Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Superpowers, Prophets, and Religion

Travel causes even the least observant to re-learn history. I began reading Ehsan Masood's Science and Islam (2009) last week, and I highly recommend the book. 
From what I gather so far, a world with two primary superpowers is not new. Masood mentions the Greek-Persian rivalry several times. (From my museum visits, I know the hatred between these two empires was so fierce, the Greeks engraved faces of defeated/dead Persians on their mead mugs.) 

Less predictable is the path of a new superpower. As America and the Soviet Union continued a costly rivalry from 1945-1991 and then from 2000 until 2016, China took advantage of their inattention, becoming a new superpower in just twenty years (1995-2015). No country can maintain supremacy if it expends energy and wealth fighting multiple fronts over an extended time period, a lesson every empire seems to forget. 

The Persian Sassanids and the Byzantine (Orthodox) Christians were similarly occupied with each other, allowing the untrained Arab Umayyad tribes and Bedouins to eclipse both empires within thirty years. Interestingly, such victories against outsiders occurred after Muhammad's (PBUH) death. For all the talk of the Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) strategic prowess, his military career--as opposed to his economic and philosophical one--lasted only ten years, towards the end of his life, from 622 to 632, and after his first wife's death. (The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in 570 A.D.) 

A diversion: Muhammad (PBUH) initially fled to Medina to escape assassination attempts; however, the polytheistic elites, his brethren in Mecca, continued to pursue him. Only after he moved from Mecca, his birthplace, to Medina in 622--when he was approximately 50 years old--did he authorize violence under the express limitation of self-defense: 

Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. (Qu'ran, 22:39) 

Furthermore, Muhammad (PBUH) testified he was visited by the angel Gabriel/Jibril in 610 A.D.--at the age of 40--meaning he opposed elites and their excesses before receiving divine revelations, even though he belonged to the influential Qurayshi tribe. Like most changemakers, he was a rebel early on, disgusted by materialism (see Jesus's actions, overturning tables of moneychangers at temple), making friends with outsiders, including but not limited to African slaves. (By the way, though Abu Bakr, Muhammad's successor, was said to have light skin, we don't know if "light skin" referred to light brown or some other color.) 

Thus, for most of his life, Muhammad (PBUH) gained influence and protection through two sources: first and foremost, his older wife, an affluent, established merchant who trusted the younger Muhammad in part because he disdained materialism; and second, the poor, especially slaves, whom he freed, co-opted, and elevated into positions of authority (see stories of Bilal ibn Rabah, Salman Al-Farsi, and Suhayb ar-Rumi aka Sohaib ibn Sinan). ["Many of those who fought for Islam in the early years were among the poorest in the region." (Masood, pp. 24)] Regarding the second source, Muhammad's (PBUH) openness to outsiders surely arose because he was orphaned at a young age. 

As for other historical topics, Masood doesn't cover the Sunni-Shia split in depth, but I'll try to summarize here: some Shia scholars argue Muhammad (PBUH) united the numerous tribes and peoples of Arabia under a monotheistic and Abrahamic banner, only to have his work destroyed after his death in a military coup defying his succession wishes as set forth in his Ghadir Khumm speech. The Sunnis, for their part, see no conflict because Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's chosen successor, was eventually made into a Caliph and was too young to command a leadership position at the time of Muhammad's (PBUH) death. (Ali was eventually murdered in 661 in present-day Iraq.) 
Being too young didn't stop the Europeans from choosing successors,
perhaps their way of ensuring the military's influence.
If they want to pursue the matter further, the Shias might argue Umar/Omar--the same person who pledged allegiance to Ali at Ghadir Khumm--altered the Prophet's intended inheritance (the Fadak estate) to his daughter, Fatima Zahra, allegedly causing her to suffer a miscarriage and death less than three months after Muhammad's (PBUH) death. (Muhammad once said, "Fatima is a part of me. Whoever makes her angry, makes me angry.") The Sunnis may counter by saying succession is rarely a smooth process--almost every caliph after Muhammad (PBUH) and Abu Bakr was assassinated or poisoned, not just Ali ibn Abi Talib. Additionally, the Fadak estate was eventually returned to Fatima's heirs by an Ummayyad caliph. 

[Timeline: Abu Bakr (632 to 634AD), includes Ridda Wars (Arabic: حروب الردة‎) aka the Wars of Apostasy from 632 to 633; Umar I (634 to 644); Uthman (644 to 656); Ali (656 to 661)] 

Furthermore, while Husayn ibn Ali, Muhammad's (PBUH) grandson, was murdered under the Sunni Ummayads, their ancestors did not specifically target the Shias--after all, the Ummayads lost to the Abbasids, direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad, who were also Sunni. According to Professor M. Umaruddin of Aligarh University, the "Abbasids put to death not only all the members of Ummayad family but also all their supporters. They disillusioned the Shi'as by killing them wholesale." (The Ethical Philosophy of Al-Ghazzali
Succession and internecine feuds were common in Europe, too.
In fact, both the Sunnis and Shia can point to a third interloper, the Khawarij group, as the source of division within Islam. The Khawarij (aka the Seceders) were about 12,000 people, a hardline sect that refused to accept Ali's governance, eventually assassinating him. 

In any case, after 755 A.D. and after the end of Ummayad rule, "Persian culture and civilization asserted itself dominantly and triumphantly in the Muslim world." (Id., pp. 10) "Shi'ism in particular appealed to the Persians, who further developed the Shi'ite doctrines of the Imamate and evolved most of the transcendental theories about it. The two main sects of the Sh'ias, the sect of the Seven and the sect of the Twelve appeared during this period," a split once again caused by the familiar issue of succession. The Sixth Imam, Ja'far Al-Sadiq, disinherited his eldest son Isma'il, nominating his younger son Musa al-Kazim instead. It seems the Twelvists chose incorrectly, disappearing circa 873 AD, leaving the "Seventies" to follow the son of Is'mail, a man named Muhammad who favored allegories, storytelling, and even wine to interpret the Quran. (Id.) (Were Rumi, born around 1207, and his mentor Shams, born around 1185, influenced by the Seventies? I don't know.)  

As I was reading Masood's book, I realized another pattern in power replacement: the presence of a single unexpected defeat leading to the collapse of a long-standing empire. We've all heard of Napoleon's Waterloo and Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union (starting in June 1941, with the winter in November 1941 destroying Germany's morale), but what about the battle of Yarmuk in Jordan in 636, where about 35,000 Arab Muslims defeated a Byzantine force of 100,000? Or the Battle of Badr in 624, where Muhammad's army of 313 men defeated almost 1,000 Arabs from Mecca? 
I'm reminded of Ernest Hemingway's quote about bankruptcy/collapse coming gradually then suddenly, a sentiment that seems to apply perfectly to empires in decline after an unexpected military defeat. 

Another pattern discussed in Masood's book is the speed by which a center of commerce or influence can shift. The Ummayads moved the center of operations from Mecca to Damascus, and Baghdad's intellectuals also seem to have moved to Damascus. Similarly, Constantinople immediately became an important city after the Byzantines moved the center of Christianity away from Rome. 

Yet, all empires drove away distinguished minorities even as they attracted intellectuals and new residents. For example, the Byzantines excluded Nestorians, who were Christians, but who had a different interpretation of Christ's role. Masood describes the Byzantines as fundamentalists who insisted on "a single interpretation of the nature of Christ," displacing minorities and non-conformist Christians as far away as China. 
It got me thinking: for most of human history, groups of minorities were rarely able to tell their stories in documents that survived intact, so we lack full knowledge about declining social cohesion and the numerous escalations that led to expulsions. Such gaps make it almost impossible to study patterns in historical displacement and render history books woefully incomplete. Consequently, when studying history, remember: you are learning a sliver of a sliver of a moment in time. Be humble. 

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