Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: What is Islam, by Shahab Ahmed

Shahab Ahmed tells us up front that he is not going to answer the question "what is Islam?". And of course, he does not really do so, but the title (misleadingly) suggests that he will, and in the course of the book, he comes perilously close to trying (and failing) to do so without outright saying he is going to do it. In short, Shahab himself seems confused about what he is trying to achieve here. The book is a description of some (but certainly not all) aspects of Islamic culture as it developed and expanded, especially AFTER the initial Arab phase of empire building. And it is a long argument with various seen and unseen opponents who want to define Islam as some ONE thing. In the course of this argument, Shahab wants to show that Islam was very varied, but he also wants to show that it is not infinitely varied. In the course of an overly long book, he manages to show that Islamicate societies (a term he does not really approve of) had a very wide variety of beliefs and practices, though they also remained anchored within a certain tradition and in continuous argument with particular foundational texts. All of this may be a surprise to extreme puritanical Islamists AND to more or less ignorant anti-Islamists, but should be no surprise at all to anyone else. Why wouldn't there be a lot of variety? Anyway, if you happen to spend your life arguing with people who have a very monochromatic view of Islam, then you can keep this book handy in order to prove otherwise. It is good for that.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Tale of Two Professors

Tale of Two Professors
Hamid Hussain

“The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.”  Alan Paton; Cry, the Beloved Country 

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Decline (and Attempted Rise) of the Sunnis in the Middle East

Israeli scholar Martin Kramer has written an interesting essay about the decline (and attempted rise) of  the Sunni Islamic position and aspirations in the middle east (excerpts at the end of this post). The first (and longer) section of the essay is well worth reading because it (to quote comrade Hamid Dabashi) "jolts our historical imagination and suddenly places it on the right, though deeply repressed, axis". Almost for the first time in a popular Western essay (though not at all the first time in an Islamist essay), Kramer looks at the last 100 years of Middle Eastern history in a way that almost every Islamist will recognize in some form, i.e. as a story of the decline and fall of Sunni Islamic power and then of attempts to restore that power. The Ottoman Sultanate was a decrepit and declining power for centuries before it fell, but even in 1914 it was a power that could field armies that could fight (sometimes with great tenacity and surprising success) in conventional warfare against the dominant European powers of the age. This was certainly not true of any other Muslim power (or for that matter, any non-European power not named Japan) at that time and had not been true for over a hundred years. Within the Sunni Islamic universe, it was a symbol of Islamic civilizations continued presence at the table of world history.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mangal Pandey. Truth and Fiction

Mangal Panday – Film, Fiction & Facts
Hamid Hussain
Mangal Panday – The Rising is a big budget Indian film and good research has been done about the history of this incident. Generally, a lot of cinematic license is used in most historical films but Mangal Panday has kept core historical facts intact. As expected, a lot of additional fictional material has been added to make it interesting. Films are essentially about entertainment and not substitutes for history books. There is quite a large body of written material available on the events of 1857. Colonial literature, post independence nationalist literature and leftist writers provide different interpretations of the events of 1857 uprising. I’ll limit myself only to the historical context.

Monday, July 11, 2016

British "other ranks" in the Indian army

From Dr Hamid Hussain

July 10, 2016
A query from someone whose great grand-father served in 54th Foot as private and spent a long time in India sent me on another journey of military archeology. There is not much known about life of British Other Ranks (BORs) in India and I tried to shed some light on the subject.
Dear Sir;
 It was an interesting journey of military archeology.  It started with 54th Foot but opened another door.  I have written a lot about Raj army and done work on Indian and British officers but never thought about British Other Ranks (BORs). This was new area and I tried to incorporate this subject in the story of 54th.
 Our chap William Lewis may have seen some important events during his stay in India.  He may have been with the regiment when it was rushed to Ludhiana in 1872 during major trouble caused by kooka sect of Sikhs and may be witness to one of the last case of blowing from guns.  He may have also seen the terrible deaths in the regiment from cholera epidemics.  Most importantly, he may be participant in the last parade of the regiment as 54th probably in Cherat when it said goodbye to its old colors in 1881 when 54th Foot was linked with 39th Foot to become Dorsetshire Regiment.  I hope the following piece will give some satisfaction to your friend with family connection to 54th Foot.
 Warm Regards,
The Flamers – 54th Regiment of Foot
Hamid Hussain

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Civilizational Unity of India

This article (excepts at end of this post) is a good summary of the (relatively reasonable Hindutvadi) arguments for regarding India as one civilizational and cultural whole (at least in historical time). i.e. you don't have to share the author's Hindutvadi beliefs to accept a lot of his arguments for the civilizational and cultural unity of India.
Of course, nation states may come and go and even civilizational boundaries can and do change; Tunisia and Libya used to be pretty Roman and now they are pretty Arab. Shit happens. One would not be likely to lose much money betting on Xinjiang being very Chinese for centuries to come. Han migration alone will take care of that. But still, there is a civilizational and cultural unity of India and that is not such a bad basis for a nation-state... It is certainly better than many other UN member nations have these days (hint hint..)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Dhaka Attackers; BD elite and NYT are "shocked" by their origins..

The New York Times has a piece about the backgrounds of some of the young men who carried out the horrific massacre in Dhaka on Friday.

It seems that some of the attackers came from very exclusive private schools and top universities, and were born in upper-middle class families. This should be absolutely unsurprising to anyone who follows the news without excessive ideological filtering, since Islamist terrorists (and terrorists in all other revolutionary and millennarian movements in history for that matter) have come from all social strata. The attraction that violent revolutionary ideologies hold for young educated people in particular is well established; from Saint Just to Osama Bin Laden, young men with high ideals have been drawn to such endeavors. Joseph Conrad would not find these people surprising in the least, but since late-decadent Western civilization is now crawling with "intellectuals" who are more likely to disdain Conrad than read him, they manage to get surprised rather regularly by such things.

As our Indian friends like to say, "hota hai" (it happens).

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Origins of the British East India Company Army

From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain.
Several questions came my way regarding origins of Indian army and that resulted in following piece. Only for military history interested parties.
Origins of Indian Army – Early Days of East India Company Army
Hamid Hussain
Mughal central authority was rapidly evaporating in eighteenth century India. Many local governors became de facto independent and many soldiers of fortunes were busy carving out their own fiefdoms. In this anarchy, foreign invaders as well as local robber bands frequently descended on helpless population for loot and depart as quickly as possible. East India Company (EIC) expanded its control of large swaths of India only due to superior military organization compared to the military organizations of its opponents. EIC, French, Portuguese, Mughal, Marhattas, Rohillas, Nawab of Arcot, Nizam of Hyderabad, Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Nawab of Bengal were competing for the spoils and each party was competing and cooperating depending on local circumstances. Many soldiers of fortunes found eighteenth century India a fertile ground. French, English, Dutch, Portuguese, German, Swiss, Pathans, Afghans, Arabs and Africans found ready employment with power brokers. They frequently changed sides depending on the prevailing situation. For example, in 1761, commander of Chittapet garrison Captain Coulson deserted to Hyder Ali taking with him his garrison and guns. EIC military establishments finally evolved into three presidential armies of Madras, Bombay and Bengal.

Book Review: Rig Veda

Full Disclosure: I have not actually read every hymn in the book, but I jdid read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the Rig Veda. The hymns are (as expected) very repetitive, but they do give you a picture of the culture of the Indo-Europeans who came to India around 1800 BC (or so we believe these days, this may be adjusted as ancient DNA from Indian sites yields its secrets). It is a window (and probably the most complete and most ancient window we have) into the Indo-European world that played such a huge role in the creation of the present cultures of much of Eurasia.. from Western Europe to India (and beyond). The heroic age, so to speak.

This is a translation by Indologist Ralph Griffith, who lived most of his life in India (he was the pincipal of Benares college in the Hindu holy city of Benares) and is buried in South India. A more recent and scholarly translation is now available but is very expensive. This one is free and available in its entirety at this site:

In the original Sanskrit, the hymns are arranged in stanzas and follow particular rules of rhyme and meter (hear a sample at the end of this review). They are meant to be sung and still are, in religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the Gods. The ten books were not all composed at the same time, or by the same authors and there are differences in style and subject. The tenth book in particular is different from the others and is more didactic and philosophical and is thought to be the last to be composed (and was composed by persons well acquainted with the earlier books). There are three hymns about creation in the tenth book and one of them has a certain skeptical and questioning tone that has made it the best known piece from the Rig Veda, frequently anthologized and quoted. I am reproducing it in full here, but also adding the two others that follow it, to give a more complete flavor of the original context:

HYMN CXXIX. Creation

THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent.
5 Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

HYMN CXXX. Creation.

 THE sacrifice drawn out with threads on every side, stretched by a hundred sacred ministers and one,
This do these Fathers weave who hitherward are come: they sit beside the warp and cry, Weave forth, weave back.
2 The Man extends it and the Man unbinds it: even to this vault of heaven hath he outspun, it.
These pegs are fastened to the seat of worship: they made the Sāma-hymns their weaving shuttles.
3 What were the rule, the order and the model? What were the wooden fender and the butter?
What were the hymn, the chant, the recitation, when to the God all Deities paid worship?
4 Closely was Gāyatrī conjoined with Agni, and closely Savitar combined with Usnih.
Brilliant with Ukthas, Soma joined Anustup: Bṛhaspati's voice by Brhati was aided.
5 Virāj adhered to Varuṇa and Mitra: here Triṣṭup day by day was Indra's portion.
Jagatī entered all the Gods together: so by this knowledge men were raised to Ṛṣis.
6 So by this knowledge men were raised to Ṛṣis, when ancient sacrifice sprang up, our Fathers.
With the mind's eye I think that I behold them who first performed this sacrificial worship.
7 They who were versed in ritual and metre, in hymns and rules, were the Seven Godlike Ṛṣis.
Viewing the path of those of old, the sages have taken up the reins like chariot-drivers.

HYMN CXC. Creation.

 FROM Fervour kindled to its height Eternal Law and Truth were born:
Thence was the Night produced, and thence the billowy flood of sea arose.
2 From that same billowy flood of sea the Year was afterwards produced,
Ordainer of the days nights, Lord over all who close the eye.
3 Dhātar, the great Creator, then formed in due order Sun and Moon.
He formed in order Heaven and Earth, the regions of the air, and light.

The hymns of the ten books (as long in total as the poems of Homer) tell of a people who worship many Gods, with a few being mentioned very frequently, including Agni, Indra, Varuna and Soma. The hymns are obsessed with great warriors, with “beauteous horses and of kine, In thousands”, with lots of soma drinking and fort-breaking.. These warriors hoped to win ” wealth, renowned and ample, in brave sons, troops of slaves, far-famed for horses”. They also had priests who wanted the warriors to be generous with gifts (including mead). And they gambled, and got into trouble because of it:
The following hymn is fascinating, but also a rarity in being unusually didactic:

Saturday, June 25, 2016


I continue to see almost universal condemnation or hilarity or schadenfreude about Brexit in my social media circle. Literally NO ONE is in favor it (except those who hate Britain and like Brexit in the sense of "this shit couldnt have happened to a more deserving lot". I don't know much about the actual mechanics and consequences and my current view is more or less "if all these intelligent people think it is a disaster, it is probably not going to be a good thing", but I do feel that 50% plus of the British electorate (and a much higher percentage of the working class and the older citizens) voted for this thing, maybe we should also try to figure out why they voted the way they did? The easy answer is racism, but then, I am sure ALL these people are not just motivated by racism (how does that even work?) and I am sure there are lots of racists who voted for "remain" too (all the bankers can't be suddenly free of racism :) ). So here, in no particular order, are some comments I had on Facebook and I hope someone will let me know why I am wrong or where I may be right...Random thoughts on Brexit:

Xenophobia is part of this...but is it entirely foolish?
The Western super-elite (and their super-elite friends from other countries, including us, of course) are (at least materially) winners in this globalization until now and may feel great about it. But there are some other aspects to this love of complete and borderless globalization.