The blood on brown hands is a legacy of all of history

Yesterday I put up a tweet which went a bit viral (I won’t embed since it has a vulgarity). It was the result of my frustration with a very liberal Indian American who was using unfortunate tensions in the Indian subcontinent to attack “white supremacy.” My frustration was due to the reality that a major conflict between India and Pakistan would not just impact India and Pakistan, though that is dire enough. In a globalized world, a war involving the world’s fifth largest economy, situated athwart the southern flank of Asia, would impact many people outside of the subcontinent. In the midst of this, the fact that someone was using this to promote their own ideological hobbyhorse was offensive to me.

But the construct of “white supremacy” was presented specifically in the context of a particular history with the British. That is, British policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries laid the seedbeds of conflict between Hindus and Muslims, along with the tortured borders of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. This is a complicated issue. It is simply manifestly true that the British administered most of the Indian subcontinent from the beginning of the 19th century down to 1947, to various degrees. And, the British were at the center of defining and delineating the borders and divisions which frame the current tensions within the Indian subcontinent.

And yet, the reality is that I believe all these were contingent. That is, imagine an alternative history where the Sepoy Mutiny succeeded in winning independence for several states within the subcontinent, even if the British also retained some of their territories. Presumably, when the British receded, more independent states would emerge. Would the subcontinent be one of amity and low tension, with the much milder historical footprint of the British? In such a timeline the Amritsar Massacre may never have happened (I presume the British would be more likely to retrench to the coastal areas to the east, south, and southwest).

I don’t believe that that is so. Since I am not Pakistani I did not know what the “Two-Nation Theory” (TNT) was before I ran the Brown Pundits weblog. Basically, this is the idea that the Indian subcontinent has within it two religious nations, the Hindu and Muslim. This is not a theological assertion as much as an ethno-sectarian one. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was not a devout Muslim. His personal mores were more that of an upper-class Brit (he enjoyed his whiskey). But, his ethnocultural identity was clearly that of an upper-class Muslim. As a lawyer, he defended a man who killed a Hindu who the man believed had blasphemed against Islam. Jinnah’s defense was motivated by his communal loyalty. Even if he himself was not pious, the offense was against the Muslim nation, and he stood with the Muslim nation.

This highlights the fact that the 1947 partition was not driven by the all-powerful British, but also native Indian groups. Though the British, as imperial rulers, implemented the specifics, the underlying demand was from the Muslim League, with the tacit acceptance of many Hindus who were happy to remove a substantial proportion of the subcontinent’s non-Hindu population into another state (some extremely religious fundamentalist Muslims actually opposed partition, since their goal was to convert the whole subcontinent, for which a united India would have been more efficient!).

If you had asked me at a younger age my unconsidered opinion would have been that India should have stayed united to avert the bloodiness of the partition, whose death toll is estimated from the hundreds of thousands to millions. But upon further reflection and thought, I think the TNT captures the essential fact that the Muslim upper-class of Northern India would never be able to reconcile itself well with secondary status within the state, and, with ~25% of the population being Muslim, would always have a huge vote bank so that they could not be ignored. Perhaps a confessional state with a divided balance of power such as Lebanon could have been attempted, but I doubt the Lebanese solution would scale to a polity which covered the whole Indian subcontinent. A more feasible scenario might be a confederation.

The separation of East Pakistan, what became Bangladesh, within a generation of the partition, actually proves to me the point about the Muslim upper-class of Northern India and its general attitude toward power-sharing. Though the Muslim League was quite successful in East Bengal before the partition due to the salience of religious divisions in the region, with the emergence of a Pakistani state the party became the instrument of an elite whose cultural focus was on the northwest of the subcontinent. These were people who saw themselves, quite often genealogically in a valid sense, to be heirs to the Mughal tradition. They dreamed of the time when they had been part of the dominant ruling class (albeit, often subordinate to Turks and Persians).

This was quite separate from the Muslim Bengali identity, which existed more at an equipoise between an Islamic self-consciousness and a Bengali one, which connected them culturally in a deep sense to the Hindu Bengalis who resided across the border in India. The Muslim elite of West Pakistan saw the Bengalis of East Pakistan, even when Muslim as the majority were, to be a culturally and racially inferior group. Culturally inferior because of their embrace of a Bengali high culture which was originally pioneered by Hindus such as Rabindranath Tagore, and racially inferior because they were a smaller and darker-skinned people, who could clearly not make the pretensions toward non-Indian West Asian ancestry common among the post-Mughal Muslim elite.

Now, imagine this same elite having to deal with the Hindu elites of a united India!

What this shows is that the cleavages that exploded into violence in 1947 with the partition were long pregnant within India, before the British ever arrived. The reason I have no patience for the constant indictments of the British is that South Asian elites had their own agency, and their own history, long before the British became the major power in the subcontinent, and retained that agency after. First, one has to remember that the British domination of the subcontinent in a sense we’d recognize it probably dates to the defeat of the Marathas in the Second Anglo-Maratha War of the early 19th century. This puts British rule across much of the subcontinent at 150 years, and even then many of the Princely States administered themselves.

Obviously, India has a history before the British period and that history as preserved and maintained amongst its ruling elements continued down into the British Raj and reemerged after the independence of India and Pakistan. From the period after the emergence of the Delhi Sultanate in ~1200 to the decay of Mughal power in the early 18th century, Turkic conquest elites espousing the faith of Islam were the dominant ruling class of South Asia.

To be sure, not all of them were Turkic. Many were Iranian, Afghan, or Arab, and some were slaves from the Caucasus and Africa. But all of them were swept up in the invasion of the Indian subcontinent driven by Central Asian Turks. This is not exceptional to India, Turkic military elites were often the ruling class of Iran (e.g., the Safavids and Qajars) and many parts of the Arab Near East after 1000 AD. Once in India, the Turks transplanted their Central Asian civilization as best as they could on the very different soil of the subcontinent. A migration of Persians, and even some Arabs such as Ibn Battuta, occurred so as to allow the development of a fully-functioning Islamic civilization co-located within a landscape dominated by diverse Indian traditions that we would today call Hindu (which was at that time was just the generic term for Indian).

Ibn Battuta, in particular, illustrates the fact that within India a whole Muslim world had been transplanted which nevertheless remained not of India, as his own reflections are that of a Muslim moving through Muslim lands, not an Arab in a non-Muslim territory.

The imperialist nature of the conquest dynasties should not be underemphasized. Because of its size and population density, India was attractive to rent-seekers and fortune-hunters. Like the Mongol rule in China, the dominance of a Muslim military elite within India culturally and ideologically distant from the local Brahmin elite opened up an opportunity for West Asians to find favor at court. Ayatollah Khomeini’s paternal grandfather was born in the Indian city of Lucknow. His own ancestors had been invited by the rulers of the region, who were migrants from Nishapur in Iran. Khomeini’s grandfather’s Persian ancestors had left Nishapur and settled in India to receive the patronage and provide service to the rulers who were Shia Muslims of Persian origin such as themselves.

These enclaves of Muslims with recent foreign ancestry have given rise to the ashraf quasi-caste. In White Mughals the author asserts that just as a poor European noble might marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant, so ashraf of pure blood could elevate the lineage of prosperous native stock Indian Muslims.

This digression is to emphasize how the Islamic civilization of South Asia was to some extent a West and Central Asian society intercalated with indigenous elements. The court language of the Mughals, who were in their paternal lineage Timurid arrivistes from Central Asia, was Persian. The camp language was Turki. There were centuries of migration of West and Central Asians into Islamic courts and camps in South Asia that connected India with the Muslim regions to the west and northwest. The non-Indian pretentions of upper-class Muslims from the northwest of the subcontinent are not totally off base. To be sure, the reality is that the vast majority of the ancestry of modern-day South Asian Muslims, even those from the northwest, is indigenous.

Though South Asia remained an overwhelmingly non-Muslim domain, rather early on Islam took on something of the patina of an imperial religion due to the dominance of Muslim military elites. To give an example, in the early 1400s a certain Raja Ganesha, a Hindu, usurped rule in Bengal (which had been under a Turkic dynasty). One concession that mollified Muslim elites toward this usurpation was that he agreed that his son would become a Muslim. And so he did so that Raja Ganesha’s son and grandson ruled Bengal as Muslims. To me, this is reminiscent of the selection of Eugenius as a puppet of the pagan general Arbogast in the West Roman Empire in the late 4th century. Though Eugenius was tolerant toward pagans, he was a Christian. The norm of a Christian ruler of the Roman Empire had already been established by the 390s, even though Christians were only a minority of the population at this time. The Emperor was a Christian ruler of a pagan Empire.

The existence of Islam as an imperial religion resulted in the emergence of an “Islamicate” civilization. Though Rajputs and Pandits remained devout Hindus, they emulated aspects of the elite culture of the Muslims whom they served as vassals or courtiers. Eventually, Muslims of a more native Indian background also came to the fore. Though the powerful ruler of 18th century Mysore, Tipu Sultan, claimed distant West Asian ancestry, the realistic depictions of his features indicate he is clearly an Indian and the descendant of converts to Islam. The Mughal Emperor Akbar exhibits his Turco-Mongol and Persian heritage in his features, while his grandson Shah Jahan looks like the Rajput Indian that three of his four grandparents were. And yet Shah Jahan was a Muslim Mughal prince in culture, and a proud Timurid who wed the daughter of Persian migrants, even if three of his four grandparents were Hindu.

Though any objective analysis shows that the Muslims of South Asia are overwhelming of indigenous ancestry, the cultural and historical imprint of West Asia is indelible upon them, in particular among certain elements of the elite of the northern cities. Their appearance, food, and language, tie them to South Asia. But their religious commitments and romantic attachment to a greater Islamic civilization pull them west.

But of course, there were other people in South Asia. Today we call them Hindus, but that used to be the term for an inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent more generally. Hinduism encompasses a wide range of traditions, from local folk religion to the elite philosophical schools. Perhaps the two things that define Indians, and Hindus, to outsiders are karma and caste. As in Iran the conquest of India did result in some synthesis between the intrusive element, and the native substrate. In the Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author argues that the rule of the region by Turkic and Afghan Muslims without investment in Sanskrit allowed for the emergence of a native Bengali linguistic tradition. Meanwhile, in Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, the author argues that before the assertion of orthodoxy during the Mughal period, many ethno-religious groups in South Asia were liminal to both Islam and Hinduism. The Meo community may be a relic which reflects some of the sub-elite and peasant practices which have vanished.

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Salman Rushdie and me, 30 years on

Salman Rushdie with Bernie Sanders, 2004

Readers of this weblog know that I have a peculiar relationship to the Salman Rushdie controversy in the late 1980s. When I first heard the name “Salman Rushdie” and book called The Satanic Verses I was by chance not in the United States. I happened to be spending my winter vacation in Bangladesh and was in a rural area of Comilla (near the eastern border with India) traveling with family, visiting shrines dedicated to Sufi ancestors of mine and such. To be frank, I was already skeptical of religion by that point, having realized years ago that people believed in supernatural beings in a deep and intuitive way that I never had. But, my cultural identity still remained nominally Muslim.

Somehow, in rural Bangladesh, word had gotten out that a writer of Indian and Muslim origin, and British national background, had written a blasphemous novel. A group of religious students approached my uncle, who was traveling with us, to have us “translate” some leaflets that were printed in English that they had gotten their hands on. My late uncle was by training a geologist, but his primary focus in life was as a member of the Tablighi Jamaat. These students trusted my uncle immediately and knew that we, his nephews, could speak English. But the pamphlets contained material that was totally inappropriate for children. I remember specifically lines to the effect that “Salman Rushdie claims that Muhammad’s wives and daughters were whores.” To be frank, I did not know the word for “whore” in Bengali, and I did not want to talk about the sexually explicit material that was printed in the leaflet in any case.

The reason I am telling you this is that some of the anger toward Rushdie can be explained by the simple fact that many of the angry people did not read The Satanic Verses, but like me, no doubt heard graphic and false descriptions of the material.

With some hindsight, this incident in the late 1980s illustrates the viral power of propaganda and lies. By the end of the process what Rushdie had written was immaterial. The truth was less important than the cause, and the cause was defending the honor of Islam against an irtidad.

To be entirely honest, the “truth being less important than the cause” is something that is much more prominent in public life from what I can tell today than it was then. When I went back to the United States our class had a discussion about the issue, and my very liberal teacher (she was a major supporter of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988) took a straightforward position in defense of free speech, despite the fact two of her students (myself and Egyptian boy) were from Muslim backgrounds. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, some American and European writers temporized. That is our age.

The creation of Islam in Late Antiquity

Periodically people ask me my opinion of Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. I don’t have an opinion because I haven’t read it. Many years ago I took an interest in the topic of Islamic revisionism, and from what I can tell the field hasn’t moved that much in terms of clarity. Rather, Holland’s project in the book has been to repackage it for lay audiences.

Basically, it seems Holland wants to do to Islam what has happened to Christianity over the past few centuries in the West: turn it into a natural phenomenon and not part of the numen of the cosmos. Though a fair number of traditionalist Christian believers exist, many people who say they are Christians are often quite aware of revisionist theories about their religion. It’s not taboo or shocking. It’s just the norm.

Consider Candida Moss’s book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Moss is a Roman Catholic, who published The Myth of Persecution while a professor of the New Testament at Roman Catholic Notre Dame University. As the title indicates Moss challenges one of the foundational beliefs about the rise of early Christianity: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed  of the Church.” And yet she remains identified as a Christian, a professor of the New Testament.

Most educated Christians are probably vaguely aware that the four gospels were written between 70 AD and 100 AD. And, because of the Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code many people are aware that the development of early Christianity was to some extent a cumulative process (even though Brown’s description is totally off base).

Before the 19th century, most Christians did not even comprehend that their religion could be viewed in such a critical-rationalist manner. They were not necessarily “fundamentalists” as we would understand them. Some apologists for Catholicism arguing against early scripturalist Reformers even pointed out inconsistencies within the Bible to illustrate the futility of sola scriptura. But, Christians accepted their traditions and beliefs in a relatively innocent manner (though the debunking of the Donation of Constantine occurred rather early).

The vast majority of Muslims today are where Christians were several centuries ago. Even liberal Muslims, or atheists from a Muslim background, tend to accept the traditional view as the view which they reject piecemeal or in totality. As for as the origins and rise of Islam and the Arab empires, Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests lays out the traditional received model.

Kennedy’s book focuses on the Umayyads, the first hereditary dynasty of the Islamic world (an earlier book was on the Abbasids-When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World).  Kennedy does not write from the perspective of a Muslim historian, but a Western historian who takes the Muslim sources at face value (he acknowledges in the introduction that there is a revisionist view, though that is not his book).

The story is a simple one. Muhammad founds a new monotheistic religion in pagan Arabia, and after his death in 632 the tribes united in the faith explode out of their desolate peninsula. In 636 these forces defeat both the Romans and the Persians. Within a few decades the Muslims rule a vast swath of territory, and in 661 the Umayyad dynasty is inaugurated with the reign of Muawiya I, who reputation and fame would likely be greater if history had not been written by the enemies of his dynasty. One of the reasons that the Umayyads have a low reputation is that their interpretation of Islam was closely tied to their Arab tribal identity. Their religion was not quite the trans-ethnic one that would flourish under the Abbasids. Some Islamic scholars even called the Umayyads the “Arab Kingdom” (the title “king” is considered un-Islamic).

What is the revisionist story that Holland wants to tell?  The outline is simple: in the first two generations after the Arab conquest, the Arabs were not Muslims as we, or they, would understand it. Holland specifically seems to believe that Islam as a religious ideology that bounds together the Arab ruling class of the Umayyad domains crystallized during the reign of Abd al-Malik in the 680s AD. This is fifty years after the death of Muhammed, and nearly four decades after the conquest of the Near East and Persia.

There are is a lot more to what Holland believes went down. To get a good sense, watch his 2012 documentary on Youtube.

Do I believe it? Obviously, I don’t believe that Muhammad is a prophet of God, since I don’t believe in God. But, that doesn’t mean that Muhammad didn’t think he was a prophet of God and that his followers were insincere. The rise of Islam is a fundamentally material affair. There is no magic. That would come later with Sufi saints with miraculous powers.

One reason we can have this debate is that the sources are sparse and vague. This may sound strange to say, but as an example, we have very little written records that come down from pre-Islamic Persia. For our knowledge of the ancient and early medieval world we are faced with three major periods of massive literary production: in Baghdad in the 9th century, under Charlemagne in the 9th, in Constantinople in the 10th. The 7th century was a period of stress and deprivation in the East Roman Empire, as it lost massive territory to the Arabs. But one thing that seems clear is that these East Romans did not have a clear sense of the Arabs as practitioners of a new world religion that was not Christian. They were clear that they were ethnic Arabs, but not clear that they were anything but heretics or some sort.

The sparsity of “non-traditional” sources means that revisionists have to engage in deep philological analysis of the extant sources, an enterprise which is beyond the ken of non-specialists to evaluate. I have no strong opinions on whether Muhammad existed or not. Nor am I sure that Mecca and Medina as holy sites were later additions to the history of Islam (revisionists tend to believe that the Arabs emerged out of the Syrian desert, not from further south). I suspect in a lot of the details Holland is incorrect. But I do not think that the orthodox view is correct in the details either.

The Late Antique world was not as neatly sectarian as we might imagine. It was messily sectarian. The advance of Islam in the domains under the rule of the Arab Caliphates was uneven. Substantial regions of Iran proper remained under the rule of Zoroastrian kings as late as the 9th century, and Muslims were probably not a majority in Iran until the 10th century.

The Levant and Mesopotamia had a Christian majority for centuries under the rule of the Umayyads and Abbasids. In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown claims that Islamicization in the Near East was associated with Arabicization. That is, once Christian populations switched to Arabic as their everyday language, conversion to Islam became much more feasible.

But knowing what we know about other religions it seems implausible to me that Islamic emerged out of the desert in the fully formed manner that Muslim tradition implies. The rise of Christianity is a clear case of debates, arguments, and gradual rough consensus over a period of decades and later centuries. When it comes to younger religions such as that of the Bahai or Mormonism, we can see in “real time” how religions can evolve after the death of their founders. The Bahai religion has its roots in Shia revivalism, but eventually, it transformed itself into a post-Muslim world religion. Though Mormons retain a Christian identity, their theology is extremely exotic in comparison to the Christian mainstream.

The Umayyad positive attitudes toward Late Antique Hellenism and their total co-option of the East Roman system is suggestive of a barbarian conquest elite, not an ideologically motivated one. The Rashidun period and the life of Muhammad may always be mysteries to us, but they almost certainly do point to unlikely events in the Arabian Peninsula (or its liminal zone) which resulted in the military mobilization of Arabs bent on conquest. Islam’s emergence in a form more recognizable to us in the late 7th century may have been an inevitable result of declining cohesion of the Arab conquest elite, and the necessity of an ideology to bind them together, along with notables from conquered populations.

And of course, we know that the 8th and 9th centuries saw the transformation of Islam in a deeper and more thoroughgoing manner, with the shift to the east of the Abbassids and the emergence of the ulema class and the marginalizations of philosophy. But that needed the ideology of empire, and that ideology did not emerge de novo from the desert. Islam did not create an empire, the empire necessitated the precipitation of Islam.

Muslims are not a People of the Book


Recently I became a patron of the Secular Jihadists podcast. Ten years ago this wouldn’t be a big deal, but as a “grown-up” with three kids I’m much more careful to where I expend my discretionary income. So take that as a stronger endorsement than usual. I think Secular Jihadists is offering a nonsubstitutable good today. By which I mean a robust, but not cliched or hackneyed, critique of the religion of Islam. For various reasons the modern-day cultural Left has become operationally Islamophilic in public, while the political Right isn’t really too concerned with details of fact and nuance when they level critiques against Islam.

On this week’s episode, the hosts talked about the life of Muhammad, focusing some of the rather unpalatable aspects of his biographies as they’ve been passed down in tradition (in the Hadiths), or as can be found in the Koran. Armin Navabi points out that the prophet of Islam married Safiyya bint Huyeiy Ibn Akhtab on the day her father and husband were killed by his forces. Therefore Navabi’s interpretation, which is entirely in keeping with our modern values, is that Muhammad raped a woman on the day her father and husband were killed.

Of course, this behavior is not shocking in the pre-modern world. In the Illiad Hector’s widow, Andromache, eventually becomes the concubine of Neoptolemus. He is the son of Achilles, who killed Hector. And, in many traditions, Neoptolemus is the one who kills Andromache’s infant son by Hector, Astyanax. Eventually, the son of Neoptolemus by Andromache inherits his kingdom.

Obviously, the Illiad plays things up for drama, but I think it correctly reflects the values of a pre-modern tribal society. One of my favorite books is Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Like the Illiad, the Hebrew Bible has within it stories that reflect values of pre-modern societies very different from ours. Moses, like Muhammad, was a military and political leader as well as a religious prophet, and so it is entirely unsurprising that he was a participant in and director of what we would today term war crimes.

The question from the perspective of the hosts of the Secular Jihadists podcast is how Muslims will react to the fact that in the Koran itself, which most Muslims take to be the literal recitation of the words of God through Muhammad, documents the founder of the religion engaging in sex and war crimes. I think the truth though is that most Muslims won’t be very impacted by these revelations, because for most Muslims Islam is not reducible to the revelation within the Koran.

“Higher religions” tend to have scriptures and texts which serve as the scaffold for their intellectual superstructure. But most people who believe in these religions never read these texts. That’s because most people don’t read much, period. The organized institutional and multi-ethnic religions which have emerged over the last 3,000 years have a complex division of labor among the producers of religious “goods and services”, as well as among the consumers and identifiers. A minority are highly intellectualized, and these are the types who will record the history of the religion.

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On the instrumental uses of Arabic science

A new piece in Aeon, Forging Islamic science: Fake miniatures depicting Islamic science have found their way into the most august of libraries and history books. How? is quite rich food for thought. The nuts & bolts of the story are interesting enough, but perhaps the bigger picture is the emergence of (to borrow a phrase) “the idea of Islamic science.”

On the most general level, the spread of these obvious fakes is a matter of the epidemiology of ideas. Basically, the ubiquity of these fakes is like the spread of chain letters or viruses which hack our cognitive biases. By analogy, consider the fondness for Qing China exhibited by some early modern European thinkers, such as Leibniz and Voltaire. With hindsight, it is clear that their affection for Chinese civilization was a reflection more upon their critique and aspiration of their own civilization. For Leibniz, bureaucratic rationalism, and Voltaire, secular humanism.

Centuries on their Sinophilia is of academic interest as a fragment of cultural history which brings into salience particular currents which bubbled up during the period of both European modernization and development vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and the last contact that European civilization made with a powerful and self-assured alien civilization, that of China under the Kangxi Emperor, Yongzheng Emperor, and Qianlong Emperor. If you want to understand China during this period, its culture and politics, then these early modern thinkers are not the ones to consult. Their opinions and views on China shed more light on currents in their own culture than the reality in China.

A similar thing happened to Islam and Islamic civilization after the 18th century.  As Western civilization was secularizing some intellectuals pointed to the world of Islam as evidence that some tolerance of pluralism would be sustainable and preferable. What is being alluded to here is the system of formalized tolerance of the “People of the Book”, dhimmis, within Islam from its earliest period. But the highlighting of the Muslim alternative was less about Muslims and more about the reality of a post-Reformation early modern Europe riven by sectarian pluralism, as well as incipient secularization of a substantial numbers of intellectuals who began to perceive themselves as dissenters from the regnant orthodoxy as a class.

There is a scholarly study that engages in the exploration of the development and crystallization of the Muslim system of tolerance of religious minorities. That scholarship plumbs into the depths of the early formalization of Islam as a distinctive confession and civilization, and its roots (including the tolerance of dhimmis) in Byzantine and Sassanian practice. But when most people speak of the tolerance of early Islam in the West, they are speaking about and engaging issues related to the West, not Islam, which is simply a tool or instrument in an argument particular to factions within the West.

Going back to this specific issue, the fabrication of the depiction of “Islamic science,” there is a particular social and cultural context in the West that needs to be highlighted (as opposed to the Muslim world, which is a somewhat different dynamic, and analogous to the rise of Vedic science). Early modern secular intellectuals who contrasted the intolerance of Christian civilization to the relative tolerance of Islamic civilization were working implicitly within a modernist framework where objective truth would eventually pave the way for a universal civilization which would evolve out of the post-Christian West. This attitude is exemplified by the liberal French nobleman, Stanislas Marie Adélaïde, comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, who when arguing for removing various restrictions on Jews declared “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”

These modernist conceits of clear and distinct universal truths and moralities leading to a common human ethos have fallen by the wayside. Rather, today many who espouse multiculturalist viewpoints are careful not to aver that one culture is superior or more advanced than another. This assumption means that today many reject a progressive and Whiggish view of history which implicitly highlights Western exceptionalism between 1700 and the current age.

These people may not be comfortable with the assertion that the form of intellectual inquiry that emerged out of Renaissance natural philosophy that we today call science is sui generis. A particular expression of the genius of Western civilization. Rather, what it is appealing toward many with a multiculturalist viewpoint, where all cultures have notionally similar ethical values, is that all cultures produce their own form of science, just as valuable, exceptional, and illustrative of universal human genius.

With Islam and science anyone with superficial interest in the topic can be easily convinced of the genius of individuals such as Ibn Sina. If the the great Bukharan polymath had been born today it would not be surprising if perhaps he became a scholar of some renown. But the reality is that most of the people who will tell you that Islam once had great scientists could not name a single scientist of pre-modern Islam. Just as with Voltaire and the Chinese, modern Western intellectuals who have moved beyond Whiggishness and naive modernism see in other cultures something that serves to critique and comment on their own. The legend of Islamic science is an instrument, a tool, in a particular deconstruction of the “myth” of Western science.

A curious aspect of this viewpoint, which is in some ways highly relativistic in relation to epistemology (“other ways of knowing”), is that it is also highly universalistic in ethics. Other cultures are shoehorned into frameworks and paradigms of Western making, particular mirrors through which all are seen darkly.

This is the same observation that could be made of early modern Whiggishness, where all cultures are seen as ascending slowly up a ladder of complexity and progress, with Northwest Europe in particular leading the way. Whigs viewed history in a linear fashion, and all societies could be placed along the sequence.

So what’s the multiculturalist/progressive/post-modern analog? It is common today in progressive Western circles to strive toward radical gender, sexual, and ethnoreligious egalitarianism. Justice. Many a time I have seen that patriarchy or sexual traditionalism are presumed to be colonial (white, Western) impositions on other societies. Western Muslims of a progressive bent may even assert that Islam is fundamentally and originally feminist and egalitarian. Hindu progressives likewise may highlight the depictions of sex acts Khajuraho temple complex as indicative of a liberal and tolerant attitude toward these matters before the arrival of the British, who introduced conservative bourgeois morals (note that often the terminology itself points to the operation of these individuals in a very Western tradition).

Nearly two hundred years ago the British Whigh politician Thomas Macaulay declared:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

Today progressive Westerners would never say such a thing. In part, because they would never assert that the West, and its culture, was in any way superior to that of the non-West. On the contrary, the tacit assumption might be that it was the West which manufactured and perfected the modes of oppression which spread across the world and caused human misery. With decolonization and the recession of Western imperialism, one would then see a diminishment of oppression and presumably human misery.

The difference between a 19th century liberal such as Thomas Macaulay is that whereas he perceived that the Indians would have to change their morals and develop their intellects to ever be equal to the English, today his progressive counterpart fundamentally assumes that the natural state of humanity was one of moral and intellectual equivalence. That is, oppression, the subjugation of women and minorities, the “marginalized”, was invented by Western Europeans, and imposed on non-Europeans. It is Western colonialists who brought the sin of oppression into the garden. They were responsible for the fall from ethical perfection, the stage of original grace.

Non-Europeans do differ from Europeans, but only in matters of detail, outward dress, food, and architecture. Accidents. But in matters of essence, there is no difference at all.

This conceit leads to all sorts of confusions.

After purchasing his papers, John Maynard Keynes declared Isaac Newton “was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians.” One can not deny that Isaac Newton was a genius, invariant of the age. Nor can one deny his scientific contributions, which modern undergraduates doing any scientific course of study must master to some extent. But the world of Isaac Newton was a different world, where witches were still burned, and men and women in the British Isles could still be executed for atheism. People did science, but not quite in the modern way. People were religious, but not quite in the modern way. There is a gap between 1700 and 2000.

Similarly, the ancient Greeks did science. But it was different from modern science, which is contingent on a sequence of events which are rooted in the latter Rennaissance. Did the Muslims of the “Islamic Golden Age” do science? I would say so. But like the Greeks, it was different from what came later (one could say the same of the “Aristotelian Renaissance”).

One must take the history of different cultures on their own terms, and understand them in the broad scope of human history. Theories are useful, but only in concert with a genuine engagement of the empirical record. Whigs and Marxists had theories, which grasped at essential fragments of reality but often obscured critical detail. There is a particular type of fashionable intellectual today who claims to eschew theory and focus on “thick description,” who nevertheless sneaks a particular theory of history through the back door, a variant of the “Noble Savage.”

In particular relation to “Islamic science,” there is some interesting detail in the texture of reality that is exposed when we attempt to understand it on its own terms. One thing which jumps out at you is that since most people are not particularly interested in the details, the terminology you use matters a great deal. Usually, we are focusing on the period between 750 A.D. and sometime around 1000 A.D. Now, when you use the term “Islamic Golden Age” or “Islamic science,” you obscure the reality that many prominent intellectuals during this period were not Muslim.

For example, Thabit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, which referred to the pre-Islamic and pre-Christian inhabitants of the city of Harran. The natives of Harran seem to have preserved religious traditions from Mesopotamian antiquity, in particular, astral cults. Additionally, they were also preservers and connoisseurs of Greek philosophical thought.

Though Sabians were exotic, Christians were dominant features of the scene during the early years of Islam and were instrumental in translation and preservation. In the Aeon piece, the author suggests that it should be called “Arab science” as opposed to “Islamic science.” But among the Muslims, most of the great thinkers were Iranians. That is Persians, or from related peoples. It is true that they wrote in Arabic, but Arabs were only a minority of the subjects of the Arab Caliphates before 1000 A.D. One reason Al-Kindi is exceptional is he was an Arab of the Arabs. A scion of an Arab tribe, with a lineage rooted in that ethnicity before Islam.

Matthew Cobb, an evolutionary biologist, uses the term “Arabic science” in his work to avoid these confusions. This reflects the fact that Arabic was the medium of communication between these scholars, irrespective of religion and ethnicity. In this way, it’s analogous to “Latin science,” which is probably a good term for the intellectual tradition which flourished in Western European during the Aristotelian Renaissance, and later on into the early modern period.

The universal moral of the story is that understanding history, and intellectual history, in particular, is hard. One must balance between commensurable universality and startlingly different local particularity. What is easy is co-opting and hijacking the shape of reality for one’s own ideological preferences. Humans are natural system-builders, theoretical thinkers. The reason being that systems allow one to come to conclusions without doing much research. Logical inference from presuppositions takes more mental effort than an intuitive reflex. But, it takes far less effort that researching the abyss of data from which one can make robust and genuine inferences, and test one’s theoretical reflexes.

But that journey is rewarding. Because it leads to understanding other peoples as ends unto themselves, rather than instruments.

The Quran as a collective human enterprise


When people ask about my religion I usually just say I’m an atheist and I have no religion. If they continue, I usually give them what they want, and state my parents are Muslim, or I am from a Muslim background (most of the time the people asking for what it’s worth are themselves Muslims, or from a Muslim background, or, not American). I never say that I used to be a Muslim because that’s really not true.

This is a major way I’m very different from those who come from a similar background. Not only did I not believe in religion, unlike many people from a Muslim background, I never grew up in a Muslim milieu. Though my parents are moderately observant Muslims (e.g., though they don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, my mother does not wear a headscarf nor has my father ever grown a beard), they were never involved in the “Muslim community.” We went to the mosque on special holidays, and that was the extent of our participation in “organized religion.” Any religious instruction I had was from my father, who mostly did this when he felt guilty because a mutual acquaintance would comment on the religious ignorance of his children.

Both my parents come from rather religious families in a traditional sense. As my paternal grandfather was an ulem, all of his children, including my father, received extremely thorough religious educations. My mother has a brother who is an ulem, and her maternal grandfather was a very prominent ulem, whose lineage was involved in the Islamicization* of the peasantry in parts of Comilla and Noakhali in the 19th century.

When I say that my parents come from religious families in a “traditional sense,” I mean that neither of them come from families where people have to be “born again” to practice Islam. Rather, they were part of the tradition of middle and upper-class Sunni Muslims who adhered to and espoused a form of religious orthodoxy which was geographically broad, the Hanafi traditions which included the Turkic world and much of South Asia, and date back many centuries.

This personal history is relevant because unlike some people I have not taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Islam in the same way I have taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Christianity. How and why Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire is an interesting question for academic reasons. How and why Western Christianity fractured in the 16th century is an interesting question for reasons of understanding the geopolitics and history of modern European nation-states. I never believed in the Muslim religion, and matured into adulthood in a totally non-Muslim milieu, and my parents were outwardly nominal and complacent in their religiosity.

In contrast to Christianity, there is far less scholarship in English on the development of the Sunni-Shia schism, or conversion of Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th century. And of course, there is very little scholarship on the development of the religion which became Islam from a critical lens, aside from a small band of “revisionists.”

Some of this is due to fear. To be frank, many Muslims guard the sanctity of the orthodoxies which they promulgate with veiled and not so veiled threats of violence. Even if this is a minority of Muslims, it is sufficient to convince scholars who might take an interest in the topic that there is little personal profit in the enterprise.

This has curious knock-on consequences: many educated Muslims take certain orthodoxies of their religion for granted as unchallenged truths in a manner which is equivalent to the sort of insulation one only finds in ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. To give an explicit example, when I was younger, and knew people from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, they would patiently explain to me that in actuality science had long disproved the basic tenets of evolutionary biology. They were speaking out of a certain ignorance, because of subcultural norms.

To a great extent, Muslims are the same. But in this case about the truths of their religion which they presume to be unchallenged and unrefuted. Educated and relatively secular Western Muslims take the historicity of Muhammad and the literal truth of the Quran for granted in a way that educated and more Christians do not. That is due to the fact that Christianity has been subject to robust criticism in scholarship and in the public space since the 19th century.

Because of risk-aversion in academia, I think that the revolution and consciousness-raising in Muslim circles will happen from a more bottom-up approach. The latest Secular Jihadists podcast is titled, The Quran: Questioning Infallibility, Shattering Taboos. The discussion is wide-ranging, including Aisha’s requirement that her male allies breast-feed from her older sisters (there is a serious context to this practice).

Basically, the upshot is that the standard educated Muslim narrative about the nature of the Quran is trivially easy to knock down. It does not require deep scholarly knowledge, simply an awareness of facts that for obvious reasons Islamic scholars have not put in front of the mass of believers.

An interesting aspect of the discussion is that it is not highly revisionist. That is, it takes the historicity of the standard Muslim narrative of the rise of Islam under Muhammad, and its expansion under his successors, for granted. But even accepting the “standard model”, a set of simple critiques can refute the consensus of educated Muslims on topics such as the nature of the origin of the Quran.

What will the consequence of this be? I doubt it will be a great apostasy. Just as with Christianity a modernist critique will give rise to a sophisticated subculture that insulates and debunks the critique. But a large number of Muslims will engage in conscious and subconscious revisionism of what it means to be Muslim, and what Islam is, in a more “root & branch” manner than has currently been the case. I do think for various reasons that will happen in the West, and not the core Muslim world.

* Islamicization here is probably indicative of reform of the practices and customs of nominally Muslim peasants.

The Muslim world stands upon the shoulders of the Ummah


The two plots above are from a new working paper, On Roman roads and the sources of persistence and non-persistence in development. The basic argument is that good Roman infrastructure correlates with modern patterns of prosperity. An ingenious way the authors tested the predictive power is to contrast Europe, where carts and therefore roads, remained critical, and the Middle East and North Africa, where the rise of domestic camels rendered roads less important in the post-Roman period.

We should take these sorts of models with a grain of salt. Too often in economic history, there seems to be a tendency to search around for striking correlations, and then exclaim that this explains it all! Basically, I think some of the issues that plagued psychology and particular social psychology, are relevant here. Of course, most economists are statistically well trained, but there are limitations of data (look at how few data points they have above).

But the bigger takeaway is that historians are able to suggest deep structural reasons for the patterns we see around us today. This doesn’t mean that we should take any particular explanation as “proven” or at face value. Rather, they are interesting models and explanations in a constellation of explanations. To borrow and modify a phrase from evolutionary biology: both the proximate and the non-proximate matter.

This has been on my mind after finishing The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. I’ve written a few posts on this book before, The “Clash Of Civilizations” Is A Thing, Just Not The Only Thing, and The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. The reason that I’ve given some thought to the book’s thesis, and decided to read it after the essay in Aeon, What is the Muslim world?, is that I thought the thesis reflects something in our current Zeitgeist, and, it was audacious.

The audacity is the tacit assertion that the idea of the Muslim world is something very recent, and emerges out of the engagement with the colonial experience. After all, how can you deny the idea that the “Muslim world” was imagined as a thing by people such has Ibn Battuta?

Let me quote in full a few portions of the last chapter:

Simplistic and ahistorical frameworks of European empires vesus non-European subaltern colonized masses must be scrapped and replaced with the history of the world as it actuall existed….

…Critically they [Muslims] talked to each other, all over the world, and to non-Muslim Asians and Africans, about solidarity against imperial domination, racism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation….

…By decolonizing (and perhaps deconstructing) our categories and conceptions of religion, civilization, and the world order, we can better confront the rising anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the United States and work in solidarity to tackkle the ongoing crsis of the unjust global order.

After having read the book I was a bit surprised that the author wants us to move beyond the simplistic dichotomy between European and non-European, because to a great extent the book operates within that framework. Since this work seems in the tradition of postcolonialism, that makes sense. The argument that I see at the heart of the book is that the “imagined Muslim world” (a phrase the author uses repeatedly) emerged as a response to the intrusion of European imperialism and that Islamic solidarity precipitated out of the context of a rising ideology of white supremacy which racialized Muslims as colored people.

There’s obviously some truth to this. The Idea of the Muslim World benefits from outlining the argument and then supporting it with facts. Lots of facts. Perhaps the most surprising assertion made by the author (to me) is the preeminence of South Asian Muslims in international discourse in the period between 1850 and 1950. The author argues that this was due to demographic and economic heft, as well as the fact that South Asian Muslims were embedded within a powerful British Empire. Though they were a subordinate people, the monarchy had to take into account Muslim concerns, and the overrepresentation of Muslims in the Indian army was also something that was relevant when it came to force-projection.

I don’t know enough about the details of Indian Islam in relation to West Asian Islam during this period to judge this as a valid assertion or not. But, there are other aspects of the work which left me confused and unconvinced. For example, the author asserts that sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims were generally minimal, leaving us with the perception that conflict along sectarian lines is a feature of very late modernity (that is, the late 20th century). But during the 17th century and 18th century both Iran and India saw massive forced conversions on sectarian lines. In Iran, it was the transformation of what had been a predominantly Sunni region to a uniformly Shia one. In India, the Mughals, in particular, Aurangzeb, targeted “heretical” Muslim groups, in particular, Ismaili Shia. In Crossing the Threshold and Mullahs on the Mainframe the authors both argue that substantial numbers of Ismaili Muslims were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam (or in some cases, the more acceptable Twelver Shia sect, which is dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as some parts of South Asia).

The point I’m making is that Islamic sectarianism has had multiple phases of salience and relevance, before abating. Though I agree with the author of  The Idea of the Muslim World that “Islamic fundamentalism” is actually a very modern development, it is also important to understand that these modern ideological movements draw upon much older thinking and precedents. For example, the popularity of Ibn Taymiyyah among many Sunni radicals is important to understand and entirely unsurprising, especially in light of the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah lived during a time when the Muslim world as he understood it was under threat from non-Muslims.

Fundamentally, the author’s observations that Muslims repeatedly sided with non-Muslims against other Muslims due to their own self-interest does not negate the power and depth of the Islamic world. The reality is that these “meta-ethnic” universal loyalties are always at tension with situational interests. History is filled with Hindus in Muslim armies, Protestants marching with Turks against Catholics, and Muslim bodyguards of Catholic monarchs (Frederick II). But Muslim and Christian are not arbitrary and imaginary constructs. These identities have important predictive power over the long run.

The final chapter was at some tension with the rest of the book, because it foregrounded values and views which were clear within the subtext of the book, but which were not prominent. That is, the author has a particular view on current geopolitics and justice, and seems to be suggesting that his scholarship might help in forwarding this project. I bolded the part about “patriarchy” in the quote because I don’t think modernist Muslim intellectuals in the earl 20th century had problems with patriarchy in a way we’d understand it today. True, many favored the education of women and even equal political rights for women, but I don’t think that that’s the way “patriarchy” is defined today in “social justice” circles in 2018.

An attempt to take historical facts, and leverage them for current social and political concerns, often results in these sorts of anachronisms. For example, I have heard people who support gay rights speak as if anti-homosexual legislation derived from the colonial period invented and created prejudice against homosexuality in non-European societies, when the reality is that that prejudice was already there, albeit with modifications and variations. Consider, that Pashtun tolerance of pederasty does not imply that Pashtun society is not homophobic.

The Idea of the Muslim World is a decent book in light of its intellectual tradition, which I disagree with. That is, the author marshals evidence in support of his thesis, rather than engaging in argumentative bluster. But I do have to say that it seems that in the 40 years since Edward Said’s Orientalism was published the field of postcolonial studies hasn’t really made any big conceptual breakthroughs. Rather, scholars seem to be using the same tools on different topics and coming to similar general conclusions.

In the end, it’s all about goblin-kind.

Crescent over the North Sea

Pew has a nice new report up, Europe’s Growing Muslim Population. Though it is important to read the whole thing, including the methods.

I laugh when people take projections of the year 2100 seriously. That’s because we don’t have a good sense of what might occur over 70+ years (read social and demographic projections from the 1940s and you’ll understand what I mean). Thirty years though is different. In the year 2050 children born today, such as my youngest son, will be entering the peak of their powers.

First, one has to note that these statistics include a lot of people who are what some would term “Muslimish”. That is, they are not religious believers, but have some identification with Muslim culture. That’s explicitly noted in the methods.

The problem with this is that there is a wide range of religious commitment and identification across Europe’s Muslim communities. On the whole, they are more religiously observant than non-Muslims in their nations of residence,  but, for example, British Muslims are consistently more religious than French Muslims on surveys (or express views constant with greater religious conservatism).

Here are the results of a 2006 survey:

  France Britain Germany
Yes, Westerners are respectful of women 77 49 73
Yes, there is a conflict between being devout Muslim and living in modern society 28 47 36
Yes, sometimes violence against civilian targets in order to defend Islam can be justified 16 15 7
Did Arabs carry out 9/11? (yes) 48 17 35
People in Western countries are selfish (yes) 51 67 57
People in Western countries are arrogant (yes) 45 64 48
People in Western countries are violent (yes) 29 52 34
Do you consider yourself Muslim first? (yes) 46 81 66
In my country Muslims are perceived to adopt customs of nation 78 41 30
     

Numbers such as those above indicate even if France and the United Kingdom both have Muslim minorities on the order of 17% of the population, the nature of those populations differs to such an extent that that similarity in value may mislead.

In God’s Continent Philip Jenkins observes that public statistics of Christians often work to exclude cultural Christians, but those of Muslims include cultural Muslims. What many estimates of “Muslims” in the European context do is give a sense of the proportion of the population which is of Muslim background. This is especially true in a nation like France where religious survey data is not collected by government agencies.

Overall I think this data is important to consider, but there’s nothing really new in a qualitative sense. And, it is important to keep in mind the details. It is highly probable that the idea of a European superstate will have faltered by 2050, and each nation will its own Muslim minority, and engage with them differently depending on local values and context. Though Muslims, broadly construed, will form about the same proportion of the French and British general population, I suspect that in Britain the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim will be much more obvious and strict than in France.

The question should be “Who Are Salafi Muslims and Why Are Many So Extreme?”

Because of the horrible massacre at a mosque with Sufi tendencies in Egypt, there are a lot of “explainers” out there about sectarian divisions in Islam. The one in The New York Times, Who Are Sufi Muslims and Why Do Some Extremists Hate Them? could be worse. This portion especially gets at the major issue:

For a time, beginning in the 12th century, Sufism was a mainstay of the social order for Islamic civilization, and since that time it has spread throughout the Muslim world, and to China, West Africa and the United States. As Sufism spread, it adapted elements of local culture and belief, making it a popular practice.

Alexander D. Knysh, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan and expert in modern Sufism, describes it as a “very wide, amorphous movement” practiced within both the Sunni and Shiite traditions.

Specific claims about Sufism beyond the most general fail because vast swaths of Islamic history and Muslim peoples and practice are Sufi. In the modern western media, there is an unfortunate tendency to dichotomize Islam into a harsh and fundamentalist form and a moderate and mystical Sufi variety. Though a small minority of Sufis have drifted toward very heterodox beliefs, the vast majority are orthodox Muslims who also adhere to a school of Islamic law.

And Sufis are not all pacific saints. In the 19th century Libya the Sensussi Sufi movement was critical in the continuation of the trans-Saharan slave trade, and later served as a major focal point for violent resistance against the Italian colonial project. The great anti-philosopher of the medieval period, Al-Ghazali, who is generally agreed to have ushered in the decline of philosophical thinking within orthodox Sunni Islam, was a Sufi.

The question should not be about Sufis. Sufis are not moderate or mystical Muslims, they are simply Muslims. That is, they’re the mainstream. Rather, the crux of the issue is that violent radicals have emerged from the soil of Salafism. Not all Salafis are violent. But violent Salafis are the ones who regularly target other Muslims and their holiest of sites.

Salafism is a modern movement of the past few centuries. Like Protestant Fundamentalism, it is a product of the engagement of traditional religion with the modern world. Self-consciously Salafist Muslims have never known a world where the West was not dominant. Therefore it is no surprise that they look to the accrued tradition of Islamic civilization and see in it failure and decay.

Like some Radical Protestants, the Salafists imagine that they are creating a community of Muslims who are true to the path of the religion in its earliest years before it became tainted with monarchy. Basically, Salafists wish to transform Islam from a religion of history to one of pure axiomatic abstractions.

Why do Salafi radicals attack Sufis? Their tendency to engage in takfir against other Muslims goes back to the proto-Salafi Wahhabists. And Sufi Islam, with a venerable history going back more than 1,000 years, is naturally going to be the target of Salafi rage because it was the Islam that failed to stem the tide of Western ascendancy, the Islam that witnessed the slow and gradual decline from the greatness of the 8th and 9th centuries. The children shall eat their own parents.

More “orthodox” Islam in Indonesia is inevitable


Curfews, Obligatory Prayers, Whippings: Hard-Line Islam Emerges in Indonesia:

In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.

One one of the first things I wrote on the internet in 2002 was about Indonesian Islam (on a blog platform which is now gone). The reason for me writing on that topic was that the media representations of Southeast Asian Islam in the wake of 9/11 seemed excessively simple and reductive. For the West Indonesian Islam is often asserted to be moderate, and a counterpoint to the intolerance and exclusion which is the norm in the Middle East. In other words, Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim majority name plays a specific role in a broader narrative. A bit part in the grand narrative of moderation and radicalism. In the process, the textured uniqueness of Indonesia itself often gets lost.

First, let’s take a step back and frame the history of maritime Southeast Asia, what eventually became Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is often stated that in Indonesia Islam spread peacefully through trade. This is supposedly in contrast to what occurred in the Middle East or South Asia, where military force was the dominant theme of Islamization. Superficially this is true.

But the reality is that forced conversion was likely a marginal phenomenon at any given time, and especially during the early centuries of Islam. The prominence of men such as Timothy, Patriarch of the Church of the East, under the Abbasids attests to the power of the non-Muslim majority (there was a similar eminence for the Zoroastrian community). But the conversion of Malays around Malacca in the early 15th century after the conversion of the king is not quite as different from what occurred in Persia after the Arabs arrived as one might think. The rapid shift of the Iranian nobility to Islam in provinces under Arab control seems to have triggered a gradual change among the masses (those regions, such as Tabaristan, where local elites maintained the old religion resisted Islamization until they were conquered and converted). It was not a matter of the sword or conversion.

Of course, religious wars were a necessary part of the expansion of Islam in the Middle East and South Asia, even if they did not effect much of the religious change which occurred later. But this is not a qualitative contrast with the Middle East and South Asia in comparison to Indonesia, though it is a quantitative one. Some polities, such as Malacca and Aceh, came to Islam through their integration into the maritime mercantile network of Muslims from Arabia to China. Centuries later the collapse of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, whose earlier hegemony served as some of the basis of broader Javanese-Indonesian claims to the whole archipelago, occurred due to attacks from Muslim sultanates who organized in part on the basis of religion. Majapahit fell because of jihad. It was not converted peacefully.

In sum, the history of what became Indonesia and its relationship to Islam is different from that of South Asia, or the Middle East, but that difference is one of degree, not kind. Second, one must also distinguish between Java and the rest of the archipelago. In the article above there is an reference to Aceh, a province where the practice of Islam aligns very strongly with that found in the Middle East. But Aceh is also culturally and historically very different from Java, Islam came to Aceh a the dominant religion at least two centuries before it did in Java, and probably earlier. On the map above Aceh is also geographically rather distant from the central islands, at the far northwest tip of Sumatra.

To a first approximation, orthodox Islam is a much more salient and central aspect of the identities of people from outlying islands than it is to Javanese. The complex indigenous-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic synthesis which is said to characterize traditional Indonesian Islamic culture is actually a feature most evidently of Javanese culture. Parts of far western Indonesia came to Islam earlier, and integrated into the Muslim cultures of the Indian Ocean more thoroughly, so that earlier Buddhist affinities faded over time (Aceh at one point was aided by the Ottomans in fighting the Portuguese). In contrast, parts of eastern Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, were Islamicized after the fall of Majapahit, but the impact of Indic culture had been relatively superficial (though not trivial, as Indic influence is evidence as far east and north as the islands which became the Philippines).

At nearly 40% of the population of all of Indonesia the Javanese loom large in the identity of the nation-state. Most of the presidents of Indonesia have been Javanese (B. J. Habibie was raised in Sulawesi, where his father was from, but his mother was Javanese; Sukarno’s mother was Balinese, while his daughter’s mother was Sumatran, though both seem to have identified culturally as Javanese). Many of the things people say about Indonesian Islam are really about Javanese Islam, with the model implicitly derived clearly from Clifford Geertz’s tripartite division between santri, abangan and priyayi.

The santri are basically what we define as world normative orthodox Muslims. The priyayi are the Javanese aristocracy, who self-consciously explored mystical concepts and practices with an extra-Islamic origin. But the vast majority of Javanese are the abangan, rural peasants who practice an Islam which emphasizes custom and tradition as much as sharia. Because custom and tradition have deep organic roots within Java they naturally include many elements which are ‘pre-Islamic.’ In Java both the Mahabharata and Ramayana are still part of the living culture, for example.

It strikes me that the attitude of the Javanese may have analogs with that of the Persians in relation to their cultural history. By and large like the Persians the Javanese are Muslims without apology.* But like the Persians the Javanese take pride in a history before Islam, in particular Majapahit, whose writ tentatively spanned most of contemporary Indonesia. And Majapahit can not be separated from a Hindu-Buddhist synthesis which left massive cultural artifacts such as the Borbobudur temple complex (and the modern Balinese also serve as continuous cultural links with the Hinduism of Majapahit).

But the economic and social development of Java will naturally lead to a waxing in the santri tendency. Orthodox Muslims among the Javanese have not been part of the underclass, but rather outward facing portions of the traditional mercantile class or middle class urbanites. Santri Islam is portable, and commensurable with international Islam. Abangan Islam is rooted in the rural landscape of Java, and urbanization will inevitably erode its hold on future generations. Meanwhile, priyayi practices are structurally limited to a narrow class of elites.

Overall then the rise of ‘conservative Islam’ in Indonesia is a complex story with two primary threads. One is regionalism. The regulations introduced in the story above are in Cianjur, in western Java. This area is more Islamic than central or eastern Java, and the native people are not Javanese, but Sundanese.

As local identities were given more freedom of play after the New Order in the late 1990s it was reasonable to expect that more strikingly Islamic practices would become more public, as they were dampened earlier by the dominant Javanese orientation of the Suharto regime. Second, modernization within Javanese culture itself will likely lead to the emergence of a more numerous group of sharia compliant and world Islam oriented group of Muslims, as they can not rely upon community and adat in an urban landscape remote from their backgrounds of origin.

This is not to say that the standard chestnuts about Saudi funding are not important. But it is important to note that portions of Indonesian Islam have long been deeply connected to the Muslims of the Arabian Sea; this is not a function simply of the rise of petro-states, though their wealth has certainly allowed them to put their thumbs on the scale. Maritime Southeast Asia is the eastern segment of what is operationally a Shafi international of Sunni Muslims who ring much of the Indian Ocean. As Indonesia becomes globalized, it will gravitate to other nodes within the international network which it already has long-standing connections. This is probably inevitable in some ways, and the working out of the reality of contemporary Indonesian pluralism has to face the inevitable tensions that modernization will bring. A more universal and non-local Islam will probably also be more exclusive and culturally muscular.

* A minority are Christian or Hindu. A Hindu Javanese kingdom persisted in the east of the island until the 18th century.