paleo Ideofact

Saturday, March 01, 2003
Technical correction
In paraphrasing something about the Mongols, I screwed up something. I wrote:
The Mongol archers, incidentally, carried files to sharpen their arrows and dipped them in boiling brine before battle which hardened the points so that they could pierce armor.
David from the excellent Cronaca emailed to say might want to qualify that stuff about carrying files to sharpen arrowheads and plunging them into boiling brine. If the arrowheads were properly hardened, you likely wouldn't be able to touch them with a file, and the brine ref seems to be a misunderstanding of basic tempering technique (which would be
done in manufacture, not to an assembled arrow).
In other words, the "before battle" was long before battle. And I'll have to figure out where the thing about files comes from. David adds,
In any event, the evidence is against Mongol arrows being the equal of longbow arrows in penetration -- not because of technology (the reflexed compound bow was by far superior), but rather because of projectile mass. Plenty of later references from the Crusades of Turkic archers leaving Western knights pincushioned with arrows but unharmed.
So there you have it.

Thursday, February 27, 2003
Qutb 8:3
I've written before about Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian-born intellectual dubbed the brain of bin Laden; two of my favorite bloggers, Aziz Poonawalla and Zack Ajmal have been kind enough to index; since they went to all the trouble to collect links to the posts in one place, I refer you to them for the rest of the series (and I should note that it's well worth spending some time with their own fine writings while you're there).

I started writing about Qutb, whose book, Social Justice in Islam I read last February, because I was interested in the origins of radical political Islam, or Islamism, and he seemed to be a central figure in its origins. I suppose I could offer a little more background -- an American reporter said something to the effect that his countrymen were shallow and ignorant, and that if they wanted to understand bin Laden and the Taliban, they should be reading the Qur'an. I'm sure he thought he was being the epitome of multicultural sensitivity, but the comment made me grit me teeth. It was rather like saying that if you wanted to understand Timothy McVeigh, you had to read Thomas Jefferson.

I still don't know much about the Taliban (although I know that what they practiced was not Islam), but I do know a fair amount about Sayyid Qutb. And today, I learned a little bit more.

There's a passage in the eighth chapter of Social Justice in Islam, whose title is translated as "The Present State and Prospects in Islam," which I've quoted before. By way of preface, I should note that in Islam, like in Christianity, the ethnic or national origin of the believer is unimportant. Should I convert to Islam, for example, I would be every bit as much of a Muslim as a descendant of the Prophet himself. This is no small thing -- the equality of souls before God is at the root of our Western conception of inalienable rights. In any case, in the passage I've quoted before and which I'll quote again, Qutb lists the misfortunes that befell the Ummah, or community of believers:
The first of these is to be found in the rise of the Abbasid state, with its reliance on elements newly converted to Islam. The attitude of these peoples to their new religion was never wholehearted because of the national loyalties whose roots remained strong within them. As time went on, the Abbasid state deserted these elements on which it had been founded, and which were now beginning to acquire a tincture of Islam for others whose hearts were closed to Islam, Turks, Circassians, Dailamites, and such like. So this dynasty continued to find its support in elements that were opposed to the spirit of Islam and to which it gave a favored position because it relied on them.
I think I quoted this passage before (although there are places in the work were Qutb laments the conversion to Islam of Turkic speaking peoples) as an indication of one of the main contradictions in Qutb. In other places in the work he extols Islam's ability to transcend race, yet whenever he mentions particular peoples or ethnic groups, he sees their conversion to Islam as a tragedy for the religion. Before I started reading about Mongols, though, I gave him a pass for the next paragraph, of which I was reminded today while reading Stephen Schwartz' excellent book, The Two Faces of Islam, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a very readable introduction to the various schools of Islamic thought as well as for its fascinating insights into Islamist thought. Qutb wrote:
Then followed the destructive raids of the Mongols, bursting with savage ferocity on the Islamic world. Without delay Islam turned aside the force of the onslaught, swallowed it up, and assimilated it. Yet this was not accomplished without causing in the spirit of Islam itself a profound upheaval in which the practice and traditions of this religion were forcibly modified. Nonetheless, in spite of the destruction of the state by the Mongol onslaught, the Islamic community continued, powerful and loyal to its ideals and constant in the fundamentals of its religion, no matter how far it may have wandered from them in a few purely official aspects. [emphasis added]
Aside from the sentence in italics (well, and maybe the one after that), I actually thought this made some sense. The Mongol onslaught against the Islamic world was brutal; in his work The History of the Mongol Conquests, J.J. Saunders wrote of the fall of Baghdad to Hulegu in January 1258,
The unhappy Caliph was forced to disgorge his treasures and listen to the mocking reproaches for not having used them to put up a stronger defence; his palace, the grand mosque, the tombs of the Abassids, and other public buildings were burnt, much of the cultural accumulation of five centuries was destroyed, and a blow was struck at Arabic civilization from which it never recovered. Ten days after his surrender, Mustas'im [the last Caliph of Baghad] was taken to a village outside Baghdad and there executed, apparently by being rolled in a carpet and kicked to death by horses.
I think Saunders' summary is by and large accurate, although the Ottoman Empire (I'm assuming that he excludes them from Arabic civilization, because the Ottomans preferred Persian and Turkish to Arabic) wasn't exactly chopped liver. In any case, we can understand Qutb's lament about the impact of Hulegu on Islam; that his heirs, most notably Ghazan Khan, converted to Islam, is small recompense for the violence done to Arabic culture. To restate it, as civilized people, we can lament Hulegu's impact on civilization.

But Qutb goes on. He adds those two cryptic lines about the conversion of the Mongol rulers to Islam, which, I must confess, I didn't understand when I first read them:
Yet this was not accomplished without causing in the spirit of Islam itself a profound upheaval in which the practice and traditions of this religion were forcibly modified. Nonetheless, in spite of the destruction of the state by the Mongol onslaught, the Islamic community continued, powerful and loyal to its ideals and constant in the fundamentals of its religion, no matter how far it may have wandered from them in a few purely official aspects.
Ghazan Khan, an heir to Hulegu and ruler of the region that included Baghdad (he was one of the Mongol il-Khans, for those of you keeping score at home) converted to Islam. Saunders notes that early in his reign he had a sort of regent, a general named Narwuz, another Mongol convert to Islam. He oppressed Christians and Jews, and made them wear distinctive clothing to differentiate themselves from the faithful; he drove the Buddhist and Taoist monks who had followed the Mongols into Persia from the realm; he persecuted Shi'ites and Sufis. When Ghazan Khan assumed his duties as the supreme ruler of Persia, he had Narwuz split in half with a sword. Schwartz, in The Two Faces of Islam, explains what happened next:
The Mongol rulers of Baghdad became Muslims. This produced a reaction by a Hanbali legal scholar named Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). Born in the generation after Baghdad's fall to a family from the devastated city, Ibn Taymiyyah rebelled against the Islamized Mongol rulers. He insisted on a purist attitude toward Islam that directly anticipated and is honored above all others by the Islamic fundamentalists of the 21st century....

Ibn Taymiyyah argued that Muslims who did not live under Shariah represented the worst of all evils. He alleged, incorrectly, that the Mongols had not accepted Shariah; he claimed that although they had made the profession of Islamic faith in One God and the Prophecy of Muhammad, they were unbelievers. Shocking the ummah of his time, he went on to argue that the Mongols who had accepted Islam were targets for attack and despoliation.
Schwartz goes on to explain that while Ghazan Khan practiced religious tolerance and pluralism, Ibn Taymiyyah railed against Shi'ites and Sufis and even Greek philosophy (which had been a major influence on some of the seminal thinkers of the great Arabic culture). The former -- the barbarian -- didn't kill people (indeed, protected them) regardless of how they worshipped God. The spirit of Ghazan was much closer to that of the multilingual, multiethnic, multireligious Ottoman Empire than the spirit of Ibn Taymiyyah, whom Qutb seems to take as his model.

In my various readings, I've encountered Ibn Taymiyyah before, and I'll try to revisit him in the future...

Speaking of the post below, reader Richard Donley writes,
A little more info on the Trojan/Roman matter:

Some scholars believe it conceivable that the Etruscans might have some connection with the Trojans, possibly due to refugees from that city landing in Italy after the Greek conquest of Ilium. When the Romans came to dominate the Etruscans (who had previously dominated them) it is quite possible that they mixed the origin myths of the two peoples. The Indo-European component of the Latin people doubtless came from the north down the Italian peninsula.

Therefore: Virgil's tale.
He cites as his source a book called Folktale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics; he warned me that it's an old volume, and I couldn't find it on Amazon or Alibris.

Housekeeping both Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk and Eve Tushnet (to whom I've added a permalink) for their kind words. I'm not quite up to speed yet -- I wish I could I say I was tan, fit and rested, but really I'm pale, out of shape and exhausted -- but I'm getting there.

On an unrelated note, Cinderella Bloggerfeller writes that I was way off base in my small quibble about his excellent post on Huns and Hungarians. I concede the point. Usually I try to make sure that I'm pretty confident something is accurate or at least backed up by some reputable (if debatable) source before I post it; this is what I get for relying on my faltering recollections of Latin classes from high school, rather than a reference book...

Wednesday, February 26, 2003
Mongol origins
John Emerson was kind enough to send me an email a while back (around the time I took my brief hiatus) on a subject I don't know much about but was fumbling around with -- the Mongols. He knows quite a bit, it turns out, and he expanded the remarks he sent me into a fairly lengthy discussion of the rise of the Mongols, paying particular attention to their context, their social structure, their relationship to sedentary societies, and their achievements. It's an amazing piece of work, and I think it answers R.G. Fulton's question, which I was unable to answer.

I've read Mr. Emerson's piece three times now; there's a lot of information to ponder, and I highly recommend reading the whole essay.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003
I swear...
...I was nowhere near the Czech Republic!

In all seriousness -- I've written about various Founders, Sherman, the Civil War, Reuchlin, Rosicrucians, the Marquis de Sade, the Kaballah, and a host of other odd subjects, but the top google search for this site remains "Baldwin Gozie, Esq," the name given in the Nigerian email scam I quoted.

The news that Dolly, the first cloned mammal, recently was euthanized prompts some reflection. But not on the issue of cloning -- I haven't really come to any conclusion on the morality or dangers or benefits or much else on the subject; I'm a reasonable open-minded fellow, and while I have a fondness for Nathaniel Hawthorne's scientific tales (The Birthmark, Rappacini's Daughter), I don't confuse fine Romantic literature for public policy (the former is infinitely valuable, the latter is black foam on newsprint, destined for unending revisions by the editors of the future).

What interested me in the story of poor Dolly's demise were these paragraphs:
But one of the biggest fears was that Dolly might have been born prematurely old.

It was feared that using adult genetic material to make a clone might produce an animal whose cells were already aged. On the other hand, scientists hoped the genetic clock might be "wound back" to its starting point.

Dolly, a Finn Dorset sheep named after the singer Dolly Parton, bred normally on two occasions with a Welsh mountain ram called David, first giving birth to Bonnie in April 1998 and then to three more lambs in 1999.

The births were good news, showing that clones can reproduce.

But in 1999, scientists noticed that the cells in Dolly's body — cloned from the breast cell of a 6-year-old adult ewe — had started to show signs of wear more typical of an older animal.

Then in January 2002, her creators announced she had developed arthritis at the relatively early age of 5 1/2 years, stirring debate over whether cloning procedures might be flawed.

Some geneticists said the finding showed that researchers could not manufacture copies of animals without the original genetic blueprint eventually wearing out.
The copy machine metaphor is interesting. I recall making a copy of a page some years ago that was a copy of a copy of a copy -- it was nearly unreadable. I assume that modern copiers are better; still, I think this metaphor is inapt, since Dolly was a first generation copy. The genetic blueprint shouldn't wear out until a third, fourth, or fifth generation copy, one would expect.

The first metaphor in the passage is of more interest, and perhaps gets closer to the heart of the matter -- the idea that time played some role in Dolly's early demise, or at least in the early physical problems she developed.

The researchers asked whether an adult cell could regenerate itself -- could act as a young cell again. I should like to propose a different metaphor, with the full disclosure that I was a relatively poor student of science, and have no particular expertise in the subject of biology.

On the other hand, just as biology, astronomy and physics were once branches of natural philosophy (as opposed to pure science), it seems to me that the subject of time is still fair game for philosophers or poets, or even ignorant hacks like myself.

I think I've written before about time, and I think I've noted that beyond an ability to measure it, there's not a whole lot we know about it. Augustine said that he knew what time was until you asked him, and I don't think we've advanced much beyond that. We can describe matter, energy, light, sound, the basic building blocks of life, with a precision that excludes all but specialists from the game -- it's been a long time, for example, since Earth, Water, Air and Fire appeared on anyone's periodical table -- but time is little understood. Light sometimes acts like a particle, sometimes like a wave; we know the subatomic structure of the elements; we can smash atoms and splice DNA and focus light into a laser beam and perform a multitude of other technical marvels, but we remain incapable of doing much about time, or even knowing how to begin doing much about it.

As I sit here typing this, there are cells in my body that are in their infancy; there others in their old age, there are still others that have passed away, all of which contain my unique DNA. Despite the prodigious efforts of my cells, my body is nonetheless aging -- reasonably well, all things considered -- and on its slow journey into dust.

Our beloved family cat, who is patiently awaiting the end of his man's interminable tapping on the keyboard so that the nightly ritual offering of the cat treat will commence, is, like his people, a unique historical event -- his DNA the product of a coupling of his cat parents on a farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia, some seven years ago. His parents could mate a thousand more times, producing innumerable offspring, but would never produce another cat quite like him.

Perhaps our DNA does contain some temporal element -- a date stamp as it were -- branded by time, specific to an unrepeatable moment in history. Perhaps, as Dolly's students suggested, her DNA was prematurely old, and her body spent most of its life in an attempt to synchronize her age with the unique moment at which her mother -- who contributed her DNA -- was created.

Perhaps there is something of the substance of time in all of us.

Cinderella Bloggerfeller has an interesting post on the subject of the Hungarian language, and the (incorrect) identification of the Hungarians with the Huns of Attila. It's fascinating and well worth a read, although I had one small quibble. He wrote,
One of the most common ideas was the belief that your people were descended from the Trojans, presumably in an attempt to rival the Roman claim that the descendants of the Trojan prince Aeneas founded their city. Molnar cites the example of the French. The capital of France is Paris, Paris was the prince who stole Helen- geddit?- so there is obviously a link between the French and the Trojans.
I may be wrong (and Doctor Weevil, please chime in if I am!), but my recollection is that the Roman claim comes from Virgil, who did write the Aeneid as a sort of national epic of Rome, but which was nevertheless never taken seriously as history, and might not have been regarded as much more than fiction by Virgil's contemporaries. I don't think Roman historians began their subject with Rome's glorious ancestors the Trojans in the way that medieval historians and chroniclers tried to establish a link to the glorious past. Virgil's fiction, however, is so compelling, that we assume that the Romans were taken in by it as easily as we are...

Update: But see here for Cinderella's erudite response...