Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Convert or Die?

Islam prohibits forced conversions. Except when it doesn't.
by Michael Isenberg.

No claim about Islam is more likely to start an argument than the one that Muslims spread their religion by telling conquered peoples, “Convert or die.” It’s right up there with “Jihad is Holy War.”

As with most such debates, the truth is complicated.

Strictly speaking, forced conversion to Islam violates Muslim law, the Shari’ah. In the words of the Quran, “There is no compulsion in religion (2:256).”

Rather than force unbelievers to apostatize, scripture tells Muslims,

Fight those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, nor follow the Religion of Truth, or of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax (jizyah) in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection (9:29).

In other words, Islam does not tell unbelievers, “Convert or die.” It tells them, “Convert, live under our rule as second class citizens, or die.” While technically that is not forced conversion, I submit it’s not any better.

In any case, just because a thing is prohibited by law doesn’t mean it never happens. Forced conversions were rare in Islamic history. But they did occur.

Sometimes they were at the hands of a rogue leader and eventually cooler heads prevailed. That was the case in 1198 when the ruler of Yemen, al-Malik al-Mu’izz Isma’il, declared himself the caliph—leader of all the Muslims—and ordered forced conversions of Jews and Christians. Those who refused were beheaded. Three years later, al-Malik was murdered by his own troops and the converts went back to their old religions.

But in other cases, conversion was at the hands of rulers who to this day are among the most cherished and revered figures in Islam. Saladin (who incidentally was the uncle of al-Malik) is known in the West for his chivalry toward Richard the Lion-Hearted. But he wasn’t so chivalrous after the ass-whooping he inflicted on Crusader forces in the Battle of Hattin (1187). The Templars and Hospitallers taken prisoner were ordered to convert. Many refused. Saladin’s secretary Imad ad-Din, who was there, wrote what happened next:

Saladin ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics, each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais, the unbelievers showed black despair.

Two hundred knights were massacred. Observe that the “devout men” and “scholars,” who were the authorities responsible for enforcing the Shari’ah in general and the laws against forced conversions in particular, enthusiastically participated.

My last example is from the year 1148, during the conquest of Morocco by the Almohads, a fanatical sect that rebelled against their rulers, the Almoravids. They thought the Almoravids were soft on the enforcement of Shari’ah. We have an unusually detailed and personal account, thanks to a letter found in the cache of documents known as the Cairo Geniza. As refugees streamed from Morocco into Egypt, one Jewish merchant, Solomon b. Abu Zikri Judah, recounted to his father the news they brought from the town of Sijilmasa, which was where their family was from:

You certainly wish to know the news from the Maghreb [Morocco], the ears who hear about it will tingle [Jeremiah 19:4]. The travelers have arrived, among them groups of Jews, who were present at the event. They reported that ‘Abd al-Mu’min the Susi attacked the [Almoravid] amir Tashfin in Wahran [Oran], besieged him, annihilated his army, killed him, and crucified his body. Then ‘Abd al-Mu’min conquered Tilmaan [Tlemcen] and killed everyone in the town, except those who apostatized. When the news arrived in Sijilmasa, the population revolted against the amir, declared themselves in public as opponents of the murabitun [Almoravids], drove them out of town, and sent messengers to ‘Abd al-Mu’min surrendering to him. After he entered Sijilmasa, he assembled the Jews and asked them to apostatize. Negotiations went on for seven months, during all of which they fasted and prayed. After this a new amir arrived and demanded their conversion. They refused, and a hundred and fifty Jews were killed, sanctifying the name of God:

          The Rock—his deeds are without blemish and all his ways are justice [Deuteronomy 32:4].

          Blessed be the true judge, whose judgments are just and true.

          The King’s word has power; who may say to him, “What are you doing? [Ecclesiastes 8:4].

The others apostatized; the first of the apostates was Joseph b. ‘Imran, the judge of Sijilmasa. Because of this I lament and wail, etc. [Micah 1:8].

Before ‘Abd al-Mu’min entered Sijilmasa, when the population rose against the Almoravids, a number of Jews, about two hundred, took refuge in the city’s fortress. Among them were Mar Ya’qub and Abbud, my paternal uncles, Mar Judah b. Farhun and [???]. They are now in Der’a after everything they had was taken from them. What happened to them afterward we do not know.

Of all the countries of the Almoravids there remained in the hands of the dissenters only Der’a and Miknasa (Meknes). As to the congregations of the West, because of our sins, they all perished; there has not remained a single one described as a Jew between Bijaya [Bougie] and the Gate [street] of Gibraltar, they either apostatized or were killed. And on the day I am writing this letter news has arrived that BIjaya has been taken…

At ‘Abd al-Mu’min’s conquest of Fez 100,000 persons were killed and at that of Marrakesh 120,000. Take notice of this. This is not hearsay but a report of people who were present at the events. Take notice.

The translator, S.D. Goitein, comments that the last two numbers are probably exaggerated. A horrific series of events nevertheless.

As for ‘Abd al-Mu’min and the Almohads, they went on to complete their overthrow of the Almoravids and extend their bigoted, Islamist rule over much of Spain and half of North Africa. Their dynasty would last over a hundred years, and destroy the vibrant culture that once flourished in Muslim Spain. Take notice.

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.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Porn Stache

The Pensacola Shooter: Portrait of an Islamic Terrorist.
by Michael Isenberg.

Before I dive into the main topic of today’s blog, the motivation of Islamic terrorist Muhammad al-Shamrani, let’s take a moment to remember the three brave sailors he murdered during a shooting spree at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola last Friday:

  • Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, from St. Petersburg, FL, was looking forward to his birthday and graduation from flight school next week. “Unfortunately, none of that is gonna happen,” his cousin Ashley Williams said.
  • Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, from Richmond Hill, GA was one of seven children. According to his father, “When Cameron graduated bootcamp, the grin on his face said it all. ‘Look at me, Dad, I’m going to be just like you…’ To have the opportunity to earn his wings as a Navy Airman made him proud. And we, too, were so incredibly proud.”
  • Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, AL, escaped, wounded from the classroom building where the shooting took place and alerted first responders before expiring. In a Facebook post, his brother Adam Watson wrote, “He died a hero and we are beyond proud, but there is a hole in our hearts that can never be filled.”

    In a statement, Capt. Tim Kinsella, commander NAS Pensacola said, “We feel the loss profoundly and grieve with the family and friends of the deceased. The Sailors that lost their lives in the line of duty and showed exceptional heroism and bravery in the face of evil. When confronted, they didn’t run from danger; they ran towards it and saved lives. If not for their actions, and the actions of the Naval Security Force that were the first responders on the scene, this incident could have been far worse.”

    Another race hath been,
    and other palms are won.


    What would make a scumbag like Muhammad al-Shamrani destroy three such beloved individuals, cutting them down in their youth? Of course, such questions come up every time there’s an Islamic terror attack. One of the key points of contention is whether the terrorist was motivated by something inherent in Islam itself—Bernard Lewis’s “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis—or whether it was a response to something that was done to the Muslim world by the West in general and the United States in particular.

    In the case of al-Shamrani, we have an opportunity to see into the workings of his mind thanks to a Twitter account widely believed to be his. This is despite the best efforts of Twitter, which suspended the account shortly after it was identified. I wish they wouldn’t do that. The social media posts of terrorists and shooters are of great help to the public in coming to terms with tragic events, and a crucial tool for journalists and bloggers. Fortunately, in this case, some quick thinking individual archived the account to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine about twenty minutes before Twitter dropped the axe. Twenty or so tweets were saved.

    Needless to say, piecing together someone’s psyche from less than two dozen tweets requires a certain amount of detective work, reading between the lines of what he’s tweeting, and making inferences based on who he’s tweeting. But I’ll share with you what I found, and as always, I encourage you to make up your own mind.

    Shamrani’s “final testament”—his last tweet, posted shortly before the attack—has been widely reported in the media.

    It clearly supports the “Resentment against the West” school of thought, with its mentions of Guantanamo, US bombings, and support for Israel. Many pundits consider the last line over on the right to be particularly significant because of the apparent influence of Osama bin Laden: “You will not be safe until we live it in reality pleastain [sic], and American troops get out of our lands.”

    Other tweets back up the “Resentment against the West” theory, with particular emphasis on US policy regarding Israel. Al-Shamrani retweeted a post from Palestinian Activist Hanady Halwani purporting to show brutality by Israeli security forces against a Muslim boy on the Temple Mount (I ran it by an Israeli friend who didn’t see anything in the video to make him doubt its authenticity).

    More significantly, al-Shamrani’s last tweet before his “final testament” was a link to a video of a speech by Donald Trump in which the US president officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It’s highly significant that the Pensacola shooting occurred on the two-year anniversary of that speech.

    Without a doubt, US policy in general, and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem in particular, played a significant role in al-Shamrani’s motive.

    Let me be clear: The US was right to give Israel the same right the world gives every other country: to choose its own capital. US policy should not be dictated by some dirtbag going on a shooting spree because he doesn’t like it. But at the same time, we bury our heads in the sand if we don’t confront the dirtbag’s motives objectively.

    In any case, there is also a great deal in al-Shamrani’s Twitter account to suggest he is motivated by fundamentalist Islam as much as by the policies of the US. He is undoubtedly a dedicated Muslim, posting quotes from the Quran and a photo of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Of course those are things any Muslim might post, and don’t necessarily mean that he had been radicalized. On that point, al-Shamrani’s profile quotation is enlightening:

    The quotation is from the Hadith—the collected sayings of Muhammad and his Companions. My first reaction to it was that it was innocuous enough. Surely every religion teaches its followers to think of themselves as part of the “body” of worshippers. But then Stephen England, author of the Shadow Warriors series of terrorism thrillers, pointed out to me that this particular hadith is popular with recruiters for radical Islam. England researched radicalization for his novel Embrace the Fire. He explained to me that the message is “sure, your life isn't half bad, and your family has it decent. . .but what about everyone else? And if you don't care about what's happening to them, are you really a part of the body after all?” Indeed, Anwar al-Awlaki, who had ties to three of the 9/11 terrorists, as well as the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, cited the hadith in a sermon he preached on this theme.

    Also notable in al-Shamrani’s Twitter feed is who he chooses to retweet and quote, individuals who may have had some influence on him. Abd’ul-Aziz al-Tarefe and Hakim al-Mutairi in particular stand out in this regard. Both are prominent Islamists—believers in Muslim supremacy and the replacement of secular law with shari’ah.

    According to Islam21C.com, Al-Tarefe is a graduate of the college of Sharīʿah at Imaam Muḥammad b. Sa`ud University in Riyadh. He served as a researcher in the Saudi Ministry of Islam until he fell afoul of the authorities. The Washington Examiner reported that his name surfaced in the bin Laden files captured at Abottabad as one of a “younger generation” of Saudi clerics who “proved to be more amenable to al Qaeda’s cause” than their predecessors.

    To give you an idea of what kind of guy al-Tarefe is, here’s a video of him arguing that it is permissible to steal from nations that do not have a “treaties” with Islam [i.e., they haven’t submitted]. It is therefore okay to make purchases using stolen Israeli credit card numbers.

    Al-Tarefe is the author of a number of books, including Words of Wisdom which is available in English on archive.org. The first page contains the ominous words, “Islam only increases, it does not decrease,” and this is followed by numerous calls for jihad throughout the book. From context, it is clear he is referring to armed conflict with the unbeliever, and not the “internal struggle” we so often hear about from apologists for Islam.

    The Jerusalem Post reported that al-Tarefe was arrested in 2016 over his opposition to the Saudi government’s move to eliminate the authority of the shari’ah police, the so-called Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The shari’ah police were one of the worst and most hated excesses of Saudi Arabia’s medieval-style theocracy. I wrote previously about some of their powers: “to enforce hours of prayer, smash bottles of alcohol, eject men from malls where women are shopping, shame women for wearing make-up, and break up gatherings of public lute playing.” These powers were stripped in recent reforms, and it was these reforms that al-Tarefe opposed. Al-Tarefe was subsequently acquitted of the charges against him, according to Islam21C.com.

    Like Abd’ul-Aziz al-Tarefe, Hakim al-Mutairi has vast influence on Twitter, with 1.1 million followers. According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Al-Mutairi is often described as an unusually charismatic person who is able to gain admirers and friends quickly.” During the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, he escaped to Saudi Arabia with a group of other Kuwaiti Salafists. Energized by contact with their Saudi counterparts, they returned to Kuwait after The First Gulf War and launched a more politically active form of Salafism. Al-Mutairi eventually started the Umma Party whose goals, again according to the Carnegie Endowment are “to establish an Islamic society, remove foreign troops from the Gulf region, implement Islamic law, and support political pluralism.” Al-Mutairi has also been active in raising funds for jihadist rebel groups in Syria.

    [Full disclosure: al-Shamrani’s retweet of al-Mutairi came from here, so unlike the Wayback archive tweets, I cannot verify its origin.]

    So what's the bottom line? Was al-Shamrani motivated by anger at US policy, or by a philosophy of Islamic supremacy and jihad? Clearly the evidence of his Twitter feed shows that both were in play.

    But there was also one more factor in the mix, one that didn't come from al-Shamrani's Twitter account. From The New York Times:

    As the F.B.I. continues to conduct interviews with everyone at the Pensacola Naval Air Station who may have had contact with the gunman, identified as Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, a new report emerged that the Saudi trainee filed a formal complaint earlier this year against one of his instructors, who left him “infuriated” in class by tagging him with a derogatory nickname.

    The complaint, quoted in a communication circulated among people connected to the flight training, said that the instructor referred to Lieutenant Alshamrani as “Porn Stash” in front of about 10 other aviation students, embarrassing and angering him.

    “I was infuriated as to why he would say that in front of the class,” the Saudi trainee wrote in his complaint, as quoted in the summary…

    Lieutenant Alshamrani reported that the confrontation came at the end of a meteorology class, when the instructor, James Day, asked whether students had any questions before he dismissed them.

    The instructor then turned to Lieutenant Alshamrani and asked whether he had any questions, addressing him as “Porn Stash” — spelled that way in the complaint — in an apparent reference to the mustache of a porn actor.

    “Laughing, he continued to ask, ‘What? Have you not seen a porn star before?’” the lieutenant wrote in his complaint, according to the summary.

    That a grown man would be so “infuriated” by a joke about his mustache (and one with some truth in it!), and that he would find himself helpless to stand up for himself, so that he would file a formal complaint, indicates a serious inferiority complex. And this too is a motive for terror. As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

    Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim World.

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Photo credit(s): New York Times

  • Tuesday, December 3, 2019

    A Thousand Years of Aptitude

    Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age by S. Frederick Starr.
    Book Review by Michael Isenberg.

    The title of S. Frederick Starr’s 2013 book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age incorporates two controversial ideas: first, that Central Asia ever had a Golden Age, and second, that it was lost. Granted, these are controversial with two distinct group of people. More about that in a moment.

    In his sprawling tour de force, Starr, the founding chairman of John Hopkins’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, covers some thousand years of the history of Central Asia, a region roughly corresponding to modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and eastern Iran (Khorasan). Starr argues that for the first five hundred years or so, starting with the time of the Muslim conquests (although the roots go back further), the region experienced a cultural flowering that led the world in astronomy, medicine, philosophy, poetry, architecture, craftsmanship, and a host of other fields. But around the year 1100, the Muslim world turned its back on the sciences, and Central Asia went into a long decline.

    My Right-of-Center friends find controversy in the claim that there ever was a Golden Age in Central Asia or any other part of the Muslim world (For a discussion of whether there was a Golden Age in Muslim Spain, see my series Did the Islamic Golden Age in Spain really happen? A Debate). On this point, Starr presents abundant evidence that they’re wrong. We meet a colorful cast of thinkers, writers, builders, and experimenters. They were far too numerous to do justice to here, but a few names stand out, Renaissance men centuries before the European Renaissance.

    Of course, first and foremost is my personal favorite, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131)—astronomer, mathematician, poet, scholar of shari'ah, and lover of wine. But since I’ve already written a few words about him elsewhere, I’ll use this space to talk about some of the other lamps of the Central Asian Enlightenment instead.

    Muhammad ar-Razi (854-925), for example, known in the West as Rhazes. A dedicated physician, his influence extended far beyond the Muslim world—his book on measles and smallpox (he was the first ever to distinguish the two) saw forty European editions from 1475 to 1866. I previously shared an amusing story about his ingenious but risky cure for an emir’s arthritis.

    Rhazes also indulged in some theological speculations, and my Right-of-Center friends will find some vindication in the fact that he wasn’t a very good Muslim in this department. The Quran, in a number of places (e.g. 11:13, 17:88), challenges anyone who is skeptical that it is really the word of Allah to write a book like it. Rhazes went on a tirade about that. “By God, what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanations. Then you say: ‘Produce something like it?’”

    Then there was Abu Rayhan Biruni (973-1050), who during a less than stellar career as a diplomat managed to become the leading astronomer of his time. He invented specific gravity, wrote an encyclopedia of India, and calculated the circumference of the earth to within eleven miles of the modern value. Given its size, and that only two-fifths of it had been accounted for, he didn’t believe that all the rest could be ocean. He hypothesized that there must be another continent somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Granted, Starr probably went too far in subtitling that discussion “Biruni Discovers America.”

    At a time when most scientists believed that the earth was the immovable center of the universe, Biruni made considerable strides in developing a theory of a sun-centered solar system with a rotating earth. On that point, he engaged in a heated and occasionally insulting correspondence with the granddaddy of the Central Asian Enlightenment, Abu Ali ibn Sina (980-1037), better known in the West as Avicenna.

    Avicenna spent his days as a physician and a government official, and his nights writing books and drinking wine (another not very good Muslim). His encyclopedic Canon of Medicine was the handbook of the physician’s art in both Europe and Asia for centuries. But his life wasn’t all bureaucracy and scholarship. He had declined the invitation of the thuggish Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna to join his court, and therefore had to spend some years on the lam, during which he had many narrow escapes.

    While he kept his distance from Mahmud, Avicenna did accept the patronage of numerous other rulers. Indeed, all of these monster minds benefited from the generosity of sultans and viziers, who built glittering courts where they collected intellectuals and craftsmen the way squirrels collect nuts. They provided the instruments and books needed—some of their libraries stretched into the tens of thousands of volumes. Perhaps more important, they provided the company of like-minded people, to supply the back and forth that’s so crucial to scientific discovery.

    If the Right is dubious that there was ever a Central Asian Enlightenment, the Left is dubious that it was ever “lost.” Indeed, some critics—Sonja Brentjes, for example, from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Sciences—drag out the tired old accusation that the claim is racist. Well, history is what it is, and it's not racist to establish the truth about it. Nevertheless, it is definitely much harder to establish the absence of something than its presence. Which is what Starr sets out to do in the last hundred pages or so of Lost Enlightenment.

    The turning point, he argues (as have many others, including me), was the publication of The Incoherence of the Philosophers by the religious hardliner Abu Hamid Ghazali around 1095. In it, Ghazali argued that scientists and philosophers were at best useless—they couldn’t prove the great truths of the Muslim religion—and at worst heretical, deserving of execution. But then, how could it be otherwise? The whole scientific enterprise was based on the earlier ideas of Greeks and Indians—unbelievers in Islam.

    Ghazali’s book was hugely influential. After it came out, kings still built glittering courts and stocked them with craftsmen, poets, and scholars of shari’ah (Muslim law). The buildings were more spectacular than ever. “No art surpasses architecture in its appeal to dictators.” But philosophers and scientists were noticeably absent. And when they did appear—the astronomers Nasir ad-Din Tusi and Ulugh Beg, for example—it just wasn’t the same. “Something important has been lost.” Starr hypothesizes it was the Greek and Indian ideas, the grains of sand that produced the pearls of culture, now anathema, thanks to Ghazali. Whatever the reason, the spark was gone. The Muslim world had so little interest in spreading new ideas that the first book printed by a Muslim using movable type would not be published until 300 years after Gutenberg.

    I did have one criticism of Lost Enlightenment. I noticed several errors in Starr’s discussion of the Seljuq period (1037-1153)—the period with which I’m most familiar because of my own writing. They were minor in nature—names and dates that were incorrect—and never detracted from the main points. But still.

    To his credit, in addition to laying out his arguments that the Central Asian Enlightenment became lost after flourishing for so many centuries, and the reasons that happened, Starr systematically addresses the arguments against his hypothesis. But in the end, he admits it’s not worth spending too much time on. “We feel little need to discover the cause of a nonagenarian’s death.” We can learn far more that it useful for own times by discovering how it lasted so long.

    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. Starring Omar Khayyam and Abu Hamid Ghazali, it is available on Amazon.com

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Photo credit(s): Princeton University Press

    Tuesday, November 19, 2019

    If I do not drink wine, God’s knowledge was ignorance

    The humor of Omar Khayyam.

    by Michael Isenberg.

    When we think of the great figures of history, one trait that we tend not to think of is humor. After all, they were busy waging war, handing down laws, writing philosophical tomes, and making world-altering scientific discoveries. Surely these things are no laughing matter.

    But of course that’s not true. They were human beings, and like all human beings, some are stiffs, others will have you rolling on the floor laughing. Abraham Lincoln was constantly telling jokes (There was a good one in the 2012 movie about him, starring Daniel Day Lewis, although I don't know if it's one of the jokes Lincoln told in real life. It involved Ethan Allen and a picture of George Washington in an English privy.). Churchill’s rejoinders against various antagonists, mostly female, are world-famous (“Winston, you’re drunk.” “Bessie, you’re ugly. And tomorrow morning, I’ll be sober.”) Ronald Reagan made the age issue in his re-election campaign completely go away with a well-timed zinger (“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”). Even his opponent was laughing.

    Certainly humor is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). For westerners, that would be his poetry, The Rubaiyat. Omar was a scientist at a time when the Muslim world was in the throes of turning its back on science. So it’s no surprise that The Rubaiyat is a world-weary collection of verses. Among the themes are the futility of knowledge and the inevitability of death:

    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.

    With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
    And with my own hand wrought to make it grow:
              And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd—
    “I came like Water, and like Wind I go.” (1)

    And yet, amid these grim sentiments, there are flashes of humor, no doubt Omar's way of dealing. Omar generally marshalled it in the service of rationalizing his wine-drinking, another way of dealing. Wine, of course, is prohibited in Islam.

    I drink Wine; my Enemies, high and low,
    Say—“Do not drink it; ’tis Religion’s Foe.”
              When I learned wine was a Foe, I answered—
    “’Tis permitted to drink the Foe’s Blood, though.” (2)

    In another bit of twisted logic, Omar argues that God doesn’t mind, and anyway, if Omar doesn’t imbibe, God would be diminished:

    I drink wine, and every one drinks who like me is worthy of it;
    My wine-drinking is but a small thing to Him;
              God knew, on the Day of Creation, that I should drink wine;
    If I do not drink wine, God’s knowledge was ignorance. (3)

    Besides, how can wine be a sin? God created it. It’s blasphemous to say it’s sinful! And if it is a sin, well, it’s God’s fault if we drink. He put temptation in our path.

    Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
    Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
              A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
    And if a Curse—why, then, Who set it there? (4)

    In any case, Omar has no intention of repenting:

    They say to me, “May God give thee repentance!”
    He himself will not give it; I will none of it; let it be far off! (5)

    For more about Omar and wine, see my recent post, “A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, and Thou.”

    Omar’s humor spilled over from his poetry into his real life. He perpetrated the only practical joke I’ve come across in my studies of the medieval Muslim world (which, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, are extensive). According to Zakariya Qazwini, who lived about a century and a half after Omar,

    It was reported that a jurist went to him every day before sunrise, and he studied philosophy with him, but then if he mentioned Omar to other people, he spoke evil of him. Then Omar asked two drummers and the two trumpeters to come and he hid them in his house. Then when the jurist came as normal to read his lessons, Omar commanded them to beat the drums and blow the trumpets. Then the people came from every direction. Then Omar said, “O people of Nishapur, this scholar of yours comes to me every day at this time, and he takes lessons from me. He takes my knowledge when I’m there, and speaks of me as evil when I’m not.” (6)

    In another, slightly earlier version of the story (7), the jurist was none other than Abu Hamid Ghazali, the era’s foremost scholar of shari’a, and a key figure in the eradication of science in the Muslim world. As we have other stories about Ghazali studying with Omar, and treating him dismissively, this is plausible. Ghazali’s sense of humor, BTW, tended toward insults.

    This last story is from a somewhat later source, the Tarikh-i-Alfi, History of the Millennium, written in the 1580s to commemorate the year one thousand in the Muslim calendar.

    It is related that there was in Nishapur an old College, for the repairing of which donkeys were bringing bricks. One day, while the Sage (i.e. Omar) was walking with a group of students, one of the donkeys would on no account enter the College. When Omar saw this, he smiled, went up to the donkey, and extemporized:

    “O lost and now returned ‘yet more astray,’
    They name from men’s remembrance passed away,
              Thy nails have now combined to form thy hoofs,
    Thy tail’s a beard turned round the other way!”

    The donkey then entered, and they asked Omar the reason of this. He replied, “The spirit which has now attached itself to the body of the ass formerly inhabited the body of a lecturer in this college, therefore it would not come in until now, when, perceiving that its colleagues had recognised it, it was obliged to step inside (8).

    The author Tarikh-i-Alfi, Ahmad Tatavi, cited the story as evidence that Omar believed in reincarnation. This was a rather serious accusation, since most Muslims consider reincarnation to be heresy.

    Sounds like Tatavi needed to get a sense of humor.

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

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Photo credit(s): Pinterest

    (1) Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 2nd Edition, London: Bernard Quaritch (1868), translated by Edward Fitzgerald, verses xxx-xxxi.

    (2) The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Boston: L.C. Page and Company (1898), translated by Edward Heron-Allen, verse 38, adapted by me for rhyme and meter.

    (3) Ibid, verse 75.

    (4) Fitzgerald, op. cit., verse lxiii.

    (5) Heron-Allen, op. cit., verse 64.

    (6) Shams Tabrizi, Maqalat (Discourses), Tehran (1377 S.H.), 2nd ed., pp. 301-302.

    (7) Qazwini, Zakariya ibn Muhammad, Athar al-bilad wa-akhbar al-‘ibad (Monument of Places and History of God’s Bondmen), Beirut:Dar Sadur, 1960, p. 475. Translation mine.

    (8) Zhukovski, V., "Al-Musaffariyé: Containing a Recent Contribution to the Study of 'Omar Khayyām" (a translation of "Umar Khayyam and his 'Wandering' Quatrains"), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 30 (April, 1898), pp. 349-366.

    Tuesday, November 12, 2019

    Should Sharia be banned in the US?

    It’s complicated.

    by Michael Isenberg.

    In 2009, a New Jersey woman went to family court to seek a restraining order against her husband. Both were Muslims, originally from Morocco. It had been an arranged marriage; the woman was still in her teens.

    The details of the case are spelled out in court documents (Superior Court of New Jersey,Appellate Division. S.D., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. M.J.R., Defendant-Respondent. Decided: July 23, 2010) and they’re horrific. The woman accused her husband of assaulting and raping her on numerous occasions. Photographs were introduced in evidence. “They depict bruising to both of plaintiff's breasts and to both of her thighs, as well as her swollen, bruised and abraded lips. Testimony of Detective Johanna Rak, the person who took the photographs, established that the remaining photographs disclosed injuries to plaintiff's left eye and right cheek. She testified that bruising appeared on plaintiff's breasts, thighs, and forearm. Additional police testimony established that there were stains on the pillow and sheets of plaintiff's and defendant's bed that appeared to be blood.” The wife “testified that defendant always told her ‘this is according to our religion. You are my wife, I c[an] do anything to you. The woman, she should submit and do anything I ask her to do.’”

    The judge, Joseph Charles, found that the woman “had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant had engaged in harassment…and assault.” Nevertheless, the judge refused to issue the restraining order. The ruling was overturned on appeal about a year later, but not before igniting a firestorm of public opinion because of the reason he gave for his decision: “The court believes that [defendant] was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices and it was something that was not prohibited.”

    In other words—as many outraged people interpreted it—the court gave the husband a pass for raping his wife, because doing so was permitted under Muslim law, known as shari’a. [For the record, Islam prohibits rape, but frowns on a woman refusing sex to her husband. “The angels send their curses on her till she comes back.” (Bukhari Vol 7, Book 62, No. 122)]

    A movement to ban shari’a in the United States had been simmering for some time—David Yerushalmi’s Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) posted draft legislation on its website in 2007. The New Jersey episode brought things to a boil. Further fuel was added to the fire by a Breitbart article about an Islamic Tribunal established in Texas in 2013 or 14.

    In addition, statements had surfaced from various Muslim figures advocating replacing the laws of the United States with shari’a, including a 1998 quote from Omar Ahmad, founding chairman of the Council for American Islamic Relations: “Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran, the Muslim book of scripture, should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.” Although the statement was reported in the San Ramon Valley Herald at the time, Mr. Ahmad denies saying it.

    The anti-shari’a movement had an effect. According to Wikipedia, thirty-four states have considered shari’a bans, some based on the SANE draft; nine states had gone so far as to pass one.

    So are the proponents of these bans right? Should shari’a be banned in the United States?

    Well, it’s complicated.

    What complicates it is that shari’a--like the Jewish halakha--is a vast body of law covering every aspect of life, developed over hundreds of years by some of the greatest minds in the faith. Muslims often disagree among themselves as to what its provisions are. As Will Coley, former imam and director of the MALIC Center in Keene, NH, explained on one of my recent Facebook threads, “The differences of opinion within shari’a cover everything from what animals are allowed to eat, to when and how you should pray and how to hold your hands and how many times you should bow and all these things are shari’a.”

    Some provisions of shari’a are innocuous, such as the directives about praying that Mr. Coley mentioned. Others are arguably beneficial. For example, in his book, Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb praised the restrictions in shari’a against undertaking excessively risky contracts, which he contrasted with the dangerous financial instruments that starred in the 2008 financial crisis. And some provisions of shari'a are just plain evil—like the so-called “Ordinance of Omar” which lay down the restrictions that make Jews and Christians living in the Muslim world second class citizens, or the laws concerning the treatment of enemies in wartime, which are literally medieval.

    To complicate things further, what does “Ban shari’a” even mean? A wide range of measures have been proposed. Some may have some merit to them. Others are frankly un-American prohibitions on the free exercise of religion. A 2010 constitutional amendment in Oklahoma focused mainly on use of shari’a by the courts: the relevant section read, “The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international or Sharia Law.” The amendment passed, but was subsequently overturned by a federal court.

    A Tennessee law was more wide-ranging. Quoting Mr. Coley again, “I actually testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during Tennessee's first go-around attempting to pass one of these bills. I also read the original bills that were floated around to different state legislators and the original bills that were accepted offered everything from banning the sale, purchase, and ownership of Qurans in the United States. Banning of the practice of shari’a means no prayer, no fasting, no marriage, no divorce. All of these things are covered by shari’a…the tea parties in East Tennessee actually opposed the anti-sharia bill in Tennessee because they read the bill.”

    In its final form, the Tennessee law asserts “Jihad and sharia are inextricably linked, with sharia formulating and commanding jihad, and jihad being waged for the purpose of imposing and instituting sharia…Any person who knowingly provides material support or resources to a designated sharia organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall commit an offense.” In response to the public outcry against the bill, language was added to clarify that it “neither targets, nor incidentally prohibits or inhibits, the peaceful practice of any religion, and in particular, the practice of Islam by its adherents. Rather, this part criminalizes only the knowing provision of material support or resources…to designated sharia organizations…or to known sharia-jihad organizations with the intent of furthering their criminal behavior.”

    IMHO, our guide for approaching questions of Muslim Law vs. US law should be the same guide we should use for every other question of whether to ban something: the Non-aggression Principle (NAP). The NAP is the notion that in a free society, everything is permissible so long as it doesn’t aggress against the rights of other people. It’s closely related to voluntarism, the idea any voluntary relationships among consenting adults should alway be permitted.

    Some examples illustrate how this works in practice.

    In Islam, an enormous amount of jurisprudence has gone into the subject of inheritance. Indeed, there are even examples in the literature of people posing inheritance puzzles to each other for fun. Among these laws is that “the male is the equal of the portion of two females (Quran 4:11).” So a son inherits twice what is sister gets.

    In America, our law gives wide latitude to the deceased to spell out their bequests in a will. If a Muslim man, living in the US, writes a will, and he says in the will that his son gets twice what his daughter gets, then, we might not like the sexism of that (although bear in mind that the son is required to maintain his unmarried sisters financially), but the will should still be upheld by the court. Not because it’s shari’a, but because our own law respects wills—and it’s consistent with the NAP.

    Other examples may be found in contract law. I actually had a dispute about this with Aynaz Anni Cyrus of the American Truth Project. She proposed banning shari’a in a speech to the Worcester Tea Party, and during the question period I asked, “I just want to understand what you have in mind when you say, ‘ban shari’a.’ For example, if two Muslims voluntarily make a contract with each other, and they write in the contract that, in the event of a dispute, it would be adjudicated according to shari’a, is that something you would ban?”

    Again, the NAP would say that it’s a voluntary contract, of course it should be upheld. Indeed, that’s exactly the sort of thing that shari’a “courts” like Islamic Tribunal do—arbitration.

    But Ms. Cyrus had a different point of view. “Yes, that needs to be banned,” she replied.

    When pressed she changed the subject to child marriage.

    You can see the exchange near the end of the video, at 45:45, but I recommend you watch the entire thing. Despite my disagreement with Ms. Cyrus on this point, I have a great deal of respect for her and she had a fascinating story to tell. She suffered tragically growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a place where the worst provisions of shari’a are strictly enforced. Her suffering was in many ways similar to that of the New Jersey woman I mentioned earlier. Ms. Cyrus eventually escaped and obtained American citizenship, which she appreciates in a way that only someone who lived under tyranny elsewhere can.

    Which brings me back to the case of the New Jersey woman. Again, the course of action comes into sharp focus when viewed through the lens of the NAP. Clearly the scumbag who was her husband had violated her rights, in a most despicable way. She was entitled to the protection of the State of New Jersey, regardless of anything that may or may not be in the shari’a. The judge clearly erred in not issuing the restraining order.

    Still, the case does not establish a need for a ban on the courts substituting shari’a for duly passed legislation—because it is already banned--which is why the appeals court overturned the decision. This has been the case since 1878, when SCOTUS upheld the conviction of a Mormon man for polygamy (Reynolds vs. United States). In the New Jersey case, the appeals court stated this in no uncertain terms: the trial judge’s “perception that, although defendant's sexual acts violated applicable criminal statutes, they were culturally acceptable and thus not actionable” was “a view that we have soundly rejected.”

    If you’ve followed my writing for a while, you know that I have no illusions about the dangers of jihadism and political Islam, and I speak out against them frequently. But I do not support a shari’a ban. At best it’s a solution to a problem whose solution is already in place. At worst, it’s a violation of the freedom of religion of the millions of Muslims who merely want to practice their faith peacefully. If we did that, we’d be guilty of the very attacks on our freedom that we accuse the jihadists of. Let’s not destroy the village in order to save it.

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

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

    Photo credit(s): Reuters

    Tuesday, November 5, 2019

    The Other Mideast Story

    Protests are raging in Lebanon and Iraq. Here are the basics.

    By Michael Isenberg.

    The gruesome suicide of ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr Baghdadi as he fled US forces and detonated his suicide vest was a richly deserved and I hope painful end for the bastard. The world is a better place without him, and the story has rightly dominated the headlines from the Middle East during the past week.

    But Baghdadi’s death has overshadowed another story, unnoticed by many in the West. Massive protests have virtually shut down two Middle Eastern countries: Lebanon and Iraq. The story is still unfolding, but as with any unrest in that part of the world, there is the potential for the consequences to echo across the globe. (There are other reasons that this story has received so little attention. I’ll come to that later).

    The protest in Iraq had been planned for some months. But a couple events in the days leading up to the scheduled October 1 demonstration gave new urgency to it. On September 25 there was a protest outside the office of Prime Minister Adil Abd’ al-Mahdi to highlight the plight of the many Iraqis with advanced degrees who are unable to get jobs. The protest was brutally broken up by authorities. Then on the 27th, al-Mahdi announced his intention to transfer Lieutenant General Abd’ al-Waheb as-Saedi from the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force to the defense ministry. As-Saedi is a hero of the liberation of Mosul from ISIS terrorists; the decision sparked a firestorm of backlash on social media.

    In the wake of these events, the planned demonstration mushroomed beyond all expectation, with demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square numbering in the hundreds of thousands and protests spreading to eleven other cities.

    Government forces have hit back hard with an arsenal of water cannons, tear gas, and bullets (not the rubber kind). Internet service has been shut down to prevent protesters from learning the harshness of the measures and from using social media to coordinate their activities. The Green Zone, home to parliament, government offices, and foreign embassies, has been barricaded; the government has no intention of allowing a repeat of the 2016 storming of the Iraqi parliament. Unidentifed “security forces” raided the NRT and Tigris satellite channels and the Saudi al-Hadath channel, destroyed and confiscated equipment, and attacked employees, wounding at least one. The cost of the government crackdown has been high. According to The Economist, 250 people have been killed, as of the end of October,

    Like the French Revolution, the protests in Lebanon were sparked by a government funding crisis. The Lebanese pound is officially pegged to US currency—1507 pounds to the dollar—and like many countries that interfere with the free market for currency, the result is disastrous. As a poor economy put downward pressure on the pound, the government drained its reserve of dollars in an effort to prop it up. Desperate for cash, the Lebanese government sought to borrow from the World Bank and other international agencies, which demanded harsh austerity measures in return. The resulting package of spending cuts and tax increases proved extremely unpopular—especially the tax imposed on VoIP telephone calls which became known as the “WhatsApp Tax.”

    Although sporadic protests were held as early as September, things began in earnest following an October 17 cabinet meeting to discuss the proposals. The protests swelled. According to some estimates, a quarter of the country’s population has participated. Key roadways were blocked. A human chain stretched along the Mediterranean Coast for 100 miles, from Tripoli to Tyre. Although the violence in Lebanon has not come up to the level in Iraq, there have been some fatalities, and things have been getting worse in the last few days, as I discuss below.

    Events came to a head October 29, when Prime Minster Saad Hariri declared himself at a “dead end” and resigned. He’ll stay on as a caretaker until a replacement is found. Protests, in the meantime, have shown no sign of slowing.

    Commentators are at a loss to figure out what to make of it all. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen asks, “Is the region slipping into a new Arab spring?” While hedging on the answer, he notes that the issues which led to those 2011 protests are largely unresolved. The Economist noted that Iraq and Lebanon are only two out of numerous countries that have been deluged with mass protests recently, both inside the Muslim world (Algeria, Pakistan) and beyond (Hong Kong, France, and many others). Their writers were at a loss to find common elements in all these protests. After considering and rejecting numerous theories—rising inequality, shifting demographics, foreign conspiracies—they threw up their hands and subtitled their article “Something in the Air.”

    Still, there are three grievances that permeate all the reporting from Iraq and Lebanon: corruption, unemployment, and pitiful public services.

    Both nations have rigid governmental structures, with certain positions set aside for Sunnis, Shiites, and in the case of Lebanon, Christians. This sectarian spoils system is laid out in agreements that the various parties made to put an end to political violence—the Taif Agreement in Lebanon near the end of its civil war in 1989, and the political settlement reached in Iraq as the Sunni insurgency wound down in 2016/2017. In practice it has yielded a system of patronage jobs under the control of political leaders, who fill them with their relatives and supporters. The protesters demand a “technocratic” government, in which job assignments are made based on skills rather than political connections. Indeed, that is what Prime Minister al-Mahdi in Iraq promised upon taking office, but failed to deliver. This is why the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon hasn’t satisfied the protesters there: they want the whole system replaced.

    Unemployment is high in both countries, especially for the young. As of September 2019, the International Labour Organization model estimates that the overall unemployment rate is 7.9% in Iraq and 6.2% in Lebanon. For young people, ages 15-24, the news is significantly worse: 16.5% and 17.6% respectively. These numbers have been consistent for a decade or so. Unofficial numbers are even higher. Last year, Lebanese President Michel Aoun claimed a whopping 46% of the Lebanese labor force is unemployed. The Iraqi economy is burdened by the destruction of infrastructure during fifteen years of war, while Lebanon, a country of some six million people, has had to absorb a million or more refugees from the civil war in Syria.

    Both countries are plagued by unreliable infrastructure, and cannot depend on services that we take for granted in the West: trash pickup, electricity, clean water.

    As much as I hear my left-of-center friends blame the United States for the travails of the Middle East, that is one thing I haven’t heard from the protesters. The US just doesn’t seem to be on their radar right now. No mention of America in any of interviews I’ve read, and I haven’t seen anything along those lines from the protesters on Twitter either (usual caveat: I’m sure it can be found, but it’s clearly rare).

    But there is a country who the protesters do blame for their problems. This aspect of the demonstrations has been largely overlooked in what little press coverage there has been. But it became impossible to ignore Friday night, when rioters in Karbala, Iraq attacked a foreign consulate, threw burning objects over the wall, and replaced its flag with an Iraqi one. The consulate belonged to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    Iran has its Islamist tentacles deep in both Iraq and Lebanon. Iranian-backed militias operate in both countries and Iranian puppets are influential in their governments. As the American Islamic Forum for Democracy’s Zuhdi Jasser pointed out in his podcast yesterday, “The demonstrations in Baghdad this week, as they grow, are a rejection of Iranian colonization of Iraq. They’re a rejection of the corruption of the radical Shia supremacism, of their Shari’a state that they brought from Iran, into Iraq and into Lebanon as Hezbollah has been controlling Lebanon and the same demonstrations are happening.”

    Dr. Jasser also opined on why the demonstrations have received so little press coverage, especially compared to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government a year ago. “Those demonstrations do not fit the narrative. Remember the Obama Administration was knee deep, butts and elbows as they say (there’s another term for it but I won’t say it on my podcast), knee deep with the Iranian regime. Everything at the altar of that nuclear deal. Everything. So the narrative that Iran is not as bad as we think is something that the traditional legacy media is stuck in.”

    Iran is clearly feeling the heat in Iraq and Lebanon, and is seeking to deflect it. Unlike the protesters, Iranian leaders are talking about the United States. In a speech to graduating army cadets October 30, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, “The U.S. and Western intelligence services, with the financial backing of reactionary countries in the region, are spreading turmoil,” and recommended that Iraq and Lebanon follow the example of his own country during similar protests in 2017 and 2018: unleash the rent-a-mobs and the military. “They (U.S. and Saudi Arabia) had similar plans for our dear country, but fortunately the people... came out in time and the armed forces were ready and that plot was neutralized.”

    In Lebanon, Khamanei’s lap dog, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, apparently received his barking points. In a speech on October 25, he urged his followers to stop protesting and go home, warning darkly that they were being manipulated by American and Israeli conspiracies. Since then, Hezbollah supporters have attacked and driven away other protesters, smashing chairs, pulling down tents, and violently prying phones out of the hands of anyone who tries to video them.

    It appears that Iranian supporters are engaging in similar violent tactics in Iraq. Some of “security forces” firing on the protesters wear black clothing and masks, their affiliations unclear. It’s widely believed that they are members of Iran-backed militias.

    I wish the protesters every success in eliminating Iranian influence in their countries and restoring their economies. It will be an uphill battle however. The political settlements that are responsible for so much corruption were hammered out with great difficulty among enemies who had until then been at each other’s throats. They wouldn’t be easy to re-negotiate under the best of circumstances, and certainly not with powerful interests vested in the status quo. And if Iraq and Lebanon really want their economies to flourish, they need to unleash the power of free markets, rather than relying on government controls like pegged currencies. Sadly, capitalism is not popular in that part of the world. The real tragedy is that in two centuries of reforms and dashed hopes, the nations of the Middle East have tried everything but freedom.

    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.

    Photo credit(s): Wikipedia/FPP under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0

    For further reading—

  • 2019 Iraqi protests (Wikipedia). Many people look down on Wikipedia, but frankly, I thought in this case, they had some of the best coverage out there for giving the big picture.
  • 2019 Lebanese protests (Wikipedia)
  • Why are so many countries witnessing mass protests? - Something in the air (The Economist, Nov 4)
  • Iraq unrest: Protesters attack Iranian consulate in Karbala (BBC, Nov 4)
  • Protests in Iraq are met with violence (The Economist, Oct 31)
  • Pointing to Iraq, Lebanon, Khamenei recalls how Iran put down unrest (Reuters, Oct 30)
  • Amal and Hezbollah supporters overrun Beirut protesters (The National, Oct 29)
  • Is a new Arab Spring unfolding in the Middle East? (BBC, Oct 29)
  • Iraq protests: What's behind the anger? (BBC, Oct 7)
  • قوات أمنية تداهم قناتين فضائيتين في بغداد (Security forces raided two satellite channels in Baghdad, al-Hurra, Oct 5)
  • Reform This! with Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, Ep 43 | The Long War against Jihadists (Blaze Radio Network, Nov 4)
  • Monday, October 28, 2019

    The Death of Baghdadi: What Muslims are Saying

    I had expected this milestone in the Islamic State’s downfall to be met with some enthusiasm. Instead, it was met mainly with paranoia.

    By Michael Isenberg.

    As the news of the death of terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “caliph” of the Islamic State, spread across the globe yesterday, a friend of mine tagged me on Facebook. He wanted to share his opinion of the way President Trump announced it, and ask me what I thought about it:

    I love the fact that President Trump not only goes after our enemies, but also uses the world stage to HUMILIATE them by describing how they died; dragging children with them, crying, whimpering, and running like a coward.

    I believe *how* one dies in Islamic cultures is equally as important as how they lived. Wondering if my resident expert in this regard, Michael Isenberg, would comment this morning about this and Trumps announcement in general.


    I agreed with my friend’s notion that going out like a little b---h would harm Baghdadi’s reputation in the eyes of the Muslim world. Especially the part about being chased by a dog, an animal which is considered unclean in Islam. But since I was less sure about his high opinion of my own expertise, I thought it would be best, instead of handing down pronouncements like a stereotypical Orientalist, to let the Muslim world speak for itself. So I took to Twitter to learn what Muslims had to say. And there were some surprises.

    The usual caveat: Exercises like this can give real insight, but it’s not a scientific process. The best I can do is read enough tweets to get a sense of what people are saying (I spent a couple hours on that) and then try as conscientiously as I can to present a representative sample. Also (as I’ve already learned from the discussions I’ve had on social media since yesterday), while I take full responsibility for my own commentary, the tweets themselves are the opinions of the tweeters, and not me. Don’t shoot the messenger.

    So first of all, what I didn’t find. Much to my surprise, I didn’t see a single tweet from a Muslim impressed by Trumps’ bluster or scornful of Baghdadi’s cowardice. Not one. I’m sure there are some out there, but clearly they’re rare.

    So what did I find?

    There were some tweets to the effect that world is a better place now that Baghdadi is dead and will finally face his Maker:

    This one came from a surprising source:

    For many years, Representative Omar has been quite outspoken in her indignance that people expect her, as a Muslim, to condemn Muslim terrorism. In her (incorrect) opinion, it has nothing to with Islam, and therefore nothing to do with her. Not sure what it means that she departed from form this time.

    One has to admire the concise elegance of this one:

    Still, tweets of this type, calling out Baghdadi for the scum that he was, were rare. This also surprised me. Back when the Islamic State was at its peak, many in the Muslim world were eager to distance themselves from its atrocities, and the hashtag “Not in my name” trended. Because of that, I had expected this milestone in the Islamic State’s downfall to be met with some enthusiasm. Instead, it was met mainly with paranoia.

    It is common in some parts of the world that when something happens, it's never thought to be the result of social or economic forces, or coincidence, or even plain old stupidity. Rather, it must be a conspiracy of powerful interests plotting against the people. Which is perfectly understandable for anyone who lived through the hell that was the Islamic State. In any case, that view of the world is definitely in play in the case of Baghdadi's death. Many don’t believe he's even dead. The way he died was highly suspicious, they say:

    Numerous tweeters pointed out that we’ve heard this before and the news of his demise was greatly exaggerated. One even provided a graphic listing all eight previous deaths:

    Others had more of a sense of humor about it:

    But regardless of whether Baghdadi was really dead or not, many believe there is more to this than meets the eye. Trump’s announcement was merely a ploy, they say, to distract from the impeachment investigation, and criticism of his betrayal of the Kurds, and to secure his reelection:

    Many pointed out that this was not the first time something like this has happened going into a US presidential election:

    Of course it wouldn’t be a discussion about American elections without a certain sinister hand in the mix:

    Another theory: Erdogan knew where Baghdadi is, and coughed up the information as part of his deal with Trump to screw the Kurds:

    Given that the killing of Baghdadi came so closely on the heels of the Erdogan deal, there may be some merit to that one.

    Sadly, many Muslims feel that the death of Baghdadi will have little effect on the War on Terror. Like Hydra, cut off one head from the jihadist monster, and two (or more) take its place:

    Even sadder, not everyone seems to be unhappy about that.

    And some are positively triumphant. As the Quran promises “If you are patient and fear [Allah], their tricks shall not harm you.” (3:120)

    I believe the “Shami” referred to here is Abu Mahmud ash-Shami, also known as Sami al-Oraydi, a former al-Nusra official. Last month the US put a five million price on information about his whereabouts.

    Many in the Muslim world blame the US for the rise of terrorist leaders like Baghdadi:

    On this last point, I’ve argued previously that it’s complicated. There’s no doubt that what Bernard Lewis called “The Roots of Muslim Rage” is primarily motivated by the teachings of Islam, and not anything the West has done. But it’s also true that, thanks to its military incursions into the Middle East, the US has inadvertently created lawless areas in which Jihadists were free to operate. Just something to keep in mind as President Trump ramps up the US military presence in Saudi Arabia for a possible conflict with Iran. Which this last tweeter thinks is what this whole thing is about:

    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.

    Thanks J.N. for such a rich question.

    Arabic translations are my own. Persian translations are Google’s.

    Photo credit(s): BBC, Twitter

    Monday, October 14, 2019

    The Story of the Three Students

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

    By Michael Isenberg.


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

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

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

    The answer is history. Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

    A fascinating story, but how much is true?

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

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

    Siege of Alamut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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