Race Stereotypes in Medieval Islam (and some lines on cousin marriage)

This is just a short note from Irfan Muzammil. I hope to have Irfan writing blog posts directly on Brownpundits, but he is a busy man (and a real scholar), so this may take a while. Until then, I will be copying and pasting some of his musings..


Medieval Muslim scholars and courts seem to have been obsessed with the question of superiority of races: Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Indians, Franks, etc. (a debate that still rages). Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdi’s al-Imtāʿ wal-muʾānasah (Enjoyment and Geniality), a classic of Arab literature, presents discussions conducted in Baghdad at the court of the vizier Ibn Saʿdān al-ʿĀriḍ, who was executed in 984 AD after a short period in office. It illustrates the debates regarding a movement called Shuʿūbiyyah, which claimed cultural equality or superiority for the Persians over the Arabs. But the most surprising part, at least for me, is at the end.

First he quotes Ibn al-Muqaffa’, a prominent 8th century Persian philosopher, and seemingly a massive racist:

We said, ‘The Byzantines!’
“But he replied, ‘Not them either. They have strong bodies, they are good at building and at geometry but know nothing besides these two things and are good at nothing else.’
“we said, ‘The Chinese then!’
“He said, ‘They are good at handicraft and making artefacts; they have no deep thought or reflection.’
“we said, ‘well then, the Turks!’
“He said, ‘They are wild animals that can be made to fight.’
“we said, ‘The Indians?’
“He said, ‘People of delusion, humbug, and conjurer’s tricks.’
“we said, ‘The Africans!’
“He said, ‘Dumb beasts to be left alone.’
“Then we left the matter to him, and he said, ‘The Arabs!’ Continue reading “Race Stereotypes in Medieval Islam (and some lines on cousin marriage)”

Review: Enter the Dragon. China’s undeclared war against the US in Korea

Russel Spurr was a British-Australian journalist who spent most of his life reporting from East Asia (20 years in Hong Kong), during which time he made many trips to China and Taiwan and interviewed multiple veterans of the Chinese intervention in Korea to write what was probably the first book covering the Korean war from the Chinese perspective (published in 1988). The book (Enter the Dragon. China’s undeclared war against the US in Korea 1950-51) provides a great introduction to the “other side” of the Korean conflict. Writing in journalistic style, he freely recreates conversations and scenes that obviously rely on accounts of survivors as well as his own imagination, but that does not mean he has not done his research. He knows his history and the bare facts are always accurate. And whatever the book lacks in typical military history details, it more than makes up in the form of vivid anecdotes that really bring the war to life. Continue reading “Review: Enter the Dragon. China’s undeclared war against the US in Korea”

Recent Spats

Just a few quick words about this iteration of Brownpundits and some recent spats here:

1. I have added a large number of authors and ALL those authors have the right to delete comments on their OWN posts. No one should be deleting comments on anyone else’s posts.
2. As far as possible, please try not to launch into personal attacks against other authors on the blog. Reasoned arguments are fine.
3. There is NO commitment on this blog that all posts will be in line with any particular ideology. Some authors love Pakistan, some don’t. Some are Islamophobic, some are very Islamophilic. Stick to reasoned argument as far as possible, and don’t lose your mind over perceived violations of this or that ideological purity test. No one is going to like every opinion. But all the authors have a right to their opinion. Feel free to argue with them, but there is NO policy of deleting posts unless they contain personal attacks or appeals to violence. As I said above, authors CAN censor comments on their own posts. In general, that is the only censorship on this site. VERY rare exceptions may occur, but none of the administrators have signed on to any general policy of censorship.

Try not to be too sensitive.

Review: Enlightenment Now. Steven Pinker.

I have not so much read the book as scanned it. For most of the book he builds a case for his basic claim that life, for most people, has improved to an amazing extent in the last 200 years and we can thank science, reason and humanism for all this progress.
I assume he has to provide so much data because he knows this is an unfashionable opinion within the postmodern liberal intellectual elite and this bothers him. By listing all these facts and showing us all these graphs, he thinks he can convince even his most skeptical critics that progress is real, and that it is much more widely distributed than most people imagine. Is there something missing from his account of progress? I think there definitely is. I do not disagree with his claim that progress is real. Hunger, disease, violent death, these are not trivial concerns. The tremendous progress in these areas is real, and it is meaningful. Intellectuals who criticize Pinker by pointing to persistent or new forms of ill health, physical suffering or violence should take a break and actually read the book, they will find that he has the data and it is not bad data. Either argue about his data with better data of your own, or argue on some OTHER grounds. On THESE grounds, he is solid. Continue reading “Review: Enlightenment Now. Steven Pinker.”

Review: The Storm Before the Storm

A relatively short (265 pages), fast paced and lively account of the Roman Republic from 146 BC (the fall of Carthage and Corinth) to 78 BC (the death of Sulla), covering the period in which the Republic saw major social upheaval, conflict and civil war and in which many of the constitutional checks and balances of the Republic fell by the wayside, setting the stage for the final overthrow of the Republic by Julius Ceasar and his grand nephew, Augustus Ceasar. Mike Duncan is known for his Roman history podcasts and in this book he makes the case that the decline of the mos maiorum (the “mores”) of the Roman Republic in this period of crisis was the crucial factor that led to the final fall a few decades later. WHY the mos maiorum fell apart is a big question, and it is not really answered in this book (a book that really tries to answer that question would probably be much denser and longer than this book) , but is beautifully described, and that is enough to earn 4 stars.

This period of Roman history and its main characters are not as prominent in popular memory as the final crisis of the Republic. Almost every educated person has heard of Julius Ceasar, the ides of March, Antony and Cleopatra, and Augustus, but relatively few people are familiar with characters such as the Gracchus brothers, Gaius Marius and Sulla, which is a tragedy, because their stories are as fascinating (if not more fascinating) than anything that happened in the final crisis of the Republic. if you are not a Roman history nerd and are not already familiar with these compelling characters, then this is a great introduction to the era and its most famous personalities. Colleen McCollough’s historical fiction (the “Masters of Rome” series) is far more detailed and richer in texture because in historical fiction she can fill in details where the historical record is silent (she is very careful to stay faithful to the historical record as far as it is known), but if you just want the story that is in the history books, this is a great place to start. Its all in here, the increasing immiseration of the peasant proprietors who were the base of the ancient Republic; the corruption that came with increasing wealth; the fight to extend citizenship to all Italians; the rise (and violent fall) of the Gracchi, aristocrats who championed the cause of the downtrodden; the incredible (and incredibly long) career of Gaius Marius, the “new man” (novus homo) who rose from outsider to outstanding general, savior of Rome and 7 time consul but just could not bear to retire; and last but not the least, the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, impoverished aristocrat, brilliant general, harsh conqueror and even harsher dictator, who tried to reform and re-animate the ancient Republic and actually managed to retire at the height of his power, but whose reforms failed to prevent (and whose personal example probably aggravated) the final crisis of the Republic. As you read, you cannot help wondering why 20 famous movies and TV serials have not been made about these people. Marius’s escape from Rome alone is worth at least one great movie, with more hair-raising chases, captures, escapes, betrayals and last minute twists of fortune than any fictitious adventure movie could possibly squeeze into one character’s life.
Overall, a great read, well worth a look.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla
Gaius Marius

Review: Empire, by Niall Ferguson

If you are reasonably woke and you manage to read the last chapter, you cannot possibly give this book more than one star. On the other hand, even if you are fully woke, you can easily give this book 4 stars as long as you are able to ignore Niall Ferguson’s pro-imperial coda. The reason is straightforward; this is actually a pretty decent (and except for the end, quite balanced) history of the British empire. It is not a very long book, so it cannot cover all episodes, but most of the highlights (good AND bad) are here. No attempt is made to gloss over the genocides and cruelties, though a little bit of spin here and there is to be expected (and can be excused). I have read many books about the empire and this period of history, but this short book is as good a summary as any (at least up to the 20th century, the 20th century part is not necessarily wrong in outline, but we know so much about events in India that it is hard to ignore the lack of detail, or the airy dismissal or dissing of some of our favorite details).

Continue reading “Review: Empire, by Niall Ferguson”

Review: Stalin, waiting for Hitler..

Stephen Kotkin is a historian who has written several outstanding books on Russian history and is now in the process of distilling his lifetime work into a monumental three part biography of Stalin. Volume 1 dealt with Stalin’s early life and his progress from relatively peripheral disciple of Lenin in 1917 to Lenin’s handpicked general secretary of communist party in 1922, to undisputed (though not yet completely all-powerful) boss and ruler of the Soviet Union by 1928. By the end of that volume, Stalin was firmly ensconced in this position, having successfully seen off the challenge from Trotsky, who lost out partly because almost nobody around him liked him, but mostly because he was neither as hardworking, nor as competent, iron-willed or crafty as Stalin.  It is true that Trotsky imagined himself as the real “Marxist intellectual” in this fight, but the autodidact Stalin was no intellectual slouch, and Trotsky’s low opinion of him in this arena is also a (small) part of why he lost this fight; he underestimated his opponent. Of course, both of them believed fully in the Marxist-Leninist picture of history and society, complete with the necessity of class war, the central role of the proletariat and the idiocy of the peasants, so it is easy to dismiss the intellectual output of both parties as equally delusional, but that is not how it looked in the 1920s, so we should leave such retrospective wisdom out of the discussion. In any case, by 1928, Stalin had kicked Trotsky out of the Soviet Union, and had defanged or sidelined all his other rivals within the Bolshevik leadership.

Stalin with Lenin

Continue reading “Review: Stalin, waiting for Hitler..”

The North-West Frontier in 1947

A piece from military historian Dr Hamid Hussain. It includes some details (including the role played by Governor George Cunningham, a Scotsman and an “old frontier hand”) about the mobilization of Pakhtun tribesmen to attack Kashmir in 1947, an invasion covered in greater detail in a recent detailed Brownpundits article about the Kashmir war. 

Following piece is outcome of several related questions about frontier policy at the time of independence in 1947, order of battle, question of British officers staying in Pakistan etc.  It was linked with Kashmir incursion; a fact not noticed by most historians.



Frontier in 1947

Hamid Hussain

Sir George Cunningham, Governor of the NWFP

In August 1947, British departed from India after partitioning the country into two independent states.  Two pillars of stability; Indian Civil Service (ICS) and Indian army were divided between two countries.  Pakistan inherited the north-western frontier of India and its associated tribal question.

A tribal territory under British protection separated Indian administrative border from Afghanistan that in turn served as a buffer state between British India and Tsarist Russia; later Communist Soviet Union.  East India Company encountered these tribes after the demise of Sikh Durbar in 1849 when Punjab was annexed. In the next four decades, this relationship evolved over various stages.  By 1890s, Afghanistan’s borders were stabilized with demarcation of boundaries with Persia, Russia and British India.

Continue reading “The North-West Frontier in 1947”

1947-48 Kashmir War

Extracts from Major Amin’s history of the 1947-48 war.

THE 1947-48 Kashmir War

Major Agha Humayun Amin

The war of lost opportunities 
History is made by those who seize fleeting opportunities in the critical time span in any particular situation and relentlessly execute their plans without second thoughts, subduing inner fears, overcoming procrastination and vacillation, and above all by those who are propelled by the burning desire to defeat the enemy rather than any half hearted judiciousness and timidity. Ninety years of loyalism and too much of constitutionalism had however made the Muslims of 1947 slow in taking the initiative and too much obsessed with consequences of every situation.This attitude was excellent as long as the British were the rulers, but not for a crisis situation, in which geography, time and space, alignment of communications and weather temporarily favoured Pakistan, in case initiative and boldness was exercised and simple but audacious plans were executed in the shortest possible time!

Today, it is fashionable to blame the Indians, Mountbatten, Gracey etc as far as the 1947-48 War is concerned. A dispassionate study of the events of 1947-48 clearly proves that victory was closer in 1947 than ever again as far as the Pakistan Army was concerned. Opportunities were lost because very few people who mattered at any level apart from Mr Jinnah, Brigadier Akbar Khan and some  others were really interested in doing anything!
Continue reading “1947-48 Kashmir War”

Operation Grand Slam (1965 War)

The following is a long extract from Major Amin’s book on the India-Pakistan wars. Other extracts will be posted later. Since this is a very long chapter, I have highlighed and italicized certain sections that the reader can jump to and get the basic story, without bothering with the details. Of course, anyone interested in the details can read the whole thing. 


By Major Agha Humayun Amin


1965 was an eventful year in Indo-Pak history. The Pakistani military ruler Ayub emerged victorious in the Presidential elections held in January 1965 amidst allegations of rigging. This factor created a desire in Ayub to improve his political image by a limited gain in the realm of foreign relations. He got an opportunity to do so in April 1965 over a minor border dispute with India in the Rann of Kutch area. The Pakistan Army dominated the skirmishes in the Rann area as a result of which a climate of overconfidence was created in the Pakistani military and political establishment.7