Caste in America

UC Davis quietly added caste to its anti-discrimination policy. Will it cause others to do the same?

Yes, it will. American liberals will now start talking incessantly about caste. Some notes

– <1% of Indian Americans are Dalits from surveys I have seen

– 30-40% of 1.5 and 2nd gen. Indian Americans out marry racially. Most do not, in my experience, in-marry in terms of jati when they marry other Indian Americans

– 25% of Indian Americans are Brahmin, but they are not wealthier or more educated than other groups on the whole. The richest Indian Americans seem to have names like Agrawal from what I have seen in private data

David Berlinski Reviews Pankaj Mishra

I have been too busy (or wasting too much time on twitter) to write much, but I think we should promote some essays from other sites when they look interesting. Here is one I saw today: David Berlinski reviews Pankaj Mishra’s latest book of essays.   You can read it in full on this link.  

(my own, less erudite and much more rant-like takedown of Mishra and his brand of “tailor made for Western and Westernized Liberals” shtick can be found here) (my own summary of Pankaj in that rant: With Pankaj, the safest bet is that he is “not even wrong”. Good for virtue signaling. Useless for any other purpose.) You can also read a review of sorts I wrote about Pankaj in 2014 that also tries to clarify where I am coming from in this topic)

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire - Mishra, Pankaj - Livres -

A few excerpts: 

PANKAJ MISHRA is an Indian journalist, novelist, and travel writer; he is widely appreciated as a scold.1 Written between 2008 and just the other day, the sixteen essays comprising Bland Fanatics were published variously in The GuardianThe London Review of Books, the New YorkerThe New York Times, and The New York Review of Books.2 Readers seeking ideological exuberance must look elsewhere. The essays are themselves unified by a common rhetorical strategy, if not a common rhetorical subject, in which Mishra reveals that he knows something that others do not. “It had long been clear to me,” he writes, “that Western ideologues during the Cold War absurdly prettified the rise of the ‘democratic’ West.”3

What I didn’t realise until I started to inhabit the knowledge ecosystems of London and New York is how evasions and suppressions had resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge about the West and the non-West alike. Simple-minded and misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from this blinkered history, had come to shape the speeches of Western statesmen, think tank reports and newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless log-rolling columnists, television pundits and terrorism experts.4

Living on hot air, logrolling columnists, like certain abstemious yogis, do not generally require fuel, although they may require logs; and a knowledge ecosystem suggests nothing so much as a child’s terrarium: wood, water, weeds, worms. Never mind. Readers will get the point. They could hardly miss it. In hanging around London and New York, Mishra encountered a good many dopes.

No doubt…

… THE ESSAYS IN Bland Fanatics, if intelligent and brisk, are also imperfectly argued and badly written. Realities are brutal, falsehoods blatant, notions reek, prejudices are entrenchedbinaries pop up here and there (eager, I am sure, to escape gender confinement), crime rates skyrocket, adventurers are bumptious, history is blinkered, delusions climax, despotisms are ruthless, and, if breasts are not being bared, chests, at least, are being thumped.6 Mishra is also a writer unwilling to savor the niceties of attribution. The wonderful phrase “closing time in the garden of the West” appears three times in two essays, welcome relief from the clump of Mishra’s habitual clichés. It is due to Cyril Connolly.7 That “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism” is due, in turn, to Walter Benjamin.8 Mishra has appropriated the phrase and its mistranslation into English.

Continue reading David Berlinski Reviews Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra and His Discontents

This was an old post i wrote in 2014, still in our archive, but hard to find and not properly formatted, so I am reposting today).

Pankaj has an op-ed in the NY Times. Friend Sardul Minhas prodded me to say something about it, but I was short of time and just gave some general comments about the Pankajist worldview and it’s discontents. These comments are quick and off the cuff, so almost as superficial as Pankaj Bhayia’s op-ed, but they sort of add to my earlier longer rant about his book, and my earlier article about Pankaj and Arundhati Roy. Read them all and you will start to see what I mean (or at least, where I am coming from). Trust me 🙂 

Before I go on, let me say that India hypernationalism is at least as real as Pakistani or American or Chinese hypernationalism and can be almost equally crazy. Like those hypernationalisms, it is mostly held in check by real-life constraints and need not trigger world war three, but world war three is not inconceivable. Shit happens. So I do not mean to imply that all is well and will forever remain well in the Indian subcontinent with the BJP in power (and of course anyone who says all was well before the BJP came to power must be joking). But I do think some of the doom and gloom is overdone and a lot of it is just hyperventilation that provides no good analysis as to why this phenomena has grown, what it may become, and what can be done to moderate or counter it’s possible excesses…in short, i dont think there is nothing to fear, but I do think that the Pankajist worldview is neither an adequate analysis, nor a rational prescription for it’s cure.

Pankaj seems to believe (or knows it is fashionable to believe) that the worship of strength and material progress is a serious mistake and therefore all of recent Western history (with its abundant displays of strength and material/organizational progress, however defined) was a very bad thing. But he also believes the equally fashionable meme that the weak should “stand up for their rights” and fight back and defeat the strong….since I have not seen any evidence to suggest that he has some well-developed theory of Gandhian resistance, how is this circle to be squared? Given belief A, belief B requires the acquisition of strength and at least some material/organizational progress (how else will anyone be able to overcome the amoral West?) but it so happens that the constituency of “strength and material/organizational progress” in India is one that Pankaj cannot afford to be associated with. He has little trouble with non-Indian strength-worshippers like Jamaluddin Afghani (a minor and ineffectual fascist whom he portrayed, historically inaccurately, as one of the great exemplars of Asian resistance to Western domination), but in India his home is in the liberal elite Left, and the “strength and progress” idea, while very much present in the traditional Left, is not one that the postmodern Left is comfortable with…besides, the strength part is now mostlymonopolized by the Hindutvadis, so there are problems with admiring Indian anti-Westernism and strength-worship that do not arise for Pankaj when he is talking about Muslims or Chinese who want to become strong like the West. Incidentally, Japan remains a sore spot of Pankaj; perhaps because of his initial Leftist orientation or because the rise of Japan does not fit his preferred picture of “East tries to Westernize and falls flat on face”, he completely skipped Japan when discussing his version of the rise of Asia from the ruins of Empire. Anyway, given these ideological limitations, what is to be done? His options include:

  1. Westernization has been and forever will be a disaster for non-Western nations. The apparent weakness of “Eastern” nations is actually strength; a sign of moral superiority, closer to nature, deeply rooted, psychologically sound, more humane etc etc. Gandhi had some such beliefs. Of course Gandhi also believed that if we stick to our (moral) strengths, we can “defeat” the apparently stronger West. But this defeat will not look like the usual victory and defeat looks in war. Valid or not, this would be a relatively consistent (and very attractive) set of beliefs. But many elements of this system are anathema for the Left (like Gandhi’s embrace of the people’s ancient religon and religious myths, his lack of interest in physical strength, and his un-Marxist view of history), so Pankaj cannot comfortably take a Gandhian position against the West (though he can say patronizing nice things about it).
  2. Westernization has been and forever will be a disaster for non-Western nations. They must find their own unique way forward. They have unique cultures and cultural strengths and these are embedded in their language, their culture, their myths, their religions… and they must build from these, etc. But this is what a lot of the Hindu right is saying, so it certainly cannot be Pankaj’s choice either.
  3. Or Pankaj can drop the whole Eurocentric post-Marxist framework and start from scratch. He might then find that “Westernization” is not so exclusively Western. A lot of it is just progress in human knowledge (always incomplete and prone to errors) and any individual or group can acquire and make use of past discoveries in human knowledge, whether they happen to have been made in Europe or Central Asia or Japan, and build on those…. that maybe the flaws we see in the West are not that foreign either, but are human characteristics, and their larger organized expressions (armies, conquests, wars, colonization, cultural and literal genocides, megalomaniacs, liars) are not really some unique and novel Western invention…. If strength and scientific progress are diseases, then we are all prone to falling victim to their allure….and so on. But that would be such a departure from the postcolonialist postmodern post-marxist universe in which Pankaj operates, its not really a choice either. What if his audience no longer buys his op-eds?

It’s a tough place to be in.  Hence the confusion.
btw, he started with Naipaul, betting that his audience would have little or no clue about Naipaul’s actual views about Indian history and the rise of the BJP. I think this move shows Pankaj is not dumb and he sometimes takes risks. Those are worthy qualities 😉
Or it may mean that Naipaul’s earlier expression of admiration for Pankaj (as a literary critic) has created a soft spot. Human nature being what it is…

I initially posted these thoughts as a facebook comment and asked some questions on 3quarksdaily (where Pankaj’s article was up on the blog). One of the responses (from someone named Sundar) was as follows:
I doubt if I fit the profile of Pankaj’s intended readership, but here goes:
I think the Indian left (and Pankaj in particular) has become irrelevant. The Left parties have been decimated even in their citadel of West Bengal, where they had unleashed a reign of terror for 25 years. (If you think that is an exaggeration, you should learn more about life in Rural West Bengal). It is another matter that the TMC is continuing their tactics.
Intellectually, the left has been in shock since their utopias of Russia and China have moved on. Hence their desperate attempt to use any issue they can get their hands on: Environment, Caste etc. Their last gasp was their infiltration of the centrist Congress party via Sonia Gandhi’s unconstitutional NAC.
They are terrified that Modi has put together a workable coalition of various caste groups which aims to control parliament for the foreseeable future. They don’t know how to deal with Modi: he comes from the very groups that they claim to represent. But he represents a new kind of India, one which does not want handouts from elite controlled parties.
Whether Modi’s electoral coalition will hold in the next Lok Sabha elections, I don’t know. But if it does, the India left’s worst nightmare will come to pass: A world where they are simply irrelevant. A Bourgeois India that hasn’t heard of Pankaj Mishra and his ilk. And doesn’t care.

My answer had some more questions, which I will post here in the hope that someone will attempt some answers:
I think you are right, though out of loyalty to my youthful ideals and deference to my friends /peer group I would assign a less positive valence to this decline and fall… Anyway, follow up questions : since higher education and public intellectuals in India share (consciously and unconsciously) many of the historic assumptions, ideals, paradigms etc of the Left, what does the  future hold in that area? Will they modify their beliefs and carry on? Will there be a circling of the wagons and a vicious fight with the newly powerful right, followed by an auto da fe? Will the crazier Hindutva historians replace our familiar Marxist intellectuals as most of my friends seem to fear? And will all this play any role in “real life”? 
Inquiring minds want to know 🙂

Finally, a word from my better half (who has higher IQ and EQ): I must not just criticize Mishra. I must also say what he would be good at; so here goes: I think he would be an excellent literary critic if he could just give up his urge to push his (fashionable, but ultimately irrelevant) political agenda in every thing he writes. I know, “the personal is political” and all that, but comrade, that too may just be fashionable claptrap. Take a deep breath. Let go…

PS: Given the current political conflicts within India (with which I have only an outsider’s connection), it is inevitable that an attack on Pankaj will get positive responses from his supposed ideological opponents in the BJP (I say “supposed” because Pankaj actually shares their emotional antipathy towards the West and has some sympathy for their counterparts in other Asian countries, just not in India itself). Just to keep things clear, I am mostly Left-of-Center in my politics and extremely left of center on most social issues (though somewhat right of center on state intervention in social issues, whatever). I do hope a left-of-center alternative survives and thrives in Indian politics, not just because my own inclinations (mostly) lie that way but because the total dominance of any one ideology is always a problem. Best to have some balance and some competition. Finally, I do realize that all who identify as leftists are not as Eurocentric/Europhobic and confused as Pankaj. 
Oh, and about the Hindutvadis, I think there are some obvious problem areas in their quest to become the leaders of resurgent and powerful India: I am saying nothing original if I say that the “Muslim question” is one of them. In my case, the concern is not that they will try to “Indianize” Islam well beyond what current Indian Muslim leaders would consider desirable… I think that is the eventual fate of Indian Islam and I see no great reason to abhor that possibility. My concern is that they will mess up the “soft landing” that is the “desirable option” in this process. i.e. I think a soft landing is possible (and desirable) but the way the BJP has evolved, they may not be the best people to achieve it. More on that some other day, but I do want to add that to me this is not a specifically “Muslim” concern. It is an Indian concern. In numbers, in solidarity, in civilizational consciousness, in cultural contribution, etc Indian Muslims are not an insignificant component of India. A “hard landing” would hurt everyone and the outcome is by no means guaranteed to be in the Hindutvadi’s favor. Softer approaches would work better for everyone, not just for the Muslims. Fascist tendencies and mob action are other obvious problems but are by no means a BJP monopoly (see West Bengal for details) but a BJP-specific (much less serious) area of concern is the large mass of pseudoscientific nonsense that has accreted around the crazier edges of the Hindutva brand. While I think the actual “real world” significance of that mass of craziness is sometimes exaggerated by liberal/Westernized/agnostic/atheist observers, it is not necessary trivial.  I quote Prime Minister sahib: “We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery – See more at: “
I really dont think modern Indian medicine will be easily derailed by such flights of fancy, but ….There. That should do it 🙂

Post-post script: Friend Shivam Vij posted Guardian’s piece about Modi making his Hindutva pseudosciency remarks and I told him its funny, but may not necessarily be too consequential. Many friends seemed to find that surprising. Why not consequential? he is saying an elephant head was transplanted on a human, literally. That’s crazy. Well, yes, it is, but if we go by that, we would lose our shit everytime some leader says he believes in the talking snake or the flying horse or whatever. The silliness is not the problem. Or at least, its not NECESSARILY a big problem. The same people who believe in flying horses and talking snakes are very rational and clever in matters closer to our own lives. So the problem is not necessarily the silliness of the belief. Its the fact that PM sahib chose to express it on such an occasion and in such a context, indicating a certain mixing of knowledge streams best left unmixed…and the implication that such hindutvadi pseudoscience may then be forced on people in real life settings, maybe even in Medical schools and in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Now in a democracy that is certainly a possibility and a scary one. But a reasonably competent elite can erect filters and keep the ship on near-even keel even in a democracy.
Is the Indian elite competent enough.
I guess we will find out. 

South Asian ancestry in Tajikistan

Genetic continuity of Indo-Iranian speakers since the Iron Age in southern Central Asia:

To model Tajiks, all 2-ways admixture models were excluded and we obtained one 3-ways admixture model (p-value = 0.49) implying around 17% ancestry from XiongNu, almost 75% ancestry from Turkmenistan_IA, and around 8% ancestry from a South Asian individual (Indian_GreatAndaman_100BP) representing a deep ancestry in South Asia.

Finally, we used DATES18 206 to estimate the number of generations since the admixture events. We  obtained 35±15 generations for the admixture between Turkmenistan_IA and XiongNu-like populations at the origins of the Yaghnobis, i.e. an admixture event dating back to ~1019±447 years ago considering 29 years per generation. For Tajiks (TJE, TJY, TJA) we obtained dates from ~ 546 ±138 years ago (18.8± 4.7 generations) to ~ 907 ± 617 years ago (31.2 ± 21.3 generations) for the West/East admixture. We also obtained a date of ~944 ±300 years ago for the admixture with the South Asian population.

Looks like most of the admixture from the Indian subcontinent dates to the period around 1000 AD, when the Ghaznavids were enslaving large numbers of Indians. This ancestry shows up in Afghanistan and eastern Iran.

Browncast: Ambassador Kamran Shafi on Benazir, Nawaz Sharif, Military Rule, etc

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 episode I (Omar) talk to Major Kamran Shafi, who served in the army, then became a columnist, served as Benazir Bhutto’s press secretary and after another long stint as a columnist, served as ambassdor to Havana, Cuba. He looks back at these years and what may lie ahead.

Pos tscript: Ambassador Shafi sent in a short voice message to add to the above. It is an episode in Benazir’s first term when she was being constantly harassed by the “establishment” and Kamran Shafi advised her to resign and go to Larkana..

Kamran Shafi: Outsiders Can Help by Dealing with the Elected Government - YouTube

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:


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

Major Amin; a few words on Pakistan, Afghanistan and China

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!

Last time we interviewed Major Amin just after the fiasco of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. That was a relatively substantive interviey w (you can listen to it at this link: Major Amin on the age of strategic anarchy) and proved extremely popular, so there was a lot of demand to invite Major Amin back for an update. I caught up with the Major in a less than sober mood initially (some of you may have heard that recording) when he expressed his disappointment with how badly things are going in his homeland in somewhat colorful language, but at his request we have now redone this interview (the exact same questions) in a more sober tone. Enjoy.

Book Review: Rivals by Dr Saad Shafqat

Rivals: Saad Shafqat: Bloomsbury India

A review I wrote for India Today a few months ago.

Rivals is the third book and second novel from the pen of Dr Saad Shafqat, professor of neurology at the Agha Khan Hospital and Medical School in Karachi. He started writing with pieces about cricket and is the proud author of Javed Miandad’s autobiography (“cutting edge”) as well as a previous medical thriller (“breath of death”). This book is set in the same “Avicenna University Hospital” (a thinly disguised version of the author’s actual place of work) as his first novel, but the main protagonist in this one is not terrorists or terrorist hunters but doctors competing for a prestigious department chairmanship.
The book opens with Dr Tanya Shah at her morning constitutional and the author is clearly familiar with the world of Karachi’s rich and famous. As she puts on her Maria B lawn suit and grabs her Luis Vuitton bucket bag and heads out to work, every detail is lovingly described; Unfortunately, another character is also at his morning constitutional at exactly the same time, shaving his pubes and underarms so that he can be in a state of ritual purity when he meets his 72 virgins. Yes, there is a suicide bombing in chapter 2, but while it will play a bit of a role in the drama that unfolds later, this is not really a book about Islamist terrorists or their victims. It is a book about Dr Tanya Shah and her colleague Dr Hammad Khan, professor of ophthalmology and her rival in the race to become Avicenna’s next chief of surgery. Dr Hammad plots sexual escapades with medical reps and underhand maneuvers to undermine Dr Shah’s candidacy with his hangers on while sipping cocktails at an elite club, while a “white tiger” type ambulance driver and a bomb victim’s poor mother add some working-class spice to the mix. There is also a lot of medical excitement (operating room, trauma surgery, that sort of thing) that is well written and interesting.

The book is generally well written and is a fun and easy read, but the characters are not fully developed and promising detours frequently fade out without getting anywhere genuinely exciting. Still, it is set in Karachi and anyone with any connection to the medical world will find many familiar sights and sounds and depictions to keep him interested. And while there is a suicide bombing and some run ins with poor people, the book cannot be accused of relying on either poverty porn or Jihad-mongering for cheap thrills. Instead, Dr Shafqat stays mostly with the world he knows well and avoids any temptation to crudely take notice of how westernized and “un-Islamic” it is. These doctors are worrying about publications, presentations, trainees, committee meetings, departmental politics and sexual scandals and their stories hold no grand political lessons and attempt to correct no terrible historical crimes. That at least is refreshing. Overall, a fun read, but one is left with the feeling that it could have been better.


Afghan Chaos. Dr Hamid Hussain’s view..

From Dr Hamid Hussain. As readers of this blog know, our other Pakistani military history contributor (Major Amin) has a harsher version of the same situation: that there is chaos in Afghanistan and it will drag all neighbors into trouble with it. Dr Hamid, a nice guy at heart, is willing to hope for peace a little more than Major Amin.. (the initial response is about what the American policymakers are thinking of doing)

17 October 2021

Following was part of conversations with many with first hand knowledge about the region.  This gentleman had front row seat to many changes in the region and he was kind enough to candidly share his views with me & my response. It may be of interest to some.


Thanks Sir.  I think you got it right about potential risks for the region.  I know that in polite conversations, these topics are not discussed but in the real and cruel world people talk about their dreams and delusions and it is directly proportional to the level of their knowledge or ignorance. This has been at least my experience of dealing with many from different countries who have front row seat to this blood sport.

Here are my two cents.  In my view, there is no agreement yet about the policy going forward but there are conversations about what is called ‘controlled chaos’.  Some see huge opportunities in current situation where all potential trouble makers in Washington’s eyes can be paid back in the same coin.  Keeping Russia busy defending its southern borders by spending more military and diplomatic capital, highlighting human rights violations of Uighurs on diplomatic front and limited support to do some fireworks in Xinjiang by using Wakhan corridor, destabilize Iran’s eastern border thus almost completely encircling Iran as currently, Israel is using Iraqi Kurdistan and Azerbaijan to cause troubles.  Igniting another border and more involvement in Afghanistan will waste more Iranian intelligence resources.  Turkey under neo-Ottoman dreamer Erdogan has gone from ‘zero trouble with neighbors’ foreign policy of decades to ‘100 % trouble with every neighbor’ quagmire.  He is arrogant and ignorant enough to be easily enticed into putting his hand in the snake pit of Afghanistan.  There have been reports of increasing Turkish parleys with Pakistan and several mysterious military flights from Istanbul to Chaklala air base have landed.  We don’t know the details yet but I’m suspicious that the cargo has something to do with Afghanistan and it is not humanitarian aid.

Everyone and his cousin in Washington is very angry at Pakistan.  The dangerous part is that now Afghanistan is not seen as a separate entity for management purposes.  The talk is about region and it is now ‘Pak-Af’ that means support of anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly on political front at this stage and if needed in future a military front can also come into play.  Goal is to create a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around Talib country of southern and eastern Afghanistan that is traditional Loy Kandahar and Loy Paktiya regions.  This means strengthening both Pushtun and Baloch nationalist forces in Baluchistan.  In Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KPK), if Pushtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) is converted into a political party and moribund Awami National Party (ANP) wakes up and revamps its structure, it can create a political barrier to Taliban narrative.  In addition to these ethnic forces, two major political parties; Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have no love lost for Afghan Taliban.  During their respective tenures (2008-2018), they have tried desperately to get rid of flea infested Afghan blanket but army came in the way. Even limited retreat of the army in current scenario provides the room for push back for all anti-Taliban forces.

Afghan Taliban leadership will try a hand at ‘reverse strategic depth’ by supporting religious segment especially fellow Pushtun Deobandi lot of KPK, Baluchistan and metropolis of Karachi.  This will be their attempt at political front.  In future, if circumstances force a military front then their natural allies will be Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

For the northern part of the region, there is talk about the Kurdish model that was adopted for Iraq.  A de facto independent region although Afghan scene is quite different as there is no history of separatism among non-Pushtuns and also it is not one single ethnic entity in the north.  If somehow, this time around non-Pushtuns come to the conclusion that Taliban are a dominant military force in control of Kabul for forseeable future who are not willing to share and they don’t have strong Pushtun partners to wrest control back and run as a joint venture, then other options come to the table.  Even in that case, this model will require some modification.  One possibility is the ‘canton model’ attempted in Syria for different ethnic and sectarian groups.  The base for northern plan will likely be Tajikistan.  Contrary to popular belief, it will be Afghan players that will determine the future course, outsiders will be simply enablers.

In my view ‘controlled chaos’ is a misnomer as chaos takes its own course and apprentice sorcerers can not even comprehend let alone control it. My personal view is that like every government change (although we may not agree with the method of taking control), Taliban should be given a chance of at least three years to prove what they mean?  Formal recognition can be kept at back burner for now while channels kept open at different levels.  In the meantime humanitarian aid channeling directly to the people to prevent famine and further dislocations while gently pushing Taliban to modify their stance on some issues especially inclusion of other groups and female education.  On part of Talib, if he can keep violence below a certain threshold where it does not hamper daily activities for the next few years, that will be an achievement.  In my view patience is needed but alas patience has never been an American virtue.

“The everlasting battle stripped from us care of our own lives or of others”.  T. E. Lawrence

Warm Regards,