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 [ibn Barmak], 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 Amazon.com
[1] Palmer Translation. [2] Sahih Muslim, trans. Abd al-Hamid Siddiqui (2009), book 17, Hadith numbers 4226–31. [3] Tirmidhi 43:3031 https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/43. [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 Amazon.com

Photo credit(s): iuvmpress.com, 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 Amazon.com