January 2013



The Pew Foundation has recently released a major worldwide survey of religion. As can be seen from the basic breakdown, Christianity is the largest in number of adherents, with Islam in second place. Here is the discussion of Islam:

Muslims number 1.6 billion, representing 23% of all people worldwide. There are two major branches of Islam – Sunni and Shia. The overwhelming majority (87-90%) of Muslims are Sunnis; about 10-13% are Shia Muslims.8

Muslims are concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region, where six-in-ten (62%) of all Muslims reside. Many Muslims also live in the Middle East and North Africa (20%) and sub-Saharan Africa (16%). The remainder of the world’s Muslim population is in Europe (3%), North America (less than 1%) and Latin America and the Caribbean (also less than 1%). (more…)


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…)


The School of Mamlūk Studies (SMS) is administered by the Universities of Chicago (Ill., USA), Liège (Belgium), and Venice (Italy), respectively represented by Marlis Saleh, Frédéric Bauden, and Antonella Ghersetti. It is currently based at the University of Chicago, where Mamluk-related projects such as Mamlūk Studies Review, the Chicago Online Bibliography of Mamluk Studies, and the Chicago Online Encyclopedia of Mamluk Studies are managed. The mission of SMS is to provide a scholarly forum for a holistic approach to Mamluk studies, and to foster and promote a greater awareness of the Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517). It aims to offer a forum for interdisciplinary debate focused on the Mamluk period in all its historical and cultural dimensions in order to increase, address, investigate, and exchange information and knowledge relevant to Mamluk studies in the broadest meaning of the term. Conceived as a meeting for scholars and graduate students working on any of the many aspects of the Mamluk empire, without neglecting its contacts with other regions, SMS offers to everyone working in the field of Mamluk studies the opportunity to attend annual conferences organized in turn by each of the three collaborating institutions.

The annual conferences will be organized around a general or a more specific theme which scholars will be invited to address. In addition, proposals for panels on other relevant subjects may be submitted by individuals, research teams, or institutions. Accepted panels will be held at the end of the thematic conference. On an irregular basis, SMS will also organize seminars in various fields (such as diplomatics, paleography, codicology, numismatics, epigraphy, etc.) which will be aimed at graduate students. These seminars will be planned to take place prior to or following the annual conference in the institution where the conference is held.

Papers presented at each conference on the selected theme will be published as a monograph, while papers presented at the panels will be considered for publication in Mamlūk Studies Review.

The first annual SMS conference is planned for 2014 in Venice. A call for papers will go out in 2013.

[Note: The following account is by the English traveler William Wittman, who commented on the foods and crops he saw while passing through the Levant in what was then Syria. The spelling is that of the original, from a time when proof reading was a distant concern and spelling was a democratic venture. The picture above is from the original 1803 edition.

Wherever the land is susceptible of cultivation, and has not been neglected, it affords abundant crops of wheat, barley, Indian corn (dourra), tobacco, cotton, and other productions. Fruits and vegetables are in equal abundance. Among the former are pomegranates, figs, oranges, lemons, citrons of an uncommonly large size, melons, grapes, and olives. The melons are large, and have a delicious flavour; as have also the grapes. of which we partook so late as the month of December, when we found they still retained their exquisite flavour. I have already adverted to the uncommon size of the water-melons, many of which weight from twenty to thirty pounds. they are a great and valuable resource to the inhabitants, who are so passionately fond of them, that, during the summer months, they form a great part of their subsistence. Notwithstanding they are as cooling and refreshing, as grateful to the taste, I was surprised to see the natives eat them in such immoderate quantities, without experiencing any unpleasant consequences. (more…)


A document attesting to the accounts of Abu Ishaq the Jew (1020-1021CE); The National Library of Israel

By Isabel Kershner, The New York Times, January 14, 2013

JERUSALEM — A batch of 1,000-year-old manuscripts from the mountainous northern reaches of war-torn Afghanistan, reportedly found in a cave inhabited by foxes, has revealed previously unknown details about the cultural, economic and religious life of a thriving but little understood Jewish society in a Persian part of the Muslim empire of the 11th century.

The texts are known collectively as the Afghan Geniza, a Hebrew term for a repository of sacred texts and objects.

The 29 paper pages, now encased in clear plastic and unveiled here this month at the National Library of Israel, are part of a trove of hundreds of documents discovered in the cave whose existence had been known for several years, with photographs circulating among experts. Remarkably well preserved, apparently because of the dry conditions there, the majority of the documents are now said to be in the hands of private dealers in Britain, Switzerland, and possibly the United States and the Middle East. (more…)


The moral ambiguity of Homeland or Argo is a fitting tribute to the reality of US Middle East policy

by Rachel Shabi, The Guardian, Monday 14 January 2013

America’s Middle East policy has been enthusiastically endorsed. Not at the UN or Arab League, however, but by the powerbrokers of Hollywood. At the Golden Globes, there were gongs for a heroically bearded CIA spook saving hostages and American face in Iran (the film Argo); a heroically struggling agent tracking down Bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty) and heroically flawed CIA operatives protecting America from mindless, perpetual terror (TV series Homeland).

The three winners have all been sold as complex, nuanced productions that don’t shy away from hard truths about US foreign policy. And liberal audiences can’t get enough of them. Perhaps it’s because, alongside the odd bit of self-criticism, they are all so reassuringly insistent that, in an increasingly complicated world, America just keeps on doing the right thing. And even when it does the wrong thing – such as, I don’t know, torture and drone strikes and deadly invasions – it is to combat far greater evil, and therefore OK.

When I saw Argo in London with a Turkish friend, we were the only ones not clapping at the end. Instead, we were wondering why every Iranian in this horribly superior film was so angry and shouty. It was a tense, meticulously styled depiction of America’s giant, perpetual, wailing question mark over the Middle East: “Why do they hate us?” Iranians are so irked by the historically flimsy retelling of the hostage crisis that their government has commissioned its own version in response.

Zero Dark Thirty, another blanked-out, glossed-up portrayal of US policy, seems to imply that America’s use of torture – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – is legitimate because it led to the capture of Osama bin Laden (something that John McCain and others have pointed out is not even true). Adding insult to moral bankruptcy, the movie has been cast as a feminist film, because it has a smart female lead. This is cinematic fraud: a device used to extort our approval. (more…)


Sociologist William Graham Sumner was an outspoken critical of American imperialism in the Spanish American War

by William Graham Sumner (1903)

Can peace be universal? There is no reason to believe it. It is a fallacy to suppose that by widening the peace-group more and more it can at last embrace all mankind. What happens is that, as it grows bigger, differences, discords, antagonisms, and war begin inside of it on account of the divergence of interests. Since evil passions are a part of human nature and are in all societies all the time, a part of the energy of the society is constantly spent in repressing them. If all nations should resolve to have no armed ships any more, pirates would reappear upon the ocean; the police of the seas must be maintained. We could not dispense with our militia; we have too frequent need of it now. But police defense is not war in the sense in which I have been discussing it. War, in the future will be the clash of policies of national vanity and selfishness when they cross each other’s path.

If you want war, nourish a doctrine. Doctrines are the most frightful tyrants to which men ever are subject, because doctrines get inside of a man’s own reason and betray him against himself. Civilized men have done their fiercest fighting for doctrines. The reconquest of the Holy Sepulcher, “the balance of power,” “no universal dominion,” “trade follows the flag,” “he who holds the land will hold the sea,” “the throne and the altar,” the revolution, the faith — these are the things for which men have given their lives. What are they all? Nothing but rhetoric and phantasms. Doctrines are always vague; it would ruin a doctrine to define it, because then it could be analyzed, tested, criticised, and verified; but nothing ought to be tolerated which cannot be so tested. (more…)


People work near a kiln at a traditional brick-manufacturing site in San’a, Yemen, Nov. 20; photograph by Mohamed Al-Sayaghi / Reuters

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