Friday, December 31, 2010

A Piece of History - I

History - ostensibly a simple reportage of fact - is the source of endless mystery, fascination and dispute. It shapes both individuals and societies in ways that are often beyond understanding, and ignorance of history, in one way or another, lies at the root of most problems that beset humankind. For the amateur student of history, the most accessible artifacts of vanished ages are coins - pieces of gold, silver, copper or bronze that have travelled across centuries bearing pictures of bygone kings and queens, inscriptions in dead languages, and marks of ancient events. Fascinated by the possibility of exploring history in this way, I have been collecting ancient coins for several years, focusing mainly on South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. In other words, coins from lands that were variously ruled by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Indians, Turks and Mongols, Many of the coins that I have collected come from very interesting periods, and I will occasionally use these coins as a pretext to write about the events from those times. This is the first of such posts.

The coin I will discuss today comes from the seventh century CE from a time of great conflict: The second fitnah of Islamic history. It is a beautiful silver coin in remarkably good condition, as shown below.

The obverse (left) shows a bust of the Sassanian king, Khusro II, known as Parviz (the Victorious), who ruled a large empire from the deserts of Sind to Egypt and Anatolia over a 38 year reign (590 - 628 CE) (click here and here for details). The reverse (right) shows a Zoroastrian fire altar flanked by highly stylized Magian priests. Both sides follow the standard pattern used for Sassanian coins for most of the empire's duration. In addition to the main figures, the coins are replete with astral and earthly symbols - crescents, stars, the winged crown, the border of pearls, etc., all of which had specific meaning in the Sassanian culture. Most interestingly, the coin carries inscriptions in two scripts - Pahlavi and Arabic. The Pahlavi inscription is found both in front of the king's face and behind his head, as well as on either side of the fire altar, while the Arabic inscription is a "bism illah" (in the name of Allah) in the margin on the obverse side. What could possibly have prompted such a strange assembly of items on this coin? The answer comes to us from history.

Among the most interesting, consequential and turbulent times in the history of Islam was the 118 year period between the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE and the accession of the first Abbasid ruler, Al-Saffah, in 750 CE. During this period, Islam underwent three civil wars, known as the fitnahs (times of tribulation). The first fitnah began with the rebellion against the Caliph 'Uthman and his assassination on July 17, 656, and ended with the armistice between the forces of 'Ali and Mu'awiya I at Siffin in July 657. The second fitnah began with the death of Mu'awiya I in 680 and ended with the Umayyad recapture of the Hijaz and Iraq in 692 under the leadership of 'Abd al-Malik b. Marwan and Hajjaj b. Yusuf. The third fitnah was the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyad caliphs in 745 CE, resulting in the accession of Al-Saffah as the first Abbasid caliph in 750 CE. The coin in question comes from the time of the second fitnah.

After the death of Mu'awiya I, many factions of Muslims refused to accept the succession of his son, Yazid I, as caliph. The most famous of these was the Prophet's grandson, Husayn ibn 'Ali, who was martyred by Umayyad forces at Karbala in October 680. However, a much more successful - and now mostly forgotten (in the popular mind) - revolt against the Umayyads was led from Mecca by 'Abdullah b. al-Zubayr (Ibn Zubayr), who was the son of a famous companion of the Prophet, Zubayr b. al-Awwam, and a well-respected figure. He declared himself caliph in 680 CE, and won the allegiance of the people in Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, Egypt and parts of Syria. In fact, he had the allegiance of a greater part of the empire than the nominal Umayyad caliph, Yazid I and his successor, Mu'awiya II. Umayyad forces under Marwan b. Al-Hakam eventually took back control of Syria, Iraq and Egypt, leaving Ibn Zubayr ruler in Hijaz even after Marwan was declared caliph in 684 CE. He died shortly thereafter, with the caliphate passing to his son, 'Abd-al Malik. Umayyad forces under Hajjaj laid siege to Mecca to defeat Ibn Zubayr, shelling the city using catapults and causing serious damage to the Ka'ba itself (which Hajjaj subsequently rebuilt). Finally, Ibn Zubayr was defeated and killed in 692 CE, making 'Abd al-Malik the sole (though hardly undisputed) caliph over all Muslim lands.

An important issue faced by Muslim rulers after they rapidly conquered Byzantine lands and completely destroyed the Sassanian empire was the issue of coinage. Through most of history, the right to issue legal tender has been seen as the primary symbol of a ruler's authority. However, the Muslim rulers had no experience with minting coins. Nor was there any established tradition or symbology related to this. As a result, they used Byzantine and Sassanian coins in the western and eastern parts of the empire, respectively. Both sets of coins needed some degree of "Islamization" to distinguish them from the Christian and Zoroastrian coinage. This was done largely by adding suitably pious Arabic inscriptions to the coins, resulting in coins termed "Arab-Byzantine" and "Arab-Sassanian". The coin at hand is an Arab-Sassanian coin.

Arab-Sassanian coins were produced both by Umayyads (through various governors in Iraq and Khurasan) and by Ibn Zubayr (see this excellent site for examples). My coin was issued in the name of Ibn Zubayr, minted in Istakhr in 63 AH. The mint is indicated by the Pahlavi signature ST:

on the right half of the reverse. Behind the bust of the king is the standard Pahlavi legend GDH afzwt (xhwarrah afzut - May his treasure grow) inherited from the coins of Khusro II,

while the legend facing the king says apdwla y zwbyran amyr y wirrwyshnikan ('Abdullah bin Zubayr, Commander of the Faithful). The date is read as 63 AH, though Album and Goodwin suggest that the correct reading should be 66 AH because Ibn Zubayr did not issue coins claiming to be "Amir-al Mo'mineen" (Commander of he Faithful) until after the death of Yazid I in 64 AH (Album and Goodwin, 2002).

The coin is interesting for several reasons. First, it is one of the earliest coins claiming anyone to be "Amir-al Mo'mineen", though there are earlier examples in the name of Mu'awiya I (see Morony, 1984 - pp 45-46) and Yazid I (Mochiri, 1982) . Even more interesting is the retention of almost all Sassanian imagery without change, including the (clearly un-Islamic) fire altar and the various astral symbols, and, of course, the picture of the king. Thus, somewhat surprisingly, the earliest coinage of Islam - issued by people who had lived in the Prophet's company - carried the symbols of a non-Islamic religion and the picture of an unbeliever king! A similar situation obtained with Arab-Byzantine coins. Clearly, the prohibition against graven images was not particularly strong in these early Islamic times, and no great threat was seen in the symbols of other religions - an instructive thought in our age of blasphemy laws and destroyed Buddhas. Similarly, these early Muslims felt no compunction in putting sacred Arabic text - in this instance, "bism illah", but in other cases "lillah" (for Allah), "bism illah rabbi" (in the name of Allah, my lord), "lillah al-hamd" (all praise is for Allah) - on such objects of common use as coins. Finally, Hajjaj b. Yusuf put "bism Allāh / lā-ilaha il- / Allāh waḥdahu Muḥammad / rasūl Allāh" (in the name of Allah; there is no God but Allah, the One; Muhammad is his messenger) on a coin. This, apparently, was a bit much for some of the more pious, who felt that such sacred inscriptions should not be put on base artifacts such as coins (see image), and the experiment was temporarily abandoned. However, when reformed Islamic coinage was issued in 84 AH, it included not only the shahadah, "lā-ilaha il-Allāh waḥdahu", but also an entire sura (chapter) from the Qur'an (al-ikhlas), as can be seen in images here. This then became the pattern of Umayyad and Abbasid coins for the next 500 years, and was adopted by many other Muslim dynasties as well. Coins with these Qur'anic inscriptions are still occasionally found in areas as far away as Scandanavia, testifying to the widespread trade links of the time.

It is also interesting to note that the king shown on the coin being discussed died more than half a century before the coin was minted, with two other kings (Kavadh II and Ardeshir III) between him and Yezdigerd III, whom the Muslim armies actually defeated. Initial Arab-Sassanian coins used Yazdigerd's image, but this was quickly replaced by the image of Khusro Perviz, widely regarded as the most magnificent, if also one of the most cruel, of the Sassanian kings. Hodgson (1977) has speculated that this indicated that Khusro, not Yezdigerd, was the dominant authority figure in the minds of the populace in these regions - still mostly Zoroastrian - and Muslim rulers were trying to exploit this feeling.

With time, the history of the second fitnah has faded from the minds of most, except for the martyrdom of Husayn b. 'Ali at Karbala. Most histories - especially in the Muslim world - have been written to show a continuous "Umayyad" caliphate following upon the four initial "rightly guided" caliphs. As Hodgson points out (Hodgson, 1977), this is wrong on several counts. The dynasty of caliphs established following the fitnah derived from Marwan, not Mu'awiya I, and is better labeled Marwanid. As for Umayyad caliphs, the first of these was 'Uthman b. 'Affan (the third rightly-guided caliph). And finally, there was an extended period (680-692) when the Muslim state was divided between two competing caliphs of commensurate strength and allegiance.

Another interesting aspect of this time was the ongoing revolt of the Kharijis - a group of fundamentalist Muslims who disagreed with the compromise at Siffin, and gradually developed into a set of interlinked fanatical groups. In many cases, these groups regarded the vast bulk of Muslims as misguided and therefore subject to execution. In this, they presaged today's jihadist groups who also feel no compunction about killing Muslims and non-Muslims with equal zeal. The Kharijis never won any major victories, but terrorized large parts of the empire for more than a century, and lingered on until much later in outer regions like Bahrain. In this, as in many other things, the history of these early Islamic times provides significant insight into the problems we face today, not least because those fostering the problems hark back to idealized versions of the history of those early times. Better understanding of this history can debunk many myths and lay bare the real complexity of the early Islamicate civilization.


S. Album and T. Goodwin, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean: The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period. Ashmolean Museum, 2002.

M.G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Vol. 1). The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

M.I. Mochiri, A Sassanian-Style Coin of Yazid b. Mu'awiya. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1: 137-148, 1982.

M.G. Morony, Iraq After the Muslim Conquest. Princeton University Press, 1984.

For anyone wishing to learn more about the ancient coinage of the Middle East, Iran Central Asia and India, there is no better site than "The Coins and History of Asia" put together by Tom Mallon-McCorgray.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Obama's Failure - and Lift-off?

The congressional elections that just concluded with spectacular Democratic losses in both the House of Representatives and at the state level can only be regarded as a failure for Barack Obama. The question, however, is: Where did the failure lie?

Was it, as some on the Left claim, a failure to remain true to principle and to seek pristinely progressive solutions to problems like health care (e.g., single payer), terrorism (e.g., not continuing Bush’s incarceration policies), the financial meltdown (e.g., putting fat cat bankers in the dock), and social issues (e.g., unilaterally ending “don’t ask, don’t tell”)? Or was it, as the Republicans and Republicrats would have us believe, an inability to compromise even more, to adopt an even more conciliatory tone, to disarm even more unilaterally? The answer, in my opinion, is neither. To consider these interpretations is to completely misread Obama’s real challenge. He is not in a contest with the Republican Party. He is confronting an alternate reality.

In this alternate reality, many things that are known to be empirically true are nevertheless false. For example, Barack Obama has already raised taxes massively on everyone (he has actually reduced them), cut back in the war against terrorists (in fact, he has launched more attacks and killed more militants in two years than Bush did in seven), bailed out the big banks (actually, TARP was a Bush initiative, though Obama did support it as a Senator), and wasted hundreds of billions on a failed stimulus (in fact, the CBO estimates that the stimulus saved or added several million jobs even before it was fully spent).  As these examples demonstrate, Obama’s challenge is not policy, but politics. His failure lies in not being able to counter the well-oiled Right-wing propaganda machine that routinely convinced millions of people that day is night and up is down (see scientific evidence for this assertion). His failure, in other words, is too much faith in Reason.

As even Aristotle understood, logic and reason are just tools – methods by which we can spin stories for ourselves and others to explain, legitimize or justify actions that our lizard brains have already committed to. Emotion, not Reason, is the fundamental basis of human behavior, just it is has been the basis of all animal behavior for millions of years. Beneath their fragile veneer of rationality, our brains are nothing but enablers for emotional control. That is why – Thomas Frank notwithstanding – it is not at all mysterious why middle class Kansans vote for Republicans against their own economic interests, nor why rich Hollywood actors vote for Democrats who are likelier to raise their taxes. No great change in human history has flowed from purely rational argument. Even Apple computers – objectively the best in the world – need to entice users with their seductive looks. This is doubly true in politics, where emotion, really, is all that matters.

Surprising as it may seem, Obama lost sight of this fact.

What, one may ask, can the Harvard-educated Leader of the Free World do against the onslaught of Fox and friends except to appeal to peoples’ rational faculties? The answer is that he should have engaged emotionally. Following on the enormous enthusiasm of his campaign, he should have tried to ignite a mass movement on the Left as Reagan did on the Right. In 2008 and early 2009, he had the opportunity, the magic, and the connections to do so. Instead, he sat back and decided to have an argument on the merits with Senators Olympia Snowe and Max Baucus!

I still believe that Obama is the one barrier we have to a complete takeover by the imagineers of the Right who are intent on creating their own reality. However, he has proved to be an ineffective barrier, and perhaps he never will be effective because of his natural inclinations. Perhaps it is too late in the process to hope that calm insistence on rational analysis will break through the haze of confusion created by the right-wing propaganda machine.

A few of weeks ago, I posted an article by Roger Cohen that, to me, captured the essence of Obama's failure so far - the disinclination to excite. He seems too taken by the "no drama" ethos of his campaign. I think that the inauguration in 2008 should have been followed by a concerted effort to build an active and long-term grassroots movement - an "Obama Revolution" like the "Reagan Revolution". Instead, they just focused on solving problems technocratically, and allowed the zeal to dissipate. The void was filled by the teabaggers who provided a home for the inchoate anger swirling about the country. That was a major failure of leadership, and will now have consequences for the whole country.

This doesn't mean that Obama himself should have continued to campaign. In fact, he should probably have been less exposed than he has been. But those under him should have built an infrastructure that could continue to keep the movement alive and churning after the election. They needed to create campus groups, meetups, think tank events, rallies, media voices, etc. The Left has traditionally had difficulty with this in America because most of the money is on the Right, and conservatives are more willing to be organized like lemmings. I think Obama and company saw that the only models to do something similar on the Left were a socialist revolution or a hippie movement, and neither appealed very much to their rational, capitalistic inclinations. However, that, in my opinion, was a failure of imagination. They failed to come up with a "fourth way" - a 21st century liberal uprising, and they're paying the price for it.

I don't see much reason to expect transformative change in the near future. The structural factors are all against Obama - a terrible economy, a dysfunctional Congress, a demoralized Democratic base, an even more difficult Senate election in 2012, an antagonistic Supreme Court (which will almost surely nullify the health care reform law), and a hostile media environment. There's a lot more pain to come.

But things are not as bleak as they seemed even two weeks ago. The last few days have seen the negotiation of a tax compromise between Obama and the Republicans, and its final passage in Congress in spite of grumbling on the Left and the Right. Then the odious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for the military was repealed with the cooperation of several Republicans. It now seems possible that the new START treaty will also be approved within this lame duck session. This duck is proving to be a champion waddler!

Many in the punditocracy are taking all this as the inception of Obama 2.0 – a President focused on triangulating away from Congressional Democrats and Republicans just as Clinton did in 1995. In fact, it is likelier that Obama is “pyramiding” – rising above all the bickering groups towards the apex of a pyramid, and moving in a direction distinct from all of them. He has already hinted that the tax compromise is a preamble to a more serious look at the deficit. Unlike other Democrats, he has not dismissed the draconian recommendations of his deficit commission. I think that he is getting ready to propose a re-orientation of American economic, fiscal and social policy so drastic that it will create mayhem in all political circles. And in this chaos, Obama will try to assemble a new coalition that can hijack the constituencies of various existing power bases like the unions, the environmentalists, small businesses and others. His recent actions suggest that he is contemplating a major political realignment just as Ronald Reagan did, but will do it in his “no drama” style. Whether he succeeds or fails depends on his ability to exploit the disruption he will cause by his proposals. He will be helped by the increased gridlock likely in the new Congress, and John Boehner may soon find new reasons to weep on camera. But it is just as likely that the Right-wing propaganda machine will continue to chew Obama up. It will certainly keep trying.

Obama supporters often claim that he is engaged in some mysterious form of 3-dimensional chess with Republicans that will, one day, suddenly leave them bereft. So far, the results are mixed, but perhaps he should be thinking less chess and more jiujitsu if he is to use the Right-wing media juggernaut against itself.

Some thing are certain: The State of the Union address in 2011 will have a lot more drama than 2010; Republican presidential candidates will shortly start assembling into a circular fring squad; Sarah Palin will keep beating up helpless halibut; and John Boehner will cry again. It will be an exciting year with much sport.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rumi 2

Maulana Jalaluddin Balkhi, known better as Rumi or Molavi, was without doubt one of history's greatest literary figures. He is mainly famous for his didactic Masnavi (which typically runs to several volumes in most printings), but his collection of ghazals (odes) known as Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi is an even more amazing achievement, with thousands of ghazals unmatched in their eloquence, fervor, depth and beauty. Rumi was indeed a force of Nature, and in the Divan, he is at his forceful best. The central theme of all his poetry is the celebration of love. A forceful rejection of orthodox piety and mundane conventions pervades all his work - both the Masnavi and the Divan - making him very much a poet we need today. His sufi tradition, later embodied in the Mevleviyya order (the whirling dervishes) of Turkey, is rooted in humanist ideas. As he said in one of his most famous couplets:

    Yesterday, the Master went around the city with a lamp
    [saying] I am sick of demons and beasts, and wish to find a human.

The great orientalist scholar, R.A. Nicholson translated several ghazals selected from the Divan, and one of them is given below - a personal favorite of mine. I have redone the translation, guided by Nicholson's but less literal. The ghazal is a great example of Rumi's exuberant style.

خنك آن دم كہ نشستيم در ايوان من و تو
بدو نقش و بدو صورت بيكي جان من و تو

رنگ باغ و دم مرغان بدہد آب حيات
آن زماني كہ در آیيم ببستان من و تو

اختران فلك آيند بنظارۂ ما
مہ خود را بنمایيم با يشان من و تو

من و تو بي من وتو جمع شويم از سر ذوق
خوش و فارغ ز خرافات پريشان من و تو

طوطيان فلكی جملہ جگر خوار شوند
در مقامي كہ بخنديم برآن سان من و تو

اين عجب تر كہ من وتو بيكی كنج اينجا
ہم در اين دم بعراقيم و خراسان من و تو


O happy time when we shall be seated in the palace, thou and I;
two forms and two figures, but with a single soul, thou and I.

The orchard's beauty and the birds' song will make us immortal
on the day when we step into the garden, thou and I.

The very stars of heaven will come around to gaze at us,
and we shall show them the bright moon of our being, thou and I.

I and thou, no longer thou or I, shall become one in ecstasy,
joyous, and with no care for frivolous things, thou and I.

All the beautiful birds of heaven will eat their hearts out,
in such a manner shall we laugh at that point, thou and I

And even stranger, that thou and I now sit together in this nook,
and at the same time, we are also in Iraq and Khorasan, thou and I.

Translated by Ali Minai (after R.A. Nicholson)