Monday, June 26, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 4

The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 4, Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Robert Irwin, 2014. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume abandons historical narrative in order to describe the literature, philosophy, science, law, government, theology and other aspects of Islamic societies from the time of Mohammed to 1800.

It's natural to start this review with Islam itself. It's clearly descended from both Christianity and Judaism, but the latter was known to pre-Islamic Arabs better than the former. About half of the population of early-7th century Medina were Jews, though we don't know what share of them were ethnically-Arab converts.

The Quran's picture of Christianity is garbled. For example, at one point it seems to suggest that the Trinity is composed of God, Jesus and Mary.

The language of the Quran is described here as "difficult, to say the least. Its syntax is often puzzling, and the vocabulary, to later speakers of Arabic, is frequently obscure."

As I've mentioned in an earlier review, some scholars think that Islam's holy book was written in Mesopotamia or the Levant a century or two after the Arab conquest. One of this volume's chapters argues against this by saying that the landscape depicted in the Quran is consistent with the Arabian desert.

The hadith (reports about Mohammed's words and deeds) sometimes contradict the Quran. I was surprised to learn that in such cases Muslim authorities tend to follow the hadith.

One interesting feature of Islamic law is that it was normally promulgated by religious scholars and not by states.

This book contains some amusing quotes from colonial British officials about Muslim law as they found it in India:

"Reflecting an entrenched state culture of monopoly over violence, Cornwallis"..."argued that too often criminals escaped punishment under the rule of Islamic law, a situation that would not be allowed to obtain under what he must have seen as an efficient state discipline. His voice echoed Hastings’ complaint that Islamic law was irregular, lacking in efficacy and ‘founded on the most lenient principles and on an abhorrence of bloodshed’.

In the first decades of Islam Muslims did not refer to Mohammed's example as a model of behavior (his sunnah) any more frequently than to the example of his successors Abu Bakr and Umar. But then the prophet's sunnah overwhelmed all others as a basis for recorded legal judgements.

Mohammed must have been prominent in Arabia during the latter portion of his life. After death his importance decreased in the normal human way, but a few decades later he became a one-in-many-millions exception - a man whose fame and impact grow over centuries.

"Almost from the beginning, Christians embraced doctrines - Jesus as the son of God, Christ as the pre existing Logos, the doctrine of the Trinity - which required complex theological explanation and justification." [...]

"Set against such doctrines, Islamic faith seems remarkably simple."

I don't think Islam has less supernatural stuff to be explained. Interestingly, the amount of debate about the daily practice of religion - what kind of food, clothing, music, business, etc. it allows - is greater in Islam and Judaism than in Christianity.

On the whole, coercion played a smaller role in the spread of Islam than of Christianity. The Quran states that "there is no compulsion in religion", and Muslims always considered it natural that non-Muslim communities would live within Muslim states, governing their internal affairs. On paper Islam is much more opposed to paganism than to "religions of the book", but in practice both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were accommodated. For Muslims the crucial thing is that the state should be governed by a Muslim ruler.

This book explains the spread of Islam in what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh by saying that these were "fringe areas, on the socio-ecological frontier of Hindu agrarian society", and that they were "not properly integrated into the Hindu caste system." In other words, Islam's competition was less culturally formidable there.

"Islamic names"..."in our sources increased among the Sials in the Punjab from 10 per cent in the early ninth/fiteenth century to 56 per cent in the mid eleventh/seventeenth, and reached 100 per cent in the early thirteenth/nineteenth."

Early on the biggest splinter group in Islam were the Kharijites. They insisted that the leader of the Muslim community should be elected, and that merit should be the only qualification for leadership. The Muslim mainstream rejected these ideas, and the caliphate quickly became hereditary. A moderate form of Kharijism called Ibadism survives today in Oman.

"Muslim asceticism, unlike the Christian variety, was never categorical in its renunciation of the world. Monasticism, according to the Quran, was a Christian innovation which God ‘did not prescribe for them’"

The closest Muslim parallel to monasticism is Sufism, whose khanaqahs (sometimes translated as convents) were usually located in cities and whose adherents were allowed to marry. They were interested in self-denial, however, as well as in mysticism. One of their characteristic behaviors was trying to get closer to God through ecstatic dancing and repetition of God's names. The Sufis compared their relationship with Allah to romance, sometimes using erotic imagery. They had many "saints" whose tombs they venerated.

Like Christian monks, the Sufis were divided into orders, which had distinctive dress codes. But unlike Christian orders, the Sufi ones were decentralized. An order's many branches were effectively independent.

There is a pattern here. Here is how this book describes Muslim religious schools:

"The institutions themselves had little impact on instruction or the curriculum. The transmission of religious knowledge depended on the informal ties established between teachers and students, just as it had in the centuries before the madrasa made its appearance. One did not ‘enrol’ in a madrasa; one attended classes given by a particular teacher which happened to meet in one (although those classes might also take place elsewhere: in a mosque or a home, for example). Similarly, one did not ‘graduate’ from an institution; instead, one received an ijaza, a ‘licence’ to teach or to transmit a particular text issued by the master with whom one had studied."

A prior volume mentioned the lack of formal republics with written constitutions in the Muslim world. Strong formal institutions require trust towards non-relatives and a certain level of fussy literal-mindedness.

Teaching in the Muslim world "began and ended with prayers. The teacher would sit on a cushion or a chair with his back to a wall or a pillar, and his students would sit cross legged in a semi circle before him. As the student succeeded in his studies he was invited to sit closer to the teacher."

A teacher "would dictate the book to his students, who might write it down, but almost certainly would commit it to memory - in time such pedagogical texts came to be written in rhyme to help the memory. Subsequently there might be an explanation of the text, depending on its nature. The completion of the study of the book would involve a recitation of the text with an explanation. If this was done to the teacher’s satisfaction, the student would be given an ijaza, a licence to transmit that text, which has been well described by Berkey as ‘a personal authority’ over the text. On that ijaza would be the names of all those who had transmitted the text, going back to the original author."[...]

"It might be asked why person-to-person transmission of knowledge, involving recitation out aloud, should persist in a society where scholars were highly proficient in reading and writing, paper was plentiful and book production a major activity. The problem was that there was scepticism about the written word, the understandable scepticism of an oral society, in which an individual might be in the most literal sense bahr al ulum, an ocean of knowledge."[...]

"The enormous emphasis on person to person transmission of knowledge should not lead us to think that self-teaching did not take place. It tended not to happen in the traditional sciences, where issues of authority were crucial and where teachers and students were often supported by institutional stipends and scholarships. But in the rational sciences and in adab [Glossy: belles lettres] studies self-teaching was not uncommon."

An obvious explanation that this book omits is that a societal preference for person-to-person teaching gave employment to lots of teachers, who had a self-interest in perpetuating that preference.

"An enduring feature of discussions of elementary education was the beating of pupils. That excessive corporal punishment was a problem is clear from the recollections of men from all parts of the Muslim world."[...]

"It is said that a woman who learns [how to] write’, went a Mamluk market inspector’s manual, ‘is like a snake given poison to drink’." If I ever write a review of a feminist book, I'll use that as an epigraph.

Some of the best-regarded works of Arabic literature are poems composed in the century or two before the advent of Islam. These were first written down in the 8th century however, and some scholars doubt that they're really pre-Islamic. After the Arabs conquered most of the Middle East there was a market for literature that portrayed them in their most romantic, pristine state, as brave desert warriors.

Travel accounts were popular, but most of them were about Islamic countries. Compared to Europeans, Muslims had little interest in "the other". Here's an amusing description of one of the exceptions to that rule:

"Muhammad Rabıq’s Safına yi Sulaymanı, describing a Safavid embassy to Thailand in 1685-8, is imbued with the spirit of Iranian superiority. In its constructed dichotomy of Iranian culture versus local barbarism it goes so far as to state that the Siamese had only recently turned from the realm of bestiality to that of humankind."

For a long time after Gutenberg's revolution printing in Arabic letters was forbidden in the Ottoman realm.

"The reasons for abstention from printing, which had an enormous negative impact on the future of the empire, included religious conservatism and protection of the social and economic interests of the professions of calligraphers, illustrators, binders etc., the people who produced the books."

Non-Muslim minorities were allowed to print their own books and some Muslim books were printed in Europe and imported to the Middle East. But the first Ottoman Muslim printing press did not appear until 1727.

Even after that "printing did not take off immediately, and printed books were not popular. The printing press, after changing hands, closed down in 1211/1797. In its sixty-four years of existence it had printed only twenty-four books, the last book appearing in 1209/1794."

Medieval Islamic libraries were similar in size to the ancient Greco-Roman ones:

"...the neo-Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba are said to have had 400,000 books, and comparable numbers are given for the libraries of Fatimid Egypt, Abbasid Baghdad and Buyid Shıraz."

The Islamic study of science began in the late 8th century when the Abbasid caliphs started to commission translations of ancient Greek works. Translations continued to be made for over two hundred years.

'While there is no easily identifiable single motivating factor for this movement, it has been suggested that a ‘culture of translation’ present in a ‘Zoroastrian imperial ideology’ was inherited, adopted and furthered by al Mansur and his successors, who had strong familial and cultural links to Persian influences."[...]

"The acquisition of paper making technology in 132/751 from Chinese prisoners of war helped the translation movement flourish."

The Arabs seemed to understand the world-historical importance of what they had done. A physician to Saladin is quoted here as saying, in the 12th century, that "...if it had not been for al Mamun,‘medicine and other disciplines of the Ancients would have been effaced and obliterated just as medicine is obliterated now from the lands of the Greeks, which had been most distinguished in this field.’"

In subsequent centuries Muslims advanced beyond the Greeks in a few areas and fell behind in others.

Predictably, there was a heated debate over whether Greek knowledge - pagan, at times coldly rational and materialistic - was compatible with Islam.

One Muslim scholar claimed that "Science and the attainment of knowledge in all their levels are "..." the means to the end of ultimate human happiness in an immaterial uniting and conjoining with the Agent Intellect."

Sounds a bit like the tech singularity. But in general the medieval Islamic philosophy described here felt as boring and useless to me as the modern Western kind. Hilariously, the Arabs adapted the Greek term "philosophy" into their language as "falsafa".

After the golden age of Baghdad (late 8th through 10th centuries) the interest in science started to decline.

"...apart from the odd will o’ the wisp, such as the translation into Persian in the early nineteenth century of Newton’s Principia by a scholar in the Farangı Mahall tradition, the areas where the rational sciences flourished seemed to offer little hope. Their study was in its way as conservationist as that of the traditional sciences."

By traditional sciences the authors mean the textual study of the Quran, the compilation of reports about the prophet's life, jurisprudence, etc.

"We have noted, furthermore, the enduring suspicion of the rational sciences, which meant that by the eighteenth century their study in any substantial sense had come to be confined to Iran and northern India."[...]

"In comparative history, it has been proposed that the European Renaissance arose in part as a reaction to scholasticism; but in Islam events followed a reverse order - a ‘renaissance’ came first and a kind of scholasticism’ followed."

Why did Islamic culture stultify at some point during the middle ages? I don't know, but nomadic invasions are a possibility. Mongols, Kazakhs, Buryats, etc. are utterly unimportant in today's global politics, so the hair-raising deeds of their ancestors can now be described in an extremely unemotional way:

"The grazing had no boundaries save those imposed by natural conditions, and artificial borders were merely obstacles. So too were the inhabitants, with their inconvenient habits of putting up buildings and walls and digging ditches across the land. For the nomad the land was more use unpeopled."

The worst invasion was, of course, the one started by Ghenghiz Khan. Normally nomadic societies were less autocratic than those of the settled Middle East. But Ghenghiz was an exception - an absolute ruler who demanded the kind of total obedience that shocked contemporary writers.

Since the nomads were much better at animal husbandry than peasants, there was no sense for the latter to compete with them in that arena.

" general the production of animals and the growing of crops were two distinct activities, carried out by different people on different types of land. There was no trace of the integrated (or mixed) farming of medieval Europe, in which the same land and labour were used to produce both crops and large animals."[...]

"As far as one can tell from the sources, even the production of textiles, pottery and baskets, as well as much of the processing of foods, was carried out mainly in urban workshops. Rural dwellers, therefore, seem to have depended on the cities for most of their tools, cloth, pots and much else."[...]

"The built environment of the Islamic city"..."appears to have certain definable characteristics. The most obvious of these was the apparent absence of formal planning, the narrow winding streets, the closed-off residential quarters. The main arteries of such a Muslim city were narrow and sometimes stepped because they were not designed for wheeled vehicles. Medieval Muslim society almost disinvented the wheel: it was the pack animal and the human porter that shifted goods, not the cart. This meant that there was no need for wide, well-engineered streets of the sort that Roman towns had required."

Good roads between cities make wheeled vehicles more useful. Did the quality of Middle Eastern roads decline after the start of the nomadic invasions?

"If there is one feature of the human geography of the Muslim world in the pre-modern period which distinguishes it from that of western Europe, India or China it is surely the presence of large numbers of nomadic or transhumant peoples."

How much upkeep did ancient roads need? Did the use of wheeled vehicles decrease in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire? The volume of commerce and the degree of specialization of artisans certainly did.

"Textile manufacture was the most important industry in the Muslim Middle East and probably the largest provider of employment in most towns."[...]

"Though he acknowledges the crafts as a fundamental component of urban life, it is clear that neither Ibn Khaldun nor other contemporary Muslim scholars held the practitioners of the crafts in high esteem."

For several centuries after its founding in 762 the most important city in the world outside of China was Baghdad.

"Because it stood at the head of what was still the richest area of agricultural land in the world, the alluvial lands of the Sawad of southern Iraq, and because it lay at the centre of a network of waterways, the growth of the city was not constrained by problems of food supply, and the population may well have reached half a million by the beginning of the third/ninth century."

Being the capital of a still-united caliphate didn't hurt either.

Early Islamic cities were rarely walled. "This apparent disregard for physical security was reflected in the fact that sieges of towns were rare and that military dominance was usually secured in battles between field armies in open terrain: military leaders were often reluctant to cramp their armies inside fortifications."

This book associates the reappearance of city walls with the Seljuk invasion of the late 11th century, but that's not much of an explanation.

The early Arab conquerors fought on foot, though they used horses and camels to get to the battlefield. According to this book, stirrups appeared in the Middle East around 700 AD. And starting in the 9th century Mongoloid, Turkic-speaking mounted archers were the main fighting force in the Muslim world. But that's too early to explain the reappearance of city walls.

"Islamic cities were"..."distinguished by the separation of commercial and residential areas: there was no tradition of living above the shop, and the suqs [Glossy: markets] were usually closed and deserted at night. Most Islamic cities too shared the tradition of secluded residential quarters, sometimes gated, with narrow cul-de-sac lanes leading to blank walled houses which looked inward on their courtyards; it was very different from the public, sometimes ostentatious, housing of the western city.

"The closed residential quarters were a result of the Muslim concern with the privacy and sanctity of domestic family life, which had to be protected from prying eyes."

The higher the social class, the more secluded were its women.

"...not even their names could be known by strangers. An efficient way of shaming men was to name their womenfolk in satirical poems"[...]

"When, in 841/1438, Egypt suffered from plague and famine, the Mamluk sultan Barsbay asked the religious scholars (ulama) about the causes of these misfortunes. Their answer was unanimous: the presence of women in the streets was the first reason for God’s punishment on the Egyptian realm."

If a rich family hired a male teacher to educate its women, it was customary for him to be separated from his students by a curtain.

"...senior women, in a post-sexual phase of their lives, were not subjected to strict gender segregation, and therefore they could teach freely to male disciples."

Men don't like to waste resources on other guys' children. It's sometimes said that Middle Eastern men cover up and lock away their women more than Europeans do because Middle Easterners have less trust towards non-relatives. If you assume that every man will try to steal your wife the moment you look away, Darwinian logic requires you to hide her behind burqas and walls. I'm sure that lower class men in those societies would have liked to keep their women out of sight too, but lacked the resources to do it. Poor families needed women's labor.

Polygamy was expected among rulers but very rare in the rest of the population.

"A woman in a good economic position could make her own choice for a second or third marriage, while her first marriage was generally arranged by her family."

Unlike in Europe, the children of concubines and slaves were considered legitimate and had the same rights to their father's estate as the children he had with his wife. Contraception was generally legal. Prostitution was occasionally banned but "flourished uninterruptedly".

"...heterosexual anal intercourse was severely condemned by moralists such as Ibn al Hajj (d. 737/1336), and by Sunnı schools of jurisprudence, with the exception of the Malikıs, who allowed it if the wife consented"[...]

"Legally, the most important illicit sexual act was zina, a term describing vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman who was not his wife or his concubine. Any child born from an adulterous relationship was illegitimate."[...]

"Homoeroticism has been identified as an inherent characteristic of Muslim societies; and the amount and quality of homoerotic classical Arabic poetry could be offered as a proof for this assertion."[...]

"Love for handsome boys was, as in Greece, part of the accepted cultural view in secular high-class circles, and no shame was involved in admiring good-looking ephebes. Sex segregation left unmarried sexually active men with no alternative but to solicit sex from boys, their own slave girls and prostitutes."

So there were alternatives to boys. I don't know if sex segregation really was the cause of the traditional Middle Eastern/Mediterranean attitude to homosex.

" contrast to Christian views on the matter, to be sexually attracted by one’s own sex was not considered by Muslim thinkers as unnatural or abnormal. Homosexual inclinations escaped condemnation, as long as homosexual acts are not practised; in this case, sinners had to expect the penalty for zina."[...]

"Socially, a man’s reputation was not besmirched for being an active homosexual, but a passive one was considered to be a pervert, and his inclination to be penetrated a serious illness. But among certain groups, such as the Mamluk military caste or the Sufi communities, homoerotic liaisons and homosexual attachments were fairly common. The great Egyptian historian al Maqrızı suggests that conjugal ties were weakened by the frequency of homosexuality among Mamluks, and that wives took to wearing men’s clothing to attract their husbands."[...]

"While male homosexuality is well documented, lesbianism rarely attracted the attention of Muslim authors, who approached this sexual activity with great reluctance with the exception of erotic literature, in which some vignettes on lesbians can be found."[...]

"Lesbian sexual acts were of course severely condemned, but homoerotic attachment between women did not threaten the genealogical capital of families, and they were usually kept in the private domain of households."[...]

"Frequently associated with marginality, transvestites would work as actors and, more commonly, as pimps."[...]

"Apocalyptic traditions linked the upheaval of the last times to the existence of powerful and assertive women, who would behave in an immoral way; the spread of homosexuality is another sign of the approach of the apocalypse."

The fact that most Muslims still believe that cannot be entirely ascribed to their mean IQ. South America's mean is comparable to that of the Muslim heartland, yet Islamic cultures are much more traditional. They resist things that most societies don't. It's something to remember any time one is tempted to be dismissive about Islam.