Monday, October 14, 2019

The Story of the Three Students

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

By Michael Isenberg.


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

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

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

The answer is history. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

A fascinating story, but how much is true?

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

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

Siege of Alamut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Brave Sir Donald Ran Away

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

By Michael Isenberg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But sadly, history tells us otherwise.

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

Photo credit(s): BBC, Twitter

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Secret Garden of the Assassins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, and Thou

Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
Part IV—Omar Khayyam.
by Michael Isenberg.

Omar Khayyam was a towering figure in the Muslim World at the turn of the 12th century. We in the West know him mainly as a poet, author of the Rubaiyat, but he was also a scientist, a philosopher, a mathematician, the physician of princes, and the companion of sultans.

As the Royal Astronomer, he developed the Jalali calendar, which, with modifications, is still in use in Iran today, and is accurate to one day in 5,000 years. To put that in perspective, the Gregorian calendar we use in the West is accurate to only one day in 3,000 years.

But Omar’s learning was not limited to the physical sciences. His insights into the Quran and the Hadith were well-respected by scholars of Shari’ah such as Abu Hamid Ghazali. To this day, Ghazali is one of the most influential thinkers in Islam. We have a story about him and Omar from the historian Abu’l-Hasan Bayhaqi (d. 1169). Bayhaqi knew Omar; while still a teenager, his dad took him to visit the aging polymath in his hometown of Nishapur, Iran. According to Bayhaqi, Omar once explained some point “concerning a certain verse” (presumably of the Quran) to a group of people, including Ghazali. Ghazali was not an easy man to please, and didn’t always get along with Omar, but on this occasion he exclaimed, “May God increase such learned ones as you; consider me as one of your followers!” Granted, being something of dick, Ghazali then felt compelled to add that he did not expect such a stellar analysis from a scientist [1].

Needless to say, Muslims in general, and Iranians in particular, are proud to have such a brilliant and pious scholar and poet among their numbers. Omar’s beautiful mausoleum in Nishapur was rebuilt in the last century. It is set amid tall pine trees and colorful gardens in what is otherwise a brown and dusty town surrounded by brown and dusty farmland. The park rather stands out on the satellite image. Nearby are the Khayyam Planetarium and Khayyam Boulevard.

And yet, there’s a fly in the ointment: Wine. The oldest collection of Omar’s 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—something prohibited in Islam.

I began this series on Islam and wine by citing some of the verses in the Muslim scripture that prohibit the use of alcohol, but I also observed that the literature of the Middle Ages suggests that the prohibition was not very well enforced. In Part II, I backed that up with examples from the history books. Religious hardliners like Ghazali were not happy with wine shops all over town and drinking parties in the palaces. In Part III I wrote about how they struck back, with some success. Since I appropriated Omar Khayyam as the hero of my latest novel, The Thread of Reason, it seems fitting to wrap up the series with a question that has occupied biographers and historians for centuries: Did he drink?

For such an esteemed personage as Omar Khayyam to be as obsessed with wine as his poetry shows him to be is something of an embarrassment to Muslims.

Some condemned his verses. The historian Abu’l-Hasan al-Qifti (d. 1248) wrote that Omar’s poems “are inwardly like snakes who bite the Shari’ah.” [2]

But others attempted to explain them away, and these attempts began almost the moment Omar drew his final breath. The wine in the Rubaiyat, they said, should be interpreted symbolically. Numerous theories have been proposed as to what exactly it symbolizes, but the most common is that it symbolizes the joy of mystic communion with Allah. According to this theory, Omar was an adherent of the Islamic esoteric movement known as Sufism, and the wine in his poetry should be understood in that light, as it is for other prominent Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafiz. Thus, the question of what wine symbolizes in the Rubaiyat cannot be separated from the question of whether Omar Khayyam was a Sufi.

The theory is not entirely without merit. There are certainly many verses in the Rubaiyat where this interpretation would make sense. Consider one of the most famous:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
          Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow! [3]

It’s certainly plausible, but by no means certain, that all the elements of Sufism are there. The wilderness is the dwelling of the holy man. Ishmael, Moses, Jesus—they all found Allah in the desert. The loaf of bread is the simple diet of the Sufi. The book of verses is his song. As for the jug of wine, it’s the ecstasy of communion with Allah, the ‘Thou,’ singing beside the ‘me.’

Further, Ahmad Ghazali (d. ca. 1123), who probably knew Omar, wrote in his letters that Omar was in fact a Sufi, and offered some Sufic interpretations of his verses [4]. Ahmad was the brother of the aforementioned Abu Hamid Ghazali and a prominent Sufi himself.

But there is little corroboration of Ahmad’s claims, and certainly nothing from Omar himself, unless you count Abbas Kayvan Qazwini’s claim that the ghost of Omar Khayyam visited him in a dream and told him it was so [5]. Indeed, it is unusual for someone who has dedicated his life to rational pursuits such as astronomy and mathematics to go in for mysticism. In the same passage where he compares the Rubaiyat to snakes, al-Qifti also tells us that even though “Sufis understood his poems outwardly and considered them to be part of their tradition,” when Omar “arrived in Baghdad, members of [a Sufi] tradition and believers in primary science came to him and began to socialize with him. He did not accept them.”

The debate continues into our own time. Robert Graves, better known as the author of I, Claudius, threw his hat into the ring when he agreed to collaborate with Omar Ali-Shah to publish The Original Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1968), based on a manuscript that had allegedly been in the Shah family for many generations and supported the Sufic interpretation. Alas, Shah never produced the original manuscript, and it is now widely believed that the whole thing was a hoax—of which Graves himself was the greatest victim.

Mehdi Aminrazavi of the University of Mary Washington took on the question in The Wine of Wisdom (2005), unquestionably the best Khayyam biography out there, and an indispensable help to me in writing both The Thread of Reason and this article. On the question of Omar Khayyam and Sufism, Dr. Aminrazavi concludes, “None of his biographers have alluded to his Sufi affiliation, and the one exception I have mentioned previously asserts that Sufis misunderstood his Ruba’iyyat and interpreted them as they wished,” i.e., the al-Qifti passage, cited above. Further, “For all we know, Khayyam neither had a Sufi master nor was he initiated into a Sufi tradition.” Both transmission of knowledge from a master and the initiation ritual are of great importance in Sufism, so their absence in Omar’s case is highly significant.

Although he doesn’t accept that Omar was a Sufi, and therefore the notion that wine in the Rubaiyat represents Sufic communion, Dr. Aminrazavi nevertheless argues for a symbolic interpretation, and indeed he took the title of his book from it: “Khayyam’s use of the concept of wine is as the ‘wine of wisdom,’ a philosophical image which enables one to come to terms with the merciless forces of nature through an all-too-human-wisdom.” Aminrazavi cites a number of verses in support of the wine of wisdom symbolism, including this one:

The mystery is great and the answers are rare
Wise men have searched but you should not care
          Make thy own heaven here with this moment and wine
For the heaven is a fairy tale, nothing but Air.

With all due respect to Dr. Aminrazavi, I disagree with the wine of wisdom metaphor, along with the Sufic metaphor. I believe that when Omar talks about wine in the Rubaiyat, what it symbolizes is…wine. I have two reasons for that. Regarding the first, consider the following, somewhat humorous verses from the Ouseley manuscript: #38,

I drink wine; my Enemies, high and low,
Say—“Do not drink it; ‘tis Religion’s Foe.’
          When I learned wine was a Foe, I answered—
“’Tis permitted to drink the Foe’s Blood, you know.” [6]

And #75,

I drink wine, and every one drinks who like me is worthy of it;
my wine-drinking is but a small thing to Him;
          God knew, on the Day of Creation, that I should drink wine;
if I do not drink wine, God’s knowledge was ignorance. [7]

In these verses, we see that Omar clearly views wine drinking as a sin. He knows it’s prohibited, but he drinks it anyway. He can’t help it. It’s foreordained. Fortunately, Allah is a loving god, and won’t judge him too harshly.

This notion that wine is weakness and sin recurs in seven other verses (#45, 62, 64, 78, 99, 104, and 118). It’s not consistent with the view that wine symbolizes mystic communion—which is not a sin (or at least a Sufi wouldn't say it was). I haven’t run across this angle in the poetry of known Sufis like Rumi. Nor is it consistent with the wine of wisdom—also not a sin in a religion which puts as high a premium on scholarship as Islam does. But wine equals sin makes perfect sense if it’s to be understood as simply plain old tavern-variety fermented grape juice.

The second reason I believe that wine means wine is not based on quite so scholarly an analysis. I’m rather fond of wine myself, and have some experience with it. Reading the Rubaiyat, I just get the gut feeling that Omar knows what he’s talking about.

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

Photo credit(s):, Google Maps

[1] Bayhaqi, Abu’l-Hasan, Tatimah siwan al-Hikmah, Lahore (1351 AH), pp. 116-17 [2] Qifti, Abu’l-Hasan al-, Tarikh al-Qifti (History of the Scholars), Leipzig (1903), pp. 243-44. [3] Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 3rd ed. (1872), Edward Fitzgerald, tr., xii. Fitzgerald’s translations tend to be a little loose, and this is actually a composite of #149 and 155 in the Ouseley manuscript, but the Sufic elements I allude to are all there in the original. [4] Ghazzali, Ahmad, Risalah maw’izah, Tehran (1371 AH) Nourbakhsh, ed. [5] Qazwini, A.K. Sharh-i ruba’iyyat-i Khayyam, Tehran (1379 AH), M.R.M. Chahardehi, ed., p. 19. [6] Adapted by me from the translation in The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Boston: L.C. Page & Co. (1898), Edward Heron-Allen, tr. [7] Heron-Allen translation, loc. cit.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Saudi Oil Facility Attacks: What the US Should Do Now

It will take more than tweets for President Trump to show the Iranians that they will not benefit from attacking the world’s energy supply.

by Michael Isenberg.

The video was quite dramatic. Mountains of white-orange flame dwarfing the buildings and lighting up the sky. Billows of red smoke trailing off into the night.

The attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, believed to be from a combination of cruise missiles and drones, struck the Abqaiq processing plant and the Khurais oil field at 4 AM Saturday morning. The Saudi government reported that there were no fatalities or injuries, fortunately, but the Abqaiq facility will be offline for an undetermined period of time. The facility removes sulfur from some 5 to 7 million barrels of oil a day, about half of Saudi Arabia’s production, and around 5% of the world’s oil supply.

Now that the fires are, if not exactly out, at least “under control,” the question for those of us in the US is what, if anything should we do about it? And that question can’t be separated from the questions of who was responsible for the attacks and what were their motives.

Who did it?

Within hours of the attacks, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels in Yemen appeared on their al-Masirah news channel and claimed responsibility. The Houthi, based in the country's western hills, have been at war with their government since March of 2015, in what has been called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The war has been a stalemate, with little change in the territories subject to government and Houthi control. Almost from the beginning, the Saudi military intervened on the government side, conducting a massive air campaign, but with little effect. In retaliation, the Houthis have launched drone and missile attacks against defense and oil facilities within Saudi Arabia, but none of these earlier attacks were as damaging as Abqaiq and Khurais.

It’s about 550 miles from Abqaiq to Houthi-held territories in Yemen, within the 930 mile range of the most advanced Houthi drone, the UAV-X. Nevertheless, there is some reason for skepticism whether the Houthis were actually responsible. An anonymous US military source has claimed that the damage to the facilities were on the west-north-west sides, suggesting a direction of attack from Iran, or possibly Iraq, where there are many Iran-backed militias. Indeed, as the map shows, both Iran and Iraq are much closer to the targets.

In a tweet on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Iran explicitly for the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” adding, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in turn, accused Pompeo of lying. “Having failed at ‘max pressure,’” he tweeted, “@SecPompeo's turning to ‘max deceit.’”

In my mind, the bottom line as to whether the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks came from the Houthis or the Iranians is: I don’t care. The Houthis are Iranian clients. We know this because of the various Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, sometimes accompanied by trainers, that have been observed over the years, and sometimes intercepted, most notably the capture of the Jihan One by the Yemeni government in 2013. As far as I’m concerned, Iran is responsible, regardless of where the drones took off from.

What was their motive?

Iran’s defenders insist that the Islamic Republic has no motive for carrying out such an attack. I disagree. When it comes to motive, there are numerous possibilities; an embarrassment of riches. Any one of them could fill a blog post by itself. In the interest of space (and not boring you), I will merely list some here, without going into their details and relative merits:

  • Start with Iran’s domestic politics. We often talk about the country as if it’s a single entity with a single motive. But Iran and its government are deeply fractured. In particular, there is conflict between the religious hardliners on the one hand, led by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, and the civilian government on the other, led by President Rouhani. The biggest area of disagreement is engagement with the West. Rouhani got re-elected promising that such engagement would grow the country’s economy, while the hardliners still view the West as the Great Satan. By stirring up conflict with the West, the Revolutionary Guard is causing Rouhani’s policies to fail, thereby undermining him. An all out war would give them a pretext to remove Rouhani from power all together.
  • Iran has other domestic problems. Contrary to Rouhani’s plans, the economy is tanking, thanks to President Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions. Iran is desperate to get the sanctions lifted, and by threatening the world’s oil supplies, it hopes to pressure the US to give in.
  • In addition to economic disaster, the government of Iran faces a population that is sick and tired of living under shari’ah, and is fighting back. An unending series of foreign policy crises can distract the population from these issues (I actually did fill a blog post about this. From last July: “Rouhani Wags the Dog: Behind the Trump/Rouhani war of words”).
  • Then there’s US domestic politics. The 2020 election, unfortunately, will touch on every major event for the next 14 months (An aside: when the presidential election touches every major event, the presidency has too much damn power). Even if Trump doesn’t lift the sanctions, by dragging him into an unpopular Middle Eastern quagmire, Iran hopes to cost him enough votes for him to lose what promises to be a close election. A Democrat in the White House will be far easier for them to hoodwink, as they learned from their experience with Mr. Obama.
  • As for regional politics, Iran is locked in a battle with Saudi Arabia to dominate the Middle East. Shutting down half of Saudi oil production harms its rival substantially.
  • Finally, the Iranian government is run by Islamists, who are inspired by the Quran and the Hadith--which say that Allah has commanded them to wage jihad against the unbeliever (the West) and bring death to the apostate (Saudi Arabia).

    What should the United States do?

    First of all, here’s what I don’t think we should do just now: attack Iran militarily. Abqaiq and Khurais were not directed against the United States and none of our citizens were hurt. A military response would be disproportionate. Not to mention, as I noted above, the Revolutionary Guard wants a confrontation with the US, so we shouldn’t give them one.

    But just because I don't want a military confrontation with Iran doesn't mean I think we should sit on our collective ass and do nothing. That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not working.

    A lot of the discussion about Iran revolves around the false alternative, "Go to war" or "Do nothing." In fact, there are numerous lesser measures we could take. Indeed, if history teaches us anything, it's that the best way to create a situation where we have to go to war someday is to do nothing, rather than take those lesser measures while we still can.

    It would be irresponsible to do nothing. The Iranians have threatened to shut down shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and have taken numerous steps to make good on that threat. Yes, they deny mining the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous oil tankers and the evidence against them is sketchy. But there's no doubt they shot down a US drone and seized the Stena Impero oil tanker and its crew (which they’re still holding). Furthermore, they delivered the cargo of the Grace One tanker to Assad’s Syria, in violation of EU sanctions and their own promises, and they’ve imprisoned some dozen or so western citizens, mostly on dubious spying accusations. No responsible government can sit idly by in the face of this many attacks on the liberty and property of its citizens.

    And yet, the response of the US and its allies has been virtually non-existent. President Trump posted some threatening tweets and added Ayatollah Khamanei and Foreign Minister Zarif to the list of sanctioned individuals, thereby freezing any assets they have in the United States. This did nothing but prompt mockery from Mr. Zarif who tweeted, “It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”

    Clearly, Iran is not impressed, and, like all bullies, it has merely been emboldened by the weak response to engage in ever more aggressive provocation. It will continue destroying property and kidnapping people until the West puts some measures with real teeth in place, on top of the US sanctions already in existence.

    As I’ve argued previously, US policy should not be based on knee-jerk reactions to the latest event. Rather, the US should act according to an overarching strategy for Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of whom is a friend to the US or US values. Specifically the US should learn from the successes of the Nixon Administration during the Cold War and follow a two-prong strategy based on (1) linkage—tying the things Iran and Saudi Arabia want to their good behavior, and (2) triangular diplomacy—playing them off against each other.

    There is not much we can do right now by way of triangular diplomacy. Ideally we would expand military and diplomatic aid to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and thereby show the Iranians that this kind of attack only benefits its rival. But there’s not much opportunity, given that President Trump—despite Congressional opposition—is already giving them everything they want. Might want to rethink that policy.

    There’s a clear path on the linkage side, however. We already know the US sanctions are hurting. If President Trump persuaded our European allies to join the US, it would make a big difference in showing Iran that aggression will not get the sanctions lifted, but instead will have the opposite effect. We've heard about President Trump's spectacular negotiating skills often enough. It’s time for him to put them to work.

    UPDATE 9/18--Since I posted this, there have been reports that US officials claim the reason Saudi air defenses were ineffective is that the radars were all pointed to the south, toward Yemen, where an attack was expected from, rather than the north, toward Iran. If true, then this is evidence that the attack actually was launched from Iran. It also suggests that there's something we can do for the Saudis at this point, and thereby send the message to Iran that bad behavior will only benefit its rival: sell them some more Patriot missile batteries for their northern perimeter.

    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): BBC,, twitter

  • Tuesday, June 18, 2019

    The Source of Incalculable Danger in Respect of Hereafter

    Did Muslims drink wine in the Middle Ages?
    Part III—The Islamists Strike Back.
    by Michael Isenberg.

    As I wrote in Parts I and II of this series on Islam and drinking, readers of my historical murder mystery, The Thread of Reason are often surprised at how much wine the Muslim characters in the book guzzle down. “Isn’t alcohol forbidden is Islam?” they ask.

    In no uncertain terms. But despite the ban, plenty of drinking went on. We know that from the historical chronicles of the time, which tells us of some wild parties in the royal palaces. Perhaps even more significantly, we know that from literature like the Maqamat of Qasim Hariri and The Thousand and One Nights, often a better source on daily life than the histories. The histories give us portraits of sultans and caliphs, and idealized portraits at that. The storybooks tell us about the lives of ordinary people.

    Although drinking was widespread, there were plenty of orthodox Muslims, True Believers, who were unhappy about the situation. And they struck back. In 1092, when my book takes place, their undisputed leader was Abu Hamid Ghazali, head of the school of shari’ah (Muslim law) in Baghdad known as the Nizamiyya. Three years later, he suffered a nervous breakdown, left the Nizamiyya and wandered around Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Arabia as a pilgrim and student of mysticism. When he returned to his native land of Persia, ten years later, he seems to have become a bit of crank. He spent a great deal of time writing books and letters of helpful advice to the rulers of the land, some solicited, some not. He was especially big on nagging them to repent their sins. And high on his list of sins requiring repentance was drinking.

    Drinking comes up, for example, in Ghazali’s Book of Counsel for Kings (Nassihat al-Muluk), which was written at the request of the Sultan Sanjar, son of the great Malk-shah. In it, Ghazali condemns “continual backgammon-playing, chess-playing, wine-drinking, ball games and hunting,” as they “do not befit the king because they distract.”

    A letter to one Mu’in al-Mulk was even more explicit. I haven’t found out anything about this individual elsewhere, but the title ending in “al-Mulk” indicates that he was a vizier—prime minister to a ruler. “May Mu’inul Mulk be warned against what one of his friends has told me these days,” Ghazali wrote.

    The things reported to me against him are the source of incalculable danger in respect of Hereafter. So far as he is concerned, I have become extremely worried…

    You amuse yourself with drinking wine that blinds your eyes and heart to your duties towards your people and an understanding of the laws of human nature. I advise you to renounce drinking wine, even if it is so hard for you to sever your ties with the cruel and corrupt Government officials, for when personal sin is associated with cruelty, it is beyond human power to get them separated from each other, particularly in one’s old age drinking wine is one of the worst crimes…

    I sincerely hope you would despise wine and make up your mind to hate it for the rest of your days.

    (Letters of al-Ghazzali [Fada'il al-anam], Abdul Qayyum, tr., 1992)

    I’m not sure how much influence Ghazali had on the vizier Mu’in al-Mulk or the sultan Sanjar (albeit I can’t help noticing that in this picture of Sanjar, from a 14th century illuminated manuscript, he's holding what appears to be a wine goblet).

    But there is no doubt that Ghazali’s influence on succeeding generations, both on the subject of drinking and in many other areas, was immense. In the century that followed, the Muslim world saw a crackdown on the enforcement of shari’ah, as a new generation of rulers came to power who not only didn’t drink themselves, but were determined that there would be no drinking in their domains.

    For example, the chronicle of ibn al-Athir tell us that a year into the reign of the caliph an-Nasir, who ascended to the throne in 1180, “there was much sinful behavior in Baghdad. The palace chamberlain set up a group to pour away intoxicating drinks and to arrest loose women.” (The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi’l-ta’rikh, D.S. Richards, tr., 2006-2008).

    An-Nasir got along very badly with Saladin, the sultan known to us in the west as the gentlemen who treated his enemy Richard the Lion-Hearted so chivalrously. But Saladin was also a dyed-in-the-wool jihadist and there was one thing at least that he and an-Nasir agreed on. Two years after an-Nasir’s crackdown on alcohol in Baghdad, Saladin’s government issued a diploma appointing a market official, called a muhtasib, in Aleppo. The diploma enjoined the muhtasib to enforce regulations on weights and measures and hygiene, prohibit usury, evict magicians and fortune tellers, prevent nudity in the public baths, and “as regards intoxicating beverages, let him seek them out and spill them on the ground, and let him apply the legal punishment to anyone who has drunk of them, as soon as the guilty party has regained his sobriety.” (Anne-Marie Edde, Saladin, 2011) The legal punishment was eighty lashes with a palm switch.

    Not coincidentally, both an-Nasir and Saladin had right hand men who were students of students of students of Ghazali. Clearly Ghazali and the hardliners got their way in the end.

    In the final installment of this series, I will take a look at a sometime friend of Ghazali, Omar Khayyam. In his collection of poems known as the Rubaiyat, there are numerous verses about wine, which begs a question that has been a source of debate among historians and biographers since he drew his final breath: did Omar drink it himself.

    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): Public domain

    Thursday, June 13, 2019

    I’ll Have Grounds More Relative than This

    The Gulf of Oman Tanker Attacks: Avoid a rush to judgment.
    By Michael Isenberg.

    America awoke this morning to horrifying images of a funnel of black smoke billowing from a tanker ship. The news was not good. Two ships—the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous—had been attacked in the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Straits of Hormuz. The only good news was that the crews had been safely evacuated.

    The seriousness of the attacks was obvious to anyone who pays attention to what goes on in the world. 20% of world oil trade—35% of oil shipped by sea—passes through the Straits. The attacks caused the price of oil to jump 4% almost immediately. They come in the wake of similar attacks against four ships last month, which left far less damage, and in an environment of tension between Iran and the United States, due to the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement and the subsequent sanctions re-imposed on Iran. As I wrote last July, just the prospect of sanctions had done considerable damage to the Iranian economy: “The Iranian rial has collapsed against the dollar. Prices of foreign goods have skyrocketed. In Teheran last month, shopkeepers in the Grand Bazaar closed their doors in protest, and thousands of demonstrators attempted to march to Parliament until they were dispersed by riot police.” Things have only gone downhill since then.

    The Trump Administration has been quick to blame Iran for the Gulf of Oman attacks. In a press briefing this afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said,

    The assessment of the United States government is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks that occurred in the gulf of Oman today. This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication…Iran is lashing out, because the regime wants our successful, maximum pressure campaign lifted.

    Secretary Pompeo spoke mainly in terms of a diplomatic response. “Today I’ve instructed our UN Ambassador Jonathan Cohen to raise Iran’s attacks in the UN Security Council meeting, later this afternoon. Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.”

    But there were also these ominous words: “The United States will defend its forces, interests, and stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability.” Whether that refers to a US military strike against Iran is unclear, but military action would certainly be consistent with some of President Trump’s threats on the subject, such as last year’s all-caps “Mother of all Tweets,” “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

    I hope my fellow citizens will have less of a knee-jerk reaction to the attacks than the Trump Administration did, and will urge their elected officials to put off any military response until the case against Iran is considerably stronger than it stands now.

    Twice in my lifetime, the US became entangled in foreign wars, at considerable financial expense to American taxpayers, and tragic loss of life to American soldiers, based on accusations from our government which turned out afterward to be not quite true: the escalation of the Vietnam War after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, and the launch of the Iraq War amid accusations of Iraqi chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs in 2003. In light of those experiences, it behooves all of us as citizens to treat any such claims by government officials with extreme skepticism.

    Indeed there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the current accusations against Iran. Contrary to what Secretary Pompeo said in his statement, there is no shortage of suspects in the area with “the level of expertise needed to execute the operation.” Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Israel all have considerable capabilities, and would benefit from escalating conflict between Iran and the United States.

    Nor should we rule out non-state actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Because also contrary to Secretary Pompeo’s statement, the attacks were not particularly sophisticated. Although the details are still forthcoming, and there has been one claim of a torpedo involved, most reports are that limpet mines were used, World War II technology which requires little more than a man with SCUBA equipment to attach them to the ships. Limpet mines have been used in other attacks by non-state actors. Radical conservationists were believed to have used them to sink the whaling vessel Sierra in 1980, after it survived being rammed by the Sea Shepherd. They were also used by the Mujahidin in Afghanistan during their war to expel the Soviets.

    Then there is Iran’s motive for the attack. Secretary Pompeo says that it is to scare the Trump Administration into backing off on sanctions. I find it hard to believe that the government of Iran would think that could possibly work. If anything, it would harden the Administration’s—and America’s—resolve. The leaders of Iran are evil. Not stupid. Also, they denied their involvement. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted “Suspicious doesn't begin to describe what likely transpired this morning.” I don’t for one minute think that the Islamic Republic of Iran is truthful. But it will tell the truth when it perceives that’s in its own interest to do so. And if its goal really is to put the fear of Allah into the United States, then it would want the US to know, in no uncertain terms, that it had committed these atrocities. In the immortal words of Dr. Strangelove, the whole point is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?!

    So something doesn't add up. If, after further investigation, the US government is forthcoming with solid evidence against Iran, I’ll be the first to say bomb the f—kers back into the Stone Age. But so far all we have is assertions from Secretary Pompeo which don’t quite ring true, and have nothing to back them up. As Hamlet said, “I’ll have grounds more relative than this.” Until then, I urge restraint.

    UPDATE 6/14/19: Since my original post, the US released grainy video of an unmarked boat of the type used by Iran removing an unexploded mine from the Kokuka Courageous. The Trump Administration alleges that it proves Iran put it there, although that doesn't necessarily follow. So I still advise skepticism. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin. Remember Iraq.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Iran and Iraq 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): CBS News