Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hagarism, revision, and everything we think is wrong (?)   posted by Razib @ 11/19/2009 02:18:00 AM

This is more a question for readers who know this stuff, what do you think about Patricia Crone & company in their revision of the early history of Islam? I'm more of a Hugh Kennedy guy because I don't know much about this field and would prefer to stick to the mainstream, but a few years ago I read a short monograph on representational art in mid-Umayyad Syria, and it just didn't "feel right" in the context of the traditional narrative. The book didn't really talk much about history, but rather more the Late Antique cultural influences on the Umayyad's. But what I encountered seemed more like a conventional society of the post-Roman Near East than anything I would recognize as "Muslim." Of course it's all impressionistic, and I don't have a good feel of the lay of the land, so I dismissed it. But how about those of you who know the primary sources? I can't find Daniel Larison's opinion on this sort of revisionism via Google, and I would be curious has to his views (since he knows Byzantine history and its sources, and had an interest in Islam at some point as well).

Update: OK, probably crap.

Update: OK, Larison might be talking about a somewhat different model.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bye bye Kalash! It was good while it lasted....   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 03:39:00 PM

Taliban targets descendants of Alexander the Great.* In this case, we're talking about the Kalash of Pakistan, a non-Muslim cultural relict in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. The Kalash are like the Mari of Russia, a relatively isolated group who managed to maintain their explicit pagan religious traditions down to the modern era, at which point a legal framework allowed for them to practice their customs in the face of hostility from the world religion which had come to dominate their region. In the case of the Kalash, that authority and legal framework was that of the British. On the other side of the border in Afghanistan the more numerous cultural kin of the Kafir Kalash were forcibly converted to Islam in 1896

Though there are plenty of supply-side theories of religion which posit individual ("rational") choice as the driver of change, historically this has not been so useful. I've noted before that in Reformation Europe Protestantism was initially very successful in converting much of the population across broad swaths of Austria, Bohemia and into Poland. Not only that, but Protestantism's initial strength was almost always in what might be termed the "upper middle classes" (literate urbanites) and the lower nobility. But if the Protestants failed to secure political power, which usually meant the monarchy, generally there was a swing back toward Roman Catholicism. Both the Huguenots and Dutch Protestants started out as a small, motivated, and well organized minority (today around 20-30% of the population of the Netherlands is Roman Catholic, but I've read that during the height of the Protestant revolt against Spanish Catholic rule in fact only 10% of the population was Protestant, but these included much of the elite as well as very motivated refugees from Antwerp). But the Dutch Protestants managed to take control of the political machinery of the Netherlands and achieve independence from the distant Catholic rulers; the Huguenots did not.

A more explicit analogy with the Kafir Kalash is what occurred with the population of ancient Haran. In the 6th century Justinian the Great was getting around to imposing religious uniformity on on the East Roman Empire. The Empire had been Christian for a long time, but there were still large minorities of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, etc. Missionaries were sent to Anatolia to convert rustic populations who remained pagan, and persecutions of Jews & Samaritans triggered revolts in Palestine. A force was sent to Baalbek to stamp out the pagan enclave there, the Academy in Athens, a redoubt of Neoplatonism, was scattered, and the last active center of ancient Egyptian paganism at Philae was shuttered. But Haran was spared from conversion because of an accident of geopolitics; it was too close to the Sassanid Empire, and Khosrau I fancied himself a patron of culture, which including the dispersed members of the Athenian Academy. Some members of the Academy reputedly settled in Haran, with its pagan population, and Khosrau secured religious freedom for this area under a treaty with the Byzantines. The proximity of the Persian forces meant that it was reasonable for the Byzantines to grant this concession. Haran's peculiar religious mix persisted down into the Islamic era, when they became the Sabians, and were instrumental in the translation of Greek works into Arabic under the Abbasids.

As for the Kalash, their persistence is only due to a combination of historical accidents (the Durand Line), their isolation, as well as their backwardness. The importance of the last fact is that they have been underdeveloped enough to maintain very high fertility rate, compensating somewhat for the high rate of conversion to Islam. As I have noted before, paganism tends to cede before higher religions at a particular level of social complexity. With modern communication and transportation the ability of the Kalash to be protected by isolation is diminished. One way that the Kalash could preserve their identity would be to align with another higher religion. This is a common occurrence in Southeast Asia, where ethnic minorities resist converting to the majority religion because it connotes assimilation to the majority ethnicity. Instead, many minorities in Burma, Thailand, etc., convert to Christianity, acquiring the ideological and institutional armamentarium which might serve as a check on conversion. In Indonesia pagan groups often redefine themselves as Hindu, and so enter into a relationship with the institutional structures of Balinese Hinduism.

This is not feasible in Pakistan. Religious minorities are under extreme pressure. The Kalash have no cultural future, extinction is their lot. It is a matter of 10 years or 30 years. No more. After that point they'll be photographs in National Geographic. This is frankly the lot of non-Muslims in many Muslim nations (the best option is to escape abroad, as a substantial minority of Mandaens have, and the Church of the East did in the 20th century. Or, remain segregated and isolated and numerous enough in your own geographic enclaves, such as the Yazidis).**

* They're a genetic isolate, probably not derived from Alexander's sojourn in the east.

** The main exceptions to the grim record of religious minorities under Islamic majorities is in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In both these regions conversion to Christianity from Islam is known and accepted. In Nigeria Islam has barely increased as a proportion of the population, while Christianity has nearly doubled to parity. In Indonesia there has been a marginal decrease in the proportion of Muslims since the 1960s, probably because of the conversion of nominal Javanese Muslims to Christianity and Hinduism (Hinduism is considered by many Javanese to be their ancestral religion, and there remain Hindu Javanese minorities).

Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Archbishop Speaks   posted by DavidB @ 2/10/2008 03:01:00 AM

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has stirred up a hornets' nest this week by suggesting that some aspects of Sharia (Islamic law) are bound to be applied in Britain. Much of the commentary has been wildly inaccurate, so as a public information service here is a link to what he actually said. Congratulations to anyone who reads it all the way through. I certainly haven't. But of course he is not suggesting that Sharia should be applied to non-Muslims, or that it should override the law of the land in criminal matters. How far it should be recognised by the Courts in civil cases (such as matrimonial disputes) is a complex matter which I will leave to others to discuss. I would however mention that in a wide range of commercial practice it is common for the parties to agree to arbitration instead of legal action, and the findings of arbitration are not only accepted but enforced by the ordinary courts, both nationally and internationally under the New York Convention. Arbitration is commonly based on the 'custom and practice' of particular trades or professions, so the idea that that there is only one 'law of the land' is oversimplified.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

EuIslamica   posted by Razib @ 8/15/2007 10:44:00 PM

For some readers, MSNBC has a nice map which shows the rough numbers of Muslims in each European country.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Aga Khan, the light of Islam?   posted by Razib @ 7/07/2007 09:13:00 PM

Since 9/11, and more broadly since the eruption of Islamic terror as a significant phenomenon in the past few decades, the media has attempted to impart to the general public information about Islam. Unfortunately, the media just plain sucks. Consider this article, Do Business and Islam Mix? Ask Him. "Him" refers to Aga Khan IV. The article suggests that he is the leader of the Ismaili Muslims, but more properly he is leader of about half the Ismaili Muslims in the world, the Nizari branch. For a detailed exposition of the multitudinous sects of Ismailis I recommend Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras. Though focused on the Daudi Bohra sect, there is a detailed history in the first third of the book which relates how Ismaili sects differ from each other, other Shia, and Sunni Islam. The distinctiveness of Ismaili Islam is important to emphasize: to simplify they are the Shia of the Shia, a minority within the minority. Additionally, the Nizari Ismaili in the West have been very keen to acculturate to the norms of the surrounding population, even more so than other Ismaili groups, who remain more distinctive and recognizably "Muslim." So you have here a situation where the leader of a small sect of Muslims is held up as an Islamic exemplar from which we can learn about the faith. Though I do not deny that the Nizaris are Muslims, I think it must be emphasized that on a character-by-character basis of comparison they are very distinctive and peculiar as Muslims go. It is a fact that many Sunnis will even reject that Ismailis are Muslims at all (though with far less force than against the Ahmadiyya sect). As an analogy, imagine that the leader of the Seventh Day Adventists was being treated as a seminal and fundamental authority within Christianity. Finally, the article states that the Aga Khan is a "moderate Muslim." Moderate implies that someone is within the broad middle central tendency of a distribution, and that is simply not correct in the case of the Aga Khan and his followers. They lay at a tail. The mainstream media isn't really biased as much as it is mediocre, forgive them for they know not what they write, but also remember to be very cautious when they take any steps away from first order reportage.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Russia's army majority Muslim in 2015?   posted by Razib @ 6/15/2007 11:44:00 AM

I am a bit tardy with my second part of my review of God's Contintent, Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis. There are some other things I have to take care of, and the previous post, though fruitful, took a lot of my time in terms of moderation (once the post went off the front page I didn't keep track of it and it seems more ignorant and/or low IQ people started commenting). But, yesterday someone made the comment that they'd read that the Russian army was going to be majority Muslim by 2015. I deleted the comment since it seemed such an implausible assertion and it really served no use to me. That being said, I decided to google this assertion and came up with Daniel Pipes' post. Now, I don't know about you, but a lot of the "data" seems to be basically hand waving. For example, compare & contrast:
Plus, Russians of Orthodox background are converting to Islam. (For one important case, see the story of Viacheslav Sergeevich Polosin.)
Another indication of Islam's progress among Russians concerns former-Russian-spy-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died of Polonium-210 poisoning in London on November 23. He converted to Islam on his deathbed...
Silantyev also dismisses as myth the idea of mass conversions of ethnic Russian to Islam. "Less than 3,000 ethnic Russian have converted to Islam" during the past fifteen years, he says. In contrast, over that same period, almost 2 million ethic Muslims have become Orthodox Christians. In 70 percent of marriages between a Muslim and a Christian, for example, the Muslim spouse converts to Christianity.

One would have to look up the source of these data in the last case, but at least there are some numerical figures here as opposed isolated cases which are held up as exemplars. Additionally, one might be a bit skeptical about mass conversions to Islam by Russians when one considers that half of Russian men are dying from alcohol related causes. I am pretty sure that most readers of these alarmist headlines are also unaware that the vast majority of Russian Muslims are native born and indigenous, part of the absorption of Muslim peoples which occurred during the 18th century expansion (that most Russian Muslims are part of native ethnic minorities is implicit in Pipes' data, but I suspect that most readers won't connect the dots and will project Western European realities of foreign migrants and their offspring). This is the reason that Islam is one of Russia's historical religions. Though like most Russian monarchs Catherine the Great encouraged and facilitated the conversion of Muslims to Orthodoxy, she also sponsored religious notables within the Islamic establishment who argued for the acceptability of subordination of Muslims to a non-Muslim potentate (though who did not accept this emigrated to the Ottoman Empire). Of course cultures change and Russian Islam is now being influenced by Saudi backed ideologues, but the point is that a little historical context is necessary to really understand what it means when one say that "10-20% of 'Russians' are Muslim."

Now, of course the demographic profile of Russia's ethnic majority is pretty dire. That being said, please because cautious of translating "if current trends hold" to "current trends predict the inevitable." After all, before the fall of Communism ethnic Russian fertility was higher than in most of the West, but today it is lower. Much has changed in 15 years demographically, so predicting the current moribund state 30 years into the future seems a bit much.

P.S. Small historical footnote some might find amusing. Click here to read about a prominent European general and strongman who won battles with the help of at least 40,000 Muslim soldiers on European soil in the 20th century.

Note: Again, I'm going to be deleting comments of no use to me. Use to me = offer up more data, generate an insightful analysis, cite some good sources, etc. Sincerity without knowledge is best not seen or heard.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

INFIDEL, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali   posted by Diana @ 3/29/2007 07:53:00 AM

Note from Razib: This discussion thread will be heavily moderated. If you're not going to be interesting, be banal and polite. Otherwise, be interesting. My point in Islam threads isn't to sit there listening to self-important prigs repeat the same talking points I've heard since 9/11. Been there, done that (myself). Let's add some value.
End Note

Reviewers of Hirsi Ali's autobiography, Infidel, should be required to put relevant cards on the table. Accordingly, here are mine: I am a reluctant atheist, which I mean that I wish I could believe in some comforting suprapersonal code, but I don't (and I have a particular contempt for the latterday "god of the gaps"); that said, I am nervous about and wary of Islam finding a beachhead in the West, even as I reject anguished warnings of the immanence of Eurabia and creeping dhimmitude.

Also, I had no particular interest in reading Hirsi Ali's book. (Parenthetically, I knew of her long before the Theo Van Gogh murder, and it occurred to me when I first heard of her and apprehended her striking physical presence, that she would eventually end up in the United States. I did not, of course, foresee the terrible events that precipitated her move, but I suspected that Holland was simply too small a country to contain her.) I have so far been unimpressed by the intellectual calibre of other Muslim critics. They have zero credibility in the Muslim world and their criticisms of Islam may be valid but the only noteworthy thing about them is that they are undergoing enlightenment two centuries after it became unremarkable in the West. I sympathize, but for my crowd, the thrill is gone.

What sparked my interest in reading Hirsi Ali's was a fierce irritation at the constant references to religion in American public life since 9/11. This was bad enough when the hectoring came from the right, but now it's coming from the left. I could and did ignore the Baptist who said that god doesn't hear the prayers of a Jew, because he's a hick that no one in the cultural elite, among whom I live and work, takes seriously. I don't pray and I don't care. I scorned the leftists who brandished this nobody in my face as an example of the horrors of American anti-Semitism, when it was nothing of the sort.

Now these same people go on Air America to tell the world that Jesus was a leftist (no links, but I heard it) and they supply ludicrous, a-historical examples to prove their non-existent case. This "who can be more sanctimonious" religious competition is driving me crazy, but it has had the salutary effect of clarifying my attitudes. So I paid renewed attention to this literal firebrand. I wanted to see if I could learn anything from her book than the fact that another smart girl grew up and left god-as-daddy with her dolls.

I did. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I am pleased to report, is a much more interesting, deep (and flawed, like all heroic figures) person than any collection of newspaper reports can convey. Those looking for a simple "I hate Islam" manifesto will be disappointed by Infidel. The book -- which should more properly be called "Apostate"-- is a calm, lucid, balanced account of a nightmarish upbringing. She wasn't really raised, as Westerners understand it, she just grew taller while being dragged around to various third world hellholes (Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and then Nairobi), due to her father's clan-based opposition to Somali dictator Siad Barre. Hirsi Ali's mother, grandmother, older brother and younger sister existed on charity doled out by her father's clan members. Hirsi Ali watched her once-vibrant and enterprising mother become distorted with bitterness, subjecting Hirsi Ali's to routine beatings, while turning her outwardly docile middle child into the family drudge.

It is revealing that Ayaan Hirsi Ali divides her autobiography into two parts, entitled "My Childhood," and "My Freedom." The animating force of her life is to tell the world that Islam is essentially infantilizing. The first half of the book, which encompasses the first 22 years of her life, is riveting reading. She describes the ideal of Somali womanwood: to be baarri, whose closest approximation in English would be virtue: "If you are a Somali woman you must learn to tell yourself that God is just and all-knowing and will reward you in the Hereafter." Hirsi Ali explains: "If her husband is cruel, if he rapes her and then taunts her about it, if he decides to take another wife, or beats her, she lowers her gaze and hides her tears. And she works, faultlessly."

Have you ever wondered about the bewildering complexity of Somalia's clan structure? This is the book for you. Somali life, as she describes it, consists of complete, utter, subservience to family and clan, yet it is pervaded by suspicion and violence. When she is a little girl, her one-year older brother pushes her into a shit-filled latrine. And whose fault is it? Ayaan's, because she failed to be suspicious. It's a world where feelings are considered weakness, and pride is everything.

No review can do justice to how crowded with incident and packed with colorful, fantastic characters the first half of the book is. She is moved from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia to a series of dwellings in Nairobi. She and her younger sister are gentially mutilated by their nomad-born grandmother. She learns Arabic, Amharic, English and Swahili. She becomes infatuated with Islamic fundamentalism but describes the process as so natural we never question its inevitability. A crazed Quran teacher shoves her head against a wall and fractures her skull; the hospital costs are covered by (what else?) the clan. Other wandering preachers of Islam drift in and out of the exile Somali community. She elopes with a gorgeous cousin strictly for the sex; they ditch each other quickly and figure out a way to "unmarry" each other. (Hint: the clan works out the details.) She rescues family members streaming out of Mogadishu by bribing Kenyan border police. This is all portrayed expertly, with deft omissions (to keep the story in control; whole books could be written about the era of African history she witnessed), swift pacing, and tight narrative.

The amount of human suffering that Hirsi Ali witnesses in Africa is sometimes overwhelming, and one wonders whether the second part of the book doesn't show evidence of some post-traumatic stress disorder. As Ian Buruma points out, her account of Dutch life is a bit too pat, too admiring. But should we not empathize with Hirsi Ali? after living the life she has, and witnessing what she has, Holland is a paradise. But, as she herself points out, it's a hard-won paradise, created by centuries of conflict between Catholic and Protestant, reclaimed from the sea. Her Dutch experience sounds reported and not fully lived, as her life in Africa was. (Perhaps this is true of the difference between life in Africa and life in Europe and has nothing to do with Hirsi Ali's specific experience -- I report, you decide.)

In Holland, Hirsi Ali committed two signal mistakes. The first was that she fabricated the reasons for claiming asylum in Holland. The fabrications were minor and were common knowledge, but her status could and should have been legally regularized before she stood for Parliament. More seriously, Hirsi Ali's collaboration with Theo Van Gogh on Submission occurred after she was elected to Parliament. Van Gogh's November 2004 murder was not her fault, but Hirsi Ali was a public servant at the time, and would have done her cause of protecting Muslim women greater service by focusing on the passage of laws to protect them, than by auditioning to be the Karen Finlay/Andres Serrano of Holland. These judgement mistakes made her vulnerable to a Swift Boat slandering on a Dutch television show from which her reputation suffered. Family members denied that Hirsi Ali was forced into an arranged marriage and was not genitally mutilated. These slanders continue to be retailed in the Muslim blogosphere and are thoroughly and convincingly refuted in the book. No one who reads the description of her mutilation can doubt that she experienced this horrific abuse; her detailing of the arranged marriage is as watertight as the grass jugs her grandmother used to weave by hand.

Hirsi Ali isn't the first prophet to experience dishonor in her country. What she can do to modernize and moderate Islam is doubtful, as she is now by public profession no more a part of the Ummah. She's our girl now and part of our furious debate about how to get along with Islam. The same neoconservatives whose chief guru cynically valued religion as social control for dummies have insincerely gushed over her book not because she has embraced enlightenment, but because she has rejected Islam.

Hirsi Ali thinks the West is falling apart. I disagree: we've never had it so good, and it's getting better all the time. She thinks that Muslims will destroy the West with higher birthrates: I doubt this. Pim Fortuyn favored a Cold War with Islam. I don't think that's necessary.

However, Fortuyn also said, "I don't want to fight for the rights of women and homosexuals again," and that, I think, is the heart of the issue, although I wouldn't put it that way. Here's how I would put it: "the law of the land is the law." Those of you who wish to keep your youth Muslim and live in the West must figure out a way to reconcile Islam with the dominant culture. If you can't, expect more Hirsi Alis. In fact, expect more Hirsi Alis even if you do -- it's the price of the ticket. The stupid among your children will be seduced by bling; the brilliant, by science.

And, unlike the chicken littles of the Right blogosphere, I think that is exactly what we are saying, if rather mumblingly, hesitantly and stammeringly. Sometimes, it's not way you say, it's what you do. That Puerto Rican girl on the subway isn't exchanging her t-shirt that says, "I must, I must, I must improve my bust," for a burqa. Our industrialists and molecular biologists and physicists aren't going to stop thinking and innovating and creating. They are an army much more powerful than the Quran, yes. We will insist, acidly, on our freedoms, on our laws, on our science, and our crummy t-shirts. If the Muslims in our midst can't handle it, that's their problem. The fact that Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards is disgusting and unacceptable but it is evidence of Islam's fragility, not our weakness.

Finally, we will protect the apostates from Islam who come to our free societies for refuge. If Hirsi Ali has helped us to focus our minds on that task, she deserves our gratitude.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why Sam Harris & co. matter   posted by Razib @ 2/19/2007 10:25:00 PM

Recently Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been making the rounds on the talk shows because of a new book. A few weeks ago she was on a Boston radio show, and you can listen to the whole interview, but, I suggest you fast forward to 24:30 and listen to the female Muslim caller. Listen to her voice, the outrage and shock, the tremor because she can't abide what she hears. I generally listen to a radio feed while I'm at work and Ali has been on a few shows, and this is a common response. Whatever reasoned critiques this variety of caller has of Ali's assertions (I am, for example, not positively inclined toward Ayaan's recent tack of repackaging herself as a Muslim by culture), the emotional impact of seeing their religion criticized and verbally raped makes them nearly unhinged. This is not an abnormal reaction, people attach great value to their religious identity, and when it is assaulted, even rhetorically, they take it quite personally. Remember that the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was in large part justified by their 'atheism,' their public disrespect of the traditional gods not their own. The concept of blasphemy, violation of taboo, is pretty universal. That being said, after the 18th century Christendom, and what became post-Christian Western civilization, shed the taboo against criticizing religion. It is simply part of the freedoms we take for granted. Most of the callers who have reacted with outrage against Ayaan Hirsi Ali are immigrants, and to me it seems quite clear that their outlook has been shaped by the inviolable nature of Islam and Islamic ideals in their societies of origin. When people talk of a "Western Islam," I think one of the things one must look to as a metric or indicator is acceptance of violation and blasphemy, a disrespect that Christianity has become accustomed to over the past few centuries.

One may contend that provocateurs such as Ayaan and Sam Harris go too far in violating the public pieties, but if you listen closely to what the caller asserts you can see why such a violation is necessary. Her reiteration of the "true Islam" in direct contradiction to the general way Islam is practiced does nothing to establish a common ground, it reflects the dreamland of her own imaginings. Fundamentally, those like myself who are secular but generally disinclined toward engaging in an anti-religious jihad because we see neither the point or the possibility of a final victory are skeptical of the hope of a modus vivendi when the delusion extends from down on high toward the mundane world of facts on the ground. Believe what you will of the divine, but accept the reality of the profane and do not fib like a child because you wish it to be so. Your parents may tell you that you are the most beautiful and smartest child of them all, but once you enter preschool you start seeing that there is more to the world than you could ever have imagined. So let's hope that preschool is in session, inshallah.

Labels: ,