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~ Saturday, January 17, 2004
 
Amalek
Jonathan Edelstein has a post on the Jewish tradition regarding Amalek, which he considers potentially similar to the Muslim jihad. In the book of Exodus, the Amalek were a group who attacked the Hebrews as they fled Egypt, leading to a commandment to the Hebrews to exterminate the Amalek. When I was a freshman I became rather obsessed with the Amalek, though my professors didn't really know anything about them. I found a bit of irony in his post because the Amalek also turn up in the medieval Islamic historical tradition, though not with religious implications.

I don't know anything about this site, but it does remind me of the basic story. The Amalek were among the greatest of th Arab tribes in the ancient world, and were custodians of the Ka'aba in Mecca. Following some rather elaborate natural upheavels, they left and went to Egypt, where they ruled as pharaohs. (The linked site, which melds together Hebrew and Arab sources, also gets from somewhere that the Amalek later converted to Judaism, which would probably really screw with the minds of certain Jewish militants.)

The identity of the Amalek has always intrigued me because it is unclear from the existing sources why they get to be Public Enemy #1 for ancient Israel. I remember Immanuel Velikovsky (whose theories I am not here touting) equated them with the Hyksos, partly on the basis of the Arab traditions mentioned above. Both Arab and Hebrew traditions tout them as extremely powerful - in the book of Numbers, they are called the greatest of nations, a designation that in that time better seems to fit Egypt. However, I don't see any easy way to learn more.

Ultimately, the identity of the Amalek lies in the historical issues surrounding the Exodus itself, where I am rather unorthodox, though Biblical scholarship is in no way my field. I think the Pentateuch should be regarded as oral tradition, and in oral tradition it is the specifics which are usually late additions, not the generalities. Most scholars place the historical Exodus in the reign of Ramses II on the basis of the Pi-thom and Ramses mentions and the fact that the first historical mention of Israel is on a stele of Ramses's son Merneptah. However, I've been reading al-Tabari, and for remote periods he reports traditions about stuff happening in cities that didn't exist at the time, like Nebuchadnezzar's connections to al-Hira. I can easily see Pi-thom and Ramses getting tacked onto an existing tradition about Hebrew slavery in Egypt.

What I believe is that the Exodus story functions kind of like the bursting of the Ma'rib dam in Arab tradition - a period of great upheavel in which various tribes found in convenient to postulate genealogical links. Viewing it as oral tradition, I'm more inclined to believe in the plagues than the exact cities. There may have been a tribe working at Pi-thom and Ramses. There may have been a tribe that fought the Amalek. These need not have been the same. The Biblical story of the Exodus is then a theologically interpreted editing of the oral traditions of different tribal groups which made links in very ancient Israel. And that would mean that the historical Amalek could eventually be found at any time over a several-century period.
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Dean's Internet Policy
Joe Gratz has written a study of Howard Dean's Internet policy that is worth reading. As he notes at the end, it's important that we elect a candidate who can get these issues right, because today's decisions on the future of cyberspace will have repercussions for our lifetimes and beyond.

Incidentally, blogging has been light recently because I've been busy either here, here or here.
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~ Friday, January 16, 2004
 
PA vs. al-Arabiyah
The al-Arabiyah TV network is apparently in trouble with the PA for refusing to call all dead Palestinians "martyred." The analysis sounds simplistic, but the events are interesting. Via Chris Blanchard.
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~ Thursday, January 15, 2004
 
Daily Kos
I see one of my occasional on-line haunts has made the news.
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Saudi Public Opinion
Gulf News reports on a survey of social attitudes among male secondary school students in Saudi Arabia. It sounds more like a focus group study than an actual survey, but the results aren't terribly encouraging, as respondents expressed concern over the possibility women might gain more freedoms.
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Turkmenbashi's Army
Saparmurat Niyazov, the ruthless dictator of Turkmenistan, has been engaged in a military build-up. He apparently fears diplomatic and economic isolation resulting from criticism of his human rights record, and is hoping for some sort of security guarantees. His moves seem mostly defensive, such as strengthening coastal defenses. I don't think anyone actually plans to invade Turkmenistan in the near future, so this may indicate he's falling further into the "paranoid dictator" mindset.
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~ Wednesday, January 14, 2004
 
Saddam and the Jihadists
I have too much dissertation momentum to do much substantive posting today, but I can't resist asking if this news that Saddam warned his loyalists not to trust the jihadists means he was unlikely to give jihadist terrorists weapons of mass destruction, supposedly the major reason we deposed him. Also, if he was really the main obstacle to cooperation between Iraqis and terrorists, has deposing him, however noble in humanitarian terms and a decent thing to do under other circumstances, really helped us against the immediate threat of al-Qaeda terrorism?
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Enterprise Quiz
This doesn't seem right, somehow. Via Procrastination:


You're Lt. Malcolm Reed. Your philosophy is that it's better to be safe than sorry. You love your job and are a bit of a perfectionist. When it comes to the opposite sex (or the same sex, depending) you become shy. You get cranky if you don't have something to blow up every once and a while.

Take the Enterprise Quiz!

Brought to you by redanubis.

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Islamic Law in Iraq
An important story I just found via Juan Cole:

"As reported here earlier, the IGC took a decision recently to abolish Iraq's civil personal status law, which was uniform for all Iraqis under the Baath. In its place, the IGC called for religious law to govern personal status, to be administered by the clerics of each of Iraq's major religious communities for members of their religion. Thus, Shiites would be under Shiite law and Chaldeans under Catholic canon law for these purposes...The IGC has ceded to the religious codes jurisdiction over marriage, engagement, suitability to marry, the marriage contract, proof of marriage, dowry, financial support, divorce, the 3-month "severance payments" owed to divorced wives in lieu of alimony, inheritance, and all other personal status matters."
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~ Tuesday, January 13, 2004
 
Indonesians in Africa
Ed Cohn afficionados will have seen this piece in The Guardian about a theory that Indonesians were primarily responsible for the creation of African culture. I basically agree with Ed that this is more a media-friendly surprise theory than serious history, but also want to note that there is evidence of an Indonesian presence in the western Indian Ocean for very early periods, and that Malagasy is actually the westernmost Polynesian language. I vaguely remember reading an essay in this book that went into these issues, but don't recall the details.
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Yeesh!
In an otherwise decent Washington Post article about the state of Middle East Studies, Michael Dobbs says something that is simply wrong: "A favorite target for Campus Watch is the late Edward Said, a Columbia University professor best known for his book "Orientalism," which denounced the "neo-colonialist" policies of successive U.S. administrations." Excuse me? Does Orientalism even mention a single American President? He's trying to write a historical critique of the field of orientalism using the Foucauldian concept of discourse. Since Orientalism's influence is at the center of the critique of Middle East Studies made by people like Martin Kramer, you'd think a reporter could at least get a key fact straight.
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The Iranian Situation
Abu Aardvark reads that Iranian leader Ali Khamene'i may permit the banned reformists to run in the election after all. The major weakness of the reformists has long been their refusal to work outside the system - Khatami has more resembled a Gorbachev in the late 1980's than a Yeltsin during the coup. Now, however, they are taking some serious stands, such as the threat of resignation from all the provincial governors. Developing...
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~ Monday, January 12, 2004
 
Sunni Islamic Law
A lot of people ask me about Islamic law, how it works, and what I mean when I talk about the different schools. So I thought I'd write this post on Sunni Islamic law, to be followed later by one on Shi'ism.

"Islamic law" is a translation of the Arabic term "shari'a," which literally refers to a path. In this case, it is the path of a believing Muslim in doing God's will, and encompasses all aspects of Muslim life both public and private. The people the media refer to as clerics are better thought of as scholars (ulama), for they do not adminster sacraments, but instead study shari'a and show the people the proper way to live. Although all Muslims are supposed to gain some knowledge of shari'a, in practical terms most simply choose a famous scholar and follow his example.

Islamic law derives from four sources: the Qur'an, the Sunna (tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, based on the Hadith, which are individual accounts of his words and deeds), analogy from the Qur'an and Sunna (qiyas), and the consensus of the Muslim community (ijma). Using these sources, religious scholars perform ijtihad, which means to strive for correct judgement and is used to refer to the practice of independent reasoning on legal questions using the four sources of Islamic law. Over time, scholars divided into schools of thought, or in Arabic madhhab, meaning "path." These differ on the basis of methodology - how one comes to a conclusion is more important that the actual conclusion. Of these, four had lasting importance, and in the middle ages most cities had judges in each of the four so everyone could follow their own way. These are:

1.) Hanafi: Accepts local custom as another possible source of law, allows great liberty to individual scholars, as the favored school of the Turkish peoples it became prevalent throughout the old Ottoman Empire, as well as South and Central Asia and is today followed by the majority of Muslims
2.) Maliki: Places emphasis on the practice of Medina as the community founded by Muhammad, prevalent in North Africa, West Africa and in days of yore Muslim Spain
3.) Shafi'i: Believes the both Qur'an and Sunna are infallible, and tries to reconcile contradictions while placing little emphasis on analogy and consensus, it is followed today in Egypt, southern Arabia, Southeast Asia, East Africa and Chechnya and is considered the most lenient
4.) Hanbali: Elevates the Qur'an and Sunna above all else, considered the strictest, significant in the Arabian peninsula

Now in order to understand how this works in the modern world, we need to keep in mind a concept known as "The Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad." At some point, the belief grew up among Muslims that around the year 1000, all the questions of life had been settled and independent reasoning was no longer useful. This was never actually a universal belief, but was common enough that the study of shari'a gradually became more and more tied to the past. This has interesting effects for our impression of the madhhabs. For example, based on procedure, the Hanafi looks fairly liberal. After all, a Hanafi scholar in California could very easily include Californian customs as one of his sources, and produce some rather liberal views. If the gates of ijtihad are closed, however, we're left with rulings based on the customs of 10th-century Turkestan, which were somewhat different, and in some areas, such as women's rights, the Hanafi is actually the most conservative school.

In reality, however, the "gates of ijtihad" were never quite latched, and by the 18th century, Muslim reformers had emerged to challenge the status quo. The most influential was Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who sought to "purify" the Hanbali branch of what he thought were pagan influences. A group of scholars called the Deobandis did the same thing with the Hanafi, leading to the brand of Islam practiced by the Taliban. The obvious thing to regret here, of course, is that these influential reformers have been coming at things from the wrong end, so to speak. More liberal voices are out there, too, but generally don't make headlines or take over countries, so most liberal Muslims find themselves looking at secularism as the main alternative to Islamic law as handed down through the centuries.

So the key points: Islamic law at its core is not a set code of conduct, but a diverse field of inquiry with many differences of opinion. Nonetheless, the conservative trends that cropped up during the past millennium have left it with a very conservative stamp. When Islamic law is adopted, the theoretical potential exists for a sort of "rethinking" if the community to which it is applied considers ijtihad legitimate in the modern world. Whether or not such development actually takes place is a subject for another time, and perhaps someone who specializes more on the 20th century. Individuals, of course, follow shari'a all the time, each according to their own conscience. Because many acts are classified as either "praiseworthy" or "reprehensible" instead of just "obligatory" or "forbidden," and because even with prohibited stuff penalties often involve God's judgement rather than a government's, this is very much within the historical mainstream of Islamic spirituality.

UPDATE: JB suggests a couple of resources for the 20th century.
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In a Time of Shortage...
Last fall, I was annoyed that I couldn't find a source for how Democrats had tried to make undergraduates eligible for FLAS funding, only to be blocked by the GOP despite the shortage of Arabic speakers currently hindering our national security efforts. Now, I have found one. Ron Kind and Chris Van Hollen proposed the unsuccessful amendment.
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Feminists and Hijab
Ikram Saeed has a post on the hijab controversy in France and a link to this Globe and Mail article by Sheema Khan on the same subject. A common point they share is that with regards to Islam, the recent French measures against personal religious displays fall disproportionately upon Muslim women.

My comment here is on Western attitudes toward Muslim dress in general rather than the French law under discussion. For many Westerners, especially feminists, hijab is seen as the physical expression of a Muslim misogyny that also includes everything from honor killings to forced marriages. In doing so, they unconsciously fall into a mindset where Islam is a religion which needs to be reformed with the help of a supposedly superior West. Because they make these links, they object strenuously to a religious choice made by many women, while ignoring the choices made by men who choose to wear beards, for example.

When I was in the Arab world, I found that standards of modesty were higher for both men and women. You could not wear shorts, for example, and nice jeans was the lower limit of public acceptability. Behavior patterns were also different. Above and beyond that, everyone finds their own level at which they are comfortable. Questions of cultural conflict arise when these informal dress codes are transferred to a different milieu. In the West, we have people who wear nice slacks to class even in summer, choose to grow beards and avoid profanity, but we do not have women who choose to wear headscarves unless it's cold out. Well-meaning feminists pick up on this difference as dangerous, a sign that women are being hidden from view (note the passive voice) as a means of disempowering them. Yet in reality, every hijabi student I have had in class has been an active student leader, and not just in the Muslim Students Association.

It is true that some men may force their wives or daughters to dress a certain way against their will. But if you're going to crack down on domestic abuse, mental cruelty, and that sort of thing, let's do it on those grounds for all citizens, regardless of their religion. Forcing women to choose between their religious convictions and their opportunities for a public life is not a policy for a progressive society.
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~ Sunday, January 11, 2004
 
Spain
Have any of my readers ever been to Spain? In thinking about my planned Morocco travels, I've discovered that flying into Madrid is substantially cheaper than heading directly anywhere in Morocco, and so was considering that option. However, if it costs a few hundred dollars to get from Madrid to Fez, there would be no point. I'm assuming it won't, but I'm trying to get a better sense of the overall landscape.
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Dean Supporters
Over at the Dean campaign blog, Deaniacs are coming up with ads to refute the laugh-inducing Club for Growth spot. Some of the results are rather amusing.
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Iraqis of African Origin
The Washington Post today has an article on Iraqis of African descent which I found an okay read. It was focused mainly on southern Iraq, where during the Middle Ages many slaves known as the Zanj were brought from East Africa and forced to work clearing land. The Zanj Revolt of the late 9th century played a key role in the decline of the Abbasids, throwing the Indian Ocean trade from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and having shockwaves felt as far as India and Southeast Asia. (Alexander Popovic wrote a book about it.) The Post article falls a bit short, though, in its historical presentation: It claims to deal primarily with the Zanj, yet it takes its descriptions of slavery from a broad spectrum of the Middle East, where conditions were much better. Still, I found the accounts of how African traditions survived very interesting. A couple of years ago, I considered African influences on Middle Eastern society a possible area from which to draw a dissertation topic. I even applied for an SSRC fellowship on the subject, but got turned down and moved on to other things. It's still an interesting field, and one where a lot of work could be done.
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Iranian Politics
The Council of Guardians is banning huge numbers of reformist candidates from standing in the upcoming elections for Parliament. If they succeed, the elections will be a complete sham. I have never before been so pessimistic on the chances for a peaceful political transformation of that country.
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