Posts Tagged ‘Medina’

A History of Racism in the Islamic Middle East

May 27, 2022

Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (Oxford: OUP 1990).

Bernard Lewis is a veteran scholar of Islam, and this book is an examination of the emergence and development of predominantly Muslim Arab racism in the Middle East. The book is a reworking of two previous studies from the 1970s, one of which was first published in French. It started off as part of an academic examination of intolerance, concentrating on religious bigotry. Lewis, however, believed that issue had been solved and so moved on to racial intolerance. Unfortunately, as the past fifty years have unfortunately shown, religious hatred and bigotry has certainly not died out, as shown here in Britain with the sectarian violence in Ulster.

Arab Ethnic Identity Before Colour Prejudice

Islam is viewed as an anti-racist religion, and the Qur’an states categorically that Blacks and Whites are both equal and should be treated as such. This admirable attitude was maintained by its theologians and jurists. However, with the emergence and expansion of the Islamic empires this began to change and prejudice and racism, based initially in ethnic differences and then on skin colour, emerged. The book argues that the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabs, like the other nations around them, had a strong sense of their own superiority against those of the surrounding peoples. This was based on ethnicity, not colour. A variety of colours were used to describe the variations in human complexion, and were used in relative rather than absolute terms. Thus the Arabs saw themselves as black compared to the ‘red’ Persians, but white compared to the Black peoples of Africa. As the new Arab ruling class intermarried with the peoples they had conquered, so there developed an attitude which saw Arabs of mixed descent as inferior, leading to dynastic conflicts between those of pure and mixed race. Muslim Arabs also saw themselves as superior to converts to Islam from the indigenous peoples of the Islamic empire, and a set of rules developed to enforce the converts’ inferior social status. At the same time, the Arabs formed various explanations based on the environment for the ethnic differences they observed among different peoples. An Iraqi writer believed that Whites had been undercooked in the womb due to the coldness of the environment they occupied. Blacks, on the other hand, were overcooked. The Iraqi people, however, were brown and mentally and physically superior to the other two races.

Development of Anti-Black Prejudice

As Islam expanded into sub-Saharan Africa anti-Black racism developed. This did not initially exist, not least because Ethiopia had been one of the major superpowers in the Arabian peninsula with a superior culture. Muslims also respected the Abyssinians for giving sanctuary to many of Mohammed’s followers during their persecution by the Meccan pagans. Over time, however, an attitude of contempt and racial superiority emerged towards Blacks. This racism even extended towards highly regarded Black Arabic poets and the governors of provinces, who were reproached and vilified for their colour by their enemies. Here Arab racist views of Blacks is nearly identical to those of White European racists. They were seen as lazy, ugly, stupid and lustful. The prurient view of Black women as boiling with sexual desire mirrors the racist attitude towards Jewish women amongst western anti-Semites. On the other hand, Blacks were also seen as strong, loyal, generous and merry. They also had excellent rhythm. Although both Whites and Blacks were enslaved, White slaves had a higher status and different terms were used to describe them. White slaves were mawlana, literally, ‘owned’. Only Black slaves were described as slaves, abid, a term that is still used to mean Black people in parts of the Arab world today.

The expansion of the European states and empires effectively cut off or severely diminished the supply of White slaves, and as a consequence the value of Black slaves began to rise. Unable to afford White slaves and concubines from Europe and the Caucasus, the peoples of the Middle East turned instead to Abyssinians and the Zanj, Black Africans from further south. Abyssinians in particular were prized for their beauty and other qualities, and its from this period that the Arab taste for the beauty of Black Africans rather than Whites developed. And as anti-Black racism developed, so Muslims scholars and authors wrote pieces defending Blacks from racism, not least because many of Mohammed’s Companions had been Black and the emergence of powerful Muslim kingdoms in Africa.

Islamic Slavery and Slave Armies

Islamic slavery was comparatively milder and more enlightened than western slavery. Although technically slaves could not own property and were disbarred from giving evidence in court, there was limitations on the punishments that could be inflicted on them. Muslims were urged to treat their slaves humanely and manumission was praised as a noble act. It was particularly recommended for the expiation of particular sins. At the same time Islam permitted contracts to be made between master and slave allowing the slave to save enough money to purchase his freedom at an agreed date. There were stories of particular Muslims who freed their slaves even in circumstances where punishment would have been expected. One master freed a female slave after she asked him why he was still alive, as she had been trying to poison him for a year. Slaves could rise to high office. The viziers and other chief dignitaries of the Ottoman empire were slaves. Slaves were used to staff Muslim armies, and there were separate regiments for White and Blacks slaves. Sometimes this resulted in battles between the two, as during the dynastic battles where one side used Black soldiers and the other White. The mamlukes, the Egyptian warriors who ruled Egypt and who expelled the Crusaders and stopped the Mongols conquering the Middle East, were White slaves. They were freed after completing their military training and their leaders preferred to purchase other slaves for training as their successors rather than pass on their position to their own children.

Islam’s acceptance and regulation of slavery, like Judaism, Christianity and other religions, as well as the views of ancient philosophers like Aristotle, also meant that there was opposition to its abolition. Muslim defenders of slavery produced the same arguments as their Christian counterparts, including the argument that Blacks and other infidels were better off enslaved as it introduced them to a superior civilisation. When a 19th century British consul inquired of the king of Morocco what steps he was taking regarding slavery and the slave trade, he was politely informed that all the legislation was based on the Qur’an and sharia and that there was no intention of banning slavery as it was permitted by Islam. Indeed, the Ottoman province of the Hijaz, the area around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was exempt from the Ottoman ban on slavery and the slave trade after the ulema and nobles declared it to be an attack on Islam, along with legislation allowing women to go in public without the veil. The Turks were declared to be apostates, who could be killed and their children enslaved. Many of the pilgrims to Mecca came with a number of slaves, who acted as living sources of funding. When the pilgrim needed more money, he sold one or two of them.

The Myth of Muslim Non-Racism

In the last two chapters, Lewis discusses the emergence of the view of Islam as completely non-racist and that its slavery was benign. He argues that this was largely the creation of western scholars reacting to the horrors of New World slavery during the American Civil War. Christian missionaries also contributed to this myth. They attempted to explain their failure to make converts by arguing that it was due to Black African revulsion against harsh western slavery. In fact it was due to differences of colour. Islam spread because it was promoted by Black African preachers, rather than White westerners. Particularly influential in the creation of this myth was Edward Blydon, a Black West Indian who was educated in Liberia by the missionaries. He became convinced that Islam was more suited to the needs of Black people, and his books also stressed White guilt, contrasting it with Muslim tolerance. Lewis also believes that the myth is also due to a widespread feeling of guilt among western Whites, which he sees as the modern counterpart to Kipling’s White man’s burden.

Along with the text of the book itself are extensive notes and a documentary appendix containing texts including a Muslim discussion on national character, the rights of slaves and diplomatic correspondence and observations on the 19th century slave trade.

Race and Slavery Compared with Brown’s Slavery & Islam

This book should ideally be read alongside Jonathan A.C. Brown’s Slavery & Islam, as the two present contrasting views of slavery and racism in Islam. Brown is a White, American academic and convert to Islam. While he condemns slavery totally, his book presents a much more positive view of Islamic slavery compared with western servitude and even the conditions endured by 19th century free European workers. He also extensively discusses Islamic abolition and the voices for it, while Lewis lays more stress on Muslim opposition. Brown recognises the existence of racism in the Islamic world, but also emphasises Muslim anti-racist texts like The Excellence of the Negroes. But as Lewis points out, these texts also show the opposite, that there was racism and bigotry in the Muslim world.

Lewis also recognises that Muslim slaves generally enjoyed good conditions and were treated well. However, the real brutality was inflicted on them during the journey from their place of capture to the Islamic heartlands. He also suggests that this relatively benign image may be due to bias in the information available. Most Muslim slaves were domestic servants, unlike the mass of slave labouring on the plantations in America. There were gangs of slaves working cotton plantations and employed in mining and public works, and these laboured in appalling conditions. It may also be that there were more slaves working in agriculture than recognised, because the majority of the information available comes from the towns, and so ignore what may have been the harsher treatment in the countryside.

He also discusses the absence of descendants of the Black slaves, except for a few pockets, in the modern Middle East. David Starkey in an interview for GB News claimed it was because the Muslim slave masters killed any babies born by their slaves. I don’t know where he got this idea. Lewis doesn’t mention such atrocities. He instead suggests that it may have been due to the castration of large numbers of boys to serve as eunuchs in the harems. The other slaves were forbidden to marry and have sex, except for female slaves purchased for that purpose. Slaves were also particularly vulnerable to disease, and so an epidemic lasting five years could carry off an entire generation.

Importance of the Book for an Examination of Contemporary Racial Politics

I was interested in reading this book because of the comparative lack of information on slavery and racism in Islam, despite the existence of books like Islam’s Black Slaves. Lewis in his introduction states that researching the issue may be difficult and dangerous, as it can be interpreted as hostility rather than a genuinely disinterested investigation. I think there needs to be more awareness of the history of Muslim slavery and Islam. For one reason, it explains the emergence of the slave markets in that part of Libya now occupied by the Islamists. It also needs to be more widely known because, I believe, the emphasis on western historic slavery and racism can present a distorted image in which the west is held to be uniquely responsible for these evils.

The Origins of Saudi Arabia and Modern Islamo-Nazism

January 10, 2016

I’ve posted several pieces discussing the role of the Saudis and their form of Islam, Wahhabism, in promoting the terrorism and vicious religious intolerance and warfare that has now overwhelmed the Middle East. Many of these pieces come from Michelle Thomasson, one of the commenters on this blog, who had done extensive research on these issues. Here’s another piece she posted in response to my previous article on modern terrorism and the role of covert American espionage actions in destabilising Assad’s Syria.

I am also very cautious when posting information and prefer to rely on original data / sources, so when reading up on Zionism I tried to scan a variety of referenced sources (second hand bookshops are a treasure trove for old document finds). Here is a précis of my notes on Wahhabism which leads into the quote:

Roots of ISIS fundamentalism

Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (born 1702/3) in Nejd, central Arabia founded Wahhabism. He was a zealous reformer; he looked at the intentions behind actions and advocated the most scrupulous, most inflexible interpretation of Islam, he also called for believers to engage with the Quran directly.

Muslims who did not share his strict interpretations, including his application of Sharia law were to be gently persuaded; if this did not succeed then arms were called against them to bring them back in to the fold (trying not to kill them). This tactic was also applied to Shi’ites. Adult males who fought against Islam and who were polytheists, that refused to convert were executed.

The Al Saud family backed by zealous Wahhabi’s (who considered it their task to purify Islam) have dominated central Arabia since the mid eighteenth century. Endorsement by leading Wahhabi scholars, legitimised the Saudi monarchy.

Rasid Rida (1865 – 1935, Syria) was a pupil of the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abdul; he urged Muslims to find unity and focus in Islam with a dynamism in their own traditions as an essence of Jihad. As Rida grew older he condemned the abolition of strict Sharia practices such as cutting off the hand, but he also began to praise Wahhabism and was a passionate supporter of the new Saudi kingdom. Rida’s endorsement enabled the spread of Wahhabism beyond the kingdom’s borders.

Conflicts increase – until 1914 Rida advocated coming to a mutual arrangement with Zionism, then after WW1 the Arabs wanted to collaborate with Israel directly, however, Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann decided it best to cooperate with Imperial Britain instead. “For Rida, this put them on the other side of the great divide, and like many other Arabs he came to see Zionism as a British tool to split and dominate the Arab world. From the late 1920s onwards, he mined the most hostile traditions to Jews in Islam and combined such material with the conspiracy theories of European anti-Semitism to attack the Zionist project and Jews in general.

Thus, he focused on the hadith (italicised) ‘The Jews will fight you and you will be led to dominate them until the rock cries out; “O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, kill him!”’ He claimed that the Torah exhorted Jews to exterminate people that they conquered, and that the Jews rebelled against God by killing the prophets he sent after Moses. They invented Freemasonry and the Western banking system, and in recent years had created capitalism in Western Europe and Communism in Eastern Europe with which to plot against the European nations. He also saw Jewry as contributing to Germany’s defeat in First World War in exchange for Britain’s promise to grant them Palestine.

From this final period in his life, we can see the origins of the anti-Semitism which has infected some parts of the Arab and Muslim struggle against Zionism and is now reflected, for instance, in the Hamas charter and the propagation of Holocaust denial in sections of the Arabic media.” (A Concise History of the Arabs, 2014, page 163, by John McHugo.)

I chose a Hugo quote because it is a summation of the information I found and his writing is not the stuff of alternative media fright nights, quite the opposite! He is ‘an Arabist, an international lawyer and former academic researcher. His writing has been published on the BBC, History Today and Chatham House’s The World Today.. He is the director of the Council for Arab British Understanding and of the British Egyptian Society.” (From the introduction page to the above quoted book.)

Please note tribal rivalry and local conflicts continued during the nineteenth century in Saudi, the charismatic Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud disposed of most local rivals in the first 2 decades and he conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as Hejaz in 1924/5. The new Saudi Arabia was eventually proclaimed as such in 1932. The British then supported the Saudi’s because they saw them as a counterforce to the Ottoman Empire i.e. divide and conquer.

Re the role of academic legitimisation in the last decade, there have been calls for an Islamic front by Sheikh Essa an Egyptian ideologue who wanted to forge an Islamic front from 2003 and also Dr. Israr Ahmed an academic who called for the revival of the Islamic Caliphate.

Unless one has been made a target by groups that operate clandestinely, it is difficult to believe, but here is an academic unafraid to point out one of the elephants in the room, I posted this last year:

Interestingly, the link to Berlusconi’s masonic lodge in above link has ‘disappeared’ since the article was published!

This is very much what I’ve found out, simply through looking through standard reference works like Carl Brockmann’s History of the Islamic Peoples and the Oxford Encyclopaedia of World Religions, as well as Alfred Kopel’s study of the modern religious revival, The Revenge of God. Berman, in his book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, also puts the origin of the vicious anti-Semitism now poisoning the Islamic world to the influence of Nazi propaganda following the establishment of Israel. The Nazis were hoping to manipulate Muslim public opinion to mobilise them against their British overlords in support of Nazi Germany. Before then he notes that there was little anti-Semitism in Islam, and that 19th century Jewish scholars generally saw Islam as being far more hospitable and welcoming towards Jews than the Christian West.

I’ve also found second-hand bookshops to be invaluable treasure troves for good books. I did see in one of them in Cheltenham a few months ago a documentary history of Israel and the Arabs, so books on this complicated and highly emotive subject are about.

As for the Masonic lodge, Propaganda Due, or P2, their role in modern Italian politics is extremely murky. There are articles in Lobster linking them to some of the Fascist antics in Italy in the 1970s, such as the Bologna railway bombings, where the Neo-Fascists blew up a train station killing and injuring something like 127 people. They also seem to have some involvement in the death of ‘God’s Banker’, Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging under London Bridge, between the low tide and high water mark, with his pockets full of stones. This is supposedly one of the punishments in the Masonic oath that’s meted out to people who betray the brotherhood’s secrets. Calvi was also a senior figure in the Vatican bank, the Banco Ambrosiano, which was then in the middle of a corruption scandal.

Forget stupid, murderous lies like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Conspiracies really do exist, and real politics is riddle with them. Fox Mulder didn’t know the half of it.

Channel 4 broadcast a programme about a decade ago now also examining the roots of modern Islamic terrorism. This also showed pupils in Saudis schools dutifully learning that hadith, and being explicitly taught that it was their religious duty as Muslims to fight and kill Jews. The allies might be our allies in the War and Terror, but they’re extremely untrustworthy. It’s been partly through Saudi influence that the ideology behind modern Islamic terrorism has been spread, and terror groups funded.

Vox Political on Muted Tory Criticism of Saudi Arabia

January 7, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political posted up this piece yesterday, reporting David Cameron’s failure to express only muted criticism about Saudi Arabia’s disgusting human rights record, after the beheading of 47 people earlier this week:

When pressed on the reasons the Tories hadn’t made stronger criticisms, the Tory foreign minister, Tobias Ellwood, said: “Founded just under 100 years ago, Saudi Arabia is a relatively young country and we recognise change cannot happen overnight. The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values and as such needs to move at a pace that is acceptable to its society.”

This is risible nonsense. Nearly all of the countries in the Middle East, including modern Turkey, are young countries less than 100 or so years old. Turkey as it is now is the creation of Kemal Ataturk and The Young Turks, who strove to modernise the country following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Yet Turkey, until Erdogan took power, strove to be a secular democracy. The country also has severe problems. It’s been under military rule several times, and political prisoners, especially Kurdish separatists, have been imprisoned. And there is a concerted campaign to stamp out Kurdish culture. Nevertheless, the country’s relative religious tolerance was show on Sunday, when ITV screened a new series in which Adrian Chiles, the former presenter of the One Show, travels round the Mediterranean looking for what Jews, Christians and Muslims have in common and what unites, rather than divides them. Chiles is a Roman Catholic. He’s a convert to Christianity, whose turn to the Church of Rome surprised his atheist parents. On Sunday’s programme, he talked to his Croatian mother, who told him why she became an atheist, before travelling to Turkey. There he had perfectly amicable discussions about religion with two very modern young women, a fisherman, and a Jewish bloke with a shop in Istanbul’s bazaar. Among the man’s wares was a chess set, where the two sides, white and black, had been made instead into Crusaders and Turkish warriors. I’ve no doubt that in some parts of the Middle East, this would provoke a riot, if not anything worse. But in Istanbul, no-one seemed remotely concerned or even much interested.

Syria also is a new country. It, Iraq and many of the countries Middle Eastern nations were previously Ottoman provinces. They were formed into independent states by the European imperial powers, Britain and France. Syria, while not remotely a democracy, was a secular regime, which included Christians as well as Muslims amongst its founders. Lebanon suffered a terrible civil war in the 1970s and 80s, driven by religious rivalry between Christians and Muslims. But it has a kind of democratic constitution, in which various governmental posts are held by members of particular sects and faiths, in order to secure a fair balance of power that will cancel out or at least partially counteract ethnic or religious tensions. It was also one of the leading centres of the modern Arabic rival, and many of the founders of modern Arabic letters were Christians.
As for Iraq, this was also a secular country, though Islam was still the dominant religion under the law. It was able to maintain a relatively secular constitution even though it contains several of the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam. A country’s youth or age is no excuse for it having an appalling human rights’ record.

And in fact, in terms of practices now seen as barbaric, the West and Islam weren’t so very different even as late as the 19th century. I can remember reading a history of the Balkans by an American historian over a decade ago, which pointed out that the taking of heads by soldiers in Ottoman Turkey was almost exactly the same as the practice of taking the heads of criminals by lawmen and bounty hunters on the American frontier. Until the invention of photography, and its adoption by the forces of law and order, the only way to prove a violent criminal had been killed was to bring his head into the local sheriff’s office, and display it to the authorities. And so they did. Now the American dispossession and genocide of the Indians was a great evil, but this didn’t stop America striving to become more liberal, more just and humane towards its citizens.

Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is still extraordinarily conservative. It was founded in the 1920s when the founders of the current ruling Ibn Sa’ud dynasty took power with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the revolution, the new king had his opponents beheaded and their heads displayed on his palace walls. And change has been extremely slow. Ismail Pasha, the Sultan of Egypt, was genuinely trying to stamp out slavery in his country in the 19th century. The Saudis only got round to banning it in 1965. Some of this conservatism might be due to Saudi Arabia’s possession of two of the very holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, the cities in which Mohammed lived and taught. But even this probably wouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle to the growth of human rights in that country.

The real cause of the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia is the extreme intolerance of Wahhabi Islam, and the Saudis dominance of the oil industry. They showed just how powerful they were economically with the oil crisis in the 1970s. And as they are still a major market for British goods, like guns and armaments, Cameron and co are very reluctant to risk offending them. And so the Conservatives don’t dare to voice anything but the mildest criticism, even when the Saudis are killing political prisoners and funding terrorism. Far from it. They’re even held up as our most valued allies.

Jon Snow Makes Cameron Squirm on Saudi Human Rights Deal

October 17, 2015

Have I Got News For You last night showed this segment from Channel 4 news, in which Jon Snow makes David Cameron squirm about Britain’s support for Saudi Arabia joining the UN Human Rights Commission.

The whole notion of Saudi Arabia and universal human rights is an oxymoron, considering the brutal nature of the Saudi’s judicial system and the harsh and intolerant nature of Wahhabi Islam. Snow in particular talks about the Saudi’s continuing arrest of Mohamed el Nimr, a 17 year old boy, who was arrested when he was only 14. El Nimr has been sentenced to death simply for watching something on the internet.

After trying desperately not to answer the question, Cameron finally says that its because the Saudis give us information about potential terrorist attacks. In the full interview, not shown here, Cameron claims that a terrorist plot to set off a bomb in London was foiled due to information from the Saudis. He also claimed that they had a very good record in deradicalising terrorists and terrorist supporters.

That may be so, but as Jon Snow points out, elements of the Saudi regime are involving in exporting and aiding terrorism. As for deradicalisation, you do wonder how far this goes, given the total ban on non-Wahhabi religions and sects. This includes not only those of different, non-Muslim religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and so on, but also of Shi’a Islam, whose members are a heavily discriminated against minority. In many ways, Saudi Arabia is far more repressive and intolerant than Iran.

One African academic a year or two ago on BBC radio argued that instead of relying on Israel and Saudi Arabia to secure stability in the Middle East, the West should look instead to Turkey and Iran. In many ways, that would make far more sense. Turkey is a secular republic with Islam as its majority religion. Iran is an extremely repressive state, but it has a democratic component. It used to be the most westernised and industrially advanced of the Middle Eastern nations. Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, has the majority of the regions oil, and so possesses a vast economic clout that gives them immense global influence, quite apart from the fact that it has two of the very holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina.

I’ve no doubt we do rely on information given to us by the Saudis to protect ourselves from attack from al-Qaeda or ISIS. But at the same time, elements of the Saudi regime have fostered and promoted these organisations, and the form of Islam the Saudis promote is aggressive and bitterly intolerant. We might be allies, but we should not fool ourselves about their ambivalent nature, or convince ourselves that their presence on a the Human Rights council is anything but a travesty.