[Reader-list] Mullahs and Heretics

abir bazaz abirbazaz at rediffmail.com
Thu Feb 28 13:57:51 IST 2002

London Review of Books
 From Volume 24 Number 3

Mullahs and Heretics
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 non-existence.

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. Café 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 

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 

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'.[1]

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 lightning.

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 arrived).

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 

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 

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 café 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 

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 

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 calendar.

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 

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 

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 

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 place.'

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 constipation.

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 Córdoba. 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, Córdoba 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 régime. 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 Córdoba, 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. Córdoba 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 Córdoba 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 Córdoba 
(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 Córdoba 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, Córdoba 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 devastated.

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.[5] 'Behold with what obstinacy they 
fight for their religion, while we, the Muslims, show no 
enthusiasm for waging holy war.'[6]

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 

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 

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 Damascus.

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 France.

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 

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 

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 

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 Córdoban, 
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 
Córdoba. Ibn Rushd himself had been the qadi in both Seville and 
Córdoba, 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 

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."'

TThe 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 Empire.

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 unfinished.

1 Empty the feudal world may have been on several levels, but it 
always knew how to defend its class interests. My father's 
membership of the Communist Party of India did not ruffle as many 
feathers as he had imagined it would. He was approached by his 
father and cousins and offered a safe seat - 'safe' in the sense 
that, like several others in the region, it was controlled by our 
family - in the 1946 elections to the Punjab Legislative Assembly, 
which was to help determine the make-up of the Constituent 
Assembly after the birth of Pakistan in 1947. He took the offer to 
the Politburo of the CPI. The comrades were tempted by the thought 
of gaining easy representation, but finally decided to reject the 
offer as unprincipled. The person chosen to contest the seat for 
the CPI was a veteran working-class militant, Fazal Elahi Qurban, 
who picked up a few hundred votes as a result of some intensive 
canvassing by my parents. The actual victor was some obscure 
relation whose name I cannot recall.

2 In this chronology, the First Oil War (my coinage) was fought in 

3 The ninth-century weaver-poet, Abu Tamman wrote: 'No, not for 
Paradise did you forsake the nomad life:/Rather, I believe, it was 
your yearning for bread and dates.' Similarly, Ahmad al-Baladhuri, 
an Arab historian from the same century, cites Rustum, the 
defeated Persian General, as saying to an Arab envoy: 'I have 
learned that you were forced to do what you are doing by poverty 
and the need for a livelihood.'

4 The senior judicial officer in an Islamic city, responsible for 
the maintenance of law and order.

5 The prestige of the Franks was such that Muslims used their name 
to refer to all West Europeans.

6 Contrary to common belief, the concept of jihad as 'holy war' 
has a limited pedigree. After the early victories of Islam it had 
been quietly dropped as a mobilising slogan until revived by 
Zbigniew Brzezinski in the early 1980s. Brzezinski stood on the 
Pakistan-Afghan border wearing a Pashtun turban and shouted for 
the benefit of the TV cameras: 'Go and wage the jihad. Allah is on 
your side.'

7 Remarkably, this sect held power in Baghdad from 827 to 847 and 
three successive caliphs forced state officials, theologians and 
qadis to accept that the Koran was created.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Stone Woman. The Clash of 
Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity will be published 
by Verso.

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