“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana 1. The Importance of History in the Middle East
2. The Dismissal of the Pre-Islamic Past as Jahiliyya (the Age of Ignorance)
3. Muhammad Founds the “Umma” (Community) in 7th Century Arabia
His Hijra; his Revelation; his integration of faith and polity
4. After Muhammad: the Caliphate and the Split Between Sunnites and Shiites (from Shiat Ali, the Party of [Caliph] Ali
5. The Early Dynasties: Umayyad 661-750 in Damascus; 'Abassid 740-1258 (Baghdad)
6. Islamic Civilization: Poetry, Design, Arabic Numerals, Algebra, the algorithm, Medicine, Transmission of Greek Science and Philosophy, etc.
7. Expansion and Division (11th through 15th centuries): The Islamic “Gunpowder Empires”: Safavid (Persia); Moghal (India); Ottoman (Turkey and south); the Mongols
8. The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire 1453-1917; the Paradox of Despotism and Pluralism; the Millet System; Centralization and Decentralization
9. The Early History in Modern Perspective
1. The Importance of History in the Middle East “For Iran, there is no such thing as history; it is all still the present. We are the most ahistorical and they are the most historical.”
Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq.
As political scientists we study history, not as historians do, “for itself” -- or in order to reconstruct past eras in all their complexity and peculiarity -- but rather to see how previous experience shapes the present.This effort is bound to involve simplification and selectivity but it has the virtue of identifying factors that have continuing significance.
We need to study history because every social system evolves over time, though sometimes with sharp breaks. To one degree or another, every society bears the marks of its past. Often, critical periods cast a long shadow. The French Revolution set a precedent that inspired the overthrow of monarchy and the feudal socio-economic order all over Europe. The American Revolution was the first colonial rebellion for national independence. It too inspired other such rebellions, as is evident in the very name of Mexico: “The United States of Mexico.” And it produced an ideology – summed up in prologue to the Declaration of Independence – and a constitutional framework that remain in place despite major subsequent social and technological changes.
Why in particular is it helpful to study history in order to understand modern society and modern politics?
The answer may seem obvious but it really isn’t. You could just as easily contend that it is better to ignore history. Modern conditions are so qualitatively different from those of the past that trying to draw analogies or lessons from history can only be misleading. The ancient Babylonians were human beings just like us but they didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity, let alone railroads, steamships, automotive transport, jet aircraft, atomic bombs, computers, communications satellites, and cell phones, not to mention Twitter and Facebook. Their food supplies and habitations were completely at the mercy of the elements. Patterns of life and communication were vastly different and those differences were bound to be reflected in the ways life was organized socially, politically, and economically. They had belief systems built on fear of the unknown and the belief that supernatural forces could be propitiated by sacrifice, unchallenged by science and centuries of philosophic reasoning. There were tribes and kingdoms but no large territorial states in the modern sense of the term, no political parties, no business corporations or bureaucrats to regulate them, no parliaments or international organizations.
And you might also argue that while the founding fathers of this country devoted a lot of attention to the study of history, they refused to follow what they learned. History had shown that the republican form of government had been suitable only for small communities like Athens or Rome before it became an empire or the Swiss cantons. But they nevertheless founded a republic and tried to figure out how it could work with representation and federalism.
That example shows that there are good reasons to study history, and especially when we try to understand the Middle East, provided we don’t suppose that it reveals everything that is possible, or in other words that it determines the present and future.
So what are some of the reasons we can benefit from studying history?
1. Santayana’s. By studying history we can learn from the mistakes of the past.
One very important example: After WWI, the victorious allies imposed harsh reparations on Germany. The US withdrew from Europe and refused to join the League of Nations. Twenty years later, the world was at war again. After the War we launched the Marshall Plan, created NATO, and joined the UN. The result has been very different.
Another example: In 1929 the US entered a period known as the Great Depression and we didn’t pull out of it until World War II. When recession hit in 2006, we immediately took steps to preserve the banking system, injected 800 billion of stimulus into the economy, and used the Federal Reserve to regulate the money supply. The result has been a slow but steady recovery. This was deliberate. Ben Bernanke had studied the great depression and applied the lessons.
In US foreign policy, President Obama has tried not to repeat the mistakes of the second Bush administration in getting involved in a land war in Iraq and alienating the Iraqi Sunnis. That’s why he has ordered only an air campaign against ISIS and held it back until Iraq formed a more inclusive government.
2. The above examples involve recent history when conditions are largely comparable. What about the longer run?
a. Many societies show the marks of their beginnings.
Why do we have the worst record for gun violence in the economically advanced world? Surely it has something to do with the Second Amendment, and that amendment, bear in mind, was adopted because Americans won their independence with militias, not a standing army. The second amendment has therefore been interpreted to mean the right of individuals to bear arms, even though we no longer depend on militias.
There is a big argument now among those of us who believe with Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Ginsberg, that the constitution is a living document that needs to be adapted, and those like Justices Scalia, Alito, and Thomas who say that we are bound by its original literal meaning.
b. Americans are notoriously dismissive of the past, whereas elsewhere in the world, especially in the Middle East, history informs the present to a degree that blocks change. Historians say that we Americans suffer from collective amnesia. When we say that’s history, we mean it’s dead and buried. Henry Ford said history is bunk. The slogan on the dollar bill hails our country as “Novus ordo seclorum” (new order of the ages). An art critic has said that our aesthetic tradition is the tradition of the new. We live in the present and for the future. Progress is our byword. In Europe the past is always present in the monuments, the place names, even the royal families, the art and pageantry. We are a comparatively young country formed of immigrants most of whom came here anxious to escape or at least leave behind their places of origin.
In some ways this has been a blessing.
Early on we ended the establishment of religion to avoid sectarian controversy and the persecution of dissent. Instead we enshrined religious liberty in our Bill of Rights.
Goethe said you Americans have it better than this old continent because you are not shackled by ancient grudges and prejudices. Think about that. It is much easier for immigrants to this country, including Muslims, to assimilate than it has been for Muslims in Europe. They often live apart and resist integration. And it doesn’t seem to be just a matter of the first generation. In this country, who cares if you wear a head cover or attend a mosque rather than a church? President Eisenhower once got into trouble for saying what most Americans think: I don’t care what religion a person has so long as he has one. Two years ago we almost elected a Mormon president even though in the 19ith century other Americans fought blood battles with Mormons to stop their polygamy, and the men are reported to wear funny underwear. There are isolated instances of hatred, to be sure, especially because of lingering racism, but nothing like the religious and sectarian tensions that have developed in Europe.
The Middle East is different. History is very much alive. Let me list a number of ways in which history remains salient in the Middle East:
1. What motivates the jihadists? An effort to restore the caliphate. And to follow strictly the precepts of shari’a, including the beheading of infidels or non-Muslims, and apostates like Sunni Lebanese soldiers fighting for the Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria.
2. What motivates Islamists – in the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran – to reject or at least circumscribe democracy? One, because they follow strictly the notion that law comes from God; it cannot be man-made. Two, because democracy allows for personal freedom. Original Islam called for absolute submission to God and his earthly lieutenants. It allowed for the enslavement of polytheists and the requirement that non-Muslim “people of the book” (i.e., Jews and Christians) be required to pay a tax for protection and toleration. Personal freedom means sexual license, homosexuality, adultery, equality for women, the right to convert to another faith, the right to represent the prophet graphically, even caricature him. Original Islamic law calls for such behavior to be punished severely, with punishment ranging from amputation for theft to stoning, beheading, and hanging. They do not believe that changing mores should be respected.
3. Why are Shiites and Sunnites still very much in conflict with each other? Because of a split that developed over the succession in the 7th century.
4. Why does Hamas refuse to recognize Israel? Because from the 7th century to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 it was an Islamic land, and no Islamic land can be surrendered to infidels. Some Islamists also lay claim to Spain.
5. Why is Israel called Israel and not Palestine, or say, as Thodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, referred to it, in the title of his book, as The Jews’ State, Der Judenstaat? It was called Israel to root this modern state in the history of the land, which for over a thousand years, had included the kingdom of the Israelites. The founders wanted to reinforce the Zionist view that Jews were returning to their ancient homeland, not engaging in act of colonialism. Palestine was a name given to the region when they expelled the Israelites. The word derived from the Latin for Philistines. For the same reason, Israelis call what others call the west bank of the Jordan “Judea” and “Samaria” because those are the biblical names.
6. Why did the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat urge his followers to agree to a peace treaty (the Oslo Accords of 1993) with Israel by recalling the “Treaty of Hudabiyyah?” This was a ten-year treaty of truce the Prophet Muhammed signed when he found himself fighting a losing battle with the Quraish tribe in Mecca. Two years later, when his forces were stronger, he broke the treaty by marching into the city and capturing it. So when Arafat referred to that treaty he was in effect saying, let’s agree to peace with the Jews now just as the prophet agreed to peace with the Quraish, because treaties are not forever. A treaty with Israel, he was hinting, would serve their immediate interests without binding them from withdrawing from it once they became stronger. With the same thought, the Palestinian movement known as Hamas (now in control of Gaza) offered to enter a ten-year or fifty-year truce or hudna with Israel. They too had in mind Muhammad’s Treaty of Hudabiyyah, and they fully intended to take advantage of the hudna, just as he did, to gain enough strength to resume the battle.
7. How do modern-minded Saudi Arabian women try to win the right to drive their own cars? In 1979 seventy Saudi women got up the nerve to stage a protest against the rule prohibiting them from driving a car. So they drove their own cars without their chauffeurs to the center of the capital. When the authorities remonstrated with them, they said, why not, Aisha, the wife of the prophet, drove her own camel! That did not cut it with the Wahhabi religious authorities who called them “communist whores” and they were punished by both civil and religious authorities.
8. Why did bin-Laden issue a manifesto before 9/11 referring to the United States as crusaders lamenting what had happened to Muslims 80 years earlier. Because he thought of the Christian West as determined to destroy Islam – 80 years earlier in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.
9. Why do modern Muslims not welcome and integrate Muslim refugees, like the Palestinian Arabs and Syrians? Because in many cases they belong to tribes, and tribes are built on separatism. For the same reason, they resist subordination to the state, which requires that everyone be subject to the same higher authority.
10. Why does the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, call Israel ‘a cancerous tumor” that must be destroyed? It is not just that he thinks of Israel as an illegitimate occupier of a Muslim land (as Hamas does) or that he supports the rights of Palestinian Arabs but more specifically because according to the Quranic account of history, the Jews of Yathrib (Medina) resisted Muhammed’s effort to convert them. He sees modern Israel as the community descended from those who opposed the Prophet. Modern Israel is therefore the Little Satan as the United States, as the leader of modern-day Crusaders, is the Great Satan.
So we need to keep history in mind, especially when we are dealing with the Middle East. I mentioned last time that I had been in the Kurdish area of Iraq several years ago lecturing at the American University with other Americans. One of them was Christopher Hill, the former US ambassador to Iraq. One day we had a panel discussion before a large audience in which somebody asked what American policy was with respect to Syria. Ambassador Hill said “Assad is history,” thinking of history in the American sense of something that’s dead and gone. Well of course Assad isn’t yet dead and gone for reasons that have to do with the historic character of Syria and the region, especially its ethnic and sectarian tensions.
So how should we go about studying the history of the Middle East?
For the modern Middle East, we can largely ignore its ancient history. For the most part – a major exception being the rise and fall of the Israelites as a people from the tenth century BC until the end of the first century AD -- it did not shape the present. Before Islam, there were major civilizations in “the Fertile Crescent”—notably the dynasties of Egypt and Mesopotamia--and the area was fought over by the Greeks, Romans, and Persians. Judaism and Christianity arose; and Christianity, as an evangelical faith eager to proselytize, spread to Europe and beyond. (The present-day Christian Copts of Egypt were for several centuries the dominant group in Egypt; their very name comes from the Greek for Egypt.) These are fascinating periods for study, but they have little if anything to do with the Middle East we know it today (with the exception of the return of Jews to Palestine).
We can divide the period that concerns us most into two segments—1) early history from roughly 600 AD through the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire (about 1300 to 1920), and 2) later or modern history from World War I to the present.
In this lecture we’ll deal with the earlier period.
When we study the history of Europe or Asia over a comparable period, we see a story of shifting dynasties and changing loci of power. The same is true for the Middle East. But the history of the Middle East has much more to do with religion. It is marked by the rise of Islam, its rapid and vast expansion, and by the rise and fall of various Islamic empires; the shift of the centers of power from one major urban center to another; and finally in the last stages of the early modern era by the loose hegemony and rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire centered in Istanbul.
Christianity had a very considerable influence over the development of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the clash between Europe and the Ottoman Empire had a significant religious dimension, but for s number of reasons (including the influence of the Roman Empire, the schisms within the church, and the impact of economic change, the Reformation, colonialism, the Enlightenment, and nationalism, Europe is not as easily characterized as a Christian civilization as the Ottoman Empire can be said to exhibit an Islamic identity. The spread of the faith, and its power to command allegiance and inspire its followers, is certainly impressive.
Istanbul was a new Greek name given to the city previously called Constantinople, after the emperor Constantine, when it was still the capital of Byzantium, the eastern realm of Christianity. The city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Istanbul became the center of the Ottoman empire, an empire presided over by eastern invaders from the Asian steppes, the Turks, who had converted to Islam first in a trickle, then en masse in the year 960 and became such intensely loyal converts as to blot out all memory of their past.
During the period of Ottoman rule, the history of the region was shaped by a tectonic confrontation with Europe and western Christian civilization. This confrontation began with the resistance to the spread of the Islamic empires in the first centuries after the death of Muhammed. It continued with the Crusades of the 11th century, and resumed during battles in Europe and trade wars and then during the period of Western colonization and control in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And it persists today in the struggle over whether the region will accept globalization and Western culture or reject them as in effect a takeover of the region by outside forces and values.
If we were looking at the history of the nations of Western Europe, we would certainly include the Greek and Roman periods, well before the seventh century, because these experiences were very influential in shaping Europe’s modern character. There are Latin and Greek words in European languages—important words like democracy, republic, politics, president and senator, tyrant and dictator—and influences of many sorts. The political beliefs and institutions that arose in Europe and were spread by Europeans into the Americas and elsewhere were shaped by this experience, even though the polytheistic religions of the Greeks and Romans were repudiated in favor of monotheistic Christianity. The modern West is a compound of its secular origins in ancient Greece and Rome, its spiritual, moral, and institutional experience of Christianity, and the influence of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that began in the nineteenth century.
But no single one of these influences is as central to the West as the Islamic origins are for Muslims in the Middle East. For Muslims, meaningful history begins with the founding of Islam.
History, then, is too important to this region to be passed over casually. The history of the Middle East records the phenomenal rise and fall of Islamic empires – which first challenged Western Christendom and then found themselves defending against them. As a result, some modern Middle Eastern Muslims feel they are under siege from the West and have a religious duty to resist the enemy so that Islam can resume its supposed destiny to convert the world. The beginnings of Islam, as recorded in the Qur’an and the hadith (sayings or deeds attributed to the Prophet) are a touchstone for modern Muslims, many of whom take their bearings from scripture and early experience, almost as if nothing had happened of any importance since.
2. The Dismissal of the Pre-Islamic Past as Jahiliyya, or the Age of Ignorance
Muslims refer to the long pre-history of the Middle East as jahiliyya, the age of ignorance, to contrast it with the period of light brought by Islam in the seventh century. This is similar to the Christian dismissal of all that preceded the revelation of Jesus as “paganism.”
It needs to be stressed that especially for Muslim Arabs there is little continuity between the very early history and the later history of the region. Consider Egypt. In Arabic the word for Egypt is Misr, a word which originally meant frontier, because that area was for a time the farthest outpost of the Arabs. “Egypt,” the name every other language uses, is actually a Greek adaptation of an ancient local name that predates the Arab conquest. Today’s Egyptians profit from tourism at the Pyramids, but the great majority of them are not descendants of the people who built them. They are descendants of Arabs who migrated from the Arabian Peninsula and whose stock was mingled over many centuries with that of peoples from Africa.
The discontinuities are sometimes striking. Today’s Egyptians do not use the same language or share the same culture, the same ideas of the afterlife, or the same system of government as the ancient Egyptians. It took foreigners to decipher the hieroglyphics on all the tombs in the pyramids—thanks to the Rosetta stone. Even President Anwar Sadat, the successor to Nasser, was regarded with suspicion by some Egyptians who saw him as not Arab enough because of his dark complexion. Over the centuries, the Arabs and others who came to inhabit Egypt looted the tombs of the pharaohs or otherwise ignored them until Westerners began to explore them and celebrate their amazing treasures. When the Egyptian government under Nasser decided in the 1960s to flood parts of the Nile valley containing ancient monuments to the pharoahs, there was an international outcry from Westerners concerned about preserving the great landmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization. But most modern Egyptians could have cared less. They would have been up in arms, however, if old mosques had been flooded.
Modern Iran grew out of ancient Persia, and Iranians today continue to celebrate and enjoy non-Muslim and pre-Muslim culture (including poetry, music, and art) but the clerics who now run the country are anxious to suppress influences they consider un-Islamic. The Shah of Iran had second thoughts, realizing that his own title as shah would benefit from association with Persian history and therefore tried to establish a link with the glorious past, in order to legitimate the Pahlavi dynasty, by building a great showcase at Persepolis and inviting the world in to admire it. Only a few years later his own people overthrew him, led by the Islamic clergy, and repudiated his dynasty and everything Persepolis represented. The supporters of the new regime think of themselves as Muslims, not as descendants of the ancient pagan Persians. They almost trashed the monuments at Persepolis, until they were ordered not to by the Ayatollah Khomeini, for reasons that are not clear. He may have wanted them to remain standing not as monuments to the glorious Persian past but to remind Iranians of the way the Shah used their wealth to create an opulent showcase for himself.