Algeria



General Charles Gordon, left; Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudanese mahdi, right

The current crisis in Mali, which has now spilled over into neighboring Algeria, is the latest outbreak of mahdi madness on the African continent. In Islamic eschatology, the mahdi is a savior of the Muslim community near the time of the apocalypse. The British colonial empire faced several mad mullahs when they tried to rule Sudan. One such infamous mahdi was Muhammad Ahmad, who proclaimed himself the leader of the Muslims against the Turkish oppressors in the 1870s. On January 26, 1885 the Mahdists following Abdullah Taashi took control of Khartoum, slaughtering the entire British garrison, including General Charles Gordon, before a relief force could reach the besieged city. These were the days in which a mahdi could inspire an army, over 50,000 men in the case of the force that overran Khartoum. In 1898 Lord Kitchener led a British invasion force of over 8,000 men assisted by 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptian troops. The British gunboat diplomacy resulted in a resounding defeat for the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman. Kitchener lost 47 men with 340 wounded, while the the Mahdists suffered 9,700 killed, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured.

The Sudanese mahdi and the mad mullahs the British encountered in 19th century Afghanistan were not pietist reformers, but leaders of jihad against the hated occupier, whether fellow Muslim Ottoman Turks or infidel Europeans. The current crisis in Mali is an echo of past mahdis, but with a modern twist. The twist is how we now define a never-ending war on terrorism. Western views of the entire region entrapped by al-Qaeda confuse the situation on the ground. (more…)


Notes from Algeria and Turkey — Charting the Modern Face of Islamic Civilization and Democracy in a Global World

by Bruce Lawrence, Transcultural Islam Research Network, November 30, 2012

What can we learn from an aging Turkish Imam with a pan-Turkish cultural movement to his name and a deceased Algerian philosopher — both of whom command attention as devout Muslims and men of science — about civilizational rebuilding in the modern era?

Scholars gathered in Algiers from Nov 21-22 at the College of Islamic Sciences at the University of Algiers to find out.

“The Philosophy of Civilizational Rebuilding, according to Malek Bennabi and Fetullah Gülen: Guidelines for Creative Thinking & Effective Action” was the theme for the conference, and I was invited to give a paper on this weighty subject.

I had been teaching in Istanbul during Fall 2012. My assignment there had been to train graduate students, both Turkish and non-Turkish, in theories and methods that apply to civilizational studies.

I had also been traveling and giving lectures elsewhere in Turkey, including a memorable lecture to 400 students at Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya — where the topic was Islam and Global Civilization and included a survey of constitutionalism, citizenship and cosmopolitanism, along with numerous approaches to Islamic civilization in the crowded marquee of world civilizations that claim to be both global and universal.

Just who were Fethullah Gülen and Malek Bennabi? Why was their thinking paired to address the topic of civilizational rebuilding, and how would their views advance an initiative that spanned centuries and engaged some of the best minds, from Ibn Khaldun in late 14th century North Africa to Arnold Toynbee in mid-20th century Britain? (more…)


Saudi ARAMCO World published a nice article on films about the Middle East by Suzanne Simons in its May/June 2010 issue, which can be read online.


Yes, a treaty and not a Humean treatise, although Hume’s treatise on Religion no doubt had an influence on the creators of the text. The third treaty established by the young United States, recently liberated from British rule, with the nations of the “Barbary Coast” was with the Bey of Algiers in 1797. Like the earlier two treaties, the focus was on maritime trade in the Mediterranean and the problem of Barbary “pirates” as well as neutrality of the Barbary states when the U.S. was battling other “Christian” powers. Our Founding Fathers (for surely those members of Congress in 1797 were as close to being Founding Fathers as Sarah Palin’s contorted dubbing of John Quincy Adams, who had just turned 20 and had yet to enter politics) were obviously not working hard to free slaves (as these treaties will bear out), but they did stress a point that many rightwing pundits conveniently gloss over: the United States was not created as a “Christian nation.”

As you read the treaty below, in celebration of the 4th of July, note article 11 in particular. It turns out that the translation provided to Congress by Joseph Barlow, is not very accurate and the original Arabic version did not contain what we find in Article 11. But in fact, Congress never knew that and only saw the version printed here; this was accepted unanimously and then acknowledged as well by President John Adams at the time. So it was certainly not the contention of the Dey of Algiers that the U.S. was not a Christian nation, but an idea that resonated well with the young Congress.

Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796 (3 Ramada I, A. H. 1211), and at Algiers January 3, 1797 (4 Rajab, A. H. 1211). Original in Arabic. Submitted to the Senate May 29, 1797. (Message of May 26, 1797.) Resolution of advice and consent June 7, 1797. Ratified by the United States June 10, 1797. As to the ratification generally, see the notes. Proclaimed Jane 10, 1797.

[Translation]
Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary.

ARTICLE 1.
There is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, made by the free consent of both parties, and guaranteed by the most potent Dey & regency of Algiers.

ARTICLE 2.
If any goods belonging to any nation with which either of the parties is at war shall be loaded on board of vessels belonging to the other party they shall pass free, and no attempt shall be made to take or detain them.

ARTICLE 3.
If any citizens, subjects or effects belonging to either party shall be found on board a prize vessel taken from an enemy by the other party, such citizens or subjects shall be set at liberty, and the effects restored to the owners. (more…)


Mahri camels at the International Festival of the Sahara in Douz, Tunisia,
December 24, 2012. Photo by Sam Liebhaber.

by Sam Liebhaber

One of the long-standing myths of Berber ancestry places their origins in Yemen from whence they were dispatched to North Africa in the service of ancient Ḥimyarite kings. Although this chapter in the mythological prehistory of the Arab world can be refuted on the grounds that the Berber are indisputably indigenous to North Africa, the offhand dismissal of the South Arabian-Berber imaginary overlooks an important sociolinguistic kinship between the Berber of North Africa and one of the last indigenous linguistic communities of the Arabian Peninsula: the Mahra of Yemen and Oman.

A number of socio-cultural parallels distinguish the Berber and Mahra from the other minority language communities of the Middle East. For one, the Mahra and Berber are members of the Islamic ʾummah, unlike many of the other minority language communities of the Arab world where linguistic boundaries are frequently coterminous with religious divisions. Further, the Berber and the Mahra did not inherit a written tradition that includes religious and literary texts. As a consequence, the Mahri and Berber languages are frequently consigned to the category of “lahja,” an Arabic term that signifies any non-prestigious, vernacular idiom that lacks of historical or social value.

Without their own written history or affiliation to a prestigious, non-Arab civilization, the Mahra and Berber are more easily “willed” into historical narratives of “Arabness” (ʿurūba) than the other language minority communities of the Arab world. This motif is the mainstay of modern Arabic scholarship on Berber and Mahri genealogical and language origins. A sample of a few recent titles demonstrates this point: The Berber: Ancient Arabs (al-Barbar: ʿArab qudāmā, al-ʿArbāwī, Tunis: 2000), The Arabness of the Berber: The Hidden Truth (ʿUrūbat al-Barbar: al-Ḥaqīqa al-Maghmūra, Mādūn, Damascus: 1992), Comprehension of Arabic and the Secret of the Mahri Language (Fiqh al-ʿArabiyya wa-sirr al-lugha al-mahriyya, al-Ways, Sana’a: 2004) and Ancient Arabic and its Dialects (ie, Mahri, al-ʿArabiyya al-qadīma wa-lahajātuhā, Mārīkh, Abu Dhabi: 2000).

Even if contemporary scholarship on Mahri and Berber origins is problematic, it is conceivable that historical intersections between the Berber and the Mahra gave medieval Arab historians a justifiable basis to propose their common ancestry. (more…)


Exactly 90 years ago a four-volume set of encyclopedia-like human interest books was published as The Human Interest Library: Visualized Knowledge by Midland Press in Chicago. In a previous post I commented on its thoroughly “Orientalist” flavor. Not only was the Sahara portrayed as a barren landscape with people who have nothing to do, but the only winds of change are violent storms summed up in the Anglicized “simoon.” Above is an image from the frontispiece to volume 2 in the series and entitled “The Dreaded Simoon – The Scourge of the Desert”. I have not been able to find the name of the artist, which is clearly pre-1921. The caption reads: “The fury of the simoon is like the blast of a furnace. Winged with the whirlwind. and charioted with thunder, it blasts everything in its course. It has the appearance of a train of fire whose murky smoke fills the whole wide expanse of the desert.”

Here is the text describing “The Scourge of the Desert” (Vol. 4, p. 97):

As the color plate shows, the simoon, described by writers, must have presented a majestic and awe-inspiring spectacle. (more…)


Yes, a treaty and not a Humean treatise, although Hume’s treatise on Religion no doubt had an influence on the creators of the text. The third treaty established by the young United States, recently liberated from British rule, with the nations of the “Barbary Coast” was with the Bey of Algiers in 1797. Like the earlier two treaties, the focus was on maritime trade in the Mediterranean and the problem of Barbary “pirates” as well as neutrality of the Barbary states when the U.S. was battling other “Christian” powers. Our Founding Fathers (for surely those members of Congress in 1797 were as close to being Founding Father’s as Sarah Palin’s contorted dubbing of John Quincy Adams, who had just turned 20 and had yet to enter politics) were obviously not working hard to free slaves (as these treaties will bear out), but they did stress a point that many rightwing pundits conveniently gloss over: the United States was not created as a “Christian nation.”

As you read the treaty below, in celebration of the 4th of July, note article 11 in particular. It turns out that the translation provided to Congress by Joseph Barlow, is not very accurate and the original Arabic version did not contain what we find in Article 11. But in fact, Congress never knew that and only saw the version printed here; this was accepted unanimously and then acknowledged as well by President John Adams at the time. So it was certainly not the contention of the Dey of Algiers that the U.S. was not a Christian nation, but an idea that resonated well with the young Congress.

Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796 (3 Ramada I, A. H. 1211), and at Algiers January 3, 1797 (4 Rajab, A. H. 1211). Original in Arabic. Submitted to the Senate May 29, 1797. (Message of May 26, 1797.) Resolution of advice and consent June 7, 1797. Ratified by the United States June 10, 1797. As to the ratification generally, see the notes. Proclaimed Jane 10, 1797.

[Translation]
Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary.

ARTICLE 1.
There is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, made by the free consent of both parties, and guaranteed by the most potent Dey & regency of Algiers.

ARTICLE 2.
If any goods belonging to any nation with which either of the parties is at war shall be loaded on board of vessels belonging to the other party they shall pass free, and no attempt shall be made to take or detain them.

ARTICLE 3.
If any citizens, subjects or effects belonging to either party shall be found on board a prize vessel taken from an enemy by the other party, such citizens or subjects shall be set at liberty, and the effects restored to the owners. (more…)


Exactly 90 years ago in 1921 a four-volume set of encyclopedia-like human interest books was published as The Human Interest Library: Visualized Knowledge by Midland Press in Chicago. All four volumes ended up in my family’s library, but my favorite is the fourth volume entitled Old World Travelogues. Here is how the volume begins:

It was a saying of Lord Bacon that “History maketh one wise.” Perhaps this is not universally true, but one can scarcely traverse the history and geography of the Old World with its deeds of heroism, picturesque scenes and peoples, splendid buildings, or hallowed places, without having become wiser and better, as well as having enjoyed many an hour of keen pleasure. With the most interesting of guides, we visit splendid cities, historic rivers of scenic beauty or castle-lined banks; monument-covered battle-fields, or the haunts of poets and cavaliers.


The image above is at the head of the article on “The Sahara and its Inhabitants” (pp. 95-103). If this history is intended to make the reader wiser, it is a bleak premise indeed. Here is how the desert is represented:

The desert is a dreary, monotonous place, life there has a great sameness, there is little physical work to be done, little cooking is required and there is little to engage the attention of men. (more…)

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