September 2011



Al-Idrisi’s map of the world, 1154 CE

A very useful volume on Islamic cartography is now online. Below is the table of contents, each chapter available in pdf.

Volume Two, Book One
Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies
Edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward

Volume 1

Front Matter
Gallery of Color Illustrations (Plates 1–24)
Gallery of Color Illustrations (Plates 25–40)

Preface
J. B. Harley and David Woodward

Part One – Islamic Cartography

Chapter 1. Introduction to Islamic Maps
Ahmet T. Karamustafa

Chapter 2. Celestial Mapping
Emilie Savage-Smith

Chapter 3. Cosmographical Diagrams
Ahmet T. Karamustafa

Early Geographical Mapping

Chapter 4. The Beginnings of a Cartographic Tradition
Gerald R. Tibbetts (more…)


One of the victims in Sanaa

The protests against the regime of Ali Abdullah Salih have persevered in Yemen for some nine months with no end in sight that does not result in the past tense of “Irhal” for Salih. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Yemeni citizens have joined the protest, some living in tents in a makeshift Freedom Triangle. For the most part, given the length and extent of the protests, there has been no violence from the protesters and limited attacks on them. The times that troops loyal to Salih have fired on protesters have only encouraged more protests. But the past couple of days have become ugly. As reported today, at least 21 have been killed a day after 26 were shot dead in Sanaa. Here is the report in Al Jazeera:

According to reports, Monday’s deaths occurred as snipers fired upon passers-by and peaceful protesters demonstrating at Change Square.

“Help me, oh my God look at his slaughter!” said the father of a boy who died from a gunshot wound to the head.

“We were just in the car on Hayel Street (near the fighting). I stepped out to get some food and left my two boys in the car and I heard the older one scream. The little one was shot straight through the head.”

The clashes came as protesters tried to push further into territory held by government forces after extending their camp overnight.

The opposition had earlier vowed to press ahead with demonstrations despite Sunday’s crackdown.

A freelance journalist stationed in Yemen, told Al Jazeera, “Everything points to more protest”.

Meanwhile, Abdu al-Janadi, Yemen’s deputy information minister, rejected accusations that the regime had planned attacks on the protesters and accused what he described as “unknown assailants” of carrying out the acts.

“This attack was prepared so as to kill as many people as they could. … This is a plot against all the Yemeni people,” al-Janadi told a British television station.

A boy sitting in his car as his father is getting food. All deaths in this situation are to be condemned, because all could be avoided if the greed of political foes did not rule out the honorable virtue of compassion. But there is something about the killing of innocent bystanders, whether intentional or not, that galvanizes the moment. The perpetrators are not “unknown assailants,” but clearly individuals told to do all in their power to sabotage the transition to a new government. Their names do not matter because their motives are so clear. (more…)

Palestine and Israel are back in the news. As Abbas prepares to request recognition for Palestine from the U.N. and Israelis themselves stage protests following the “Arab Spring,” the installation (sans clothing) photographer Spencer Tunick has returned to the legendary site of Sodom and Gomorrah to unclothe the political tensions in the area. I think he is on to something by having his subjects take everything off. Forget about turning swords into plowshares, just strip and dive in. And here is one part of the region where you are guaranteed not to sink.


Photograph by Murad Sezer/Reuters

A Man of God and Technology, Trying to Steady Libya
By ANNE BARNARD, The New York Times, September 16, 2011

Tripoli, Libya

AREF NAYED was sipping cappuccino in the soaring marble lobby of the Corinthia Hotel near Tripoli’s seafront, quoting Montesquieu on law and Augustine on forgiveness in a conversation that had begun with earthier subjects, like the challenges of restoring Libya’s water supply and counting its dead.

He held forth on how Bedouin poetry shaped a moderate Islam in Libya, and he was just starting to explain the relevance to Libyan politics of the mathematical theory of complexity — it had to do with something called “flocking phenomena” — when his cellphone rang.

“I have to take this,” he said, glancing at the number. “Somebody wants to surrender.”

An associate of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the deposed Libyan leader, wanted safety guarantees before turning himself in. Mr. Nayed wanted to make it happen, and not just because fostering reconciliation is one of his many jobs for Libya’s de facto government.

He is also a Muslim theologian who, in addition to running a technology business, spent his time before the Libyan rebellion writing erudite papers arguing that compassion is the paramount value in Islam, that pious Muslims can thrive within a liberal secular state and that even the most righteous ones should adopt a “humble recognition” of their own fallibility.

Now, as the Transitional National Council’s coordinator of a Libyan stabilization team being asked to solve problems like fuel shortages and human rights abuses, he suddenly finds himself in an ideal laboratory to test his signature theological propositions — and to try to make them government policy.

“I don’t think there should be a witch hunt, purges or cleansings,” he said Monday at the hotel cafe, adding that those who committed crimes under Colonel Qaddafi should be tried. “Any time you deal with human beings with that kind of terminology, you end up with unfairness and persecution.” (more…)

Consider the opening line of the lead story in yesterday’s New York Times:

BAGHDAD — Saudi Arabia and Libya, both considered allies by the United States in its fight against terrorism, were the source of about 60 percent of the foreign fighters who came to Iraq in the past year to serve as suicide bombers or to facilitate other attacks, according to senior American military officials.

In the long durée, as Napoleon might say if he were alive today, politics makes strange embedded fellows of nation states. There are three nations at play here in the field of lording over by the world’s reigning super power. Iraq and Libya had European imposed (and later revolution-deposed) monarchs at mid-stream in the 20th century. At the same time Saudi Arabia’s royal line evolved an iconclastic religiously mandated kingship that has withstood toppling and seems likely to do so far into the security based future. All three states are where they are today largely because of the world’s thirst for crude oil. The same three states, should Iraq survive de facto federation, face a future defined by a mega-politicized war on terrorism, a war with no state-like enemies being fought by a coalition of nation states willing to arm themselves to the teeth with conventional weapons and make airline passengers take their shoes off each and every time they fly. Two centuries from now a future Napoleon, whatever his or her nationality, may look back on the current political climate and have a hindsight sense of déjà vu, or will it be more of the voodoo politics mass mediated today? (more…)


If you like historical reconstruction in movies, check out this episode of the Arabic serial “Hasan and Husayn.” The BBC has a discussion of the film in Arabic.

Now that we are about to officially head into the Autumnal paradox of the Arab Spring, there is no limit to the excess of punditry about why it happened, is happening and will continue to happen. Back in February, the historian Bernard Lewis weighed in on the current uprisings for an interview in The Jerusalem Post (which, for those with any historical memory, is not your parent’s Jerusalem Post). The article begins with Lewis’s summation in a nutshell: “The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes, that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East, are a modern creation,” he notes. “The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant.” Ah, yes, that Golden Age of Islam when the caliphs of the Arabian Nights were the community organizers of their eras. Surely Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah did not really mean to destroy the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem a millennium ago. That “more open, much more tolerant” pre-modern political paradise is as absurd as the more common Islamophobic trope that Muslims have always ruled by the sword. Indeed, as Lewis notes, the modern dictators in the region are a modern creation, but (as Lewis does not mention) largely the result of Western carving up and interference after World War I.

But the part of the interview that is most telling is the Freudian framing of the Arab twitter generation. I note here the question from the interviewer and the response by Lewis:

As we look at this region in ferment, how would you characterize what is unfolding now? Can we generalize about the uprisings that are erupting in the various countries? Is there a common theme?

There’s a common theme of anger and resentment. And the anger and resentment are universal and well-grounded. They come from a number of things. First of all, there’s the obvious one – the greater awareness that they have, thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world. I mean, being abjectly poor is bad enough. But when everybody else around you is pretty far from abjectly poor, then it becomes pretty intolerable.

Another thing is the sexual aspect of it. One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the brideprice, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration.

The fact that a young man (or woman) in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen cannot get a job and make a living at home is not the tipping point for Lewis; no, it is pure jealousy — give me hamburgers and blue jeans or give me death — don’t tread on my cell phone. Then there is that particular “another thing.” If as a young Arab man you can’t get laid, then you might as well go out in the streets and brave the dictator’s thugs and tanks. After all, unlike the casual West, you can only get sex in marriage and in the whore house. (more…)


Kufic Quran, second/eighth century

by John F. Healey and G. Rex Smith

The Kufic Quran has reached its fully developed form by the end of the second/eighth century. It was invariably written on parchment, the letters in a black ink with dots, often red and green (the latter used with initial hamza) though sometimes in gold only, representing short vowels, and black strokes, single and double, distinguishing letters. The text thus written is made difficult by the spacing which would seem to be more to do the calligrapher’s artistic inclinations and his desire to justify his text precisely than with Arabic orthography. “Justification” here refers to what became the standard practice in printed books of making the lines even in length both at the beginning and at the end of the lines. Verse endings and other pauses call for gold: usually a cluster of three balls, one sitting on two others and quite elaborate roundels. (more…)

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