Imaginary Islamophobic strawman: Everything’s worse than it was!

Well, since there wasn’t roaring disappointment over my use of an imaginary Islamophobic strawman, I figured I’d carry on, footloose and fancy free.  (Seriously, my feet are so loose.  Dangerously loose.  Does anyone know where I can get some new bolts for my feet?)

The other strawman argument I run into the most often isn’t actually anything unique to Islam, or even to the study of religion – it’s the tendency of people to associate “history” as we can read it in books with “an exact record of what happened in the past” and not “an extremely limited view produced predominantly by the educated elite who didn’t care much about the vast majority of the population.”

Examples of this phenomenon include the ever popular “women in the workplace/homosexuality/variety of sexualities/non-nuclear families/insert thing someone doesn’t like here is just such a recent invention” or “there’s so much more drug addiction/depression/mental illness than there used to be.”

The problem with any social institution or trends, particularly minority ones like mental illness (which affects roughly 1 in 4 in the US) or non-heterosexual orientations (on which there is very poor reporting even today, but let’s go with the old figures and say 1 in 10 in the US), you need a decent sample size to be able to track them.

It’s just like when you learned about statistics in school – statistically, a flipped coin should land 50/50 heads and tails[1].  However, it’s a totally reasonable outcome to flip a coin several times and have it land the same way.  You need to flip it roughly a hundred times before you start to see a consistent pattern.  In the same way, you need to study a large pool of people in order to get an idea of what is and isn’t common behavior.

But you can’t do that with historical sources, because even histories that claim to tell a universal history of their own times or the preceding centuries aren’t doing that.  They’re inevitably telling a little bit of that history that seems relevant to that particular historian.

Case in point: The Muslim armies, during the Muslim expansion, besieged Constantinople twice.  The first time was around 674 CE, when they managed to maintain a siege more or less continuously for several years.  The second was in 717, when the siege lasted for one year and most of the Muslim army starved to death.  We have historical records from the period of the 674 discussing the first siege, but it is often left out of later histories.

So what?  Well, if the earlier records haven’t survived (and remember, books are rather perishable and, in particular, very flammable.  Also very inflammable.), we’d never know the earlier siege happened.  It did happen, but it just wasn’t relevant to the later authors.  It was longer than the 717 siege, but it was ultimately just as unsuccessful.  And the 717 siege happened to coincide with a major change in rule in the Muslim caliphate, and marked the last significant incursion by the Muslims into Byzantine territory.  So it felt more important to later generations.

And in general, historians care way more about military and political history than they do about social history.

Take, for example, the case of depression.  There is definitely more diagnosed depression than there was two hundred years ago.  This is, at least in part, because there was only a clinical definition of depression in the mid-20th century.  But even if we could read a definition into history, how exactly are we going to judge depression against the general horribleness of life for millions of people in the last two centuries?  I would go out on a limb and guess that many people living in the US in the mid-19th century displayed signs of depression, but I’m not sure it counts if millions of them were being forcibly held as slaves.  Hundreds of thousands more were living in poverty, working long hours under grueling work conditions, suffering in war, slowly dying of infection, cholera, or influenza, or scraping together a bare existence on the frontier.

So in order to speak accurately to whether there is more depression now than a hundred years ago, we would need a historian who was running around, interviewing a large and varied section of society about their personal experiences and problems, in such a way that we, as modern readers, could effectively analyze their responses for signs of depression, and weigh those responses against the often terrifying realities of that person’s life to decide if their feelings of hopelessness or emptiness weren’t simply common sense.

So why does any of this matter?  Well, our oversimplified view of history is often used to make the current day look worse than it is.  These arguments are also often highly dependent on post hoc, ergo proctor hoc – there was no homosexuality in the 50s, and everyone was happy, as proven by things like Howdy Doody and Leave It to Beaver, so clearly all of these gay people are making people unhappy.  Well, no.  Firstly, there were gay people in the 50s, and for centuries and centuries before that.  And secondly, loads of people were unhappy in the 50s, due to things like racism, civil unrest, tyrannical government practices, and Howdy Doody (that puppet is evil).

It’s also possible that the opposite was true – maybe the majority of people 100 years ago were really contented and comfortable with their lives (honestly, seems unlikely, but then again, I’ve never had cholera).  The point is that we don’t know, and trying to draw social lessons from the past about anything except the really big events implies a whole bunch of knowledge that we just don’t possess.

[1] Actually a flipped coin has a slight preference for the facing side when flipped, but whatever.

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Can a company have a religion?

ETA (5:45pm, 7/28/14): Edited to clarify the claimed religious affiliation of Hobby Lobby.

So in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rather sweeping decision in favor of Hobby Lobby last week, there have been a range of responses, but perhaps the strangest I’ve come across comes from The Immanent Frame on “The impossibility of religious freedom.”

There’s a lot going on in the discussion, and the title is obviously meant to be controversial, but one of the major points is the idea that the religion intended to be protected in the Constitution means something different than just ‘religion’ in the colloquial sense:

“Human history supports the idea that religion, small “r” religion, is a nearly ubiquitous and perhaps necessary part of human culture. Big “R” Religion, on the other hand, the Religion that is protected in constitutions and human rights law under liberal political theory, is not. Big “R” Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy—an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life.”

While it’s certainly the case that the constitutional conception of “religion” was shaped by early modern ideas of liberalism, just like the rest of the constitution, the idea that orthodoxy and heresy are modern inventions makes the Late Antiquarian in me cringe.  If nothing else, “orthodoxy” is a Greek word!  Christianity has been debating with is orthodox and what is heterdox since the New Testament.

I think it’s a perfectly useful conversation to want to discuss “what is the religious phenomenology at work in these cases and how does that religious phenomenology reflect changes to religion in the U.S.,” but I’m less enthusiastic to hear that, “it is the business of religious studies scholars to explain these phenomena, not to decry them.”  I’m not sure when we decided on that rule, but I for one am definitely not going to follow it, any more than I’d expect an environmental scientist not to have a stance on global climate change or a sociologist not to have a stance on ending poverty.  We study things we care about, and are invested in, and pretending otherwise does a disservice both to us and to the communities we work with, especially in cases where there are major, potentially deeply problematic shifts underpinning these decisions.

In this case, that big shift is that the Supreme Court just decided a company could have a religion, something the article itself sort of slides over – it somehow goes from the standard, Harold Bloom-style discussion of the American Religion as individualized, “radically disestablished free religion, defined not by bishops and church councils, but by themselves—ordinary Americans reading their Bibles, picking and choosing from among a wide array of religious practices,” to religion as practiced by a company.  Not even a company that’s producing something religious.  It’s not as though Hobby Lobby is a Bible publishing group or a kosher deli – it’s an entirely secular business producing entirely secular goods while claiming that the company as a whole – on some level separate from its staff, who obviously have different religious views if they want to be able to choose to use birth control – is practicing a religion, and for that reason, needs protection to continue in its religion.

I’ve touched on before the idea that there’s not really an agreed definition of “a religion” even among scholars, but religion as practiced by a company is certainly an innovation worthy of at least a few lines.  In this particular case, Hobby Lobby claims to be Pentecostal, which makes the ruling more confusing, as Pentecostals (or the Assembly of God, as the churches themselves are often called), like most Protestant Revivalist churches, has no authoritative hierarchy which passes laws, which could ban the use of birth control.  Use of birth control is thus not strictly forbidden, and practice varies from church to church.

There are communities that the SCOTUS decision does address directly, however, in particular Roman Catholicism, which can be understood to ban the use of birth control by all of its members.  Moreover, for myself, what I find really unsettling about the Hobby Lobby decision is that, from the point of view of religious debate, it’s not the federal government allowing religions to make decisions for themselves.  It’s the federal government picking a side on a religious debate and then forcing that decision on the entire religion.  Similarly, despite the individualist view of modern religion presented in the article, the side the government picked is exactly the side “defined by bishops and church councils.”  Within Roman Catholicism, the church hierarchy has declared the use of birth control to be unacceptable (remember that word “use,” as it will be important later).  But a significant percentage of Catholics use birth control (the exact number is up for debate, but probably more than half is a safe bet).  So the SCOTUS decision would potentially prevent Catholic-identified employees of Hobby Lobby from being able to afford birth control.

This is not a case of protecting religious practice.  It’s writing laws to prevent Catholics for being able to do what they were already doing, while all the while identifying as Catholics.  It’s not the federal government’s place to do that, and honestly, as someone who has spent most of the last decade working with religious communities, I think religious people should be freaked out that it’s happening.  I appreciate that not being able to manage your flock is frustrating, but turning to the government to do it for you?  There’s never been an example in history where that’s ended well.

Mostly because of that pesky word “use.”  Religious law cares about action and motive, so coercion becomes a really big problem.  Again to use Roman Catholics as the model, there’s a reason why confession must be undertaken “in a spirit of contrition.”  The person confessing has to feel guilty for what they’ve done and be willingly seeking divine forgiveness.  But if that person would have happily used birth control (a sin), but couldn’t afford it because their company wouldn’t pay for it, have they sinned?  They didn’t do anything, but they probably would have given different circumstances.  That’s not a moral choice, that’s a lack of opportunity.

Thus, from the point of view of religious law, using the federal government to prevent people from having access to birth control in order to protect a company doesn’t accomplish anything.  The company can’t have sinned, because a company doesn’t have a soul.  It’s also never been baptised, gone through catechism, been given the Eucharist, it won’t get married, and it can’t confess.  The people in the company are being forcibly prevented from doing something that some of them might consider a sin, but that also doesn’t accomplish anything because, for the ones who do consider it a sin, they’re not making the choice themselves, so there’s no personal morality in it, and for the ones who don’t, it’s irrelevant.

And yes, I’m aware that this whole argument is a little hyperbolic.  The court didn’t really mean to assign a religion to a company – the claim in the decision was that Hobby Lobby was a “closely related” company, a title that allows for the exchange of certain rights between a company and its owner.  But again, if this is the case, and we’re really protecting the religious rights of the owner of Hobby Lobby, then we’ve just protected his right to the religious practice of dictating how his employees should spend their wages, and denying those wages if they spend them on anything he considers a sin.  And as far as I’m aware, no religion has that as a tenant,and again, certainly doesn’t apply to Pentecostalism.  So again, we’ve made a legal ruling about religion in order to protect a religious practice that doesn’t exist and that doesn’t need protecting.

This all comes back around to why people who work in religious studies need to be engaging directly with what’s happening with religion in the public sphere, because without people willing to discuss the theology underpinning these decisions, we’re left with a scenario where “it’s my religion!” becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card.  If we’re spending taxpayer dollars on writing laws about religion, then we need to be willing to ask people about their religion and expect them to supply evidence about their traditions and practice, in exactly the same way we’d expect for any other kind of court case.

Or if not, I’m going to start claiming I can’t come into work on Fridays because my office computer is Muslim.  I’m perfectly happy to enter it into a religious debate with Hobby Lobby as evidence.

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Why was the Islamic expansion successful?

So, following on from my last post, I thought I’d talk a bit about the historical circumstances that made the Muslim army so successful.

To put this in context, the Muslim military apparatus conquered territory from the tip of Spain to the Oxus river in just over a century.  This beat the old record for conquest set by Alexander the Great’s army, and their massive, military record would hold until the incursion of the Mongolians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  (Yes, historians really do consider conquests as record-setting or not record-setting.  We’re very sad people.)

Much like the Mongolians several centuries later, much of the surprise expressed by the indigenous people the Muslims conquered (and much of their success, as we’ll discuss in a minute) stemmed from the relatively under-developed nature of their army.  Arabian tribes had offered support forces for both the Byzantines and the Persians, but the Arabian peninsula had little by way of military structure.  The Yemeni had a kingship that predates Islam and which was quickly integrated into the Muslim army, with many of the troops who invaded Syria and Egypt being identified in contemporary sources as Yemeni, but central Arabia was made up of small cities linked by caravan trade routes and nomadic tribes.  By comparison, the Byzantine and Persian Sassanian empires both had standing armies, which were paid a regular wage, trained regularly, and following a precise military structure.

So from the point of view of many of the indigenous communities of Christians, Jews, Persians, and Manicheans who experienced the Islamic expansion in the Near East, two massive standing armies were brought down by some tribal guys on horseback.  How did they do it?

Well, according to both Muslim and Christian sources, the answer is God.  For the Muslims, their victory was a sign of God’s blessing on Muhammad’s message (peace be upon him).  For Christians, it was a sign of divine Wrath, often blamed on the sectarianism and factionalism that had defined Near Eastern Christianity for most of the last three centuries.

Now, as a historian, I can neither confirm nor deny divine intervention as a cause because I’ve never had the chance to interview God.  But there were three other factors that, while probably not obvious to either the Muslims or the conquered Christians at the time, do appear to have played a major role, namely:

1.) That the Byzantine and Persian armies were severely cut down and near bankruptcy due to the Byzantine-Persian wars;

2.) That the Muslims were able to parlay their limited military structure into both a reason for limited initial resistance and a rapid recruitment program; and

3.) That Arabian horses are really fast, really small, and really strong, and easy to stay on if you’ve got spurs.

To break it down:

The Byzantine and Persian armies were severely cut down and near bankruptcy due to the Byzantine-Persian wars

Okay, this gets a little confusing, so stay with me.  It all started with a coup in Persia.  In the late sixth century, the Byzantines and the Persians had been at war for a while, but after a particularly bad loss by the Persians, their army overthrew the shah, Hormizd IV, with the help of his son, Khosrau II.  The army then refused to crown Khosrau, favoring their general, Bahram, instead.  Khorsau somehow fled to the Byzantine court of Emperor Maurice, and despite the two having just been at war with one another, Maurice agreed to help re-install Khosrau as shah, presumably because he thought he could make Persia into a principality in the process, essentially under his control.  The second coup was successful, and Khosrau became shah.

However, the Byzantine senate had voted against supporting Khosrau, and even though it ended the war and resulted in the return of much of the territory of Armenia to Byzantium (the area from which much of the Byzantine army came), they were still dissatisfied with Maurice’s rule. Maurice then turned his attention to the Balkans, and spent two decades bankrupting the empire in an attempt to hold the Danube.  After a particularly bad winter, the troops at the Danube mutinied, and rather than bargaining with them or executing them, Maurice, for some reason, sent them back into the field, at which point they claimed that he had gone mad and called for their general, Phocas, to remove him.  Phocas happily obliged them, and was initially welcomed into Constantinople on the agreement that he would lower taxes, but he couldn’t do so and still pay his men, so the city ended up revolting against him.  Worse, Khosrau had formally ‘adopted’ Maurice as kin out of gratitude for supporting him, and claimed Maurice’s murder as a personal slight, taking the opportunity to invade Byzantium again.

There followed another two decades of fighting, in the midst of which, Islam began (indeed, Muhammad (s’lm) was supposedly born in the Year of the Elephant, when Yemeni troops aligned with Byzantium invaded Mecca and the surrounding area on war elephants in order to drive off the Persian-aligned locals).  The fighting seriously disseminated both armies – the Byzantine army was already bankrupt from the invasion of the Balkans, and largely survived only because a Tunisian aristocrat called Heraclius brought a personal army across North Africa, pushed back the Persians, and managed to end the rioting in Constantinople and get his son, also called Heraclius, installed as emperor.  Persia had additional problems due to their strict caste system, which was designed to maintain the wealth of their aristocracy, making it difficult for the shah to raise enough in taxes to pay the army.

Thus, the Muslim army pushed north into a Syria and Palestine which had already suffered decades of fighting, changing hands, military occupation, and heavy taxation, and faced off against two armies that were barely holding their own.  Which leads to the second factor…

The Muslims were able to parlay their limited military structure into both a reason for limited initial resistance and a rapid recruitment program

So now a small number of Yemeni soldiers and nomadic horsemen were invading Palestine.  The local armies were in pretty bad shape, and the Muslims clearly had some strong generals – they struck a decisive victory over the Byzantines in the Battle of Yarmuk.  Indeed, part of their success many have stemmed from the Byzantines and Persians underestimating them and still being preoccupied with each other.  Who’s going to worry about the Arabian horsemen when you have an entire battalion camped out over the hill?  By the standard rules of invasion, they should have been confined to the Near East, at best.  They had no supply lines back to Arabia, Arabia wasn’t resources- or financially rich to start with, and there weren’t suddenly going to be more than a small population of Arabians to draw from.  So what’s a small, zealous army to do?

Well, firstly, they make a deal.  Or more specifically, two deals.  The caliph gave orders, following on from the Qur’anic injunction to “fight against those who disbelieve in Allah … until they pay the tribute willingly, having been brought low” (9:29), that cities of Christians and Jews should be attacked only until they submitted and capitulated to a treaty, which included a tribute, paid as an annual tax.  Since the cities in the Near East had already suffered decades of back-and-forth conquest and re-conquest, this probably sounded like a pretty good deal.

Moreover, the amount paid by the city in tribute was decided based on how quickly they capitulated – a tactic that apparently worked, as the people of Damascus, after their conquest, argued with their Muslim governor about how much they should have to pay, claiming that the city (which is a circle) was attacked by two Muslim armies, one at the eastern gate and one at the western gate, and that one side capitulated and signed a treaty even as the other side was being invaded, so that they should be treated as a capitulated city because the treaty was signed in good faith (the governor agreed, and the city’s tax burden was lightened).

What’s more, members of the Muslim army were paid directly from the spoils of war, a tricky system to maintain as it requires a continual source of spoils.  In their case, however, it seems to have worked quite well, as it encouraged a continual, speedy expansion outward, as troops sought new, richer lands to invade.  In fact, Hugh Kennedy has argued rather persuasively that the invasion of Persia may not have been ordered by the caliph, but may have been an “El Dorado” situation, with troops on the ground in Iraq hearing tales of Persian wealth and wanting to go explore (and get their share).  The paid-as-you-go scheme also encouraged locals to join up as fortune hunters, thus increasing the army’s size without the negative local response that often resulted from conscription.

The expansion wasn’t nonstop, but the areas of delay were clearly financially beneficial – the Muslims fought for ten years to take Egypt, for example, but Egypt had been the breadbasket of the world for nearly a millennium, so there presumably would have been little argument about its value as a target.  By comparison, when the Muslims encountered strong resistance from locals in the Taurus mountains or the Saharan desert and sub-Saharan plains, they simply stopped their advance and went somewhere else (like central Anatolia and Spain).  And finally…

Arabian horses are really fast, really small, and really strong, and easy to stay on if you’ve got spurs.

So this one isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s probably a contributing factor.  Many Mediterranean armies had relied on footsoldiers since Alexander’s time, often using infantry to form a phalanx, a long line of soldiers holding shields and spears.  When attacked, they could interlace their shields and dig the spears into the ground, forming a kind of long, solid, spiky wall.  This proved particularly useful against horsemen, because people riding bareback or with simply saddles couldn’t jump the horses high enough to get over the spears without falling off.

But, the Arabians, although they rode bareback (according to contemporary accounts), had both spurs and stirrups.  Spurs make the horse go faster (and are horrible devices, for the record), and stirrups help you stay on the horse, even if something hits you.  A wooden spear versus a fast-moving horse may do some damage, but the horse is going to do at least as much damage to the guy standing next to the spear.

At the same time, horses and camels, which were also widely reared in Arabia, allow for fast travel and fast delivery of supplies, were bred to survive on minimal resources, and in really bad times, can be food themselves (as the Muslim army were forced to do during the siege of Constantinople in 717, during a particularly bad winter).

Again, the animals weren’t a definitive win in and of themselves, but they certainly made a difference, and forced both the Byzantines and Persians to fight very differently than they had historically.  The Arabians heavy use of animals may also explain why the Muslims met with resistance in North Africa, as the North African tribes (called Berbers, meaning simply barbarians) had more similar fighting styles to the Arabians themselves.

Of course, there were other factors, as well, not least the apparent persuasiveness of Islamic practice, as those locals who chose to participate in the expansion were also joining Islam as a faith, but certainly the situation on the ground played a huge role in the Muslims’ military and political successes.

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Imaginary Islamophobic Strawman: Isn’t Islam a violent religion?

So I’ve been considering for a while doing a series of blog posts on “conversations with an imaginary Islamophobic strawman.”  The problem I run in to, trying to answer a lot of the questions that come through on this site, is that they have so many problematic assumptions behind them that I can’t really answer them; the best I can do is deconstruct them.  So this would sort of be an answer to those preconceptions.  However, it would also absolutely be a strawman argument – no one specifically asked me these questions; they would just come from my own nearly-decade-long experience working in this field and having people say weird stuff to/at me.

I’m going to start out with the most obvious one, and depending on the feedback I get, I may or may not do more.  (Also, anyone want to take bets if I get a comment accusing me of using a strawman argument?)

Imaginary Islamophobic Strawman: But isn’t Islam a violent religion?  Violence is approved in the Qur’an!  The history of Islam is a history of conquest!

This is probably genuinely the concept that comes up the most often when people hear about my research, which is a fairly terrifying illustration of how engrained Islamophobia really is in the West.  It’s also the first google result if you type “is Islam..”

[The second is “is Islamic a religion,” which I can answer right now: no.  “Islamic” is an adjective.  “Islam” is a noun, and a religion.]

The problem with answering “is Islam violent?” is that, on some level, the answer has to be yes.  Because as I’ve said before, every religion has violence because every religion has humans, and some humans are violent.  But saying that a religion is violent implies, at least to me, something more substantial than that people within that religion commit acts of violence, or even that the people within that religion use the religion to justify their acts of violence.  Because again, both of those things are true for every religion on the planet.

In order to approach this question from an academic perspective, we would need a more precise definition.  What do we mean by “a violent religion?”  And why are we singling out Islam for consideration when religious violence is so widespread?  From this perspective, the strawman’s argument almost always appears tautological – Islam is a violent religion because of its history or traditions, which are those of a violent religion, without ever actually defining the term.

I think there are three main points to be made to counter this belief:

1.) Ye olde tymes were just really violent.  Everywhere.  For everyone.

2.) The Qur’an is a massive and complicated text – it can’t be said simply to approve or condone any one thing (except probably monotheism).

3.) The Islamic expansion was successful largely because Muslim rule was less violent than its neighbors, which made people like them more.

So, to start with:

1.) Ye olde tymes were just really violent.  Everywhere.  For everyone.

This is not to say that the entire Late Antique and Medieval periods were exactly like Game of Thrones.  Actually, as a historian, the often mindless violence of historical fiction really annoys me – there is a ton of violence in historical texts, but it’s never pointless.  It’s generally really, really pointed (no pun intended for stabbings).  Both torture and capital punishment were made regularly use of by political leaders for specific reasons – to break up coups, to eliminate potential threats to the throne, to end heresy/heteredoxy, and to demonstrate the legitimacy of their rule being among the most common.

Regions also regularly went to war with each other, although this may have been less violent than most people think (especially if you’ve seen movies like Kingdom of Heaven and 300).  Although infantry charges (where two armies on foot stand on opposite sides of a field and then run at each other while carrying sharp/heavy things) were employed, rulers and generals were quite clever when it came to not wasting men.  It was not necessarily out of kindness – standing armies were expensive to recruit and train, and conscripted soldiers were just pretty useless as anything but fodder, so there was no reason to lose an entire, trained army unless you really needed to.  Thus, armies regularly employed tactics like sieges (more on that below), designed to starve out cities to force them to surrender, tributes/bribes, spying, and assassinations to avoid outright battle.  Even infantry charges had pretty precise rules for their execution – raids normally happened in the Near East in spring or summer, during daylight hours, with the expectation that armies would have time to tend to their wounded and regroup in the evenings.

All of this applies to the Muslim caliphate, but also to every other empire and kingdom in the Near East.  Violence = part of being in charge in the Middle Ages.

2.) The Qur’an is a massive and complicated text – it can’t be said simply to approve or condone any one thing (except probably monotheism).

This one pretty much goes for any religious text.  And for most books, for that matter.  There’s a reason there’s a whole field of literary analysis – very few books can be summed up in a sentence.  Moreover, theological texts are often read as philosophical works, giving a system of thought that applies beyond the specific circumstances it describes, often with multiple layers of meaning (thus, in perhaps the most famous example, Plato’s Republic is not simply about how to run a city; it’s an analogy for personal fulfillment, which, in turn, was also a discussion of the failings of Athenian governance and Hellenic polytheism).

The Qur’an is made up of 114 suras, which range in length from a few lines to several pages long.  They were revealed over a period of roughly a decade.  Some refer to specific settings or circumstances (such as the references to the Battle of Uhud and the treaty with the Meccans in the sura al-Imran), while others are abstract.  Some retell the stories of the other Biblical and Arabian prophets (peace be upon them all) as lessons to the listener, others give direct commands and admonitions.  Some passages are abrogated by later revelations.

I think it’s probably fair to say that the work as a whole supports monotheism.  You might be able to compile a list of passages to the contrary, but you would certainly be ignoring more material than you’re employing.  But for nearly any other question, it takes long study and consideration to understand what the Qur’an says about it.  Not surprisingly, there are whole schools dedicated to just that, with the system of Islamic law developing in large part out of the study of the Qur’an.

3.) The Islamic expansion was successful largely because Muslim rule was less violent than its neighbors, which made people like them more.

Again, to understand the Muslim conquest of the Near East, we need to take a step back and consider how rule worked in the period.  For any government, rule was largely confined to the cities – rural areas (generally termed “the provinces”) were often ruled in name only – taxes were levied for an entire territory, with only minimal personnel, either civil or military, installed in any given province.  Cities were understood to be ‘under the rule of’ whomever they paid taxes to without rebelling, even if there were other signs of revolt or outright rejection of that rule – so, for example, prior to the rise of Islam, the Byzantine Empire claimed rule over both Armenia and the western part of the Arabian peninsula, despite both territories having their own governments, laws, and leaders, simply because they were generally allied to the Byzantines and willing to pay taxes/tributes to them in exchange for access to Byzantine trade routes.

Because of this very ‘hands off’ concept of rule, cities and territories regularly flipped allegiance, often repeatedly in a relatively short period of time.  The Persian Sassanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, both contemporaries of the Muslims (although the Sassanians were wiped out by the Muslims by the end of the seventh century) both regularly sought to ‘conquer’ the Near East, and the territories of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine traded hands repeatedly.  The most common ways to claim cities were sieges or capitulation – or more often, a combination of both.  An army would besiege the city, preventing traders from entering with agricultural goods from the surrounding territories.  Cities had only limited stockpiles of food and fresh water (whereas the armies, if they planned their attack correctly, could raid or trade with those same traders), so the city would be starved out, until it eventually ‘capitulated’ to the new ruler, meaning it agreed to collect taxes and send them to that guy instead of the other guy.

According to contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam, the Muslim army was genuinely terrifying – we have works likening them to demons, Biblical plagues, saying that they were immortal, unkillable, or so big that there were as many of them as there are grains of sand on the beach.  All of these images are used to explain why they were able to successfully knock back the Byzantine and Sassanian armies far enough that they could besiege cities in the Near East (the real reasons have to do with the contemporary state of those armies and the Muslims use of horses and spurs – I can post more about this if people are interested).

But also according to contemporary accounts, once they had pushed back the neighboring armies, their treatment of the cities was actually downright nice.  We find accounts in both Muslim and Christian historical works of the so-called commands of Umar, supposedly the orders of the second caliph Umar (peace be upon him) to the armies who first invaded Palestine, that they should fight against cities only until they capitulate, and then they should not kill or harm anyone in the city, they should not burn fields or orchards, they should not destroy churches, attack monks or stylites, and they should make treaties that treat the cities and their populations fairly.

Now obviously this is partly propaganda, but it actually matches up pretty well with what we see on the ground.  The only works that describe violence against civilians or forced conversion are martyrologies – stories about people being killed for their faith.  Not only is there no historical evidence to support these stories as being historically accurate, even as works of fiction, they go out of their way to explain how unusual the circumstances they were describing were – that the martyrs were being executed by a particularly evil Muslim governor or because these Christians happened to also be the local battalion – suggesting that even these works recognized that their stories wouldn’t ring true to the local Christians who experienced the Muslim conquest without these caveats.  By comparison, Christian apologetics – works arguing for the philosophical and metaphysical superiority of Christianity over Islam – actually often discuss how great Muslim rule is and how bloodless the conquest was, arguing that it was God’s Will for the Muslims to conquer the Near East in order to eliminate the last remaining communities of pagans in the area.

So there you go, a brief overview of how violence is actually just a big part of all Late Antique history.  Fun times.  If people have more specific questions about parts of this, or want to hear more about Late Antique military techniques, or want me to NEVER DO THIS AGAIN, please let me know.

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Sources on the Crusades

H asked: If you were to create a fantasy/alternative universe world that referenced Crusader-era religious politics in an exaggerated and fictitiously magical way, what would be a good way to make sure that all religious themes are represented as respectfully as possible? Are there any resources on the folklore of that time period?

That’s a very cool question, and my apologies for the delay in my reply.  There’s actually a pretty good source basis for the study of the Crusades, so it’s definitely possible to write something that integrates a lot of existing historical sources.

In terms of what sources to use, it depends on what aspect of the Crusades you want to write about.  There are several good general histories on the period – Hans Mayer’s The Crusade is sort of the standard, but it is a mid-twentieth-century Germany history, so very dry and very detail-oriented.  Personally, I like Elizabeth Hallam’s The Chronicles of the Crusades as being more readable, and she integrates a lot of images, which may be helpful for giving you an idea of the environment (what they wore, what the cities looked like, etc.).

If you’re interested in the experience of the Crusades by the indigenous populations, I’d suggest Amin Malouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes.  It’s a bit graphic for a historical text, but given the source material, that’s pretty understandable.  There are also several good translations of period chronicles that may be helpful – Wallis Budge’s translation of the Chronicle of Bar Hebraeus is very readable, and still pretty accurate to the original Syriac.  The chronicle was written by a Syriac-speaking, Christian historian in the 14th century as a continuation of the chronicle of Michael the Syrian, so his views on the Crusaders integrate a lot of different, competing identities (Christians versus Arab versus Syrian versus local).  There’s also Ebied and Thomas’ Muslim-Christian Polemics during the Crusades, which talks about how the Crusades influenced local non-Muslims’ opinions of Muslim rulership, but the book is hard to come by even in university libraries, so you may have trouble tracking it down.

As for the European context, pretty much anything by Jonathan Riley-Smith is a good start – he’s written several books on how the idea of ‘a Crusade’ developed and changed in Europe.  His recent book on the Crusading orders (Templars and Hospitalliers as professed religions) is also a very interesting read, but again, may be hard to get a hold of.  If it’s the French Crusades that you’re particularly interested in, there is a translation of the saint’s life of Louis of France, produced by Jean de Joinville – the full text may be available online, and I know it’s been reprinted in a Penguin classics collection.  In terms of European folklore, you might also want to look in to the lay Crusade movements like the Crusade of Peter the Hermit or the Children’s Crusade – it appears there were at least intermittent period of ‘crusade frenzy’ in Europe in which everyone wanted to be involved.

There is also a lot of material specifically on the religious politics and how the Crusades impacted Christian practice and belief.  Bernard Hamilton’s Latin Church in the Crusader State is a bit outdated, but still a good read, as is Wakefield’s Heresy, Crusade and Inquisition.  Tyerman’s recent Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades also has some interesting perspectives on the justifications for the theology underpinning the Crusades.

In general, I think the biggest challenge for writing about the Crusades is focusing on the day-to-day and not getting caught up in too much foreshadowing.  There’s very little evidence to suggest that people knew that ‘the Crusades’ would become a thing, as opposed to experiencing the battles and wars as isolated events.  Especially for the people in the Middle East, it’s unclear if they even had a concept of “the Crusades” as a distinct historical period until the modern age and interactions with Western historians.  Instead, many of the local historians focused on local events, such as the internal factionalism in the Muslim caliphate and, in the 13th century, the Mongol invasion, alongside the Crusaders.

I hope that helps!  If you’re interested in a specific period or region, let me know and I’d be happy to suggest some more info!

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Islamic Imperialism

Lee asked: Hi, Jessica. Was referred to your blog by a local participant in an ongoing argument about Sharia and how it fits in American jurisprudence.

I find your opinions fascinating even though a bit biased toward Islam, and in light of that would be interested in your view of Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh. His presentation seems to be somewhat at odds with your loving analysis of how Islam expanded.

As I mentioned in my email, I actually wasn’t familiar with Professor Karsh’s work before this, so thanks for the recommendation; it was a very interesting read.  For everyone else, the book is an attempt to trace a line through Islamic history, looking for internal cues for the rise of Islamism in the 20th century, using the lens of “Islamic imperialism,” by which Karsh means roughly an expansionist zeal, coupled with integration of large portions of the conquered indigenous communities into the Muslim caliphate, which he sees as similar to European imperial colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it’s an interesting idea, but I do think the thesis has weaknesses, most of which stem from it being of the ‘pop history’ genre.  Unfortunately, in order to write something that will make sense to a layman, and which has an interesting and sexy enough narrative to hook a publisher, historians often have to sand down a lot of rough edges when it comes to historical narrative, and I think in this case, some of those rough edges, if they had been left, would have unsettled the rather neat picture of the Islamic expansion which Karsh presents.

In particular, while I agree with his thesis that we need to be looking at the history of Islamic thought and political philosophy as much as contemporary history to explain Islamism, I think it’s an overstatement to say that don’t need to look at contemporary history at all, which Karsh attempts to do with Osama b. Laden, claiming that his commitment to Islamism stems from his understanding of Islamic history, and, in Karsh’s words, only “superficially… [from] the ongoing US-orchestrated ‘butchering’ of the world’s 1.2 billion-strong Muslim community – ‘in Palestine, in Iraq, in Somalia, in southern Sudan, in Kashmir, in the Philippines, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, and in Assam’” (p. 227).  While we might be able to argue this for bin Laden himself (although to do so, I think we’d need to have much more than 10 pages devoted to his writings), I think it’s arrogant to presume that the deaths of hundreds of thousands around the world did not have any impact at all on the minds of their neighbors.  Moreover, people just aren’t that tied to their own history, even when it comes to religion – to take a contemporary example, there are plenty of ways you can illustrate that being a Christian influenced the actions of George W. Bush, but it would be an overstatement to say that being a Christian was the singular drive of his life, overshadowing all others.

I would also argue there are places where Karsh’s desire for a clean narrative tends towards broad generalization.  In particular, his understanding of World War I and the end of the Ottoman empire as a watershed for the creation of the modern Middle East would seem at odds with his belief that internal belief and dispute are more important for Muslim thought than geopolitics.  Similarly, although I know what he means, I can’t accept the statement that, “unlike other parts of the world, where the demise of empire during the twentieth century has invariably led to the acceptance of the reality of the modern nation-state, the contemporary Middle Eastern state system has been under sustained assault since its formation in the wake of World War I” (p. 229).  In terms of redrawing maps, Africa, in particular Center Africa, has the Middle East beaten hands down, and if you include regime changes and factional disputes, South America has been fraught with political upheaval throughout the twentieth century.  And that’s to say nothing of the fall of the USSR, which completely altered the concept of ‘nation-state’ for peoples from Central Europe as far as Central Asia.

My other problem with Islamic Imperialism is one that I really can’t claim is a fault, at all – it’s just a matter of I would have done it differently.  As is often the case with academics, there are parts of my own research that I think would have been useful here, and so it seems only fair that I disclose that explicitly.  I am, both by training and by temperament, an intellectual and social historian, and although I would not consider myself postmodernist, I am distinctly poststructuralist, and I’m not sure I’ve ever thought it possible to write a history of “what really happened,” as that’s just too much of a moving target.  I believe that history, like most scholarship, depends on the questions asked.  For example, you’ll get a very different narrative of WWI by reading histories of the battles than by reading letters written by men in the trenches.  But neither is wrong.  They simply have different intentions.  Both are useful, depending what question you’re trying to answer.

Being me, I found myself confused as to whether it was Karsh’s intention to write a history of the Islamic expansion as it really happened and as it was experienced by the indigenous communities of the 7th and 8th centuries, in which case I think his source basis is too narrow, or whether he was writing what Osama b. Laden thought the history of the Islamic expansion was, in order to discuss his personal philosophy, in which case, I think that intention needed to be stated more explicitly.

Karsh relies almost exclusively on four works to tell the history of the Islamic expansion – the histories of al-Baladhuri, al-Tabari and al-Waqidi and the biography of the Prophet (peace be upon him) of ibn Ishaq.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – lots of Islamicists have done the same thing.  And if we’re writing about what bin Laden thought happened in the expansion, it makes perfect sense, as these works are relied on heavily by later Muslim historians.

But if we’re trying to write a history of how the expansion really happened and how it was experienced, then we need to talk about what these sources are.  All four were written or redacted at least a century (and in the case of al-Tabari, three centuries) after the events they describe, and of the four, at least three are fairly explicitly stated to be propaganda – al-Baladhuri for the Abbasids and al-Tabari and ibn Ishaq for the Muslim caliphate generally (and the last one, al-Waqidi, is not universally accepted as authentic).  Thus, to my mind, Karsh has set out to write a history to demonstrate how important imperialism was to Muslims, and has chosen as his sources three works written to support imperialism.  It’s certainly an important topic to those authors, but that doesn’t mean it was important to everyone.

It also overlooks a whole lot of sources written on the ground by a wide range of peoples, who would be in a position to provide different points of view on the expansion.  The Christian and Jewish communities of the Near East continued to write histories, legal texts, stories, sermons, apologetics, and letters, but the view we get from these is much fuzzier.  Sometimes the Muslims seem like tyrants and monsters.  Sometimes they seem like kind and wonderful rulers.  And sometimes they seem barely visible.  All of these viewpoints, I think, would disrupt the neat vision of expansion that Karsh has laid out.

But again, this is what I do, so I think it’s important!

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Arabia, Wonderland, and Why We’re Still Obsessed with the Haram

ETA: I wrote this about a week ago, and then cleverly never remembered to actually publish it.  I’m brilliant!  It’s obviously a bit dated now, but hopefully still interesting to some people.

I recognize that I’m the millionth person to comment on this, but for people who haven’t heard, ABC Family commissioned, and then cancelled, amidst general disgust and outrage, a pilot entitled “Alice in Arabia,” about an American Muslim teenager who gets kidnapped by her Saudi grandfather and held against her will in Saudi Arabia.  Prior to the show’s cancellation, Buzzfeed obtained an early copy of the script, which they described as “[lending] itself to particularly easy comparison with Not Without My Daughter, a 1991 film based on a nonfiction book by the same name.”  The initial announcement of the show led to #AliceinArabia trending on twitter, with the script’s author Brooke Eikmeier eventually speaking in her own defense, explaining that the show was “meant to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV,” albeit a voice provided by a white, non-Muslim former military employee.

Like anyone else who has been paying attention to how Muslims are portrayed on American TV, I was delighted to hear the show was cancelled (although my favorite of the #AliceinArabia tweets is still from Anna Lekas Miller ‏(@agoodcuppa) – “Not going to lie, a little bit disappointed that #AliceInArabia is cancelled. Was looking forward to Orientalism drinking games.”).  But the framing of the story itself made the history nerd in me a little amazed, as I think it demonstrates quite clearly that we, as Americans and Westerners, are still a little bit obsessed with ‘the harem.’

Haram is an Arabic term meaning ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited,’ and is one of the legal standards used in Islamic law to distinguish correct and incorrect practices.  Harim was a special designation for sacred spaces in the pre-Islamic era, in which local tribes agreed to adhere to special laws and principles, especially with regard to murder, theft, and violations of tribal autonomy.  This allowed locals to visit these holy places in peace, without needing to worry about attacks or retaliation for past events.  The Ka’aba in Mecca was one such harim.  The use of the term continued in the Islamic period, with the Qur’an expanding the rules regarding correct practices within the harim, including restricting the kinds of clothing worn, the use of perfume or wearing of jewelry, thus creating an atmosphere of equality among pilgrims.

The European concept of the harem arose out of this idea of a sacred and confined space, but focused on one specific kind of confined space, the private space within Muslim homes, specifically those areas where women did not wear veils, which generally means areas intended for family and close friends.  The concept of “women’s quarters” was common throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, but Islam’s allowance of both polygamy and divorce fueled a belief in, essentially, Muslim sex dungeons – private areas of the home full of half-naked wives and concubines leisurely awaiting their master’s return.

That’s not to say that such a thing never happened – it certainly did.  Indeed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, several Ottoman sultans prided themselves on it.  But many scholars of the Middle East, myself included, would argue that this European belief in the harem as a commonplace feature of Muslim life reveals more about European ideas of sexuality and family space than it does about anything to do with Islam.  Indeed, the harem was one of the central aspects of Edward Said’s Orientalism – he noted that, along with the suq, the public market (which, particularly in European art, was also often portrayed with a great deal of nudity), the harem is one of the few clearly recognizably Middle Eastern images in European literary and artistic traditions.

It is certainly the case that humans in general seem to assume that any time modesty and privacy meet, the result is awesome sexy times.  It’s this same assumption that fueled the European genre of nunsploitation – the literary genre of erotica about nuns (and monks and priests), which has existed for about as long as there have been nuns and monks[1].  Since monks and nuns were modest in public, it seemed obvious that they were kinky in private.  I’d argue this same assumption is behind the modern concept of the sexy librarian.

The image of the harem also parallels nunsploitation in its underlying (and very European Christian) assumption that overt sexuality is a sign of moral weakness.  Stories of nunsploitation were increasingly popular during the Protestant revolutions and among the humanists, as they were used to illustrate the essential weakness of traditional Catholicism.  The logic was pretty obviously tautological – we all know that nuns are secretly kinky because they’re so modest in public, and because they’re kinky, they must be failing in their religion.  The same goes for the European imagination of the harem – the imagination of the harem is an extreme one, fraught with ‘sexual deviance’ (a horrible term, which in this case generally meant ‘being queer’ or ‘women enjoying sex’), but also with oppression, violence, manipulation, and often substance abuse.

The idea of the harem has been used to serve a lot of purposes in European (and later, Western) works, but it’s hard to get away with the explicit sexuality of the image.  Indeed, a quick google search (definitely NSFW!) reveals that art is still being created which depicts the harem as a public bath (which is a Roman innovation made popular in the Near East by the Byzantines) full of half-naked women (many of whom, in modern works, appear to be modeled on Japanese anime).  I’m not terribly surprised by this – it hits a lot of high points in terms of sexual fantasies.  The Alice in Arabia story hints of this, as well, particularly in its apparent continued stressing of American (ie. normal) versus Arabian (ie. repressed, but possibly also hyper-sexual) lifestyle.

These stagnant ideas about the Middle East are exactly why portrayals like “Alice in Arabia” are problematic, however.  Not only do they not contribute to a broader conception of what Muslim/Arab (a distinction too many of these works blur) life is like, they also reaffirm images that are, at best, outdated and, at worst, mythological.  Muslim and Arab homes are no more filled with crazy sex dungeons than American homes are filled with McDonald’s, guns and TVs constantly blaring Fox News – I’m pretty sure that American home does exist, but that’s nowhere closer to being the only or even most common iteration.

[1] I would like to point out that Wikipedia wrongly associates the term nunsploitation to a genre of pornographic movies – the genre definitely predates film, as examples exist from the Middle Ages.  Check out the book Virgins of Venice (one of the few history of religion monographs that should probably come with a NSFW label) on the Medieval and early modern history of the genre.

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