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Mullahs and Heretics: Tariq Ali the atheist

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Friends, What do we make of this. Tariq Ali, one of the most articulate defenders of the rights of Muslims and the Muslim world states that he does not believe
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1 3:46 AM
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      What do we make of this. Tariq Ali, one of the most articulate defenders of
      the rights of Muslims and the Muslim world states that he does not believe
      in God.

      This is an excerpt from his recent book :The Clash of Fundamentalisms.

      Read and reflect.

      Tarek Fatah
      Mullahs and Heretics

      By Tariq Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      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 wil
      d strawberries.

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

      The following week, God Bless dared me to ask the mullah a question before
      the lesson began. 'Were your false teeth supplied by the local butcher?' I
      enquired with an innocent expression, in an ultra-polite voice. The mullah
      asked me to leave: he wished to see my mother alone. A few minutes later he,
      too, left, never to return. Later that day he was sent an envelope full of
      money to compensate him for my insolence. God Bless and I celebrated his
      departure in the bazaar 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 completely.

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

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

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

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

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

      The fervour of the unified tribes, on the other hand, cannot be explained
      simply by the appeal of the new religion or promises of untold pleasures in
      Paradise. The tens of thousands who flocked to fight under Khalid ibn
      al-Walid wanted the comforts of this world.[3]

      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

      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

      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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      It would have been surprising if these military and intellectual civil
      wars - tradition v. counter-tradition, differing schools of interpretation,
      disputes about the authenticity of the Koran itself - had not yielded a fine
      harvest of sceptics and heretics. What is remarkable is that so many of them
      were tolerated for so long. Those who challenged the Koran were usually
      executed, but many poets, philosophers and heretics expanded the frontiers
      of debate and dissent. Andalusian philosophers, for example, usually debated
      within the codes of Islam, but the 12th-century 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 itself.

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

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

      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

      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 1956.

      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.
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