Iran


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Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the sporting activities in the Zurkhaneh were declared inappropriate. Nowadays, however, they have become a symbol of Iranian national pride.

Persia’s “power houses” packed a punch
Qantara

Varzesh-e Zurkhaneh-i, (literally, the sport of heroes in the house of power). The ancient Iranian Zurkhaneh gymnasia have their roots in customs and traditions that date back to the country’s pre-Islamic past. This selection of early photographs portrays the world of the Zurkhaneh athletes from 1789 to 1925.

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The women of Iran – 120 years ago

Antoin Sevruguin, the father of Iranian society photography, captured portraits of Iranian women in the early 20th century, from well-known ladies at the court to women from various tribes around the country.

Click here to see the photographs.

omidshia

by Omid Safi (@ostadjaan), On Being columnist, January 7, 2016

In the last few days, virtually every news outlet has featured a series of stories on the rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The conflict by now is well-known: Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Shi‘i cleric Nimr al-Nimr. While both Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the worst global executioners of dissidents, the sheer size of these executions was rare even by their gruesome standards. Iran retaliated through bombastic rhetoric, stating, “God’s hand of retaliation will grip the neck of Saudi politicians.” The two countries have broken off diplomatic relations, a tension that has rippled across the region.

The New York Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in America, featured a primer on the conflict that was devoted mostly to discussing succession disputes to the Prophet Muhammad that in due time led to the rise of the Sunni and Shi‘a sects. The Guardian has devoted a long section to this conflict. So has The Economist.

There are many political scientists and public policy pundits that you can turn to for grasping the geopolitics of the situation. You can listen to Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with NPR’s Renee Montaigne, and on PRI’s The World. But as a scholar of religion, let me share a few points that I think might be useful to keep in mind to think intelligently — and I trust, compassionately — through this latest conflict.

One. In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.

Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition.

For the rest of this commentary, click here.

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Faisal party at Versailles Conference. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s attendant (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri.

by Jeffrey D. Sachs, al-Qantara, December 21, 2015

There is no doubt that the crisis-riven Middle East is beset by some unique challenges. As Jeffrey Sachs argues, however, these are not the Sunni-Shia political divide, the future of Assad or other doctrinal disputes, but rather the unmet need for quality education, job skills, advanced technologies and sustainable development

The United States, the European Union, and Western-led institutions such as the World Bank repeatedly ask why the Middle East can′t govern itself. The question is asked honestly, but without much self-awareness.

After all, the single most important impediment to good governance in the region has been its lack of self-governance: the region′s political institutions have been crippled as a result of repeated US and European intervention dating back to the First World War – and in some places even earlier.

One century is enough. The year 2016 should mark the start of a new century of home-grown Middle Eastern politics focused urgently on the challenges of sustainable development.

The Middle East′s fate during the last 100 years was cast in November 1914, when the Ottoman Empire chose the losing side during the First World War. The result was the empire′s dismantling, with the victorious powers, Britain and France, grabbing hegemonic control over its remnants. (more…)


Rustam fighting a Jinn from a medieval Islamic manuscript

Anyone who has read about Aladdin knows about the genie in a lamp. The English term “genie” stems from the Arabic “jinn,” a reference to spirits in various physical forms that are said within traditional Islamic theology to have been created from fire. Artistic representations of the jinn are varied, but often show monstrous and distorted bodies. A collection of illustrations can be found online here. From our modern perch, such depictions belong to fantasy and science fiction. But literalists who seek to return to the way of thinking, although selectively, of what they think was thought at the time of the Prophet seem to believe in the jinn as part of an apocalyptic scenario for the end of the world.

While denouncing those who would walk into a bar and order gin and tonic, the extreme salafi belief in a real-life jinn is just as toxic, and not simply to one’s sobriety. I grew up in a Fundamentalist Baptist church where belief in the Devil, evil spirits and angels was prominent. It was convenient to have the Devil. a.k.a. Satan, around to explain why bad things kept happening to otherwise good people. The philosophical question of the “problem of evil” and how a just and loving God could allow such evil in the world was evaded by saying that God was allowing Satan to control the world. Life, thus, was a test and one that no one could win alone. Hence the need to put a “Jesus saves” bumper sticker on your car and condemn the “unsaved.”

There are few greater evils in the world today than belief in an unseen evil power that serves as the excuse to explain why there is so much hatred, prejudice, violence and killing. The Christian doctrine of “original sin” shifts the blame back to a naked Adam and Eve, who dared to seek the knowledge of good and evil. Islam avoids original sin, but nevertheless there have been many Muslims who justify evil in this life. Reports of ISIS fanatics who rape Yazidi women as a duty to their faith is a case in point. So is the mantra that the caliph or ruler must be obeyed, no matter how unfair, corrupt and evil he is. The old Manichean dualism of an eternal battle of good vs. evil is not only maintained, but magnified.

I wish there really were jinn and that they would show themselves so that modern day Rustam’s could battle them and conquer the fear of such beasts. It is the fear of the invisible that is the greatest fear to overcome.

For anyone doing research on the Middle East for the past two centuries, there is an incredible archive online. Details below:

Alphabetical List of Open Access Historical Newspapers and Other Periodicals in Middle East & Islamic Studies

Below is a list of Open Access historical newspapers and other periodicals in Middle Eastern Studies.
Most titles on the list have been digitized by independent projects across the globe and may not have been fully cataloged. It is often difficult to find and access them on the web or through catalogs such as HathiTrust, AMEEL, Gallica, Revues, WorldCat, etc.
We welcome your comments and suggestions of additional titles to include. Please use the comment feature at the bottom of the page.

For the list of active Open Access journals follow this link:
Alphabetical List of Open Access Journals in Middle Eastern Studies

132 titles as of May 14, 2015.

There is a sense in which all wars are stupid wars. But some are more stupid than others. Invading Iraq, which posed no tangible danger to the United States but filled the brainless crania of a group of neocons, is a prime example. Can you imagine Iraq as an ally of Iran or as a breeding ground for extreme ISIS terrorists if Saddam or one of his cronies was still in command? This is not to praise a butcher like Saddam, but to point out that the unintended, even if quite predictable, outcomes of hastily made warmongering tend to take on lives, as they take out lives, on their own. So here is the current scorecard for Decisive Storm, as it nears a month of nightly bombing. Instead of weakening the unholy alliance between the Huthis and Ali Abdullah Salih, this group controls more territory than it did when the bombing started. The major shock from the “shock and awe” campaign thus far is that it is destroying Yemen’s infrastructure and formal military structure, but steadily gaining allies who resent the vast destruction being unleashed on their homeland. Many of those Yemenis who did not like the Huthis now hate the Saudis even more. In addition to the homeless and the dead, the pride of Yemeni nationalism has been seriously wounded, but it is nowhere near dying.

Once upon a time the enemy in Yemen was al-Qaida, the group that sparked our unending and unnerving “War on Terrorism.” It was self-styled as a war against the uncivilized, since in this case only the civilized could muster drones and sophisticated bomber planes. Under Obama’s watch a few al-Qaida operatives were eliminated, along with a larger number of civilians who get classified as collateral damage. The American people are still being told that al-Qaida is our main enemy. Remember the Alamo; remember 9/11. But no longer, it seems. (more…)

The Library of Congress has a very nice website with online resources regarding its collection of Near Eastern materials.

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