Mawtana Rabba and the Role of Climate Change and Plague in the Rise of Islam

Part Two:


Modern tree-ring dating techniques inform us that during the 6th century CE most of the world was enveloped in a 125-year-long mini Ice Age . It was caused by 1) eruption of an immensely powerful series of volcanoes in Ice Land during the years 536, 540 and 547, and 2) in the south west corner of Central Americas (modern el-Salvador), during the year 540, eruption of a volcano of such great power that it is counted among the top 10 most destructive volcanoes of the last 7000 years, and due to which the Maya civilization suffered a catastrophic collapse with more than 100,000 deaths.

The colossal volume of smoke released from these two volcanoes kept most of the world in a foggy darkness for many years, sun’s warmth remained distant, and average global temperature even during the summer months remained between two and twelve degrees celsius. Sixth century Roman historian Procopius wrote that “sunlight was as faint and empty of warmth as that of the moon.”

Due to this paucity of sunlight and its warmth during the sixth and early seventh centuries, most of the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Central Asia suffered a devastating series of famines, thousands emigrated from Central Asia to Middle East, Persia, Europe and India, but Arabia’s otherwise barren deserts enjoyed a historic period of high-yielding fertility.

Then in 541, a bubonic plague emerged in Egypt and spread with such swiftness that in a short while pathways from Egypt to China and the island of England began filling with dead bodies. The original culprit was a bacteria named Yersinia pestis which transmits to humans via flea carrying rats. An infected person starts to notice black or purplish buboes popping up on the skin, along with high fever, and if not treated, the person would most probably die within ten days.

During the next 200 years, between 536 and 745, Justinian plague kept recurring every ten to fifteen years. It seems from the writings of sixth century historians that the plague began in Kush (Ethiopia) and spread its trail of destruction via Egypt and Yemen to Palestine (Levant), Constantinople, and eventually, China and England. But modern genetic research reveals that Yersinia pestis first emerged in the Central asian mountain ranges of Tian Shan (heavenly/celestial mountains), also called Tengri Tagh (God/spirit mountains) in Turkic, evolved there, and possibly transmitted via trading vessels from India and Indian ocean to Africa and Egypt.

The principal sources available for studying this plague are written in four languages: primarily Syriac (the liturgical language of eastern Christianity), and then Greek, Latin, and some Arabic. Contemporary Syriac accounts named the plague “mawtana rabba.” The generic term for pestilence or epidemic disease in Syriac is mawtana, “mortality,” which corresponds to “waba” in Arabic, or sometimes simply mawta, “death.” A “great plague” is called a “mawtana rabba.” Later historians named it the Justinian Plague.

The lengthiest account on “mawtana rabba” is found in the Syriac Ecclesiastical History of the Bishop John of Ephesus. John (Youhanan in Syriac) of Ephesus was a native of Amida (modern Diyarbakr) in northern Mesopotamia (southern Turkey), and had the misfortune of traveling from Egypt to Constantinople in 541 AD. In Palestine, John wrote that he saw entire town populations wiped out. “During the tumult and intensity of the pestilence,” he wrote, “we journeyed from Syria to the capital. Day after day we, too, used to knock at the door of the grave along with everyone else. We used to think that if there would be evening, death would come upon us suddenly in the night. Although the next morning would come, we used to face the grave during the whole day as we looked at the devastated and moaning villages in these regions, and at corpses lying on the ground with no one to gather them.”

According to John, some people carried corpses all day, while others spent the day digging graves. Houses and farms were abandoned; animals forgot their domestication. “Crops of wheat in fertile fields located in all the regions through which we passed from Syria up through Thrace were white and standing but there was no one to reap them and store the wheat. Vineyards, whose picking season came and went, shed their leaves, since winter was severe, but kept their fruits hanging on their vines, and there was no one to pick them or press them.” In his Lives of the Eastern Saints, John reported on one monastery that buried eighty-four of its members who had died of the plague. He writes that in Constantinople, more than 10,000 were dying each day, and when the number exceeded 230,000 the administrators stopped counting.

Other Syriac writings contain details of later outbreaks in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, including the Chronicle of Zuqnın, whose monastic author, in recounting the epidemic of 743–745 under Umayyads, specified that the victims had swellings in the groin, the armpit, or the neck. The Zuqnın Chronicle records a pestilence (mawtana) that broke out in Mesopotamia in during 546 and 547 CE, and a great pestilence (mawtana rabba) that broke out at Amida in during 557–558 CE, where 35,000 people died within three months.

The principal Greek source is the work of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who was present at the court of Justinian in Constantinople in the early 540s. In his Persian War, Procopius wrote, “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. . . . It started among the Egyptians. Then it moved to Palestine and from there spread over the whole world. . . . In the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring.” He says that for the majority of those struck, fever was the first sign, then developed after a few days a bubonic swelling, either in the groin, in the armpit, or beside the ears. He reports that the mortality rose alarmingly, eventually reaching more than ten thousand each day. Procopius also mentions that the emperor himself was taken ill. Justinian, however, recovered and reigned for two more decades.

The lawyer Agathias undertook to continue the history of Procopius. He wrote that after 544 when plague ceased in Constantinople, it had never really stopped but simply moved on from place to place, until it returned to the city almost as though it had been cheated on the first occasion into a needlessly hasty departure. This was the spring of 558, when “a second outbreak of plague swept the capital, destroying a vast number of people.” The form the epidemic took was not unlike that of the earlier outbreak. A swelling in the glands in the groin was accompanied by a high fever that raged night and day with unabated intensity and never left its victim until the moment of death.

In churches, temples, roads, and caravanserais people would often drop dead. Many died while hoisting the dead bodies of their loved ones. One Nestorian priest from Basra wrote that a seemingly healthy man strolling in front of him suddenly opened his mouth wide, winced as if a knife had ripped him, and then dropped dead. John of Ephesus painted such haunting images in his account as if narrating a zombie movie: healthy people in streets swirling down as if dazed and died, their bellies stretched beyond human limits, mouths wide open, lifeless eyes staring at howling winds, hands reaching out as if clasping their souls back, and then their bellies would rip, spilling pus mixed with blood which would run down the streets as if water. Women quarters filled with bodies, their mouths open, and bellies stretched wide. An unbearable stench tyrannizing entire cities.

From the North African city of Carthage, we have testimony of the Latin poet Corippus. In 549 he recited at Carthage his epic poem, the Johannis, on the recently concluded war between the Byzantine army and Berber tribes. In the midst of the war a terrible pestilence arrived by sea. Death was so widespread, he reports, that people became desensitized to it, no longer shedding tears even for their loved ones or observing those rites traditionally due the deceased. Social breakdown was further evident in the scramble among survivors to take possession of the properties and belongings of the victims. Wealthy widows were more sought after than young maidens. References to a later plague epidemic in North Africa, in 599 and 600, are found in the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great.

Modern historians advise caution in accepting these accounts and numbers prima facie, and it’s true that often medieval authors gave high numbers only to signify the intensity of an event. But what’s undeniable is that almost all of these chronicles share same tale of horrors, of symptoms and signs, of periodic waves, that had devastated their home towns. The contemporary narrative sources available to the historian, be they from East or West, written in Latin, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, speak with one voice in describing the plague as having had a major demographic impact on communities, urban and rural alike. 

Not unlike most modern maladies, “mawtana rabba” too first descended upon the impoverished neighborhoods of a city, and then advanced to the palatial elites. And somewhat like the modern world, all sorts of rumors on its possible causes started to spread before the plague’s actual descent. The rumor among Palestinians was that dark headless men holding long copper rods were visiting the cities from the ocean every night in glistening copper boats. In Constantinople, people started acting on the odd rumor that if plates and pots made with clay were to be thrown on the ground from the top most windows of the house, the plague will flee. First the men and women of one neighborhood began throwing down their dishes, then second, and third, and for three days nobody was to be seen at the city streets because all were busy slinging their dishes down. And when that didn’t work, people started acting on another rumor that the angel of plague approaches them in the form of a priest or monk, and they started yelling at priests and monks to leave them alone, that they still have time left in this world. When leaving their homes, people would hang tags with their names and addresses on their necks.

Even those who managed to recover suffered intense fatigue for years, buboes emerging and popping, spilling pus down their bodies, not a single strand of hair left on their heads. It became hard to distinguish a monk from a commoner.

Usually plague-ridden dead bodies were buried in mass graves outside the city gates, or they’d be collected in large stacks and tossed via boats into oceans. As the numbers of dead escalated, cities further dipped into chaos, and people began abandoning the traditional religious rites offered for their dead. When no one was left to sink or bury the dead, the emperor Justinian ordered his ministers to invite the tribes inhabiting the mountains, and offer them as much gold as they might want but to do this godawful job. According to his minister Theodore, these tribals first stamped down on these bodies and then bundled them together, then they buried them inside giant pits dug outside the city.

The volume of trade and of production declined generally in the mid-sixth century. In some places, new housing ceased. The coastal cities (the greatest centers of wealth) were hit first and hardest, and perhaps their weaknesses rippled through the Mediterranean lands. Both Kulikowski (in Visigothic Spain) and Peter Sarris (in Byzantine lands) have detected attempts to tie increasingly scarce labor to land, attempts especially notable in a time of legal and economic turmoil.

In his edict, Justinian complains of how, in the wake of the plague, tradesmen, artisans, and agricultural workers had given themselves over to avarice and were demanding twice or even three times the prices and wages that had hitherto been the norm. The emperor decreed that those responsible for issuing wages and stipends to building workers, agricultural workers, or any other group of workers were not to credit them with anything more than their customary remuneration. Likewise, Banaji’s statistical analysis of Egyptian land-leases recorded among the papyri would appear to record a marked improvement in the security of tenure enjoyed by lessees from the middle of the sixth century onward. From the first half of the sixth century to the second, the proportion of leases of indefinite duration increased from 17.2% to 39.4%. The proportion of leases of only one year’s duration declined over the same period from 29.3% to 9.1%

That the plague visited Yemen appears to be corroborated by the inscription of Abraha on the dam at Ma’rib dated 543 CE, which refers to death and sickness striking the community at Ma’rib; the dam was repaired when the fatal epidemic had passed. This outbreak of bubonic plague lasted longer in the east. At the end of his account of the three years of plague, John of Ephesus remarks that “these same calamities still persist in the eastern territories and are not over.” The pre-Islamic Arab poet Hassan Ibn Thabit records the pestilence, described as “the stinging of the jinn,” devastating the rural population of the empire’s eastern fringes. It appears to have reached China by the early seventh century.

“Mawtana Rabba” kept returning in waves for more than 200 years. The Syrian Christian priest Evagrius wrote that during the last decade of 6th century “in a total of 210 years from 541 to 750, there were about eighteen outbreaks of the plague.” This amounts to an average of one outbreak about every 11.6 years. This seems to apply to the first six plague waves for which we can compute the inter-epidemic intervals for Constantinople. These range approximately from eleven to seventeen years, with an average of 14.2 years, a fact corroborated by Evagrius, who records that the plague seemingly broke out during the first or the second year of the indiction cycle, indicating a periodicity of roughly fifteen years. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth wave, Syria was reportedly hit on all six waves, with inter-epidemic periods ranging from five to nine years and an average of 6.6 years.

Not unlike our times, people in sixth century reached for all kinds of explanations. We know, via archeology, that there was a spike in construction of new churches and monasteries. On the other hand, according to John of Ephesus, some Egyptian and Palestinian towns returned to worshipping their idols. As the plague was ravaging Egypt and Alexandria in September 541, crowds in Constantinople gathered round a woman who had gone into ecstasy and was claiming that in three days time the sea would rise and swallow everything. Agathias narrates case that occurred in Constantinople in 557 when the city had been visited by a devastating earthquake. Some individuals claiming to be prophets or possessed by demons began announcing that even worse catastrophes were imminent. These are some of the many testimonies that bear witness to the eschatological climate that must have been dominant at the time. Historian Procopius wrote from Constantinople that, “a plague of such deadly nature has spread from Egypt and Palestine to the rest of the world that it seems the end times are imminent.” 

The plague was perceived in both a religious and a rational way. According to the religious approach, plagues were an expression of divine retribution or punishment, and the result of human sins, either individual or collective, and that it announces the end times. This was a notion central to both popular Greek and Jewish thought. Although in the New Testament, Christ does not present disease as a necessary result of sin, the Christian interpretation of disease established and stressed exactly this relation. In Byzantine texts dealing with the plague, this was the dominant opinion. Collective sin of people bringing about the just divine wrath in the form of the plague. In two polemical instances, this transgression is not presented as collective, but as individual: Justinian, termed “lord of demons” in Procopius’ Anecdota, is made solely responsible for the plague, as is the iconoclastic Emperor Constantine V by iconophile authors.

Youhanan Bar Penkaye wrote that this collective onset of famines, earthquakes, and plagues is an irrefutable sign of end times. Procopius wrote that there could not be an earthly or natural explanation of this plague, it must have been sent directly from God almighty himself. John of Ephesus wrote that an angel whose duty is to dissociate humans from worldly desires and to guide them on a spiritual path towards God is responsible for this plague, that in his eyes this plague is a lash of mercy from God, and an opportunity to plead God for forgiveness. On the other hand, according to the Greek priest Zachariah, this plague was directly from Satan who was left on a leash by the God so that he could punish people for their sins.

Contrary to this divine aetiology, a rational interpretation of disease had been first established almost a thousand years ago by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” According to him, epidemic diseases were defined as follows: “When a large number of people all catch the same disease at the same time, the cause must be ascribed to something common to all and which they all use; in other words to what they all breathe.” This definition was later adopted by the other great medical personality of Antiquity, Galen, and retained its authority throughout the Middle Ages in both Islamic and Christian world. The malignant air responsible for these outbreaks was called miasma.

Even more remarkable in this respect is Anastasius of Sinai’s Questions and Answers, a work written at the very end of the seventh century. Question 114 addresses the topic whether it is possible to escape the plague by fleeing to another location. Anastasius answers with a piece on the origin of plagues. They either break out as a result of divine chastisement or because of corrupt air, vapors, pollution, and stench. In the first case, they cannot be escaped, but in the second, with God’s will, flight to a location with healthier air will often help avoid death. This is Anastasius’ effort to offer a compromise between “Hellenistic rationalism and Christian views on direct divine intervention,” between a “pre-Christian medical and physiological tradition” and the Judeo-Christian model of disease as “chastisement from heaven . . . designed to drive out the evils afflicting the body politic.”

To what extent was this series of plagues, famines, and the little Ice Age responsible for the destruction of the Roman and Persian empires and the emergence of Islam?

Historian Peter Sarris writes in his excellent book Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam that “a diminution in tax revenues caused by the demographic impact of bubonic plague and aristocratic tax evasion appears to have occasioned mounting difficulties in paying the army. It is in this context that we should understand the attempted reduction in military pay proposed by the Emperor Maurice in 588.” (In 588 the garrison at the important frontier city of Martyropolis simply handed it over to the Persians, declaring that they ‘would not be ruled over by a shopkeeper.’ That same year, much of the imperial field army, stationed at Monocarton near Edessa, rose up in rebellion against the Emperor Maurice’s proposed 25 per cent reduction in military pay.)

He notes, “Failure to pay the army adequately or on time, however, tended to lead to desertion, defection, or revolt, as most vividly revealed by the Eastern field army’s response to Maurice’s attempted cuts. Moreover, at some point in the late sixth century, it appears to have become common for the cash component of the stipend issued to garrison troops to be paid in copper rather than gold. Consequently, the collapse in the purchasing power of the copper follis from the reign of Justin II onwards is likely to have had ever more pronounced implications for the loyalty and morale of the military rank and file, as well as of the civilian population of the empire.”

Eventually, Rome under the astute leadership of Heraclius managed to defeat Persia, but, according to professor Sarris, “The Eastern Roman Empire was thus restored territorially, but it was a shadow of its former self. The imperial concentration on the East had necessarily led to a further weakening of its position in the Balkans … Many of the cities of Anatolia and Asia Minor had been ransacked by the armies of the shah or exhausted by the fiscal demands of Heraclius’ war effort. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the reassertion of imperial control at this point must have been largely nominal.”

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In Part three, Mawtana Rabba in Persia, more on the 6th century war between Rome and Persia, and the five waves of plagues under Umayyads.

Part 1: https://www.brownpundits.com/2021/10/09/the-plagues-of-justinian-and-amwas-the-200-years-long-series-of-plagues-and-pestilence-and-the-conquest-of-muslims-over-rome-and-persia/

Bibliography:

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

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.

 

Council in Support of the Resistance of Herat

Establishing “Council in Support of the Resistance of Herat”

Kabul-09 August 2021
As our beloved country burns in the flames of foreign invasion, and the ancient city of Herat has turned into a stronghold of honor and liberty, a number of Herat youths have come together in Kabul with much love for their homeland to form a support mechanism for a people’s resistance movement against foreign invasion in Herat. The name “Council in Support of the Resistance of Herat” has been agreed for this newly formed council.
The following were agreed in the session on August 9, 2021:
1) While appreciating and supporting the epic resistance by the People’s Resistance Movement of the Western Zone, and Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, and also humble thanks to their efforts, sacrifices, and guiding the free and devout people of Afghanistan, especially the people of Herat;
2) Stressing on the important role and leadership of His Excellency Mohammad Ismaeel Khan at these crucial times for the future of the country and defending our land and honor;
3) Realizing the difficult times that the country is going through and stressing on collaboration, compassion, and companionship with the brave soldiers of our country, especially ANDSF, by the political parties and figures, social, political, media and religious institutions, women, businessmen, academics, doctors, and every individual citizen of the country;
4) Believing that the fate of Herat and the West Zone of the country is not separate from the rest of the country;
5) Calling on the central government to localize administrative and security institutions, and strengthen solidarity and coordination between the people’s resistance movement and ANDSF at national and provincial levels;
6) Emphasizing the core mandate of the Council for Integrating and Supporting People’s Resistance in Herat which includes strengthening solidarity, support, and coordination among influential figures and institutions in Kabul to assist people’s resistance movement and ANDSF in Herat and the West Zone;
7) Emphasizing on the responsibility of all citizens, and national, international, regional, provincial, and local institutions in further strengthening national unity and solidarity for defending national integrity of Afghanistan, as well as defending the lives, property, and honor of all citizens of Afghanistan, including Herat and the West Zone;
The Council in Support of the Resistance of Herat is established.

This council has a leadership board, and three functional committees (political, public relations, and fundraiser/financial support). Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta is elected as the president of the council unanimously.
More details about the council will be released soon. For more information, please contact Faridoon Azhand at:
WhatsApp: +93 (0) 797416062
Email: [email protected]
Continue reading Council in Support of the Resistance of Herat

Afghans march supporting the ANDSF against the Taliban across Afghanistan

Vast numbers of Afghan civilians in many cities across the country have been chanting “Allah Akbar” and other calls to support their beloved ANDSF (Afghan National Defense Security Forces) in the battle with the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Daesh. The cheering started at night in Herat and spread throughout the country. People were chanting on the streets, on roof tops, in mosques, through mosque speakers. Men, woman and children. There are hundreds or more articles and videos about this. Including:

https://menafn.com/1102564159/Anti-Taliban-chants-thousands-including  -vice-President-Saleh-took-to-streets 

https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/afghan-vice-president-amrullah-saleh-joins-civilian-protest-against-taliban-pakistan-in-kabul20210804110936/

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/3/afghans-chant-allahu-akbar-in-defiant-protests-against-taliban

Anti-Taliban chants, thousands including vice-President Saleh took to streets

Mass popular cheering for the ANDSF synchronized across the country hasn’t  happened before in Afghanistan.

Among the first to publicly discuss that popular chants were beginning in Herat was one of Afghanistan’s greatest living intellectuals, Davood Moradian–founder and director-general, Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. (Is there interest in interviewing him for BP?)

I would recommend that everyone read Davood’s very fine article on how Britain has long supported violent extreme Islamists in Afghanistan and has been flirting with or even appearing to support the Taliban for over a dozen years. In former US defense secretary Robert Gates book, President Karzai famously asks Secretary Gates why Britain was de facto supporting the Taliban. Gates responded with silence. The British have repeatedly sabataged Afghans in many other ways too. Here are some highlights from Davood’s article about Britain’s negative role in Afghanistan:

Continue reading Afghans march supporting the ANDSF against the Taliban across Afghanistan

A Shocking Decision

An interesting sidelight from Islamic history, by Ali MInai. Originally published on his blog “Barbarikon“,  reposted here with Ali Minai’s permission.

The Caliph and the Imam

A Shocking Decision

Sometime in 816 CE – year 200 in the Hijri calendar of Islam – the seventh Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun made a very strange decision. If near-contemporary historical narratives are to be believed, he offered his throne – and thus power over lands from India to Morocco – to the leader of his fiercest opponents, the Shi’a. It was a breathtakingly audacious decision – so audacious that it failed almost immediately. The eighth infallible Imam of the Shi’a, ‘Ali bin Musa al-Rida, was not interested.  Al-Mamun had to recalibrate, and he did so by nominating Ali al-Rida as his successor. The Imam demurred again, but this time the Caliph was adamant: The Imam must accept or he and his family would suffer. Imam Ali al-Rida’s family was no stranger to suffering. Almost all of his ancestors – direct descendants to the Prophet himself – had been persecuted, many martyred or imprisoned. His own father, the seventh Imam Musa al-Kadhim, had perished as a prisoner of al-Mamun’s father, the famous Harun al-Rashid of A Thousand and One Nights. Whatever the reasons, Ali al-Rida acquiesced, and on the 27th day of Ramadan in 201 AH (April 18, 817 CE), he was proclaimed “wali ‘ahd al-muslimin” – the designated successor to the 31-year old al-Mamun. Coins were soon minted asserting this new designation – the standard way of declaring authority – and the traditional black flags of the Abbasids were replaced by the green flags of the Shi’a Imams. A little more than a year later, the Imam was dead. Al-Mamun would rule for another fifteen years.

The Historical Preamble Continue reading A Shocking Decision

Clarifications on my views about the Burqa

Given the responses I received from my previous post, I feel a detailed clarification explaining my stance and reasoning behind it is due.

First of all, as I do not advocate any ban due to my instinctive gut feelings. I like most humans, feel strong instinctive visceral reactions for a range of things from ugly tattoos to plastic surgeries to the latest Hollywood fashions. But no one in their right mind would advocate any regulations on clothing, lifestyle, or anything else for mere aesthetics or reactions, no matter how strong the reaction is.

By Burqa here I mean the combination of the Burqa + Niqab and not just the Burqa in isolation

History of Indian law and the Greater Good:

Currently, in India, there exist a number of laws (and their application) aimed at social justice where the burden of proof at times lays on the accused not the accuser. Examples of these being the SC/ST atrocity act, Dowry law, Domestic violence laws, etc. Not getting into the legalities of these laws, it is fair to note that the system is rigged against the accused to prove his/her innocence, unlike most other cases. But weighing the pros and cons, considering the state Indian society finds itself in, these laws are generally accepted across the board.

Till now (2021) it is fair to assume that significantly more cases under these laws have been Unreported than the cases where these laws are abused (though it may not always remain so).

Why should the benefit of the doubt be given to the women in case of Dowry/Domestic abuse cases & Scheduled castes/tribes in case of Atrocity-related conflicts? We all know why. I am extending the same argument here.

UCC and Burqa:

Generally in the world, we have accepted that legal polygamy is not an acceptable practice. In India with Muslim personal law, there continues to be legal polygamy for Muslims. But looking at the numbers, the practice is not even followed by a very small fraction of the Muslim population (as opposed to the practice of Burqa which is ubiquitous). Yet most nativists (Hindutvavadis) in India & *true liberals acknowledge the need for a Uniform Civil code. There are multiple valid reasons for the UCC, but one of them certainly is that Muslim personal law creates a feeling of separation among the Muslim community which is bad for a cohesive society. The same argument along with a few others can be made much more convincing against the Burqa than for UCC in my view.

Arguments against the Burqa:

  1. Burqa – as a black overall creates a distinct separation between the Muslim women and society on whole. Here is a fine piece by Jaggi on it. Jaggi in this piece has relied heavily on BR Ambedkar’s scathing remarks about women in Islam in Pakistan and Partition. Some of Ambedkar’s quotes                          “These burka women walking in the streets is one of the most hideous sights one can witness in India. Such seclusion cannot but have its deteriorating effects upon the physical constitution of Muslim women….”.“Purdah deprives Muslim women of mental and moral nourishment. Being deprived of healthy social life, the process of moral degeneration must and does set in. Being completely secluded from the outer world, they engage their minds in petty family quarrels, with the result that they become narrow and restricted in their outlook.”                                                                                                                                                   It is important to note that BR Ambedkar had similarly scathing criticisms of Hindu practices and the Hindu code bill was directly aimed at addressing those ills. Even though the single Hindu code bill failed to pass in the Indian parliament the content eventually got passed under various laws.
  2. One might argue that wearing a Burqa is a personal choice of an adult woman and denying so is an infringement of her fundamental rights – and that point is certainly not without merit. Once a practice like Burqa is accepted in a society it is automatically imposed on girls as young as five years old. One cannot even begin to imagine the effect that would have on the psyche of a child. A discussion on this topic on BBC Radio: link. I am not supporting something as extreme as Dawkin’s stance that children be raised devoid of indoctrination, but just that we curtail to the extent to which we indoctrinate under the guise of religion.
  3. As in the case of the Atrocity Act or other pro-women laws, it is fair to start with the assumption that women don’t have faculty (especially compared to men) in these societies (Indian in general, Muslim in particular). Therein the question of assumption of personal choice of the woman becomes difficult to justify.
  4. Another issue that is often missed in these discussions is the impact this might have on the Men’s psyche. Jaggi has made the point with reference to the Love Jihad issue so I won’t go into that in detail (read his piece). An example of what some MAN in UP said about it – here
  5. The lack of a visible face, especially in public places hinders equality in interactions. We communicate a lot non verbally (most of it facially). Burqa not only restricts expression for the wearer (it may be down to choice) but also restricts the communicator from gauging the non-verbal communication.
  6. The public security issues which arise from  garments thought often exaggerated in right-wing circles are non-trivial.

The Other side:

Some of the defenses of Burqa  which find some purchase in my mind are:

  1. In the hyper-sexualized and judgemental world with immense peer pressure to Go out – Look good – be sexy, a Burqa might appear as a welcome respite for a certain type of personality.
  2. If the person wearing the Burqa feels closer to Allah due to the act of wearing it, how can the state or society come in between her spiritual fulfillment?

Out of these two, I empathize to an extent with argument 1, yet it doesn’t tip the scale in my mind.

Closing thoughts:

I see the point made by many that such a law is counter-effective to the aim of reform. While I concede this point to a degree, I don’t think it needs to be counter-effective in all cases. The same can be argued for most reforms.

The views I hold here may appear extreme in some respects, but it’s anything but a mere reflexive extension of my gut feeling, it’s an internally reasoned and argued position. I don’t advocate bans, especially in the current state of Indian affairs, but I do rejoice when I hear this happening in Sri Lanka, Denmark, or France.

Post Script: 

My views on the Sabrimala controversy and menstruation taboos are also in concurrence with the Supreme court judgment. Not stating it to engage in monkey balancing, but merely stating it for context. You can find my piece which covers some of these topics here – What is “Brahmanical” in Indian Patriarchy?

 

Beards, Bigotry and Burqas

Growing up in 90s India, one couldn’t avoid the jovial Sardar caricature in the Entertainment industry. Most Sardars one saw on television we either Jaspal Bhatti/Navjot Siddhu or Jaspal Bhatti/ Navjot Sidhu on steroids. It’s been decades since these caricatures made an impression on my mind, but still, the moment I see a Sardar, I tend to start assuming him to be a jovial, funny, and extroverted person – and in my experience, that stereotype has mostly held up in my eyes. So when I read news articles of Sikhs being targetted in the United States in wake of the 9/11 attacks as an 11-year-old, I was extremely confused. In my eyes how someone could confuse a full and rich bearded and turbaned Sardar with a moustacheless Muslim extremist stereotype.

Similarly, the honest Muslim Chacha was surely aimed at creating a positive image for bearded and capped Muslims who had humble professions. But for someone like me who was initially inoculated with even more powerful imagery of the bearded Muslim (as illustrated below), the Bollywood Muslim stereotype wasn’t enough to leave an impact on my subconscious mind.

The image I am talking about is shown below :

Around 1 km from where I stay, an entire wall is painted with this image with the title – “This is how terrorism ought to be tackled” in Marathi. Growing up in Maharashtra, every Ganesh festival, half the pandals (decorations made for celebration ) are about Shivaji – and a significant number of them have either bearded & mustache-less Afzal Khan, Shaista Khan, Aurangzeb. The strong impact this imagery made on my psyche wasn’t countered enough by the various Bollywood chacha’s I grew up seeing.

As a result even at age of 25, I held on to a tiny bit of the initial instinctive negative reaction when encountering bearded moustacheless individuals. Some years ago, I had convinced myself that my reaction was due to the aesthetics of certain styles of facial hair which I do not find appealing. Later reading a novel in which the daughter/son (Thousand splendid suns or Kite Runner or Not without my daughter) was playing with her Abbu’s mustache less beard made me realize the error in my ways. Since then I have made a conscious effort to curtail that initial reaction and have been largely successful Was this reaction bigotry on my part? or something else?

Coming to the recent controversy where the radical atheist author Taslima Nasreen made an off-hand and poor tweet about England cricketer Moeen Ali. Taslima Nasreen is known to fly off the handle – especially with poorly worded tweets – was instantly attacked by Moeen’s England teammates. Irish England captain Eoin Morgan made special mentions after the 2019 world cup of the multicultural atmosphere of the English team – which means bearded (conservative?) Muslims like Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid (or Monty Panesar) don’t stick out like a sore thumb and that is progress of a kind in my opinion.

Similarly, at the age of 16-21 as a radical atheist (when I assume I was a lot more immature than I am today), even the Hindu Tilak invoked a strong reaction in me. But today, like the beards, skull caps (the *out of tribe* symbols of identity/belief) I do not have any reaction to the Hindu religious symbols. It’s a sign of shedding some of my atheistic/judgemental roots. But still, an image remains, even the sight of which troubles me to an unreasonable and illogical extent.

From beards and turbans, we come to the Burqa. Arguably the most controversial garment in the world, no matter how much I try, I cannot empathize or humanize the Burqa. I have observed over the years that whenever I travel (outside my ghetto Pune urban life) – especially in the summers – I grow more Islamophobic. The appearance of the Burqa in the sweltering heat of India sends such a strong and negative emotion in me, I cannot humanize it no matter how much I try. In the end, I feel it’s only the French who have got this issue sorted the way it should be. Of course, it infringes on the freedom of choice but I concede I am not that libertarian. As a wannabee male feminist, I do cringe when I see the North Indian (even Maharashtrian) Purdah or the hijab, but Burqa is definitely a line I believe I can never cross in the 21st century. Does this make me bigoted? I personally don’t think so but I could see the wokesters calling me so.

I have read the passionate defense by Khatija ( AR Rahman’s daughter ) of her choice to wear the Burqa. Having seen an iota of merit in that argument, I still feel for the greater good Burqas ought to be banned. (I don’t see it getting banned anytime soon anywhere in India). However, I have to acknowledge that whenever someone uses the *For the Greater Good* as part of their argument, maybe the argument isn’t watertight.

Post Script:

I understand this is a highly politically incorrect blog post to write. I have wanted to express these thoughts for months now, but something held me back. I have tried to be as honest and rounded in my thoughts as I could. 

Please be constructive and respectful in feedback.

West Asian ancestry in South Asian Muslims

Recently a Bohra Patel emailed me to express some exasperation that people are quoting me saying that the ancestry of South Asian Muslims is almost all from Hindus (or non-Muslims). Basically, I say things like this “99% of the ancestry of South Asian Muslims is indigenous.” This means some people are going to be 75% indigenous, but the majority probably have no West Asian segments of DNA. This does not mean they don’t have a genealogical line of descent. I myself am ~100% South Asian if you look at my genes…but my maternal grandmother’s father was from a lineage that had migrated to Bengal in the 19th century from Delhi. Before they were in Delhi they had left Persia in the 17th century with the forced conversion of the whole religious class to Shia Islam. This is validated through a Koran with all direct male line descendants listened. I am not one of those descendants (my maternal grandmother is not “in the book”), but I’m pretty sure my distant cousins who are paternal descendants no longer have any detectable Iranian ancestry either. Why?

The reason is that eight generations back there is only a 50% chance that you will any segment of identifiable DNA from an ancestor. Another way to say this is that 200 years ago you had many ancestors, but there’s only a 1 out of 2 probability that you will have identifiable DNA passed down through the generations from that person. Since my Iranian lineage (a man who left Iran, settled in South Asia, and married into the South Asian Muslim community) dates back 350 years, it’s totally unsurprising that there’s no evidence that isn’t documentary at this point.

In any case, I’m looking more closely at the assertion I made above. I ran a supervised analysis on some samples. You can see the results below. I’ll probably do f-stats too…but that takes a while to run. I may ‘update’ my estimate from 1% to closer to 5%, though I’m not convinced. The Bohra Patel is in the sample, it’s clear they are enriched for “Yemenite Jewish” ancestry. But, even with 200,000 markers, there are Hindu individuals that are 1-2% (Tamil Brahmin) because of the way the model is set up.

Really what’s needed are huge Y chromosome panels. Since that’s an unbroken lineage, and the gene flow is mostly through men from everything we know.

But the real problem is Iranian ancestry because there is something of a “cline” in the northwest of the subcontinent. How exactly are we supposed to detect Iranian ancestry in Punjabis that is recent? Ultimately it’s going to have to be IBD segments in large panels.

That being said, there is an indirect way to detect Muslim West Asian ancestry: look for Turkic and African segments. These come from Muslims, and so can serve as a tracer that is much more distinct from the Indian genetic landscape.

Finally, the flip side of these comments about the minimal impact of West Asians on the genes of South Asian Muslims is that it should make us more skeptical of the arguments of some Hindu nationalists and Muslim fundamentalists about how brutal the Turks were. I’m sure they were brutal…but they didn’t leave much of a genetic impact on Muslims, let alone Hindus. Most people were likely pretty insulated from the predations, probably because cities were demographic sinks anyhow.

Continue reading West Asian ancestry in South Asian Muslims

The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

Centuries ago, the Mughal Prince, Dara Shikoh wrote a treatise on the similarities of Hinduism and Islam – Majma-ul-Bahrain or The Confluence of Two Seas. Wading through the songs of sages born on holy riverbanks, Dara discovered striking similarities in Vedic verses with his beloved Sufi stanzas. Dara attempted to bridge Indian and Arab minds to not only bring material peace to communities in strife but also achieve inner peace by uncovering a quintessential spiritual unity.

Dara’s quest would be cut short by his fanatic brother, Aurangzeb, who would usurp the throne and execute Dara for apostasy. A reign of religious terror followed as Aurangzeb’s extremism left permanent scars on the subcontinent until the sparks of saffron would strike back as the upstart Marathas upended the Mughals into obscurity.

Yet, this is just a part of a much more ancient interaction. Before Islam galloped across the world, Arabs were aware of the subcontinent, al-Hind, and an interesting set of interactions played out. There is no grand trend or narrative here, but I want to tell you the story of an Arabia before and after Islam and how it spoke to an India that was eternally Hindu.

Continue reading The Confluence of Two Seas: India and Arabia

On Ahmadiyyas and Jains

One of my favourite examples to demonstrate why Hindus and Muslims are like chalk and cheese (or cheese and chalk- no value judgment implied by the metaphor!) is their respective treatment of Jains and Ahmadiyyas.

We all know about the plight of Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a story in the media on Ahmadiyya persecution. To Indian eyes, this can be quite baffling. The Ahmadiyyas reserve a highly exalted position for Prophet Muhammad. By all socio-cultural markers: naming and dressing conventions, eating habits, praying patterns etc., they appear “Muslim”. Yet certain theological red lines are crossed- including the recognition of Indic icons such as Buddha and Krishna as prophets, but most importantly the perceived violation of the doctrine of Khatam-un-Nabiyeen: the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. A clear case of orthodoxy trumping orthopraxy. This hostility towards the Ahmadiyyas is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back to the views of the founding fathers of Pakistan, such as Allama Iqbal.

From a Hindu perspective, this can appear bizarre- ethnic Punjabi “Muslims” who share so much in common in both cultural and kinship terms are so hostile towards each other due to some theological disputes. There are more consequential theological disputes within sects of Hinduism. For example, within Vaishnavism, there is the Dvaita Vedanta school founded by the 13th century scholar-saint Madhavacharya which believes that the Divine (i.e. Vishnu or the supreme being) is distinct from the individual. The better known Advaita Vedanta school founded by Adi Shankaracharya is Monistic (i.e. believes in the essential unity of the Divine or Vishnu and the individual). From a theological perspective, these ruptures are perhaps as radical as those between Sunni Muslims and Ahmadiyyas. Yet, the average modern Hindu, even someone who self-identifies strongly as a Vaishnavite, would find the notion of being hostile to other Vaishnavites on the basis of doctrinal differences to be bizarre and laughable.

Continue reading On Ahmadiyyas and Jains