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..

Omar

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)”

South Asians and “communalism”

In Who We Are and How We Got Here one of the things that David Reich states is that while China consists to a great extent of one large ethnic-genetic group, India (South Asia) is a collection of many ethnic-genetic groups. To some extent, this is not entirely surprising. People from the far south of the subcontinent look very different from people from Kashmir or Punjab.

But that’s really not what Reich is talking about. People in Hebei look quite different from people in Guandong. Perhaps less different than a Tamil from a Kashmiri, but still quite different. But these regional differences grade into each other along a cline.

South Asia is different because strong genetic structure persists within regions. Both Tamil and Bengali Brahmins share some distinctive genes with local populations, but genetically they’re still a bit closer on the whole to Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh (I say this because I’ve looked at a fair number of genotypes of these groups). Similarly, Chamars from Uttar Pradesh and Dalits from Tamil Nadu share more with each other than either do with Brahmins from their own regions (though again, Chamars share more with Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh than Dalits from Tamil Nadu, in part because of gene flow from Indo-Aryan steppe pastoralists into almost all non-Munda people in the Indo-Gangetic plain).

When I read Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India in the middle 2000s it seemed a persuasive enough argument to me. I had read other things about caste during that period, by both Indians and non-Indians. The authors were historians and anthropologists and emphasized the cultural and social preconditions variables shaping the emergence of caste..

The genetic material at that time did not have the power to detect fine-grained differences (classical autosomal markers) or were only at a single locus (Y, or, more often mtDNA). By the middle to late 2000s there was already suggestion from Y/mtDNA that there was some serious population structure in South Asia, but there wasn’t anything definitive.

A full reading of works such as Castes of Mind leaves the impression that though some aspect of caste (broad varnas) are ancient, much of the elaboration and detail is recent, and probably due to British rationalization. The full title speaks to that reality.

This is one reason I was surprised by the results from genome-wide analyses of Indian populations when they first came out. On the whole, populations at the top of the caste hierarchy were genetically distant from those at the bottom, and the broad pattern of the differences was mostly consistent across all of South Asia.

To give a concrete example, there are “lower caste” groups in Punjab which may have more steppe pastoralist ancestry than South Indian Brahmins. But within Punjab “highest caste” groups still have more ancestry than “lower caste” groups.

But this wasn’t the most shocking aspect. That was the fact that many castes are genetically quite distant, and anciently so. In a recent paper, The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia:

We identify 81 unique groups, of which 14 have estimated census sizes of more than a million, that descend from founder events more extreme than those in Ashkenazi Jews and Finns, both of which have high rates of recessive disease due to founder events.

Some of this is due to consanguinity among Muslims and some South Indian groups, but much of it is not. Rather, it’s because genetically it looks like many Indian communities stopped intermarrying ~1,500 years ago. This reduces the effective number of ancestors even in a large population due to increased drift. At a recent conference, an Indian geneticist suggested that this might have something to do with the crystallization of caste Hinduism during the Gupta period. I can’t speak to that, but anyone who has looked at the data sees this pattern.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, assume ~1% introgression of genes from the surrounding population in a small group. Within 1,500 years 50% of the genes of the target population will have been “replaced.” The genetic patterns you see in many South Asian groups indicates far less than 1% genetic exchange per generation for over 1,000 years in these small groups.

But this post isn’t really about genetics. Rather, I began with the genetics because as an outsider in some sense I’ve never really grokked South Asian communalism on a deep level. Yet the genetics tells us that South Asians are extremely endogamous. It is unlikely that this would hold unless the groups were able to suppress individuality to a great extent. Though people tend to marry/mate with those “like them”, usually the frequency is not 99.99% per generation.

In the United States, things are different. Interracial marriage rates were ~1% in 1960.* This was still during the tail end of Jim Crow in much of the south. Since then the fraction of couples who are in ethno-racial mixed marriages keeps increasing and is almost 20% today. There is still a lot of assortative mating, and ingroup preference. But fractions in the 10-20% range are worrisome for anyone who is concerned about genetic cohesion over a few generations.

Though some level of group solidarity exists, explicitly among minorities, and implicitly for non-minorities, individual choice is in the catbird seat today. This was not always so. By the time I was growing up in the 1980s social norms had relaxed, but a black-white couple still warranted some attention and notice. In earlier periods interracial couples had to suffer through much more ostracism from their families and broader society.

In some South Asian contexts, this seems to be true to this day. But unlike the United States the situation is much more complex, with numerous ethno-religious-linguistic subgroups operating in a fractured landscape of power and identity.

I have wondered in part whether the South Asian fixation on sensitivity and feeling when it came to offense and insult is a function of the strong communal/collective aspect to honor, identity, and decision-making. Muslims outside of South Asia are similar to this, and in the Islamic context the rationale is quite explicit: non-Muslims and heretics are tolerated so long as they don’t challenge the public ethno-cultural supremacy of Islam. For example, atheism is punished less because of deviation from religious orthodoxy and more because it destabilizes public order and is seen as a crime against the state.

The conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in relation to religious parades have their clear analogs to strife between the dominant Catholics and the new Protestant communities in Latin America. But among Hindus the same tendencies crop up in inter-caste conflicts. The sexual brutalization that is sometimes reported of lower caste women by upper castes in parts of the Gangetic plain is a trivial consequence of the power that land-holding upper castes have over all the levers of power over low castes in certain localities. Lower caste men are powerless to defend their women against violation, just as in the American South enslaved black men couldn’t shield their womenfolk from the sexual advances of white men.

Will any of this change? I suspect that economic development and urbanization is the acid that will start to break down these old tendencies and relations in South Asia. It also seems clear that all South Asian communities which are transplanted to the more individualistic West have issues with the fact that collective and communal power is not given any public role, and in a de facto sense has to face the reality that individual choices in mates and cultural orientation are much more viable in the West.

This is particularly important to keep in mind on a blog like this, where many people are reading from South Asia (mostly India) and many are reading in the USA and UK. The conflict of values and signifiers occasionally plays out in these comments! For example, a Hindu nationalist commenter once referred to me as “Secular.” As an atheist, materialist, and someone who is irreligious in terms of identity and affiliation, secular describes me perfectly…in the West. But I was aware of the connotations of the term in India in particular, I told him that in fact, I wasn’t “Secular” in the way he was suggested. The reality is that unlike Indian Americans I don’t take a strong interest in what India does so long as it’s a reasonably stable regime, and so don’t signal my affiliation with Hindu nationalism or anti-Hindu nationalism.

* Latinos were not counted as part of this in 1960, so the rate looking at those numbers is 0.4%. I assume this is an underestimate because of Latinos.

Polyandry in Ceylon/Sri Lanka

Polyandry

There is an old  Sinhala saying where four breasts cant get along, four heads can.

Many are under the impression that polyandry was some ancient/mythical social structure ( (e.g. Draupadi in the Mahabaratha).

To the the contrary it was prevalent till modern times  in Sri Lanka/Ceylon, Nepal and certain groups in India.  In Ceylon polyandry was prevalent till the 1950’s in the remote parts of the Kandyan kingdom, e.g. Nuwara-Kalaviya. Apparently there is a rise in fraternal polyandry in the  Malwa region of the Punjab  (see wiki on Polyandry).

The dynamics and customs of polyandry differ among the various cultures. I’ll only write about polyandry in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

There were two types of unions, Deega amd Binna (those terms are still kind of used or understood). Diga was where the woman went to the man’s house. Binna was weh the man went to the woman’s house.

Deega: Where a woman went man/mens house. When she went to the men/mens house she was entitled to a share of the property that belonged to the house and income thereof. So if a woman had a union with 3 men she was entitled to 1/4th of the property and its income.

Knox, mentions that the dowry was considered the property of the wife and she was free to take it away, should the marriage be a failure. Among the things that were given as a part of the dowry Knox mentions slaves, cattle, tools and money. NOTE: Dowry was movable assets, not land.

Now at some point the woman gets tired of the men, or the men get tired of the woman.  The woman will move back to her house (note I did not say parents house). When she moves back, her house property share has to be given back to her.

Binna:  Thats when a man moves into the woman’s house.  This could be a womans first unions or after she walks away from a Diga union and she is back in her house.  They can get an income from either administering or working the woman’s share of the property.

Binna or Diga, the children remain in the house they were born and will inherit a share with other children also born in the house. The children dont belong to the parents, they belong to the house.
The Sinhalese names are based on the house. e.g. Galaha Lekamge Sunil. Written in English custom it would be Sunil of the Secretary’s house in Galaha (a village). The suffix “ge” pronounced “gay” means house or of.

Some key points that made the system work.
The house was an entity and had property (rice paddy, coconut groves etc). The property was not necessarily adjacent to the house.
Property could not be bought or sold.
Children belong to the house, not to either parent.
Minimum children: Infanticide and abortion were practiced. Infanticide was not gender based, but because the “horroscope” was bad.
Virginity for women and men was a non issue.

Knox (1681) says (1681):

  • “In this country each man, even the greatest, hath but one wife; but a woman often has two husbands. For it is lawful and common with them for two brothers to keep house together with one wife, and the children do acknowledge and call both fathers”.
  • These women are of a very strong and courageous spirit, taking nothing very much to heart, mourning more for fashion than affection, never overwhelmed neither with grief of live. And when their husbands are dead, all their care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without.”
  • Their marriages are but of little force or validity for if they disagree and mislike one another, they part without disgrace…. Both women and men do commonly wed four or five times before they can settle themselves to their contention.”
  • As soon as the child is born, the father or some friend apply themselves to an astrologer to inquire whether the child was born in a prosperous planet and a good hour or in an evil one. If it is found to be in an evil they presently destroy it.”

Links/refs

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyandry_in_India

Robert Knox (1681) “An historical relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies”.  Complete book is online
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/14346
Knox was captured by the Kandyan King and was kept for 20 years. Escaped and wrote about life in the Hill Country. Supposed to have inspired Defoes, Robinson Crusoe

Pakistan, communists and a stained dawn

Abdul Majeed Abid

Yeh fasal umeedon ki hamdam,

Iss baar bhi ghaarat jaye gi,

Sab mehnat subhon shaamon ki,

Ab kay bhi akaarat jaye gi

(This crop of aspirations

will be ruined once again,

the toil of day and night

will be wasted another time.)

(Faiz, Montgomery Jail, 1955)

The view from jail

The year 2007 was eventful in Pakistan’s recent history. Political upheaval coupled with a rise in terrorism and a lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the judiciary gripped the country for most of the year. Musharraf, the military dictator, had forcibly removed the Chief Justice of Pakistan — sparking a movement led by lawyers across the country. Amidst all this kerfuffle arose a new band called ‘Laal’ with their song ‘Umeed e Seher’ (Hope for a new Dawn). The song became a sort of anthem for the lawyers’ movement alongside slogans against military dictatorship. The song was based on a poem written by Pakistan’s foremost progressive poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the band consisted of young academics who openly declared themselves Marxists. One of the band members was the General Secretary of a Communist Party in Pakistan. A communist party in Pakistan? That seems like an oxymoron, does it not?

Continue reading “Pakistan, communists and a stained dawn”

Was There a Sugar Conspiracy?

Well, not really. Not a conspiracy of the sort you can take to court. A balanced and well researched look back at the nutrition wars and recent talk of a “sugar conspiracy” in this article in Science.

Was there ever really a “sugar conspiracy”?

Their conclusion:

Historical investigations of “merchants of doubt” have been invaluable in showing that scientific uncertainty is sometimes the product of deliberate acts of deception. Such studies underscore the essential insight that the existing evidence base is powerfully shaped by social forces and political choices, and that had decisions unfolded differently, our areas of knowledge (such as genomics) and blind spots (such as obesity prevention or gun violence) would be shifted. But ahistorical accounts thwart our ability to critically evaluate the often long and zigzag process of scientific conjecture and refutation. They provide spurious cover for changes to policy by suggesting that old ideas are illegitimate. And, they advance a false impression that doing the “right” kind of science will somehow avert the messy business of making policy based on incomplete evidence, public values, and democratic politics

The core of the problem is the willingness to jump in and give “expert” advice when the evidence is so limited (for any advice); but then again, demand for advice was so strong, it was bound to be fulfilled, just as demand for finding a “conspiracy” (fat conspiracy, sugar conspiracy, whatever) is so strong. These things probably arise from deep features of human cognition and social interaction.. anyway, I think this is a balanced article, but maybe not harsh enough about the limitations of nutrition advice and the damage done by experts offering advice where the science is not yet settled..

Two Videos in Urdu (both having problems with the language)

It so happens that I happened to see the following two videos around the same time.

    1. Pakistani journalist (he seems to be an ISPR/Pak army favorite) Wajahat Khan (aka Waj Bro) has a message for Imran Khan. It is quite hilarious, but this particular post is about his ability to speak Urdu, which is clearly rather limited. He would probably do a better job in English (and he has to rely on English a lot in this video). This is fairly typical of the children of our current elite (not necessarily of the older generation). Check it out

2. The other video appears to be from closer to the other end of the socio-economic spectrum. In this case I have no clue who the speaker is (she states she is from Kasur, and she mentions at one point that she has been “pushed into prostitution”, I have no idea what the back story is) but clearly she is not from the elite class. The thing I am focused on in this post is that while her Urdu is in fact much better than Waj Bro’s Urdu, it is also quite clearly not her mother tongue. One gets the impression she would have done better in Punjabi.

My point today has nothing to do with the politics of each video (and in the case of the second one, I have no clue who she is and what the back story is, we all know cases where the story behind the video turned out to be quite different from what is immediately apparent),  I just wanted to ask what people think about the language issue in Pakistan.

Urdu is the national language and is (supposedly, ideally?) the main language of everyday use, high culture and education. But seems in trouble at both ends:

      1. My anecdotal observation is that the children of the elite cannot speak it well (OK, most are better than Waj bro, but not by much) and are almost completely unaware of (and un-interested in) its high culture (all that great poetry, etc). Their everyday language is mostly English, Urdu being used to converse (at a very basic level) with “the lower classes”;  servants, drivers and so on. Is this impression correct? what will be the long term outcome of this trend? (not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely curious and not sure about the answers, not even sure that my anecdotal observation is completely representative of the super-elite or how far it extends beyond that elite).
      2. At the other end, the “common people” of Pakistan mostly were not born into an Urdu speaking culture. The language of their forefathers is (in almost all cases except middle class and above migrants from North India) not Urdu. The languages of these people used to be Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and so on. Today, as Pakistanis, they learn Urdu in School and via the mass media and (imperfectly, but frequently, especially in Punjab) from their recently Urduized parents. Actually it seems that many (most? some?) Sindhis, Baloch and Pakhtoons are still speaking their own languages at home, but in the case of Punjabis, it is increasingly common for them to speak Urdu at home (for example, my siblings and I started out speaking Punjabi and then switched to Urdu and stayed with that). And there is no such things as learning in Punjabi or even learning Punjabi as a language at school. You can see the result in the video above. The lady in question is not doing a bad job (she even manages to throw in fragments of a verse and an Arabic quote), but she would clearly be more comfortable in Punjabi. Her children will almost certainly be more comfortable in Urdu, but what level of Urdu? Waj Bro level?

You can see where I am going. The language issue in Pakistan. Which is connected with culture, with nationalism, with modernity. What do people see as the future? (again, not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely curious to know what people think is the current situation, and where it is likely to go).

The Coming Information Apocalypse..

“What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did?” technologist Aviv Ovadya warns/asks in this interesting journey through the existing and coming technologies for manipulating words, images, networks and people..

Aviv says:

Alarmism can be good — you should be alarmist about this stuff,” Ovadya said one January afternoon before calmly outlining a deeply unsettling projection about the next two decades of fake news, artificial intelligence–assisted misinformation campaigns, and propaganda. “We are so screwed it’s beyond what most of us can imagine,” he said. “We were utterly screwed a year and a half ago and we’re even more screwed now. And depending how far you look into the future it just gets worse.”

That future, according to Ovadya, will arrive with a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — “reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and “human puppets.

He then describes how rapidly the technologies for manipulating images, mining personal information and using AI to tailor messages specifically to each user are developing.  And he fears that:

fast-developing tools powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality tech could be hijacked and used by bad actors to imitate humans and wage an information war”

Of course they will. And the technology development will not stop just because it can be put to scary uses. I cannot think of an example from history where technological development was stopped because X “enlightened individuals” predicted it would be destabilizing. (Aviv is not saying that either, I just wanted to get that out of the way). So eventually everyone will be playing with these tools, and so? Didn’t everyone start using print and then radio, and then TV and then the internet? Maybe it made it possible to coordinate people in larger numbers towards common ends (not necessarily good ones, but I mean the game of politics did not change to some new game, it just ramped up a level), but the numbers coordinated by religion/culture in the past were not trivial either, just slower moving .. The question is this: is there a point where quantitative change becomes qualitative? and what does that mean? What will be radically different? Leaders? followers? patsies? useful idiots?

This is not a rhetorical question, I am really curious what people think will change and what will not.

By the way, i read that while he was waiting for Stalin to shoot him, Bukharin was reading philosophy and this was the question that stumped him; the question of quantitative change versus qualitative change..

Review: The House of Government

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yuri Slezkine is a Russian-American historian (he is also technically Portuguese-American, since he first emigrated from Russia to Portugal and then came to the US with a Portuguese passport) who has written a number of interesting books, and “The House of Government; a Saga of the Russian Revolution” is his latest and greatest offering.  At over 1000 pages, it is not a lightweight book, literally or metaphorically. What he does is follow the lives of a large number of Bolshevik revolutionaries, from their origins as young rebels (they were almost all very young; very few were over 40 when they took over the largest country in the world) to the heady days of the Bolshevik revolution, to the civil war that followed, the first compromise (the NEP), the second and more serious attempt at “true communism” (the five year plan), the terrible violence and suffering of collectivization,  the victory of communism under Stalin, the insane purge and auto-annihilation that followed that victory, the second world war, the desiccation and death of revolutionary ideology, and, perhaps most strikingly, the coming of age of the next generation without any sincere transfer of the purported official ideology, leading to the final, inevitable collapse of the entire experiment.

Continue reading “Review: The House of Government”

Why do nonmulims mistreat muslims so much?

Perhaps the reason that nonmuslims mistreat muslims so much is because the vast majority of nonmuslims (and for that matter many muslims) don’t understand Islam or muslims. If carefully watching this video many times was a requirement for every nonmuslim in the world; and if nonmuslims were required to write articles on it to demonstrate their understanding; would this help nonmuslims treat muslims better? I think yes. What does everyone else think?

 

This video is funny like heck. Tarek Fatah should do stand up comedy. It is hard to watch this video without laughing hysterically for large chunks of it. One funny part is when Tarek Fatah said that Mohammed, may peace be upon him, was confused when he said muslims should not make friends with Jews and Christians because they are friends with each other. Didn’t Mohammed, may peace be upon him, know that Christians hated Jews?

 

Tarek Fatah would like for substantially reorganized Korans to be published. However he says that South Asian scholarship is not respected.

 

One important take away is how spot on similar older cultured educated Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are too each other.  Tarek Fatah could easily be a Deshi Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh or Jain and talk the exact same way. When I was a young child, this was much more obvious than it is now. I hope that future generations don’t forget this.

 

Note, the post was heavily edited with feedback from Kabir. Thanks Kabir 🙂

Will the US Continue to Attract International Science Talent?

We had a little discussion on Twitter about this topic. It was triggered by this post by Sam Altman @Sama, (about increasing political censorship of heterodox ideas in Silicon valley) but became a more general argument about US competitiveness and ability to attract talent, especially scientific talent. I just wanted to put a few random thoughts and questions out there, in the hope of enlightening feedback.

Clearly the US is still the world’s number one destination for exceptional scientific talent. But this is just year one of the reign of the mad king and already there are many reports of racist and bureaucratic obstruction of visas and suchlike (being both racist and bureaucratic, this process naturally has limited connection to rational priorities). There is also the general decline of US reputation across the globe (whether it reflects the reality of US life and to what extent, these are separate issues; the perception itself would likely influence SOME aspiring migrants). This is one (obvious) side of the story. There is also an attack from the Left flank (see below). Continue reading “Will the US Continue to Attract International Science Talent?”