August 31, 2003

New Blog

In the referrer logs, I came across A Dervish's Du'a', written by Maryam, which I've added to the blog roll. Like me, she's noted something a bit odd about Amir Taheri, writing about his claim that the hijab, the veil or headgear worn by some Muslim women, is a 1970s conspiracy.

While my opinion of Taheri has improved somewhat over the months, I still remember a column he wrote in December 2001 that appeared in Arab News, claiming that in Washington D.C. a mood of deep depression prevailed, and that Americans were buying and wearing Revolutionary era clothing to try to recapture some of their lost glory. Here's the lead:

Although the American capital has been bedecked with Christmas decorations for weeks, a visitor is quickly persuaded that people here are in no mood for festivities. The shopping malls that should have been teeming with end-of-the-year shoppers are all but deserted with many shutters down. The only shops that seem to be doing well are those selling memorabilia related to the American War of Independence in the 18th century. Also doing well are a few designer boutiques selling 18th-century outfits, long and elaborate dresses for ladies and tight-fit demisaison jackets for gentlemen.

I work in Washington and live in its suburbs, and I can tell you definitively that shops weren't shuttered, malls were packed with the usual throng of holiday shoppers, and except for the occasional historical re-enactor, I didn't see anyone walking around in tricorns or silk stockings.

One note about Dervish -- obviously Maryam is far more proficient in HTML than I am -- she has nifty markings next to blog names denoting a religion. She has put a crescent next to Ideofact. Though the proper symbol should be either a cross (I remain nominally Christian) or, better still, a question mark, I won't complain.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:47 PM | Comments (4)

August 28, 2003

Nabataeans & Writing

Ten days ago, in a post on Christopher Luxenberg's approach to reading the Qur'an, I suggested that near contemporaneous inscriptions might provide a way of verifying Luxenberg's key theory in his approach -- that the Arabic of the Qur'an borrowed heavily from Aramaic, and has been misunderstood ever since. So I googled "ancient Islamic inscriptions," and came across this interesting site devoted to the Nabataeans, who went from being nomadic tent dwellers to controlling the ancient trade in frankincense and spices. They built the ancient city of Petra, which was one of their capitals (it appears the Nabataean empire had more than one). Nabataean "history" (they left little of their own, but were mentioned by Greek and Roman historians) stretches from roughly 550 B.C.E. to about 600 C.E., and probably ceased to exist as an independent culture sometime during the first caliphate.

What caught my eye were these passages on Nabataean writing:

It seems that the Nabataeans created a new writing form to add to those in use in the Middle East of their day. They developed a running "cursive" or semi-ligatured script, which was used for both lapidary inscriptions and the more common graffiti. This writing form would later evolve into the "Arabic" writing still in use by Arabs today.

The Nabataean language seems to have been a variant of Aramaic with a strong Arab influence in it. However, archeologists have not come to any solid conclusions concerning the Nabataean language. Other Arabian languages include Lihynaite, Safaitic, Thamudic, Himyarite, Minaean, Qatabanian, Sabaean, and Palmyrene. The problem is that two of these languages are very similar to Nabataean in a number of ways. Safaitic and Thamudic have a different script to Nabataean, but they seem to be very similar languages. What is confusing is that the people who wrote in these other scripts had the same gods as the Nabataeans and often had the same names as Nabataeans. The people who wrote these languages were so similar that some archeologists have wondered if the three scripts were used by the same people for the same language. Was there one script for common people, one for religious leaders, and one for merchants? Were there three different groups of Nabataeans each with their own dialect? Or, do the three dialects tell us that there were three distinct tribes, who were closely related in many other ways, such as culture and religion?

When the Nabataeans sent their famous diplomatic letter written to Antigonus, Diodorus the historian notes that it was written in 'Syrian letters' (XIX.96.1). Syrian in this context is no doubt, Aramaic, the trade language used at that time by the Seleucids. This is important to note, because it demonstrates that the Nabataeans were capable of producing a letter in another language.

In light of Luxenberg's method, I found this of interest. Incidentally, I'm not sure how seriously to take the site -- there is a section devoted to the Voynich Manuscript, about which H.D. Miller of Travelling Shoes wrote here:

Both the Codex Seraphanius and the Voynich Manuscript have to be seen to be believed. Both works appear to describe plants, animals, and people that don't exist in a language that can't be read. And both works tend to inspire obsessive devotion in those who are drawn into their peculiar worlds.

Of course, any mention of the Voynich reminds me of my own rather pleasant, and thankfully brief, obsession with the Voynich Manuscript. A few years back, while in still in graduate school at Yale, a friend and I became briefly preoccupied with the Voynich manuscript. We spent several delightful afternoons at the Beinecke studying the manuscript, its background, and all of the various theories about it. Since we were both excellent researchers and fairly well-trained paleographers, who'd done extensive work with medieval manuscripts in Latin and Arabic, our attempt was by no means an amateur one.

Anyway, our ultimate conclusion was that it was a hoax, a fabulous, wonderful, beautiful hoax, one probably produced in the late 16th century.

According to the Nabataean site, the manuscript might be a badly copied book in Nabataean script.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:48 PM | Comments (2)

August 27, 2003

Norwegian Blogger returns

When I migrated from paleo Ideofact to this address, I reviewed my blogroll, and dropped some links to people who seemed to have given it up. I'm pleased to see that one I'd dropped, Vegard Valberg, the Norwegian Blogger, is back, with a pair of posts arguing that notices of Europe's death are premature.

I'm reminded somewhat of something the character Ulrich says in Robert Musil's monumental Man Without Qualities. During a discussion of Austro-Hungarian virtues, at which some propose militarism or Nietsche or other intellectual fashions of the day, Ulrich postulates the key virtue of the empire as the ability to just muddle through. This may not sound like much, but by and large Ulrich was onto something: it is far better to muddle through with contradictions than to face instead the all encompassing, uncompromising solutions of communism or fascism.

I have a few quibbles with Vegard's second post, on Islamic immigration and integration in Europe. A decade or so ago, when I was in Berlin doing my best to learn German, I was cornered at a party by a few of my classmates -- a couple of Swiss, a Frenchman and our teacher's significant other -- and asked fairly pointed questions about American racism. (Cornered is too strong a word -- it was a pleasant evening, after all, and I think they genuinely wanted to know if, say, the beating of Rodney King was unusual or par for the course.) I generally believe that America still has racial problems, but I also believe Americans have made a good faith effort to confront them, and while there's still room for further improvement, it's not as if great strides haven't been made. I ended by pointing out that a series of actions, from private sector efforts like Jackie Robinson in baseball to court decisions to national and state legislation, Americans have shown a remarkable desire to, as it were, "overcome." I ended by noting the situation of Turks in Berlin and Germany generally -- second and third generation Turks born in Germany were still denied citizenship. To which the German significant other replied, "Yes, but they're not German."

To be American is to adhere a set of ideas -- there is no American nation, in the sense of one ethnic group or volk. To be German -- to be part of the German nation -- means having a certain ancestry. A Turk can come here, swear his allegiance to the Constitution, and be every bit as American as I am (and even, perhaps, more so), but for a Turk to become a German is a rather more difficult feat.

Later that evening my French friend complained about the Eastern Europeans who came to France. I thought this was particularly rude, since at the time I had a Polish girlfriend, who was there with me, and listened to his diatribe about Poles, Czechs and Hungarians. His complaint was that, having ruined their own countries, they were now coming to France to ruin it -- running black market businesses, littering (I'm not making that one up), hanging out in public places and ruining things for the French. Much attention of late has been directed to the failure of immigrants from Muslim countries to integrate into their new countries -- I can't help but wonder how other groups immigrating in large numbers have fared, whether they too "are not German."

Posted by Ideofact at 10:40 PM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2003

Causabon & the Book of Mormon

In a comment to a recent post on the Qur'an, Razib of the always engaging Gene Expression questioned the oft-stated opinion that the Qur'an is beautiful.

when i recited surahs and stuff, the passages had a hypnotic quality to them. but, so does a lot of religious chanting in whatever language, and a lot of indigenous "world music."

I should add that certain disco and pop tunes, played at ear splitting volume in a club, can have the same effect (most likely Razib includes them in the "world music" category).

Razib adds,

many of my mormon friends asserted that the book of mormon was so long, so detailed, and so poetic & plot-thick that Joseph Smith couldn't have made it up. is the book of mormon poetic? well, i think it's far, far crappier than the [King James Version] that it tries to mimic, but my mormon friends thought they were listening to the tabernacle choir singing when they read it....

My own experience of the Book of Mormon is rather limited -- while I've read a few pages here and there, I much prefer Swedenborg, whose revelations were personal rather than the elaborate historicism concocted by Joseph Smith. I also prefer Fenimore Cooper.

In the introduction to American Apocrypha, a collection of skeptical essays on the Book of Mormon, editors Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe write,

Historical anachronisms [in the Book of Mormon] are plentiful. For instance, such things as steel, horses, and wheat were first imported to the Americas by the Spaniards. Apologists counter with ad hoc hypotheses: steel is actually iron; horses are deer; wheat is amaranth; goats are brockets; cows are deer, brockets, camelidae or bisons; tents are makeshift huts. In short, things are not what they appear. Never mind that Mesoamerica had no metallurgy to speak of until after Book of Mormon times, that the Nephits used the horse to pull chariots in battle over long distances...

Again, the nature of faith is not what is at question here, but rather the structure of reason and theory. Some people would like to erect a closed system that admits only "positive" evidence. If apologists had their way, there would be no way to refute their theory and hence no method by which to fairly evaluate the Book of Mormon's historical claims.

This page has some interesting links to sites evaluating the historical ideas of the Church of Latter Day Saints against archaeological and anthropological evidence; I also recommend the collected essays in American Apocrypha, which assume a far higher familiarity with the Book of Mormon than I possess, but are interesting nonetheless.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:15 PM | Comments (3)

August 24, 2003


On page 78 of The Qur'an: A Short Introduction, Farid Esack tells us, in a footnote to a passage on the controversy over whether the copy of the Qur'an that 'Ali ibn Abi Talib compiled differed significantly from the one which became the standard text under 'Uthman,

The Rafidis, usually descripted as "a group of extremist Shi'is" alleged the 'Uthman had expunged some verses from the Qur'an (Zarkashi 1972 1:240). Literally, meaning "repudiators", the term was also used as a term of abuse by some Sunni theologians for all Shi'is. None of the earlier Shi'i groups that rejected the authenticity of the 'Uthmannic canon are still in existence.

The last sentence is phrased oddly.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:49 PM | Comments (4)

August 22, 2003

Al-Farsi and Alawites

From the handy New Encyclopedia of Islam's entry on Salman Al-Farisi:

Because he is pictured as one who offered the Prophet crucial, and one might even say, arcane advice, certain Dualist sects on the fringe of Islam have attributed some curious identities to Salman al-Farisi. Some have said that he was the Angel Gabriel in disguise; the 'Alawis make of him one, and pehaps the highest, of three aspects of Divine theophany along with the Prophet and 'Ali ibn Abi Talib; others have seen in him a secret Divine emanation. As a foreigner in Medina, Salman has been assigned the role of Allogenes ("he who is born elsewhere") by those sects who are inspired by hermetic tradition.

Interestingly, the author of the item on al-Farsi suggests that he was allegorical rather than real -- a Persian, he foreshadowed the role Persia was to play in the Ummah. Unlike other contemporaries -- or companions -- of the Prophet, there is no record of Salman Al-Farsi after the death of the Prophet.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:53 AM | Comments (4)

August 21, 2003

Self disclpline

A while back, in a post on pirates, I noted that the buccaneers were fairly democratic -- captains were elected, as were quartermasters, who acted as a check on the captain. Patrick Pringle, in his work Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy noted about them,

Honest service in the Navy or on merchant ships had made them loathe and dread authority, and if they gloried in anything it was their freedom from the fear of being flogged. They had no discipline, and therefore much self-discipline.

I think the last line is fairly instructive, and I was reminded of it when I read this piece in the Arab News:

Women alone or accompanied by their drivers in Saudi Arabia are almost always harassed wherever they go by men of all ages. The situation has become so pathetic that the term “open season” is an understatement. Even more perplexing is the fact that when women are walking with a Saudi man, no one dares to approach them in any way; the worst that will happen is a quick stolen glance. I admit I like it when one of my brothers agrees to take me somewhere, not because I could not defend myself if I had to, but because Riyadh suddenly becomes a much more peaceful place to walk in, with less savage behavior.

Looking at my brother as he walked next to me in the shopping mall, I wondered what it was about him that was so threatening. He is a regular teenager, tallish but without much muscle; my driver (with whom I’m constantly being harassed) is much taller and has a more threatening build. And that was when it hit me. It was not the physical build but the fact that he was a Saudi man. That is why more and more women require that their drivers wear the traditional thobe and ghoutra/shummagh: In other words, they make their own scarecrows.

The saddest part of all this is the realization that we are a nation with so little self-discipline that we need this and other types of scarecrows to make us behave. Why is that? What made us this way? Was it the way we were educated and raised? Have we been inadvertently taught that punishment is the only reason to be moral? And if there is no chance of being punished, then what? No boundaries?

One might argue that when you need a "Committee to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue" to patrol the streets, administering floggings, chances are there's very little virtue to start with. But the lack of virtue is more likely a result of tyranny, rather than its cause.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

August 20, 2003

Luxenberg reviewed

Here is a favorable review of Christoph Luxenberg's work of Qur'anic exegesis. I'm still reading it, but it seems interesting. Thanks to Dr. Michael Tinkler, a.k.a. the Cranky Professor, and Kevin P. Edgecomb for pointing it out.

Luxenberg, by the way, is the European scholar operating under an assumed name who is applying philological techniques to the Qur'an, mentioned most recently on Ideofact here.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:30 AM | Comments (4)

Qutb's precursor

Thomas Nephew has an excellent post on one of Qutb's influences, one Alexis Carrel, a French Phsyician Nobel Prize winner (medicine) and totalitarian fellow traveler. By the way, Mr. Nephew is too modest in his conclusion -- I think he offers an important contribution to understanding the intellectual roots of Islamist terror.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:03 AM | Comments (0)

August 19, 2003


In a footnote on page 50 of Farid Esack's useful little book The Qur'an: A Short Introduction, elaborating on the view that those who heard the revelation of Moses were bound to follow it, until the advent of the revelation of Jesus, which in turn was surpassed and finalized by that granted to the Prophet, Esack informs us:

This theory is neatly supported by a lengthy account regarding the spiritual search of Salman al-Farsi (d. 658) before he encountered the Prophet. Salman was said to have grieved at the inability of deeply pious friends of his who died before hearing about his new faith, Islam, to embrace it. The Prophet is reported to have told him: "Whoever has died in the faith of Jesus and died in islam before he heard me, his lot shall be good. But whoever hears of me today and yet does not assent to me shall perish." (Tabari, 1954, 1:323)

By islam, incidentally, Esack means not the organized religion, merely submission to God. I thought that was interesting, in light of this post, and the ensuing discussion.

And I've been meaning to get around to noting that Aziz Poonawalla has posted his thoughts on the subject here on Unmedia and here on Shi'a Pundit.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:48 PM | Comments (0)

August 18, 2003


A Dr. Aslam Abdullah, identified as the editor of the Minaret Magazine, has responded, in a fashion, to the Newsweek article that I mentioned here, on the psuedonymous Christoph Luxenberg's theory that ...

the original language of the Qur’an was not was not Arabic but something closer to Aramaic. He says the copy of the Qur’an used today is a mistranscription of the original text from Muhammad’s time, which according to Islamic tradition was destroyed by the third caliph, Osman, in the seventh century. But Arabic did not turn up as a written language until 150 years after Muhammad’s death, and most learned Arabs at that time spoke a version of Aramaic.

By applying his theory, Luxenberg concludes (or perhaps "theorizes" might be a better word -- I think it's premature to characterize his work) that much Islamic orthodoxy can't be sustained by the reading of the text:

It claims that the Qur’an’s commandment for women to cover themselves is based on a similar misreading; in Sura 24, the verse that calls for women to “snap their scarves over their bags” becomes in Aramaic “snap their belts around their waists.” Even more explosive are readings that strengthen scholars’ views that the Qur’an had Christian origins. Sura 33 calls Muhammad the “seal of the prophets,” taken to mean the final and ultimate prophet of God. But an Aramaic reading, says Luxenberg, turns Muhammad into a “witness of the prophets”—i.e., someone who bears witness to the established Judeo-Christian texts. The Qur’an, in Arabic, talks about the “revelation” of Allah, but in Aramaic that term turns into “teaching” of the ancient Scriptures. The original Qur’an, Luxenberg contends, was in fact a Christian liturgical document—before an expanding Arab empire turned Muhammad’s teachings into the basis for its new religion long after the Prophet’s death.

My own view is that, given the radical nature of Luxenberg's thesis, a fairly large dose of skepticism is in order -- take a tablet about the size of a manhole cover. I don't know much about the state of Islamic archaeology, but I seem to recall that coins struck with Arabic inscriptions dating to the 690s were found in Scandinavia (the Vikings carried on a thriving trade with the Caliphate) and in Siraf on the Iranian coast. I suspect that there's a great deal of physical evidence -- inscriptions and what not -- that can be read using Luxenberg's method. I of course cannot judge Luxenberg's work for myself, but I imagine a number of specialists in classical Arabic and Aramaic are eager to do so for me. It will be interesting to see both his book and what the reaction of his critics will be. (I suspect the latter will be available in English long before the former.)

The good Dr. Abdullah takes a rather different approach to Luxenberg's thesis:

The authenticity of a book depends on its verification by the one that either authored it or narrated it. For example, some 15 years ago, a German scholar claimed to have made an earth-shaking discovery when he published what he called ‘The Diaries of Adolph Hitler’. The London Times published excerpts of the diary, describing it as the most sensational story of the century. A few months later, it was conclusively proven that the diary was fake and was written by anonymous authors. The major argument advanced to disprove the book was that no one knew about it, not even the closest of Hitler's supporters. Above all, he never approved it or delivered it to anyone.

If the book or scriptures attributed to an individual--as an author or a source of narration--is compiled and verified in the lifetime of that narrator or  author, then its authenticity can be taken as face value. Otherwise,  doubt will remain in the minds of readers regarding the true origin of the book or of the contents of the book.

Of course, the Hitler Diaries hoax was revealed through a high tech version of textual analysis, as this piece makes clear:

The diaries themselves were full of flaws:

-- The books were of post-war manufacture, and contained threads that were not made before the 1950s.

--The plastic monogram on the front of one diary read "FH" rather than "AH ."

--The texts of the diaries contained historical inaccuracies and anachronisms.

--The ink used was chemically modern, and tests showed that it was recently applied to the paper.

The success of the fraud had less to do with the technical sophistication of the forgery than the combined and contagious gullibility of many people.

The author of the diaries, by the way, was Konrad Kujau, who'd supported himself for years by selling forged manuscript pages of Hitler's political manifesto. He has a Website, "Konrad Kujau, Meisterfaelscher."

As the article on the diaries I linked noted, no less a figure than the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, the medieval historian who, in the aftermath of World War Two, was asked by the British government to write a report on how Hitler met his end (the fascinating Last Days of Hitler), pronounced the diaries authentic. While Dr. Abdullah is correct in surmising that a great deal of the skepticism arose from the lack of any historical corroboration that Hitler kept a diary, it is not true that this by itself proved that the diaries were forgeries.

Dr. Abdullah goes on to make the following claim:

Among all the religious books that exist today, the Qur'an is the only one that has the privilege of being compiled and approved by the Prophet who received it ...

...By the time the Prophet departed, the Qur'an was already written in the form of a book from cover to cover. The Prophet is reported to have approved the Qur'an after listening to it from men and women who had memorized it and written it. A copy of this Qur'an was with his wife Hafsa bint Omar. Consequently, this was used as the master copy when duplications were made during the time of Caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali. (See the chapter on the Qur'an in Sahih el-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim ).

Some Muslim accounts of the history of the compilation as mentioned in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim provide the information that the Qur'an was compiled in the form and format we see today, at the time of Caliphs Abu Bakr and Uthman. In fact, one such account says that when Omar asked the first caliph to commission the compilation of the Qur'an, he refused saying why would he do something that the Prophet did not do ( Sahih el-Bukhari ).  Similarly, another account claims that the third Caliph Uthman appointed a commission of six people to compile the Qur'an as there were different copies of the Qur'an present in different parts of the world.

These two accounts require closer examination on the basis of several other narrations that are mentioned in several books of hadith. First, the two accounts never say that the Prophet didn't compile the Qur'an.  Second, the two accounts do not refer to other narrations in the books of hadith including the Bukhari and Muslim that conclusively prove that the entire Qur'an as is present today, was compiled at the time of the Prophet. What is often confused in these narrations is the difference between ‘compilation’ and ‘copying’. While the Qur'an was compiled at the time of the Prophet, the mass scale copying of the Qur'an began officially at the time of Caliph Abu Bakr. During the lifetime of the Prophet, several of his companions had complete sets of the Qur'anic verses, which they had arranged according to their reading schedule with their own notes. Some were complete and others were not. However, it was at the time of Caliph Abu Bakr that an official copy of the Qur'an was made from the master copy that was with Hafsa bint Omar.

Citing the Bukhari and Muslim collections of hadith as definitive proof of the Hafsa bint Omar story suffers from the same problems that Dr. Abdullah raises about Christian and Zoroastrian scripture -- the distance in time from the events they describe (Bukhari died in 870 c.e., or 148 years after the Prophet; Muslim in 875 c.e.).

I suspect that Luxenberg's rather radical reading of the Qur'an can be challenged, but not by the likes of Dr. Abdullah.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:45 PM | Comments (10)

August 17, 2003

Averroes found

Here, in fact. Or, at least, the missing volume on him to which I referred below, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) by Doninique Urvoy, translated by Olivia Stewart. The passage I remembered below reads,

Renan's pioneering work of 1861, admirable for its time, suffers from his indirect acquaintance with Ibn Rushd's work which he studied through Latin or Hebrew translations. More serious though is its tendency -- despite the care of the researcher -- to view the Muslim author as a free thinker along nineteenth-century lines...

Similarly, there are a number of Muslims who as a result of the current tensions within their culture tend to advocate the simple resurrection of Falsafa as a rational attitude justified and even implied within the revelation of the Koran. However, in failing to situate Ibn Rushd's work in the context of rationalizing reform of the Almohads, they rob it of its essence, reducting it to a collection of slogans which at their most extreme are quite as obscuratantist as those of their fundamentalist opponents.

The title page says it was published in 1991, and I'm just about certain that's the year I bought it, during the 4 1/2 hours it was in print (it's out of print now). And now I remember why not much else made an impression on me beyond those first few introductory paragraphs -- the work is almost incomprehensible. Not so much the language, but the fact that various figures pop in and out without so much as a line of biography or a date, so that one never knows whether we're reading about someone who influenced Ibn Rushd or someone who was influenced by him. Ibn Tumart, on whom the author lavishes 28 of 130-odd pages, is never identified as the founder of the Almohad dynasty (which reigned in Spain during Ibn Rushd's lifetime). Without a good encyclopedia by one's side, one is utterly lost.

Coming up with a post on the subject will take some time.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:34 PM | Comments (1)

August 16, 2003

More searching for Averroes

I vaguely recall a statement, in an introduction to a book I can't seem to find amid the chaos here, to the effect that Averroes has been emptied of content. For reformist or progressive Muslims, he has become something of a slogan and a symbol of rational thought; in the West he is regarded as an important figure because through him Western thought was reintroduced to the West; but the historical Averroes, the man Ibn Rushd, who struggled with many problems that no longer interest us, who was a contemporary of many other thinkers, who had his own precursors, is lost. Averroes did not write for Europeans and certainly had no inkling of 20th or 21st century politics.

None of this is to suggest that Averroes is not important, or that the general impression of him is seriously mistaken -- he is a thinker worth reading. But he's not exactly a Muslim John Stuart Mill. I'm going to try to get my thoughts together and do a post on his writings and ideas in their historical context, although tracking down the missing volume (I can't even remember what it's called, and the variations of what I thought the title was turned up nothing on Amazon) would greatly facilitate this.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:12 AM | Comments (0)

August 15, 2003


The blackout in the Northeast hasn't directly affected me, although it has indirectly -- I was waiting for something from New York which now won't get here to Monday at the earliest -- but I'm not complaining. While in the car this morning, I heard a radio report quoting amused Iraqis indulging in a bit of schadenfreude, noting how much worse their situation has been with electricity. Understandable, but a little foolish. During the siege, Sarajevo had no electricity -- and no water -- for about three years. Kind of puts things into perspective.

Posted by Ideofact at 02:09 PM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2003

In Search of Averroes

In the midst of last month's madness -- towards the end of it, actually -- the always thoughtful Joe Katzman of the must-read Winds of Change, emailed to alert me to this post by Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian author and thinker and Renaissance man, in which he laments the wrong turn that Islam took when it rejected Ibn Rushd, perhaps better known in the West as Averroes, in favor of Al-Ghazali. It's well worth reading the post, although I have a few quibbles with it. On paleo Ideofact, the original incarnation of this blog, I used to note, over and over again, that while their Arab contemporaries far outstripped them in terms of classical philosophy, Medieval Europeans geared their energies in a different direction: toward technology. Averroes may have reintroduced Aristotle to the West, but it wasn't Aristotle who gave us eyeglasses, the steam engine or electricity. And by the Renaissance, Aristotelian thought was stultifying rather than informing thinkers like Galileo. When the intellectual heirs of Averroes looked at the heliocentric model of the universe, for example, they concluded it was wrong because Aristotle said it was wrong. So when Heggy writes,

...the Muslims lost a historic opportunity to use Ibn Rushd’s ideas as a springboard that could have placed them on a path similar to the one which took Europe from the obscurantist thinking of the thirteenth century to the vigorous intellectual climate which encourages debate, free thinking, general freedoms and creativity in literature, art and science...

...he's really oversimplifying the situation in Europe.

I'm also not quite comfortable with his next bit, when he contrasts cosmopolitan Islam with bedouin Islam (which he identifies with Mohamed bin Abdul Wahab, of Wahabbi fame, among others). If I'm not mistaken, Ibn Taymiyyah, who in many ways was a precursor of bin Wahab and railed against innovations in Islam, was educated in Damascus -- hardly a bedouin backwater of the world of Islam. Beyond that, Egypt wasn't quite Ottoman, and in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt enjoyed pride of place among the Arab nations by dint of its population, its movie industry, and its radio broadcasting service. It was Saudi Arabia that felt imperiled by Egypt through most of the post-World War Two period, and not the other way around. It is also worth noting that Sayyid Qutb, often described (on paleo Ideofact especially) as the "brains of bin Laden," was Egyptian, as was the Muslim Brotherhood. I do not think one can necessarily blame the Saudis exclusively for the development of Islamic fundamentalism.

But Averroes is definitely worth reading about, and worth reading, and thank you Joe for letting me know about this essay.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:23 PM | Comments (1)

August 12, 2003

Japanese pirates

Interesting post on Japanese pirates from Katrina of Isfogailsi:

One of the problems, as I understand it, in trying to study Japanese pirates, in particular those of the Inland Sea, or at least those who worked fairly close to home for the most part, is the question of professional piracy versus incidental. Piracy is in it's barest form is unlicensed trade, too, so what is piracy and what isn't depends a great deal on what the government bothers to define as. (I remember, from high school, being lectured on the fuzzy distinction between piracy and privateering.) So it seems that a large number of pirates were often just people involved in sea industry--fishing, shipping and the like--who did this sort of stuff as a sideline. Rather different from the famous Western pirates, but I don't know if it's different from Western piracy as a whole.

I think the Great Age of Piracy was different -- although I imagine there was a relatively high turnover rate. Most Western articles of piracy specified the number of pieces of eight to be paid to injured crewmen (so much for an eye, a hand, a leg); on the other hand, the buccaneers really had the whole world at their disposal -- and a vast increase in the amount of international trade coming from both the Old World and the New to plunder -- which made it possible to go "on the account" for far longer periods of time.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

The Eternal Gospel

I personally doubt that the incident that touched off the discussion (the election of an openly gay man to be a bishop of the Episcopal Church) merits John Derbyshire's invocation of the heresy of Joachim, but the discussion of the heresy itself, and the links provided, are of interest.

Posted by Ideofact at 09:17 PM | Comments (3)

August 11, 2003

A defense of pirates

Last month the usually sensible Geitner Simmons of Regions of Mind posted a bit of nonsense on the theme of the cruelty of pirates (I am referring, as does the article he cites, primarily to the great age of piracy, which lasted roughly from the 1650s to 1727, when the commissions granted to Colonial governors by King George I to try pirates expired, and renewal was not deemed necessary). At the same time, legally constituted governments and their merchants were shipping "black ivory" -- that is, African slaves -- to the New World; the Inquisition was still torturing, trying and burning heretics; and even English law stipulated that the punishment for treason (a crime whose definition included both counterfeiting and forgery) as hanging, cutting the still living man down and then disembowelling him while still alive, then drawing and quartering him. The penalty for theft, by the way, was the branding of the letter "T" in a prominent position on a man's left cheek. The cruelty of pirates was not sui generis; rather, it was timid by the standards of the times.

This is not to suggest that by modern standards pirates were humane, however, the average buccaneer was a professional thief first and foremost. It was far better to take a ship without fighting than to have to risk combat. Considering that merchant sailors were poorly paid, subject to floggings, dunkings and kealhaulings, that their captains had the power of life and death over them, few were eager to take up arms against pirates. It is instructive to note that pirates recruited from the crewmen of captured merchant vessels. It seems it was the cruelty of their own captains, rather than that of the pirates, that persuaded them to fly under the Jolly Roger.

In contrast to merchant ships and naval vessels, pirate ships were democratic paradises; the crew elected the captain, who had absolute command during battle, and a quartermaster, who was in charge of the crew and acted as a check on the captain's authority. Pirate captains could not rely on the lash for their authority, and records of various pirate voyages show that captains were often deposed.

Pirates and Britain seem inseparable; and not merely because the greatest pirate tale (in my humble estimation) is Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. Sir Francis Drake was a pirate extraordinaire, attacking the hated Spanish in the Golden Hind and bringing home enough loot to fund a refurbishment of the Royal Navy (which, along with pirates and the weather, defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588); throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, English pirates patrolling the channel acted as a de facto coast guard for the English crown (and several nobles were enriched by running pirate syndicates). In the humble beginnings of the American nation, pirates played a grand role as well. In 1494, Spain and Portugal divided the "undiscovered" world between themselves (Spain got the New World, Portugal the non-European portions of the old; the Pope blessed the treaty). Spain rather jealously protected its "rights," and in the 1660s, planned to drive the British from their recently occupied possession of Jamaica. The governor of Jamaica, one Sir Thomas Modyford, with the approval of his ruling council of local worthies, gave letters of marque to the buccaneers to plunder as they wished, to attack the Spanish in their bases, and to prevent the enemy from mustering sufficient forces to attack Jamaica. Harry Morgan, the buccaneers' democratically elected leader, accepted the mission, and led a brilliant (and profitable) campaign against the Spanish. Despite being outnumbered, his tactical brilliance and the fighting spirit of his free men overcame the Spanish time and again, at sea and on land, making an attack on Jamaica impossible. Morgan and his pirates saved the New World for the English. Imagine how differently history might have turned out were it not for the pirates.

Later, the colonial governors of North America, chafing under restrictions on trade imposed by the crown, commissioned pirates (the notorious Blackbeard most likely had a letter of marque from the governor of North Carolina), to break the crown's monoploy. The pirates brought much needed goods and currency to the colonies.

In the history of the late 17th and early 18th century, pirates, who were in business for themselves, by and large, checked Spanish power and aided the colonies economically. Before judging them as being little more than criminals, it is important to remember the circumstances under which they plied their trade. I'll give the last word to the author of my favorite book on the subject, Patrick Pringle, whose 1953 work Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy, is highly recommended:

...pirates have been credited with exceptional virtues and vices that few of them possessed. Usually they have been admired or condemned, according to the inclinations of the beholder, as bold, bad men. Generally speaking, I think they were not very bold, and not very bad.

Among the pirates there were a few men of exceptional courage and daring, like Bartholomew Roberts; but Roberts, as much as any other captain, avoided fighting whenever possible. Pirates did not like fighting, although when they were attacked, they defended themselves valiantly.

...Honest service in the Navy or on merchant ships had made them loathe and dread authority, and if they gloried in anything it was their freedom from the fear of being flogged. They had no discipline, and therefore much self-discipline.

...Pirates were not abominable brutes. Although the legal penalty for murder and was no greater than that for piracy, very few of them killed wantonly. Mostly they treated their captives humanely, and advertised their clemency in order to deter others from making them fight for their loot. For the same reason they showed little mercy when they did have to fight. Their cruelties were not exceptional in the age in which they lived.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:36 PM | Comments (0)


Boy, the site looks terrible without any content. I'll be adding some in a bit...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:06 PM | Comments (0)

August 01, 2003

Back but going

July was a grueling month; now I'm shutting down for a week and will return August 11th or so (although I will have a post tomorrow night). There's a lot of good comments I will try to respond to as well.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:39 AM | Comments (1)