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 Amazon.com

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 Amazon.com

Photo credit(s): CBS News