“Once upon a time, Europe really did not matter.” The Silk Roads: An Illustrated New History of the World

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“You start with a scarf…each 90-by-90-centimeter silk carré, printed in Lyon on twill made from thread created by the label’s own silkworms, holds a story. Since 1937, almost 2,500 original artworks have been produced, such as a 19th-century street scene from Ruedu Faubourg St.-Honore, the company’s home since 1880. The flora and fauna of Texas. A beach in Spain’s Basque country” –- this is a fragment from an advertisement article for Hermès in this month’s issue of a luxury magazine. The article is called “The Silk Road.” Does it refer to the “Silk Road” in any way that justifies the title, beyond the allure of legend? No. Does it mention that the first scarves created for this very label, in 1937, were made with raw silk from China? No. Not necessary, not relevant to the target reader. In fact, the less we mention the “East” while trying to sell such luxury designer items, the better, aiming as we are for the rich collector, the global consumer of fashion (whether belonging to the East or West) willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a small square of silk, and more likely to associate such status symbols with Western Europe rather than with the “underdeveloped,” impoverished, overpopulated, conflict-ridden East.

While silk has always been a coveted item, a symbol of wealth and power for millennia in many cultures around the world, the detailed, de-mythologized, accurate history of what we have come to know as the “Silk Road” is not only of little interest but has been deliberately suppressed in the West. Besides a vague connection with Marco Polo, most people usually draw a blank at its mention. During the many years that I have been working on (and presenting from) a trilogy of poetry manuscripts based on aspects of this history, I have come across few readers (including writers and academics) in the US who have a clear idea of the regions that have been, since antiquity, a part of these trade routes we call the Silk Road (or “’Seidenstrasse,” a term coined by the German historian Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877) to define a network of land and sea routes of central and continuous importance to global trade as well as civilizational influences and the shifts in geographical borders around the world: a history that has been shaping not only how the world map looks from time to time, but how attitudes, knowledge, goods, technology, weapons, fashions, and even diseases and cures have been spreading across the continents and through the centuries. Read more »

Viewing the Early Muslim State Through Its Coinage

by Ali Minai

ScreenHunter_2012 Jun. 06 07.56The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE were arguably among the most cataclysmic and consequential events in world history, creating a completely new and long-lasting civilization from India and Central Asia to the Western edge of North Africa. And, while this civilization has ramified and fragmented considerably over the subsequent thirteen centuries, its imprint still shapes the history of these regions today to a decisive degree. An especially important manifestation of this influence is the widespread sentiment among the Muslims of this region for some sort of “return” to that idealized earlier period of glory and purity – a sentiment that has fueled revivalist movements ranging from political ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood to violent ones like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, this revivalist impulse goes far beyond these visible movements, and pervades Muslim societies from South Asia to Morocco, entering every aspect of social, cultural and political life in myriad ways. In a sense, this can be seen as the natural impulse of people attempting to repossess their past after a period of colonization, but what makes such a desire compellingly possible is the fact that so little is truly known about the early period of Islam.

Ernest Renan famously said that Islam – unlike other great world religions – was “born in the full light of history”. However, this view has been challenged vigorously in the last century by Western scholars seeking to apply modern historical methods to the origins of Islam. To be sure, some of this “near-revisionism” is motivated by skepticism about the religion itself, but the problem is real enough. Most Muslims have implicit faith in the received reports and traditions about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but the fact is that the first biographical reports of the Prophet – by Ibn Ishāq and Mālik b. Anas – were not written down until more than a century after his death, and the earliest comprehensive histories of Islam – by Ibn Sa'd, Al-Wāqidī, Al-Tabarī, al-Balādhurī, et al. – date from the late 8th to early 9th century. A century or two may not seem long in the context of history, but the rise of Islam was so rapid that its truly formative period was basically over by the mid-8th century when the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad caliphate, replacing that most Arab of dynasties with one rooted in a more cosmopolitan ethos. Also, because of the way it had acquired power, the Abbasid dynasty had a strong incentive to promote a specific version of early Islamic history and doctrine. Thus, it is especially important to look at contemporary evidence to obtain an accurate picture of Islam's earliest period.

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The Past of Islamic Civilization

by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

― George Orwell, 1984

Cyprus_by_Piri_ReisThese days every other person seems to be concerned about the future of Islamic Civilization. From the Islamists, the traditionalists, the Liberals, the Conservatives etc. almost everyone seems to have a stake in the future of Islam. While these different groups may have different vision of the future they do have one thing in common – they almost always define the future in terms of the past: From the Salafis harkening back to a supposed era of purity, to the academics yearning for the Golden Age of Islam and to the more recent Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey and the wider Middle East. The study of history becomes paramount in such an encounter since a distorted view of the past can become a potentially unrealizable view of the future.

As any historian will tell us each group reads history in terms of its own aspirations and agenda. For the Muslims world in general the nostalgia for the past usually seems to be heavy on reviving the glories of the past. The danger here being that one may start living in a non-existent romanticized past and be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. In the West every other political pundit seems to be calling for an Islamic Reformation even though parallel religious structures do not exist in Islam. What do these visions of the future-past look like and what can be learned from these?

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ISIS and Islam: Beyond the Dream

by Omar Ali

A few days ago, Graeme Wood wrote a piece in the Atlantic that has generated a lot of buzz (and controversy). In this article he noted that:

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam”

The article is well worth reading and it certainly does not label all Muslims as closet (or open) ISIS supporters, but it does emphasize that many of the actions of ISIS have support in classical Islamic texts (and not just in fringe Kharijite opinion). This has led to accusations of Islamophobia and critics have been quick to respond. A widely cited response in “Think Progress” quotes Graeme Wood's own primary source (Princeton scholar Bernard Hakykel) as saying:

“I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”

Indeed. Who could possibly disagree with that? I dont think Graeme Wood disagrees. In fact, he explicitly says he does not. But that statement is a beginning, not a conclusion. What contingent factors and what historical events are important and which ones are a complete distraction from the issue at hand?

Every commentator has his or her (implicit, occasionally explicit) “priors” that determine what gets attention and from what angle; and a lot of confusion clearly comes from a failure to explain (or to grasp) the background assumptions of each analyst. I thought I would put together a post that outlines some of my own background assumptions and arguments in as simple a form as possible and see where it leads. So here, in no particular order, are some random comments about Islam, terrorism and ISIS that I hope will, at a minimum, help me put my own thoughts in order. Without further ado:

1. The early history of Islam is, among other things, the history of a remarkably successful imperium. Like any empire, it was created by conquest. The immediate successors of the prophet launched a war of conquest whose extent and rapidity matched that of the Mongols and the Alexandrian Greeks, and whose successful consolidation, long historical life, and development of an Arabized culture, far outshone the achievements of the Mongols or the Manchus (both of whom adopted the existing deeper rooted religions and cultures of their conquered people rather than impose or develop their own).

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In Defence of Valentine’s Day

by Tara* Kaushal

In-Defence-of-Valentines-Day-Sahil-Mane-PhotographyDespite the criticisms in the Indian context, I explain why I'm a huge fan of the day of love. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

Call me a romantic fool, but I love Valentine's Day. In college in New Delhi, I'd laugh and say, “Why not? It's just another excuse to celebrate and get presents!” Now, 10 years, awareness and much consumer fatigue since, it isn't about the gift economy at all. For days before, love is literally in the air (and on the airwaves, TV and everywhere). Consciously ignoring advertising suggestions of what we should be giving-receiving, where we should be going, what we should be doing, Sahil and I celebrate without spending. Last year, we just cooked for each other over music and laughter; this year, we're planning a party. I also wish my mother, family and friends.

When I speak of my love for Valentine's, it tends to spark debate with a whole range of people. I've had the religious and cultural traditionalists play the ‘Against Hinduism/Islam' (India's two major religions) and/or ‘Against Indian Culture' Card, say it is a cultural contamination from the West. Friends who are nonconformists and anti consumerism are, well, anti its consumerism, the nauseating marketing blitz and the pigeonholing.

And the many arguments of those coming from a postcolonial perspective are best summed up on Wiki: “The holiday is regarded as a front for ‘Western imperialism', ‘neocolonialism' and ‘the exploitation of working classes through commercialism by multinational corporations' (Satya Sharma in ‘The Cultural Costs of a Globalized Economy for India', Dialectical Anthropology). Studies have shown that Valentine's Day promotes and exacerbates income inequality in India, and aids in the creation of a pseudo-Westernized middle class. As a result, the working classes and rural poor become more disconnected socially, politically and geographically from the hegemonic capitalist power structure. They also criticize mainstream media attacks on Indians opposed to Valentine's Day as a form of demonization that is designed and derived to further the Valentine's Day agenda.”

And, surprisingly, I agree with most of these criticisms.

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One Thousand Year Writers Block

William Burroughs famously remarked that Islam had hit a one thousand year writer’s block. Is this assessment justified? First things first: obviously we are not talking about all writing or all creative work. Thousands of talented writers have churned out countless works of literature, from the poems ofHafiz and Ghalib to the novels of Naguib Mahfooz and the fairy tales of innumerable anonymous (and amazing) talents . There is also no shortage of talent in other creative fields, e.g. I can just say “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan” and be done with this discussion. But what about the sciences of religion and political thought, or the views of biology, history and human society to which these are connected? Is there a writer’s block in these dimensions?

0012 william burroughs

The correct answer would be “it depends” or “compared to what”? After all, it’s not so much that everyone else in Eurasia stopped thinking 500 years ago, but rather than an explosion of knowledge occurred in Europe that rapidly outstripped other centers of civilization in Eurasia. And after a period of relative decline, the rest of the world is catching up. Culture matters, but cultures also evolve. For better and for worse, cultures in Japan and Taiwan are now full participants in the global knowledge exchange, both as consumers and as producers. Iran has been trying to move beyond previous (and obviously flawed) models of personal autocracy and hereditary rule interspersed with violent and devastating civil wars, for over a hundred years, and the Islamic republic, for all its problems, is not a brain-dead culture.

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Blasphemy Law: the Shape of Things to Come

To the article below, one can now add this unhappy piece of news:

The decision of a lower court to award the death penalty to a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy has ignited a wide debate over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Pro aasia protest Liberals have asked that the Zia-era blasphemy law should be repealed or amended because it has become an instrument of oppression and injustice in the hands of mobs and gangsters (over 4000 prosecutions in 25 years with several gruesome extra-judicial executions). The religious right has mobilized its supporters to oppose any such amendment and regards these attempts as a conspiracy against Islam. Ruling party MNA Sherry Rahman has introduced a “private member bill” to amend the law and the governor of Punjab has intervened (somewhat clumsily) in the judicial process and indicated that a Presidential pardon is on the cards. The international media is arrayed against the law alongside Pakistan’s liberals and progressives, while the “deep state”, the Islamist front organizations and their mentors in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia are no doubt aligned on the other side. What will be the likely outcome of this struggle? It is always hazardous to make predictions, but let us make some anyway and try to state why these are the likely outcomes:

1. The law will not be repealed. Some minor amendments may be made (and even these will excite significant Islamist resistance) but their effectiveness will be limited. Blasphemy accusations will continue, as will the spineless convictions issuing from the lower courts. In fact, new blasphemy accusations will almost certainly be made with the express intention of testing any new amendment or procedural change (thus, ironically, any amendment is likely to lead to at least one more innocent Christian or Ahmedi victim as Islamists hunt around for a test case).

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