Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Or is it?

Before Ghazali came along, three intellectual movements [orthodoxy, philosophy, and Sufism] were competing for adherents in the Islamic world. After Ghazali, two of these currents had come to an accommodation and the third had been eliminated.
—Tamim Ansary1

As I described in my previous post, the impact of Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111) on the Muslim world was enormous. He’s been called the Proof of Islam and the greatest Muslim after Muhammad. His book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, in which he attacks nothing less than the cornerstone of Western civilization, reason, was hugely influential. Thanks to Ghazali, Muslims stopped writing books about philosophy and science and literally started burning them. The rationalist current in Muslim thought, which had once flourished and produced intellectual giants like Avicenna, Biruni, and Omar Khayyam had been, as Tamim Ansary and many others observed, eliminated.

That’s the standard narrative, anyway. But is it true?

It’s a question that numerous scholars have revisited in recent years, and a growing number of them answer no. The flaw in the narrative, they argue, is that no decline in the Muslim pursuit of science ever occurred, or if it did, it occurred so long after Ghazali that ascribing it to his influence strains credibility.

Among the skeptics is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. “Many thinkers blame the Arabs’ later abandonment of scientific method on Alghazel’s huge influence,” he writes, “though apparently this took place a few centuries later.”2 Jan P. Hogendijk and Abdelhamid Sambra insist that “The Islamic tradition in the exact sciences continued well into the nineteenth century, and abundant source material is available in the form of unpublished manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, and other languages all over the world.”3 Mohamad Abdalla, Founding Director of the Griffith University Islamic Research Institute, disputes whether this abandonment happened at all. In a 2007 paper, he calls the theory “a scholarly error that has proven to be remarkably persistent despite the availability of contrary evidence.”4 Citing Columbia’s George Saliba, Abdalla argues that the technological gap between Islam and the West, which was so readily apparent by the 18th century, was not so much a matter of a decline in Muslim science as “the result of the industrial leap forward that Europe achieved, particularly after the discovery of the Americas.”

The critics of the decline narrative point out—correctly—that there were still many brilliant and productive Muslim scientists long after Ghazali. Oft-cited examples include Nasir ad-Din Tusi (d. 1274) who served as astronomer and theoretician to the Assassin Cult. After their stronghold of Alamut was destroyed by the Mongols, he found employment with his new overlords and built the Maragheh Observatory in Azerbaijan. Ulugh Beg (d. 1449), despite being the grandson of Tamerlane, was a better astronomer and mathematician than a ruler—the ruins of his observatory may still be seen in Samarqand. The social scientist ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) is credited by Arthur Laffer with laying the foundations of supply side economics half millennium before Dr. Laffer himself proposed his eponymous curve.

In his magnum opus, the Muqaddimah, ibn Khaldun surveys the state of Muslim science during his time:

Scientific activity disappeared there [North Africa and Spain], save for a few remnants that may be found among scattered individuals and that are controlled by the orthodox religious scholars…5

This may be exemplified by our previous statements concerning Baghdad, Cordoba [Spain], al-Qayrawan [Tunisia], al-Basra and al-Kufa. At the beginning of Islam, the civilizations (population) were large, and sedentary culture existed in them. The sciences were then greatly cultivated there, and the people were widely versed in the various technical terminologies of scientific instruction, in the different kinds of sciences, and in posing problems and (inventing new) disciplines. They exceeded (all) who had come before them and surpassed (all) who came after. But when the civilization of those cities decreased and their inhabitants were dispersed, the picture was completely reversed. Science and scientific instruction no longer existed in those cities, but were transplanted to other Muslim cities. We, at this time, notice that science and scientific instructions exist in Cairo in Egypt, because the civilization of (Egypt) is greatly developed and its sedentary culture has been well established for thousands of years. Therefore, the crafts are firmly established there and exist in many varieties. One of them is scientific instruction.6

Professor Abdalla cites these passages as evidence that the decline paradigm is wrong; indeed they are the centerpiece of his paper. Scientific inquiry didn’t decline in the Muslim world, he argues, it merely moved around, “transplanted to other Muslim cities.” This was driven by population declines in some areas, and not merely because academic inquiry was “controlled by the orthodox religious scholars” influenced by Ghazali, albeit that was a factor.

IMHO, these are strawmen arguments. Despite the use of hyperbole, like Ansary's word "eliminated," no one who is familiar with the history of science in the Muslim world really believes or claims that scientific research stopped entirely after Ghazali. What they claim is that there was a lot less of it. Indeed, the fact that the same handful of post-Ghazali scientists keep coming up in these discussions, Nasir ad-Din Tusi in particular, suggests how few of them there were.

Ankara University’s Aydin Sayili captures the situation eloquently In his book The Observatory in Islam (which, incidentally, was indispensable to me in writing the scene in The Thread of Reason which takes place in Omar Khayyam’s observatory). In an appendix on “The Causes of the Decline of Scientific Work in Islam” he writes that after the 900s there was a

decrease in the energy and the vitality of and the general interest in scientific work…There was a gradual, if not uniform, decrease both in the intensity of production of first-rate work, and in the frequency of appearance of first-class scientists...Men of such calibers did not disappear during the later centuries, but they became increasingly rare.7
Indeed there is abundant evidence that Sayili is right. Certainly any list of the mega-minds of medieval Muslim science would be disproportionately clustered around the 9th and 10th centuries. Even during Ghazali’s lifetime, the decline of science had become evident, as his sometime friend, Omar Khayyam complained bitterly,

We have witnessed the decline of the men of science, now reduced to a thin troop, the number of which is as small as its afflictions are great, and to which the rigors of fortune have imposed the common obligation to devote themselves, as long as they last, to perfect and explore a single science. But most of those who in the present day appear to be scholars, deceive the truth with lies, do not go beyond the limits of sham and scholarly ostentation, and only use the quantity of knowledge, they only have material and vile goals.8
I already mentioned, in my previous installment, the frustration that ‘Abd’ul-Latif al-Baghdadi felt trying to find philosophers and scientists in Cairo when he visited in 1191, and the burning of science books that Rabbi Joseph b. Judah witnessed the following year in Baghdad. And the very ibn Khaldun passages that Prof. Abdalla’s cites to show that scientific inquiry continued to flourish three hundred years after Ghazali also say that it had been reduced to “a few remnants” in half the Muslim world and that in the other half it had disappeared from previously flourishing cultural centers like Baghdad, Basra, and Kufa. This is not a picture of a healthy scientific community; at best the passage only partially supports Prof. Abdalla’s case.

Admittedly, these arguments are somewhat soft, relying as they do on general impressions of the “energy” and “vitality” of the Muslim scientific community and anecdotal evidence from narrators who, as the postmodernists never tire of reminding us, have their own agendas.

However, there is one field of Muslim science where the level of activity has been quantified, and that is astronomy. In a 1956 paper, E.S. Kennedy, of the American University of Beirut, surveys every medieval Muslim astronomical table (in Arabic, zij) that is known to us—over a hundred in total—both those that are extant and those that are only known through mentions in other works. He then plots them based on when and where the observations were made, from the 8th to the 15th century, and from Afghanistan to Spain.

As you can see, as the centuries pass, not only are there fewer astronomical tables, but observations increasingly move away from the center of the Muslim world in Iran and Iraq, and move toward the fringes, places like Samarqand, home to the previously mentioned Ulugh Beg Observatory (#12 in the lower right corner of the chart. Omar Khayyam is #22 and Nasir ad-Din Tusi #6).9

Needless to say it is risky to draw conclusions about Muslim science as a whole by extrapolating from a single field of study. However, it should be noted that many of the Muslim rulers were superstitious and consulted their astrologers before any major decision. They therefore continued to provide state support for charting the stars and planets long after the Golden Age had passed. This was especially true of the Il-Khanid (Mongol) dynasty that patronized Nasir ad-Din Tusi—which accounts for the cluster of data points in Iran around the year 1300 in the Kennedy chart. It is therefore likely that the decline in other fields of scientific endeavor was far more severe than in astronomy. Relying on the astronomy data errs on the side of conservatism.

The zij data supports quantitatively what was already widely believed anecdotally: that there really was a decline in Muslim science. It also shows that, contrary to what Taleb and others claim, the decline began a hundred years or so before Ghazali lived, and not hundreds of years after. But that in itself is problematic, and raises serious questions as to the extent Ghazali was responsible for it. Questions which I’ll address in the final installment of this series.

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

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credit(s): CC by-SA 4.0 Igor Pinigin

1Ansary, Tamim, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, New York: Public Affairs (2009), p. 113. 2Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably, 2nd Ed., New York: Random House Trade Paperback (2019), p.83. 3Quoted in Abdalla, Mohamad, “Ibn Khaldun on the Fate of Islamic Science after the 11th Century,” Islam & Science, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Summer 2007), p. 66. 4Abdalla, op. cit., pp. 61-70. 5Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Franz Rosenthal, tr., Vol. 3, p. 117, quoted in Abdalla, op. cit. 6Ibid, Vol. 2, p. 343. 7Sayili, Aydin, The Observatory in Islam and its place in the general history of the observatory, Ankara: Truk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi (1960), pp. 408-413 8Khayyam, Omar, L’Algèbre d’Omar AlKhayyâmî, Paris: Benjamin Duprat (1886), F. Woepcke, tr., pp. 34-35. Translation from the French is mine. 9Kennedy, E.S., “A Survey of Islamic Astronomical Tables,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 46:2 (1956), pp. 123-177.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The End of Science

After [Ghazali], and despite Averroës, philosophy hid itself in the remote corners of the Moslem world; the pursuit of science waned; and the mind of Islam more and more buried itself in the Hadith and the Koran.
— Will Durant,
The Age of Faith1

That one sentence had a greater effect on me than any I ever read. The notion that ideas, in this case the ideas of the Muslim theologian Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), could so radically change the course of a civilization was fascinating; I had to delve into it more deeply. The project ended up turning into years of research and has resulted in a published book, The Thread of Reason, which I intend to be the first in a series that will tell the story of how Ghazali undermined the study of science in the Muslim world, and thereby doomed Islam to nine hundred years of technological stagnation.

Contrary to what some of my right-of-center friends think, there really was a Golden Age of Muslim science, which boasted achievements in numerous fields of study—mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, optics, medicine—not to mention a cast of colorful characters who made them possible—Rhazes, Avicenna, Biruni, ibn Haytham, and Omar Khayyam, among others. But I’ve written about that previously, and what I want to cover today is why the Golden Age sputtered out by the year 1100. What happened?

The standard answer, especially among 19th and early 20th century Orientalists, is that Abu Hamid Ghazali happened. Ghazali was a brilliant scholar of shari’ah, so much so that he was entrusted with the leadership of Sunni Islam’s flagship university, the Baghdad Nizamiyya, at the tender age of thirty-three. Known for his combative personality (he was pretty much a dick) and spectacular memory (he was said to have memorized thousands of hadith), he wrote a book, probably in the early 1090s, called The Incoherence of the Philosophers. And by “Philosophers,” he meant scientists—philosophy and science were one profession during the Middle Ages and medieval writers used the terms interchangeably (as will I). In the Incoherence, Ghazali attacks nothing less than the signature enterprise of Western Civilization: the endeavor to understand and control the physical universe through the use of reason.

Influenced by the earlier anti-rationalist, Abu’l-Hasan al-Ashʿari (d. 936), the gist of the Incoherence is that science is not heresy per se, it’s just not very useful. It can’t prove the great truths of the Muslim religion: that Allah is One, that Muhammad is his Messenger, that the universe had a beginning, and that it will have an end. It’s a low key approach which makes Ghazali sound eminently reasonable—while he puts forward a radical proposition. It is only in the final chapters that he goes so far as to label any scientific concepts as heretical and deserving of the death penalty. Granted, one of them is the notion of cause and effect, the very foundation of science.

In researching the book, Ghazali took the trouble to actually learn science—not only is it obvious from the text that he’s well-informed about his subject, but we have an account of him taking science lessons from his on-again off-again friend Omar Khayyam. This enables him to systematically lay out the fundamentals of 11th century cosmology point by point and refute them. Like Kant, he turns reason against itself in order to rescue faith from the onslaught of science.

Ghazali accompanies these arguments with a ready arsenal of barbed insults aimed at those who disagree with him—they’re “dimwits,” stumbling over their own tails, carried away by their own cleverness. The combination of careful argument and entertaining invective is devastating.

The Incoherence was so influential that within a few generations, the Golden Age of Muslim Science had come to a definite end. When the scholar ‘Abd’ul-Latif al-Baghdadi visited Cairo in 1191, he complained that, although he encountered a vibrant intellectual life, it was all shari'ah and poetry. In a city of hundreds of thousands, which had once been a great center of scientific inquiry, he could only find two philosophers—one of whom, Maimonides, wasn’t even Muslim.2

The following year, one of Maimonides’ students, Rabbi Joseph ben Judah (to whom Maimonides dedicated The Guide for the Perplexed) witnessed an actual book burning. Rabbi Judah recounted to his friend, the historian al-Qifti, what he saw:

I was in Baghdad that day on business and I was present at the assembly and I heard the speech of the imam ibn Marastiniyya. In his hand I saw ibn Haytham’s book on the configuration of the planets, and he pointed to the circle which represented the orbits. “Behold the catastrophic catastrophe!” he said. “The deafening downfall! The blinding blow!” Then he finished his speech, ripped up the book, and flung it into the fire.3

The Muslim world turned its back on science just as Europe was discovering it—ironically thanks to Latin translations of ancient Greek texts that had come to them by way of Muslim hands. As late as the fifteenth century, the gap in scientific achievement between the two civilizations was hardly noticeable. But in 1798, Napoleon and the French army conquered Egypt with considerable ease; there was little opposition capable of withstanding the firepower of modern French weaponry. The technological chasm between Islam and the West could no longer be ignored.

In the words of the German Orientalist C. Edward Sachau (d. 1930),

The fourth century [i.e. the 4th century of the Muslim calendar, which is the 10th century of the Christian one] is the turning-point in the history of the spirit of Islam, and the establishment of the orthodox faith about 500 [1106-7 AD] sealed the fate of independent research for ever. But for Alaash’ari and Alghazzali the Arabs might have been a nation of Galileos, Keplers, and Newtons.4

So that’s the standard narrative. But is it true?

Well, it’s complicated. Many scholars dispute that Ghazali was responsible for the downfall of science in the Muslim world. Some even deny that the downfall occurred at all. But alas, I’ve used my allotted space for today, so the complications, objections, and downfalls will have to wait for 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

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

Subscribe to Islam: the Good, the Bad, and the Everyday

1Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization: 4. The Age of Faith, New York: Simon and Schuster (1950), p. 332. 2Kraemer, Joel L., Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, Kindle Edition, New York: Doubleday (2008), Loc. 3880. 3Qifti, Ali ibn Yusuf al-, Tarih al-Hukama (History of the Scholars), Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung (1903), Aug Müller, Julius Lippert, ed., p. 229. Translation mine. In Arabic, the excerpt from the imam's speech reads "Ad-dahiya ad-dahiya', wa an-nazila as-samma', wa al-musiba al-'amiya'" Note the cadence, the similar patterns of vowels in each phrase, and the two nearly identical words of the first phrase. This sort of wordplay was very common in the rhetoric of the time, and although I did the best I could to convey the spirit of it, it doesn't readily translate into English. 4Biruni, Abu Rayhan al-, The Chronology of Ancient Nations: an English Version of the Arabic Text of the Athar-ul-Bakiya of AlBiruni, London: William H. Allen & Co. (1879), C. Edward Sachau, tr., p. x.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Turn a Goblet Upside Down

Omar Khayyam, born on this day in 1048, was a brilliant scientist and a talented poet. But was he a good Muslim?

It sometimes feels like the phrase “Golden Age of Muslim Science” is a misnomer. Yes, there may have been cutting edge scientific research in the lands ruled by the caliphs during the Middle Ages. But those great scientists you hear about weren’t such great Muslims. Not to mention that they were often persecuted by their co-religionists. It almost seems like their accomplishments were in spite of Islam, and not because of it.

I exaggerate, of course. Still, there’s some truth to it. Avicenna violated the shari’ah nightly by drinking wine while he wrote, his spectacular productivity fueled by the fruit of the vine. Ibn Haytham's books were burned in Baghdad. In a stunning act of impiousness, Rhazes took on the Quran itself, “a work which recounts ancient myths,” he wrote, “and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation.”1

Then there’s Omar Khayyam. Today’s his birthday, May 18.2 Born in 1048 in the city of Nishapur, in what’s now Iran, Omar had become one of the leading scientists of his time by age 26, when the sultan Malik-shah tapped him to head up the royal observatory and reform the calendar. Thanks to Edward Fitzgerald’s bestselling English translation of his verses, The Rubiayat, he is also one of the leading poets of all time.

So Omar Khayyam was a brilliant scientist and a gifted poet. But was he a good Muslim?

Well, it's complicated.

His contemporaries and near-contemporaries were divided. Ali ibn Yusuf al-Qifti (d. 1248) said The Rubaiyat may have been pious on the surface, but “inside it are serpents to the shari’ah and shackles on the mosques.”3 The Sufi Najm ad-Din ar-Razi (d. 1256) counted Omar among “the philosophers, materialists, and naturalists.” To a pious 13th century Muslim, them’s fightin’ words. Omar was a “perplexed lost man,” he wrote, who “expressed his blindness” in poems written “in the extremity of wonder and ignorance.”4

Omar’s reputation fared better among people who actually knew him. One of the great Sufi poets, Sanai (d. ca. 1135), wrote, “Omar is attentive to guard the substance of honor of prophecy.”5. The historian Muhammad ibn al-Husayin al-Bayhaqi (d. 1169) wrote that “Sultan Malik Shah treated him as he did his companions, and the sovereign, Shams al-Muluk in Bukhara respected him more than anyone and sat with him on the same throne.” I believe the Shams al-Muluk mentioned here is Shams al-Muluk Nasr (d. 1080), brother of Terken Khatun, who was the wife of Malik-shah and a fascinating and powerful individual in her own right; readers of my novel The Thread of Reason will be familiar with her. In any case, had Omar really been the serpent that al-Qifti would have us believe, it would have been impossible for these respectable monarchs, who had to at least make a show of defending the faith, to honor him so.6

From the same source we learn that Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), the most influential religious scholar of Omar’s time, couldn’t make up his mind. On one occasion, he was so impressed by Omar’s explanation of some Quranic verses that he exclaimed, “May God increase such learned ones as you; consider me as one of your followers and be amicable with me!” But on other topics, Ghazali was less impressed. Once, when Omar was engaged in a “lengthy elaboration” of how a God who is One can create a universe which is diverse (this problem of “unity and multiplicity” was of great concern to the scientists and philosophers of the day), Ghazali was relieved to have the lecture cut short by the cry of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer. “Truth came and falsehood vanished,” he said tartly.

There is no doubt there are aspects of Omar’s life and works that are irredeemably un-Islamic. I’ve written previously about his irreverent humor and obssession with wine. Like all true scientists, he was a skeptic, reluctant to pretend to know things he didn’t, regardless of what was written in scripture or what the powers that be wanted to hear. This got him in trouble on more than one occasion. Al-Qifti again: “When the people of his time censured his faith and his secrets became visible, he feared for his life and stopped his tongue and his pen and arguing impiously, and disclosing impious secrets of secrets.”

Al-Qifti doesn’t tell us exactly what “impious secrets of secrets” put Omar’s life in such danger, but they were serious enough that he had to skip town and go on the Hajj to Mecca to prove his Muslim bona fides.

[After] he returned from his Hajj to his country, he went to the place of worship in the morning, and hid his secrets, and didn’t reveal revelations. And he had no peer in the science of the stars and in wisdom. And in [his heart] beat the example of the type that makes a life of purity. And from fear, he hid his secrets in his soaring poetry. And he muddied his dark, secret meaning with his poetic verses.”7

So what “secrets” did Omar conceal in his “soaring poetry” and what do they tell us about his relationship to Islam?

The author of The Rubaiyat was clearly, at the very least, what we would today call a “cultural Muslim.” His verses teem with mosques, the five daily prayers, and the Fast of Ramadan, not to mention expletives like “By Allah!” and “Muhammad’s Tomb!” These, of course, were the things of daily life in the time and place that he lived, so perhaps we shouldn't read too much into them.

But we can definitely read something into some verses which are unapologetically un-Islamic. IMHO, there’s nothing “muddied” about them. The heresy is right there on the surface.

Where Islam demands a strict regimen of prayer and fasting, and adherence to a code of upright behavior, Omar writes,

So far as in thee lies, follow the example of the profligate,
destroy the foundations of prayer and fasting:
     hear thou the Word of Truth from Omar Khayyam,
“Drink wine, rob on the highway, and be benevolent.”8

Where Islam promises life beyond the grave, Omar is skeptical. Islam is all about eternal life, far more so than Judaism or Christianity. “Threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise”9 appear in the Quran hundreds of times. The essence of Islam is to not become too attached to this material, temporary, and wicked world, but to secure one’s place in the World to Come. And yet, Omar anticipated Hamlet’s “undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns” by five hundred years:

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through
     Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.10

Whatever awaits us beyond the grave, Omar can’t believe it is the Quran’s threat of eternal hellfire. Allah is omnipotent, He predestined our every move (and that’s a very Muslim idea). He would never be so unjust as to punish us for what we cannot control.

Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
     Thou wilt not with Predestin’d Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin?11

Said one—“Folks of a surly Master tell,
“And daub his Visage with the Smoke of Hell;
     “They talk of some sharp Trial of us—Pish!
“He’s a Good Fellow, and ‘twill all be well.”12

Where Islam has a long and proud tradition of religious scholarship, Omar questions its value. The great Doctors of Theology and Shari’ah, like his sometime friend Ghazali, are, at best, wasting their lives on these mysteries. Despite all their ijma (consensus), qiyas (analogy), and ijtihad (interpretation), they are going to die, like all of us.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
     About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.13

At worst, they’re full of it:

To drink wine and consort with a company of the beautiful
is better than practising the hypocrisy of the zealot;14
In the face of such doubts, Omar recommends the very un-Islamic idea of carpe diem:

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
     Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!15

Yet despite all his skepticism, heresy, and sin, Omar would only go so far in challenging the doctrines of Islam, and no farther. He never doubted the most fundamental precept—the Oneness of Allah. The oldest collection we have of The Rubaiyat is the Ouseley Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. In the very first verse, Omar writes,

IF I have never threaded the pearl of Thy service,
and if I have never wiped the dust of sin from my face
     nevertheless, I am not hopeless of Thy mercy,
for the reason that I have never said that One was Two.16

I think it’s fair to say that Omar Khayyam was a complex figure. The respected scholar, honored by kings, who was nevertheless skeptical of the scholarly enterprise. The freethinker who winked at wine-drinking and other violations of the shari'ah, who nevertheless knew the Quran well enough to earn Ghazali’s praise. The heretic, literally run out of town, who nevertheless never waivered on the fundamental monotheism of Islam. It is this combination of the sacred and the profane which makes him such a compelling character.

If I’m drunk on forbidden wine, so I am!
And if I’m an unbeliever, a pagan or idolator, so I am!
     Every sect has its own suspicions of me,
I myself am just what I am.17

Omar continued to be just what he was well into old age. On what was literally the last day of his life, at age 83, Omar was still delving into the mysteries of the physical universe, still a practicing Muslim, and still aware that the tension between the two put him in need of some forgiveness. His son-in-law (whose name I won't give—that would be a spoiler for the upcoming Thread of Reason sequel) recounted Omar's final hours to the historian Bayhaqi:

He was studying the Shifa [by Avicenna] while he was using a golden toothpick until he reached the section on the “unity and multiplicity.” He marked this section with his toothpick, closed the book and asked his companions to gather so he could state his will of testament. When his companions gathered, they stood up and prayed and Khayyam refused to eat or drink until he performed the night prayer. He prostrated by putting his forehead on the ground and said, “O Lord, I know you as much as it is possible for me, forgive me, for my knowledge of you is my way of reaching you” and then he died.18

Omar asked us to remember him after he was gone—in a way that was true to how he lived:

Friends, when ye hold a meeting together,
it behoves ye warmly to remember your friend;
     when ye drink wholesome wine together,
and my turn comes, turn a goblet upside down.19

In that spirit, here is a toast to Omar Khayyam. Happy 972nd!

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

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1Starr, S. Frederick, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Princeton: Princeton University Press (2013), pp. 181-182. 2Really it should be May 24, since we now use the Gregorian calendar, but the convention among historians is that what happens in the Julian calendar stays in the Julian calendar. 3Qifti, Ali ibn Yusuf al-, Tarih al-Hukama (History of the Scholars), Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung (1903), Aug Müller, Julius Lippert, ed, p. 244. Translation mine. 4Abu Bakr Razi, Mirsad al-ibad min al-mabda’ ila’l-ma’ad, Tehran: 1366, p. 31, quoted in Aminrazavi, Mehdi, The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam, Oxford: Oneworld Publications (2005, 2007), p.53. 5Sana’i Ghaznavi, “Letter to Khayyam,” Danish-namah-yi Khayyami, ed. R. R. Malik, pp. 13-16, quoted in Aminirazavi, op. cit., p. 41. 6Bayhaqi, Z.A. Muhammad ibn al-Husayin al-, Tatimah siwan al-hikmah, Lahore (1351) pp. 116-17. Quoted in Aminrazavi, op. cit., pp. 46-47. 7Al-Qifti, op. cit. 8The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Boston: L.C. Page & Co. (1898), Edward Heron-Allen, tr. No. 123. 9Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 2nd Ed., London: Bernard Quaritch (1868), Edward Fitzgerald, tr., No. LXVI. Though Fitzgerald’s translations are beautiful and spark the imagination, they may generously be described as loose. Many quatrains are composites of multiple verses in the original manuscripts, and a handful don’t seem to map to anything Khayyam wrote at all. Where used here, I’ve checked his sources to ensure that, even if the translations don’t capture Omar’s actual words, they accurately capture his thinking. 10Ibid, No. LXVII. 11Ibid, No. LXXXVII. 12Ibid, No. XCV. 13Ibid, No. XXX. 14Rubaiyat, Herron-Allen tr., op. cit., No. 127. 15Ibid, 3d Ed., No. XIII. 16Rubaiyat, Heron-Allen tr., op. cit., No. 1. 17 Khayyam, Omar, The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books (1981), Peter Avery & John Heath-Stubbs, tr. No. 74. 18Bayhaqi, op. cit., 19Rubaiyat, Heron-Allen tr., op. cit., No. 83.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Portents of Infection

Did Avicenna invent quarantine in the 11th century?

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, numerous claims have been making the rounds of cyberspace to the effect that during the Middle Ages, Muslims had an almost modern understanding of infectious disease and the steps that should be taken to combat it. In particular, it is claimed that Islam implemented quarantine centuries before the practice became common in Europe during the Black Death.

In my previous installment, I discussed what Muslim scripture had to say on the subject of disease and quarantine, and how it was interpreted by the theologians of the time. The bottom line was that although there are passages about not entering or leaving areas where plague has broken out, they are more about patiently submitting to the Will of Allah, than about trying to divert His Will by taking steps to combat the disease.

But in addition to its theologians, the medieval Muslim world was known for its scientists. They were certainly ahead of the curve in many areas, including medicine, and in this installment I’m going to take a look at the state of the art of medical science, circa 1000 AD. I’m going to focus in particular on the king of all medieval Muslim physicians, Avicenna. Born in 980 in what’s now Uzbekistan, Avicenna was a Renaissance Man hundreds of years before the Renaissance, with accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and poetry. He even served in government when a satisfied patient, the Emir of Hamadan, made him his vizier (prime minister).

But it’s for his medical works that Avicenna is best known. His Canon of Medicine was the textbook on the subject, both in the Muslim world and in Christendom, up until the 1600s. Some claim that he invented quarantine and even that he came up with the forty day isolation period, which later became common in Europe and gave the practice its name (quaranta is Italian for forty).

I thought it was suspicious that all the claims about Avicenna and quarantine came from secondary sources—no actual quotations—so I did some research and found no place in the Canon of Medicine or Avicenna’s other works where he recommends the practice. The earliest references I could find come from around 1500, when reformers like Ilyas bin Abram al-Yahudi, a Jewish convert to Islam, attempted to persuade a reluctant Ottoman Court to adopt state-of-the-art medical practices. In her excellent 2012 book, Plague, Quarantines and Geopolitics in the Ottoman Empire, Birsen Bulmus speculates that, “Perhaps Al-Yahudi sought to cover his own personal arguments – like his warning ‘not go in crowded districts’ – with earlier renowned authorities so that his recommendations would be accepted within literary Islamic traditions.”1 In any case, al-Yahudi’s arguments fell on deaf ears—quarantine would not be established in the Ottoman Empire until 1838, and even then, only after considerable debate.

Indeed, it would have been strange for Avicenna to champion quarantine, given the understanding of health and disease that prevailed in his time. Despite the hype one hears about the great accomplishments of medieval Muslim physicians, it is, frankly, a mixed bag. They made great strides in diagnosing disease and assembling massive catalogs of symptoms. For example, A Treatise on Smallpox and Measles by Muhammad ibn Zakariyya ar-Razi (854-925), known in the west as Rhazes, is the oldest book we know of to distinguish between the two diseases (For an amusing story about Rhazes’s foray into psychology, see here). But when it came to understanding disease, and treating it, things were considerably more hit or miss.

The obstacle was that the germ theory of disease didn’t exist. The conceptual framework of medicine had not progressed since the time of the Ancient Greeks. The prevailing theory was Galen’s notion of the four humors—blood, phlegm, green bile, and black bile—and their corresponding properties of hot/cold and wet/dry. Under this theory, illness was the result of the humors getting out of balance, and the cure was to eat foods with opposite properties of temperature and moisture in order to compensate. Green bile, for instance, was thought to be hot and dry and therefore an excess of it caused fevers. Thus, to cure fever, the green bile needed to be balanced with something cool and moist. Although we do find some powerful drugs in the Muslim pharmacopeias—in a recent post about a tenth century cookbook, I included a recipe for opium-based cough drops—treatments were mostly food-based and bordered on quackery. In the case of fever, gourds and pomegranates were thought to be especially effective.

As for what causes the humors to fall out of balance in the first place, there were various theories.

Take smallpox, for example. Since Bubonic Plague was taking a rest—the aftershocks of the Plague of Justinian had died out around the end of the Umayyad Caliphate (750) and the Black Death of the 1300s was still centuries away—smallpox was probably the most dangerous disease with which the physicians of the Islamic Golden Age had experience.

Absolutely everyone got it, usually during childhood. Either they survived or they didn’t—the death rate was about 25%. If they survived, they never got it again.

Based on these observations, physicians concluded smallpox was just a normal part of growing up. Both Rhazes and Avicenna described it as a process of rot or fermentation in the blood. According to The Canon of Medicine,

Its symptomatic cause is the natural fermenting [or boiling] of the blood to shake out the remaining menstrual nourishment that was mixed in it from the time of pregnancy…like what nature does in squeezing the grape until it becomes a drink resembling its essence [i.e., wine].2

Still, this didn’t explain epidemics, why smallpox would break out in large numbers in certain times and places. Along those lines, Avicenna did have some rudimentary notion about contagion. One paragraph in The Canon of Medicine lists diseases that can be spread from person to person, and the manner in which they’re spread:

And among the diseases, some are contagious, like leprosy, scabies, smallpox, infectious fever, and festering wounds, especially where the houses are cramped, or likewise if the neighboring houses are downwind. Also conjunctivitis, especially from gazing into the eyes of someone else, and toothache from imagining biting into something acidic. Also pannus and leprosy.3

However, this was not so much due to the transmission of germs from person-to-person—Avicenna knew nothing of the variola virus—as it did with the presence of bad air, or miasmas, in certain places. Hence the significance of whether a house was closely confined or downwind from an infected house.

Sometimes the reason is that winds carry bad vapors from distant places that have stagnant water in them, or wounded bodies from battles, or those who died from fevers and weren’t buried or burned. And sometimes the reason is proximity to a neighboring place. And sometimes corruption is shown to be hidden in the ground for reasons not understood in detail. Then the water and the air are prepared and the fevers occur.4

Avicenna fills page after page describing how winds, seasons, temperature, humidity, and even the heavens affect the quality of the air. For example,

If we see the south wind increase, and days of turbid air, and then after that it becomes clear for a week, and then a cold night occurs that extends into a hot, hazy, cloudy day, then an epidemic might come that causes infectious fevers and smallpox and their like. And likewise if there was a cool summer and the atmosphere was heavy with soot. And comets, fires, and meteors in the fall are portents of infection as well.5

"As for improving the air," Avicenna writes,

...it is the goal to dry the air. Make the air good and prevent the rottenness from entering and crude matter from returning with ambergris, camphor, musk, and a measure of candy, storax, sandarac, asafetida, clove resin, mastic, terebinth resin, laudanum, honey, saffron, cypress, juniper, moss, bay leaf, sedge, 'adhkhar, savin, waja, shababk, bitter almonds, and so forth. And take these components in vinegar and asafetida and sprinkle the house...perfume with incense: sandalwood, camphor, pomegranate peel, myrtle, apples, quince, teak, tamarisk, and ribas. The perfuming must be repeated.6

This use of perfumes and incenses to fumigate the bad air was common practice. The historian as-Suyuti (d. 1505) tells of an incident during the "Plague of the Notables" (716-717), when a merchant appeared before the prince Ayyub, son of the Caliph Suleiman. The desperate courtiers grabbed the merchant's supply of musk right out of his hands. It didn't work though. When the merchant returned a week and a half later, Ayyub and all his household were dead and the palace boarded up.7

Clearly these three theories—maturation of the blood, person-to-person transmission, and miasmas—are not entirely consistent with each other, despite all appearing in the same book, and sometimes on the same page. The miasma theory is the one to which Avicenna dedicates the most space, and also the one which one hears the most about in the works of other authors. It is, of course, entirely at odds with the idea of quarantine.

If disease is the product of a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors that have accumulated in some place, then rather than hunkering down where you are, the logical thing to do is escape to some more wholesome locale. The chronicles of the Umayyad period are rife with accounts of rulers fleeing their palaces during outbreaks of Bubonic Plague. Finding higher ground was especially popular, since it was believed that the miasmas had an affinity for hollows and valleys. In the example I gave in my previous post, in which the Caliph Omar relocated his troops during the Plague of Amwas, their destination was the higher elevations of Hauran, in what's now southern Syria.8

Despite the vaunted reputation of medieval Muslim physicians in general, and Avicenna in particular, there is not only no evidence that they invented quarantine, but the idea wouldn't even make sense to them, given their basic ideas about medicine. Some of which were downright laughable. Obviously comets have nothing to do with smallpox, and even though conjunctivitis is highly contagious, spreading it requires some form of contact; you don’t get it merely by gazing into the eyes of someone who has it.

Still, we shouldn’t laugh too hard. Their painstaking classification of disease and symptoms laid the foundation for what was to come. The pioneers of modern medicine stood on the shoulders of giants, and Rhazes and Avicenna were giants indeed.

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

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Photo credit(s): Ether Monument, Boston Public Gardens from Wikimedia Commons

1Bulmus, Birsen, Plague, Quarantines and Geopolitics in the Ottoman Empire, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2012), p. 44.
2Avicenna, Qanun fi al-Tibb (Canon of Medicine), Book IV, Beirut: Muʻassasat ʻIzz al-Dīn (1987), Chapter 3, Section 67. All translations from The Canon of Medicine are mine.
3Avicenna, Qanun fi al-Tibb (Canon of Medicine), Book I, Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah (1999), Chapter 2, Section 8.
4Avicenna, Book IV, op. cit., Chapter 3, Section 65.
5Ibid, Chapter 3, Section 66.
7See Michael W. Dols seminal article, "Plague in Early Islamic History," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1974), p.379.
8Dols, op. cit., pp. 376-380.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Running from what Allah had ordained...

...to what Allah has ordained.
Islam and Plague Part 1: The Theologians.

When one thinks of the relationship between science and religion, the great historical conflicts between the two typically come to mind: the persecution of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church, for example, or the trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution. Science makes some claim and Religion replies, “That’s heresy!”

But there’s another phenomenon that I've observed over the years. It's kind of the opposite: Science makes some claim, and Religion replies, “We knew it all along!”

Christian writers claim to find conservation of energy, the Big Bang Theory, and dinosaurs in the Bible. Hindus see Heisenberg Uncertainty in Vedic wisdom about the ultimate unknowability of reality. While I was growing up, I often heard my Jewish co-religionists express great pride that our Bronze Age ancestors were millennia ahead of the curve in their insight into the trichinella worm.

One example of this that is particularly timely, thanks to the coronavirus crisis, is that Islam had unique insight into infectious diseases and quarantine centuries before the advent of modern medicine. One hadith in particular (a hadith is a saying of Muhammad or one of his Companions) has been quoted in numerous articles, including this one in The New Yorker: “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 71, Number 624).”

Or as today's Koronavirus Karens put it, "Stay the f--k home!"

As I shall show, the alleged foresight of medieval Islam regarding modern germ theory has been greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, what Muslims did believe—though often contradictory—is interesting in its own right, caught up as it was with fundamental questions about God's power and human destiny. In this post I’ll explore what scripture and theology had to say on the subject. The views of Avicenna and other scientists will be the topic of a future post.

It is impossible to separate any discussion of Islam and plague from the faith’s core tenets, in particular the belief that Allah is all-powerful and everything that happens in Heaven and on Earth unfolds according to His Will. Muslim theologians, especially those of the Ashari school, argued that Will and omnipotence are in fact Allah’s primary attributes. He is not bound by any laws of nature or justice. Miracles are not a departure from the natural order because there is no natural order, no causation, only Allah’s Will. As for the will of human beings—so-called "free" will—there's no such thing as that either. That fantasy is pure blasphemy; it limits Allah's power.

The writings of the towering eleventh century scholar, Abu Hamid Ghazali, is representative of medieval theologians in general and the Ashari school in particular. He delves into the topic at length in his Revival of the Science of Religion in the chapter “Tawhid wa Tawakkal (Monotheism and Reliance on God)”: “Man's will and strength are guided by another,” he writes. “A man is the object or intermediary of God's will and power flow…He who attributes everything to anything other than God is misguided…Everything was written.” The last part echoes verses 54:52-53 of the Quran: "Everything they do is in the writings. And everything small and great is written down."

Such theology inevitably leads to fatalism, a reluctance to act in the face of the impossibility of changing Allah’s decrees. The best we can do is resign ourselves patiently to them, and rely on the benevolence of Allah to ensure that all will turn out well for those who believe. In modern times, Edward Said railed against this characterization of Muslims, which he saw as a racist stereotype: the passive “Oriental.”

But stereotype or not, there is no doubt fatalism is deeply rooted in Muslim scripture. A search on Quran.com for the word patient (صبر) turned up eighty-seven hits. Verse 29:58-60 is typical: “Excellent the reward of the workers, who are patient and on their Lord they rely! And how many a living creature carries not its sustenance! Allah sustains it and yourselves.”

Or as another religion put it, "Consider the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin."

In another work, The Book of Counsel for Kings, Ghazali told a rather poignant story about the impossibility of taking action to thwart what Allah has written for us. A companion of King Solomon saw Death eyeing him. Fearful that his end was imminent, he asked Solomon to use his magic to teleport him to India in order to escape Death's clutches. Once there, he died that very day. The story ends with Death telling Solomon that the reason he was staring at the man was that he was surprised that someone whose soul was destined to be collected in India could possibly be so far from there.

Even among those Muslims who were inclined toward a more scientific view of the universe, there was a fatalistic streak. It permeates the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam for example. We are

Impotent Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;

If you’ve read my novel The Thread of Reason, you know that despite their on-again off-again friendship, Khayyam and Ghazali were polar opposites, in both personality and in philosophy. When they agreed on something, it must have been deeply ingrained in the culture indeed.

And yet, Muslims are not entirely passive in the face of a deterministic universe. Like all of us, they plan, and work, and fight, as if doing so will have some effect on the world. They lock their doors to prevent thieves from stealing their property and repair their houses to prevent the walls from collapsing. They pray in the hopes of modifying heaven’s terrible decrees. The even eat.

With his characteristic disdain for those who disagree with him, Ghazali explains,

Some think that the meaning of God-reliance is to give up earnings, to give up efforts, and to lie upon the ground like [a] thrown plank or like meat on a [skewer of] wood. This is the conjecture of the fools, it is unlawful in Shari’ah which praises God-reliant men.
For example,

When you are hungry and food is placed before you it is not God-reliance to give it up. This is against law of nature. Similarly if you do not cultivate land and hope for crops or if you do not cohabit with [your] wife but still hope to have a child, it will be madness and not God-reliance.
He then provides a dozen anecdotes about saints who didn’t cultivate the land, or otherwise provide for themselves, and Allah provided for them anyway.

It’s a paradox. Ghazali quotes a hadith which captures it nicely: “The Prophet said to a desert Arab: Why have you let loose your camel? He said: I let it loose depending on God. He said: Tie it and depend on God.”

Or as another religion put it, “Put your faith in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.”

Any discussion of Islam and medicine in general, and plague in particular, has to be understood in the context of this somewhat dual view of Allah’s omnipotence and man’s agency.

As with other things, Islam teaches that health and disease are entirely controlled by the Will of Allah. And even when there appear to be natural forces at play, such as contagion from one individual to another, it is in fact Allah who is pulling the strings. Thus, we read in the Hadith:

Allah's Apostle said, “There is no contagion, nor jaundice, nor vermin [without Allah’s permission]” A Bedouin stood up and said, "Then what about my camels? They are [as healthy as] deer on the sand, but when a mangy camel comes and mixes with them, they all get infected with mange." The Prophet said, "Then who conveyed the (mange) disease to the first one?" (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 71, Number 615)

Disease strikes according to Allah’s plan, which, although it may not seem like it, is benevolent, and should not, therefore, be opposed:

Narrated 'Aisha: (the wife of the Prophet) that she asked Allah's Apostle about plague, and Allah's Apostle informed her saying, "Plague was a punishment which Allah used to send on whom He wished, but Allah made it a blessing for the believers. None (among the believers) remains patient in a land in which plague has broken out and considers that nothing will befall him except what Allah has ordained for him, but that Allah will grant him a reward similar to that of a martyr." (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 71, Number 630)

There are two aspects of this I want to emphasize: the seemingly odd notion that plague can be a "blessing," and the last part, the part that says “Allah will grant him a reward similar to that of a martyr,” I can’t underscore its significance enough. It puts a believer who is killed by plague in the same category as a jihadi who is killed in a holy war: they both automatically go to heaven. Another hadith makes this explicit:

The martyrs are of five kinds: one who dies of plague; one who dies of diarrhea (or cholera) ; one who is drowned; one who is buried under debris and one who dies fighting in the way of Allah (Sahih Muslim Book 020, Number 4705).

The insistence that health and disease are entirely a matter of the Will of Allah doesn't preclude doing something about it. The same paradox that exists about other areas of life applies here as well. The book on medicine in Bukhari’s collection of Hadith contains accounts of Muhammad recommending all sorts of antidotes and treatments: dates, cupping, caraway seeds, camel urine, honey (for stomach ailments), talbina (a porridge of barley, milk, and honey), truffle water (for diseases of the eye), incense (inhaled like snuff for tonsillitis and pleurisy), and ruqya (exorcism—for snakebite and scorpion sting). The only treatments he explicitly opposes are cauterization and relieving tonsil pain in children by pressing on the palate with your fingers.

In one hadith, quoted by Ghazali, Muhammad is challenged point blank about the apparent contradiction: “The Prophet was asked about medicines and spells and enchantments: Can they annul the decree God?” Muhammad’s way out: “It is also God's decree.”

We have an early case study on how this paradoxical view of destiny and agency plays out in practice during the reign of the caliph Omar (634-644). Omar had been a Companion of Muhammad and it was during his caliphate that Muslim armies fanned out across the Middle East on a campaign of conquest. In the year 638 or 639, the Plague of Amwas (Emmaus) broke out. Readers of the New Testament will recognize the locale: it’s the village near Jerusalem where Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection. The uncertainty in the date of the plague might indicate there were two waves of infection, as was the case with the Spanish Flu of 1918 and, as some fear, may be the case with coronavirus. As for what kind of disease it was, the sources don’t say, but historians believe it was Bubonic Plague, an aftershock of the Plague of Justinian that ravaged the Byzantine Empire starting in 541.

Omar's dilemma was whether to leave his troops where they were or to withdraw them to safer ground. After travelling about the country, consulting various advisors, and suffering some miscommunications with the commander, Abu 'Ubaida bin Al-Jarrah—there was a whole rigmarole that I won't bore you with—he finally settled on withdrawal. A hadith tells us the decision subjected him to considerable criticism:

Abu 'Ubaida bin Al-Jarrah said (to 'Umar), "Are you running away from what Allah had ordained?" Omar said, "Would that someone else had said such a thing, O Abu 'Ubaida! Yes, we are running from what Allah had ordained to what Allah has ordained.

No matter which choice Omar made, what Allah ordained would prevail. Indeed, his decision to move the troops to safety did not prevent the plague from decimating the army. Twenty five thousand Muslims died, including Abu ‘Ubaida.

The hadith continues,

At that time 'Abdur-Rahman bin 'Auf, who had been absent because of some job, came and said, "I have some knowledge about this. I have heard Allah's Apostle saying, 'If you hear about it (an outbreak of plague) in a land, do not go to it; but if plague breaks out in a country where you are staying, do not run away from it.'” Omar thanked Allah and returned to Medina. (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 71, Number 625)

Which brings us full circle to the hadith with which I started this post, and we can now revisit it within the framework of medieval Muslim theology. The reiteration of the hadith inside a broader narrative about Allah’s Will being carried out at Emmaus, regardless of what we impotent humans do, is a smoking gun, giving us context that wasn’t available in the shorter version I cited above. Other variations (Sahih Muslim Book 026 Number 5493-5499) are equally enlightening; they say explicitly that the reason one should neither go to a place that is plague-stricken, nor flee from one, is “It is a calamity or a disease which Allah sent to a group of the Children of Israel, or to the people who were before you.”

Clearly, as it was understood by the theologians of the time, the hadith is not about anticipating modern quarantine methods to prevent the spread of disease. Rather it is a command to be patient and acquiescent in the face of Allah’s plan. If Allah's plan is to punish you with plague for your sins, you cannot escape death by fleeing from it. If His plan is not to "bless" you with plague for your faith, you cannot achieve martyrdom by chasing after it. Either way, do not try to change the outcome. You cannot succeed.

NEXT UP—What the medieval Muslim scientists had to say. As we will see, it is equally rife with contradictions.

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

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Turkey's Lap Dogs

The Quisling Academics of the Armenian Genocide Denial Industry.

This Friday we observe a solemn anniversary: April 24, 1915, the beginning—amid the throes of World War I—of the massacre of somewhere between half a million and a one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. Many victims were outright bound and executed. Others died of thirst, exhaustion, and the attacks of local populations as they were “relocated” to the Syrian Desert.

It was a heartbreaking tragedy in a century of heartbreaking tragedies. One of the most powerful accounts of the genocide can be found in Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, the memoir of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who was the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, and who first reported many of the sickening details to the world. I read excerpts from it in a 2017 video, which I encourage you to watch. As I say at the end, “A horrible story, but it’s important that we remember it.”

However, today I want to focus on another aspect of the Armenian Genocide: Armenian Genocide Denial.

No Turk now living participated in the Armenian Genocide, and no reasonable person can blame today’s Republic of Turkey, successor to the Ottoman Empire, for murdering so many innocent people 100 years ago. But one can certainly blame the Turkish government for murdering truth, by means of the significant efforts it has put into covering up, minimizing, and obfuscating what happened in 1915. We can start with the guy at the top, Turkey's Islamist president, Recip Erdogan.

Each time some government around the world condemns the massacre, Erdogan can be counted on to lash out and spew threats, as he did in 2016 when the German Bundestag passed a resolution labeling the massacres as genocide. “Our attitude on the Armenian issue has been clear from the beginning,” he said in a speech. “We will never accept the accusations of genocide.” He then threatened to unleash a flood of Syrian refugees into the Balkans. “Turkey will stop being a barrier in front of the problems of Europe. We will leave you to your own worries.”

Last October, when the US House of Representatives passed a similar resolution, The New York Times reported that Erdogan sank to the tu quoque fallacy: “The countries who have stains of genocide, slavery, colonialism in their history have no right to give lessons to Turkey.” It's a fallacy of irrelevancy: the historic atrocities that the United States committed against its black and Native American populations, which, like the Armenian Genocide we should never forget, have no bearing on, and do not mitigate, the blood on the hands of the Ottoman Empire. And yet, when the resolution passed the Senate unanimously in December, Erdogan doubled down on his faulty logic and threatened a reciprocal vote in the Turkish Parliament about Native Americans.

Far more insidious than Erdogan shooting off his mouth, and predating his presidency by decades, are efforts by the Turkish government to shut down dissenting opinions by weaponizing Armenian Genocide Denial among US academics. In the words of a 1998 “Statement by Concerned Scholars and Writers,” among them Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Henry Morgenthau III, “Turkey’s efforts to sanitize its history now include the funding of chairs in Turkish studies—with strings attached—at American universities.”

The lid was blown off the cozy relationship between the Republic of Turkey and some US academics in 1990 when the Turkish Ambassador, Nuzhet Kandemir, sent a letter to Robert J. Lifton of the City University of New York, concerning Dr. Lifton’s 1986 book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. “Needless to say,” Kandemir wrote, “I was shocked by references in your work to the so-called ‘Armenian genocide’ allegedly perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks during World War I.” Note the use of sarcastic quotation marks and the weasel words so-called and allegedly. Despite the distinguished reputation of the recipient, the letter was chock full of condescension; it ended, “I am enclosing copies of works by two American experts on the history of Turco-Armenian relations, Professors Justin McCarthy and Heath Lowry, and hope that in the interest of objectivity and fairness you will not only read them but also reflect having done so in any future works you may publish.”

But the bombshell was this: in addition to enclosing these works, the Embassy also mistakenly enclosed a draft version of the letter that had been ghost written for the ambassador by this same Heath Lowry, along with a cover memo from Lowry to the ambassador explaining the complications of expressing “our unhappiness with Lifton” and addressing “our problem.” [Emphasis mine]. Lowry was, at the time, Founding Director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, a think tank he had established with a $3 million grant from the Turkish government. In 1993, Lowry went on to occupy the Ataturk Chair in Turkish Studies at Princeton University, also endowed by the Turkish Government, to the tune of $1.5 million, one of at least four such chairs around the country.

The story became public knowledge in 1995 when Dr. Lifton and two co-authors published a detailed account in Holocaust and Genocide Studies which included facsimiles of the Kandemir letter and its unintended enclosures. And apparently either Lifton or his co-authors did familiarize themselves with the work of Professor Lowry, because they wrote, "Lowry's own work contains many questionable assertions and conclusions...His conclusions do not in fact follow from his analysis or the evidence he can marshal. Quite astonishing, however, is his claim that what Talaat, a principal architect of the Armenian genocide, had in mind for the Armenians was not destruction, but 'segregation,' that the fate of the Armenians was to be that of African Americans in the South in 1915."

The scandal resulted in protests against Lowry's appointment to Princeton (see "Princeton Is Accused of Fronting For the Turkish Government" in The New York Times, May 22, 1996), but to no avail. Lowry remained as Ataturk Chair until 2013, apparently suffering little to no professional damage, and interference by the Turkish government in American academia didn't go away, as revealed by a subsequent incident reported by The Washington Post: When an Institute of Turkish Studies board chairman, Binghamton University professor Donald Quataert called for more research into the Armenian Genocide, one of Ambassador Kandemir's successors, Nabi Sensoy, threatened the Institute's funding, resulting in the ouster of Professor Quataert from the board. Although Sensoy denied the accusations, several other board members resigned in protest.

*           *           *

The evidence that the Armenian Genocide occurred is overwhelming. The whole thing was conducted in public; everyone could see the caravans of forcibly displaced Armenians jamming the roads of Turkey. Thanks to Ambassador Morgenthau’s efforts at collecting reports from American consulates all over the country, we not only have his own memoir, but there were 150 articles about the genocide in The New York Times while it was happening. Furthermore, there are diplomatic cables from other governments, most notably the Ottomans’ own ally, Germany; photographs of the caravans and the corpses; interviews with survivors; testimony from the courts martial of the officials responsible, held at the insistence of the British occupying force after the war; and, from within the Ottoman government, the infamous telegrams of the aforementioned "architect of the Armenian genocide," Talaat Pasha.

In the face of such a mountain of evidence, only the most wacko members of the tin-foil hat squad attempt to deny that the Genocide happened at all. Instead, the Turkish regime and its lap dogs take three dubious lines of attack: 1) The Armenians brought it on themselves. 2) The number of dead has been exaggerated. 3) It wasn’t really genocide. Incidentally, Justin McCarthy, the second of the two "experts" named in the Kandemir letter, has been at the forefront of promoting the first two arguments. Taking each argument in turn:

Dubious Line of Attack #1: The Armenians brought it on themselves

We find this argument, for example, in the Kandemir letter, where he refers to the Genocide as “a tragic civil war (initiated by Armenian nationalists).” Other variations are that the Armenians allied with the Ottoman's World War I enemy, Russia, Russia, Russia, and were therefore a threat to the Ottoman State and fair game in wartime.

Yes, there was an Armenian nationalist movement dating back to the 1800s—a century of nationalist movements around the world. And yes, Armenian volunteers really did join with Russian forces in the Caucasus Campaign during World War I, and helped hand the Turks their asses at the Battle of Sarikamish.

This type of argument is always used by those who seek to murder and ethnically cleanse those they hate. And it's always “true,” because in any group you can find a few people who did bad things. A Jewish man, Herschel Grynszpan, really did murder the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath—which was the pretext the Nazi demagogues used to incite the Germans to Kristallnacht in 1938. There really are violent Rohingya nationalist groups, which is the pretext used in Myanmar today to burn Rohingya villages and murder women and children (see my 2017 post The Rohingya Persecution: A Primer).

But it’s nevertheless a despicable argument, which blames the victim. As with the Nazi Holocaust and the Rohingya persecution, the hundreds of thousands of disarmed victims of the Armenian genocide were innocent. Many were women, children, and elderly, deep in the Turkish heartland, far from the battlefield. They hadn’t allied with the enemies of Ottoman Empire, and weren’t a threat to anybody.

Dubious Line of Attack #2: The number of dead has been exaggerated

As with the victims of communism, calculating the number of victims of the Armenian Genocide is complicated. It’s easy to get bogged down in methodology and go down the rathole of the accuracy of Ottoman censuses in the years before the war. So let me cut through the Gordian Knot: even if the lowest estimate of the number of victims is correct—about 500,000—the Armenian Genocide is still a horrible atrocity and a stain on the history of the Ottoman Empire.

Dubious Line of Attack #3: It wasn’t really genocide

To paraphrase South Park’s Gerald Broflovski, it’s not genocide because we don’t call it that.

This argument is based on a point of legal nicety—whether the massacre of Armenians conforms to the definition of genocide as spelled out in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The sticking point is whether the Ottomans had “intent to destroy” the Armenian people. Arguing along similar lines, Bernard Lewis said that the massacres were not “a deliberate preconceived decision of the Ottoman government,” a viewpoint that put him on the receiving end of a lawsuit in France.

I have, in other contexts, expressed the greatest admiration for Professor Lewis. But he was way off base on this one. It is, quite frankly, a pedantic and ridiculous argument.

Aside from the fact that we routinely use words in ordinary discourse in ways that are different from their technical, legal meanings, the Ottomans did pursue a deliberate, preconceived policy intended to destroy the Armenian people. We know that from a bunch of the sources, including Ambassador Morgenthau, who met routinely with Ottoman officials. “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations,” he wrote, “they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”

Even without these sources, the idea that the Ottoman officials merely sought to relocate Armenians, and didn’t intend to kill them, is absurd. That individuals who had worked their way up to the highest level of government could think that it was remotely possible to relocate two million or so people, on foot, through hostile populations, to a desert region with no infrastructure to provide food or shelter, without significant numbers of them being killed, staggers the imagination.

In any case, it’s never very productive to debate what to call something. If we can’t agree on calling the massacre of Armenians a genocide, let's at least agree that it was a horrible atrocity. An atrocity whose truths must be conscientiously preserved with painstaking scholarly objectivity, so that there is never again such a bloody and tragic chapter in human history.

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

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Photo credit(s): Armenian Weekly

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Sultan v. Caliph

A Medieval Smackdown.
by Michael Isenberg.

More of the real-life history behind The Thread of Reason.

The Muslim world of the 11th century—when my novel The Thread of Reason takes place—was a divided world.

On the one side were the moderates: they patronized the sciences, treated Jews and Christians with tolerance, and were willing to wink at wine drinking and other occasional breaches of Muslim law, the shari’ah.

On the other side were the hardliners; they were skeptical of the sciences, attempted to persecute Jews and Christians, and sought strict enforcement of the shari’ah.

In the political realm, this conflict was mirrored by the conflict between caliph and sultan.

The caliph—from the Arabic calapha, meaning to follow or succeed—was the successor to Muhammad. Ruling from his palace in Baghdad, the caliph was (since 750 AD), a member of the Abbasid Dynasty, descended from Muhammad’s Uncle Abbas. The caliph was the supreme authority in the Muslim world, the “Commander of the Faithful”. The sultan was merely his strong right arm, carrying out his policies and enforcing the shari'ah.

At least that was the theory.

In practice, the sultan had the army, and was therefore the real power.

During the latter half of the eleventh century, the sultans were Turks, members of the Seljuq Dynasty. Their propaganda presented them as the defenders of the caliph and of orthodox Islam. And yet, in many ways, they weren’t very good Muslims. They drank wine and wore silk, both prohibited in the shari’ah. As I’ve written previously, they had Jewish officials working for them, and when one of these officials came into conflict with a Muslim, and the caliph's government attempted to retaliate by decreeing strict enforcement of the restrictions on Jews and Christians that are in the shari'ah, the sultan Malik-shah and his vizier (prime minister), Nizam al-Mulk, stood by their own man, took the Jews’ side, and made the caliph back off from the hated decree. Indeed, Malik-shah and Nizam al-Mulk were in constant conflict with the caliphs, whom they tried to control by ensuring the caliph’s vizier was one of their own guys. At the time The Thread of Reason takes place, this office was filled by one of Nizam al-Mulk's own sons-in-law. For all these reasons, scholars have recently come to refer to the notion that the sultans were the defenders of orthodoxy as “The Great Seljuq Myth.”

It was inevitable that such a conflict would come to a head. By the fall of 1092, Malik-shah was determined to have it out with the caliph.


Nizam al-Mulk apparently opposed the plan, and blamed it on Shiite troublemakers who had infiltrated the government. According to Nizam al-Mulk’s guide to government, The Book of Politics,

The most damaging and odious enemies to the religion of Muhammad are also the worst enemies of the Master of the World [i.e., the sultan].

These people who, today, have power in the government, and who make propaganda for the Shiite creed, belonging to this sect: they carry out their affairs in secret, they employ violence, they indulge in proselytism, and they talk the Master of the World into the idea of annihilating the Abbasid dynasty.

If I wanted to lift the lid that covers this pot, what evils would come out! [1]

Despite the opposition of his vizier, Malik-shah was determined to proceed. In October of that year, he traveled from his capital in Isfahan up to Baghdad, his third such visit. Along the way, Nizam al-Mulk was brutally assassinated, as I described in my previous post, “The Murder that Started it All.”

Free from the overbearing influence of his vizier, the sultan continued on to Baghdad. The historian ibn Khallikhan (d. 1282), tells us what happened next:

We shall here relate a singular circumstance: When [Malik-shah] entered Baghdad for the third time, the caliph had two sons, one of whom was [subsequently] the imam al-Mustazhir billah; the other, who bore the name of Abu 'l-Fadl Jaafar, was the son of the sultan's daughter. The caliph had solemnly designated as his successor the first named of these two, because he was the elder, but the sultan insisted that he should revoke the nomination, declare Abu 'l-Fadl heir to the caliphate, put him in possession of Baghdad and then remove himself to Basra. The caliph felt the greatest repugnance to execute what had been required of him; he used every effort to change the sultan's determination and, finding all his remonstrances fruitless, he asked and obtained a delay of ten days in order to make the necessary preparations for his departure. It is related that, during these days, he kept a rigourous fast and, when he did take food, he sat upon ashes and invoqued the assistance of the Almighty God against the sultan. That period of time had not yet elapsed when the sultan fell ill and died, and the caliph was thus delivered from his trouble. [2]

The death of the sultan Malik-shah, and the resulting deliverance of the caliph, was a victory for the forces of shari'ah over the forces of moderation, one from which the Muslim world would never recover. In another paragraph, ibn Khallikan fills in the details about the sultan's death, so convenient for the caliph:

He entered [Baghdad] for the third time in the beginning of the month of Shawwal, 485 (Nov.A. D. 1092), and set off immediately on a hunting party, in the direction of the Dujail. Having then killed an antelope and eaten of its flesh, he was taken ill and had to be bled; but, as enough of blood was not drawn from him, he returned to Baghdad very unwell and none of his officers were admitted into his presence. He entered the city on the 15th of Shawwal, 485 (18th Nov. A. D. 1092), and died the next day. He was born on the 9th of the first Jumada, 447 (6th August, A. D. 1055). Some say that his death was caused by a poisoned tooth-pick. His funeral was conducted in the most private manner; no prayer was said over the grave, no sittings of condolence were held, no hair was cut off the tails of horses, though such a thing was customary in the case of persons such as he. One would have thought he had been snatched away bodily from the world. His corpse was borne to Ispahan and interred in the great college appropriated to the Shafites and Hanefites. [3]

Even in an age where accidental death was common, it defies imagination that the death of Malik-shah, coming so closely on the heels of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, and right after he had told the caliph to get out of town, would be due to eating a bad antelope. For what I think really happened, see The Thread of Reason.

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

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credit(s): Wikipedia (Public Domain)

[1] Nizam al-Mulk (1018-1092), Siasset Namèh ou Traité de Gouvernement (The Book of Politics or Treatise on Government), Angers: Imprimerie Orientale de A. Burdin et Cie, (1893), trans. Charles Schefer, 243. The translation from the French is mine.
[2] Khallikan, Shams al-Dīn Abū Al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad Ibn Muḥammad ibn (1211-1282),
Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary [Wafayāt al-aʿyān wa-anbāʾ abnāʾ az-zamān (Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch)], Vol. III, Paris: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland (1868), B. MacGuckin de Slane, tr., p. 445.
[3] Ibid, pp. 444-445.