[Reader-list] Mullahs and Heretics (Tariq Ali)

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Thu Feb 7 06:33:16 IST 2002

February 6, 2002

Mullahs and Heretics

By Tariq Ali

I never believed in God, not even between the ages of six and ten, 
when I was an agnostic. This unbelief was instinctive. I was sure 
there was nothing else out there but space. It could have been my 
lack of imagination. In the jasmine--scented summer nights, long 
before mosques were allowed to use loudspeakers, it was enough to 
savour the silence, look up at the exquisitely lit sky, count the 
shooting stars and fall asleep. The early morning call of the muezzin 
was a pleasant alarm--clock.

There were many advantages in being an unbeliever. Threatened with 
divine sanctions by family retainers, cousins or elderly relatives -- 
'If you do that Allah will be angry' or 'If you don't do this Allah 
will punish you' -- I was unmoved. Let him do his worst, I used to 
tell myself, but he never did, and that reinforced my belief in his 

My parents, too, were non--believers. So were most of their close 
friends. Religion played a tiny part in our Lahore household. In the 
second half of the last century, a large proportion of educated 
Muslims had embraced modernity. Old habits persisted, nonetheless: 
the would--be virtuous made their ablutions and sloped off to Friday 
prayers. Some fasted for a few days each year, usually just before 
the new moon marking the end of Ramadan. I doubt whether more than a 
quarter of the population in the cities fasted for a whole month. 
Cafe life continued unabated. Many claimed that they had fasted so as 
to take advantage of the free food doled out at the end of each 
fasting day by the mosques or the kitchens of the wealthy. In the 
countryside fewer still fasted, since outdoor work was difficult 
without sustenance, and especially without water when Ramadan fell 
during the summer months. Eid, the festival marking the end of 
Ramadan, was celebrated by everyone.

One day, I think in the autumn of 1956 when I was 12, I was 
eavesdropping on an after--dinner conversation at home. My sister, 
assorted cousins and I had been asked nicely to occupy ourselves 
elsewhere. Obediently, we moved to an adjoining room, but then 
listened, giggling, to a particularly raucous, wooden--headed aunt 
and a bony uncle berating my parents in loud whispers: 'We know what 
you're like . . . we know you're unbelievers, but these children 
should be given a chance . . . They must be taught their religion.'

The giggles were premature. A few months later a tutor was hired to 
teach me the Koran and Islamic history. 'You live here,' my father 
said. 'You should study the texts. You should know our history. Later 
you may do as you wish. Even if you reject everything, it's always 
better to know what it is that one is rejecting.' Sensible enough 
advice, but regarded by me at the time as hypocritical and a 
betrayal. How often had I heard talk of superstitious idiots, often 
relatives, who worshipped a God they didn't have the brains to doubt? 
Now I was being forced to study religion. I was determined to 
sabotage the process.

It didn't occur to me at the time that my father's decision may have 
had something to do with an episode from his own life. In 1928, aged 
12, he had accompanied his mother and his old wet--nurse (my 
grandmother's most trusted maid) on the pilgrimage to perform the 
hajj ceremony. Women, then as now, could visit Mecca only if they 
were accompanied by a male more than 12 years old. The older men 
flatly refused to go. My father, as the youngest male in the family, 
wasn't given a choice. His older brother, the most religious member 
of the family, never let him forget the pilgrimage: his letters to my 
father always arrived with the prefix 'al--Haj' ('pilgrim') attached 
to the name, a cause for much merriment at teatime.

Decades later, when the pores of the Saudi elite were sweating 
petro--dollars, my father would remember the poverty he had seen in 
the Hijaz and recall the tales of non--Arab pilgrims who had been 
robbed on the road to Mecca. In the pre--oil period, the annual 
pilgrimage had been a major source of income for the locals, who 
would often augment their meagre earnings with well--organised raids 
on pilgrims' lodgings. The ceremony itself requires that the pilgrim 
come clothed in a simple white sheet and nothing else. All valuables 
have to be left behind and local gangs became especially adept at 
stealing watches and gold. Soon, the more experienced pilgrims 
realised that the 'pure souls' of Mecca weren't above thieving. They 
began to take precautions, and a war of wits ensued.

Several years after the trip to the Holy Land my father became an 
orthodox Communist and remained one for the rest of his life. Moscow 
was now his Mecca. Perhaps he thought that immersing me in religion 
at a young age might result in a similar transformation. I like to 
think that this was his real motive, and that he wasn't pandering to 
the more dim--witted members of our family. I came to admire my 
father for breaking away from what he described as 'the emptiness of 
the feudal world'.

Since I did not read Arabic, I could learn the Koran only by rote. My 
tutor, Nizam Din, arrived on the appointed day and thanks to his 
heroic efforts, I can at least recite the lines from the opening of 
the Koran -- 'Alif, lam, mim . . .' -- followed by the crucial: 'This 
book is not to be doubted.' Nizam Din, to my great delight, was not 
deeply religious. From his late teens to his late twenties, he had 
worn a beard. But by 1940 he'd shaved it off, deserted religion for 
the anti--imperialist cause and dedicated himself to left--wing 
politics. Like many others he had served a spell in a colonial prison 
and been further radicalised. Truth, he would say, was a very 
powerful concept in the Koran, but it had never been translated into 
practical life because the mullahs had destroyed Islam.

Nizam Din soon realised that I was bored by learning Koranic verses 
and we started to spend the allotted hour discussing history: the 
nationalist struggle against British imperialism, the origins of 
terrorism in Bengal and the Punjab, and the story of the Sikh 
terrorist Bhagat Singh, who had thrown a bomb in the Punjab 
Legislative Assembly to protest against repressive legislation and 
the 1919 massacre of Jallianwallah Bagh. Once imprisoned, he had 
refused to plead for mercy, but renounced terrorism as a tactic and 
moved closer to traditional Marxism. He was tried in secret and 
executed by the British in the Central Jail in Lahore, a 15--minute 
walk from where Nizam Din was telling me the story. 'If he had 
lived,' Nizam Din used to say, 'he would have become a leader the 
British really feared. And look at us now. Just because he was a 
Sikh, we haven't even marked his martyrdom with a monument.'

Nizam Din remembered the good times when all the villages in what was 
now Pakistan had Hindu and Sikh inhabitants; many of his non--Muslim 
friends had now left for India. 'They are pygmies,' he would say of 
Pakistan's politicians. 'Do you understand what I'm saying, Tariqji? 
Pygmies! Look at India. Observe the difference. Gandhi was a giant. 
Jawaharlal Nehru is a giant.' Over the years I learned far more about 
history, p0litics and everyday life from Nizam Din than I ever 
learned at school. But his failure to interest me in religion had 
been noted.

A young maternal uncle, who had grown a beard at an early age, 
volunteered to take on the task. His weekly visits to our house, 
which coincided with my return from school, irritated me greatly. We 
would pace the garden while, in unctuous tones, he related a version 
of Islamic history which, like him, was unconvincing and dull. There 
were endless tales of heroism, with the Prophet raised to the stature 
of a divinity, and a punitive Allah. As he droned on, I would watch 
the kites flying and tangling with each other in the afternoon sky, 
mentally replay a lost game of marbles, or look forward to the Test 
match between Pakistan and the West Indies. Anything but religion. 
After a few weeks he, too, gave up, announcing that my unbeliever's 
inheritance was too strong.

During the summer months, when the heat in the plains became 
unbearable, we would flee to the Himalayan foothills, to Nathiagali, 
then a tiny, isolated hill resort perched on a ridge in a thick pine 
forest and overlooked by the peaks. Here, in a relaxed atmosphere 
with almost no social restrictions, I met Pashtun boys and girls from 
the frontier towns of Peshawar and Mardan, and children from Lahore 
whom I rarely saw during the winter became summer friends. I acquired 
a taste for freedom. We had favourite hiding places: mysterious 
cemeteries where the tombstones had English names on them (many had 
died young) and a deserted Gothic church that had been charred by 

We also explored the many burned houses. How were they burned? I 
would ask the locals. Back would come the casual reply. 'They 
belonged to Hindus and Sikhs. Our fathers and uncles burned them.' 
Why? 'So they could never come back, of course.' Why? 'Because we are 
now Pakistan. Their home is India.' Why, I persisted, when they had 
lived here for centuries, just like your families, and spoke the same 
language, even if they worshipped different gods? The only reply was 
a shrug. It was strange to think that Hindus and Sikhs had been here, 
had been killed in the villages in the valleys below. In the tribal 
areas -- the no--man's--land between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- 
quite a few Hindus stayed on, protected by tribal codes. The same was 
true in Afghanistan itself (till the mujahedin and the Taliban 

One of my favourite spots in Nathiagali lay between two giant oaks. 
 From here one could watch the sun set on Nanga Parbat. The snow 
covering the peak would turn orange, then crimson, bathing the entire 
valley in its light. Here we would breathe the air from China, gaze 
in the direction of Kashmir and marvel at the moon. Given all this, 
why would one need a multi--layered heaven, let alone the seventh 
layer that belonged to us alone -- the Islamic paradise?

One day, to my horror, my mother informed me that a mullah from a 
neighbouring mountain village had been hired to make sure I completed 
my study of the Koran. She had pre--empted all my objections. He 
would explain what each verse meant. My summer was about to be 
wrecked. I moaned, groaned, protested, pleaded and tantrumed. To no 
avail. My friends were sympathetic, but powerless: most of them had 
undergone the same ritual.

Mullahs, especially the rural variety, were objects of ridicule, 
widely regarded as dishonest, hypocritical and lazy. It was generally 
believed that they had grown beards and chosen this path not out of 
spiritual fervour, but in order to earn a crust. Unless attached to a 
mosque, they depended on voluntary contributions, tuition fees and 
free meals. The jokes about them mostly concerned their sexual 
appetites; in particular, a penchant for boys below a certain age. 
The fictional mullah of the storytellers and puppet--shows who 
travelled from village to village was a greedy and lustful 
arch--villain; he used religion to pursue his desires and ambitions. 
He humiliated and cheated the poor peasants, while toadying to 
landlords and potentates.

On the dreaded day, the mullah arrived and, after eating a hearty 
lunch, was introduced to me by our family retainer, Khuda Baksh ('God 
Bless'), who had served in my grandfather's household and because of 
his status and age enjoyed a familiarity denied to other servants. 
God Bless was bearded, a staunch believer in the primacy of Islam, 
and said his prayers and fasted regularly. He was, however, deeply 
hostile to the mullahs, whom he regarded as pilferers, perverts and 
parasites. He smiled as the mullah, a man of medium height in his 
late fifties, exchanged greetings with me. We took our seats round a 
garden table placed to catch the warming sun. The afternoon chorus 
was in full flow. The air smelled of sun--roasted pine needles and 
wild strawberries.

When the mullah began to speak I noticed he was nearly toothless. The 
rhymed verse at once lost its magic. The few false teeth he had 
wobbled. I began to wonder if it would happen, and then it did: he 
became so excited with fake emotion that the false teeth dropped out 
onto the table. He smiled, picked them up and put them back in his 
mouth. At first, I managed to restrain myself, but then I heard a 
suppressed giggle from the veranda and made the mistake of turning 
round. God Bless, who had stationed himself behind a large 
rhododendron to eavesdrop on the lesson, was choking with silent 
laughter. I excused myself and rushed indoors.

The following week, God Bless dared me to ask the mullah a question 
before the lesson began. 'Were your false teeth supplied by the local 
butcher?' I enquired with an innocent expression, in an ultra--polite 
voice. The mullah asked me to leave: he wished to see my mother 
alone. A few minutes later he, too, left, never to return. Later that 
day he was sent an envelope full of money to compensate him for my 
insolence. God Bless and I celebrated his departure in the bazaar 
cafe with mountain tea and home--made biscuits. My religious studies 
ended there. My only duty was to substitute for my father once a year 
and accompany the male servants to Eid prayers at the mosque, a 
painless enough task.

Some years later, when I came to Britain to study, the first group of 
people I met were hard--core rationalists. I might have missed the 
Humanist Group's stall at the Fresher's Fair had it not been for a 
spotty Irishman, dressed in a faded maroon corduroy jacket, with a 
mop of untidy dark brown hair, standing on a table and in a 
melodious, slightly breathless voice shouting: 'Down with God!' When 
he saw me staring, he smiled and added 'and Allah' to the refrain. I 
joined on the spot and was immediately roped into becoming the 
Humanist rep at my college. Some time afterwards when I asked how he 
had known I was of Muslim origin rather than a Hindu or a 
Zoroastrian, he replied that his chant only affected Muslims and 
Catholics. Hindus, Sikhs and Protestants ignored him completely.

My knowledge of Islamic history remained slender and, as the years 
progressed, Pakistan regressed. Islamic studies were made compulsory 
in the 1970s, but children were given only a tiny sprinkling of 
history on a foundation of fairytales and mythology. My interest in 
Islam lay dormant till the Third Oil War in 1990.[2] The Second Oil 
War in 1967 had seen Israel, backed by the West, inflict a severe 
defeat on Arab nationalism, one from which it never really recovered. 
The 1990 war was accompanied in the West by a wave of crude 
anti--Arab propaganda. The level of ignorance displayed by most 
pundits and politicians distressed me, and I began to ask myself 
questions which, until then, had seemed barely relevant. Why had 
Islam not undergone a Reformation? Why had the Ottoman Empire not 
been touched by the Enlightenment? I began to study Islamic history, 
and later travelled to the regions where it had been made, especially 
those in which its clashes with Christendom had taken place.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all began as versions of what we 
would today describe as political movements. They were credible 
belief--systems which aimed to make it easier to resist imperial 
oppression, to unite a disparate people, or both. If we look at early 
Islam in this light, it becomes apparent that its Prophet was a 
visionary political leader and its triumphs a vindication of his 
action programme. Bertrand Russell once compared early Islam to 
Bolshevism, arguing that both were 'practical, social, unspiritual, 
concerned to win the empire of this world'. By contrast, he saw 
Christianity as 'personal' and 'contemplative'. Whether or not the 
comparison is apt, Russell had grasped that the first two decades of 
Islam had a distinctly Jacobin feel. Sections of the Koran have the 
vigour of a political manifesto, and at times the tone in which it 
addresses its Jewish and Christian rivals is as factional as that of 
any left--wing organisation. The speed with which it took off was 
phenomenal. Academic discussion as to whether the new religion was 
born in the Hijaz or Jerusalem or elsewhere is essentially of 
archaeological interest. Whatever its precise origins, Islam replaced 
two great empires and soon reached the Atlantic coast. At its height 
three Muslim empires dominated large parts of the globe: the Ottomans 
with Istanbul as their capital, the Safavids in Persia and the Mughal 
dynasty in India.

A good place for a historian of Islam to start would be 629 ad, or 
Year 8 of the new Muslim calendar, though that had yet to come into 
being. In that year, 20 armed horsemen, led by Sa'd ibn Zayd, were 
sent by Muhammad to destroy the statue of Manat, the pagan goddess of 
fate, at Qudayd, on the road between Mecca and Medina. For eight 
years Muhammad had tolerated the uneasy coexistence of the pagan male 
god Allah and his three daughters: al--Lat, al--Uzza and Manat. 
Al--Uzza (the morning star, Venus) was the favourite goddess of the 
Quraysh, the tribe to which Muhammad belonged, but Manat was the most 
popular in the region as a whole, and was idolised by three key 
Meccan tribes that Muhammad had been desperately trying to win over 
to his new monotheistic religion. By Year 8, however, three important 
military victories had been won against rival pagan and Jewish 
forces. The Battle of Badr had seen Muhammad triumph against the 
Meccan tribes despite the smallness of his army. The tribes had been 
impressed by the muscularity of the new religion, and Muhammad must 
have deemed further ideological compromise unnecessary. Sa'd ibn Zayd 
and his 20 horsemen had arrived to enforce the new monotheism.

The keeper of Manat's sanctuary saw the horsemen approach, but 
remained silent as they dismounted. No greetings were exchanged. 
Their demeanour indicated that they had not come to honour Manat or 
to leave a token offering. The keeper didn't stand in their way. 
According to Islamic tradition, as Sa'd ibn Zayd approached the 
beautifully carved statue of Manat, a naked black woman seemed to 
emerge from nowhere. The keeper called out: 'Come, O Manat, show the 
anger of which you are capable!' Manat began to pull out her hair and 
beat her breasts in despair, while cursing her tormentors. Sa'd beat 
her to death. Only then did his 20 companions join him. Together they 
hacked away until they had destroyed the statue. The sanctuaries of 
al--Lat and al--Uzza were dealt with in similar fashion, probably on 
the same day.

A seventh--century prophet could not become the true spiritual leader 
of a tribal community without exercising political leadership and, in 
the Peninsula, mastering the basics of horsemanship, sword--play and 
military strategy. Muhammad had understood the need to delay the 
final breach with polytheism until he and his companions were less 
isolated. However, once the decision to declare a strict monotheism 
was taken, no concessions were granted. The Christian Church had been 
forced into a permanent compromise with its pagan forebears, allowing 
its new followers to worship a woman who had conceived a child by 
God. Muhammad, too, could have picked one of Allah's daughters to 
form part of a new constellation -- this might even have made it 
easier to attract recruits -- but factional considerations acted as a 
restraint: a new religious party had to distinguish itself forcefully 
from Christianity, its main monotheistic rival, while simultaneously 
marginalising the appeal of contemporary paganism. The oneness of a 
patriarchal Allah appeared the most attractive option, essential not 
only to demonstrate the weakness of Christianity, but also to break 
definitively with the dominant cultural practices of the Peninsula 
Arabs, with their polyandry and their matrilinear past. Muhammad 
himself had been the third and youngest husband of his first wife, 
Khadija, who died three years before the birth of the Islamic 

Historians of Islam, following Muhammad's lead, would come to refer 
to the pre--Islamic period as the jahiliyya ('the time of 
ignorance'), but the influence of its traditions should not be 
underestimated. For the pre--Islamic tribes, the past was the 
preserve of poets, who also served as historians, blending myth and 
fact in odes designed to heighten tribal feeling. The future was 
considered irrelevant, the present all--important. One reason for the 
tribes' inability to unite was that the profusion of their gods and 
goddesses helped to perpetuate divisions and disputes whose real 
origins often lay in commercial rivalries.

Muhammad fully understood this world. He belonged to the Quraysh, a 
tribe that prided itself on its genealogy and claimed descent from 
Ishmael. Before his marriage, he had worked as one of Khadija's 
employees on a merchant caravan. He travelled a great deal in the 
region, coming into contact with Christians, Jews, Magians and pagans 
of every stripe. He would have had dealings with two important 
neighbours: Byzantine Christians and the fire--worshipping 
Zoroastrians of Persia.

Muhammad's spiritual drive was fuelled by socio--economic ambitions: 
by the need to strengthen the commercial standing of the Arabs, and 
to impose a set of common rules. He envisioned a tribal confederation 
united by common goals and loyal to a single faith which, of 
necessity, had to be new and universal. Islam was the cement he used 
to unite the Arab tribes; commerce was to be the only noble 
occupation. This meant that the new religion was both nomadic and 
urban. Peasants who worked the land were regarded as servile and 
inferior. A hadith (a reported saying of Muhammad's) quotes the 
Prophet's words on sighting a ploughshare: 'That never enters the 
house of the faithful without degradation entering at the same time.' 
Certainly the new rules made religious observance in the countryside 
virtually impossible. The injunction to pray five times a day, for 
example, played an important part in inculcating military discipline, 
but was difficult to manage outside the towns. What was wanted was a 
community of believers in urban areas, who would meet after prayers 
and exchange information. Unsurprisingly, peasants found it 
impossible to do their work and fulfil the strict conditions demanded 
by the new faith. They were the last social group to accept Islam, 
and some of the earliest deviations from orthodoxy matured in the 
Muslim countryside.

The military successes of the first Muslim armies were remarkable. 
The speed of their advance startled the Mediterranean world, and the 
contrast with early Christianity could not have been more pronounced. 
Within twenty years of Muhammad's death in 632, his followers had 
laid the foundations of the first Islamic empire in the Fertile 
Crescent. Impressed by these successes, whole tribes embraced the new 
religion. Mosques began to appear in the desert, and the army 
expanded. Its swift triumphs were seen as a sign that Allah was both 
omnipotent and on the side of the Believers.

These victories were no doubt possible only because the Persian and 
Byzantine Empires had been engaged for almost a hundred years in a 
war that had enfeebled both sides, alienated their populations and 
created an opening for the new conquerors. Syria and Egypt were part 
of the Byzantine Empire; Iraq was ruled by Sassanid Persia. All three 
now fell to the might and fervour of a unified tribal force.

Force of numbers didn't come into it -- nor did military strategy, 
although the ability of the Muslim generals to manoeuvre their camel 
cavalry and combine it with an effective guerrilla--style infantry 
confused an enemy used to small--scale nomadic raids. Much more 
important was the active sympathy which a sizeable minority of the 
local people demonstrated for the invaders. A majority remained 
passive, waiting to see which side would prevail, but they were no 
longer prepared to fight for or help the old empires.

The fervour of the unified tribes, on the other hand, cannot be 
explained simply by the appeal of the new religion or promises of 
untold pleasures in Paradise. The tens of thousands who flocked to 
fight under Khalid ibn al--Walid wanted the comforts of this world

In 638, soon after the Muslim armies took Jerusalem, Caliph Umar 
visited the city to enforce peace terms. Like other Muslim leaders of 
the period, he was modestly dressed; he was also dusty from the 
journey, and his beard was untrimmed. Sophronius, the Patriarch of 
Jerusalem, who greeted him, was taken aback by Umar's appearance and 
the absence of any attendant pomp. The chronicles record that he 
turned to a servant and said in Greek: 'Truly this is the abomination 
of desolation spoken of by Daniel the Prophet as standing in the holy 

The 'abomination of desolation' did not remain for long in Jerusalem. 
The strategic victories against the Byzantines and the Persians had 
been so easily achieved that the Believers were now filled with a 
sense of their own destiny. After all, they were, in their own eyes, 
the people whose leader was the final Prophet, the last ever to 
receive the message of God. Muhammad's vision of a universal religion 
as precursor to a universal state had captured the imagination, and 
furthered the material interests, of the tribes. When German tribes 
took Rome in the fifth century, they insisted on certain social 
privileges but they succumbed to a superior culture and, with time, 
accepted Christianity. The Arabs who conquered Persia preserved their 
monopoly of power by excluding non--Arabs from military service and 
temporarily restricting intermarriage, but although willing to learn 
from the civilisations they had overpowered, they were never tempted 
to abandon their language, their identity or their new faith.

The development of medicine, a discipline in which Muslims later 
excelled, provides an interesting example of the way knowledge 
travelled, was adapted and matured in the course of the first 
millennium. Two centuries before Islam, the city of Gondeshapur in 
south--western Persia became a refuge for dissident intellectuals and 
freethinkers facing repression in their own cities. The Nestorians of 
Edessa fled here in 489 after their school was closed. When, forty 
years later, the Emperor Justinian decreed that the school of 
Neoplatonic philosophers in Athens be closed, its students and 
teachers, too, made the long trek to Gondeshapur. News of this city 
of learning spread to neighbouring civilisations. Scholars from India 
and, according to some, even China arrived to take part in 
discussions with Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Christians and Syrians. The 
discussions ranged over a wide variety of subjects, but it was the 
philosophy of medicine that attracted the largest numbers.

Theoretical instruction in medicine was supplemented by practice in a 
bimaristan (hospital), making the citizens of Gondeshapur the most 
cared for in the world. The first Arab who earned the title of 
physician, Harith bin Kalada, was later admitted to the Court of the 
Persian ruler Chosroes Anushirwan and a conversation between the two 
men was recorded by scribes. According to this the physician advised 
the ruler to avoid over--eating and undiluted wine, to drink plenty 
of water every day, to avoid sex while drunk and to have baths after 
meals. He is reputed to have pioneered enemas to deal with 

Medical dynasties were well established in the city by the time of 
the Muslim conquest in 638. Arabs began to train in Gondeshapur's 
medical schools and the knowledge they acquired began to spread 
throughout the Muslim Empire. Treatises and documents began to flow. 
Ibn Sina and al--Razi, the two great Muslim philosopher--physicians 
of Islam, were well aware that the basis of their medical knowledge 
derived from a small town in Persia.

A new Islamic civilisation emerged, in which the arts, literature and 
philosophy of Persia became part of a common heritage. This was an 
important element in the defeat by the Abbasids, the cosmopolitan 
Persian faction within Islam, of the narrow nationalism of the Arab 
Umayyads in 750. Their victory reflected the transcending of Arabism 
by Islam, though the last remaining prince of the Umayyads, Abdel 
Rahman, managed to escape to al--Andalus, where he founded a 
caliphate in Cordoba. Rahman had to deal with the Jewish and 
Christian cultures he found there, and his city came to rival Baghdad 
as a cosmopolitan centre.

Caliph Umar's successors fanned out from Egypt to North Africa. A 
base was established and consolidated in the Tunisian city of 
al--Qayrawan, and Carthage became a Muslim city. Musa bin Nusayr, the 
Arab governor of Ifriqiya (present--day Libya, Tunisia and most of 
Algeria), established the first contact with continental Europe. He 
received promises of support and much encouragement from Count 
Julian, the Exarch of Septem (Ceuta in Morocco). In April 711, Musa's 
leading lieutenant, Tarik bin Ziyad, assembled an army of 7000 men, 
and crossed over to Europe near the rock which still bears his name, 
Jabal Tarik (or Gibraltar). Once again, the Muslim armies profited 
from the unpopul--arity of the ruling Visigoths. In July, Tarik 
defeated King Roderic, and the local population flocked to join the 
army that had rid them of an oppressive ruler. By the autumn, Cordoba 
and Toledo had both fallen. As it became clear that Tarik was 
determined to take the whole peninsula, an envious Musa bin Nusayr 
left Morocco with 10,000 men to join his victorious subordinate in 
Toledo. Together, the two armies marched north and took Zaragoza. 
Most of Spain was now under their control, largely thanks to the 
population's refusal to defend the ancien regime. The two Muslim 
leaders planned to cross the Pyrenees and march to Paris.

Rather than obtain permission from the Caliph in Damascus, however, 
they had merely informed him of their progress. Angered by their 
cavalier attitude to authority, the Commander of the Faithful 
dispatched messengers to summon the conquerors of Spain to the 
capital; they never saw Europe again. Others carried on the struggle, 
but the impetus was lost. At the Battle of Poitiers in October 732, 
Charles Martel's forces marked the end of the first Muslim century by 
inflicting a sobering defeat on the soldiers of the Prophet: naval 
bases remained in the South of France -- at Nice and Marseille, for 
example -- but, for now, Islam was largely confined to the Iberian 
peninsula. A century later, the Arabs took Sicily, but could only 
threaten the mainland. Palermo became a city of a hundred mosques; 
Rome remained sacrosanct. Xenophobic northern Italians still refer to 
Sicilians as 'Arabs'.

In 958, Sancho the Fat left his cold and windy castle in the Kingdom 
of Navarre in search of a cure for obesity, and went south to 
Cordoba, the capital of the western caliphate and, thanks to Caliph 
Abderrahman III, Europe's main cultural centre. Its closest rival lay 
in distant Mesopotamia, where a caliph from another dynasty presided 
over Baghdad. Both cities were renowned for their schools and 
libraries, musicians and poets, physicians and astronomers, mullahs 
and heretics, and also for their taverns and dancing girls. Cordoba 
had the edge in dissent. There, Islamic hegemony was not forcibly 
imposed; there had been genuine debates between the three religions, 
producing a synthesis from which native Islam benefited greatly.

The Great Mosque in Cordoba could only have been created by men who 
had participated in the city's intellectual ferment. The architects 
who built it in the eighth century understood that it was to 
represent a culture opposed to the Christian one which chose to 
occupy space with graven images. A mosque is intended as a void: all 
paths lead to emptiness, reality is affirmed through its negation. In 
the void, only the Word exists, but in Cordoba (and not only there) 
the Mosque was also intended as a political space, one in which the 
Koran might be discussed and analysed. The philosopher--poet Ibn Hazm 
would sit amid the sacred columns and chastise those Believers who 
refused to demonstrate the truth of ideas through argument. They 
would shout back that the use of the dialectic was forbidden. 'Who 
has forbidden it?' Ibn Hazm would demand, implying that they were the 
ones who were the enemies of true faith. In Baghdad they spoke half 
in admiration, half in fear, of the 'Andalusian heresy'.

It would be hundreds of years before this culture was obliterated. 
The fall of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in al--Andalus, in 1492 
marked the completion of that process: the first of Europe's 
attempted final solutions was the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and 
Jews from the Iberian peninsula. When he visited Cordoba in 1526, 
Charles I of Spain rebuked his priests: 'You have built what can be 
seen anywhere and destroyed what is unique.' The remark was generous 
enough, but Charles had not realised that the mosque had been 
preserved at all only because of the church that now lay inside it.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the Islamic world stretched 
from Central Asia to the Atlantic coast, though its political unity 
had been disrupted soon after the victory of the Abbasids. Three 
centres of power emerged: Baghdad, Cordoba and Cairo, each with its 
own caliph. Soon after the death of the Prophet, Islam had divided 
into two major factions, the Sunni majority and a Shia minority. The 
Sunnis ruled in al--Andalus, Algeria and Morocco in the Maghreb, 
Iran, Iraq and the regions beyond the Oxus. The Fatimid caliphs 
belonged to the Shia tradition, which claimed descent from the fourth 
Caliph, Ali, and his wife Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. The 
Fatimid caliphs had ruled parts of North Africa and lived in Tunisia 
till a Fatimid expeditionary force under the command of the legendary 
Slav General Jawhar captured Egypt, and Jahwar established a dynasty 
complete with caliph and built a new city -- Cairo.

Each of these regions had different traditions, and each had its own 
material interests and needs, which determined its policy of 
alliances and coexistence with the non--Islamic world. Religion had 
played a major part in building the new empire, but its rapid growth 
had created the conditions for its own dismemberment. Baghdad, the 
most powerful of the three caliphates, lacked the military strength 
and the bureaucracy needed to administer such a large empire. 
Sectarian schisms, notably a thirty--year war between the Sunni and 
Shia factions, had also played their part. Key rulers, politicians 
and military leaders in both camps had died in the years immediately 
preceding the First Crusade. 'This year,' the historian Ibn 
Taghribirdi wrote in 1094, 'is called the year of the death of 
caliphs and commanders.' The deaths sparked off wars of succession in 
both Sunni and Shia camps, further weakening the Arab world. The 
notion of a monolithic and all--powerful Islamic civilisation had 
ceased to have any purchase by the beginning of the 11th century, and 
probably earlier.

In 1099, after a forty--day siege, the Crusaders took Jerusalem. The 
killing lasted two whole days, at the end of which most of the Muslim 
population -- men, women and children -- had been killed. Jews had 
fought with Muslims to defend the city, but the entry of the 
Crusaders created panic. In remembrance of tradition, the Elders 
instructed the Jewish population to gather in the synagogue and to 
offer up a collective prayer. The Crusaders surrounded the building, 
set fire to it and made sure that every single Jew burned to death.

News of the massacres spread slowly through the Muslim world. The 
Caliph al--Mustazhir was relaxing in his palace in Baghdad when the 
venerable qadi[4] Abu Sa'ad al--Harawi, his head clean--shaven in 
mourning, burst into the royal quarters. He had left Damascus three 
weeks earlier, and the scene he encountered in the palace did not 
please him:

How dare you slumber in the shade of complacent safety, leading lives 
as frivolous as garden flowers, while your brothers in Syria have no 
dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of 
vultures? Blood has been spilled! Beautiful young girls have been 
shamed . . . Shall the valorous Arabs resign themselves to insult and 
the valiant Persians accept dishonour . . . Never have the Muslims 
been so humiliated. Never have their lands been so savagely 

The Crusaders settled in the region in the course of the 12th 
century, and many Muslim potentates, imagining that they were there 
to stay, began to collaborate with them commercially and militarily. 
A few of the Crusaders broke with Christian fundamentalism and made 
peace with their neighbours, but a majority continued to terrorise 
their Muslim and Jewish subjects, and reports of their violence 
circulated. In 1171, a Kurdish warrior, Salah al--Din (Saladin), 
defeated the Fatimid regime in Cairo and was acclaimed Sultan of 
Egypt. A few months later, on the death of his patron Nur al--Din, he 
marched to Damascus with his army and was made its Sultan. City after 
city accepted his suzerainty. The Caliph was afraid that Baghdad, 
too, would fall under the spell of the young conqueror. Though there 
was never any question of his assuming the Caliphate itself -- 
caliphs had to be from the Quraysh, and Saladin was a Kurd -- there 
may have been some concern that he would take the Caliphate under his 
aegis, as previous sultans had done. Saladin knew this, but he also 
knew that the Syrian aristocracy resented his Kurdish origins and 
'low upbringing'. It was best not to provoke them, and others like 
them, at a time when maximum unity was necessary. Saladin stayed away 
from Baghdad.

The union of Egypt and Syria, symbolised by prayers offered in the 
name of the one Caliph in the mosques of Cairo and Damascus, formed 
the basis for a concerted assault against the Crusaders. Patiently, 
Saladin embarked on an undertaking that had until then proved 
impossible: the creation of a unified Muslim army to liberate 
Jerusalem. The barbarousness of the First Crusade was of enormous 
assistance to him in uniting his soldiers: 'Regard the Franj,' he 
exhorted them. 'Behold with what obstinacy they fight for their 
religion, while we, the Muslims, show no enthusiasm for waging holy 

Saladin's long march ended in victory: Jerusalem was taken in 1187 
and once again made an open city. The Jews were provided with 
subsidies to rebuild their synagogues; the churches were left 
untouched. No revenge killings were permitted. Like Caliph Umar five 
hundred years before him, Saladin proclaimed the freedom of the city 
for worshippers of all faiths. But his failure to take Tyre was to 
prove costly. Pope Urban despatched the Third Crusade to take back 
the Holy City, and Tyre became the base of its operations. Its 
leader, Richard Plantagenet, reoccupied Acre, executing prisoners and 
slaughtering its inhabitants. Jerusalem, however, could not be 
retaken. For the next seven hundred years, with the exception of one 
short--lived and inconsequential Crusader occupation, the city 
remained under Muslim rule, and no blood was spilled.

The Crusades had disrupted a world already in slow decline. Saladin's 
victories had temporarily halted the process, but the internal 
structures of the Caliphate were damaged beyond repair, and new 
invaders were on the way. A Mongol army from Central Asia led by 
Timur (Marlowe's Tamburlaine) laid siege to Baghdad in 1401, calling 
on the Caliph to surrender and promising that if he did so, the city 
would be spared. Foolish and vain till the last, the Caliph refused, 
and the Mongol armies sacked the city. A whole culture perished as 
libraries were put to the torch, and Baghdad never recovered its 
pre--eminence as the capital of Islamic civilisation.

Despite its presence in India, which its armies had first entered in 
the eighth century, and, later, in north--western China, and despite 
its merchant fleets trading in the Indonesian archipelago, in 
southern China, and off the east and west coasts of Africa, Islam's 
centre of gravity was by the 14th century moving in the direction of 
the Bosphorus. On four occasions Muslim armies had laid siege to 
Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christianity. Each time the 
city had survived. But from 1300, the frontier emirate of Anatolia 
began slowly to eat into Byzantine territory, and in 1453 old dreams 
were realised and the ancient city of Byzantium acquired its present 
name: Istanbul. Its new ruler was Mehmet II, whose forebear, Uthman, 
had founded the dynasty bearing his name over a hundred years earlier.

The Ottoman dynasty inaugurated its reign by opening a new Islamic 
front in South--East Europe, just as Islamic civilisation was about 
to collapse in the Iberian peninsula. In the course of the 14th 
century, the Ottomans took Hungary, swallowed the Balkans, nibbled 
away at the Ukraine and Poland, and threatened Vienna. Throughout the 
15th and 16th centuries, a majority of Muslims lived under the rule 
of the Ottoman, the Safavid (Persian) or the Mughal (Indian) empires. 
The Sultan in Istanbul was recognised as Caliph by the majority and 
became the caretaker of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Arabic 
remained the religious language but Turkish became the Court 
vernacular, used by the ruling family and administrative and military 
elites throughout the Empire, though most of the religious, 
scientific, literary and legal vocabulary was lifted from Persian and 
Arabic. The Ottoman state, which was to last five hundred years, 
recognised and protected the rights of Christians and Jews. Many of 
the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal after the Reconquest were 
granted refuge in Ottoman lands and a large number returned to the 
Arab world, settling not just in Istanbul, but in Baghdad, Cairo and 

Jews were not the only privileged refugees. During the wars of the 
Reformation German, French and Czech Protestants fleeing Catholic 
revenge--squads were also given protection by the Ottoman sultans. 
Here, there was an additional political motive. The Ottoman state 
closely followed developments in the rest of Europe, and vigorously 
defended its interests by means of diplomatic, trade and cultural 
alliances with major powers. The Pope, however, was viewed with 
suspicion, and revolts against Catholicism were welcomed in Istanbul.

Ottoman sultans began to feature in Eur--opean folklore, often 
demonised and vulgarised, but the sultans themselves were always 
conscious of their place in geography and history, as evidenced in 
this modest letter of introduction sent by Suleiman the Magnificent, 
who reigned from 1520 to
1566, to the French King:

I who am the Sultan of Sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the 
dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, the 
shadow of God on Earth, the Sultan and sovereign lord of the White 
Sea and of the Black Sea, of Rumelia and of Anatolia, of Karamania, 
of the land of Rum, of Zulkadria, of Diyarbekir, of Kurdistan, of 
Aizerbaijan, of Persia, of Damascus, of Aleppo, of Cairo, of Mecca, 
of Medina, of Jerusalem, of all Arabia, of Yemen and of many other 
lands which my noble fore--fathers and my glorious ancestors (may 
Allah light up their tombs!) conquered by the force of their arms and 
which my August Majesty has made subject to my flaming sword and my 
victorious blade, I, Sultan Suleiman Khan, son of Sultan Selim, son 
of Sultan Bayezid: To thee, who art Francis, King of the land of 

The tolerance shown to Jews and Protestants was rarely, if ever, 
extended to heretics within Islam, however. The mullahs ensured that 
punishment was brutal and swift. To deter heresies they jealously 
safeguarded their monopoly of information and power, opposing all 
moves to import a printing press to Istanbul. 'Remember Martin 
Luther,' the qadi warned the Sultan. The Reformation could be 
supported because it served to divide Christianity, but the very idea 
of a Muslim Luther was unacceptable. The clerics knew the early 
history of Islam and were determined not to repeat it.

Unlike Christianity, Islam had not spent its first hundred years in 
the wilderness. Instead, its early leaders had rapidly found 
themselves at the head of large empires, and a great deal of 
improvisation had been required. According to some scholars, the 
first authorised version of the Koran was published some thirty years 
after the death of Muhammad, its accuracy guaranteed by the third 
Caliph, Uthman. Others argued that it appeared much later, but 
Koranic prescriptions, while quite detailed on certain subjects, 
could not provide the complete code of social and political conduct 
needed to assert an Islamic hegemony. The hadith filled the gap: it 
consisted of what the Prophet had said at a particular time to X or 
Y, who had then passed it on to Z, who had informed the author, who 
in turn recorded the 'tradition'. Christianity had done something 
similar, but confined it to four gospels, editing out or smoothing 
over contradictions along the way. Scholars and scribes began 
collating the hadith in the seventh and eighth centuries, and there 
have been ferocious arguments regarding the authenticity of 
particular traditions ever since. It is likely that more than 90 per 
cent of them were invented.

The point is not their authenticity, however, but the political role 
they have played in Islamic societies. The origins of Shi'ism, for 
example, lie in a disputed succession. After Muhammad's death, his 
Companions elected Abu--Bakr as his successor and, after his death, 
Umar. If Ali, Muhammad's son--in--law, resented this, he did not 
protest. His anger was provoked, however, by the election of the 
third Caliph, Uthman. Uthman, from the Umayya clan, represented the 
tribal aristocracy of Mecca, and his victory annoyed a loyalist old 
guard. Had the new Caliph been younger and more vigorous he might 
have managed to effect a reconciliation, but Uthman was in his 
seventies, an old man in a hurry, and he appointed close relatives 
and clan members to key positions in the newly conquered provinces. 
In 656 he was murdered by Ali's supporters, whereupon Ali was 
anointed as the new Caliph.

Islam's first civil war followed. Two old Companions, Talha and 
al--Zubair, called on troops who had been loyal to Uthman to rebel 
against Ali. They were joined by Aisha, the Prophet's young widow. 
Aisha, mounted on a camel, exhorted her troops to defeat the usurper 
at Basra, in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Camel, 
but it was Ali's army that triumphed. Talha and al--Zubair died in 
the battle; Aisha was taken prisoner and returned to Medina, where 
she was placed under virtual house--arrest. Another battle took 
place, in which Ali was outmanoeuvred by the Umayyads. His decision 
to accept arbitration and defeat annoyed hardliners in his own 
faction, and in 661 he was assassinated outside a mosque in Kufa. His 
opponent, the brilliant Umayyad General Muawiya, was recognised as 
Caliph, but Ali's sons refused to accept his authority and were 
defeated and killed in the Battle of Kerbala by Muawiya's son Yazid. 
That defeat led to a permanent schism within Islam. Henceforth, Ali's 
faction -- or shiat -- were to create their own traditions, dynasties 
and states, of which modern Iran is the most prominent example.

It would have been surprising if these military and intellectual 
civil wars -- tradition v. counter--tradition, differing schools of 
interpretation, disputes about the authenticity of the Koran itself 
-- had not yielded a fine harvest of sceptics and heretics. What is 
remarkable is that so many of them were tolerated for so long. Those 
who challenged the Koran were usually executed, but many poets, 
philosophers and heretics expanded the frontiers of debate and 
dissent. Andalusian philosophers, for example, usually debated within 
the codes of Islam, but the 12th--century Cordoban, Ibn Rushd, 
occasionally transgressed them. Known in the Latin world as Averroes, 
he was the son and grandson of qadis, and his other grandfather had 
served as the Imam of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Ibn Rushd himself 
had been the qadi in both Seville and Cordoba, though he had to flee 
the latter when the mullahs banned him from entering the Great Mosque 
and ordered his books to be burned. These clashes with orthodoxy 
sharpened his mind, but also put him on his guard. When the 
enlightened Sultan Abu Yusuf questioned him about the nature of the 
sky, the astronomer--philosopher did not initially reply. Abu Yusuf 
persisted: 'Is it a substance which has existed for all eternity or 
did it have a beginning?' Only when the ruler indicated his awareness 
of ancient philosophy did Ibn Rushd respond by explaining why 
rationalist methods were superior to religious dogma. When the Sultan 
indicated that he found some of Aristotle's work obscure and wished 
it to be explained, Ibn Rushd obliged with his Commentaries, which 
attracted the attention of Christian and Jewish theologians. The 
Commentaries served a dual function. They were an attempt to 
systematise Aristotle's vast body of work and to introduce 
rationalism and anti--mysticism to a new audience, but also to move 
beyond it and promote rational thought as a virtue in itself.

Two centuries earlier, Ibn Sina (980--1037), a Persian scholar known 
in the Latin world as Avicenna, had laid the basis for a study of 
logic, science, philosophy, politics and medicine. His skills as a 
physician led his employers, the native rulers of Khurasan and 
Isfahan, to seek his advice on political matters. Often, he gave 
advice that annoyed his patrons, and had to leave town in a hurry. 
His Kanun fi'l--tibb ('Medical Canon') became the major textbook in 
medical schools throughout the Islamic world -- sections of it are 
still used in contemporary Iran. His Kitab al--Insaf ('Book of 
Impartial Judgment'), dealing with 28,000 different philosophical 
questions, was lost when Isfahan was sacked during his lifetime by a 
rival potentate: he had lodged his only copy at the local library.

The stories of Ibn Hazm, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd demonstrate the 
potential for semi--official thought during Islam's first five 
hundred years. The last two, in particular, chafed at the 
restrictions of religious orthodoxy, but like Galileo after them, 
chose to live and continue their researches in preference to 
martyrdom. Others, however, were more outspoken. The ninth--century 
Baghdad heretic, Ibn al--Rawandi, wrote several books that questioned 
the basic principles of monotheism. The Mu'tazilite sect, to which he 
had once belonged, believed that it was possible to combine 
rationalism and belief in one God. They questioned the Revelation, 
rejected predestination, insisted that the Koran was a created and 
not a revealed book, and criticised the quality of its composition, 
its lack of eloquence and the impurity of its language. Only Reason 
dictated obligation to God.[7] Ibn al--Rawandi went further still, 
arguing that religious dogma was always inferior to reason, because 
only through reason could one attain integrity and moral stature. The 
ferocity of his assault first surprised, then united Islamic and 
Jewish theologians, who denounced him mercilessly. None of his 
original work has survived, and we know of him and his writings 
mainly through Muslim and Jewish critics' attempts to refute his 
heresies. However, he also makes a remarkable appearance in the work 
of the poet--philosopher Abu al--Ala al--Ma'ari (973--1058), whose 
epic poem Risalat al--Ghufran ('Treatise on Forgiveness'), set in 
Paradise and Hell, has Ibn al--Rawandi berating God: 'Thou didst 
apportion the means of livelihood to Thy creatures like a drunk 
revealing his churlishness. Had a man made such a division, we would 
have said to him: "You swindler! Let this teach you a lesson."'

The guardians of Islam during the Ottoman period knew this history 
well and were determined to prevent any challenge to Muslim 
orthodoxy. This may have preserved the dynasty, but it sank the 
Empire. By keeping Western European inventions, ideologies and 
scientific advances at bay, the clerics sealed the fate of the 
caliphate. But in the view of the majority of Muslims, the Ottomans 
had preserved the Islamic heritage, extended the frontiers of their 
religion, and, in the Arab East, created a new synthesis: an Ottoman 
Arab culture that united the entire region by means of a state 
bureaucracy presiding over a common administration and financial 
system. The Ottoman state, like other Muslim empires of the period, 
was characterised by three basic features: the absence of private 
property in the countryside, where the cultivator did not own and the 
owner (the state) did not cultivate; the existence of a powerful, 
non--hereditary bureaucratic elite in the administrative centres; and 
a professional, trained army with a slave component.

By abolishing the traditional tribal aristocracy and forbidding the 
ownership of landed estates, the Ottomans had preserved their 
position as the only dynasty in the Empire, and the only repository 
of a quasi--divine power. To combat dynastic threats, they created a 
civil service recruited from every part of the Empire. The devshirme 
system forced Christian families in the Balkans and elsewhere to part 
with a son, who became the property of the state. He was sheltered, 
fed and educated until he was old enough to train in the academy as a 
soldier or bureaucrat. Thus Circassians, Albanians, Slavs, Greeks, 
Armenians and even Italians rose to occupy the highest offices of the 

Traditional hostility to the ploughshare determined the urban bias of 
the dynasties that ruled large tracts of the Islamic world, but to 
what extent was this attitude also responsible for the absence of 
landed property? This was not a local phenomenon: not one of the 
caliphates favoured the creation of a landed gentry or 
peasant--ownership or the existence of communal lands. Any 
combination of these would have aided capital--formation, which might 
have led to industrialisation, as it later did in Western Europe. The 
sophisticated agricultural techniques employed by the Arabs in Spain 
can be adduced to prove that working on the land was not taboo, but 
these techniques were generally confined to land surrounding towns, 
where cultivation was intense and carried out by the townsfolk. Rural 
land was rented from the state by middlemen, who in turn hired 
peasants to work on it. Some of the middlemen did become wealthy, but 
they lived and spent their money in the towns.

In Western Europe, the peculiarities of the feudal system -- the 
relative autonomy enjoyed by village communities organised round 
communal lands, combined with the limited but real sovereignties of 
vassals, lords and liege lords -- encouraged the growth of small 
towns in the Middle Ages. The countryside still dominated, but 
political power was feudal power -- that is, it wasn't centralised. 
In the towns, trade and manufacturing was controlled by the guilds. 
In this arrangement lay the origins of modern capitalism. The 
subordination of the countryside in the Islamic world, with its a 
rigidly dynastic political structure dependent on a turbulent 
military caste, meant that the caliphates could not withstand the 
political and economic challenge posed by Western Europe. Radical 
nationalist impulses began to develop in the Ottoman lands as early 
as the late 18th century, when Turkish officers, influenced by the 
French Revolution and, much later, by Comte, began to plot against 
the regime in Istanbul. The main reason that the Ottomans staggered 
on till the First World War is that the three vultures eyeing the 
prey -- the British Empire, tsarist Russia and the Habsburgs -- could 
not agree on a division of the spoils. The only solution appeared to 
be to keep the Empire on its knees.

The First World War ended with the defeat of the Ottomans, who had 
aligned themselves with the Kaiser. As the triumphant powers were 
discussing how to divide their booty, a Turkish nationalist force led 
by Kemal Pasha (later Ataturk) staked its claim to what is now 
Turkey, preventing the British from handing over Istanbul to the 
Greeks. For the first time in its history, thanks to Ataturk, Islam 
was without a caliph or even a pretender. Britain would have 
preferred to defeat and dump Ataturk, while hanging on to the Caliph, 
who could have become a pensioner of imperialism, kept for ceremonial 
occasions, like the last Mughal in Delhi before the 1857 Mutiny. It 
was the discovery of black gold underneath the Arabian desert that 
provided the old religion with the means and wherewithal to revive 
its culture while Britain created new sultans and emirs to safeguard 
their newest and most precious commodity. Throughout the 20th 
century, the West, to safeguard its own economic interests, supported 
the most backward, despotic and reactionary survivals from the past, 
helping to defeat all forms of secularism. As we know, the story is 

Tariq Ali is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. He is the author 
of The Stone Woman. His new book The Clash of Fundamentalisms: 
Crusades, Jihads and Modernity will be published in April by Verso.

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