Sultans of Swat—Muhammad’s Angels*…and More Timeless Wisdom from Lal and Burckhardt

The future’s so bright we gotta wear shades




 (*all credit for image and blog title to Dr. Michael Schub)

Pakistan’s much ballyhooed moderate Muslim President Zadari, as recently as December 8. 2008, in the wake of the Mumbai massacre, wrote a New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “The Terrorists Want to Destroy Pakistan, Too.” Zardari acknowledged the significant presence of Al Qaeda/Taliban in his country, but claimed, piously, to be committed to the fight against these jihad terrorists—perhaps even more so than NATO—and sought worldwide support for his efforts. He stated:


The challenge of confronting terrorists who have a vast support network is huge; Pakistan’s fledgling democracy needs help from the rest of the world. We are on the frontlines of the war on terrorism. We have 150,000 soldiers fighting Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their extremist allies along the border with Afghanistan — far more troops than NATO has in Afghanistan.


But as I suggested on December 14, 2008:


Ignoring serious concerns about the dubious use of some $5 billion in US military aid to Pakistan (via Coalition Support Funds) since 2002 — ostensibly to combat Al Qaeda and its allies in the tribal areas—I maintain that Zardari’s plaintive appeal for assistance—military and financial—be heeded exclusively by Muslim nations from the now 57 member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). …the OIC — currently headed by its Turkish representative Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu — is uniquely suited to marshall the military and economic might to “enact the utmost severe punishment” for Al Qaeda and Taliban “perpetrators” of “anti-Islamic” acts of terrorism. Turkey and Egypt – key OIC member states — have large, modern, well-equipped armed forces (here; here; here), including air forces (here; here), and both nations are believed to have been victimized by Al Qaeda attacks (here; here; here; and here). These Muslim nations — with formal, enthusiastic sanctioning by the OIC-should send large military contingents to reinforce the “150,000” of their Pakistani Muslim brethren under President Zadari already doggedly engaged in combating the “anti-Islamic” terrorists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.


Despite Zadari’s bravado (duplicity/taqiya?), he has in fact now capitulated to the Talibanization of Pakistan’s own SWAT valley—with all its accompanying traditional Islamic brutality (see here, here, and here for but a few examples)—and the deafening silence (let alone organized, armed resistance to this ugly phenomenon) of his Muslim co-religionists from the OIC nations. Obviously the OIC Defenders of the Faith have been too busy planning and attending Durban II, and railing against the “Islamophobia” of non-Muslim nations and peoples, to avert the ongoing tragedy in Swat, a location renowned for its great physical beauty, which used to be known as “the Switzerland of Pakistan.”


I am reminded once again of an apparently bygone era which produced clear, unapologetic insights on Islamic societies. Just below—bearing the Talibanization of Swat close in mind—is a brief excerpt from the late great Indian historian of Islam, K.S. Lal (d. 2002), followed by much more extensive comments written in the late 19th century by Jacob Burckhardt (d. 1897), a social critic, and towering figure in the annals of historiography.


K.S. Lal:


Muhammad could not change the revelation; he could only explain and interpret it. There are liberal Muslims and conservative Muslims; there are Muslims

 learned in theology and Muslims devoid of learning. They discuss, they interpret, they rationalize — but all by going round and round within the closed circle of Islam. There is no possibility of getting out of the fundamentals of Islam; there is no provision of introducing any innovation.


Jacob Burckhardt:


Islam proselytized either not at all or only at times and in places. As long as it could, it spread not by mission, but by conquest. It even welcomed the presence in its midst of infidel tax payers, though killing them by means of contempt and ill-treatment, or even massacring them in outbursts of fury…


In Islam, where this fusion [between State and Church] took place, the whole culture was dominated, shaped and colored by it. Islam has only one form of polity, of necessity despotic, the consummation of power, secular, priestly and theocratic, which was transferred from the Caliphate to all dynasties. Thus all its parts were mere replicas of the world empire on a small scale, hence Arabized and despotic.


This aridity, this dreary uniformity of Islam, which is so terribly limited on the religious side, probably did more harm than good to Culture, if only because it rendered the peoples affected by it incapable of going over to another culture. Its simplicity much facilitated its expansion, but was marked by that extreme exclusiveness which is a feature of all rigid monotheism, while the wretched Koran stood, and still stands, in the way of any political and legal growth. Law remained half priestly.

The best that might be said of the cultural influence of the Koran is that it does not prohibit activity as such, fosters mobility (by travel)—hence the unity of this culture from the Ganges to the Senegal…


Yet Christian contemplation even at its gloomiest was less pernicious culturally than Islam, as will at once appear from the following consideration. Quite apart from the general servitude imposed by despotism and its police, from the lack of any sense of honor in anyone connected with power, for which the absence of a nobility and clergy offers no compensation, a diabolical pride is engendered towards non-Islamic populations and countries, involving a periodical renewal of the Holy War [Jihad], and that pride cuts it off from what is, after all, far and away the greater part of the world and from any comprehension of it.


The sole ideals of life are the two poles—the monarch and cynically ascetic dervish-sufi…


In Islamic education, we are struck by the predominance of linguistics and grammar over substance, by the sophistical nature of philosophy, of which only the heretical side is free and significant, further, by the poor quality of historical learning—poor because everything outside of Islam is indifferent and everything within Islam a prey to parties and sects—and by a scientific teaching the defects of which immediately become apparent when it is compared with free and unrestricted empiricism. Men were not able to investigate and discover nearly as much as they might have done in freedom. What was lacking was a general impulse to fathom the world and its laws.


Islamic poetry is mainly characterized by its repugnance to the epic, born of the fear that the souls of the several peoples might continue to live in it; Firdausi only exists as contraband. It has, further, a didactic bias which is mortal to the epic, and a tendency to value narrative only as the shell of a general thought, as a parable. For the rest, poetry took refuse in the tale, thronged with figures, but devoid of characters. Further, there was no drama. Fatalism makes it impossible to show fate as born of the interplay of passion and justification—indeed, it may be that despotism of its very nature checks the objective poetic expression of anything at all. And no comedy could come into being, if only because all comic feeling was consumed by the joke, the lampoon, the parable, the juggler, etc.


In the visual arts, architecture alone developed, firstly through Persian builders and subsequently with the help of Byzantine and any other styles which lay to hand. Sculpture and painting were practically non-existent, because the decree of the Koran was not only observed but carried far beyond its letter. What the intellect forfeited in these circumstances may be left to the imagination.

Side by side with this picture, there exists of course, another—that fiction of flourishing, populous, busy Islamic cities and States with poet-princes, noble minded grandees and so on, as for instance in Spain under and after the Umayyads.


Yet it was not possible to pass beyond those barriers to the totality of intellectual life, and as a result it was beyond the power of Islam to change, to merge into another higher culture, and the situation was aggravated by its political and military weakness in face of the Almoravides, Almohades, and Christians.


And now we must again turn back to Islam, with its stranglehold on national feeling and its miserable constitutional and legal system grafted on to religion, beyond which its peoples never advanced. The State, as a political picture, is here extremely uninteresting; in the Caliphate, practically from its outset, a despotism without responsibility to heaven or earth was taken for granted, and even, by a highly illogical twist, by its renegades. What is supremely interesting is how this organization came into being and could not but come into being, given the nature of Islam an of its rule over Giaours [Infidels]. There lies the explanation of the great similarity of Islamic States from the Tagus [a river in the Iberian peninsula] to the Ganges, the only difference being the former with less steadfastness and talent. A kind of division of power can be dimly descried only among the Seljuk nobility.


It would seem that the belief in a future life was never of great consequence among the Moslems from the beginning. No interdict in the Western sense had any power, no moral qualms could afflict the potentate, and it was easy for him to remain orthodox or adhere to whichever of the sects happened to predominate. (But is sometimes happened that a fanatic gathered zealots under some standard or other, e.g. the Wahabis, whose doctrine is a hotch-potch utterly unintelligible to us.) It is true that, from time to time, benevolent despots were regarded with great affection, but even their sphere of influence was restricted to their immediate entourage. Now the question may arise how far Islam (like the more ancient Parsee [Zoroastrian] religion and Byzantium) represented a State in any sense whatever. Its pride was simply that it was Islam, nor could this simplest of all religions be attacked through its own devotees. Sacraments could not be withheld from the evildoer, whose fatalism made him impervious to many things, while every one of its members was familiar with violence and corruption. Whoever was unable or unwilling to exterminate the Moslems found it best to leave them in peace. Their empty, arid and treeless lands might perhaps be taken from them, but obedience to a non-Koranic dispensation could never be enforced. Their equanimity gave them a high degree of individual independence; their slave system and their subjection of the Giaours [Infidels] inspired them with contempt of all labor, except agriculture, which is the basis of their communal feeling.


…Any importation from Western culture…seems to be detrimental to the Moslems, from loans and national debts onwards




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