Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Housekeeping Note

I have not posted in a while, and expect rare posting to be the norm through the end of this year.  I have a book manuscript due in about six weeks, and am simply locked in on that.  In addition, I am buying my first home and learning all the complexities of real estate transactions.

What I will probably do to keep a bit of action around here is dig into my archives for old history posts I can re-post.  In the meantime, I am still active on Twitter at @brianjulrich, so feel free to follow me there!

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Saturday, November 01, 2014

Jerusalem Intifada?

Ahmad Melhem wonders if the current Palestinian protests in Jerusalem could become something more significant:
Jerusalem-based youth activist Mesbah Abu Sabih told Al-Monitor that the intensity and points of engagement of the clashes vary from time to time; they reached their peak following the death of Abu Khdeir and recur following each new martyr in the city.
He recognized that the confrontations are periodical as they depend on the developments in the city, but that there are places where confrontations occur often, such as in the neighborhoods of Issawiya and Silwan, and the Saadia, Bab Hutta, Ras al-Amud and Tur neighborhoods in the Old City.
Abu Diab said that this uprising is led by youths aged 14-to-20 who use all means to resist the occupation. They are aware of the threats facing both their city and their future, and they know full well the nature of the conflict with the Israelis...
Abu Sabih said that no one is supporting or leading the street protests. This is why they are ongoing in some areas and intermittent in others. “There is no leadership managing things on the ground. The lack of leadership is the cause behind the irregularity of the protests, which have become linked to events alone."
There is definitely a broad spirit of activism among Palestinians right now, one seen also in the civil disobedience campaign led by Abu Rahma and the West Bank protests in solidarity with Gaza during last summer's war.  This mood is not orchestrated by Fatah or Hamas, both of whom are judged failures by the Palestinian street.  In Jerusalem, the clashes and protests are in the hands of Palestinians who were toddlers during the al-Aqsa Intifada and have no memory of a functioning peace process.  I don't have the information to comment on whether matters will escalate or dissipate, but the lay of the Palestinian activist land bears watching.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Israel and Palestinian Unity

Shlomi Eldar notices that Israel appears to have accepted the Palestinian unity government:
Last week, on Oct. 9, the Palestinian unity government held its first meeting in the Gaza Strip since the 2007 overthrow. For the government to convene, Israel was required to allow the Palestinian ministers who reside in the West Bank to pass through its territory on their way from Ramallah to Gaza. Officials of the Israeli administration for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) prepared the Erez crossing for the passage of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his Cabinet ministers, who were quick to pose for a photo op embracing Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh, who came to greet and congratulate them.
It was not simply a procedural matter of granting permits; it was a clear Israeli diplomatic move: to allow the Palestinian unity government to convene in Gaza under the auspices of the Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip — the ones whom Israel viewed as legitimate assassination targets less than two months ago.
In fact, the whole process of Gaza’s reconstruction following Operation Protective Edge is taking shape by virtue of the unity government, which Israel pilloried as a partner in Hamas terrorism until very recently.

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Urwa's Muhammad, Part III

This is the last post in my series on a current model of historical Muhammad research.  I putting links to all of them at the bottom of the first.

7.) Conquest of Mecca - Urwa b. al-Zubayr was clearly not a preferred authority for military campaigns.  All the authors are willing to say for sure about Urwa's transmission on this matter is that there was a connection between Hudaybiyya and the conquest of Mecca, that after the conquest of Mecca Muhammad spent two weeks in the city before attack the Hawazin, and that the Hawazin prisoners were freed when their people accepted Islam.

When it comes to his son Hisham b. Urwa, however, the authors believe that he reported the following:  Mecca violated the treaty, leading to the Muslim conquest of the city.  Abu Sufyan and two other Meccans went to Muhammad before the conquest and converted to Islam.  Muhammad then sent them back to the city to preach Islam.  He also said that anyone who took refuge in the homes of Abu Sufyan and another of the new Meccan converts would have their safety guaranteed when the Muslims attacked.  For the attack, Muhammad and his general Khalid b. al-Walid approached from different sides.  Only two people were killed in the fighting, then afterward we have the Hawazin matter as described above.

This account does not include the iconic scene for Muslims I have known, the "Cleansing of the Ka'aba" followed by the pardoning of the Meccans.  According to this story, when he enters the city, Muhammad goes to the Ka'aba and smashes its idols, leaving only an icon of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, presumably because Jesus is a prophet in Islam.  While he is doing this, the Meccans come out of where they had taken sanctuary (some sources claim all houses in Mecca were sanctuaries, and not just Abu Sufyan's).  Muhammad then comes out to address them, saying brief words that God is one and polytheism wrong, God has shown his faithfulness to his servants by helping them triumph over their enemies, Meccan pride in their heritage and tribal ancestry is wrong because all are descendants of Adam, and finishing with Quran 49:13.

In this story, Muhammad then asks the Meccans what he expects him to do to them.  (By Arabian tradition, prisoners of war could be enslaved, held for ransom, or on very rare occasions killed.)  The Meccans reply that they expect mercy, because they have seen nothing but that from him.  Muhammad then says that he will treat them as Joseph treated his brothers who sold him into slavery, and declares a general amnesty.  The Meccans then convert to Islam en masse, with the implication that they are moved by Muhammad's character and the powerlessness of their gods before his.

This is mentioned nowhere in the Urwa corpus, nor is it mentioned in Ibn Rashid.  Both the Tabari and Ibn Hisham recensions of Ibn Ishaq have it, but the chain of authorities goes back only two generations to the early 700's.  My own impression is that it comes from the story-telling tradition, a pious account designed to telescope developments to convey an essential truth.  In addition to its rather cinematic staging, we have a crowd speaking Greek chorus-style.  This is something we also often see in the Christian gospels.

The accounts presented above both leave open whether Muhammad forced conversions of Meccan polytheists.  A standard interpretation of sura 9, linked to this period of his life, says he did, but I think there are good reasons for doubting this.  First, short Muslim accounts do reference various people whom Muhammad allegedly ordered killed after the conquest.  These, however, are hard to work with, and contradictory both with each other and accounts which have allegedly killed people alive later.  More to the point, the "smoke" behind which a fire may lie is that Muhammad was most concerned with avoiding any violence that would violate Mecca's sacred status, including violence against polytheists.  (UPDATE:  In the account of the Hawazin, the prisoners were freed when others from their tribe accepted Islam.)  Looking more broadly, there is archaeological evidence suggesting that pagan practices survived in Arabia into the 700's.  For my book project, I've been looking into the early 700's conquest of the Indus Valley, and the followers of Indian religions there were treated no differently than Christians and Jews elsewhere.  There were still pagans in the Middle Eastern city of Harran in the 830's, when we know the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun wanted to force their conversion until he got talked out of it.

Pre-Islamic Western Arabia had several cities sacred to certain gods; within the precincts of these cities, violence was not permitted, and the peace was guaranteed by the military reputation of the lineage which dominated the city and oversaw the performance of the rituals of the god.  Muhammad seems to have established Medina as such a city for the "God of Abraham."  If he did, then conflict with Mecca was probably inevitable, regardless of who started it.  In Mecca, the policy can be read as control of the city's ritual space rather than a concern with individual beliefs.  A command to "establish prayer" in this cultural context is different from a command for everyone to pray.  (I think something like this is an argument of Aziz al-Azmeh's recent The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity, though I need to read and digest that book carefully sometime in 2015.)

Three Final Thoughts

First, a brief personal note.  Historical Muhammad research is its own distinct subspecialty within early Islamic history, and it is not my own subspecialty.  This is not just a case of academic hyper-specialization.  The potential source material is huge.  For example, Sunnis recognize about 10,000 authentic hadith.  For modern historical methods, we would need to look also at those deemed inauthentic, Shi'ite hadith, material found only in historians and Quran commentaries and other scattered references.  I have referred occasionally to the two 8th-century biographies if Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Rashid, but have made no pretense of looking at later bios which certainly preserve older material.  This is interesting and important research which I felt deserved a wider audience, and I come at it as someone who understands the issues involved, but not as someone who can pronounce on individual points in detail.

Second, it is a grave error to look at secular scholarly reconstructions of Muhammad, even those by scholars of Muslim heritage, and on that basis claim to understand Islam.  This is the same with any religion - in Western Christianity, reading Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan will not lead you to understand what Christians mean when they recite the Nicene Creed or declare they just accepted Jesus as their personal Saviour.  The only way to research what Muhammad means to Muslims is to look at Muslim religious sources.  In the United States, my sense is that Muslims generally learn about the life of Muhammad through abridged translations of Ibn Ishaq and, particularly for younger Muslims, the interpretation of his life by Tariq Ramadan.  And yes, for the Muhammad of, say, the Taliban, you would want to look at a completely different set of sources.

I am, at any rate, not even sure what the historical reconstruction described here would mean theologically.  How does a desire for Islam to occupy the sacred centers of Western Arabia's stateless society translate into today?  An understanding of the Islamization of Arabia and the first wave of Islamic conquests under Umar might have a bearing on this, but none has been undertaken since 1981.  The distinction which arose in the late 700's of a division between a "House of Islam" and a "House of War" does seem a logical reading of the situation, but even then, many would say that the "House of Islam" should be any land where Islam can be practiced, not necessarily a land ruled by Muslims.  This is not just a modern interpretation; it first caught on in the 12th century among Muslims living in the Qara Khitai Khanate.

Third, I am aware that for many Muslims, there is something offensive about non-Muslims, particularly of Western Christian background, studying the history of the Islamic world and especially Islamic sacred history.  The last 200-300 years have seen a pattern of military, economic, and cultural assaults on Muslim-majority societies all over the world, and some take the more general stand that each civilization should study and teach its own history.  However, I admit despite understanding where this critique comes from, I do not find it persuasive.

Civilizations are not sealed compartments that can convey authenticity.  For example, today Christians arguing against atheism often reference the "Kalam Cosmological Argument" for the existence of God, an argument which draws upon Muslim thought.  Study the history of this idea advanced by Christians, therefore, whether to support or refute it, therefore involves the study of the milieu of Muslim thought.  Beyond that, Muhammad and his community did not just impact what became Islam.  If we define "Western" as the culture that developed out of medieval Christendom, then its geographical scope would be different were it not for Islam.  Finally, comparative history matters, and by definition cannot be limited to a single cultural background.

Although the book I have blogged about was written by scholars in Switzerland, I do not see it as purely a product of "Western civilization."  Most obviously, they build upon the work of isnads from the medieval Muslims.  Beyond that, I understand their methods are similar to those advanced by some Muslim scholars in Muslim-majority societies during the 20th century.  I wish I knew more about that so I could credit those Muslim scholars, but I do not.  I do, however, perhaps naively, believe that we can have a global community of scholars who are all collectively dedicated to understanding the human past.

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Saturday, October 04, 2014

Azerbaijan's Drone Build-Up

Flush with Caspian Sea natural gas wealth, Azerbaijan has for a number of years been building up its military capacity, especially vis-a-vis rival Armenia.  Here is the latest:
Heightened tensions with longtime foe Armenia over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh and mediator Russia’s Ukrainian adventure appear to be pushing Caspian-Sea energy power Azerbaijan ever more strongly toward a military strategy of self-reliance.
The strategy comes via two approaches: first, a build-up in Azerbaijani-made military equipment, including drones co-produced with Israel; and, second, a new defense troika with longtime strategic partners Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and neighbouring Georgia, a NATO-member-hopeful.
Nor is this a strategy just left to paper. On Sep. 11, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Yaver Jamalov announced to reporters that Azerbaijan plans to export 100 drones, co-produced at a local Azerbaijani-Israeli plant, to “one of the NATO countries.” The remarks headlined the country’s first international defense-industry show, ADEX-2014, held on Sep. 11-13 in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
Some of the background here is Russian support for Armenia in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Based on what happened in Ukraine, Azerbaijan fears that Russia could similarly attempt to formally impose a pro-Armenian settlement there.

(Oh, and yes, my last "historical Muhammad" post is still coming.)

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Urwa's Muhammad, Part II

This is the second of what will actually be three posts on the research of Andreas Goerke and Gregor Schoeler into Urwa b. al-Zubayr's information about Muhammad.  I explained the issues here and posted the first part here.  The third post will come tomorrow or over the weekend.  I am organizing it by the seven major episodes of Muhammad's life concerning which Goerke and Schoeler found that Urwa taught substantial narratives.

4.) Slander Against Aisha - According to the authors, Urwa's material on this is better than any other issue, perhaps because his main source was Aisha, who obviously had a special interest in it.  The authors conclude that Urwa passed on that rumors began circulating in Medina that Aisha had committed adultery, which Aisha learned about from a woman named Umm Mistah.  Aisha then asked Muhammad if she can return to her parents' house, which he accepted.  On the advice of a Companion or two, Muhammad asked Aisha's servant girl if he knows of any bad doings by Aisha, and the girl spoke only praise of her.  Muhammad then spoke of the matter before the assembly of Medina, leading to a stand-off between Aws and Khazraj, the two dominant tribes, with Sa'd b. Mu'adh, the leader of Aws, offering to kill the Khazraj leader Abdullah b. Ubayy for spreading the rumors.  The Khazraj objected to this plan, and Muhammad calmed the assembly.  Muhammad then went to Aisha, asking if the rumors were true, and offering forgiveness if they were.  Finally, Sura 24 was revealed, leading to the exoneration of Aisha and punishment of the leading rumor-mongers.

The standard version includes the idea that prior to this, Aisha had accompanied Muhammad on a raid, and was inadvertently left behind when she went to look for a missing necklace.  After a day or so in the desert, a man found her and escorted her to Medina; this was the man with whom she had the alleged affair.  Urwa may have passed on information about the man escorting her back after she was left behind on a raid, but there is no evidence he had a necklace story or a specific raid, and his inclusion of Sa'd b. Mu'adh puts it before its place in the standard biographies, by which time Sa'd is dead.  Another thing missing is the role of Ali b. Abi Talib, who in the standard accounts urged Muhammad to divorce Aisha.  The authors, however, note that at later stages of transmission, an anti-Aisha role of Ali was added by two different transmitters, presumably as Sunni propaganda.

According to the possible "connecting tissue" of the standard bios, Abdullah b. Ubayy was the dominant figure in Medina before Muhammad came, but was unable to end the tribal feuds, a critical role for Arabian leaders.  When Muhammad came and secured his position by ending them, Abdullah b. Ubayy converted to Islam, but often criticized his leadership and sought to undermine him.  Early Islamic exegetes said that he and his followers were the "Hypocrites" often referred to in the Qur'an.  The bios present him as often vexing Muhammad, but Muhammad always tolerated him, and when he died in 631, Muhammad even performed his funeral prayers.

How much of that is truly early tradition?  I have no idea, but it is what I have to offer to clarify the players.  The main point may be that even though in the later tradition this is famous partly as a source of enmity between Ali and Aisha that prefigures the Sunni/Shi'ite division, Urwa's information on it places it squarely within the reputational politics of Muhammad's Medina.

5.) Death of Sa'd b. Mu'adh - I'd guess most Muslims have never heard of Sa'd b. Mu'adh, who led the Aws, one of the two most powerful tribes in Medina.  He seems to have mattered to Urwa, though.  This, however, is the weakest of the seven account as far as the authors' efforts to find authentic information Urwa transmitted.  In fact, applying their methods, they can only say for sure that Urwa's son and student Hisham b. Urwa transmitted on this, though they say they do believe he got his information from Urwa himself.  If I'm reading them correctly, then even from Hisham they have only two points meeting their criteria for certainty: 1.) When Sa'd was lying wounded in the mosque, Muhammad erected a tent over him for visitors and 2.) When the B. Qurayza surrendered to Muhammad, he chose to defer judgment over them to Sa'd, as they Qurayza were confederates of the Aws.  Sa'd was brought with his wound, and declared that their men should be slain, the women and children sold into slavery, and their property confiscated.  Muhammad then had this done.

We need a broader view here.  A potential fuller account from Hisham b. Urwa, though again with far less certainty, is that Sa'd was wounded at the Battle of the Trench, then taken to the mosque and Muhammad erected the tent.  Then the Archangel Gabriel appeared to warn Muhammad that the B. Qurayza were fighting the Muslims.  Muhammad and the Muslims won, then Sa'd gave his judgment, then he died of his wound, possibly after lying in the mosque awhile a bleeding profusely.  (Notice this includes the only truly supernatural event we've encountered.)

The Battle of the Trench was a month-long siege of Medina by a Mecca-led alliance.  It is named for a trench which Muslims dug around the exposed north of the city where most of the fighting happened.  Other sides of the city had natural defenses or were protected by tribal allies.  The B. Qurayza were a Jewish tribe allied with the Muslims.  Before their unsuccessful final attempt to take Medina, the Meccans "flipped" them so they would launch a surprise attack from behind Muslim lines.  The massacre is obviously brutal, and some modern Muslims have denied it happened; I doubt what's above will change many minds.  We should probably see it as a parallel to the reported massacres of Benjamin and Amalek in the deep past of the Hebrews, an unusual but not unheard of measure taken against enemies where all men were potential warriors and there was no ruling legal authority.

6.) Peace of Hudaybiyya - Urwa does not have chronology except by implication; however, the standard date for this event is 628, a the year following the Battle of the Trench.  Crucial background, of course, is that the Ka'aba was in Mecca, and this was a sacred house open to all.  That status was a source of Meccan power.  The Muslims believe it was built by Abraham and Ishmael as the first mosque, and something like this may have been more widely spread among the generically monotheistic hanif movement.

Anyway, what the authors conclude is definitely authentic Urwa material is that Muhammad decided to undertake a peaceful pilgrimage to the Ka'aba, and with several hundred Muslims entered into a state of ritual purity and advanced toward Mecca.  At a place called 'Usfan, he learned that the Meccans wanted to prevent him from arriving, and sent out cavalry to intercept, leading Muhammad to take a different route.  At a (pagan) sacred ground called Hudaybiyya, Muhammad's camel stopped and would go no farther.  Muhammad took this as a sign from God and so they all stopped there.  To get water, they poked a watering-hole with an arrow until they found water.  The Meccans sent messengers to Muhammad (because they could note fight in the sacred ground), and they began negotiating; the lead Meccan negotiator was Suhayl b. 'Amr.  They wound up drawing up a treaty to end the war; Muhammad made the concession that the divine invocations need not be specifically Muslim as long as they invoked a single anonymous "God."  Muhammad also agreed to send Muslim converts from Mecca back to their families upon request, and to permit anyone who no longer wished to be Muslim to return to Mecca, as well.  Abu Jandal fled to Muhammad, but was sent back by the terms of the treaty.

The "Muhammad of Hudaybiyya" is, of course, beloved to many Muslims who do not see their religion as encouraging violence.  They can take solace that in Gorke and Schoeler's opinion, Hudaybiya, the Aisha slander, and the flight to Medina are actually the three most solid elements of their proposed authentic Urwa corpus.  The other terms of the agreement, such as the 10-year duration and what happened to the intended pilgrimage, are not in all versions of the agreement.  The "Treaty of Hudaybiyya" of Islamic tradition, therefore, may be like the "Seven Last Words of Christ" in Christianity, cobbled together out of several independent traditions to make a whole.

There are at least two distinct strains of this in Muslim tradition.  One of these is related to the evolving ideology of expansionist military jihad.  In the late 700's and early 800's, Muslim scholars began dividing the world into an "Abode of Islam" and the "Abode of War," with a necessity for just Muslim rulers to always extend the former at the expense of the latter.  In this formulation, truces can only be temporary, and so Hudaybiyya came to be interpreted as a necessary tactical concession.  (In the late 20th century, of course, some Muslims concluded that there world had no just Muslim rulers, and so it was the duty of individual Muslims to wage military jihad everywhere, which is where we get al-Qaeda and ISIS.) 

Anyway, this is not the impression of Hudaybiyya conveyed in the 8th-century biographies of Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Rashid.  In both of these, Muhammad is actually portrayed as confident he could defeat the Meccans if necessary.  The impression I get, with background knowledge of 7th-century Arabia, is that the view they portray is one of "peace through strength."  In lawless Arabia, the strong preyed on the weak.  The Muslim community, having established itself as strong, was thus taking the road of agreeing to peace rather than take the more common Arabian route of subjugating their enemies.  In Guillaume's translation of Ibn Hisham's Ibn Ishaq recension, Muhammad even laments at 'Usfan: "Alas, Quraysh (the tribe of Mecca), war has devoured them!  What harm would they have suffered if they had left me and the rest of the Arabs to go our own ways?"

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Urwa's Muhammad, Part I

In 2008, Andreas Gorke and Gregor Schoeler published a book summarizing their research into the accounts of the life of Muhammad attributed to Urwa b. al-Zubayr.  Since then, the debate over their findings and methods has continued.  One thing I like about their work, though, is that none of what they conclude is authentic material involves the miraculous.  (If I understand them correctly, lots of miraculous doings and embellishments were added to Urwa's accounts by Abu al-Aswad, one of those who passed them on.  Other embellishments were made by al-Zuhri, who served at the Umayyad court for over half a century.)  An account of a miracle would not invalidate it, since plenty of people believe they have experienced them, but to this post-Enlightenment historian the fact that there aren't any is striking.  To take the biggest example, Urwa does not have an account of Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse to lead other prophets in prayer and speak with God.

Gorke and Schoeler's method leads them to believe that Urwa taught of seven major events in the life of Muhammad.  There is additional Urwa material, but given their methods very short traditions or those without a lot of later attestations are harder to work with, and they did not undertake it for this book.  It is, of course, also possible that longer traditions Urwa originally passed on have been lost.  In other words, rather than "This is what Urwa said," we should probably say, "Urwa said all of this, and probably some other stuff we can't be certain about."  The seven major events also represent key developments in standard accounts of Muhammad's life found in the later biographies.  For this reason, I occasionally draw upon those standard accounts for connective tissue.

1.) First Revelation - Urwa's account, according to the authors: While meditating on a nearby mountain, Muhammad had a vision and heard a voice commanding him to recite what was the first Quranic revelation, the first five verses of sura 96.  Muhammad's reaction was fear and despair that he was mad, and confided only in his wife Khadija.  Khadija then had Muhammad consult with her cousin Waraqa, who was educated, had become a Christian, and studied the Bible.  Waraqa tells him that he has had a divine revelation similar to that of Moses.

Muslim tradition identifies the Archangel Gabriel as the agent of revelation, but the authors conclude this was added later.  I suspect Waraqa was thinking of the Burning Bush Moses encountered on Mt. Sinai.  According to the traditional Muslim accounts, early 7th-century western Arabia had lots of people who were aware of the major religions of the Middle East, were not convinced of any of them, and yet filled with spiritual longing for the God of whom they spoke in different ways.  These people, called hanifs, meditated on mountains in the hopes of gaining wisdom.

2.) Flight to Medina - The authors conclude with certainty that Urwa taught that as more and more people converted to Islam, the Meccans turned against them with increasingly intense persecution, and that some began seeking asylum in Ethiopia with the Christians.  Thereafter the situation for Meccan Muslims briefly improved, but only briefly, and other Muslims began going to Medina.  Abu Bakr wanted to emigrate, but Muhammad asked him to remain.  Muhammad then went to Abu Bakr's dwelling every day, but on the day of the flight went at a different time, cluing Abu Bakr in that something was up.  Muhammad was worried that lots of people might be around, but Abu Bakr told him it only his family was there.  Muhammad then revealed his plans for emigration, and when Abu Bakr asked if he could, as well, was told he could.  Abu Bakr ordered two camels, which Muhammad insisted on paying for.  Leaving Mecca, the two men spent several days in a cave, where Abu Bakr's son brought them news from Mecca.  Finally, they found a trustworthy pagan guide to help them reach Medina, where they initially stayed among the B. Amr b. Awf tribe.  Amir b. Fuhayra, a shepherd who worked for Abu Bakr, showed them the cave and then went with them to Medina.

Nothing is here said of the arc of Muhammad's early career, but standard Muslim tradition is that he kept his revelations mostly to himself and a few close confidants for several years before a revelation ordering him to preach to all the Meccans.  Abu Bakr, a wealthy man in Mecca, would become the first caliph.  Nothing is here about a role for Ali, whom Shi'ites believe should have been Muhammad's successor.  Again, in the more developed biographies, the Quraysh had decided to kill Muhammad, by coincidence on the night he departed, and Ali slept in his bed so they would not realize he was gone.  Urwa's letter to Abd al-Malik is the only source in his corpus for the standard explanation of why he chose Medina to flee to:  that people there had heard of his wisdom, some had begun converting to Islam, and that all were willing to extend a covenant of protection if he came there.

3.) Battle of Badr - I can't find where the authors lay out precisely what they think is definitely authentic Urwa material about this event, which the developed biographies place a couple of years after the flight to Medina.  The most important account is Urwa's letter to the Umayyad Abd al-Malik; the letter indicate Abd al-Malik was seeking information about Abu Sufyan, the then-pagan leader of the Umayyad clan in Mecca who played a role.  According to Urwa's reply, Muslims and Meccans were in conflict, and the former raided the latter's flocks and merchant caravans.  Abu Sufyan was leading a merchant caravan back from Syria, which the Muslims intended to raid.  Most of the letter recounts manuvering around and intelligence gathering.  The Meccans expected a raid, and so sent out a force of about 1000 to defend the caravan.  The 300 or so Muslims found themselves in a pitched battle, which they won, though there were casualties on both sides.

Unfortunately, I can't find much at all in this chapter about why there was a conflict between Muslims and the Meccans.  There are accounts that Muhammad went to Medina with the intention of fighting Mecca from the beginning.  More common, and far better known among Muslims, is the tradition that this resolution came afterward, and that a Quranic revelation authorized it.  A commonly cited reason is that the Meccans had seized the properties of those Muslims who left the city, and so the Muslims felt entitled to take wealth back from the Meccans.  This sort of raiding was common in Arabia; think about cattle rustling and train robberies in American Westerns.  Things only became really intense when people started getting killed, as happened here.  Perhaps that is why, in a short but well-attested tradition, Urwa is mentioned as saying that Badr was the first battle against the Meccans, which is how it is remembered today while the raids are little-known.

This post is getting long, so I will deal with the other four events definitely handled by Urwa tomorrow.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reconstructing the Historical Muhammad

During the 1800's, Ernest Renan wrote that "Islam was born in the full light of history."  Modern historians would beg to differ.  The earliest extant sources which record his life were written in the mid-750's, over a century after Muhammad's death.  (We have somewhat later recensions, but these almost certainly do a respectable job of preserving the 8th-century material.)  The most commonly read one, that of Muhammad b. Ishaq, died in Baghdad under the Abbasids, where he worked under al-Mansur, ruler of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen.  That is a bigger gap both culturally and chronologically than we find between Jesus and the gospels.

Based on this, some historians have proposed significant differences between the Muhammad of history and that of Muslim historical memory and devotion.  Patricia Crone, for example, has argued that he lived not in Mecca and Medina, but in the far northwest of Arabia near the Byzantine frontier, and supports the conclusions of another revisionist historian that his opponents were not polytheists, but rather followed a monotheism which Muhammad and his followers found flawed.  While I have not read the debate over the second proposition in perhaps a decade, I reject her geographic relocation.  This is partly because no one has to my mind proposed a convincing reason to go back and relocate him to the Hejaz.  Crone says in the linked article that later Muslims wanted to show he had no Jewish or Christian influence, but contact with Jews and Christians is nonetheless found throughout the traditional Muslim accounts of his life.

One benefit historians of early Islam do have is a form of source citation called the isnad.  This is a chain of authorities through which a given source learned of the event in question.  This does not solve all of our problems with the sources, by any means.  For one thing, the standard of using isnads developed only gradually.  Much as Christians made up accounts of Jesus and the apostles, so did Muslims, and for a variety or reasons both savory and unsavory.  They then, of course, forged the chain of authorities, as well.  The huge multi-volume sets of canonical hadith one sees on library shelves are only a small part of what once circulated, a part which was declared authentic by a few Muslim scholars (two in particular) during the 9th century and gradually accepted as such in the centuries following.  Most modern historians believe the compilers of these collections did not go nearly far enough in weeding out forgeries; some will even assert that there are no authentic hadith whatsoever.

The hadith corpus is actually different, however, than prophetic biography.  The former has served primarily to build up the range of Islamic law through accounts of how people were to perform rituals or how Muhammad responded to questions and cases.  The biographical tradition is more concerned with events that served as foundational to the community: in the idea of a prophetic community of which later Muslims were heir, as propaganda for or against later political leaders based on the conduct of their ancestors, and as the key to interpreting the Qur'an, which was revealed at particular times when Muhammad sought out divine wisdom in general or guidance in particular situations.  (I should note, though, that which revelations go with which occasions is often a matter of hadith.)

In an essay in this book, Andreas Gorke discussed several ways historians working primarily with the prophetic biographies are approaching their sources.  One is analogous to the "criterion of embarrassment" used by scholars of the historical Jesus.  The idea goes that later Muslims would not invent something that put Muhammad in a bad light.  Gorke identifies a problem with using this approach: You tend to wind up assuming that everything that makes Muhammad look bad is true and everything that makes him look good is later apologetics.  I'd go even further and say that we have no secure grounds on which to say what would and would not have been made up across the long decades people were making things up.  An interesting example of the problems with thinking you can comes from the story that the First Crusade massacred the Muslims in Jerusalem.  Historians today reject it, but the account is not found in Muslim sources.  It comes from a Christian source (I forget which) who thought he was idealizing the Crusaders by making them sound as much like the Maccabees as possible.  We know this because we can easily compare the Crusades source with the text of Maccabees and see the deliberate parallels, but for the century after Muhammad, we don't have that.

Another method is to look for archaic language, an example of which I described here.  Qur'anic Arabic is often extremely obscure, and even the 9th and 10th century commentators often admitted they were not sure what some of its words meant.  The Constitution of Medina is also regarded as authentic mostly on those grounds.  There appear to be some authentic letters of Muhammad to people in northwestern Arabia (perhaps supporting Crone's views), though certainly not all the letters attributed to him to people all over the Middle East.  Finally, many, but not all scholars, accept as authentic some letters which a man named Urwa b. al-Zubayr wrote to the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, who came to power in the Muslim civil war of the 680's and reigned until 705.  More on these in a moment.

The other way combined what Gorke actually describes as two.  One is to look at different versions of accounts about Muhammad's which have a common link.  For example, Ibn Ishaq's biography mentioned above is found in recensions by both Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari.  There are some differences, but the idea is that where they match is probably authentic material from Ibn Ishaq.  From this you could then compile a bunch of Ibn Ishaq material, albeit understanding some of the material you rejected as being only in one later source might be authentic, or that where later sources contradict each other someone might have what Ibn Ishaq actually said, or that he might even have changed his mind and the later sources reflect differences between points of his life.

Based on this method, Gorke is one of several scholars who has set about trying to reconstruct the information about Muhammad that was passed on by Urwa b. al-Zubayr.  Who is Urwa b. al-Zubayr?  He was the prophet Muhammad's nephew, the son of a prominent Companion of the Prophet, grandson of the first caliph Abu Bakr, and nephew of Aisha, a daughter of Abu Bakr and Muhammad's youngest wife.  Although himself born about 15-20 years after Muhammad died, he obviously had good sources, and himself usually claims to have gotten his information about Muhammad from Aisha.  The idea is that the Urwa b. al-Zubayr corpus can serve as a useful bedrock for reconstructing the Muhammad of history.

This method gets criticized.  For one thing, the isnads involving Urwa might be forged.  Urwa may have handed down incorrect information, either deliberately for personal or political reasons or accidentally.  Even if he reliably transmitted from Aisha and others who knew Muhammad, human memory is often unreliable, seeing early events through the prism of later developments and moods.  Nonetheless, it strikes me as the most promising direction currently undertaken in the field.  Tomorrow, I'll post about the conclusions these scholars have drawn.

UPDATE: I wound up writing three posts on this: I, II, and III.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Suleyman Shah's Tomb

Turkey controls a tiny exclave about 20 miles south of its border, an exclave around the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Osman, consider the first Ottoman ruler.  Ishaan Tharoor writes about how it matters today:
So potent was the symbolism of this Ottoman ancestor's tomb that the new Turkish republic concluded an agreement in 1921 with France, then Syria's colonial ruler, guaranteeing Ankara's ownership over the site. Since at least the 1970s, when the tomb was relocated following the damming of the Euphrates, a Turkish guard has been posted there to protect it.
The arrangement over the tomb, in most circumstances, would be a curious footnote of history. But it now may be at the heart of a battle in one of the more intense fronts of the brutal, three-year-long Syrian civil war. The site is not far from the border city of Kobane, where the extremist fighters of the Islamic State have been advancing on Syrian Kurdish militias. The battles of the past few weeks prompted the single most dramatic refugee exodus of the whole war: a conspicuous moment, given that the conflict has displaced roughly a quarter of all Syrians.
As Syrian Kurdish militias struggle to resist the Islamic State, it's believed that the tomb has been encircled by Islamic State forces and that the Turkish soldiers guarding it have been taken hostage. Details are a bit murky. 
Kurds accuse Turkey of tacitly supporting ISIS in the region, which the Turks vociferously deny.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Unity Government for Gaza

The big news out of Cairo today is that Hamas has agreed to let the Palestinian unity government run the Gaza Strip:
Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah reached an agreement on Thursday by which the unity government run by President Mahmoud Abbas would take "immediate control" of the Gaza Strip, negotiators in Egypt-mediated reconciliation talks told reporters...
The information was confirmed by Azzam Al-Ahmad, the head of the Fatah delegation and Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official based in Cairo.
The Gaza ceasefire struck in August between Israel and the Palestinians included stipulations that the Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, should take over civil administration in Gaza from Hamas...
The talks between the warring factions was also crucial for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, that suffered great devastation in the war with Israel. The Palestinian Authority said in a study reconstruction work would cost $7.8 billion, two and a half times Gaza's gross domestic product.
The linked article provides more details, and situates the Hamas-Fatah talks in the context of upcoming Israel-Palestinian talks for which the Palestinians hope to present a united front.  What stands out, though, is that Hamas is no longer in control of the Gaza Strip. Recall that while this unity government is backed by Hamas, in practice, it is dominated by Fatah, and Hamas is probably driven to go along with this Fatah domination because of its international isolation after losing Syrian support and being cracked down on by the Sisi government in Egypt.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Dogs of Cairo

Some of the most fascinating recent research in Middle Eastern history has been in the field of environmental history.  I have blogged previously about work on climate change in the region by Sam White and Ronnie Ellenblum, as well as a bit on the wood supplies which sustained Ottoman Egypt, using a work by Alan Mikhail.  Mikhail's most recent book, The Animal in Ottoman Egypt, is a fascinating contribution to the growing field of human/animal relationships.  One of its three broad sections concerns dogs.

Despite the book's title, this section also draws significant material from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital.  It chronicles how, during the early period, there were disputes about whether dogs were pure, based primarily on a Quranic verse and several hadith in which dog saliva was said to be unclean and require washing away.  However, the most common review reflected in written sources from the time quickly came to be positive, noting their intelligence and usefulness, and highlighting the important roles they played in human society as guardians and hunting companions who often in stories sacrificed themselves for humans.

Mikhail demonstrates, through both images and written testimony, that dogs were everywhere in Istanbul and Cairo from the 16th through the 18th centuries.  They roamed the streets in packs, supported by religious endowments and government officials who valued them as consumers of garbage and a defense against rodents.  In addition to special watering troughs and feeding stations, there were laws to protect them from human violence.  Many people kept dogs as guards and carriers.  Religious writings were quoted on the beneficence of dogs for society, including the story that the prophet Muhammad prayed among dogs and a dog guarded the cave of the Seven Sleepers.

After 1800, things changed.  As Mikhail chronicles, this was actually part of a broader change in which animals of all species came to play less of a role as rural laborers, replaced by humans working en masse for other humans on large estates, especially with the rise of mechanization.  As other animals were squeezed out of the labor force, so were dogs.  Improved policing and sanitation removed their guarding and garbage-eating functions.  Dogs instead came to be seen as noisy and uncontrollable disease carriers, and authorities in both Egypt and Istanbul tried to eliminate them.  Religious writings were also quoted on their undesirability.  This radical new anti-canine ideology seems to have taken root among Egyptians within a single generation.  People began attacking them on the streets, and comparing someone to a dog became an insult in ways not previously attested.

Mikhail's book is, of course, not all about dogs.  I have already mentioned the shift by which animals lost their roles in the rural labor force.  In his conclusion, he considers how part of modernity is also the sidelining of certain classes of humans.  Machines can replace some humans as much as machines and humans replaced animals in the past.  Much as animals came to be acceptable only when managed in "useful" contexts, economically and culturally undesirable humans were enclosed in state institutions, such as hospitals for both physical and mental health.  If this is an ongoing process for a couple of centuries now, then where is it leading us?

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Khorasan Group

Recent news reports have mentioned the U.S. targeting the "Khorasan Group."  Aron Lund writes about who exactly they are.  First, the name:
Khorasan is not an organizational name or even some exotic acronym, but an ancient Islamic historical term from the far east of the Muslim world. It is used today by al-Qaeda (and others who are fond of archaic Islamic terminology) to describe the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran region.
This is needlessly obscurantist.  Khorasan is a long-standing geographic term that existed before Islam as the term for the eastern region of the Sasanian Empire.  Today it is the name of Iran's large northeastern province.  Old religious usages have nothing to do with it.  Lund is probably right about this, however:
Whatever one decides to call it, this is not likely to be an independent organization, but rather a network-within-the-network, assigned to deal with specific tasks. Most likely it has no fixed name at all, and the “Khorasan Group” label has simply been invented for convenience by U.S. intelligence or adopted from informal references within the Nusra Front to these men as being, for example, “our brothers from Khorasan.”
Meanwhile, the meat of Lund's explanation:
According to the New York Times, the “Khorasan Group” moniker specifically refers to a small number of al-Qaeda veterans under the leadership of one Muhsin al-Fadhli, who may or may not have been killed in these air strikes, but who was, without a doubt, a high-priority target...
Fadhli, who is a Kuwaiti al-Qaeda veteran has lived in Iran for several years...Fadhli himself apparently relocated to Syria, where U.S. intelligence now believes he heads a small core of elite operatives drawn both from the Nusra Front and the wider al-Qaeda network—what the United States terms the “Khorasan Group.”
Centered in northwestern Syria, Fadhli’s team has joined or attached themselves to al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front franchise, the leadership of which is known to include several such veteran international jihadis (for example, its spokesman Abu Firas al-Souri, a Syrian veteran of the Afghanistan war who lived in Yemen until 2013). However, the Fadhli team is not necessarily fighting frontline battles or spending much time on the Nusra Front’s domestic concerns. Rather, they are alleged to have used the protection provided by the Nusra Front’s fighters to build a capacity for international attacks against the United States and other Western nations, for example by siphoning off some of the Nusra Front’s foreign recruits who have access to Western passports...
In other words, what has emerged around Fadhli is not an organization in its own right, but rather a sort of external operations division within, or on the fringes of, the Nusra Front, probably operating under the direct supervision of Zawahiri’s international al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

ISIS Recruitment in Tajikistan

Here is a bit from Jamestown Foundation on how ISIS is gaining recruits in Tajikistan:
Earlier this month, it was widely reported that the Islamic State had appointed a Tajikistani national to be Amir of Raqqa—the “capital” of the territory under the group’s control (BBC Tajik, September 2). Little is known about the alleged “Tajik Amir.” However, many fear that if the appointment is true, it would be a major propaganda coup in the effort to recruit more Tajikistanis to fight.
Some observers blame the uptick in recruiting on anti-Shia propaganda funded by the Gulf States. Satellite stations such as “Wesal TV” have Persian-language services designed to reach Sunni populations in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. In one video, a popular host, Shaykh Abdul Rahim Mollazadeh, can be seen accusing Iran of propagating Shia thought in Tajikistan, which he denounces as “intellectual cancer and lies” (YouTube, April 19). While Tajikistan’s population is predominantly Sunni, the sectarian identity has become increasingly salient in recent years as evidenced by a high-profile incident of Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, an influential cleric and political figure, who was accused of secretly being a Shia (see EDM, January 12, 2012). 

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Houthis Rise in Sana'a

Over the past few days, members of the Houthi movement in northern Yemen have made their presence felt in the capital of Sana'a, taking over several government installations.  The immediate cause for this was the government's reduction of fuel subsidies, which raised the price of gasoline and perhaps other forms of oil-based energy to consumers.  As broader background, the Houthis have for a decade now represented grievances of the largely Zaydi Shi'ite region of Sa'dah, the economy of which was badly hurt by tightening border controls between Yemen and Saudi Arabia which cut it off from its main markets.  Opponents of the Houthis accuse them of wanting to restore the Zaydi imamate and its privileging of the social class of sayyids, who claim descent from the prophet Muhammad.

Al-Jazeera reports on a deal signed today which may end the fighting:
According to the documents obtained by Al Jazeera about the deal, the president will have to appoint a new government within a month from sealing the deal. Three days after the deal is signed, the president would appoint two advisors, a Houthi and one from the South and also appoint a new prime minister. The deal also stated that a new constitution would be drafted on the basis of consensus...
Broadly, the deal, brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar, would see the government reduce the price of gasoline at the pump to YR3,000 (almost $14), a 25 percent decrease from the YR4,000 ($18) it was raised to in late July (in mid-September, Hadi cut the fuel price to YR,3,500 ($16) but the Houthis have demanded a further decrease). It would also see the current transitional government dissolved and replaced with what Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi saw as a more representative body, and in which the Houthis were given a number of cabinet positions - possibly as many as its biggest rival, al-Islah party, Yemen's Islamist party.
The deal would lead to the formation of a committee to review stalled progress on policies agreed upon at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month series of peace talks held between most of Yemen's major political stakeholders in 2013 and 2014. Another committee would be formed to oversee Houthis' withdrawal from Sanaa, Amran to the north, over which the Houthis consolidated control in July, and al-Jawf, northeast of Sanaa, the bulk of which the Houthis now control after a recent wave of fighting.
Notice the reference to an advisor from southern Yemen.  In important ways, Yemen's current travails stem from the aftermath of the country's 1990 unification, which many in the former South Yemen have come to see as domination by the north.  Both the Houthis and southern secessionists in a movement called al-Hirak have grievances with the corrupt government in Sana'a, which is still run by the circle of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who oversaw unification and ruled the united Yemen until being forced out in the Arab Spring.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Essay on Primary Source Use

Below is an essay assignment from my Spring 2013 "Modern Middle East" course.  It is on Hanan Kholoussy's For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt.



HIS 344: History of the Modern Middle East
Hanan Kholoussy Essay
Due Date: March 27, 2013, Noon (hard copy)
Electronic submission through D2L Dropbox

Consider the following from among the exhortations I am developing as a history professor:

1.)    Amateurs talk about events; professionals talk about sources.
2.)    The production of primary sources is itself part of a historical process.
3.)    A key to being a good historian is to learn all you can about the people who produced your primary sources.
4.)    The best research often involves not just multiple primary sources, but multiple types of primary sources.
5.)    Culture is always both reproduced and redefined in every generation.

In this essay, you are to focus on the author’s use of primary sources more than the topic of the book.  Specifically, you are to write about how the author’s (usually general) knowledge of the people behind these sources, her use of different types of sources, and awareness that they are part of history and not just records thereof contribute to her making her points throughout her book.  This essay must be 4 pages, assuming double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman or a similar font.  Five lines over or under this limit is acceptable.

Criteria for Evaluation

1.)                Proper essay structure
2.)                Solid and/or insightful points which fulfill the assignment
3.)                Clear and effective writing, including well-explained major points with supporting details
4.)                Drawing on examples from throughout the book
5.)                Proper citation of all information in Chicago/Turabian footnotes
6.)                Proper syntax and diction with minimal typos
7.)                Reflections on primary source use inspired by but going beyond what Kholoussy did which forms part of intro or conclusion (optional)

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