” The Turks’ name for the invasion, “Operation Olive Branch,” at first appeared to be yet another messed up bit of Orwellian Newspeak, but turned out to be singularly appropriate when reports emerged that the occupying army was stealing the olive crop from the people of Afrin.

    Saleh Ibo, deputy chairmen of the Afrin Agricultural Council, says “80% of the people of Afrin made their living through olives and olive oil. The Turkish state already forced most of the people to migrate with their invasion. And now they are trying to get the remaining people to leave Afrin through violence and financial ruin to complete the demographic change.” He accuses the Turks of not only confiscating the olive harvest, but of taking processing equipment out of the district, and even cutting down significant numbers of the olive trees themselves, guaranteeing that the people of Afrin will not only not receive the payoff from their labors this year, but will have no way of earning a living there in the future.

    The Turkish government isn’t even trying to hide its looting. It admits to taking at least 600 tons of olives back to Turkey. Speaking to Parliament, Bekir Pakdemirli, the agricultural minister, fessed up. “We do not want revenues to fall into PKK hands,” he explained. “We want the revenues from Afrin... to come to us. This region is under our hegemony.”

    President Trump’s decision to pull out US troops now exposes all of Northern Syria to the looting and ethnic cleansing that the Turks inflicted on Afrin.

    Upon tweeting my opposition to the US pullout, I was instantly under attack, and received a number of tweets calling me names, including this one from a woman in a military family: “Then you go, or send your kids. My family sacrificed enough. All you people calling for war never fought or had a family member fighting there and won’t in the future either. Then the troops come home sick and you bastards give illegal aliens better treatment. SFTFU”

    Well, at least it wasn’t as insulting as another tweet I received. That one called me a leftist.

    Despite her indulgence in the ad hominem fallacy, the woman from the military family does make a serious point, which I’d like to address: that US foreign wars are causing severe hardships on our soldiers and veterans and it’s time for the US to put down its burden as the world’s policeman and bring our troops home.

    I freely acknowledge they’ve made more sacrifices than I ever did. I have the greatest respect and admiration for this woman and her family, and all of our fellow citizens who sign up completely voluntarily to go to the worst s—tholes on earth in the service of our country. But it’s because I respect and admire them that I think it’s a mistake to pull out of northern Syria. Because the pullout is going to cause much greater hardships for our soldiers down the road.

    Polonius may have been a “foolish prating knave,” but he got one thing right: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel,” he said, “but being in, bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.” Sadly, in Syria, the US did neither.

    The best way to get out of “ridiculous endless wars” and keep US troops out of harm’s way is not to enter them in the first place (Beware of entrance to a quarrel). That's why I opposed US intervention in Syria when the Obama Administration stepped up our entanglement there back in 2013. But once you’re in, things get complicated, and if you walk away, instead of seeing that the opposed may beware of thee, there are serious consequences.

    Anyone who’s lived through the last fifty years of history has seen these consequences unfold in front of their eyes. In 1975, the US walked away from its commitments to South Vietnam in the face of a renewed North Vietnamese invasion. During the next four years, encouraged by what it saw as weakness on the part of the United States, communist insurgents overran the nations of Indochina, and seven additional nations in other parts of the world. A hundred million people lost their freedom, and, in the genocides and massacres that followed, some five million people lost their lives at the hands of their new rulers.

    Perhaps more significant for our current Middle East involvement was the 1993 decision by the Clinton Administration to pull US forces out of Somalia in the wake of unexpected casualties in the “Black Hawk Down” incident and the Battle of Mogadishu. Our opponent there, warlord Muhammad Aidid, received material and training from al-Qaeda. What happened in Mogadishu wasn't lost on al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden. In a 1998 interview with ABC News’s John Miller, he said that the Mujahideen veterans fighting in Somalia,

    were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the America soldiers are paper tigers. After a few blows, the Americans ran away in defeat. After a few blows, they forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order.

    They left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat, and stopped using such titles.

    They learned in America that this name [i.e., God] is larger than them. When this great defeat took place I was in Sudan, and it pleased me very much, just as it pleases all Muslims.

    Like the communists, bin Laden was encouraged by what he saw as the weakness of the United States. The deaths of 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks three years later were the tragic consequences.

    Osama bin Laden is dead, but the US still has enemies. The next Osama bin Laden is out there, watching the US run away in defeat from northern Syria without even a few blows, and drawing his own conclusions. I hope he will not be encouraged by Trump’s foolish withdrawal to launch future attacks against the United States, attacks which once again will require us to put American troops in harm’s way.

    But sadly, history tells us otherwise.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Photo credit(s): BBC, Twitter

    Tuesday, October 1, 2019

    The Secret Garden of the Assassins

    Rivers of wine and damsels accomplished in the arts of amorous allurement. The birth of a questionable legend.
    by Michael Isenberg.

    Readers of my novel, The Thread of Reason, frequently ask me about the history behind the various stories I recount in the book. One of the most intriguing is that of the Sheikh (or Old Man) of the Mountain’s Secret Garden. The story comes from Marco Polo:

    Mention shall now be made of the old man of the mountain. The district in which his residence lay obtained the name of Mulehet, signifying in the language of the Saracens, the place of heretics, and his people that of Mulehetites…The following account of this chief, Marco Polo testifies to having heard from sundry persons.

    His name was Aloadin, and his religion was that of Mahomet. In a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, he had formed a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be produced. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in different parts of the grounds, ornamented with works in gold, with paintings, and with furniture of rich silks. By means of small conduits contrived in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey, and some of pure water were seen to flow in every direction.

    The inhabitants of these palaces were elegant and beautiful damsels, accomplished in the arts of singing, playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, dancing, and especially those of dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses they were seen continually sporting and amusing themselves in the garden and pavilions, their female guardians being confined within doors and never suffered to appear.

    The object which the chief had in view in forming a garden of this fascinating kind was this: that Mahomet having promised to those who should obey his will the enjoyments of Paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs, he was desirous of its being understood by his followers that he also was a prophet and the compeer of Mahomet, and had the power of admitting to Paradise such as he should choose to favor.

    In order that none without his license might find their way into this delicious valley, he caused a strong and inexpugnable castle to be erected at the opening of it, through which the entry was by a secret passage. At his court, likewise, this chief entertained a number of youths, from the age of twelve to twenty years, selected from the inhabitants of the surrounding mountains, who showed a disposition for martial exercises, and appeared to possess the quality of daring courage. To them he was in the daily practice of discoursing on the subject of the paradise announced by the prophet, and of his own power of granting admission. And at certain times he caused opium to be administered to ten or a dozen of the youths; and when half dead with sleep he had them conveyed to the several apartments of the palaces in the garden.

    Upon awakening from the state of stupor, their senses were struck with all the delightful objects that have been described, and each perceived himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing, and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicate foods and exquisite wines; until intoxicated with excess of enjoyment, amidst actual rivulets of milk and wine, he believed himself assuredly in Paradise, and felt an unwillingness to relinquish its delights.

    When four or five days had thus passed, they were thrown once more into a drugged state, and carried out of the garden. Upon their being introduced to his presence, and questioned by him as to where they had been, their answer was, “In Paradise, through the favor of your highness”: and then before the whole court, who listened to them with eager curiosity and astonishment, they gave a circumstantial account of the scenes to which they had been witnesses.

    The chief thereupon addressing them, said: “We have the assurances of our prophet that he who would defend his lord shall inherit Paradise, and if you show yourself devoted to the obedience of my orders, that happy lot awaits you.” Animated to enthusiasm by words of this nature, all deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master, and were forward to die in his service.

    The consequences of this system was, when any of the neighboring princes, or others, gave offense to this chief, they were put to death by these his disciplined assassins: none of whom felt terror at the risk of losing their own lives, which they held in little estimation, provided they could execute their master’s will. On this account his tyranny became the subject of dread in all the surrounding countries.*

    In other versions of the story, the recruits were given not opium, but rather hashish. From this the cult acquired its name, the Hashasheen, and the English language acquired a word: Assassin.

    It’s a fascinating story. One would think that the damsel’s arts of “dalliance and amorous allurement” would indeed make for some very motivated killers, and I'm rather partial to the bit about rivers of wine. And yet, there is reason to think that it is nothing more than that: a story.

    Marco Polo is not the most reliable of sources, and he did not travel through the area until years after the Assassin Cult and its castles had been destroyed. And even though they had operated for almost 170 years prior to that, I’m not aware of any references to the secret garden before Polo’s. Not to mention that it would take hundreds of people to build and maintain such a garden, which would make it almost impossible to keep it a secret. It would be widely known that it wasn't the real Paradise.

    There are also other possible explanations for the origin of the term Hashasheen that don’t involve sex and drugs. The first Sheikh of the Mountain was named Hasan, and the cult may have taken its name from him.

    But as I point out in the Historical Note to my novel,

    In his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill told one of the many legends of Rosamunde, mistress to Henry Plantagenet. He followed it up with a disclaimer: tedious researchers had proven the darn thing wasn’t true. Churchill saw no reason to let that get in the way of a good story; he included it in his book anyway. I feel the same about the story of…the secret Garden of the Assassins. [It’s] just too famous—and too good—to leave out. I hope historians will approve of, or at least forgive, my solutions to the very real difficulties raised by the tedious researchers.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com


    *- The Travels of Marco Polo, New York: Liveright Publishing Corp. (1926, 1953), M. Komroff, tr.