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.

Arab Islamic science was not Arab Muslim

Someone stupid who follows me on Twitter said “It seems @razibkhan forgot the Arabs gave us algebra and many other scientific/mathematical advances.” The history of algebra is actually somewhat more antique than the Arabs, as outlined in Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. But the origin of the word is Arabic. From Wikipedia:

The word algebra comes from the Arabic الجبر (al-jabr lit. “the reunion of broken parts”) from the title of the book Ilm al-jabr wa’l-muḳābala by Persian mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi.

Though Wikipedia says that al-Khwarizmi is Persian, it is more accurate to say he was Iranian-speaking, because as his name attests his origins were in Khwarezm, which is in Central Asia. It is accurate to say that Arab Islamic civilization was intellectually productive in the centuries before 1000 A.D., but it is not accurate to say that Muslim Arab scholars were responsible for this.

A huge number of these scholars were not ethnic Arabs. In the early years a substantial number were not Muslim. Though it is often said that many were Persian, as recounted in Lost Enlightenment many of the “Persians” were not from Persia proper, but from Iranian regions of Central Asia which over the centuries have now become Turkified.

Why is this important? The multicultural nature of early Muslim (and later Ottoman) polities might inform us as to the future of this sort of diverse society. Second, it’s preferable that you don’t seem like an idiot if you want me to listen to anything you say.

Democracy leads to Islamism

The New York Times has a piece up on the rise in Islamic extremism in the Maldives, Maldives, Tourist Haven,
Casts Wary Eye on Growing Islamic Radicalism
. I want to highlight one section:

It was governed as a moderate Islamic nation for three decades under the autocratic rule of the former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But after the country made a transition to democracy in 2008, space opened up for greater religious expression, and conservative ideologies like Salafism cropped up.

Years ago in graduate school I told a friend that democracy and even economic prosperity did not monotonically lead to greater liberalism. In the long run perhaps, but in the short run it doesn’t necessarily do that at all.

Today we generally focus on the Islamic world, but there are plenty of examples in the past and in other places which suggest to us democratic populist passions can be quite illiberal. The Gordon Riots in England in the 18th century are a case where a pragmatic shift toward liberalism in regards to religious freedom for Roman Catholics triggered a Protestant populist riot. In the United States the emergence of universal white man’s suffrage during the Age of Jackson signaled the rise of a much more muscular and exclusive white supremacy in this country. In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 you see the arc of democratization tethering itself to conservative rural vote-banks which reinforce aristocratic privilege. Finally, democratic developments in Burma have seen an associated increase in Buddhist radicalism.

Eric Kauffman argues in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? that modernization, economic development, and the expansion of political representation, integrates conservative rural populations and uplifts them all the while transforming the norms of urban areas. In other words, the rural bazar melds with the urban shopping mall, and both are changed. The 1979 revolution in Iran and its aftermath has been argued to be a victory of the bazar over the Western oriented gentry. In India the rise of Hindu nationalism is an assertion of the self-confidence of sub-elites from the “cow belt” who arose to challenge the Western oriented ruling class that had dominated since the early 20th century.

When the Arab Spring was in full swing in 2011 I wrote An Illiberal People:

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

The modern Left has a very anodyne view of Islam. It denies that there is something structurally within many Islamic societies which enables their illiberalism, the religion of Islam. In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid argues that the religion itself may in some fundamental manner be inimical to the sort of secular liberal democratic society we perceive to be the terminal state of all cultures. I disagree with this view. Rather, I see in contemporary Islam the torture that Reformation era Christianity experienced attempting to navigate between an ideal of a universal church and the nascent emergence of nation-states. But in the short term both Shadi and I have the same prediction: greater democracy may lead to greater illiberalism and more repression of minorities. This an inconvenient truth for many Americans. But it may be true nonetheless.

Modernity is not magic with Muslims

There are many reasons I have become very skeptical of the media over the years. Though I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory paradigms, it is obvious that the mainstream media often combines fidelity to precise narratives with a lack of detailed knowledge about the topics they are covering. In other words, they’re stenographers with an agenda. When you don’t know the topic they are expositing upon they can seem quite persuasive. But when you do know the topic they are addressing the emperor can be revealed to be naked. Naturally this warrants concern in most people who observe this, as if they are catching errors in the matrix.*

One area that this problem crops often for me is in regards to media coverage of Islam and and the Middle East. Most reporters don’t seem to really know much about their beat in a deep sense, so they are superficially taking in facts and putting them through coarse interpretative filters.

To name names, David Kirkpatrick covers the Middle East for The New York Times. I read his stuff, and he is not a bad journalist, but he clearly has no deep familiarity with the history of the Middle East or the details of Islam. His work is like a pop-tart; sweet, temporarily filling, but long on a sugar-rush and short on filling substance. For example, he can talk about a contrast between peaceful Sufis and Islamist militants Libya, without knowing that Sufi orders were often militant organizations, and that Libyan independence after World War II was spearheaded by a militant Sufi order. (I know this, so I’m passing this on to you!)

But readers of The New York Times “know” that Sufis are peaceful. So for prose contrast it makes sense that Kirkpatrick would bring that up. Never mind that this is so reductive to be useless in terms of getting people a better picture of reality.

In the interests of adding context, let me add something to the story about FGM in Michigan which is prominent in the news today. A Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is accused of practicing FGM on young girls. Though it is not emphasized in the American media (because it wouldn’t mean much), it seems she is from the Dawoodi Bohra of Ismailis. In India the Bohra community is well known, as it is a very distinct group from the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni, and even most Shia. Its origins seem to be among the mercantile castes of the Gujarat coast, who were converted to a particular Ismaili sect of Shia Islam.

I have some “book learning” about this sect under my belt because I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras about 15 years ago on the recommendation of my friend Aziz Poonawalla, who is a member of this community. Mullahs on the Mainframe was topical in the post-9/11 era because it seemed to depict a community which was both modern and religiously orthodox and observant, with fewer tensions being a minority in the West than other groups of Muslims. I don’t want to rehash that line of argument too much; descriptively it is correct that Daudi Bohras are a well behaved minority who attain success, combined with adherence to traditional beliefs and practices (Daudi Bohras, like many conservative Islamists, tend to “look” obviously Muslim because of matters of grooming and dress).

But another aspect of the Daudi Bohra community is that it is one of the few in South Asia that practices FGM. I don’t know or care about the prevalence, extent, or origin of the practice among the Bohra. When I saw the doctor’s name, which seemed South Asian, I immediately suspected she was from the community (the type of headscarf seemed familiar too).

The point of this post is not to demonize the Daudi Bohra community; the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who engage in FGM are not Daudi Bohra. The Shafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence is the big offender in terms of numbers. Indonesian Sunnis are Shafi, so that nation often praised for its tolerant version of Islam has a very high proportion of FGM. Rather, it is to point out that the neat narrative frameworks we prefer are often not descriptively correct nor predictively useful. Since 9/11 rather than a more complex and nuanced view of Islam it seems that opinion leaders have been converging upon the idea that the religion is either with the angels or the devils, rather than a man-made thing which occupies the area in the middle.

The reliance on theories and heuristics which appeal to our sensibilities as right and true misleads in many ways. The arc of history bends toward justice, but the path is winding. The Protestant Reformation was rooted in the more literate and well off classes, and aimed to rid corruption from the Christian church. In the process it unleashed horrible intolerance, cultural genocide, and conflicts which resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Not taking a view on the Reformation as a whole, it is clear that its consequences are not so simply integrated into the Whig version of history when taken in full.

Ultimately we need to rush less quickly toward our preferred conclusions, which align neatly with our prior models. Rather, we need to explore the sideways and what we think are certainly dead-ends, because sometimes those dead-ends will open up startling new landscapes (by the way, I think the “rationalist” community is much better at this than the general thinking public, though that’s not saying much).

* When I was in grad school an acquaintance mentioned this in relation to Jonah Lehrer before his exposure. Lehrer was persuasive whenever he was talking about a topic he wasn’t familiar with, but was clearly out of his depth whenever it approached something he was familiar with.