M.J. Akbar’s Tinderbox & Aag ko Pani Ka Bhay: Thoughts on Indian Sub-continent.

A close childhood friend, a passionate and active supporter of Aam Aadmi Party-whilst he retains his deep personal and family linkages with the Congress party- his grandfather served as a minister in a Congress run Madhya Pradesh government in the 70s, is a regular sparring partner on arguments around ideological moorings of Modi Sarkar and its performance.

A comment he made in a recent argument, he was explaining to me why the opposition in India behaves the way it behaves and what is the opposition’s role, quoted a famous Hindi adage- Aag ko Pani ka bhay (The fear of water should be inculcated in every fire). Coming from someone who has been extensively involved in political mobilization and has had a close view of governance in this country, the comment is a remarkable summary of the sub-continent’s politics over the last 100 years.

The comment made me once again read M. J. Akbar’s seminal work on Pakistan- Tinderbox the Past and Future of Pakistan, relook at the structure of modern Indian state, its institutions and the incentives that drive the political parties in India.

Akbar’s book presents the intellectual foundation of the idea of Pakistan, the political land scape that nurtured the idea making the idea a potent force, eventually leading to the partition on the sub-continent on religious grounds and founding of an Islamic nation.

Akbar submits that the fall of Mughal empire and with the emergence of British as the de-facto rulers of the sub-continent, the Muslim elite that that ruled for over five hundred years felt politically disenfranchised and powerless.

One of the ways in which the elite responded to this defeat was by nurturing the idea that Akbar calls- Theory of Distance.  He credits the origin of this theory to Shah Walliullah a pre-eminent Islamic theological intellectual of 18th century. The theory claimed that the Muslims were suffering, because the difference between believers (the Muslims) and infidels (the Hindus) had blurred in India. They had abandoned the purity of their faith and forgotten they were a distinct entity.

As the British consolidated their rule over India in the late 18th and the 19th century, their policies encouraged this distinction and the Muslims increasingly felt the British were discriminating them vis-à-vis Hindus.

The British on their part, during the years in power, saw the Indian sub-continent not as one Nation but an amalgamation of multiple groups each with its own sectarian identity.

Their experience of 1857 made them consider Muslims as a political force that posed the gravest threat to their rule.

In the first half of the 20th century, they used the force of Muslim identity as a counter-weight to the nationalist movement which was primarily led by Hindu leaders.

The British stoked the fear of a numerically dominant Hindus will deprive Muslims of any power sharing. Starting with separate electoral colleges for Muslims, British support for ‘Theory of Distance’ culminated in Two Nations theory with partition and creation of Pakistan.

The British Raj ruled by the principles of pitting caste and sectarian identities against each other and using these identities bulwark against the freedom movement. Their encouragement and support of the Two Nations Theory has left a lasting legacy in the sub-continent.

Post 1947, the two nations have followed different trajectories.

Pakistan has slowly, steadily and surely moved in the direction that was envisioned for it, by founders of its idea. A state founded, as Akbar writes in his book- not only as a separate nation from Hindu India but also a laboratory and fortress of Islamic faith.

It’s laws today discriminate its citizens on religious grounds- only a Muslim by law can become its Prime Minister or President. It has enshrined Islamic practices in its constitution and its once Westernized Army, its most dominant institution, now has Faith, piety, Jihad for the sake of Allah, as its motto.

Although Islam could not hold the country together, its eastern wing seceded in 1971 to become Bangladesh, it has continued it march towards a homogenous Islamic country. Religious minorities made up for 31 % of Pakistan’s population in 1947, today they make for 4% of it’s population. Its current prime minister aspires to make Pakistan a modern-day version of Riyasat e Medina.

Akbar’s book introduces us to actors who gave birth to the ideas of Muslims as a separate nation, the need for an Islamic republic in the sub-continent and those who fought- politically and violently for fulfilment of these ideas.

It is unfortunate that we don’t read about these men- they are all men, in our school text books. Ideas of Walliullah, the Ulemas of Deoband, Maulana Madudi and Zia ul Haq have shaped the destiny of the sub-continent and continue to drive the actions of those running the countries in the sub-continent.

The book, well researched and mercifully does not read like a Phd thesis, fills this space remarkably. My one quibble with the book would be that it does cover the role played by Hindus in the emergence of two nations theory. The most towering leaders of the freedom movement were Hindus but they were avowedly secular and considered Muslims as equal stakeholders. Where and why did they fail in garnering mass support for their ideas of United Secular India.

India inherited the Raj in 1947. It opted for the Westminster style, first past the post model for it legislative function. Its bureaucratic service is modelled on the lines of British era Indian Civil Service and its police force even after 75 years of Independence follows the procedural manual laid down by the British. The Indian state continues to enforce The Indian Penal Code, enacted by the British in 1860 and India’s Supreme Court functions in English. Its successive governments not only inherited, and have largely preserved the British era state structure, they also inherited India’s sectarian fault lines.

Setting it up as a multi-party democracy, the founders of the modern Indian republic continued to see India the way British saw it- a union comprising of multiple religious and geographical identities. Shashi Tharoor captured the idea of the Indian Republic pithily when he compared India with a traditional Indian meal called –Thali.

A Thali is a traditional India meal comprising of an array of dishes in uneven quantity with each dish bringing its own distinct taste and flavor; a sum of its parts a Thali makes for a delicious wholesome meal with each dish contributing to the culinary experience.

The problem with looking and treating a country like a Thali whilst governing it as boisterous electoral democracy is that sooner than later politics of identity will kick in. Each sub-group will look to the trump its own interests over the interests of the larger group as a whole. Its design will make sure that the incentives of the politicians representing each sub-group, will always be aligned with achieving optimum output for the sub-group that they represent even if those goals are achieved at cost of the largest group- the nation state. While there is merit in the arrangement, why should the size of the largest group be allowed to dominate the smaller units, a side effect of this approach is that it leads to the politics of – Aag ko Pani ka Bhay.

In the absence of a unified Indian identity, crafted in a melting pot with its religious and geographical diversity as ingredients, we as a nation always end up playing the balancing act. Let us guard against the majoritarian tendencies of its majority community by vesting its religious and cultural institutions in the hands of a secular state. Let the dominant religious minority have its own personal laws otherwise it will feel alienated. Let us split the state purse on religious lines as a mark of our commitment to building a nation that treats all religions equally. Let us ride roughshod over rights of the real minority- the individual for the sake of a group’s sentiment. We have ingrained in our laws all these principles.

Design a state structure that looks as Indians first on what are their religious beliefs and then their caste denomination. Give them a polity that will thrive on amplifying their differences and pitting the fear of one identity against the other. Fail to build state capacity that can be a neutral arbitrator of conflicts between these identities or can forcefully maintain law and order and you will end up with the polity thriving, on politics of ‘otherization’ of the ideological and political opponents; and one that challenges state’s monopoly over violence repeatedly. Instead of supremacy of the law performing the role of Pani  to the Aag of anarchy or the will of the people acting as the Pani to the Aag of governments not delivering, politicians get to play one identity against the other.

The Indian sub-continent has been carved into three separate nations in the last 75 years in an attempt to balance Aag and Pani. While two of three nations are forging common national identity, for a better or for worse time will tell, the largest of three continues to stumble along. How soon its people come together and forge an identity that subsumes their smaller group identities- one wonder if its citizens even want to do that, will shape the destiny of the sub-continent in this century.


Browncast – Shazia Ilmi BJP National spokesperson

Shazia Ilmi

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

In this podcast Mukunda and I talk to Shazia Ilmi – BJP National spokesperson about Indian politics, Muslims in Politics and Society and a lot more.


Spoils of War; The Aircraft of the Afghan Air Force

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Spoils of War

 Chaotic United States withdrawal from Afghanistan and consequent vacuum rapidly filled by Taliban surprised everyone.  Large amounts of weapons, especially aircraft falling into the hands of the Taliban raised some concerns. However, these fears are exaggerated.  Taliban were an insurgent force engaging in a protracted warfare focused on hit and run, small scale engagements, ambushes, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks and assassinations in rural and urban areas.  It used motorcycles and civilian trucks for mobility and small arms, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), mortars and explosives for its operations.

The United States developed the Afghan Air Force (AAF) with the primary aim of supporting Afghan security forces with aerial reconnaissance and intelligence, logistic support to troops deployed in operational areas and use of rotary wing and light fixed wing attack planes to attack insurgent deployments.

Russian MI-17 was the nucleus as Afghan pilots and maintenance crew have long experience with these helicopters. Many Afghans living in Russia and Eastern European countries with experience with MI-17 and newly trained pilots and crew managed these helicopters. However, the MI-17 workhorse was downgraded in favor of new shiny American aerial toys. Many factors were at play.  Russian trained officers including pilots were eased out and when sanctions were placed on Russia, Afghan government funds could not be used for Russian equipment. This issue was circumvented to some extent by routing MI-17s and its parts through India.  American regulations require that U.S. finding should be used to buy American made equipment. The U.S. government was planning to phase out MI-17 by 2022 and no further funding was planned for this category.

Russian planes are simple to operate and manuals don’t need Russian language.  Afghanistan already had long experience with Russian aircraft and there was an available pool that could be easily expanded.  Maintenance crew with limited education can be trained without mastering Russian language. On the other hand, American planes are complex and the English language is essential.  Pilots and maintenance crew had to first learn the English language before training on American planes. Some training programs were in the United States that required a lengthy process of vetting and visa requirements.  In 2020, with COVID pandemic, Afghan pilots who came back from basic training in the United States could not start flying with their trainers and mentors. There was always a deficiency of qualified Afghan pilots and maintenance crew. Private contractors were operating and maintaining AAF planes. When the security situation deteriorated, some of the training was moved to third countries especially Gulf sheikhdoms. Continue reading Spoils of War; The Aircraft of the Afghan Air Force

The Afghan National Army

From Dr Hamid Hussain (discussing question of whether the ANA can be resurrected? what will become of them?)

Some informed individuals asked for my two cents worth opinion about a conversation about the Afghan National Army (ANA) in a changed scenario.  One concern is that a large number of unemployed soldiers can join any faction of the war economy. It invariably resulted in comparison with the disbandment of the Iraqi army after the second Gulf war.



Afghan National Army (ANA)

Thanks Sir for your email.  You raise an important point and following is my take;

“Blood cannot be washed out with blood”.   Pashto proverb

ANA had disintegrated in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal and subsequent civil war.  New ANA post American occupation is a more recent phenomenon and has an interesting history. In the first few years after the U.S. arrival in late 2001, security was provided by militias of local warlords.  The U.S. had no initial plan for the nation building project and the Department of Defense (DOD) under Donald Rumsfeld was allergic to the whole idea. Constitution of the new Afghan government was a highly centralized template and deft Hamid Karzai had great influence on the process.  Once this centralized project was adopted, then it dawned that this will need an effective national army.  This also neatly fitted into the idea of sidelining local powerful warlords and shedding militias.  However, when the nascent structure for ANA was put in place in 2005-6, insurgency had started in Pashtun south and east.  This meant dominance of non-Pashtuns for a variety of reasons.

These non-Pashtuns had joined the U.S. quite early and had influence due to direct contact with American handlers.  As insurgency was mainly in Pashtun areas therefore there was hesitancy to recruit Pashtuns.  However, one could not do away with Pashtuns therefore Soviet era leftist officers were brought back and urban educated as well some tribal rural Pashtuns resenting Taliban dominance were recruited. Later, some of these officers were eased out again due to the influence of non-Pashtuns power brokers.  Every power player used ANA and police to fill ranks with his partisans.  This was a favor providing a secure job. During the Obama administration, ANA was expanded but rapid expansion simply provided more avenues of corruption including pocketing salaries of ‘ghost soldiers’ that only existed on army payroll.  Despite these handicaps, ANA had a reasonable structure and more importantly in view of rampant corruption in police and other government departments. ANA was held in high esteem by the general public.  More money was spent on Special Operations Forces (SOF) that were better trained, equipped & supported. Disproportionately, a large number of SOF was Uzbek, Tajik & Hazara. Continue reading The Afghan National Army

The Plagues of Amwas and Justinian: The 200 years long series of plagues and pestilence and the conquest of Muslims over Rome and Persia

From Gypsy Syed.

The Plagues of Amwas and Justinian: The 200 years long series of plagues and pestilence and the conquest of Muslims over Rome and Persia


Part 1:


During Umar bin Khattab’s caliphal rule, early Muslims experienced a sum of disasters which convinced them that the Day of Judgement is upon them.

During the last 1400 years, every generation of Muslims have had at least some groups and/or leaders who assured others that the Day of Judgement is imminent, yet the force of this conviction of impending apocalypse was perhaps never stronger than in the year 639 of Common Era (18 of Hijri).

The primary reason for this certitude was prophet Muhammad’s two hadeeths: 1) The prophet Muhammad, holding out his middle and index fingers, said, “My advent and the Hour (of Judgement) are like this (or like these),” namely, the period between his lifetime and the Day of Judgement is like the distance between his two fingers, i.e., very short (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/68/50). 2) During the Ghazwa of Tabuk while he was sitting in a leather tent, the prophet said, “Count six signs that indicate the approach of the Hour: my death, the conquest of Jerusalem, a plague that will afflict you (and kill you in great numbers) as the plague that afflicts sheep, the increase of wealth to such an extent that even if one is given one hundred Dinars, he will not be satisfied; then an affliction which no Arab house will escape, and then a truce between you and Bani Al-Asfar (i.e. the Byzantines) who will betray you and attack you under eighty flags. Under each flag will be twelve thousand soldiers.” (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/58/18).

The prophet died in the year 632 CE, Muslims conquered Jeurasalem in 638 CE, and during the same year the regions of Levant and Arabia experienced such a severe famine that according to historian Ibn Abi Hajala, the sand of the Arabian peninsula turned black and thousands died due to hunger. He adds that caliph Umar’s body turned so weak that companions feared his death was upon him, and that in the Muslim chronicles the year 638 CE (17 of Hijri) was recalled as the Year of Ashes.

Since historically plagues have often followed famines, it is no surprise that soon after the famine a series of plagues began appearing in many Middle Eastern cities. In the Levantine city of Amwas (Emmaus Nicopolis), where Muslim army had been camping, the plague spread with such swiftness that according to several Muslim historians within a few days more than 25,000 Muslim soldiers died, including several prominent companions of the prophet. (Note: the figure of 25,000 shouldn’t be taken literally, as pre-modern historians often meant by such numbers to signify a large amount of people; there was of course no way to count the specific number of bodies.)

The most prominent among these companions was Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, who is among the ten companions preordained by the prophet to be one of his companions in paradise. Abu Ubaidah was appointed by caliph Umar the head of Muslim army in Syria replacing Khalid Bin Waleed, and under his competent leadership Muslim army won a series of battles, moving from Jerusalem to Beirut to Damascus with lightening speed. Umar had even said that if Abu Ubaidah had stayed alive, he’d have been the one appointed as the third caliph. But after Abu Ubaidah’s unfortunate death during the infamous Plague of Amwas, Umar conferred the governorship of Damascus on the competent shoulders of Muadh ibn Jabal. But soon after even he died, along with his son Abdul Rehman and his two wives. The prophet had said about Muadh that he will lead all Muslim scholars into the gates of paradise. The person who replaced him was Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan but soon plague took his life too. The fourth person to be appointed the governor of Damascus was Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan who was fortunate enough to survive the plague and thirty years later announced the beginning of his own caliphate and in doing so launched the Umayyad caliphate that continued for next hundred years.

Meanwhile, during the year 639, according to several hadeeths and Arab historians, caliph Umar traveled with two military battalions towards Syria, but when he reached the borderland region of Sargh, he met Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, Yazid ibn abi Sufyan, and Shurahbil ibn Hasana, all three of them had traveled down there from the garrison town of Amwas to inform him that a plague had spread at a brisk pace along the cities of Syria and he’d be better off returning back to Medina with his soldiers. According to the famous 9th century Arab historian Abu Jafar ibn Yazid al-Tabari, the caliph first consulted the early migrant ‘Muhajirun’ Muslims of Makkah and then the Medinans, but both groups differed. One said that it’s not wise to return after heading out to fight in the service of God, and the other said that it is a caliph’s duty to protect his soldiers and thus it is logical to return. Then Umar sought the view of those Makkans who had converted to Islam after its conquest by the Muslims. They were quick to suggest that the army should immediately head back. “This time, no two men among them disagreed, but they all said, ‘Return (to Medina) with the men; this is an affliction that may bring about our ruin.’”

Next morning, as narrated in The History of al-Tabari Volume XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll), when Umar got ready to leave, Abu Ubaydah said to him, “Are you fleeing from God’s providence?” “Yes,” Umar replied, “I flee from one divine ordinance to another. Don’t you see? Suppose a man goes down into a riverbed with two slopes, one fertile, the other barren, does the one who grazes his animals on the infertile slope not do so according to God’s ordinance, and does the one who grazes his animals on the fertile one not do so according to God’s ordinance?” Umar went on, “If somebody other than you had said this, Abu Ubaydah, . . . ,” (presumably Umar meant he’d have punished him). Then he went with him to a spot away from the people. While the men were thus busily readying themselves to depart, suddenly Abd al-Rahman bin Awf appeared on the scene. He had been following at a distance and had not been present yesterday. He exclaimed, “What on earth is the matter with the men?” So he was told. Then he said, “I know something about this which is relevant.” Umar said, “In our eyes you are a truthful and honest man,- what can you tell us?” Abd al-Rahman said, “I heard the Messenger of God say: ‘When it comes to your notice that there is a pestilence in a certain country, do not go near it, and if it breaks out while you are in it, do not flee from it then.’ Therefore, Abd al-Rahman concluded, “nothing should make you leave this place except those words.” Umar exclaimed, “God be praised, so leave, all you men!” Then he departed with them. (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/76/44)

What follows after the departure of caliph Umar is narrated by Al-Tabari in these words:

“According to Ibn Humayd—Salamah—Muhammad b. Ishaq— Aban b. Salih—Shahr b. Hawshab al-Ash’ari—someone from his clan who, after his father had died, was left behind to take care of his mother and was an eyewitness of the plague of Amwas, (in other words Shahr’s stepfather), “When the disease became widespread, Abu Ubaydah stood up among his men and delivered the following speech, “Men, this sickness is a mercy from your Lord, a request from your Prophet Muhammad and it has caused the death of the pious who died before you; I, Abu Ubaydah, ask God that He assign to me my share thereof.” Suddenly he suffered (an acute attack of) the disease, as a result of which he died. Muadh ibn Jabal was appointed as his successor over the people. He went on: Then, after that, (Muadh) delivered a speech in which he said, “Truly, men, this sickness constitutes a mercy from your Lord, a request from your Prophet and it has caused the death of the pious who died before you; I, Muadh, ask God that He assign thereof a share to my family.” Then his son, Abd al-Rahman bin Muadh, suffered (a sudden attack of) the plague as a result of which he died. Then Muadh stood up and prayed for a share of the disease for himself, after which it smote him. Indeed, I saw him looking at his palm, then he kissed the back of his hand and said, “I prefer not to have anything of this world (together) with what (I have) in you (i.e. my hand).” When he had died, Amr bin al-‘As was made his successor over the people. Amr stood up to address the people and said,” “Men, when this sickness strikes, it spreads like wildfire, so let us run away from it to the mountains.” Then Abu Wathilah al-Hudhali said, “by God, you are known to us as a liar. While you were still no better than the donkey I sit on, I had already become a Companion of the Prophet.” But, he went on, “by God, this time I will not reject what you say. I swear by God, we should not stay here!” Then he departed and the people went with him and scattered in all directions. Eventually God took the plague away from them. He went on: News of this opinion of Amr bin al-‘As reached Umar bin al-Khattab and, by God, he did not raise objections to it.”

In fact, Umar appointed Amr bin al-‘As head of the Muslim army in Egypt, and he famously led the Muslim conquest of Egypt within the next five years.

It is vital to give the Sargh and Plague of Amwas accounts in detail here because during the next several centuries Muslims were beset with an interminable series of plagues and pestilence, and this Sargh debate, along with three germane hadeeths, were rehashed each time by Muslim scholars in their dogged debates about how to countenance these plagues. One of those hadeeths was mentioned above by Abd al-Rahman bin Awf, and the second one is included in Sahih Bukhari according to which the prophet said, “‘No Adwa (i.e. no contagious disease); nor (any evil omen in the month of) Safar; nor Hama (a bird used to foretell future) exists.’ A bedouin asked, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! What about the camels which, when on the sand (desert) look like deers, but when a mangy camel mixes with them they all get infected with mange?’ On that Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Then who conveyed the (mange) disease to the first (mangy) camel?’” (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/76/84)

And according to the third hadeeth, “Narrated Aisha (the wife of the Prophet): I asked Allah’s Messenger about the plague. He told me that it was a Punishment sent by Allah on whom he wished, and Allah made it a source of mercy for the believers, for if one in the time of an epidemic plague stays in his country patiently hoping for Allah’s Reward and believing that nothing will befall him except what Allah has written for him, he will get the reward of a martyr.” (https://sunnah.com/bukhari/60/141)

Thus keeping in mind the judgements of prophet’s companions at Sargh, and the three aforementioned hadeeths, Muslim scholars and jurists have had three foremost opinions on plagues and pestilence: 1) that all plagues and pestilence are a gift from God to believers but God’s wrath for unbelievers, and that a Muslim who dies due to a plague is a martyr, 2) that a Muslim should neither enter a plague-infested region nor escape from it, and 3) that there is no truth to contagion, all disease and deaths are directly from God.

(Side note: I’ve got to mention here Lawrence Conrad’s excellent paper, Umar at Sargh: The Evolution of an Umayyad Tradition of Flight from the Plague. Conrad is the preeminent historian of plague and medicine in the medieval Muslim world, and in this paper he scrutinizes the evolutionary nature of the seven riwayaats of the Umar at Sargh narrative and convincingly concludes that it’s an invention of 9th century Arab historians involved in debate over the nature of plagues, that there is no doubt Muslim army was stuck with a major plague and that many prominent companions died including Abu Ubaidah, but it is doubtful if Umar had ever led an expedition towards Syria (since no rowayaat properly explains the nature of the expedition), and that even if he had taken an expedition, the debates are certainly invented. He argues that each of the seven riwayaats of the epidsode has bits added to it for literary and rhetorical purposes, and that in this case the riwayaats were adopted by later muhaddiths.

He writes, “The Umar at Sargh tradition provides a valuable example of how an account that in its earliest extant form simply seeks to report Umar’s journey and the reason for its failure, could be so elaborately revised and altered as to lose almost all contact with its original basis (insofar as we have access to this stage of the process) by the time it reached its fully developed form. Specifically, it illustrates how a sophisticated Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad could evolve from what had earlier been a simple historical khabar.” He adds, “it bears notice, however, that the Umar at Sargh materials do not support the commonly asserted position that the genre of akhbar originated from that of hadith, indeed, they illustrate development in precisely the opposite direction.” Later, “the actual journey is henceforth reduced to the role of a frame story that provides the setting for an effort to address major doctrinal and theological issues that had not drawn the attention of earlier tradents. Specifically, the tradition now raises the problem that as all things – including plague – come from God, flight from stricken places and prudent cautionary measures against the epidemic would seem at least to reflect deficient faith, or even comprise defiance of the will of God. The advice of three groups of Muslims neatly sets the stage, an altercation between Umar and Abu Ubayda, soon to fall victim to the Plague Amwas, poses the issue of divine will, and a solution is found in Umar’s parable of the herdsman in the wadi. The tradition of the Prophet, however, lacks the authority to settle the matter, and rather only introduces the problem. In this and all subsequent versions, the Qur’anic motif of consultation with the Companions proves to be crucial.” And finally, “If it seems reasonable to concede that Umar ibn al-Khattab actually did undertake a journey that was terminated prematurely by the outbreak of plague in Syria, the fact remains that even the later tradents, creative in so many other ways, were at a loss as to what to make of this journey. Only the last version, heavily embroidered in all respects, goes so far as to say that Umar was ‘on a campaign’ (ghaziyan), but which campaign? Such lack of differentiation is in itself suspect, and no other source knows of any military expedition led personally by Umar, to Syria or anywhere else.”)

All of this gets infinitely more fascinating once we expand our field of vision in both space and time from Hijaz and Syria to the greater Middle East and the Mediterranean world and from merely the 630s to the entire 6th and 7th centuries and beyond. Because around 150 years before the year 639, Christians of the Byzantine Middle East and Persia had convinced themselves that the world is about to end. (Hence, the thesis of many scholars, Stephen J. Shoemaker prominent among them, that Islam was a natural, though uniquely Arab, product of the greater Mediterranean zeitgeist of the Late Antique 6th and 7th centuries, and that the prophet Muhammad and early Muslims were motivated by their belief in an imminent apocalypse.) There were several reasons for this belief among 6th century Christians: 1) Using dates given in Bible, Christian clergy figured that the world will not age beyond 6000 years, and by calculating the ages of prophets they estimated that the age of the world had already reached 6000 years during the sixth century. 2) Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation had prophesied that right before the second coming of Jesus, the world will be enveloped in a series of wars, famines, plagues, and earthquakes. And sixth century had indeed been a long century of quite literal darkness enveloping the Mediterranean world and beyond, ushering with it several episodes of plagues, famines, earthquakes, a Late Antiquity version of climate change, indeed a “Global Cooling,” and to top it all, a century long tug of wars between the Roman/Byzantine empire and the Persian empire. These endless calamities had hollowed out both these grand old empires, politically and financially, to such an extent that a new group of warriors were able to emerge from Arabia and in quick succession topple both.


(It’s a four part series. The first part deals with the Plague of Amwas and, briefly, its impact on debates about plagues among medieval Muslim scholars, and historicity of the Plague of Amwas tradition. Second part expands to the Justinian Plague (the most fun part). Third one on the 6th century Byzantine Persian wars and the rise of Islam. Fourth part on the 4 major plagues during the Umayyad period given in Muslim historical traditions and, briefly, the rise of Abbasids.)

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History of al-Tabari: The Conquest of Iraq, SouthWestern Persia, and Egypt Vol XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll)

Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre, Lawrence I. Conrad

TA ‘UN AND W’ABA: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam, Lawrence I. Conrad

The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies by Michael W. Dols

Epidemic disease in central Syria in the late sixth century: Some new insights from the verse of Hassān ibn Thābit, Lawrence I. Conrad

Abraha and Muḥammad: Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary “topoi” in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition, Lawrence I. Conrad

Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic, Lester K. Little

Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers, Jo N. Hays

‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources, Michael G. Morony

Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence, Hugh N. Kennedy

Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541–749, Dionysios Stathakopoulos

Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources, Peter Sarris

Procopius and the Sixth Century, Averil Cameron

When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague, Monica H. Green

Rejecting Catastrophe: The Case of the Justinianic Plague, Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg

Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750), Marcel Keller and others

The Political and Social Role of Khurasan under Abbasid Rule 747-820, Elton L. Daniel

Continue reading The Plagues of Amwas and Justinian: The 200 years long series of plagues and pestilence and the conquest of Muslims over Rome and Persia

Open Thread – 09/17/2021

I’ll probably be writing a piece (free) for my Substack on caste so that people can use it for a reference. The lie that it was “invented by the British” seems pretty pervasive and will spread in the next few years for various ideological reasons, so it is useful to always remember the truth even as the lie becomes regnant. Falsity always collapses, but it takes a while.

Hayagriva was a Sintashta!

The paper is not out, but since the data has been uploaded they posted the abstract for the world to see, Project: PRJEB44430:

Horse domestication fundamentally transformed long-range mobility and warfare. However, modern domesticates do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling at Botai, Central Asia ~3,500 BCE (Before Common Era). Other long-standing candidate regions for horse domestication, such as Iberia and Anatolia, were also recently challenged. Therefore, the genetic, geographic and temporal origins of modern domestic horses remained unknown. Here, we pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. Furthermore, we map the population changes accompanying domestication from 273 ancient horse genomes. This reveals that modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they rapidly expanded across Eurasia from ~2,000 BCE, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots. We find that equestrianism involved strong selection for critical locomotor and behavioral adaptations at the GSDMC and ZFPM1 genes. Our results reject the commonly held association between horseback riding and the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists into Europe ~3,000 BCE driving the spread of Indo-European languages. This contrasts with the situation in Asia where Indo-Iranian languages, chariots and horses spread together, following the early second millennium BCE Sintashta culture.

If you ever inspect the domestic horse lineages you will note that they’re a monophyletic clade. They are recently descended from a common ancestor. Additionally, there is a massive skew in stallion lineages toward a few breeders. Ancient DNA has now solved the question of which prehistoric horse population the modern domestic breeds descend from: the horses from the eastern edge of the post-Yamnaya cultural zone.

Synopsis of Afghan War and Consequences

The Big Picture

Jimmy Carter the good Christian in 1979 started a policy in Afghanistan that birthed Islamic Extremism and worldwide destabilization that still continues to this day.  Jimmy Carter and his National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski funded (over a USD billion) and armed mujaheddin (jihadists) who would later become the Taliban. (Operation Cyclone)

Fast forward to 2001, Carter’s chickens hatched into the attacks on the U.S on September 11, 2001.  Not much different from the Indian Indira Gandhi trained and funded LTTE attacking the Indian Army and assassinating her son Rajiv Gandhi, the PM of India.

Then the next round started with George Bush bombing Afghanistan, while 9 of the 9/11 suicide terrorist were from Saudi Arabia. That was the war on Terror and axis of Evil, and much like the war on Drugs just keeps giving and giving (more on that later)

Carter’s Afghan war lead to the destruction of that developing nation.  Afghan women were launched back into the future of the 13th century, and the war killed over a million Afghan men, women and children. For over forty years Afghanistan has been a humanitarian disaster. Between 562,000 and 2,000,000 civilians were killed and millions of Afghans fled the country as refugees.

If one reads most Western Media, Head Chopper Taliban and other Islamic groups are considered barbaric. Really, so bombs dropped on Wedding groups, women and children and similar is not barbaric. The lucky ones die instantly, some other have hours or days of trauma with half their body parts whereever. The really unlucky ones manage to survive, with mind and body barely functional.  US war veterans are begging on the streets are spat on and referred to by “armchair warriors” as “fxxxing losers”. (30,177 U.S. veterans post-9/11 wars have died by suicide).

All these US wars were sold to the US public as the need to promote Democracy, Human Rights, Womens Rights (and in Carters time Capitalism).  It was basically a “Look There” to the US public while the MIC (Military Industry Complex a term coined by President Eisenhower) stole trillions. Wall Street made out like bandits too with Obomba and Trump bail outs. The smoke and mirror propaganda is falling apart, in the US and all over the world, courtesy the  Covid Pandemic and US defeat by a rag tag, flip flop wearing group.

The Numbers for Afghan War and Comparison with Vietnam

The take home points of comparison of Afghan War with Vietnam
a)  Afghan war cost was double that of Vietnam War (in todays dollars).
b) Vietnam war had 20 times US service death, i.e. boots on the ground, indicative of a determination to win.
c) Much less civilian deaths in Afghan War (approx 50 times less).  Dropping bombs for sake of expending ammunition.?

Economic Bottom Line: US has 23 Trillion in Debt,   thats a 107% Debt/GDP.


The whole reason for US being in Afghanistan was to siphon off US tax payer money.  A huge portion of the 2.2 Trillion spent.
Sold to US taxpayer as Nation Building, Womens Rights the works.
Just some 2500+ US combat deaths much much less than in Vietnam (58,000+). Too many deaths and the US public would be against the war.

Like Christianity and Civilize the Savages,  Democracy, Human Rights are just smoke and mirrors to loot from the invaded country.   However, to loot natural resources takes time and investment, and no guarantees of very profitable returns (exception Libya; instant return, the 140 tonnes of Gold was whisked away).

For the kleptocrat mentality (MIC and Wall Street) the looting of natural resources is too long a time frame. So someone figured out, much easier to steal from US public.

a) Start a war,
b) Fund with debt
c) Skim huge percentage on weapons, development programs.
d) Drop plenty of bombs to justify purchase of more.
d) Make sure casualties are low so public wont be against war.

The Brits were much better at “resource extraction” with their colonialism.   Created a brown nose class to keep the natives in check.  Built infrastructure, eg railways and “exported” natural resources back to Britain.  However, that took a good hundred years.

Wrapping it up

Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. (Orwell 1984)

This has been the biggest wealth transfer from the middle class and blue collar to the 1% and the 10%. What will happen when the tide recedes and those earning less than 60K/year find out they have been lied to, specially the MAGA crowd.

So whats next

a) The prediction of the graveyard of Empires ?
b) What form will it take, eg end of Capitalism.
c) US image as a moral leader and indispensable nation
d) US image as the foremost military power

For those who want to delve into the esoteric, this is movement of Pluto into Capricorn, that last happened around 1776. (eg Turning Point: The United States’ Pluto Return interesting history too, eg repatriation of 400K Mexican Americans around 1933).

Finally: These are not my brilliant insights. Much like Newton said, stand on shoulders of Giants. Just been reading since about 2005, Matt Tabbibi, Matt Stoller. Specially Satyajit Das and Raguram Ranjan who gave me insight into Derivatives.

Costs of the Afghanistan war, in lives and dollars

Note: Over 30,177 U.S. service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have died by suicide.

From the War Nerd
The wonderful thing about this kind of spending, in the deeply corrupt lobbyist world of DC, is that it shunts tax dollars directly to the stockholders, connected military firms like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, et al., legislators, military brass milking the DoD/corporate link, and even lowly CIA contractors like Johnny Spann —without angering a single taxpayer or benefiting them in any way.
And so, rather than upset their fellow shareholders, GWB, then Obama and Trump, just nodded and smiled at the conveyor-belt of $100 bills.  The beauty is the corruption in the US system. Book deals, Speaker fees all legal. Just many ways of laundering bribes.

Agriculture and the Indo-Europeans – Steppe and South Asia

Proto-Indo-Europeans were farmers and not pastoralists

It is interesting to note that while a couple of decades ago and perhaps more, agriculture was not considered a part of Proto-Indo-European culture, it is now no longer the case. It was mistakenly believed that the Indo-Iranians must not have practiced agriculture because apparently the Indo-Iranians did not share an agricultural vocabulary with the rest of the Indo-Europeans (i.e. the European IE). However, more recent research has clearly shown this to be an error and it is now well accepted that the Indo-Iranians shared quite a significant amount of agricultural vocabulary with the other Indo-Europeans, sufficient enough to posit agriculture at the Proto-Indo-European stage.

The overall pattern of agricultural terms has been a persistent topic in IE studies, much of which has been stimulated by the observation that while stockbreeding terms appear to be widespread across the entire range of IE stocks, agricultural terms tend to be confined more closely among the European stocks and are, from a traditional point of view at least, scarce in the Indo-Iranian languages


there is no case whatsoever for assuming that the ancestors of all the Indo-European stocks did not know cereal agriculture. While there may have been speculation in the past as to whether some terms might have applied originally to the gathering and processing of wild plants, terms for the plow, cultivated field, and techniques appropriate to the processing of domesticated cereals whose home range lay outside of most of Europe, suggest that all the earliest Indo-Europeans knew agriculture before their dispersals. (Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Mallory & Adams, 1997).

The term that is cited as the major culprit for this error denotes a cultivated field in European languages while in Sanskrit it simply means a plain.

The second term (*haegˆros) has caused much discussion as the European cognates indicate a cultivated field (e.g. Lat ager, OE æcer [> NE acre], Grk agro´s, Arm art, all ‘field’) while the Skt a´jra- means simply ‘plain’ with no indication of agriculture. This divergence of meaning led to the proposal that the Indo-Iranians separated from the Europeans before they had gained agriculture so that we might posit a pastoral Indo-Iranian world and an agricultural European. Such a distinction is not borne out by the abundant evidence that Indo-Iranians also shared in an agricultural vocabulary… (The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Mallory & Adams, 2006).

the Proto-Indo-Europeans possessed an economy based on domesticated livestock and domestic cereals. Earlier models such as those developed in detail by Wilhelm Brandenstein (1936) that suggested a marked dichotomy between arable Europeans and pastoral Indo-Iranians (or Tokharians) cannot really be sustained (Mallory 1997b) and despite a considerable number of differences there is still a substantial amount of shared agricultural vocabulary between European and Asian languages (Table 1 and 2). While the lists of cognates can certainly be criticized in certain specifics and they may well be an over-optimistic summary, I fear that there would still be a sufficient assemblage of words to indicate that both Europeans and Asiatic Indo-Europeans shared inherited words for both livestock and arable agriculture… (Twenty-first century clouds over Indo-European Homelands. Mallory 2012).

Continue reading Agriculture and the Indo-Europeans – Steppe and South Asia

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