Mar 14, 2015

Islam Under the Great Caliphs

A dozen members of the History Book Club met on March 11, 2015 to discuss The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire by Amira K. Bennison. It was a balmy evening -- a welcome change after what seemed a long winter. We were hosted again by the Kensington Row Bookshop; the owner was a gracious host as usual.

The date was the anniversary of the first creation of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1794 by the Continental Congress. The anniversary of the first knowledge based enterprise of what would become the United States of America was a fortuitous time to consider the empire that created libraries of works from Greece, Rome and Persia, added to that knowledge base, and passed the heritage of knowledge on to others.

Here is a review of the book, and here author Bennison talks in a video on the cities of the Abbasid empire.

The discussion opened with a member commenting that Bennison's book described an empire founded by Arab Muslims who exploded out of the Arabian peninsula to rule a huge area. The Caliphates from the 7th to the 13th century ruled a huge area, ranging from the Atlantic coasts of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, into Sub-Saharan Africa, across the Middle East to India, and even down the coast of East Africa. The Caliphates spread Islam where they ruled and they revived trade. In a time when Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages, the Abbasid Empire was translating books from the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, and thus from earlier Greek, Roman, Persian and even Indian sources. These books were copied and distributed, and eventually translated back into Latin and other European languages igniting the Renaissance. We seldom hear about the greatness of Islamic culture at the time, and this book seemed to the member to be a welcome reminder of the accomplishments of the early Muslims/

Another member read an email that had been sent by one who could not attend, as follows:
Although I thought the book had too many names, I thought her coverage of that period of Islam was very interesting. The contributions to western culture were interesting, although not that new. Also, I found the coverage important of the theories of creative and uncreative as intellectual threads in Islam. The importance of different haddit and their role in their culture is also not discussed that much in talking about Islam, just like Talmud and different approaches to it in Judaism is not understood very well. For Moslems it is not just the Koran and for Jews not just the Old Testament. It is not just law in both, but literature, etc. 
She (author Bennison) does tread lightly on any persecution of Jews and Christians in the period she covers. Also, the present day nostalgia for this period of power is not addressed and is part of the issues today. An interesting book but not written in a compelling style; sorry to miss the meeting.

A member chimed in that he had disliked the book as he read the first two of its six chapters, but having read the entire book came to regard it as one of the best books he had ever read. His enthusiasm was due to the breadth of knowledge commanded by its author and shared in this brief book.

Still another member harshly criticized the book. First she found the writing lacking in clarity and elegance, citing examples of torturous sentences and difficult to follow excerpts. Another noted that in this respect the book share a fault found in the writing of many modern professional historians. The book was also criticized for use of many terms drawn from Arabic and unfamiliar to our general audience -- perhaps defined on first appearance, but often unrecognized on a later appearance many pages later. It was suggested that a glossary would have helped.

The Knowledge Survey

An important chapter in the book focused on the translation movement in the Abbasid empire. In this chapter, author Bennison would frequently mention a classical author or an author writing in the period of the Caliphates, and then identify one or more of that author's works. Such references would perhaps be adequate for someone already well acquainted with the authors in question and with their works. However, at least some members of the club found that chapter to be convey little serious knowledge. Yes we learned, that many translations had been done and many books written, including books with new knowledge, but had only the foggiest idea of what was in those books.

The chapter did make the point forcefully that knowledge systems were far more active in the Caliphates than in western Europe at the same time. On the other hand, a member pointed out that the number of writers and scientists a thousand years ago was tiny when compared to the numbers today.

A member mentioned The Book of Roger, described briefly by Bennison. None of the other members was familiar with that title. However, this was a great and famous book by al-Idrisi, a geographer and cartographer -- an Arab who lived in the 12th century. "Roger" was King Roger II of Sicily for whom al-Idrisi created the book. Al-Idrisi is today known as one of the founders of the science of geography.

The Tabula Rogeriana, drawn by al-Idrisi for Roger II of Sicily in 1154
In a similar vein, a member asked who was familiar with al-Farabi, resulting in blank stares. Al-Farabi is salso mentioned in Bennison's book. He was a renowned philosopher who wrote on political philosophy, metaphysics, ethics and logic, as well as a scientist, cosmologist, and a music scholar. Our member had visited the most important university in Kazakhstan -- Almaty's al-Farabi Kazakh National University. (The point being that important thinkers, well known in Islamic countries, are not known in the west, and that Bennison's treatment of this philosopher/scientist did not clarify for us the importance of such an outstanding figure in other parts of the world.)

We noted that early in the Caliphate period, many of the key positions in government were by necessity occupied by Christians and Zoroastrians who had learned the duties of their positions under the previous regimes. It was questioned whether these folk would need translated versions of the books describing their duties. One response was that they might want copies of the books for their own reference (and to share information with others who did not read the languages of the originals). Later in the Caliphate, when there were more Arabic speakers available for government positions, the translations might have been even more necessary; Bennison also mentions that by that later time, non-Arabss had to be fluent in Arabic to get good jobs in government.

We spent some time talking about the efforts in Spain to translate books from the Caliphate libraries into languages that could be understood in Europe, notably Latin and the Spanish dialects. The club some time ago had read The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal. That book had given a description of how Christians, Jews and Muslims living together in Toledo after it had been reconquered by Christians contributed substantially to that work.

Another criticism was made that the book's focus tended to exclude practical technologies. For example, those involved in the long distance trade must have wanted maps and written documents to which they could refer. Thinking of documents from the Egyptian Genizah (which were a treasure trove of texts from the time of the Caliphates) we noted that even if ships captains sailing the Indian ocean did not need great maps and charts, they did use books with information on the exports available and the imports desired at the ports along their routes.

As another example, we noted that there was an extensive water related technology, from canals to qanats. So too, we know that there was water lifting technology used by the ancient Egyptians (see figure on right) which is still in use, and the Archimedes screw was also available technology from ancient times That is still used today. How were these technologies modified and spread? The book is silent on such topics, perhaps because these were not the topics of the educated men of the time, nor of the school of history to which Amira Bennison belongs.

The Religion

A member asked what did "sunna" mean, a term used in the book occasionally but not redefined each time used. That led to a discussion of the felt need by the early Muslims to supplement the Koran by knowledge of the sayings of Mohammed and the practices of Mohammed and the community of believers he gathered around him (the Hadith and the Sunnah) . Thus there was an effort to record such material in the early days of Islam from people with direct knowledge, or from people to whom it had been conveyed by those who heard it from those who were in contact with Mohammed. Eventually there came to be an effort to define canonical versions of these materials, discarding those which were not trusted. This effort seemed to us similar in some ways to the efforts of the early Jews to define canonical texts of their religion and to those of the early Christians to define a canonical New Testament. (The Book of Peter was mentioned as a purported gospel what was rejected.)

Of course, the content of the Koran was completed by Mohammed, and a member pointed out that extreme care was taken in assuring correctness of copies of the Koran, even when it was copied by hand before the development of the printing press. Faulty copies of the book were (and apparently still are) buried in a respectful manner. It was noted that early manuscripts of the old and new Testaments of the bible have been found with errors crossed out; experts studying these corrections have been better able to understand the biblical texts.

A member questioned "just what is the difference between Sunni and Shiite Islam, and among the various sects within those major branches of Islam. We could not answer that question; indeed, one member noted that he could not answer that question for Christian religion, It was suggested that a standard reference be sought, such as this on Wikipedia.

The Aga Khan, is seen by some 15 million Nizari Ismailis as their imam. He is believed by his followers to be the most recent in a continuous line of religious leaders from Mohammed, via Mohammed's son-in-law (married to Fatima) and nephew. A member noted that one of his friends had gone from working in USAID to working in the Aga Khan Foundation, which deals primarily with members of the Ismaili faith. The member reflected on his friend's comment that it was easier to get things done when he had the authority of the imam believed to be in direct line from Mohammed behind him, than when he worked for USAID.

Prejudice Against Non-Muslims

Under the Caliphates, Muslims were especially favored. However, Jews and Christians as "people of the book" were usually accorded privileges not accorded to animist or followers of other faiths. Christians and Jews were required to make a payment to the state, for which they of course benefited from the protection of the state. (Author Bennison states, however, that this payment was comparable to that required of Muslims, who are required by their faith to make charitable donations, but not required under the Caliphates of other people of the book.)

Slavery was institutionalized under the Caliphates, but Islam forbids making Muslims slaves. Thus under the Caliphates, slaves were obtained from the Christian west, or from the non-Muslim north. It was pointed out that there was also a slave trade with Africa. Some years ago the club chose to read The Sultan's Shadow: One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West by Christiane Bird, which describes the Arab slave trade in East Africa, albeit much after the end of the Caliphates. (This book was so admired, that it was chosen by the club a second time.) Slaves were encouraged to convert to Islam, and many did so over time.

The period discussed in the book (from the middle of the 7th century to the middle of the 13th century) was one of tribalism and continuing warfare between tribes. While Mohammed led in the reduction of tribal warfare in the Arabian peninsula and Islam eventually allowed trade to take place by land and by sea over a huge, pacified area, there were incursions by Turkish and Mongol peoples (who eventually converted to Islam). We noted that at this time, Western Europe also saw prejudice and conflict, noting the Normans, Goths, Vandals and other warlike peoples who exemplified prejudice against other peoples.

The Islamic State (IS)

Not surprisingly, the Islamic State came up for discussion in out conversation. One member had circulated a recent report by Cole Bunzel published by the Brookings Institution, and another mentioned a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. Still a third member mentioned a recent edition of a serious magazine published by the believers in the Islamic State; she had previously circulated a link to the edition to club members.

Islamic State Territories
Source: "What ISIS Really Wants", Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, March 2015

While both emphasize jihad and seek to reestablish "a Caliphate", IS is distinguished from Al Qaeda in that it aspires to be a state, holding land and governing while Al Qaeda is a movement seeking to influence policy through international terrorism with members in many countries . Obviously, of the two, the IS is now the more in the news and now the more visibly successful. The IS is described as based on theological arguments promulgated by its founders. The IS jihad targets both apostates to Islam (as it describes them) and unbelievers; it emphasizes jihad against Shiites. While we did not discuss the history of the IS in any detail, it is important to recognize its claim in 2014 that it was the Caliphate.

Why do people volunteer to fight for (and against) the Islamic State. One member, with long experience as a high school guidance counselor mentioned that many young men he counselled told him of their intent to become soldiers; some people really want to become warriors. Other members added that while there are American soldiers who have volunteered to serve seven or more tours of duty in Afghanistan/Iraq, many others serve one tour, go home and then never go into active combat again. American Sniper, the movie, was mentioned as exemplifying a type of American soldier focused on the technical aspects of combat (perhaps not dissimilar to some of the volunteers for the IS); in response it was pointed out that Chris Kyle, the man portrayed in the film, had volunteered to be a Navy seal and a sniper, and had completed very difficult and very effective training for the function he would fulfill. He must be seen as an exception rather than a typical soldier.

A member mentioned that technology is now available at very low cost to produce quality videos and digital documents and that it is easy and cheap to distribute them online. Not only does the IS do so, but so too does the Donetzk People's Republic. We should not infer from such publications that the publishers are large, strong, well financed organizations. Thus the Islamic State may be less than it appears. A member noted that March 9th and 10th, 2015 were the 70th anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo by the U.S. air force in World War II; more than 100,000 people were killed, more indeed than by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The horror of those events put the atrocities of the IS, of which they distribute videos, into perspective.

We diverged into a discussion of the fear that has been generated in the American public by media coverage of admittedly horrible events of violent terrorism, but events that are in the greater scheme of things of no great importance. As a result, the United States sometimes does not focus on more serious problems, such as automobile accidents and gun related deaths, focusing efforts and treasure instead on less dangerous and less pressing problems (e.g. shoe bombers and underwear bombers).

Violent Religions Extremists vs. Muslim Terrorists

One member moved the direction of the discussion by complaining that she did not understand why the members of the IS were seldom described as Muslim terrorists since they clearly were Muslims. There has been a recent effort to focus discussion more on "violent extremists", albeit that many of them profess religious motivation. On the one hand, the vast majority of Muslims clearly are not violent extremists; on the other hand, the relatively recent Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica genocide were committed by violent extremists who were not Muslims. We seemed to agree that violent extremism comes in many forms, and that all forms of violent extremism should be opposed.

We noted that there are many evangelical religions, and extremists professing quite a few of these religions are willing to be violent. Our member recalled as a child being emotionally quite upset by the idea of friends and relatives who she then believed must go to hell since they either refused to join her church (or if members to go to services); another member comments, "but then you grew up". It was noted that Pope Francis (like the leaders of many churches) has emphasized the need for people of different religions to live together in peace.

One member, citing many years working with Muslims in several countries with majority Muslim populations and who had American Muslim friends said that he found the entire discussion of Muslim terrorists at odds with his own experience. He people with whom he had worked tended to be secular in outlook, and were much more interested in promoting peace than in encouraging conflict.

Final Comments

This was quite a lively discussion, one that seemed to involve most of the club members who were present. While there were complaints about the book, it seemed that there was agreement that the author was well informed and that the topic was worthy of our attention. Americans probably should reflect more about that "golden age of Islam" and the dept that we owe however indirectly the contributions made to world heritage under the Abbasid, Umayyad and Fatimad Caliphates.

One of the members has posted comments on the book on his blog:
There were several recommendations and announcements of events at the meeting, including:


  1. A member wrote:
    "I wanted to recommend and strongly urge you to read Bernard Lewis' "The Crisis of Islam, Holy War and Unholy Terror". It is a very short book (164 pp.) and very easy to read. It took me a couple of hours. Although it is not new (2003), it is historical, through 9/11, so it doesn't feel dated. It does a great deal to explain the current situation and the widely different mind sets that are in operation. I am not recommending this as an HBC selection, but should be required reading for individuals."

  2. From another member:
    Here is a counter article to the Atlantic piece which I think misinterprets the point that is being made in the Atlantic article:

    Here is Fareed Zakaria's column in the Post, which generally agrees with the Atlantic piece.

  3. Following up on a couple of things from last night's discussion;

    "The post–World War II conflict data offer compelling evidence that both the decline in the number and deadliness of wars are real. The 2000s are indeed relatively peaceful compared with previous decades."

    Secretary of State Kerry tries to explain US strategy with respect to ISIS to Senator Rubio.

  4. "Guess what? More people are living in peace now. Just look at the numbers" by Steven Pinker in The Guardian, 20 March 2015