Thursday, December 20, 2018

Sayyid Qutb: The Ultimate Incel

The “Baby it’s Cold Outside” Jihadi—in his own words.
by Michael Isenberg.

Many of you have seen the article making the rounds of cyberspace last week which added yet another twist to the “Baby it’s Cold Outside” controversy. According to the article, written by Adam Pasick, the classic holiday tune has not only “come under scrutiny in the #MeToo era for its light-hearted portrayal of sexual coercion—though a close reading suggests the song could just as easily be a sly homage to female empowerment.” It also “played a small but crucial role in the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism:”

Back in 1950, the Egyptian author and religious theorist Sayyid Qutb spent two years as an exchange student at a teacher’s college in Greeley, Colorado.

He was infuriated by many things about American life—people spent too much time taking care of their lawns, and it was impossible to get a decent haircut—but especially by a church dance where a pastor played Frank Loesser’s Grammy-winning song on a gramophone:

“The dance hall convulsed to the tunes on the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs,” Qutb wrote later. “Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion...”

When Qutb returned to Egypt, he was a changed man, determined to reject the West and embrace a purified version of Islam.

(A more detailed account of Qutb’s years in Greeley may be found in David von Drehle’s 2006 article, “A Lesson in Hate.”)

When I read Qutb’s complaints about America, he did not sound like a culture warrior to me. He sounded like a man who can’t get a date. His obsession with “seductive legs,” not to mention waists, lips, and chests, is a dead giveaway. What motivation other than sex would get the male of the species so spun up over a bad haircut? Granted, the Hitler mustache that he sported during those years, when the wounds of losing loved ones during World War II were still fresh, probably didn't help him any. I concede that this is pure speculation on my part, but it seems to me that Sayyid Qutb was the ultimate incel—involuntary celibate. Women didn’t want to go out with him, so to protect his ego, he blew his personal problems up to literally cosmic proportions, and invented the modern theory of jihad. In his own mind he was, in the words of the Psalm, the stone which the builders rejected, but which, with God’s help, would become the chief cornerstone.

Anyway, Qutb’s entanglement in the “Baby it’s Cold Outside” controversy gives us an excellent opportunity to shine the disinfectant of sunlight on his writings, in particular his signature work, 1964’s Milestones, and glean from it some insight into the modern jihadi movement.

The title of the book refers to the milestones that Islam must follow in order to become “the leader of mankind.” Now that East and West have failed because of their decadence, according to Qutb, “the turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived.”

World leadership is the final milestone. The first is to reconstruct the original seventh century Muslim community of Muhammad and his Companions. They were the best generation because Islam for them was an all-encompassing way of life—not just one part of it, nor an academic discipline. And they were completely governed by the Quran, free of the influence of foreigners like the Greeks and the Jews. In this utopia, homosexuality and other sexual immorality will be prohibited. Women will be free to tend to their “basic responsibility of bringing up children,” relieved of the burden of choosing a career. Indeed, men will also be relieved of that burden since “the society automatically recognizes his capabilities” and will assign a job to him. Science will be permitted, as long as it stays in its proper bounds and doesn’t cross the line into metaphysics. Examples of science crossing that line, which presumably will be off limits going forward, include evolution and psychology.

Only after the Muslim heart has been prepared by the creation of such a totalitarian nightmare will it be ready for the next milestone: jihad [struggle] against the unbeliever. The chapter on jihad is the longest in the book, and certainly the most relevant for understanding modern Islamic fundamentalism, since it bears directly on a debate about its nature that we in the West have been conducting since September 11.

Our left-of-center friends tell us that Islam is a religion of peace. It has no desire to force itself on the West. Indeed to do so would violate the Quran, which says, “There is no compulsion in religion (2:256).” And although the Quran does talk about jihad, conventional warfare is the “Lesser Jihad.” The “Greater Jihad” is to war internally against one’s own individual weaknesses. The only reason Muslims have warred against the West, according to the Left, is to defend themselves from the West’s attacks on them (colonialism, overthrow of Mossadegh, Gulf Wars, etc.). As for their attacks on Israel, please be assured that they are merely anti-Zionist, not anti-Jew.

On every one of these points Qutb either disagrees in no uncertain terms, or he understands the terms in some way that is very different from the way those of us in the West do. For example, “The peace which Islam desires” according to Qutb, “[is] that the obedience of all people be for God alone.”

Compulsion, to Qutb, isn’t what we in the West understand it to be either. According to him, it is important for the individual to choose Islam freely—but Qutb has some peculiar notions about what constitutes compulsion and freedom. Living under any government that is not Islamic is, in his view, compulsion. “The real servitude is following laws devised by someone, and this is that servitude which in Islam is reserved for God alone.” Such laws are obstacles to free choice. Muslims have “no recourse but to remove them by force.” “Islam does not force people to accept its belief, but it wants to provide a free environment…in which they will have the choice of beliefs.” “It is the right of Islam to release mankind from servitude to human beings so that they may serve God alone…all men are free under Him.” That's really messed up. According to Qutb's logic, if you live under laws crafted by legislators that you elected, you’re in servitude. But if a Muslim army invades your country and imposes shari’ah on it, you’re free.

Qutb does believe in the so-called “greater” jihad, but only as preparation for the “lesser:” “Before a Muslim steps into the battlefield, he has already fought a great battle within himself against Satan.”

To war against the unbeliever is commanded by the Quran. Qutb cites verse 9:29, for example:

Fight those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, nor follow the Religion of Truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax [jizyah] in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection [Maulana Muhammad Ali translation].

In case there’s any doubt from the text that the Quran is not talking about defensive war, but rather an unprovoked war of expansion, Qutb spells it out:

It may happen that the enemies of Islam may consider it expedient not to take any action against Islam, if Islam leaves them alone in their geographic boundaries to continue the lordship of some men over others and does not extend its message of universal freedom within its domain. But Islam cannot agree to this unless they submit to its authority by paying Jizyah, which will be a guarantee that they have opened their doors for the preaching of Islam and will not put any obstacle in its way through the power of the state…Islam takes the initiative.

Qutb ridicules those Muslims who believe that defense is the ultimate objective of jihad: they’re dupes of “shrewd orientalists.”

Among the unbelievers who must be forced into a state of subjection, Qutb singles out one group in particular to be reviled. He warns of the

tricks played by world Jewry, whose purpose is to eliminate all limitations, especially the limitations imposed by faith and religion, so that the Jews may penetrate into the body politic of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs. At the top of the list of these activities is usury, the aim of which is that all the wealth of mankind end up in the hands of Jewish financial institutions.

Try to argue that that’s not anti-Jew, just anti-Zionist.

The apologists for Islamic fundamentalism will no doubt argue at this point that Qutb was just one guy—we can’t judge a whole movement based on his insane opinions.

Yes, we can.

Qutb was not a fringe figure. It’s difficult to overestimate the extent of his influence, thanks to his role in the Muslim Brotherhood. As I wrote previously the Brotherhood lies at the center of the web of individuals and organizations, what Andrew McCarthy called the “Siamese connectedness,” that comprise the infrastructure of modern Sunni extremism. Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of al-Qaeda, was a Brotherhood alumnus, as were al-Qaeda Number Two Ayman al-Zawahiri and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Hamas is the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch.

If the Brotherhood lies at the center of extremism, Qutb lay at the center of the Brotherhood. He joined after his return to Egypt, and soon became one of its leaders. He was its chief propagandist and editor-in-chief of its weekly publication, Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin. His influence even extended to Osama bin Laden, who, though not a Brotherhood member himself, studied under Qutb’s brother.

In the edifice of modern jihadism, Qutb, sadly, became a cornerstone after all. But I doubt that God had much to do with 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

Photo credit(s): CNN

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Joyous Assemblies

Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
Part II—Caliph Harun ar-Rashid and Ja’far the Barmakid.
by Michael Isenberg.

As I said in Part I of this article, readers of my medieval murder mystery, The Thread of Reason, often tell me how surprised they are by how much wine the Muslim characters in the book drink. “Isn’t alcohol forbidden in Islam?” they ask.

It most definitely is, and in the first installment I provided some of the relevant citations in the Quran and the Hadith. But I also explained that the prohibition was often disobeyed during the Middle Ages. Wine shops and drinking parties were frequent settings in the literature of the time such as the Maqamat of Qasim Hariri of Basra or The Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes the stories featured pious characters who expressed their disapproval. Other times the drinking parties were portrayed as just a normal part of life, deserving of no special comment. Even the highest official in Islam, the caliph, got into the act. In one of the stories in the Nights, Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (d. 809 AD), whose reign is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Islamic history and achievement, attended a raucous party, accompanied by his vizier Ja’far of the House of Barmak, and his “Sworder of Vengeance” Masrur the Eunuch. And although neither Harun nor Ja’far imbibed, the caliph seemed to have no issue with those around them doing so.

Harun ar-Rashid and the Poet, by Eloise-Caroline Huitel (1827-1896). This Western depiction takes some artistic liberties. The real Harun would never allow the women of his household to appear in the presence of unrelated men.

The Thousand and One Nights and the other literature of the time are important historical documents. They reflect the attitudes of their authors and they give details about daily life which are often lacking in more staid sources. But the bottom line is that they’re works of fiction, often markedly different from real life. For example, unlike their fictional counterparts, in real life Harun ar-Rashid and Ja’far the Barmakid drank plenty. Their escapades beautifully illustrate the spirit of the times.

Where alcohol wasn’t involved, Harun and Ja’far were pillars of orthodoxy. Harun was well-known for his pre-dawn prayers in the chapel of his palace. The chronicles place him leading the obsequies at the funerals of his father and brother. In The Thread of Reason I wrote about how Harun's vast charitable enterprises—his giving extended into the millions of gold dinars—were inspired by a nightmare about the Day of Judgment.

One theory as to why he moved his capital from Baghdad to Raqqa in Syria was that it was convenient to the Byzantine frontier, the better to wage jihad on the unbelievers. In our own century, ISIS also picked Raqqa as their capital, in order to garb themselves in reflected piety from Harun ar-Rashid. Harun made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, nine times in his life. Indeed he had the distinction of being the only caliph in history to personally lead both the hajj and the jihad in the same year (797). Indeed, he was so proud of these roles, he had a qalasuwa—a cap around which a turban is wrapped—made for himself, inscribed with the words Ghazi wa Hajj: warrior and pilgrim.

As for Ja’far, his reputation for mastery of the shari’ah was so great that the historian ibn Khallikan said, no doubt with some exaggeration, that he once, under Harun ar-Rashid’s supervision, issued a thousand legal opinions in a single night, and “not one of these decisions deviated in the least from what was warranted by the law.”

Harun and Ja’far were inseparable; so close that Harun had a robe made with two collars that they could wear together. Despite their reputation for orthodoxy, however, it seems there’s barely a story involving either of them that doesn’t involve some sort of drinking.

In The Thread of Reason, I describe the spectacular palaces that the caliphs built in Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River. The initial settlement in Baghdad was on the west bank, and in his book Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate, Guy LeStrange explains how the move across the river got started. It turns out it was thanks to Ja’far's drinking parties:

Yakut gives us the history of these palaces, and in the first place relates how Ja'far the Barmecide, being much given to wine-bibbing in the company of poets and singers, was frequently reproved by his father Yahya—at that time Wazir of Harun-ar-Rashid—for the scandal that he was creating. Ja'far professed inability to alter his ways, but in order to shun the observation of strict Moslems who abhorred wine and singing, he agreed to build himself a palace apart, for the celebration of his joyous assemblies, on the unoccupied lands to the south of the Mukharrim Quarter. Ja'far was at this time still the favourite boon companion of Harun-ar-Rashid, who showed much interest in the building, which was indeed so remarkable for its magnificence, that when all was completed an astute friend advised Ja'far to tell Harun that this palace was in reality built as a present for [Harun’s son] Mamun, and thus to avoid the well-known jealousy of the Caliph.

Ja’far was indispensable at the caliph’s own drinking parties—as was the caliph’s sister Abbasa. Alas, it was prohibited for Abbasa to be in the same room as Ja’far—a man to whom she was not related. Harun ar-Rashid solved that problem by means of marriage between the two, but he made it clear that it was to be a marriage in name only, never to be consummated.

In 803, Harun turned on the Barmakids. He ordered Masrur, his “Sworder of Vengeance,” who I mentioned previously for his role in The Thousand and One Nights, to execute the unfortunate Ja’far. Ja’far’s father Yahya and his brother Fadl were imprisoned for the rest of their lives. The reason for Harun’s betrayal of his once closest friend is one of the great mysteries of Islamic history. Even at the time, theories abounded. The most common is that Harun, who had become caliph at a very young age (probably twenty-one), and who therefore had to rely heavily on Yahya’s guidance, was chomping at the bit to get out from under Yahya’s shadow (shades of the relationship between the sultan Malik-shah and his vizier Nizam al-Mulk three centuries later). But there’s another theory: Harun lost it upon discovering that the sham marriage between Ja’far and Abbasa was not, in fact, a sham.

In any case, Ja’far’s reaction when Masrur came for his head gives us yet another bit of insight into Harun ar-Rashid’s habits. Ja’far was certain that when the order was issued, the caliph had to have been drunk.

Next installment: The hardliners strike back.

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Juice that Frees thy Heart from a Hundred Pains

Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
by Michael Isenberg.

Readers of my novel The Thread of Reason, set in the world of medieval Islam, often tell me how surprised they are to find widespread wine drinking in the book. “Isn’t wine prohibited in Islam?” they ask me.

It certainly is. The Quran bans it in numerous places, for example Chapter 5, Verse 90: “O ye who believe! verily, wine, and [games of chance], and statues, and divining arrows are only an abomination of Satan's work; avoid them then that haply ye may prosper [1].”

The Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad and his Companions, which together with the Quran form the basis of Muslim law, is even more strict. It tells us that the penalty for drinking was set by Muhammad and his successor, the caliph Abu Bakr, to forty lashes. But Abu Bakr’s successor, the caliph Omar, raised it to eighty [2]. And it wasn’t merely drinking that was forbidden: also buying it, selling it, transporting it, serving it, and sitting at a table where it is served [3].

Despite these prohibitions, wine was widely enjoyed in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. We know this from numerous sources. In this post, I’ll share what some of the literature of the time had to say. The poems and stories handed down to us through the centuries may be fictional, but they reflect the attitudes of the writers, and in my opinion they're far better sources for details about daily life than a formal history, which, in the words of Jean Henri Fabre, "records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat." So I'll cover the literature here and, in the next installment, get into more traditional types of historical evidence.

Wine was a favorite topic of poets, especially those in the Sufi tradition such as Rumi and Hafiz. Omar Khayyam, the astronomer and author of The Rubaiyat (and the hero of The Thread of Reason), was obsessed with wine. The oldest collection of his poems we have is the Ouseley Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, transcribed in 1460. Out of the 158 verses that appear there, 90 of them, by my count, or 57%, are about wine, including the one from which I took the title of this post:

Every draught that the Cup-bearer scatters upon the earth
quenches the fire of anguish in some afflicted eye.
Praise be to God! thou realizest that wine
is a juice that frees thy heart from a hundred pains [4].

There is some debate as to whether the wine that is so highly praised in Muslim poetry is supposed to be taken literally, or whether it is a symbol for something more spiritual—wisdom, or mystic communion with Allah, for example. The debate is especially controversial in Omar Khayyam’s case; I’ll discuss that in detail in a future post.

While the symbolism of poetry can be hard to interpret, there is no room for interpretation concerning the wine that pours so freely in the prose stories of the time. It symbolizes wine. For instance, liberal imbibing appears in the Maqamat, by Qasim Hariri of Basra. Hariri will be familiar to readers of The Thread of Reason as the spy sent to “take care of” Omar Khayyam during his travels. One story in the Maqamat, for example, concerns a party of travelers who wish to journey from Damascus to Anah, in western Iraq. They are reluctant to set out, however, because they do not have a guard to travel with them and protect them from bandits as they cross the Syrian desert. The problem is solved when a holy man presents himself and promises to keep them safe by means of magic incantations. This unlikely expedient works like, well, like magic, and the party arrives in Anah without incident. They pay the holy man generously, and he scampers off, leaving them wondering where he went:

And we ceased not to seek him in every assembly, and to ask news of him from each that might mislead or guide.—Until it was said, "Since he entered 'Anah he has not quitted the tavern."—Then the foulness of this report set me on to test it, and to walk in a path to which I belonged not.— So I went by night to the wine-hall in disguised habit; and there was the old man in a gay-coloured dress amid casks and wine vats;—And about him were cupbearers surpassing in beauty, and lights that glittered, and the myrtle and the jasmine, and the pipe and the lute.—And at one time he bade broach the wine casks, and at another he called the lutes to give utterance; and now he inhaled the perfumes, and now he courted the gazelles [5].

The "holy man" was in fact a con man. And there’s no doubt from the context wine means wine. Certainly the thirteenth century artist who drew this illustration of the scene for an illuminated manuscript thought so. The guy in the lower right stomping the grapes clinches it.

The characters in the Maqamat were practically teetotalers compared to those in the most famous collection of stories from the medieval Muslim world, The Thousand and One Nights. I ran a search on the Richard Burton translation and found 783 instances of the word wine (okay, that includes the footnotes, but I think I made my point). While the narrator of the The Maqamat considered the consumption of alcohol to be “foulness,” the drinking parties in the Nights are presented very matter-of-factly, as if they were a perfectly normal part of life. You’d be surprised at who would show up:

Now the warmth of wine having mounted to their heads they called for musical instruments; and the portress brought them a tambourine of Mosul, and a lute of Irak, and a Persian harp; and each mendicant took one and tuned it; this the tambourine and those the lute and the harp, and struck up a merry tune while the ladies sang so lustily that there was a great noise. And whilst they were carrying on, behold, some one knocked at the gate, and the portress went to see what was the matter there. Now the cause of that knocking, O King (quoth Shahrazad) was this, the Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, had gone forth from the palace, as was his wont now and then, to solace himself in the city that night, and to see and hear what new thing was stirring; he was in merchant’s gear [i.e. traveling in disguise], and he was attended by Ja’afar [the Barmakid], his Wazir [prime minister], and by Masrur his Sworder of Vengeance. As they walked about the city, their way led them towards the house of the three ladies; where they heard the loud noise of musical instruments and singing and merriment; so quoth the Caliph to Ja’afar, “I long to enter this house and hear those songs and see who sing them.” Quoth Ja’afar, “O Prince of the Faithful; these folk are surely drunken with wine, and I fear some mischief betide us if we get amongst them.” “There is no help but that I go in there,” replied the Caliph.

Harun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest caliph of all time. And although he didn’t drink on this occasion—he excused himself on the grounds of “vows of pilgrimage”—he sure didn’t mind that everyone around him partook, especially considering that he was the leader of the Muslim world, responsible for the enforcement of shari’ah. As for Ja’afar, he’s presented as somewhat more strict, attempting to keep himself and the caliph away from a place where wine was being served. But the Thousand and One Nights is a work of fiction. Harun al-Rashid and Ja’afar ibn Barmak’s real-life carousing was considerably more wild. I’ll tell you about that in the next installment.

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
[1] Palmer Translation. [2] Sahih Muslim, trans. Abd al-Hamid Siddiqui (2009), book 17, Hadith numbers 4226–31. [3] Tirmidhi 43:3031 [4] Ouseley MS #140, Verse 81, Heron Allen translation. [5] Maqamat, #12, Thomas Chenery translation.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The US-Saudi-Iran Triangle

by Michael Isenberg.

In my previous post, I argued that practically everybody in Washington has the wrong approach to responding to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The media demands a knee-jerk reaction, divorced from any overall strategy, just because Khashoggi was one of their own.

As for President Trump, he does have an overall strategy. At least as far as his public statements and actions are concerned, that strategy is to shamelessly suck up to the Saudis, one of the most repressive regimes on the face of the planet, and a leader in both funding terrorism and spreading the jihadist philosophy that underlies it (I concede the possibility that President Trump may take a harder line with the Saudis in private).

So if both the media and President Trump are pursuing the wrong approach, what is the right one?

Any US reaction needs to be part of a larger, coherent strategy toward the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It needs to be a strategy we adhere to consistently, not just when the latest victim of Saudi repression happens to be a media darling. It also needs to be a strategy which supports the interests of the United States. And our primary interest in that part of the world is to defend ourselves against Islamic terror.

For guidance we can look to the lessons of the Cold War in general, and in particular, two policies of the Nixon Administration which were extremely effective in making the Soviet Union less aggressive: linkage and triangular diplomacy.

Mr. Nixon explained the first policy in his 1980 book, The Real War:

It was during the transition period between my election in 1968 and my first inauguration in 1969 that Henry Kissinger and I developed what is now widely called the concept of linkage. We determined that those things the Soviets wanted—the good public relations that summits provided, economic cooperation, and strategic arms limitations agreements—would not be gained by them without a quid pro quo. At that time the principal quid pro quos we wanted were some assistance in getting a settlement in Vietnam, restraint by them in the Middle East, and a resolution of the recurring problems in Berlin…We “linked” our goals to theirs, and though it took two years for the Kremlin to accept this policy in the SALT I negotiations, it finally did [pp. 267-8].

As for triangular diplomacy, the triangle was Soviet Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States of America. The idea was that, going forward, the US would engage both Russia and China diplomatically, rather than engaging Russia and isolating China, as it had been doing for decades. The strategy leveraged the Russian-Chinese split that existed at that time. Historically, the two peoples had looked down on each other as barbarians. The communist takeover of China in 1949 brought a temporary thaw to the relationship, but the rivalry soon reasserted itself. In Nixon’s words, “As competition between the two communist giants developed, it was increasingly directed toward leadership of the communist world, with each accusing the other of deviation from ‘true’ communist orthodoxy [The Real War p. 135].” By the early months of the Nixon Administration, the “competition” had degenerated into an all-out border war.

“Promoting Sino-Soviet rivalry cannot, in and of itself, be a U.S. policy,” Nixon wrote. “But the rivalry is there, and it provides an opportunity, an environment, in which to design a policy [The Real War, pp. 302-3].”

Ken Hughes, of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, described how Nixon put that design into practice: “He would play China against the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union against China, and both against North Vietnam [Richard Nixon: Foreign Affairs].”

For example, as we learn from his 1978 autobiography, RN:The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Nixon told the Soviets, “The only beneficiaries of US-Soviet disagreement over Vietnam is China [p. 406]. Then he told the Chinese, “The only gainer in having the war continue is the Soviet Union. [p. 568].” He really was “Tricky Dick.”

There are many similarities between the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Saudi Arabia during the War on Islamic Terror that make the latter a perfect candidate for Nixonian policies.

Like the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia wants—in fact needs—things from the United States: arms deals, investment funds to make its economy less dependent on oil revenue, and summits to give their leaders stature and legitimacy in the eyes of their own people and the world. A perfect opportunity for the US to insist on linkage to things the United States wants: intelligence on jihadist groups, an end to Saudi funding of them, and most important, an end to spreading the Wahhabi doctrine of political Islam around the world. A perfect opportunity for linkage, and a far better policy for the US than first bowing to Iran under the Obama Administration and then toeing the line for Saudi Arabia under Trump.

Also like the Soviet Union, the Saudis have a rival for the leadership of its respective world. Shiite Iran has locked horns with Sunni Saudi Arabia over which nation best represents the “true” Islam. This rivalry colors every aspect of Iranian/Saudi activity, from constant Iranian sniping at any mishaps during the annual pilgrimage or haj (Saudi Arabia’s role as Custodian of the Two Holy Sanctuaries is a source of great prestige in the Muslim world), to vicious proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.

There is one complication in any hardline US policy toward Saudi Arabia: Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. If Saudi Arabia fears losing the United States as an ally, it may turn to them. Indeed, some Middle Eastern countries, the United Arab Emirates, for example, are already doing this. Their leaders may be thugs, but they’re not stupid. They saw how the Obama Administration threw Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak under the bus during 2011’s Arab Spring. They also saw how steadfast an ally Putin has been to Syria’s Bashar Assad during the civil war in that country. Any US Middle East policy must be accompanied by a complementary Russia policy. While a comprehensive Russia strategy is beyond the scope of a blog about Islam, the annals of the Nixon administration contain many examples of how to keep the Russians from meddling the Middle East. We can also learn some lessons from Turkish president Recep Erdogan, who recently succeeded at halting the Russian/Syrian advance on Idlib.

This week offers a perfect opportunity to take linkage and triangular diplomacy on their maiden voyage: negotiations between the parties in the Yemen civil war began today in Stockholm. I would love to see Trump tell the Saudis, “The only beneficiaries of US-Saudi disagreement over Yemen is Iran,” and then turn around and tell Iran, “The only gainer in having the war continue is Saudi Arabia.” If that could hasten a settlement, the Yemeni people would be free of the starvation and disease that the war has inflicted on them, and the world would be free of a breeding ground for jihadists, who flourish wherever instability reigns.

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

Photo credit(s):, A Cartoon History of US Foreign Policy

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

We don’t need a knee-jerk reaction to the Khashoggi murder

We need a new policy toward Saudi Arabia.
by Michael Isenberg.

Trump is under attack. (What else is new?)

This time the issue is his admittedly weak response to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government. The CIA believes Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”) "probably ordered" the hit, albeit the case against him, as far as the public has been told, is circumstantial: he had close ties to some of the conspirators. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress there is no "direct evidence" against MBS. When asked at an October 11 bill signing how the case would affect his dealings with Saudi Arabia, he replied that making money off the Saudis comes first. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country on—I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others, for this country.”

A month and a half has passed since then and the issue hasn’t gone away. The critics have only grown louder, with particular emphasis on holding MBS personally accountable somehow. In an editorial last week, The Washington Post shredded the president’s response as a “craven abdication,” and called for private organizations to suspend their dealings with the Saudi regime and for Congress to attach “a provision to a must-pass budget bill ending military aid to Saudi Arabia until the Yemen war ends and all authors of the Khashoggi murder are identified and sanctioned.” House Speaker Ryan said, “Realpolitik is very important. But Realpolitik works if you do so from a position of moral clarity and with respect to holding people accountable,” leaving me wondering whether he knows what "realpolitik" means. The Senate has gotten into the act as well. A procedural vote on Wednesday, with bipartisan support from senators as diverse as Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), advanced a resolution which would cut off US support for the Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war. A terrible idea—there is a long history of legislative branch grandstanding disrupting delicate behind the scenes negotiations by the executive branch—but it shows the depth of dissatisfaction with Trump's position.

Some of my Trump supporter friends have attempted to justify that position by pointing out that Khashoggi wasn’t the angel that the media has made him out to be. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and was friendly with Osama bin Laden in the 80’s (So was the US!). More recently, in a column titled "The US is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab World is suffering for it," he argued for more political power for Islamists: “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.” While all these accusations against Khashoggi are true, I don’t think any of them diminish the seriousness or the brutality of the murder. Yes, Khashoggi has expressed some very wrong opinions, but surely that's not a capital offense or an extenuating circumstance that should factor into the US response.

My Trumpista friends are on more solid ground when they point out that Khashoggi’s murder is just one of many atrocities routinely committed by the Saudis. In the words of the 2016 documentary Saudi Arabia Uncovered, Saudi Arabia “is a state which beheads and even crucifies its citizens. Where those who question its authority are lashed and locked up for years. A state where woman lack many basic rights.” Recent cases have included the imprisonment and whipping of blogger Raif Badawi and the 2016 execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric whose sole crime was criticizing the government. And while progress in the form of drivers licenses for women has been greeted with much fanfare, the dirty secret is that many of the women activists who made that possible now rot in Saudi jail cells. The only reason the Khashoggi case has gotten more attention than these others is that Khashoggi is a member of the Western liberal media, thanks to his association with The Washington Post. Again, I don't think this excuses the Saudis in any way. But it does underscore the importance of treating the Khashoggi murder in the context of our overall relationship with Saudi Arabia, and not in isolation.

It would be foolish to engage in a knee jerk response merely because the victim is a Western journalist. Any US reaction needs to be part of a larger, coherent strategy toward the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It needs to be a strategy we adhere to consistently, not just when the latest victim of Saudi repression happens to be a media darling. It also needs to be a strategy which supports the interests of the United States. And our primary interest in that part of the world is defeating Islamic terror.

We've seen Donald Trump repeatedly stand up to foreign dictatorships, and rightly so. But the House of Saud hasn't been among them. Both in the Khashoggi case, and in many other instances, the Trump Administration's strategy in the Middle East has been to unquestioningly embrace the House of Saud. The rationale for this is not merely the jobs cited above. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an Oct 18 statement to reporters,

I think it's important for us all to remember, too, we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They continue to be an important counterterrorism partner. They have custody of the two holy sites. They're an important strategic alliance of the United States. We need to be mindful of that as well.

This “important strategic alliance” with our “important counterterrorism partner” is problematic. Cozying up to dictators is a double-edged sword under the best of circumstances. There are advantages in terms of intelligence, resources, military bases, and so on, but at the cost of creating resentment against the United States that induces recruits to join our enemies. The (possibly exaggerated) CIA role in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, and the US’s subsequent support for the Shah is still a sticking point between us and the Iranians—forty years after the Shah’s downfall. Arguably, we had the excuse that we were in the midst of the Cold War and we did what we had to do in the context of the larger struggle against the Soviet Union. We should never apologize for that. But we should recognize that it came with consequences.

There was some logic to allying with the Shah’s Iran in 1953 against a higher priority enemy. But there is no logic to allying with MBS’s Saudi Arabia in 2018: Saudi Arabia is the higher priority enemy. As I wrote in my review of Saudi Arabia Uncovered,

The Saudi regime is not content merely to subject its own citizens to the terrors of Islamism. It exports them. The ties between Saudi-funded Islamic charities and terror groups are well-known and reviewed in the documentary (which also notes there is no evidence that senior Saudi officials were complicit in them). However, thoughtful observers consider that the kingdom’s embrace of the Wahhabi form of Islam—the country has spent $70 billion promoting it worldwide—is even more insidious than direct support of terror. In the words of former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, “The ideology of ISIS is not much different from the ideology that Wahhabi Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia adheres to. Unless the Saudis deal with this issue, we are going to constantly fight yesterday’s war and even if we defeat ISIS, there’ll be another terrorist organization, perhaps with a different name, as long as they have this ideology that emanates from Saudi Arabia.”

Or as Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy put it,

For over 50 years the Saudis have also financed and helped spread the establishment of Muslim Brotherhood legacy thinkers and groups in the West. The Wahhabis and the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] share both a hate of Western liberal democracies and a dream of wanting to establish Islamic states and the caliphate. Their essential difference lies in that Wahhabis are simply corporate, top-down, “elitist” Islamists, while the Brotherhood are grassroots, populist Islamists. Both their interpretations of Islam are supremacist and theocratic.

I don't mean to single out President Trump here. President Obama’s policy of unquestionably embracing Iran—another exporter of jihad—was just as bad, for the same reasons.

Another argument I tend to hear, especially from libertarians, is that the US should not take any action at all with regard to Khashoggi. He was not a US citizen, his murder took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which is technically Saudi sovereign territory. It's an internal matter in which the US has no vested interest.

There is some merit to this, but I part company with my libertarian friends when they frame it as part of an overall policy of disengagement from the Middle East. My disagreement with them stems from a fundamentally different view of the cause of Islamic terror. They see it as a reaction to past injustices that the Western powers committed against the Muslim world, such as the previously mentioned overthrow of Mossadegh. And while I agree that these injustices feature prominently in jihadist recruitment propaganda, the real origin of Islamic terror is not to be found in anything the West has done, but rather in Islam itself. The terrorists will come for us regardless of our level of engagement in the Middle East, and we need to be proactive in addressing that problem. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis called it the "Clash of Civilizations," which I discussed in more detail in "Fighting for God," one of the tributes to Professor Lewis that I posted in the wake of his passing earlier this year.

So if neither disengagement, nor a knee jerk response to the atrocity of the week, nor Obama's stint as Iran's bitch, nor Trump’s strategy of hopping to the tune of the "beautiful" Saudi sword dance is the right policy in the War on Islamic Terror, then what is? There are many lessons from the Cold War we can draw on to formulate one. I’ll address that in my next installment.

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

4 Reasons I Don’t Give a Damn about Cultural Appropriation

By Michael Isenberg.

As a Jew who wrote a novel about the Muslim world, I am sometimes asked whether it bothers me that I’m committing “cultural appropriation.”

Absolutely not.

Cultural appropriation is the accusation leveled against members of “dominant” cultures when they use elements of “minority” cultures for various purposes, such as religious ritual, fashion, and especially the arts. Such accusations are all the rage on college campuses and other prog hotbeds, and tend to peak around Halloween in the form of minute examination of one’s festive attire for any hint of political incorrectness. (“I’m a culture, not a costume.”) As a philosophical concept, cultural appropriation is indefensible and racist. It is the enemy of artistic expression, and depends completely on a false premise. Just a terrible idea.

Before I get into details, I will admit to one area of agreement with the lefties who lecture us about cultural appropriation: one should always approach other cultures with respect. I attempted to do that in my novel—it's called The Thread of Reason, by the way—despite the many areas of Muslim doctrine with which I disagree, and I hope that is apparent to the reader.

That said, here are 4 Reasons I Don’t Give a Damn about Cultural Appropriation:

1. Cultural Exchange is a Good Thing.

No culture has a monopoly on good ideas. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, its quirks and taboos. It is therefore beneficial when cultures learn from each other, taking the best that each has to offer. This is certainly what we’ve done in America; the results have astonished the world.

This was the case in the world of medieval Islam as well, where Arabs, Turks, and Persians, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all jostled each other in the marketplace. As the main character in my book, Omar Khayyam, put it,

That’s the genius of the Muslims…we borrowed from our neighbors and the people that we conquered, and we made their ideas our ideas. Persia, India, and especially Greece are the foundation stones of our civilization—almost as much as the Quran. Did you know that when the caliph Harun ar-Rashid—three centuries ago—won battles against Rum, he demanded ancient Greek manuscripts as part of the tribute?

We commenced with the faith of Muhammad and the Companions, and we fused it with the philosophy of Aristotle and the Greeks. We saw further than those who came before us, because we stood atop a tower of ideas that they constructed.

(For those my right-of-center friends who disagree with this characterization of Islam, keep reading.)

If the forces of political correctness had their way, there would be no such cultural exchange. Every race, gender, religion, and other subculture would be segregated. Seated in different sections of the metaphorical bus. Ossified in its own traditions, unable to experience the evolution that comes from trade. The exact opposite of the diversity and multiculturalism whose benefits we once heard so much about.

2. That’s racist.

My left-of-center friends will no doubt interject at this point that I have cultural appropriation all wrong. They don’t object to cultural exchange per se. It’s only a problem when the playing field isn’t level, i.e. when the “appropriating” party exerts power over the other party, especially when the relationship is one of colonizer to colony (How colonialism continues to play such an important role decades after the great powers withdrew from their colonies baffles me).

This is so much worse than the segregation scenario I described above. Our politically correct friends have created two classes of cultures. One class may take any idea it wants from the other and experience the benefits of doing so, the other condemned to stagnation as it is prohibited from adopting anything in exchange. That really is a new colonialism. It’s racist AF.

The defenders of this kind of thinking tell us it’s necessary to rectify injustices that one culture committed against another. And yet they would enforce it even when the individuals involved were neither perpetrators nor victims of these injustices. Punishing the innocent is not justice. The antidote to racism is not reverse racism.

3. Your culture is not your property.

The notion that one people can “appropriate” the culture of another presupposes that the latter owns their culture via some sort of collective intellectual property rights.

They don’t.

As a writer, I’m all for individual intellectual property rights. In the words of the US Constitution, “securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” will “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Indeed, it is only fair that authors or inventors who labored and took risks to create something new should own it, and thereby benefit financially.

But giving intellectual property rights to a collective—most of whose members didn’t invent the thing—is another matter entirely. For someone who is not the creator, and may not even be his descendant, to retain such rights merely because he happens to have been born into the same culture does nothing for fairness. Nor does it protect the financial interests of authors and inventors or promote the progress of science and the useful arts. And for those rights to persist for centuries or even millennia after the death of the creator is absurd (Indeed, even current US law, which protects copyrights for a hundred years after the death of an author, goes too far).

To coin a phrase, you didn't build that. If you didn’t create it, you don’t own it. And that which is not owned cannot be appropriated.

4. Because I want to.

I chose to spend several years of my life researching and writing a book about the medieval Muslim world because it interested me. Not everyone in that world agreed with the quote above about the benefits of borrowing from other cultures. It was, therefore, a world in conflict. One the one hand, there were those such as Omar who studied “Greek science,” were tolerant toward Jews and Christians, and winked at a few breaches of shari’ah. On the other hand, there were the hardliners; they studied mysticism, persecuted Jews and Christians, and cracked down on the enforcement of shari’ah. I found this conflict fascinating, as well as tragic: in the end, the hardliners won, and, as I shall show in the sequels to The Thread of Reason, the consequences for Muslim civilization were disastrous.

It was a story I wanted to tell. That is the only justification any author needs.

I want to leave you with a quote from bestselling novelist Anne Rice, which she posted on Facebook last year. Ms. Rice is a straight, white woman who has created characters of nearly every race, gender, and orientation, both living and undead. Her 1986 novel, The Feast of All Saints, about “free people of color” in the antebellum South is particularly noteworthy in this respect. I was merely going to include excerpts, as it is rather long, but the post is so beautifully written and powerful (as a writer, I'm jealous), it’s worth reading in its entirety:

You can write from the point of view of anybody: a man, a woman, a gay man, a gay woman, a person of color, a native American, an ancient Egyptian, King Solomon, anyone. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you cannot do this. When I was writing "Feast of All Saints," a good friend told me in essence I had no right to write about people of color. ------- Shortly after, I went to Haiti to do research for this novel, and in a hotel bar in Port-au-Prince, I ran into an American black man, and I asked him about this very question. I told him about my book. "Write it," he said. He became extremely intense. "Write it." He felt it was of the utmost importance that I give birth to the novel I was envisioning. Later, back home in America, I asked the same question of a famous black author at a book signing. He said the same thing. Write the story. That was good enough for me. The bottom line is, you go where the intensity is for you as a writer; you give birth to characters for deep, complex reasons. And this should never be politicized by anyone. Your challenge is to do a fine and honest and effective job. Don't ever let anyone insist you give up without even trying. Two of the greatest novels about women that I've ever read, "Anna Karenina" and "Madame Bovary" were written by men. One of the finest novels about men that I've ever read, "The Last of the Wine" was written by a woman. That was Mary Renault. And her novel, "The Persian Boy," about a Persian eunuch is a classic. The vital literature we possess today was created by men and women of immense imagination, personal courage and personal drive. Ignore all attempts to politicize or police your imagination and your literary ambition.

Or as one of the comments on the post put it, “You don’t have to be a deer to write Bambi.”

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

Photo appropriated from:

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A well-loved tax collector

Tales of Medieval Islam.
By Michael Isenberg.

In my medieval Muslim murder mystery, The Thread of Reason, I recount the violent death of one “ben El the tax collector,” a protégé of the sultan’s vizier (i.e. prime minister) Nizam al-Mulk. “Despite his unfortunate choice of profession,” one of the characters tells us, “and despite being Jewish, he was well-loved in Basra.”

Ben El was a real-life figure, known to the history books as ibn Allah. Here’s an account of his demise from a medieval source, ibn al-Athir (1160-1233). The episode has some bearing on the debate between my left- and right-of-center friends as to how Jews were treated in medieval Islam. It shows that despite being second class citizens, they could nevertheless rise to prominent positions in the Islamic world and that when they came into conflict with Muslims, sometimes even the most highly-placed Muslim officials would take their side. With the possible exception of the sultan himself, there was none higher than Nizam al-Mulk:

Sultan Malikshah arrived in Khuzistan this year [1079-80] to go hunting. With him was Khumartegin and Gohara’in. They were both working to secure the death of Ibn Allah the Jew, the tax farmer of Basra, who was under the protection of Nizam al-Mulk and that was the reason why they were hostile to the Jew. The sultan ordered him drowned and this was done. For three days Nizam al-Mulk withdrew from public appearance and locked his door. Later he was advised to appear at the ceremonial parade, which he did. He gave a great feast for the sultan, during which he presented him with many things, but he criticized him for what he had done. The sultan made his excuses.

The position of the Jew had grown so great that when his wife died everyone in Basra, except the cadi, walked behind her bier. He had lived in great style and vast wealth.

From The Annals of the Seljuq Turks: Selections from al-Kamil fi’l-Tarikh of ‘Izz al-Din Ibn al-Athir, London: RoutledgeCurzon (2002), D.S.Richards, tr.

According to the text, Khumartegin and Gohara’in were motivated more by court politics than by any overarching hatred for Jews. About ten years after the death of ibn Allah, Gohara'in was involved in another incident involving a Jewish official which confirms that. But the later incident also shows that the Chosen People did have plenty of enemies in Islamic circles, despite their wealth and prominence (or more likely, because of it). I’ll recount that episode in a future post.

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

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Professor Lewis Strikes Back

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 5: Back to the Pilot.
By Michael Isenberg.

I began this series on Orientalism with the feud between Bernard Lewis and Edward Said. I’ve now come full circle and will wrap it up in the same vein.

Orientalism was a 1978 book by Professor Said, in which he argues that most Western scholarship on the Middle East is tainted: racist and in the service of the Armies of Imperialism. Among Western scholars, he singled out Mr. Lewis in particular. In a book chock full of attacks on the works of Orientalists, and even occasional praise for them, the attack on Lewis stands out as an attack on him personally, and an unusually bitter and abusive one at that:

Lewis is an interesting case to examine further because of his standing in the political world of the Anglo-American Middle Eastern Establishment is that of the learned Orientalist, and everything he writes is steeped in the “authority” of the field. Yet for at least a decade and a half his work in the main has been aggressively ideological, despite his various attempts at subtlety and irony. I mention his recent writing as a perfect exemplification [of an] Establishment Orientalist [whose work] purports to be objective, liberal scholarship, but is, in reality, very close to being propaganda against his subject material.


One would find this kind of procedure objectionable as political propaganda—which is what it is, of course—were it not accompanied by sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and Arabs cannot be objective but that Orientalists like Lewis writing about Muslims and Arabs are, by definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westernness. This is the culmination of Orientalism.

And again,

To look for a conscious, fair, and explicit judgment by Lewis of the Islam he has treated as he has treated it is to look in vain.

What are these "aggressively ideological" works of Professor Lewis? This "political propaganda?" Professor Said objects to a series of articles, which I wrote about previously, in which Lewis argues that despite the apparent victory of secular, nationalist dictators in the Middle East, Islamic movements were a rising force, and “Though they have all, so far, been defeated, they have not yet spoken their last word.” In Orientalism, Said dismisses that as “a project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam,” and “a charge intended by Lewis to explain to his latest public why it is that the Muslims (or Arabs) still will not settle down and accept Israeli hegemony over the Near East.” The role of Islam in the Arab world was certainly a topic over which reasonable people could disagree without either of them being guilty of trying to "discredit the Arabs." In any case, only a year after Orientalism was published, events in Iran would prove—in a tragic and spectacular fashion—that is was Lewis who was right.

Professor Said’s claim, that what this is really about is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, tells us more about Said than about Lewis. As I noted in Part 1, Said concedes in his Introduction that the subject was personal, “not for me an exclusively academic matter.” Nowhere does he let his personal feelings get in the way of his scholarly objectivity more than when it comes to the Jewish State. While he maintains a certain amount of academic detachment through most of the book, the final chapter, covering modern scholars, is entirely distorted by his partisanship as a Palestinian. Bernard Lewis is pro-Zionist and therefore must be at the receiving end of ad hominem attacks. But Louis Massignon, who viewed Zionism as “bourgeois colonialism,” possesses “sheer genius” and “overwhelming intelligence.” Said is even willing to give him a pass for equating the East with the ancient and the West with the modern, usually one of Said's top complaints against Orientalists.

Lewis calls Said out on this. In a rebuttal, published in The New York Review of Books, “the culmination of Orientalism” argues that what really bothers Said and other critics about so called-Orientalists is not their view of history, but rather their view of current events:

“Orientalism” has been emptied of its previous content and given an entirely new one—that of unsympathetic or hostile treatment of Oriental peoples. For that matter, even the terms “unsympathetic” and “hostile” have been redefined to mean not supportive of currently fashionable creeds or causes.

Or as we would put it today, the real sin of “Orientalists” is that they aren’t politically correct.

As for his overall assessment of the Orientalism hypothesis, Mr. Lewis sums it up in one word: “Absurd.” He points out that everything that Professor Said had to say about Western scholars of the Middle East could equally apply to scholars of Ancient Greece, until “the very name of classicist must be transformed into a term of abuse.” As ludicrous as that may seem, “if for classicist we substitute ‘Orientalist,’ with the appropriate accompanying changes, this amusing fantasy becomes an alarming reality.”

Or as we would put it today, “Orientalism” is bulls—t.

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

Photo Credit(s): Haaretz,

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Conan the Barbarian and The Thread of Reason

Tales of Medieval Islam.
By Michael Isenberg.

“The power of ideas—Allah’s ideas—was all I ever needed.”

Thus spake the Sheikh of the Mountain, the leader of the medieval Assassin cult in real life, and one of the principal villains in my novel The Thread of Reason. In the book, the sheikh captures and imprisons the hero, Omar Khayyam, along with Omar’s assistant, Muhammad Baghdadi. At a confrontation in the sheikh’s study, Omar was characteristically skeptical about the sheikh’s grandiose claims of his power—basically it was the scene from every James Bond movie where 007 confronts the bad guy bent on world domination. But unlike Omar, Baghdadi was intrigued. He wanted to know how the sheikh commanded such unwavering loyalty from his Assassins, who were all too eager to die for their master on a suicide mission. In response, the sheikh offered Baghdadi a demonstration. “Let me prove how powerful an idea can be,” he said. “When it comes from Allah.”

He rose from his cushion and gestured for Baghdadi to follow him to the window. Putting one arm around Baghdadi’s shoulders, he pointed out to the courtyard, where dozens of men were working by torchlight. “Every one of my Assassins is completely dedicated to our cause,” [he] said. “Pick one of them out—any one—and I’ll show you how much.”

Still at the table, Omar was absorbed in extracting the pit from a date when suddenly he jerked his head upward. He had just remembered something: a story from the history books. It gave him a bad feeling about where this was going. He scrambled to get to his feet and join the others at the window.

Baghdadi had made his selection. “That one,” he said. He pointed to a young man stripped to the waist who was hustling across the courtyard at a good clip despite the two baskets of bricks hanging from a pole across his shoulders.

“You there,” the Sheikh of the Mountain shouted. The porter dropped his burden and prostrated himself in the dust. “What is your bidding, O Sheikh of the Mountain?” he shouted back.

“I want you to climb the ramparts and—”

“Stop this right now,” Omar said firmly…

“Why do you say stop? You don’t even know what I’m going to tell him.”

“You mean you’re not planning to order him to jump off the castle wall?”

“Now you spoiled the surprise.”

If the scene seems familiar, it’s probably because you saw something similar in the 1982 sword and sorcery flick Conan the Barbarian. In explaining how he made the transition from warlord to cult leader, the villain Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) tells Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger), “There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.”

“The riddle...of steel,” Conan replies.

“Yes! You know what it is, don't you, boy? Shall I tell you? It's the least I can do. Steel isn't strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks.” He beckons to one of his followers standing above them on a ridge. “A beautiful girl. Come to me, my child...” The girl calmly steps off the edge of the cliff and plummets to her death.

“That is strength, boy!” says Thulsa. “That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”

But lest you think the Sheikh of the Mountain plagiarized Thulsa Doom, it was in fact the other way around. The story has been associated with the Assassin cult ever since the Crusaders returned to Europe with tales of their adventures. Bernard Lewis, in The Assassins: a Radical Sect in Islam, relates “a somewhat questionable story” of one of the later Assassin leaders:

Count Henry of Champagne, returning from Armenia in 1198, was entertained in his castle by the Old Man, who ordered a number of his henchmen to leap to their deaths from the ramparts for the edification of his guest, and then hospitably offered to provide others for his requirements: and if there was any man who had done him an injury, he should let him know, and he would have him killed.

(From the “continuation” of William of Tyre’s History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.)

But even in 1198, the story was already old. An earlier version occurred during the Qarmatian Rebellion. The Qarmatians were one of the strangest sects in the history of Islam. They were communists. A dissident Shiite offshoot, dedicated to the brotherhood of mankind, they threw off the authority of the caliphs and established their own egalitarian utopia in the early 900s, with their capital at Lahsa, near Bahrain. Naser-e Khosraw, who visited the Qarmatians around the year 1050, described what he found:

They neither pray nor fast, but they do believe in Mohammad and his mission…They take no tax from the peasantry, and whenever anyone is stricken by poverty or contracts a debt they take care of his needs until the debtor’s affairs should be cleared up. And if anyone is in debt to another, the creditor cannot claim more than the amount of the debt. Any stranger to the city who possesses a craft by which to earn his livelihood is given enough money to buy the tools of his trade and establish himself. If anyone’s property or implements suffer loss and the owner is unable to undertake necessary repairs, they appoint their own slaves to make the repairs and charge the owner nothing. The rulers have several gristmills in Lahsa where the citizenry can have their meal ground into flour for free, and the maintenance of the buildings and the wages of the miller are paid by the rulers.

[From Naser-e Khosraw, Book of Travels (Safarnama), W. M Thackston, Jr., tr. (1986)]

You may wonder how a communist state can afford to be so generous and survive, let alone prosper for 150 years, when every other experiment in communism that litters the pages of history collapsed under the weight of its own poverty. The answer is buried in the passage above: slavery. “At the time I was there,” Khosraw writes, “they had thirty thousand Zanzibar and Abyssinian slaves working in the fields and gardens.”

The Qarmatians supplemented the stolen product of their slaves' labor with plunder from neighboring communities. In 930, for example, under the command of Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi, they sacked Mecca, killed several pilgrims in the holy precincts of the Kaaba, stole the sacred Black Stone that was kept there, and brought it back to their capital. According to Khosraw, “They said that the stone was a ‘human magnet’ that attracted people, not knowing that it was the nobility and magnificence of Mohammad that drew people [to Mecca].” After Janabi’s death his successors returned it for a ransom. At some point during its theft and captivity it got shattered—to this day a silver frame is used to hold the pieces together.

The raid on Mecca was not the Qarmatians’ only attack on Muslim cities. Two years earlier, Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi and his men had marched on Baghdad, capital of the Commander of the Faithful, the Caliph al-Muqtadir. Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, tells us what happened next:

Baghdad was filled with consternation; and the caliph trembled behind the veils of his palace. In a daring inroad beyond the Tigris, Abu Tahir advanced to the gates of the capital with no more than five hundred horse. By the special order of Muqtadir the bridges had been broken down, and the person or head of the rebels was expected every hour by the commander of the faithful. His lieutenant, from a motive of fear or pity, apprised Abu Tahir of his danger, and recommended speedy escape. “Your master,” said the intrepid Qarmatian to the messenger, “is at the head of thirty thousand soldiers: three such men as these are wanting in his host:” at the same instant, turning to three of his companions, he commanded the first to plunge a dagger into his breast, the second to leap into the Tigris, and the third to cast himself headlong from down a precipice. They obeyed without a murmur. “Relate,” continued the imam, “what you have seen: before the evening your general shall be chained among my dogs.”

[Spelling updated for consistency with modern use]

Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi's boastful prediction was not to be. The Qarmatians were driven away from Baghdad and al-Muqtadir, despite a turbulent reign, remained unchained.

I put the “Riddle of Steel” scene in The Thread of Reason because I wanted to make a serious point about the power of ideas and because the book is about the Assassins and the scene is a timed-honored part of Assassin lore. But I couldn't resist poking fun a little at how often it has appeared, not only in Conan the Barbarian and The Thread of Reason, but in many other works as well (1964’s The Long Ships and 2005’s The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam come to mind). And so, when the Sheikh of the Mountain accuses Omar of ruining his surprise, I have Omar reply, “When Suleiman Janabi performed that demonstration—a century and a half ago—it was a surprise. Now it’s just a cliché.”

As for whether the porter actually jumps, you’ll just have to read the 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

Photo credit(s): You Tube, Crystalinks

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 4: The other things Said got wrong.
By Michael Isenberg.

In Part 3 of this series, “Polluters of the Brain,” I began to lay out all the flaws in Edward Said’s “Orientalism” hypothesis, the notion that Western scholarship of the Middle East is irredeemably tainted by imperialism and racism. In particular, I discussed how his eponymous book is polluted from intro to index by the philosophy of postmodernism. I quoted extensively from Said admirer and postmodernism critic Camille Paglia.

While Ms. Paglia was willing to overlook Professor Said’s postmodernist tendencies, she is too honest an intellectual to overlook his fundamental unfairness to Western scholars. Despite her praise for his brilliance, she felt compelled to point out “reservations” that she had about Mr. Said’s “caricature of the disciplines of anthropology, Egyptology, and Oriental studies.” (Which seems to me a little like saying that despite Camille Paglia’s brilliance, one has reservations about her views on feminism, the sixties, and that business about art and culture being man’s attempt to come to terms with nature.) Paglia is quite right that Orientalists’ “massive scholarship in the nineteenth century is the foundation of today’s knowledge…[Said] tends to accept others’ dismissal of a massive body of work of awesome learning and continuing relevance.” That massive body of work was sure relevant to my own research; it helped me out greatly.

Professor Said is so certain that Westerners can't tell Muslims anything about the Muslim world, that he ignores instances where they really have uncovered Muslim achievements long forgotten in the East. Abu Zayd ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), for instance, developed cyclical theories of history that were way ahead of their time. And in economics, no less a figure than Arthur Laffer acknowledges that ibn Khaldun preceded him by half a millennium in developing the principles underlying supply side theory and the Laffer curve. And yet, except for a brief revival in the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire, ibn Khaldun’s works were nearly dead to the world, until a French Orientalist, Silvestre de Sacy, breathed new life into them in the early 1800s.

More generally, Professor Said takes a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude toward Western scholars. He condemns them for appropriation if they adopt the works of Middle Eastern culture, and Eurocentrism if they ignore them. Those who disparage the Muslim are “racist” and “ethnocentric,” those who embrace the “Wisdom of the East” are appropriators. On the one hand, he is infuriated by Western representations of Muhammad as a fraud and a child molester, or criticism that Islam is “totalitarian.” On the other hand, he is infuriated by any suggestion that Muhammad and Islam are of any relevance to the modern Middle East, which he thinks is better understood in terms of the socialist, nationalist revolutionary movements which seemed to be in the ascendant at the time he was writing. Similarly, he argues that Orientalism creates artificial barriers between people. Then he damns one of the greatest achievements of human history, the Suez Canal, for shortening the distance to the East and thereby bringing the barriers down. “The logical conclusion of Orientalist thought,” he calls it.

As I noted in Part 2, there is some merit to Professor Said’s argument that many Orientalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were racist and in the service of imperialism. But it’s a stretch to extend that argument to the post-World War II era, when the European powers pulled up their stakes in their one-time colonies and the civil rights movement in America made racism socially unacceptable. Professor Said is the first to object when Western scholars characterize the Middle East as static and unable to evolve. And yet he is in denial that the West can evolve as well, even though he has to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to stay in denial.

The first hoop is language; in the absence of colonialists, he redefines his terms to create new ones. Oil companies are the new “empires,” America the new “imperium.” It’s been said that Americans make lousy imperialists—all they want to do is go home—but that doesn’t deter Professor Said from stretching the definition of “empire” beyond recognition in order to make his case.

Unable to find enough criticisms of twentieth century scholars by redefining his terms, he resorts next to package dealing by bringing pop culture into the mix. Yes, there are some pretty cringe-worthy stereotypes of Arabs in 1960s television, but one can hardly draw conclusions about the academics toiling in the Middle Eastern sections of university libraries based on what appeared on The Beverly Hillbillies.

Indeed, the very name that Professor Said chose for his book, Orientalism, is an exercise in package dealing. As I noted previously, the term was more common during the Imperialist era than it is today. Even at the time the book was published in 1978, it had fallen into disuse. The International Congress of Orientalists voted to drop the term in 1973 and is now the International Congress of Asian and North African Studies. Even Professor Said concedes that “Today an Orientalist is less likely to call himself an Orientalist,” although he correctly points out that the name lingers (even in 2018) in institutional names such as Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies. But by reviving the nearly-extinct term, Professor Said is able to associate modern scholars with their imperialist predecessors, and thereby visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation.

Said has yet another technique to make his case against scholars: he has the clairvoyance to read between the lines and uncover the coded racism and imperialism in their work. For example, consider his analysis of Bernard Lewis’s article, “Islamic Concepts of Revolution.” As noted above, revolution is central to Said's understanding of the modern Middle East. He objects that Professor Lewis disagrees, and finds particular fault with Lewis’s discussion of—etymology. Lewis points out that the root of the Arabic word for revolution, thur, means to rise, excite, or stir up, and originally referred to the motion of a camel rising up. It's a mildly interesting if somewhat pedantic discussion. Professor Said's response is completely out of proportion: “The entire passage is full of condescension and bad faith. Why introduce the idea of a camel rising as an etymological root for modern Arab revolution except as a clever way of discrediting the modern?” [I don’t know—maybe because a camel rising is the etymological root for modern Arab revolution?] Furthermore Professor Said argues that words like rise, excite, and stir up, are Freudian in nature and therefore evoke the racist stereotype of the oversexed Arab. Said’s “gotcha” tone reminds me of Dennis, the anarcho-syndicalist in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “What a giveaway! Do you hear that? Do you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about. Do you see him repressing me?”

The only difference is that in the movie, King Arthur really does call Dennis “Bloody peasant,” whereas the insults to Professor Said in Lewis’s article are figments of his imagination.

But Professor Said’s attacks on Professor Lewis did not stop with the latter’s etymological analyses, and I shall discuss that in the final part of this series.

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

Photo Credit(s): Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), Old Scholar; YouTube