Category Archives: scholarship

1857: The Sepoy Jihad

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 22-23:

For many the appeal of the Mughal Emperor was as much religious as political. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination. The Great Mutiny has usually been presented by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British social and economic policies, as both urban revolution and a peasants’ revolt sparked off by loss of land rights and employment opportunities as much as anything else. All this certainly played a part. Yet when the Indian participants of the Uprising articulate the reason for their revolt—as they do with great frequency and at some length in the Mutiny Papers—they invariably state that they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India—something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating.

As the sepoys told Zafar on 11 May 1857, “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith.” Later they stood in the Chandni Chowk, the main street of Delhi, and asked people: “Brothers: are you with those of the faith?” British men and women who had converted to Islam—and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi—were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. As late as 6 September, when calling the people of Delhi to rally against the coming assault by the British, a proclamation issued in the name of Zafar spelled out very plainly “that this is a religious war, and is being prosecuted on account of the faith, and it behoves all Hindus and Musalman residents of the imperial city, or of the villages in the country…to continue true to their faith and creeds.” Even if one accepts that the word “religion” (for Muslims din) is often being used in the very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma (or duty, righteousness)—so that when the sepoys say they are rising to defend their dharma, they mean as much their way of life as their sectarian religious identity—it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of “suicide ghazis” from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, “for those who have come to die have no need for food.” One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that “the British had closed the madrasas.” These were words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bangladesh, Britain, democracy, India, military, nationalism, Pakistan, religion, scholarship, war

Fashioning Finnish Philology

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 212-213:

In Finland, administrative ties with Sweden had been exchanged for ties with Russia, but literary life such as it was continued to develop in its own fashion. Despite the crosscurrents of Classicism, Romanticism, and Realism that were playing elsewhere in Europe, Finland’s chief concern in the nineteenth century was the development of a unified national language. Literature and theater could not emerge until a Finnish language had been developed and accepted among cultivated men, who up to that time had been conversant only in Swedish. Finland’s vast store of folklore offered the most promising area of exploration to the generation of writers who first tackled the language problem. Writing in 817 [1817?], a student argued: “No independent nation can exist without a fatherland, and no fatherland can exist without folk poetry [which is] nothing more than the crystal in which a nationality can mirror itself.” The key figure in this search for a national identity was Elias Lönnrot, who as a philologist-folklorist, collected materials from the Lapps, the Estonians, the Karelians, and other Finnish tribes, and assembled both the first dictionary of the Finnish language and its first extensive written literature. His legend, Kalevala (1835), a compilation of some 22,000 lines of oral history, tells in epic form the mythic history of the Finns from the Creation to the coming of Christianity, and it served as a rallying point for Finnish nationalist feeling, not only in subsequent literature, but in painting, sculpture, music, and political life, as the people moved toward independence.

Leave a comment

Filed under language, nationalism, Scandinavia, scholarship

Explorer and Sheikh Finally Part

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 302-303:

The packet [Heinrich Barth] gave al-Bakkay to send from Timbuktu included letters for the Foreign Office, the Royal Geographical Society, and many friends. It didn’t reach Europe until 1857, having spent more than two years in Ghadames.

The lull before parting was bittersweet. Barth and his friends from Timbuktu had grown fond of each other. In the mornings, as he took the air outside his tent, they gathered around him for conversation. One morning they asked him to read aloud from his European books, for the sound of the languages. He read the Bible in Greek and some passages in English, and recited a poem in German—the latter a big hit because “the full heavy words of that language” reminded them of their own. Another day they asked him to put on his European clothing, so he dug out his black suit. They admired the fine cloth and the trousers but found the frock coat comical. In Central Africa, wrote Barth, they were right.

As their time left together grew short, he and the sheikh continued their genial wide-ranging talks. They had been almost constant companions for nine-and-a-half months. Finally the day arrived when Barth was to cross the river and continue his journey home. His entry for July 9:

This was the day when I had to separate from the person whom, among all the people with whom I had come in contact in the course of my long journey, I esteemed the most highly, and whom, in all but his dilatory habits and phlegmatic indifference, I had found a most excellent and trustworthy man. I had lived with him for so long a time in daily intercourse, and in the most turbulent circumstances, sharing all his perplexities and anxieties, that I could not but feel the parting very severely.

Barth esteemed al-Bakkay, but couldn’t resist pointing out his flaws. The explorer sometimes judged the sheikh a timid procrastinator, but that seems unfair, considering the violent forces he had to balance. He risked his life by defying Ahmadu Ahmadu. He outmaneuvered not only the emir, but enemies in Timbuktu, including scheming members of his own family, while also dealing with constant threats from bellicose Tuaregs. He was also kind, generous, loyal, open-minded, and invigorating company. Because of him, Barth survived Timbuktu.

When he reached the opposite bank of the Niger, Barth fired two shots in farewell, as al-Bakkay had requested. Then he turned and began jotting notes about the sandy downs of this new shore, and the paths that led away from the river toward the east.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Britain, Europe, Germany, language, Mali, religion, scholarship, travel

Explorer Barth and Reader Cooley

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 211-213:

[Heinrich Barth] … began replies to his recent correspondents. One of them was William Desborough Cooley, the British historian and geographer. His book of 1841, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained; or, An Inquiry into the Early History and Geography of Central Africa, attempted to re-create the history and geography of the western Sudan through rigorous engagement with old travelers’ accounts and Arabic sources such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Bakri. Cooley sifted these sources for verifiable facts and cross-checked them against modern European travel accounts. Comparing all these sources, he believed, would yield a strong facsimile of truth about Central Africa’s past as well as the location of historical places and landmarks.

He was able to demonstrate that the half-legendary empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai had been real, and he roughly positioned them geographically for the first time. From old and new sources he extracted a detailed, complex history of black Africa that contradicted hazy European assumptions about the continent’s savagery. Cooley also avoided most of the era’s racial and cultural biases. He reminded readers that bloody executions by African leaders weren’t so different from English laws that burned women at the stake for counterfeiting money or that hanged hundreds of people for minor crimes such as pilfering.

Cooley’s book was immediately influential among Europe’s Africanists, but met its greatest resistance in Britain. Barth admired it so much that he carried it to Africa and often consulted it. On April 1851, a few days after he first arrived in Kukawa, he wrote Cooley an introductory letter that began, “Sir, It is from a warm love of science that I quite a stranger to you take the liberty of addressing you the following lines.” He expressed his esteem for The Negroland of the Arabs, “sincere as it is without the least prejudice and going on with a firm step from point to point”—a perspective and method like Barth’s own. Rereading the book in Africa, he told Cooley, increased his appreciation. He thought Cooley would like to know that on-the-ground observations were confirming the accuracy of the old Arab historians and many of Cooley’s speculations. “I am able to put truth in the place of conjectures,” wrote Barth, “and to give life to vague accounts of former times.”

Cooley’s response, written in January 1852, reached Bagirmi with the packet of letters in July. His tiny handwriting in pale ink contrasted strongly with Barth’s bold dark penmanship. The letter was a peculiar mixture of praise, advice, querulousness, bruised egotism, and condescension. Cooley regretted not meeting Barth in London and welcomed Barth’s compliments about his book, “as it has been received here with discouraging coldness,” despite “the revolution effected by me in the comparative Geography of Africa.”

He swatted away several of Barth’s suggested corrections to his speculations. Barth was right, but Cooley’s reaction was typical of him. He ridiculed any new information by explorers that contradicted his armchair conjectures. For instance, he mocked all the eyewitness reports of snow on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro because they clashed with his theory about possible temperatures at the equator. This habit eventually undermined his influence and earned him the nickname “the stormy petrel.”

Cooley praised Barth for sending back “a larger amount of valuable information, then [sic] has been as yet appended to the narrative of any African traveller, Burckhardt alone perhaps excepted; and doubtless you now possess much the loss of which would be deplorable.”

1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Arabia, Britain, Europe, language, Mediterranean, migration, religion, scholarship, science, travel

Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, Iran, language, literature, migration, North America, philosophy, publishing, religion, scholarship

Persia Under the Mongols

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:

Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.

The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.

Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, Iran, migration, military, Mongolia, nationalism, religion, scholarship, Turkey

Languages of Persia, 500 B.C.

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 574-94:

Although Darius established a standard gold coinage, and some payments were made in silver, much of the system operated by payments in kind. These were assessed, allocated, and receipted from the center. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain, or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds in the same locations. Couriers were given tablets to produce at post stations along the royal highways, so they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BC. There are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than fifteen thousand different people in more than one hundred different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. We know from other sources that the main language of administration in the empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of the Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that histories were recorded, that poems were written down, and that all sorts of other literature once existed and have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there, either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated writing with inferior peoples—or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth—but not to write it.

That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite, or Assyrian empires, either. It is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BC, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks an anomaly.

Leave a comment

Filed under Iran, language, publishing, scholarship