An early modern Pax Islamica

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal has been in my “stack” for a while. It’s a short and academically-oriented work. What’s great about this book is that it is cross-cultural and comparative. I don’t know about you, but these sorts of narrative frames make recall and retention far easier for me. The integration of facts with other facts means that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts evaluated alone. In this, it has similarities with Strange Parallels: Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830.

The title itself is informative. These were Islamic polities in a self-conscious manner. The Ottoman Sultan emerged out of a parvenue lineage on the western Anatolian frontier whose claim to rule was based on their status as ghazis. Warriors of the faith. Their Mandate was confirmed through victory. The Safavids had religious charisma before they were temporally powerful. They were hereditary leaders of a Sufi order (their adoption of Shia Islam was a relatively late event). Finally, the Mughals were arguably the least religiously inflected of the three early modern dynasties, despite their appeal to the ghazi ethos.

Rather, the Mughals were notable because of their lineage, which was the most prestigious of the three. The Timurids descended from Timur, obviously, but more importantly, they descended on their maternal side from Genghis Khan. Though Genghis Khan was a pagan, whose scions destroyed much of the Islamic civilization of the Near East (and killed the last Abbassid Caliphs), the raw power and impact of the conqueror was such that he cast a shadow over the whole Turco-Persian world.

The key issue here is that these were dynasties of the Turco-Persian world, more or less. These were not states of the Islamic Arab world, though the Ottomans eventually absorbed much of that world in their later expansionary phase. Nor were they states of the Far East, or even Inner Asia. Despite all their other antecedents,* these dynasties were of Turkic provenance, and yet their entry into Islam was associated with their entry into Persianate culture.

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal takes a chronological tack in that it explores the origins of the three polities as far back as 1000 A.D., and also addresses thematic elements (e.g., architecture, poetry, and economics). Because of the thematic component it is not a work that needs to be read in sequence chapter by chapter, though perhaps doing so would allow for full appreciation.

One thing that jumps out is that in many ways the Safavid Iranian regime is an outlier in many ways. This is obviously true in regards to religion. The Safavids began as a vaguely Sunni but very Sufi religious order in eastern Anatolia. But by 1500 they were promoting arguably ghulat forms of Shia Islam, before settling down on mainstream Ithna Ashari beliefs. It is to this period that connections between Iran, a term that they resurrected, and the Shia cities of Iraq and the Shia regions of Lebanon, were established. It is during this period that Iran was forcibly converted from a mostly Sunni cultural region with Shia pockets to a Shia domain.

The Safavid domains corresponded roughly to what we now know as the Iranian nation-state (Mesopotamia was part of the Safavid domains for a few decades here and there). Despite early attempts at expansion into their Anatolian homelands, rebuffed by the muscular Ottoman military machine, the Safavids were preoccupied with internal concerns. The religious transformation of a whole region through coercion expended a great deal of capital. The early Ottoman state before 1500, and the Mughal domains for its entirety, was different from the Safavids insofar as the ruling military elite were of a different religious identity from the majority whom they ruled (Christians and Hindus respectively).

In contrast, the Ottomans did not attempt to forcibly reshape the culture of their vast domains. The millet system established subordinate roles for non-Muslims, while Ottoman hegemony over their 16th-century conquests in Arab lands did not disrupt native elites (the Mameluke Sultanate was conquered, but the Mamelukes remained Egypt’s ruling caste for centuries under the Ottomans). Within Anatolia and parts of Rumelia a process of assimilation of Greeks, Macedonians, and Armenians, to a “Turkish” identity occurred organically through conversion to Islam. Over the centuries the cosmopolitan tastes of the early Sultans, who spoke Persian at court and styled themselves, successors of the Roman Emperors, gave way to a classical Ottoman identity as leaders of the Muslim world who nevertheless had their own linguistic identity.

The Mughals, though just to the east of Safavid Iran, were a polity characterized by extremely different concerns and resources. Mughal controlled India was the second most populous polity in the world after Ming China. It dwarfed Safavid Persia, even the Ottoman Empire. The Timurids conquered a civilization, or perhaps more accurately a coalition of civilizations. Unlike the Ottomans and to a lesser extent Safavids the Mughals did not create “slave” armies and “slave” bureaucracies. The native resources of India’s people were such that this was not necessary (the argument in regards to labor also is often used to explain why slavery was never popular in China). Hindu Rajputs served in the Mughals in military roles, while groups such as Kayasthas served them in civilian roles.

But the Mughal story is not simply one of “going native.” The Ottomans and Safavids relied on “slave” armies due to the fact that these were often more loyal to the regime than regional or tribal levies. The Mughals opened up India to vast numbers of Turkic warriors and Persian literati. These two groups were regime loyalists because like slaves they lacked local roots.

As Persia become more Shia, many of these foreigners who arrived in India were Shia, but there were also broader connections to the Hanafi Sunni world, as far afield as the Ottoman domains. For example, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb patronized the compilation of a series of religious codes, which apparently became quite well known and popular in Ottoman Anatolia.

It is often said that Indian Islam became rooted in the soil of the subcontinent and took upon syncretistic aspects. This is true as far as it goes, but it seems clear to me that the integration of the Mughal ruling class into Turco-Persian culture served as a major check upon this process. The Mughal Emperor Akbar clearly exhibited a tendency toward synthesis and innovation in his religious thought, but his views did not win the day. Rather, it is notable that The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal reinforces the contention that each successive Mughal Emperor from Akbar, to Jahangir, to Shah Jahan, and finally Aurangzeb, adhered more closely to West Asian normative Islam.

A distinctive aspect of the Mughal polity is that it assimilated and promoted individuals who were ethnocultural distinct from the core ruling elite. In fact, arguably very disparate groups were all bound together as part of the core ruling elite. In particular, the Rajput generals who served the Mughals. This is in contrast with the Ottoman and Safavid cases, where conversion of the slave to Islam entailed eventual ethnic assimilation. The problem with Aurangzeb, despite his military victories, is that he began aggressively espousing a more West Asian style of ideological assimilating, coaxing and coercing Hindu military elites into Islam. The Mughal equipoise was broken, and while Safavid Iran gave way to polities which inherited all its major features (the Zand and Qajar regimes), and the Ottomans persisted in their long decline, Mughal India quickly shattered in the 18th-century, to leave behind a broad cultural influence.

More generally The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that a ruling elites with a similar ethos can span multiple polities. Despite the religious distinctiveness of the Safavids, which became more clear over time, the three early modern Muslim polities fostered trade and intellectual exchange. Large colonies of Indian merchants were resident in Isfahan (from which they eventually sojourned to Astrakhan and eventually Moscow).

As noted in The Idea of the Muslim World Indian Muslims after the fall of the Mughal Empire had a major influence on Islam in what became Turkey. In Bernard Lewis’ oeuvre there is discussion about the West’s rise and its supremacy over the world of Islam, and the psychological shock that that entailed. But what about the Maratha captivity of the Mughals and how they shaped the confusion of Indian Muslims?

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that cross-cultural and cross-national civilizational affinities and ties are quite common. Today many view the West as sui generis. In some ways that are true, in magnitude, and scope. But around the year 1500, a group of Turkic tribesmen had conquered remnants of Byzantium, the Persian Empire, and India. In the ensuing centuries, they transformed these regions, and were themselves transformed. Today to be Persian and to be Shia are almost synonymous (Tajiks tend to be Sunni of course). But this was the consequence of Turkic tribesman. Today Anatolia is mostly Turkish speaking, but that is due to centuries of cultural assimilation. Finally, many elements of Indian culture are hard to imagine without the Mughal period.

* The Safavids had Greek and Kurdish origins as well, though in their early period the Turkic ethnic component was most important. Similarly, the Timurids had recent Mongol ancestry, but their primary identity was with the Turco-Persian world. Finally, the early period of the Ottomans is obscure, but it is hard to imagine that these Anatolian Turks did not absorb some of the “substrate” elements. Mehmet the Conqueror had a Christian, possibly European, mother.


Social Justice as white self-regard and self-obsession

A few years ago I made a passing reference to the “Kali Yuga” (I had been reading the Mahabharata), and an interlocutor expressed alarm. “Isn’t that an ‘alt-right’ idea?”

The truth is that the concept has become entrenched in parts of the Western Right through the influence of Theosophy and Julius Evola, but its origins and primary usage is non-Western. Obviously. Westerners repurposed the concept for their own usage (“appropriated” one might say).

I thought of this when our resident archetype of a particular type of “social justice” narrowly “liberally” educated commentator made an observation that some phrases had particular connotations among white nationalists. This was true on the face of it, but it struck me as illustrative of the pantheon of the powerful in the mind of this individual. The phrases in question, relating to anti-Semitism, are actually much more common among non-Western people today.

But this is not of any great consequence for many. Non-Western people do not exist except in relation to Western people, and non-Western people and their views are seen as purely derivative and reactionary to Western people.

In other words, Western people are the agents of history, the only observers of Schrodinger’s Cat.

This is an ahistorical and non-empirical view. Whether you agree with the scholarship in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, the fact that this argument could be made in the first place stands testament to the rich textured complexity of the past.

Modern ideologies tend to flatten and diminish the complexity of history.


To know one must know

I was having a discussion with a young person of subcontinental origin who is completing a STEM Ph.D. An open-minded and curious person and they asked me to exposit to them why a post-colonial paradigm that reduces all non-Western/white peoples to being objects in a narrative driven by Western/white agents is built on false premises. My candid opinion is that this is not something that one can explain in a single conversation, or in a single article. The reason is simple: if you don’t know much you are ultimately relying on someone else’s credibility.

I think I’m a credible person, but obviously I would think that. Unfortunately, history is messy, complex, and filled with shades and textures that can only be appreciated through direct consumption, not description. You need to read the history yourself and reflect upon it deeply in a first-person sense.

The reality is that there are plainly mendacious actors out there who launder their credentials to promote lies. This behavior knows no ideology but is quite common and pervasive. Often these “public historians” do not lie or spread falsehood directly, but they obfuscate and redirect attention in such a manner so that their audience draws particular ‘natural’ conclusions which are at variance with reality as we understand it.

I particularly recommend history written about the time before 1800, because the foundations of the present often run quite deep, an assertion which directly undercuts the logic of post-colonialism, where the recent overwhelms the past.

Economic history, in particular, is often useful because it deals in concrete variables, where human judgment is less opaque. For example, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium.

On occasion, readers will question why it is so important to know broadly and deeply to understand the particular. That is due to the reality that the particular is simply the terminal node in a tree of decisions which fans out into the past and across continents.


Capsule Review: The Birth of Classical Europe

This book is a great review of the rise and fall of classical Europe, from the earliest civilizations in Crete and Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. The authors are professional historians and remarkably free of either Left or Right wing cant. They provide an excellent summary of the rise of Mediterranean civilization and the origins of the notion of Europe. They manage to pack a remarkable amount of facts into this book, including quantitative data where possible (“X percent of all crockery at this site changed from Greek to Etruscan between Y and Z years” kind of thing). Greco-Roman nerds will know many more details obviously, but even they will not be disappointed with how much information and perspective the authors can fit into a small space. Well worth reading.


Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere

[Author’s note: With the celebrations of Guru Nanak’s 550th Anniversary and the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor being in the news, this is an opportunity for discussing the importance of the Sikh message, not just from a religious perspective – for Sikhs – but for Indian history. This article places the founding of Kartarpur, and Guru Nanak’s message, in a historical context – juxtaposing it with Babur’s founding of the Mughal Empire.]

I. Turning of the Wheel: Baba Nanak and Babur

In 1519, Babur invaded India – ‘ever since coming to Kabul we had been thinking of a Hindustan campaign, but for one reason or another it had not been possible,’ he writes in the Baburnama (translated by William Thackston, see pp 270-280). For some time his armies had been campaigning on the frontiers of the Hindu Kush, but these campaigns had yielded ‘nothing of consequence to the soldiers’. So, he turned to Hindustan. In the next few months, despite dogged resistance by the Afghans, Gujjars and Jats of the upper reaches of the Jhelum and Chenab, northern Punjab was subjugated, and plundered, by Babur’s armies. Babur himself spent most of his days inebriated, contemplating the legacy of Timur and setting poems to rhythmic metres. While his next great invasion of Punjab would come few years from then, in this interregnum, Punjab burned.

Among the towns and villages devastated was the settlement of Sayyidpur.

It was not long after Babur’s march of death through Punjab that Guru Nanak returned home from his western voyages – to Mecca, through Baghdad, Masshad, Khurasan, to Kabul, Peshawar, and, finally, to Sayyidpur. To the house of a humble carpenter, Bhai Lalo (Janam Sakhi Parampara by Kirpal Singh, pp 138-140). Continue reading “Sangat and Society: the Sikh remaking of the North Indian Public Sphere”


Why Aryan Migration Theory (“AMT”) is probably true, but it might not matter

People now and then ask me why JR contributes to this weblog when I think he’s profoundly wrong on some issues. First, being wrong is no sin. Even being offensive is no sin. I am a traditionalist in regards to expression.

Second, JR presents what I believe to be the wrong position with a reasonable command of the sources and in a logical and coherent manner. He has not convinced me, but I have sharpened my own views (and to be frank, I believe that both of us have changed positions over the last four years as new data has emerged). Unfortunately, this is in contrast with the bluster, ad hominem and incoherence of many opponents of the idea of the exogenous origins of the Indo-Aryans. I used to think these people were malicious, but I think a lot of them are just stupid. So I hold it less against them.

JR presents what strikes me as an Indocentric view. He is quite clear that he sees his project as compensatory and reactive to the traditional Eurocentric view. My own position is quite naively positivistic, and I attempt to be cross-cultural. Of course in the details, I fail because to be subjective is to be human (my own view is going to be Eurocentric because my cultural orientation is American). Knowledge of the empirical world accumulates despite our shortcomings. JR has made an appeal to me as a person of subcontinental origin on occasion, but this lever is pulling on a string of emptiness. I am one of the Last Men who are weak in regards to racial self-conception.

Sometimes you really know what people are about by what they don’t talk about. Americans don’t talk directly about money, but we care about it a great deal. Indians don’t talk about caste directly in personal detail, but clearly they care about it a great deal. And the converse is also true. Much of my bluster about R1a1a-Z93 is that I find lineage to be a humorous and frivolous fixation, though I am latitudinarian is accepting that others may differ with me on this. It is a matter of disposition for me, not a deep principle. AMT or OIT has little emotional valence for me.

Finally, I have to admit that I have become disillusioned with the calm and conscious lying and obfuscation which I know to occur in sciences with which I am familiar. When Westerners have strong ideological priors and beliefs at stake, scholars abandon fidelity to the truth so as to tack to the winds and align themselves with the regnant ideologies of the age. They are servile creatures who bend to power. I do not have it within me to look down upon Indians for their bias and motivated reasoning when I know that Janus reigns supreme in Western academia. I thought “we” were better than this. I know now that that was a delusion. The courage of men fails. They will forsake friends and break bonds of fellowship. The truth is nothing next to these betrayals.

But I still vainly hold to the ideals of the old religion. Truth above all, strive for it even when it discomfits, and when you miss the mark so often. Knowledge is its own regard.

JR’s post, The Unravelling of the AMT, consists primarily of marshaling evidence from archaeology and linguistics (genetics being secondary). The contention is that the lack of archaeological disruption during the period between 2000 BC and 1000 BC, as well as no evidence in the extant literature of Indo-Aryan recollections of foreign homeless, should argue against an exogenous origin for Indo-Aryans. As I have no deep knowledge of these two fields, let us grant these assertions.

The reason that JR’s extensive argumentation does not convince me is that even granting the low probability of AMT conditional on the facts which he brings to the table, the probability of OIT is even lower conditional on the facts we know about other Indo-European societies. Alone, and isolated, if I grant the level of archaeological disruption to be minor, and if I grant that indeed Indian oral history does not record an external homeland, the model of mass migration in the period between 2000 and 1000 BC does strike me as unlikely (let’s put the genetics to the side).

But, if you reject AMT for this period, then we must explain Indo-Europeans in Europe and in the Near East. Logically the rejection of AMT entails OIT, and OIT presents far greater problems to me than AMT. From a cross-cultural perspective, a model that explains the current distribution of Indo-European languages must explain all of the different branches and their locations as parsimoniously as possible. There will be errors and loose ends in the model, but we have to iterate from a plausible starting point. AMT resolves more problems than it creates. OIT creates more problems than it resolves.

And yet to be entirely frank…I do think JR’s arguments will gain more and more traction with Indians. Indians are entirely Indocentric quite often, so arguments that operate within this framework will be persuasive. I find this personally uncongenial, but I am getting the sense as I get older that I have an abnormal interest in a disparate array of cultures and societies (some commentators, who may or may not have low IQs, express frustration that I refer to other societies and cultures since they are clearly ignorant of things beyond their shores). Here in the United States, there are “Ethnic Studies” departments that seem to exist so that people of a particular ethnicity can study their own history. They are quite popular and ideologically motivated.

The broad world out there is fading for the positivist vision. The age of science is giving way to the age of magic. The time for public discussion and calm inquisition of the facts has probably passed us by. Truth, understanding the shape of reality for its own sake, is a small cultic affair. And yet do well to remember, the lies that give you comfort are lies nevertheless!


The Burmese frontier of Bengal

I am reading Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. In it, he mentions the legends and oral history of some Burmese that much of Bengal was once inhabited by people like the modern Burmese: Buddhist, and East Asian in appearance.

I don’t know what to think about these sorts of memories, but after spending a day (for various reasons) looking at mtDNA (direct maternal) and Y (direct paternal) ancestry in various groups: I am more and more convinced it is plausible that much of Bengal was inhabited by a Tibeto-Burman people.

The reason is that in Bangladesh it looks to be that ~10% of the mtDNA and ~10% of the Y chromosomes are East Asian. This is in line with the genome-wide ancestry. To the west and south of Bengal, there are peoples with even more East Asian ancestry, the various Munda tribes. But these groups have a different profile. 30% of their ancestry is East Asian. But 60% of their Y chromosomes are East Asian, while 0% of their mtDNA is East Asian.

One thing we know about the Munda is that they speak Austro-Asiatic languages. Genetically their East Asian component seems to have mixed with people deeply related to the Andaman Islanders, before mixing again with a people with affinities to South Indian tribal people. Additionally, the Munda have almost no “steppe” affinity.  This is curious because this occurs only among some South Indian tribal groups. Even among non-Indo-Aryan South Indian populations, such as the Reddy of Andhara Pradesh, there is some steppe ancestry.

Genetically it seems that the earliest mixing of East Asian and “indigenous” ancestry in the Munda dates to the period between 4,000 and 4,500 years ago. I am now open to the possibility that the Munda arrived in the Indian subcontinent via the Bay of Bengal. And that the northern Munda languages are actually expansions from a southern expanse.

In any case, the situation in Bengal seems to be different. If there were Munda in Bengal, they didn’t leave much of an imprint from what I can tell. The admixture into the Bangladeshi genomes dates to about 1,500 years ago. Rather than an intrusion of Tibeto-Burman people into the plains of Bengal, this may indicate an expansion of Indo-Aryan agriculturalists into the lands of slash and burn Tibeto-Burman agriculturalists.


Afghanistan’s History (a)

Special thanks to Mayuresh Madhav Kelkar for sending this. I would start watching this excellent Dari Farsi documentary 1 minute 19 seconds in. There are many excellent ancient maps of central and south Asia.


I just want to watch this again and again, just to listen to the narrator’s voice. Majestic, wise, soft and sweet. For those so sure Afghanistan will fall; any nation with voices like this is perchance stronger than she appears. This may be where the homo sapien sapien modern civilization was born.


Afghanistan’s History


Avtar Singh Khalsa: Lion of Afghanistan


Post Modernism (d)

Five thousand years ago the greater Egyptian, Sumerian, Eastern (defined as pan Arya plus China) civilizations were very mathematically oriented.  Many caucasians appear to believe that these ancient civilizations were racist. Possibly because of this many caucasians believe that math is racist.


Another possible reason many caucasians appear to believe that math is racist is because they fear it might unfairly advantages “brown” people (Asians, Arabs, Latinos) and “brown” cultures (eastern philosophy including Toaism and Confucianism, native american religion) at the expense of caucasians in the new global artificial intelligence, neuroscience, genetics economy.


Could part of the anger against math come from fear that mathematics, science, technology, seeking the truth through thought, seeking the truth without thought might be haram or blasphemous? (Obviously most Abrahamics do not believe this and this is not a critique of Abrahamism.)


I believe that mathematics is part of art; and that it derives from beyond normal gross thought. From what in Sanskrit is called Buddhi, Vijnayamaya Kosha, Ananda Maya Kosha, Sukshma Sharira, Kaarana Sharira, the subtle heavens.


Perhaps the anger against mathematics is part of a deeper anger against the subtle heavens? If so, one possible way to look at this is that to transcend the subtle heavens (including mathematics) it might be helpful to love them and love our way through them. Or to love and respect the racist (subtle heavens–including mathematics) until we transcend the various subtleties of thought and feeling.

What are everyone’s thoughts?


Post Modernism (c)

Post Modernism (b)

Post Modernism (a)

Intellectual Dark Web (a)

Intellectual Dark Web


The Indo-Aryan enigma

A friend sent me this piece, Aryan Debate: Do the recent genetic studies validate Aryan invasion theory? The conclusion:

To sum up, how exactly the Indo-Aryanization India happened would remain unclear unless we get more ancient DNA samples, especially that of male individuals, from various Harappan sites and Gangetic regions as well. Until detailed studies are conducted on them, we can only speculate about the ancient events. Thus, far from validating AIT, these two papers, both Narasimhan et al and Shinde et al, leaves out many unresolved issues.

In my opinion, based on the current genetic data we have, we can now safely reject the kulturkugel BMAC proxy theory and the theory of large scale male dominant invasion into Swat valley which were modelled by the Indo-Europeanists and Indologists for Aryan expansions into India. Also since Indus periphery/Harappan ancestry overwhelmingly peaks among ANI group whose closest descendants are North Indian Indo-Aryan speakers, it is likely that the Indus periphery/Harappan ancestry would have represented some early Indo-Aryan or perhaps other related groups.

A common refrain for several years has been “let’s wait for ancient DNA.” Now that it’s here, is there more clarity?

On some questions, yes. On others, no. It seems now that while the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) was influenced culturally and demographically by the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), the BMAC did not impact South Asia demographically (though perhaps culturally via the Indo-Aryans; e.g., soma). This is definitely something that was learned.

But ancient DNA has not, and may not, solve the “Aryan question” in regards to origins and impact. Ultimately a synoptic take is probably necessary, where many disciplines and regional histories and archaeology are brought to bear. The main critique I have of the “Indian take” is that it is often substituting Indocentrism for Eurocentrism.

The reality is that the categories at issue, European or Indian, didn’t really make sense before the Iron Age, at the earliest (I would argue that a modern European self-identity really comes into being with the rise of Islam and the sundering of the Mediterranean). The early Indo-Europeans helped create the categories of the world around us, they were not of it.