An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Tuesday, May 28, 2002
I don't mean to pick on Bernard Lewis -- I've read a fair number of his books, and I find myself frequently going back to them. But in a previous post, called Asking the Wrong Question, I suggested that Lewis underestimated the importance of the technological dynamism of the West, or at least of Latin Christendom, in the historical sketch he provides as background in his book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.
In the previous post, I wrote,
In Lewis' eyes, in the eyes of many scholars, the medieval Islamic world outstripped Europe in the things that matter: science, philosophy, high culture. I happen to think these things matter too. But in and of themselves, they were no match for what was going on in Europe: a technological and societal revolution that impacted not just the elite, but everyone. So the question in my mind isn't so much what went wrong in the Islamic world, but what went right in the European world. This statement isn't intended as a criticism of Lewis; he's merely tracing the history of a question which has in fact been asked in the Islamic world. But I do criticize Lewis for his acceptance of the Islamic narrative, that up until the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, the world of Islam was far more advanced than Latin Christendom, and it was only comparitively late in history that Christendom surpassed the Islamic world. In one crucial area (and for the bulk of mankind, far more crucial than all the commentaries of Averroes) -- the most basic and important human skill of tool making, of technique, of technology -- Europe was far ahead of Islam.I've been reading about pirates lately, and something in one book reminded me of this passage from Lewis, in which he argues that the naval battle of Lepanto, in 1571--in which the Turks were thoroughly routed--wasn't such a big deal:
But how much difference did Lepanto make? The answer must be very little. If we look at the larger question of naval power, let alone the far more important question of military power in the region, Lepanto was no more than a minor setback for the Ottomans, quickly made good. The situation is well-reflected in a conversation reported by an Ottoman chronicler, who tells us that when Sultan Selim II asked the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha about the cost of rebuilding the fleet after its destruction at Lepanto, the Vizier replied: "The might and wealth of our Empire are such, that if we desired to equip the entire fleet with silver anchors, silken rigging, and satin sails, we could do it." This is obviously a poetic exaggeration, but a fairly accurate reflection of the real significance of Lepanto -- a great shot in the arm for the West, a minor ripple in the East. The major threat remained. In the seventeenth century, there were still Turkish pashas ruling in Budapest and Belgrade, and Barbary Corsairs from North Africa were raiding the coasts of England and Ireland and even, in 1627, Iceland, bringing back human booty for sale in the slave markets of Algiers.When I read this, it bothered me -- something struck me as not quite right about Lewis invoking the Barbary Corsairs as evidence of the prowess of Islamic naval power and aptitude. I can't remember if I'd read the same somewhere else, but I came across this in Patrick Pringle's Jolly Roger: Story of the Great Age of Piracy. Pringle is writing about the the first decade of the 17th century, when King James wanted peace with Spain and so suppressed the privateers, many of whom "turned pirate":
The main advantage of the Barbary coast to English pirates was that it afforded them protection in harbour and immunity on land. Pirates could usually look after themselves at sea, but they had to have shore refuges with facilities for disposing of their loot and cleaning and refitting their ships. Such facilities had almost ceased to exist in England since the decline of the west-country syndicates, and King James, in pursuit of his policy of friendship with Spain, took steps to see that they did not reappear.Now, I wouldn't necessarily argue that spreading the technology of piracy was an achievement in which the West should take pride, but it seems to me that it indicates that technology was flowing from Europe to the Ottomans, and not the other way around, and that this sharing of technology goes a long way toward explaining the military prowess of the Ottoman Empire. But looking over Lewis, I see that he recognizes this too:
Even when the Ottoman Turks were advancing into southeatern Europe, they were always able to buy much needed equipment for their fleets and armies from Christian European suppliers, to recruit European experts, and even to obtain financial cover from Christian European banks. What is nowadays known as "constructive engagement" has a long history.The Ottomans got ships, cannon, firearms, etc. from the West, and I would argue that that is fairly important in explaining why, for example, Turkish pashas ruled in Budapest and Belgrade.
Monday, May 27, 2002
Reader R.G. Fulton writes:
So you are interested in historical problems?Well, ones that I can comment on without having to think a whole lot, but I'm being rude by interrupting. He goes on:
I have never heard an adequate explanation of the rise of the Mongols. How could a people resist adaption to the culture of their Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Orthodox Christian neighbours, and yet acquire the social-technological strength to conquer massive territory from same and hold it for centuries? Application of current assimilation formulas are futile. Any ideas?This is one I'll have to think about, and if anyone cares to contribute any ideas, I'll be happy to post them. I'll try to get some kind of response up soon, maybe tomorrow if I have a little luck.
Even in Bernard Shaw's day, according to this passage from the preface to Androcles and the Lion:
...we islanders are only forty-five millions; and if we count ourselves all as Christians, there are still seventy-seven and a quarter million Mahometans in the Empire. Add to these the Hindoos and Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, whom I was taught in my childhood, by way of religious instruction, to regard as gross idolaters consigned to eternal perdition, but whose faith I can now be punished for disparaging by a provocative word, and you have a total of over three hundred and forty-two and a quarter million heretics to swamp our forty-five million Britons, of whom, by the way, only six thousand call themselves distinctively "disciples of Christ," the rest being members of the Church of England and other denominations whose discipleship is less emphatically affirmed. In short, the Englishman of today, instead of being, like the forefathers whose ideas he clings to, a subject of a State, practically wholly Christian, is now crowded, and indeed considerably overcrowded, into a corner of an Empire in which the Christians are a mere eleven percent of the population; so that the Noncomformist who allows his umbrella stand to be sold up rather than pay rates towards the support of a Church of England school, finds himself paying taxes not only to endow the Church of Rome in Malta, but to send Christians to prison for the blasphemy of offering Bibles for sale in the streets of Khartoum.The play was copyrighted in 1913.
H.D. Miller of Travelling Shoes was kind enough to link to Ideofact, and even to call me a medievalist, which I'm not sure is entirely accurate owing to my own limitations, but I take it as a very high compliment indeed. He also points out another medievalist blogger that I'd seen once or twice, but hadn't spent much time with, The Cranky Professor. I hope to learn a lot from both of them.
Incidentally, I seem to be going out of my way to prove that Ideofact is, as Miller notes, definitely not for those with short attention spans, but it's not really intentional.
Last week, Norwegian blogger Vegard Valberg was kind enough to write with some information on the dreaded windmill controversy that lead one sympathetic Ideofact reader to write, "Your blog is insane." I apologize, Vegard, for not posting this sooner, and thanks again for shedding some additional light on this subject. To give some brief background, the question was raised as to why windmills weren't used as extensively in the Islamic world as they were in Medieval Europe, which had the added advantage of having quite a bit of water power. Some medievalists have argued that in Latin Christendom, there was a different attitude toward labor, and thus a greater readiness to adopt labor-saving devices, than existed in other parts of the world. Vegard offers evidence from a somewhat later period on this phenomena, and wrote in his first email:
You should also know that one reason that Iran was the only Islamic country to adopt windmills in any way was that Iran is one of the few countries with few slaves and a ancient tradition of a free farmer. Rather than be a serf the Iranian peasant would barter with various landlords for his services, traditionally the state would get 1/5 and the landlord 1/5, with the rest going to the free farmer. In some areas the landlord would get an additional 1/10. Quoting numbers from memory, but it's reasonably close I am sure. However this was not the average peasant wage, this was if he had to be provided with animals, farm tools, and seeds, could he bring his own tools and such he would get to keep more. Iran was in other words rich on land and natural resources, but poor on manpower, and never really overcame that, as a result their peasants were always free and rather mobile.He was then kind enough to send the following text on the subject, from Lady Mary Leonora (Woulfe) Sheil's Glimpses of life and manners in Persia, Reprint Edition 1973 by Arno Press Inc., pages 390-391:
As the culture of land is the main prop of the Persian Government, it may not be irrelevant to state in connection with the revenue the manner in which cultivation is conducted, and the relation between landlord and tenant. There is no full fixity of tenure in Persia established by law, though it exists, to the fullest extent in the only way it ought to exist, the mutual benefit of the landlord and the tenant, and also by custom, which is nearly equivalent to law. In a thinly peopled country like Persia, it is the interest of the landlord to conciliate his tenants and perpetuate their residence on his property. A landowner seldom farms his own estate; he generally lets it to tenants, or, more strictly speaking, a partnership is established between the latter and the landlord. The conditions of their compact, and the division of the produce, vary according to circumstances and to the capital contributed by each. When the proprietor' furnishes all the capital-the soil, the seed, the bullocks, ploughs, and water-the gross produce is in general, for there are -variations in the different provinces, divided in the following manner:-Out of 100 shares the Government takes 20, and the remaining 80 are divided equally by the landlord and his tenant. In Ooroomeeya the landlord takes 10 shares besides, leaving 70 shares for division. When the tenant contributes bullocks and ploughs, as often happens, or seed, which he occasionally does, his share is, of course, large in proportion.Vegard adds,
Persia used to be the most advanced and cultured country in all of Islam, but due to losing two wars with Russia, and the foolish behaviour of Fath Ali Shah they lost their early lead, more's the pity really.Indeed.
Sunday, May 26, 2002
Joshua Treviño of i330 noted in a post the other today, linking this story, that the Wahhabis have not been particularly popular in Bosnia -- something for which we can all be grateful. I noted an observation: that Sarajevan women wear mini skirts, drink wine and beer in cafes, go to discos, and so on, yet nevertheless consider themselves Muslims in good standing. Indeed, many were deeply offended, as the article indicated, by the Wahhabis, who, I'm told, insisted to Bosnian Muslim women that they weren't real Muslims because they didn't take the veil and act like Saudi women. As the article points out, the Bosnians feel themselves to be simultaneously Muslim and European -- or Western, to use a broader term, and see no inherent contradiction therein.
In the post immediately below, I attempted to offer some provisional thoughts on this, but most likely through my own incompetence, the bulk of those thoughts were lost. Since then, I’ve reconsidered the issue, and what I’m offering here is something different in scope and substance. I’ve spent far more time on this than I originally intended; I have had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some books I read long ago, and I think that in itself is reward enough for the trouble I’ve taken, although readers may not feel the same.
Bernard Shaw, in the 100-plus-page (at least in my c. 1954 Penguin paperback edition--cover price 35 cents--that I purloined from my father many years ago) preface to the 43-page play Androcles and the Lion, offers his own secular, socialist, but altogether respectful and good-faith appraisal of Christianity, the New Testament, the role of religion in society and politics, and much else. This passage from the preface that always stuck with me:
The first common mistake to get rid of is that mankind consists of a great mass of religious people and a few eccentric atheists. It consists of a huge mass of worldly people, and a small percentage of persons deeply interested in religion and concerned about their own souls and other people's; and this section consists mostly of those who are passionately affirming the established religion and those who are passionately attacking it, the genuine philosophers being very few. Thus you never have a nation of millions of Wesleys and one Tom Paine. You have a million Mr Worldly Wisemans, and Wesley, with his small congregation, and one Tom Paine, with his smaller congregation. The passionately religious are a people apart; and if they were not hopelessly outnumbered by the worldly, they would turn the world upside down, as St Paul was reproached, quite justly, for wanting to do.Shaw was writing of Great Britain, and writing in the second decade after the turn of the last century, but his point strikes me as relevant today, especially once we put it into the context of his larger argument.
In his preface, Shaw sought to emphasize the aspects of the Gospels that supported his political philosophy, and especially his support for socialism. For those not up on the Bible, let me say merely that he wasn't out in left field on this. The Protestant work ethic and the notion that the elect would be rewarded with earthly riches runs somewhat counter to the Gospels; indeed, the earliest Puritans of the Plymouth Bay Colony (the folks who sailed over on the Mayflower) instituted a system which they called the Common Course, which was a socialist arrangement based on their understanding of what a Christian community should be. As William Bradford relates in Of Plymouth Plantation, the experiment was a disaster; once it was abandoned, aid from the Indians, commemorated every Thanksgiving, was no longer needed. Further back, the fourth century ecclesiastical historian Eusebius lovingly quotes a lengthy description of early Christian communities whose members shared everything equally. The passage quoted by Eusebius notes approvingly that so removed from earthly cares were these Christians that they ate only every other day, or even as little as once a week. In the Gospels themselves, Jesus has a particularly negative view of wealth. All three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, contain some variation of this line: "And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Yet you will hear few (though nevertheless some) "fundamentalist" ministers today preaching the sanctity of redistributing wealth, or advising their followers to join Christian communes (although in the past ... well, that's another story).
So perhaps we can regard the Bosnian woman (indeed, they're not alone among the women who do not take the veil in the Muslim world -- I believe Syrian and Iraqi women are fairly western in their dress, which just goes to show that costume in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure modernity) as wordly wisewomen. After all, no less an authority than the Arab News tells us:
Many Muslim women may not wear a head covering, but this does not mean that Islam does not require such covering of women’s heads. Indeed the requirement is clear, and Muslim women should cover their heads and bodies, revealing only their faces and hands. If many or all of them do not, then that is an act of disobedience to God.I vaguely remembered that the Qur'an isn't quite clear on the subject, and this article, from the quaintly named Postcolonial Studies at Emory pages, seems to support that view:
The practice of hijab among Muslim women is one based on religious doctrine, although the Qur'an does not mandate it. Instead, it comes from the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari. The Hadith, the "tradition of Mohammed," reveals the teachings of the Prophet to believers. ...Incidentally, this wonderful piece of writing emphatically adds that, "In fact, the Qur'an supports the notion of gender equality." Interesting, because my rather unsatisfactory Penguin translation of the Qur'an (I have a better one somewhere but can't seem to find it at the moment) says in the fourth Surah,
Men have authority over women because God has made one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them.Be that as it may, the difference between practice and principle in the Islamic world has often been vast; there has been, historically, room for the worldly wisemen. Dominique Sourdel, in his useful but regrettably out of print survey Medieval Islam, writes
Usury (riba), for example, was formally condemned by the Koran but on the other hand we know that it was very difficult for merchants not to resort to this practice. Thus an author like the celebrated al-Ghazali (d. 1111), while maintaining the prohibition, recognised that the practice of usury was very common in his time. Similarly the prescriptions of the Law seem in this respect to have been little regarded, whether recourse was had to a legal subterfuge -- a practice in the Hanafi school -- or whether one simply disregarded them.The National Commercial Bank, which is Saudi Arabia's largest bank, apparently follows this practice to this day:
The Bank is an important player in private banking and a major provider of Islamic financial solutions, with almost 20% of its branch network dedicated to Shari’a-compliant operations.I tend to read the 20 percent Shari'a-compliant operations to indicate 80 percent noncompliance; given the larger context of the piece, it seems to me that 20 percent compliance is high for the Kingdom. Yet I haven't heard stories of representatives from the Saudi Ministry to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice busting into the National Commercial Bank offices and hauling bankers off to prison. I also tend to think that if 80 percent of the female population of Saudi Arabia burned their veils (twenty percent, in fact, would probably be sufficient), there would be little that the Saudi authorities could do.
In the Gospel of Matthew, during the sermon on the mount, Jesus says that if your hand sins, cut it off, and if your eye offends you, pluck it out, for it is better to enter the kingdom of heaven with one hand and one eye than to spend eternity in hell. He says that whoever looks at a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery. It is not hard to imagine a movement of Christian zealots -- who, in Shaw's formulation, would turn the world upside down -- insisting on cutting off hands, plucking out eyes, and covering women from head to toe so that no man could commit adultery by lusting after her in his heart, taking as their authority those lines. We would properly associate such cruelty not with Christianity, or Christ, but with those who put into practice such a reading of Christ's words.