Isis and the Middle Ages

A fellow Georgia medievalist and Dartmouth grad, Allen Fromherz of Georgia State, wrote an article for the American Interest last month on “Isis vs. History.” The whole thing is worth a read, but keep in mind that it will be your “one free article” at AI for the month.

ISIS vs. History

What the rise and fall of a 12th-century Islamic empire does (and doesn’t) tell us about the rise (and fall?) of ISIS.

For many good reasons, professional historians mightily resist comparisons between recent events and the distant past. Our training teaches us to respect the principles of the 19th-century founder of source-based history, Leopold von Ranke, who professionalized the discipline to focus as much as possible on the past as it was. History, he believed, should be written for its own sake, not treated as a ghost of itself in service of the present, nor strip-mined for jewels of supposed relevance to current objectives or concerns.

We do not always succeed in this, but at our best we try to avoid the facile and misleading uses of history that non-historians all too readily deploy in the service of some other goal than good scholarship. Case in point: Not long ago, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina claimed that her bachelor’s degree in medieval history would help her “defeat ISIS”: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages.”

Fiorina’s comments set off a rare storm of comment in the relevant halls of the academy. Not one medievalist, or any historian for that matter, supports her contention that the medieval past is particularly well described or defined by its level of violence. Most these days would argue that the concept of the “medieval past” is little more than an artificial punctuation to separate the period between the fall of Rome from the 15th century age of discovery and the subsequent rise of modern nation-states.

A similar negative reaction attended a March 2015 Atlantic article by Graeme Wood, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The article similarly mooted a form of ISIS “medievalism.” That was enough to set the small and eclectic but wonderful world of medievalist social media atwitter in righteous indignation.

The main problem with these comparisons, as Stephen John Stedman recently noted, is the lack of any careful or precisely drawn context for making them. The result is the all too easy use of wildly inaccurate stereotypes about particular past periods. In this case, the stereotype is that “everything in the Medieval past, especially medieval Islam, was brutal and violent.” But far from being an age of brutality, the “medieval period” of Islamic history was defined by its relative tolerance. One of the greatest of cities in 10th-century Europe was Muslim Córdoba. Astonished Christian visitors such as the itinerant German nun Hrostsvita of Gandersheim recognized Córdoba as an “Ornament of the World.” Its shine came from the fact that Córdoba had street lamps that glowed at night, reflecting the running water of fountains and the light of knowledge and science from a library that rivaled ancient Alexandria. Although lower in status under Islamic law, minorities were not only protected in Islamic cities like Córdoba but often ascended to positions of great influence, such as the Jewish leader, scholar, poet, and physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who served as de facto minister of foreign affairs for the blue-eyed Caliph of Córdoba, ‘Abd al Rahman III (the Umayyad Caliphs often intermarried with Gothic, Christian royal families in the north of Spain).

More at the link.



Generally I don’t like participating in Media Events, but the recent attacks in Paris have shocked me more than most jihadist activity in recent years. One thing to think about, though, if you’re going to Do Something about it on Facebook: the French tricolor is symbol of France – but a secular, republican symbol, like Marianne or the Coq gaulois. By all means change your profile picture if you wish, but be aware that it is somewhat incongruous to display a French flag with “pray for France” written on it. 

(St. Louis, St. Joan or St. Denis might be better choices here. Or Charles Martel himself!)

Given that the attacks took place in Paris, the arms of Paris might also be a good choice to show at this time. The motto, translated as “She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink,” seems especially appropriate.



The Bin Laden Tapes

Four years ago I participated in “Genefest,” a conference in honor of the retirement of Gene Garthwaite, a history professor at Dartmouth College and one of my undergraduate influences. Although I did not follow him into Middle Eastern studies, I was pleased to see him again, and to learn about what his other former students were up to. One of these, Flagg Miller, gave an interesting presentation on the Bin Laden tapes, a cache of audio cassettes acquired in Afghanistan in 2002 and which he had been analyzing. I am pleased to see that his extensive research has borne fruit in the form of a book, entitled The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida (Hurst Publishing, 2015). A VICE News article by the author provides a synopsis:

What I Learned About al Qaeda from Analyzing the ‘Bin Laden’ Tapes

In the months following the Taliban’s evacuation of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 2001, cable news networks set up operations in the city in order to report on the war. In the dusty back rooms of a local recording studio, a CNN stringer came across an extraordinary archive: roughly 1,500 audiotapes taken from Osama bin Laden’s residence, where he had lived from 1997-2001, during al Qaeda’s most coherent organizational momentum.

Discovered untouched by a local Afghan family after the rest of the house had been ransacked, the tapes were slated for use as blanks for recording Pashto pop-songs. CNN intervened with a cash-down offer and a different plan.

The FBI first reviewed the collection and declined stewardship. The vast majority of the tapes feature speakers who, although well-known Muslim preachers, reformers, and radicals across the Arabic-speaking world, were not al Qaeda members. Some recordings dated back to the 1960s and were considered to be more of interest to historians than intelligence analysts.

Unable to use the tapes, CNN passed them on to academics, first at Williams College and later Yale University. During those years I was brought on as the archive’s primary researcher. Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, I had spent many years studying political discourse, Islam, and audiocassette technologies in Yemen, Bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.

Over 10 years later, my resulting book focuses on key tapes in order to re-examine al Qaeda’s origins, development, and ideology leading up to 9/11. At the center of my study are just over a dozen previously untranslated speeches by Bin Laden dating from the late 1980s through 2001.

What do the tapes reveal about Bin Laden and al Qaeda? Here are several surprising discoveries.

First, Bin Laden was not al Qaeda’s leader at its outset — in fact, the organization sought to marginalize him. The “al Qaeda” frequently evoked in Western intelligence and law-enforcement circles referred originally to a specific training camp in eastern Afghanistan called Al-Faruq. Founded in the late 1980s, the camp was directed largely by Egyptian and North African militants who aimed to overthrow ruling regimes within the Islamic world….

Second, while al Qaeda is typically distinguished from other militant and terrorist groups for its unequivocal focus on attacking the West and the United States, the organization’s chief leaders prioritized multiple enemies, foremost among them authoritarian leaders within the Arab world. Bin Laden’s speeches from as late as 1993 avoid any public mention of directing militant activity toward America, despite the fact that massive US-led coalition forces had been stationed in his homeland for a full three years….

Third, Bin Laden’s first and most notorious “Declaration of War against the United States” in 1996 was neither a declaration nor a call to war. These labels were given to Bin Laden by Western journalists and translators who sought to draw attention to growing Arab anger at the devastating effects of US-led sanctions against Saddam Hussein on Iraq’s people.

Read the whole thing.

Tim Furnish

We’re excited that we get to attend a presentation tomorrow by Tim Furnish, Ph.D. (Ohio State), author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden and numerous scholarly and popular articles, and maintainer of I interviewed him once for a position at Reinhardt but unfortunately something came up and he couldn’t take it. Click the last link to read more; I quite like this post:


C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, famously said that Christians could make one of two equally unfortunate errors regarding demons: one was to “disbelieve in their existence;” the other “to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” After a quarter century of studying Islamic history, I’ve decided that analogous dual pitfalls beckon, and often entrap, Westerners.

On one hand, Western (mainly, but not only, American) conservatives—politically or in the Christian churches; often both—view Muhammad as nothing more than a demonic charlatan and/or a pedophile, whose religion is satanic or, alternatively, is not a religion at all.

On the other hand, Western (again, not only American) liberals—in the political realm, and in the mainstream/liberal churches, as well as much of the usually non-liberal hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church—engage in their own massive brand of denial, ignoring empirical and historical data about jihad, failing to differentiate Christian and Islamic doctrines, and even suggesting that Islam and Christianity are equally valid paths to God (as does the Catholic Church in its Cathechism, para 841).

I reject both the rock-headed Scylla of my conservative colleagues, and the sucking sychophancy of the liberals’ Charybdis. Instead, consider the tough love approach to Islam’s founder, spelled out by the Anglican cleric J.M. Rodwell, in his translation of the Qur’an published in 1909 (the best rendering of the Arabic text I’ve yet found, by the way):

If he was indeed the illiterate person the Muslims represent him to have been, then…the Koran is, as they assert it to be, a standing miracle. But if…it was a book carefully concocted from various sources, and with much extraneous aid, and published as a divine oracle, then it…the author is at once open to the charge of the grossest imposture….The evidence rather shews, that in all he did and wrote, Muhammad was actuated by a sincere desire to deliver his countrymen from the grossness of…debasing ideologies…that the end to be attained justified to his mind the means he adopted in the production of the Suras—that he worked himself up into a belief that he had received a divine call—and that he was carried on by… gradually increasing successes, to believe himself the accredited messenger of Heaven…. 

At the same time, he was probably, more or less, throughout his whole career, the victim of a certain amount of self-deception.  A cataleptic [epileptic] subject from his early youth, born—according to the traditions—of a highly nervous and excitable mother, he would be peculiarly liable to morbid and fantastic hallucinations, and alternations of excitement and depression, which would win for him, in the eyes of his ignorant countrymen, the credit of being inspired. It would be easy for him to persuade himself that he was the “seal of the Prophets….” 

It is nearer to the truth to say that he was a great though imperfect character, an earnest though mistaken teacher…and that there must be elements both of truth and goodness in the system of which he was the main author, to account for the world-wide phenomenon, that…has now lasted for nearly thirteen centuries, and embraces more than one hundred millions [at the time of Rodwell’s writing]….

This via media approach to the founder of the world’s second-largest religion will please neither the Hard Right nor the Loony Left—but it has the virtue of being historically accurate. Seeing Muhammad as devout yet deluded, and thus Islam itself as inadequate but not evil, has certain ramifications.  On the one hand, it requires acknowledging that violence against non-Muslims is derived from Qur’anic literalism and Muhammadan emulation—as the Left is loath to admit. But, on the other hand, unwavering intellectual honesty about Islam and its founder means we must confess some truths inconvenient for the Right—such as the amazing political achievements of the Ottomans, and the undeniable positive piety of many Sufis and some Islamic sects.

As a Christian, I must remember that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) applies to me and my co-religionists, not just those of other faiths; but I also know that believing in the oneness of God, and trembling before Him (James 2:19), is no guarantee of salvation.  During this Lenten season, perhaps it would behoove conservative Christians to acknowledge that the Qur’an contains some wheat, and liberal ones to stop turning a blind eye to its legion of chaff—while ceasing to beat each other with the winnowing fork of self-righteousness.