The Memory of Lebanon—Also Our Own

Not so long ago, when “The State” and the banks appropriated the savings of thousands of Lebanese families, the French press was all abuzz about Lebanon. And then, the Lebanese and their bankrupt country were forgotten.

Between 1915 and 1918, Mount Lebanon was hit by a terrible famine that took away almost a third of its population and left in the Lebanese memory the certainty of the overwhelming responsibility of the Ottoman authorities in the organization and unleashing of what they considered a genocide. For many Lebanese, there is still no doubt that the famine of 1915-1918 was deliberately organized by the Ottoman authorities.

Lebanon has been distinguished from the neighboring provinces of Damascus and Beirut by a long tradition of autonomy. For three centuries, local emirs governed this Ottoman province. Between 1842 and 1860, taking advantage of “dissensions” within the population, the Sublime Porte tried to reinforce its control—without success. In 1860, the Muslim Druze massacred hundreds of Christians. In spite of a muted diplomatic resistance from England, France obtained permission from the European powers to send an expeditionary force to come to the aid of the victims and to restore order. The confessional massacres of the time led to the military intervention of Napoleon III’s troops and to the re-establishment of Lebanese autonomy guaranteed by the five powers, with the establishment of a specific administrative regime—Mount Lebanon would henceforth be directed by a compulsorily Catholic governor, appointed by the Sublime Porte after European agreement.

From 1913, following the coup d’état of Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Empire was governed by a triumvirate of which he was the dominant figure. In April 1915, in the midst of the war, he authorized his Minister of the Interior, Talaat Pasha (the “Turkish Hitler”) to organize the massacre of the Christian peoples of the empire: Assyrians, Pontic Greeks and Armenians. Wikipedia forgets the Lebanese in this sinister list.

For them, the matter was delegated to Jamal Pasha. But the objectives were the same.

“Enver Pasha then delegated Jamal Pasha who was given the job of exterminating Christians in the empire. From then on, he bore the nickname of Jamal Pasha al-Saffah. For this clever and Machiavellian man, there was no question of repeating the mistake of 1860. The sword used in the Armenian, Syriac or Assyrian-Chaldean regions could not be used in Lebanon without taking the risk of a new French landing” (Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar, President of the Syriac Maronite Union, Tur Levnon).

The Armenian precedent leaves little room for doubt as to the real intentions of the Turks. The mass deportation of Armenians from Anatolia coincided with the time when the blockade and repression of Mount Lebanon intensified (March 1915). The same chronology, the same motivations of the executioners—like the regions of eastern Anatolia, the Syrian coast and Mount Lebanon seemed like weak points for the Ottoman defense. Hence the objective of “creating a desert” in these two regions.

The Young Turk leaders had the necessary motive. They were suspicious of these Arabs who were much too Europeanized for their taste. Unlike Armenia and Upper Mesopotamia, Lebanon was closely connected to Europe. It was necessary to isolate it diplomatically and in the media before imposing the food blockade. Jamal Pasha immediately instituted general censorship. Once all communications with the outside world had been cut off, it was time to start.

It began in 1914, with the abolition of the capitulations signed between the Christian powers and the Sublime Porte which guaranteed the security of the Christians of the empire: the autonomy of Mount Lebanon was abolished. Persecutions multiplied: military occupation of the Mountain (November 1914); de facto suppression of its privileges (March 1915); forced appointment of administrators known for their harshness: Jamal Pasha, military governor of Beirut and Mount Lebanon from December 1914, and Ali Munif Bey who replaced Ohannes Pasha. Ali Munif Bey had distinguished himself by his relentless persecution of the Armenians of Adana, his home town. In his Memoirs, (Revue d’Histoire arménienne contemporaine, Tome V, le Liban. Mémoire d’un Gouverneur, 1913-1915, Ohannes Pasha Kouyoumdjian, 2003), Ohannes Pasha denounced Ali Munif Bey’s tactics—in 1915, he formed a Lebanese Red Crescent Committee. Officially, it was to help the Lebanese; in reality it was only a machine to extort donations from them. And then there was the violent repression of the Lebanese elites: in 1915-1916, several notables were sentenced to death for treason and hanged, and two hundred others deported to Anatolia.

The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war against the Entente powers at the end of October was followed by a blockade of Entente ships on the western side. Set up in November 1914, this ruthless blockade not only in the Mediterranean but also in the Red Sea, (which continued until the autumn of 1918 when the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt) stopped the grain trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

On the eastern side, the land blockade was ordered by Jamal Pasha. Mount Lebanon was very dependent on the surrounding regions for food because of the scarcity of its agricultural land and the density of its population: 100 inhabitants/km2, i.e., ten times more than in the neighboring vilayet of Damascus, which was well provided with arable land (Ohannes Pasha, Memoirs). But in 1914, the food situation in Syria and Lebanon was favorable: the summer harvests had made it possible to build up large stocks.

From November 1914, the price of flour soared. The Lebanese sold their silk cocoons at a low price, then had to mortgage their goods to rich merchants in Beirut or Tripoli. The interest rate on loans soared to 400% the following year.

Visiting Lebanon in February 1916, Enver Pasha was quoted as saying: “We destroyed the Armenians with iron. We will destroy the Lebanese with hunger.”

Which was well on its way.

Practicing a scorched earth policy, the Turks destroyed most of the depots and railway equipment. In 1916, fearing for the army’s supplies, Jamal Pasha requisitioned all wheat, kerosene, beasts of burden, poultry and cattle, wood, and building materials. In 1916, the Ottoman soldiery even attacked the plantations, orchards and forests. The hills of Lebanon were completely stripped under the pretext of supplying coal to the trains. Jamal Pasha forbade the peasants to thresh the wheat before the arrival of a government agent. With the rains, the crops rotted. Many peasants fled to areas beyond the control of the government, so that the authorities were forced to ask soldiers to plow the fields around Damascus.

The Christians, starving and having already sold their furniture and clothes, ended up selling the beams of their houses. The roofs collapsed and families were left homeless with nothing on their bodies. To those who, from Constantinople, pointed out to him that the exclusive use of the means of transport for the benefit of the army risked starving the capital, Enver Pasha replied: “I do not care… about the supply for the population; it will look after itself as best it can. During the Balkan war, the civilians were full while the army was starving. Now it is their turn to fast: I am only concerned about my soldiers.”

The means of transport were thus lacking: the transport of grain through Port Said was not easier. In mid-October 1916, British General Allenby opposed the establishment of a French naval base in Beirut and refused to lift the blockade entirely, prohibiting the outflow of wheat to Lebanon.

The peak of the crisis was reached in 1917-1918. The desperate search for food led to social regression. In March 1918, near Tripoli, two women were arrested for kidnapping and devouring eight girls.

“Living skeletons wandered here and there in the mud and snow. One could hardly tell the living from the dead. The carts dumped in mass graves about a hundred bodies a day in the city of Beirut alone. In these conditions of cold, malnutrition, non-nutrition and absolute lack of hygiene, epidemics took their toll. Typhus, cholera, plague and other diseases of another age added to the misfortunes of the Lebanese. This is where the Ottoman genius proved itself. Pharmacies were robbed, medicines of all kinds were requisitioned, always for the needs of the army. The Sublime Porte needed doctors to treat its soldiers on the front, so they mobilized doctors from all the towns and villages. The cruelty of the invader had no limit. Ottoman-style corruption was in full swing. Even some Christians participated in it. The governor of Lebanon, Ohannes Kouyoumjian, who was far too honest and honest, was replaced by Ali Mounif. The latter arrived in Lebanon “penniless and left with two million gold francs” (Amine Jules Iskandar).

The shortage of wheat during the spring of 1916 was also due to the sending of grain to Arabia in order to keep the allegiance of the Bedouin tribes of the Hejaz, as the Arab revolt of Sharif Hussein began. The famine did not spare Syria, starting with Damascus, although it was close to the rich agricultural lands of the Hauran. There, as in Lebanon, the local population was sacrificed to the Turkish army and civil servants, the only beneficiaries of rationing. They were immolated on the altar of the strategic objectives of the Ottoman Empire.

The window still open to Europe, specific to Lebanon, was the Church: the Catholic missionaries, their monasteries and their schools. All their properties and places were requisitioned, transformed into barracks or military depots. Expelled, the missionaries could no longer serve as witnesses and observers. What remained were the Maronite bishops, but also the Romanian (Greek Orthodox) and Melkite bishops. The most active of them were then exiled; some Maronite bishops were even court-martialed and hanged. Lazarists, Jesuits, Daughters of Charity were still present in Lebanon in 1914. In November, most of them were expelled and their places ransacked. Inside the Mountain, the Lebanese members of the Catholic congregations managed to keep some missions open to relieve the suffering of the population. These had to be abandoned under pressure from the Turks in 1916.

In the spring of 1916, French diplomats estimated the number of victims in the mountains and on the coast at more than 80,000 (more than 50,000 in the mountains alone).

The Lebanese emigration mobilized; and in June of the same year, in New York, a Committee of support for the Syrian Mount Lebanon was formed. The poet Khalil Gibran joined it. He dedicated two poems to the Lebanese people: “Dead are mt People.” Of course, there has been much discussion about this committed poetry. However, the text remains quite vague in its poetic evocation of the “invisible snakes” responsible for this “tragedy beyond words.” The snakes were quite visible and the poet did not risk much in New York.

The Jesuits denounced the crime as coming “on the heels of the Armenian genocide.” The French ambassador in Cairo, Jules-Albert Defrance, who was close to the Lebanese community in Egypt, wrote to Aristide Briand at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latter then shared the information and alarming news with Camille Barrère, his ambassador in Rome, and also with the Holy See, with Washington (on May 16, 1916) and with the very Christian king of Spain. The atrocities are described in all these letters. All came to the same conclusion: a military intervention in the Levant would be fatal for the Christians of Lebanon. It would push the Ottomans to speed up their work and, perhaps, to put them to the sword. As for the food aid, it was systematically confiscated and diverted by the Ottomans.

On the Perseus website, there is an edifying article by Yann Bouyrat, “Une crise alimentaire provoquée? La famine au Liban (1915-1918).” The author is an associate professor and doctor of history, a researcher at the CEMMC in Bordeaux, and a lecturer at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest. “The article was validated by the reading committee of the CTHS in the context of the publication of the proceedings of the 139th National Congress of Historical and Scientific Societies, a symposium held in Rennes in 2013.”

The main thrust of the article is to mitigate the responsibility of the Turks and to minimize the role of France. Thus, the testimonies against the Turks are contradicted by other sources. First, the Spanish consul, who never believed in any “genocide by hunger” of the Lebanese population; a text from the Patriarch of the Maronites, found in the military archives, which clearly defends Jamal Pasha and underlines “his eager courtesy” and “the salutary effects of his generosity in providing food for the poor.” Meager evidence all. In the diplomats’ reports, Enver Pasha is presented as a criminal.

As for Ohannes Pasha, he was Armenian, which makes him “subjective.”

For Mr. Bouyrat, the ban on the export of cereals from Aleppo and Damascus to the mountains and the coast should be seen as a security measure to avoid the building up of cereal stocks on the coast, which could have served a possible invading army. And it could also be explained by the speculative madness of a certain number of unscrupulous local grain merchants. Monopolizing the grain market, the Aleppo merchants drove up prices, preventing the Beirut traders from recouping their expenses. This is undoubtedly true. But how does this diminish the responsibility of the Ottomans?

For this “specialist” in humanitarian intervention, “the human toll of the famine is difficult to establish with certainty.”

Really? For the Mountain alone, the losses reached at least 120,000 people—that is to say a third of the population. According to Dr. Jules Iskandar, out of a Lebanese population of 450,000 people, about 220,000 died. And half of the survivors went into exile. “We are,” he says, “the descendants of the remaining small quarter.”

The government in Paris, sensitive to the fate of the Syrian-Lebanese population, had considered on several occasions a partial lifting of the blockade. It had to give up in the face of London’s veto. Warned of the seriousness of the situation in the Mountain by Mgr Joseph Darian, Archbishop of Alexandria and spokesman for the Maronite Patriarch, Aristide Briand, then President of the Council, had successively asked two neutral powers (the United States in June, then Spain in July 1916), to intervene with the Porte so that it would authorize the sending of international humanitarian aid to Lebanon. In exchange, France agreed to allow the passage of ships chartered for relief. Here again, the intransigence of England forbade it. As well as the bad faith of the Turkish government, which did everything to hinder the action of the American and Spanish action committees.

The rescue of Lebanon began in 1918-1919; and the action was considerably amplified after the arrival of the French army in Beirut. When the first detachments landed in the city on October 7, 1918, the situation was catastrophic. The only aid brought to the population came from the British navy and remained insignificant: 100 tons of cereals, 50 tons at the disposal of the city of Beirut and 50 for the Mountain. At the same time, the monthly needs of Lebanon and the coast were estimated at over 2,000 tons.

At the end of October, Clemenceau’s intervention enabled France to obtain an end to the obstacles to the circulation of cereals. The arrival of all this aid in November quickly had positive effects: it brought down the price of foodstuffs and forced speculators to sell their stocks.

What is taught in Lebanese schools today?

Lebanese children are taught that the famine that decimated a third to half of their people at the time was due to the unfortunate coincidence of disparate factors: the Allied sea blockade, the Ottoman land blockade and the locust invasion.

But even more serious, according to Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar: two hundred thousand disarmed victims whose only crime was to be Christian—and not a museum, not a monument, not a public square, not a national day, not a mention in the history books. Greater Lebanon preferred them to the forty martyrs of the Place des Canons that now bears their name: their multi-faith origins better satisfied the image sought by the young state.

Ancient Lebanon had such respect for its martyrs that it dedicated to them the highest peak in the country: Qornet Sodé (in Syriac: the Summit of the Martyrs). The name has now become the meaningless Arabic, Qornet al-Sawda (Black Summit). In order to build this Greater Lebanon, now in ruins, the historical Lebanon was sacrificed, which should have been the soul of the new state and not considered a hindrance.

Was it necessary to abandon its Syriac language and the ancient Christian cultural base that was supported by it? Was it necessary to conceal the blood of the martyrs by erasing the black page of this famine, if not planned, at least wanted and organized?

We must leave the historian Yann Bouyrat to his academic ambitions and privilege the testimony of those who carry in their living memory the infinite grief of the survivors and their frightening lucidity:

“We are the descendants of the quarter that survived and remained in Lebanon. And from this group, three quarters also emigrated. So, we are only one quarter of the quarter. Let us be conscious and modest in the face of all this legacy for which we are responsible today. The genocide of the Christians of the East, “Tsekhaspanutyan” Ցեղասպանություն (genocide) for the Armenians, “The Sayfo” (the sword) for the Christians of Upper Mesopotamia and “The Kafno” (famine) for the Christians of Lebanon, is a duty of memory. One cannot murder a people twice; first by death, then by silence and oblivion. It is a national duty to be taken into account at the level of state, religious and cultural institutions.”

He is right.

And his testimony weighs more heavily in the balance of responsibility than Mr. Bouyrat’s work on questions of humanitarian interference. The millions of victims weigh more in the scales of justice than diplomatic issues. The honor of France, which was involved in this drama, was saved by all those who behaved with courage and humanity:

“The Syrian island of Arwad (ouad in French) was in the hands of the French, under the command of Albert Trabaud. The aid from the Lebanese diaspora was then brought to the island and transported by night to the Lebanese coast. The first part of the journey was done by boat, while the second part was completed by swimming. The gold was handed over to the envoys of the patriarch of the Maronites. The sums collected in Bkerke were then used to buy quantities of food to be distributed to the people in order to limit the carnage as much as possible…. Albert Trabaud contributed to the survival of our ancestors, there is still a street in Achrafieh named after him? For how long?” (Jules Iskandar)

A people without memory is a people without a future. Today’s Lebanon is a country in ruins that survives only thanks to a Christian diaspora assimilated wherever it exists, industrious and with a high degree of education. It knows that on it depends the survival of this small country with an ancient history that gave the alphabet to the European world and inaugurated the history of the Mediterranean and its civilization.

And today?

Today, the world history of infamy continues through the scandal of the Latchine corridor: 150,000 Armenians deprived of everything by the Azeris in defiance of international rights.

But can anyone tell us when an Islamic state has respected such rights?

In a few years, eminent academics with titles will write about the question of humanitarian interference in Nagorno-Karabakh, wondering about the number of victims and the difficulty of establishing the number with certainty.

In the meantime, men, women and children are dying. Christians.

In French schools, grade five students are taught that there were “contacts” between Islam and Christianity in the Mediterranean and that Islam was a brilliant Arab-Muslim civilization to which we owe the transfer of all Greek science.

We believe in order to dream.

Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia. She is the founder of the Pteah Barang, in Cambodia.

Featured: Starving family in Mount Lebanon, ca. 1915-1918.

Rebels Against Tyranny: Baronial Defiance of Frederick II in The Holy Land


Frederick II Hohenstaufen has long enjoyed the reputation of an enlightened monarch. From the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, reverence for the nation-state as the ideal form of government inspired scholars to see his policies as “progressive.” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, German scholars in search of a medieval figure that could bolster national identity seized upon Frederick as a proto-German hero. Nowadays, it is more often his bloodless crusade and his alleged religious tolerance that spark admiration. Simultaneously, contempt for feudalism (a tenet of the “Enlightenment”) and hatred of the papacy (a tenet of the Reformation) have long combined to discredit Frederick’s opponents in the crusader states.

Because Frederick II’s life was packed with dramatic events, colorful characters, significant victories, and astonishing accomplishments, his eight months in the Holy Land are generally treated as no more than a footnote to the greater drama that played out in Western Europe. Abbreviated references to his sojourn in Outremer unremittingly focus on his bloodless crusade. His opponents in the crusader states are almost uniformly characterized as “bloodthirsty” and “bigoted.” They are dismissed for failing to appreciate the “genius” of the Holy Roman Emperor, his consummate diplomatic skills, and his enlightened treatment of the Muslim enemy. Most modern accounts imply that the civil war that followed in the wake of the Sixth Crusade was nothing more than intolerant and obstinate resistance to the Holy Roman Emperor’s enlightened policies on the part of his chauvinistic subjects in the Holy Land.

Yet, does such an interpretation stand up to scrutiny? This article seeks to reassess Frederick II’s clash with his barons in the Holy Land by focusing on his opponents and their objectives and on Frederick II in the context of Outremer rather than his role as Holy Roman Emperor.

The Protagonists

Frederick II Hohenstaufen and the Holy Land

Frederick II’s involvement in Outremer was based on two separate yet intertwined factors. First, he had publicly taken crusader vows to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control, and second, he married the heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Friedrich II Hohenstaufen first “took the cross” and vowed to lead a new crusade to regain Christian control of Jerusalem at his coronation as “King of the Romans” in Aachen on 25 July 1215. He renewed his crusading vow at his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor on 22 November 1220―by which time the Fifth Crusade had already bogged down at Damietta. Due to a Muslim insurrection in Sicily, Friedrich failed to join that crusade as promised. Another crusade planned for 1225 was postponed until 1227. Although a crusading army assembled that summer, an infectious disease decimated the ranks while it was still in Italy. Frederick II put to sea, only to return to Brindisi due to illness. Pope Gregory IX promptly ex-communicated him. His subsequent military expedition to the Holy Land was not sanctioned by the pope, and the Church labeled it an “anti-crusade.”

Meanwhile, Friedrich II had married Yolanda, heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Yolanda’s mother, Maria I, had died giving birth to her. Her regent during her minority was her father, John of Brienne, her mother’s king-consort. Brienne and the High Court of Jerusalem arranged Yolanda’s marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, expecting it to ensure military and financial support for their beleaguered kingdom from the most powerful Christian monarch on earth. In November 1225, at age 13, Queen Yolanda sailed to Brindisi for her marriage with Frederick. In April 1228, at 15 years, she died from the complications of childbirth, leaving behind an infant son, Conrad, as heir to the throne of Jerusalem.

By the time Frederick II married Yolanda, he was nearly 31 and had been King of Sicily for a quarter-century, King of the Romans for a decade, and Holy Roman Emperor for five years. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was just one of his many possessions. Furthermore, he had already adopted an absolutist view of the monarchy. While admirers of centralized government portray this as a “modern” attitude, David Abulafia makes a strong case that Frederick’s views were the opposite; Frederick was not so much ahead of his time as he was backward-looking. He considered himself a (divine) Roman Emperor rather than a feudal king. [David Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, Oxford University Press, 1988.]

The Barons of Outremer

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, created by a council of leading European noblemen in the wake of the First Crusade, was an ideal feudal state. By the time Frederick II arrived in the Levant, the resident nobility had developed a highly sophisticated interpretation of the kingdom’s constitution. Most importantly, the ruling elites in Outremer upheld the concept that government was a contract between the king and his subjects, requiring the consent of the ruled as represented by the High Court. That is, the High Court had to be consulted on matters of state, from the marriage of the royal heiress to treaties and taxes. Specifically, the constitution of Jerusalem gave the High Court the right to elect kings and regents. In addition, it was an already established constitutional principle that the consort of a ruling queen lost his position as co-monarch at her death.

Far from being bloodthirsty, religious bigots, the barons of Outremer were the products and representatives of a multicultural state in which orthodox Christian monasteries multiplied alongside those of the Latin Church and where a vibrant school of Talmudic studies flourished. The Franks of Outremer (as all Latin Christians living in the crusader states were collectively known) had been making treaties with their Muslim neighbors for more than a hundred years before Frederick II arrived. Indeed, at various times they had allied themselves with Muslim powers. They not only spoke Arabic (in addition to French, Latin, and Greek), they were familiar with Islam and Islamic law.

By the mid-thirteenth century, the feudal elite of Outremer was highly educated. The renowned crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith goes so far as to claim that “the greatest monument to the western settlers in Palestine, finer even than the cathedrals and castles still dominating the landscape, is the law-book of John of Jaffa, which … is one of the great works of thirteenth-century thought.” [Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174-1277, Macmillan Press, 1973, 230.] The Count of Jaffa was not alone.

An entire school of legal scholars evolved in the early decades of the thirteenth century that produced seven books on legal issues and six other scholarly works that have survived to the present day. Furthermore, the court system in the Kingdom of Jerusalem required jurors and counselors for every trial. These men were all drawn from the knightly class. Finally, unlike their contemporaries in England and France, every knight in the realm sat on the High Court. Consequently, the knights and nobles of Outremer as a class were familiar with the law and constitution of the land.

These men, none of whom were in the Holy Orders, also held fiefs, fought with lance and sword, and commanded troops. In their conflict with Frederick II, they were led by John d’Ibelin, a man immortalized by the contemporary historian Philip de Novare as the “the Old Lord of Beirut.”

John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut

John d’Ibelin was the son of Balian, who saved an estimated 60,000 souls from slaughter and slavery by negotiating the surrender of Jerusalem after the walls had been breached in 1187. Balian represented Richard the Lionheart in his final negotiations with Saladin and was one of the leading signatories of the truce ending the Third Crusade. John was Balian’s eldest son by his wife, Maria Comnena, the queen-consort and widow of King Amalric of Jerusalem. Through his mother, John d’Ibelin was half-Greek and half-brother to Queen Isabella I of Jerusalem.

John d’Ibelin was appointed constable of Jerusalem by Aimery de Lusignan, but sometime before 1200, he surrendered the constableship in exchange for being granted the recaptured city and lordship of Beirut. The city and surrounding territory had been taken by Saladin in 1187 and recaptured during the German crusade of 1197. When it was granted to John d’Ibelin, it was in such a ruinous state that the wealthy militant orders had not wanted the burden of reconstruction. John successfully rebuilt the fortifications, castle, port, and city and attracted new inhabitants. He also erected one of the most magnificent palaces in the Latin East. It had tall, glazed windows, walls paneled with polychrome marble, and lifelike mosaic floors. The interior fountains gushed freshwater day and night and drained through discreet underfloor drainage pipes that recycled the water to the garden.

When in April 1205, Queen Isabella I died, leaving her 13-year-old daughter Marie de Montferrat as her successor, the High Court of Jerusalem elected the Lord of Beirut regent. Beirut was then 26 years of age. He ruled for the next five years, notably maintaining the existing truce with the Saracens. He surrendered his position when Queen Marie married John de Brienne, and the couple was crowned.

John and his younger brother Philip took part in the Fifth Crusade under the banner of the King of Cyprus. When King Hugh of Cyprus died unexpectedly in January 1218, the Cypriot High Court elected John’s younger brother, Philip, regent for the eighteen-month-old heir, King Henry. At Philip’s death in 1227, the High Court of Cyprus elected John. The Lord of Beirut held this position when Frederick II arrived in the Holy Land. Up to this point, nothing in John’s life suggested he would lead a revolt against a crowned monarch.

The Sixth Crusade and the Baronial Revolt Against Frederick II in Outremer

Despite his ex-communication, Frederick II set sail for the Holy Land in June 1228 with the declared intent to regain control of Jerusalem for Christendom. His decision to proceed was influenced, if not dictated, by the fact that the Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, had secretly offered to deliver Jerusalem to him in exchange for the emperor’s support in the sultan’s war against his brother, al-Mu’azzam, the sultan of Damascus. Confident of success, Frederick had no need for a large military force and set out accompanied by four archbishops, a small contingent of knights, and about 1,000 archers. This was not a crusading army; it was an imperial entourage.

On his way to the Holy Land, Frederick II stopped in Cyprus, a component kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire since 1194. Here he requested that the regent (John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut) and—significantly—his children, attend a banquet in Nicosia. The other guests were the 11-year-old King Henry I of Lusignan, along with the nobles and knights of Cyprus, accompanied by their ladies. All the guests wore court robes and were unarmed. Frederick II, however, had hidden armed guards in the palace, and at his signal, they surrounded the Lord of Beirut with drawn swords. Frederick then attempted to bully Beirut into handing over revenue allegedly embezzled from the Cypriot treasury and surrendering the lordship of Beirut in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. With remarkable dignity and coolness, Beirut refused to do either without the judgment of the respective High Courts. He then walked out of the banquet with the bulk of the Cypriot nobility at his heels, leaving his eldest sons and eighteen other youths of noble birth as hostages with the emperor.

Beirut withdrew to the mountain fortresses of Cyprus and readied them to withstand a siege. While this was clearly an act of defiance, it was not an act of treason. Beirut explicitly held the castles for King Henry of Lusignan, for whom he was the legal regent. While the premise may sound disingenuous, later actions proved him honest. Frederick was forced to seek terms. In exchange for Beirut handing the castles over to royal officers, the emperor released the hostages. In addition, Beirut promised to take part in Frederick’s expedition to Syria along with all his vassals, while the emperor agreed in writing to (1) take no action against Beirut or his supporters without a judgment from the responsible court (i.e., the High Courts of Cyprus and Jerusalem respectively), and (2) to bear no malice for all that had passed between them in the preceding months.

As soon Beirut and his men sailed for the mainland, Frederick broke his sworn and signed word by sending imperial mercenaries to Cyprus to attack, harass, and intimidate the wives and children of the men now serving in his army. Simultaneously, he attempted to obtain Christian control of Jerusalem via negotiations with the Sultan of Egypt. Unfortunately, al-Kamil no longer needed assistance from the emperor in his quarrels with his Ayyubid rivals because his brother al-Mu’azzam had died and been succeeded by a weak boy, who al-Kamil now controlled.

Friedrich was in a quandary. He did not have sufficient military force to win a military confrontation with the combined forces of Egypt and Damascus. He could not expect reinforcements from the West because he had been ex-communicated, and other monarchs dared not support him. Meanwhile, the pope had raised an army and was preparing to invade his Kingdom of Sicily with the declared intent of deposing him. Frederick had to return to defend his birthright; Jerusalem had become a liability. To avoid a complete debacle, he approached al-Kamil in search of a negotiated settlement. His exchanges with the sultan became increasingly obsequious and concessionary until 18 February 1229, when a truce was signed between the sultan and the emperor.

Modern commentators generally applaud Friedrich’s performance as enlightened, subtle, and brilliant. Such assessments show a marked lack of understanding for both of the terms of the agreement and the context in which it was made. Despite what is usually claimed, Friedrich II’s treaty singularly failed to secure Christian control of Jerusalem. The treaty did no more than grant Christian access to some of Jerusalem for a limited period of time. The terms explicitly prohibited Christians from setting foot on the Temple Mount, prevented the Franks from building defensive walls, and left strategic castles such as Kerak and Montreal in Muslim hands. Furthermore, Arab sources stress that al-Kamil openly bragged he would “chase” the Christians from Jerusalem as soon as it was convenient. [Francesco Gabrieli (trans)., Arab Historians of the Crusades, University of California Press, 1957, 271.)

In short, the terms of the truce reveal the degree to which Friedrich’s “crusade” was about his power struggle with the pope rather than sustainable Christian control of Jerusalem. Although he made a great show of wearing the imperial crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the residents of Outremer were not impressed—and said so. Outraged that anyone would dare to criticize his “brilliant” achievement, Frederick laid siege to Templar headquarters in Acre, threatened physical violence to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, ordered the harassment of the mendicant orders, and then departed. As he made his way from the palace to the port to board a ship for Sicily, the common people of Acre eloquently expressed their opinion of the Holy Roman Emperor and his truce by pelting him from the rooftops and balconies with offal.

En route to Sicily, Frederick stopped in Cyprus long enough to appoint five men as his joint “baillies” or deputies. He ordered them to dispossess the Ibelins and their partisans of their lands and to ensure that neither the Lord of Beirut nor any of his sons, kinsmen, or supporters ever set foot in Cyprus again. These orders were (again) in violation of Frederick’s signed agreement six months earlier. Not only was Beirut not given a chance to defend himself before his peers, but his supporters and kinsmen were also likewise disseized of their properties merely for being relatives and vassals of Beirut.

Furthermore, the five baillies had been appointed in exchange for a payment of 10,000 silver marks. They needed to find that revenue and set about raising taxes. While the women and children of the House of Ibelin and their clients and allies sought refuge with the militant orders to escape the violence of the baillie’s mercenaries, the new taxes enraged the rest of the predominantly Greek Orthodox Cypriot population.

Beirut had had enough. He raised an army in Syria that included his brother-in-law, the Lord of Caesarea. With this small force, he landed at Gastria and then rode inland toward Nicosia. During this advance, he announced that he sought only the safety of his tenants and households and to regain control of illegally-seized properties. He explicitly stated that he did not seek restoration to his former post of regent of Cyprus. In short, he attempted to build a bridge to the imperial baillies, offering them a compromise that would have enabled them to retain power—as long as they conceded that confiscations could not occur without a judgment of the High Court. The baillies chose instead to call up the Cypriot army and meet the Ibelins in battle.

On 14 July 1229, in a plowed field outside of Nicosia, the Ibelins routed the army of the five baillies. However, all five of the emperor’s deputies escaped. Against the advice of his closest advisors, Beirut granted them amnesty. Significantly, the young King of Cyprus, who had been in the custody of the imperial baillies, enthusiastically welcomed the Ibelins as his kinsmen and liberators. For the rest of his long life, Henry I of Cyprus unwaveringly favored the Ibelins, a strong indication of his sentiments toward the Holy Roman Emperor and his minions.

In 1232, Frederick sent a large army under the command of the Imperial Marshal Richard Filangieri to subdue his insubordinate subjects in Outremer. Filangieri was mandated to reestablish imperial authority, expropriate the lands and titles from the Ibelins, and expel them from Cyprus and Syria. Roughly a dozen other Syrian lords, most of whom had not taken part in Ibelin’s expedition to Cyprus, were simultaneously summarily disseized. All were denied the right to defend themselves before a court.

What followed was a complex campaign in which both parties moved armies back and forth between Cyprus and the mainland, trying to strike where the other faction was weak. Beirut suffered a serious setback when his city of Beirut fell to imperial forces, although his castle held out. His forces were again defeated at a skirmish near Casal Imbert, and he failed to win support from the Prince of Antioch. On the other hand, King Henry of Cyprus threw his full support behind the Ibelins and brought the entire Cypriot feudal army to Syria to assist him. The former baillies of Cyprus and a handful of their clients remained loyal to Frederick II, while some Syrian nobles previously devoted to the emperor changed over to the Ibelin camp. Notably, two of Frederick’s former Syrian ballies abandoned the imperial faction. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Genoese, the Frankish and native merchants of Acre, and the Templars also sided with Beirut.

After much back and forth, the opponents faced off in a dramatic battle at Agridi on the slopes of a mountain north of Nicosia. Notably, the local population rallied to their king and the Ibelins, mustering in haste as foot soldiers and archers, a factor that proved militarily decisive. The Lord of Beirut routed the imperial army a second time. Frederick II never again attempted to impose his governors on Cyprus, and in 1248, the pope formally absolved Henry I of all oaths he had made to the Holy Roman Emperor. Cyprus became a completely independent kingdom, no longer a part of the empire. It was a complete, resounding, and self-inflicted defeat for Frederick II.

Thereafter, the conflict confined itself to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and an uneasy stalemate settled over the kingdom. The imperial forces held Tyre and the kingdom’s north, while the baronial forces ruled the south from Acre. Neither side was willing to concede, yet neither dared attack. Political and religious pressure was applied to the rebels to broker a peaceful settlement, but the emperor never considered taking his case to court. Without a judgement of the court, however, the lord of Beirut would not submit to the emperor. When John d’Ibelin died after a riding accident in 1236, he was still in full possession of all his fiefs and wealth.

Then, in April of 1242, Conrad Hohenstaufen, Yolanda of Jerusalem’s only child, announced he had come of age. The threat of a Hohenstaufen king (not just regent) and a new imperial “baillie” alarmed the new lord of Beirut, John d’Ibelin’s eldest son, Balian.

Balian had a decidedly different temperament and character from his father. While standing hostage for his father in 1227, he had been tortured by Frederick’s men, something which undoubtedly scarred his psyche. He was credited with saving the Ibelins from defeat at the Battle of Nicosia after his father was unhorsed and his uncle killed. At the battle of Agridi, he dramatically led a daring charge across dangerous terrain to outflank the imperial forces. He also married against his father’s wishes and defied a papal ex-communication, refusing to separate from his wife.

It was to this man that four citizens from Tyre appealed for aid. Claiming that the imperial party was “greatly hated,” they offered to surrender Tyre to the rebels. The temptation was too great for the young lord of Beirut to resist. A veneer of legality for this planned action was concocted by asserting that the constitution of the kingdom recognized a royal heir’s closest relative resident in the kingdom as regent if the heir came of age while absent from the domain. Furthermore, the legal scholars declared a royal heir must come in person to claim the crown within one year. Failure to do so would result in the regent being recognized as the ruling monarch. The closest relative of King Conrad resident in the kingdom was Alice of Champagne, the dowager Queen of Cyprus. The High Court dutifully sent Conrad a letter saying he was required to come in person to be recognized as their liege. When (as expected) he failed to appear within a year, the High Court recognized Alice of Champagne as queen, and the knights and nobles did homage to her. She then demanded the surrender of Tyre. The imperial representative, at this time Lothario Filangieri the younger brother of Richard, predictably refused.

Tyre was a nearly invincible city that had held out against Saladin twice. It was virtually unassailable by land, but Balian of Beirut’s audacious strategy entailed leading a small band of knights along the base of the seawalls to a postern facing the sea. Sympathizers promised to leave this door unlocked. After Beirut successfully traversed the slippery, wave-washed rocks to access the city, his men lowered the harbor chains to admit a fleet carrying more supporters. The imperial garrison, taken entirely by surprise, withdrew to the citadel. A negotiated surrender of the citadel days later allowed the imperial forces to sail away unmolested.

The more impetuous and less legalistic young lord of Beirut had achieved what his honorable and restrained father, the old lord of Beirut, had not. He had seized the last stronghold of the imperialists and expelled the last imperial “baillie.” When the Hohenstaufen’s next representative, Tommaso di Acerra, came east, he did not dare set foot in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, landing and remaining in Tripoli instead. Thereafter, although Frederick II, his son, and his grandson all claimed the title of “King of Jerusalem,” it was an empty title, a mere delusion based on hubris.

The Issues

In assessing these events, it is critical to recognize that the barons and commons of Outremer followed the successive lords of Beirut because their interests aligned with those of the Ibelins. The knights and nobles of Outremer recognized early on that if Frederick II did not shy away from attacking a former regent, he would show no respect for men of lesser lineage, rank, and power. The barons, knights, and commons in Cyprus and Jerusalem rallied to the Ibelin cause because they believed Beirut was standing up for their rights against an arbitrary and autocratic ruler. They saw themselves as defending the constitution of the kingdom against a tyrant.

Frederick proved his contempt for the laws and constitution of Jerusalem by the following actions: (1) refusing to recognize that his title to Jerusalem derived through his wife, (2) attempting to disseize feudal fiefs without due process, and (3) ignoring the High Court of Jerusalem and its functions―which included approving treaties.

At the time of his marriage to Yolanda, Frederick had demanded the nobles of Jerusalem do homage to him, thereby dismissing his father-in-law’s claim as a crowned, anointed king to remain monarch because, since his wife’s death, he had only been regent for his daughter. Yet three years later, when Yolanda died, he refused to recognize that he, too, had lost his crown and become no more than the regent for Yolanda’s son. Instead, he continued to style himself and behave as if he were still king. Even when his son legally came of age, Frederick continued to pull his strings. He did not allow his son to set foot in his kingdom, did not allow him to be crowned and anointed, and did not allow the nobles of Jerusalem to do homage to him. Even on his deathbed, Frederick attempted to alienate the crown of Jerusalem from Yolanda’s son by suggesting it should instead be bestowed on his son by Isabella of England. In short, with his last breath, he failed to recognize that the crown was not—and never had been—his to give away.

Frederick’s attempts to disseize vassals without due process violated a fundamental principle of feudalism. In feudalism, fiefs are bestowed and held as hereditary property. This means that once granted, the title cannot be rescinded nor the land expropriated without due cause, i.e., an act of treason. Treason, in turn, must be proved before a court and established by a judgment of one’s peers. Frederick’s attempts to disseize first, the lord of Beirut and his heirs, and later, a score of other noblemen without due process was not enlightened; it was despotic.

Yet Frederick’s contempt for the High Court was arguably the most critical factor that doomed his rule in Outremer. He flouted the High Court by not seeking its advice on who should rule for his infant son, i.e., obtaining their consent to his regency. He scorned it by not bringing his charges against Beirut and other fief-holders before it. He spurned it by not seeking the advice and consent of the High Court for his treaty with al-Kamil. He continued to ignore the High Court to his very death by insisting on appointing a succession of deputies and ballies without the advice and consent of the High Court and, ultimately, by trying to steal the crown of Jerusalem from the hereditary dynasty to give it to his son by Isabella of England. His lack of respect for Outremer’s parliament ultimately alienated the entire knightly class of Jerusalem. By insulting and mocking the High Court, he attacked the collective rights of the ruling class—and this was why they ultimately fought back.

Summary and Conclusions

In summary, Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s successful crusade is a mirage. The Holy Roman Emperor singularly failed to regain control over Jerusalem, obtaining only temporary and limited access to some specific sites on terms that made the defense of the city impossible. The hostility of the local population to the emperor’s truce was not based on a fundamental opposition to treaties with Muslims—they had concluded hundreds of these already. Furthermore, the causes of the ensuing civil war lay not in differences over Frederick’s truce with the Muslims but rather over his claim to be king of Jerusalem and his arbitrary and despotic actions.

In Outremer, Frederick was not confronted by religious fanatics and ignorant crusaders, but by highly educated, polyglot native elites with more than a century of experience negotiating, trading, and interacting with their Muslim neighbors. Furthermore, the opposition included not only the bulk of knights and nobility but also the king and barons of Cyprus and a strong faction among the commons represented in the Commune of Acre, the Knights Templar, and the Genoese. Except for the Genoese, who were staunchly anti-Hohenstaufen based on Italian politics, what united these diverse elements was Frederick II’s disregard for the customs and laws of the kingdom.

Historians have rightly pointed out that, as the struggle between Frederick II and the barons of Outremer dragged on, the baronial faction became ever more imaginative in inventing “laws” and customs that undermined Hohenstaufen rule. By the time Balian of Beirut was swearing fealty to Alice of Champagne, however, Frederick II had long since squandered all credibility. He had repeatedly broken his sworn word and consistently behaved like a despot. The creativity of the opposition’s legal pretexts should not disguise or negate the fundamental fact that they sought to preserve the rule of law while Frederick II was determined to rule by imperial whim.

The rebels in Outremer stand out for their astonishing grasp of the constitutional principles at stake. Equally impressive, they experimented with expanding the franchise by including the commons in governing assemblies and mobilizing the burghers of Acre. Most importantly, they steadfastly insisted that a monarch was subject to the constitution and unwaveringly upheld due process.

Finally, it is worth noting that the English parliamentary reformer, Simon de Montfort, was a second cousin of Balian of Beirut. The two men fought together during the “Barons’ Crusade” of 1229-1230. The debt Montfort owed to Beirut is a subject that needs to be explored more fully by historians. Yet, whatever else can be said about these men—each flawed in his own way—they were undeniably rebels against the tyranny of kings.

Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg. She is the author of The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations, a comprehensive history of the crusader states that has received exceptionally high praise from leading scholars in the field. She has also used her understanding of the era to write a series of novels set in the crusader states, two of which bring to life the struggle between Frederick II and the Ibelins: Rebels Against Tyranny and The Emperor Strikes Back.

Featured: Frederick II. Bust, ca., 13th century. The Museo Provinciale Campano, Capua, Italy.

Crusaders in the Holy Land: A Unique Civilization

The Crusades have long been a contentious topic, and over the years scholarship has largely fallen into two camps: those that view this enterprise as European aggression (Ur-colonialism) and those that view it as a response to relentless Muslim aggression. The former view tends to predominate, especially in popular culture, where films, television shows and novels favor the trendy explanation of the Levant falling victim to “European violence.” Given the wide reach of media, such simplistic views have become “settled history.” Various efforts are made to counter this ideological reading of the Crusades (and the Middle Ages in general), but with little effect. The mainstream narrative yet holds sway, and in the popular mind the Crusades are evidence of innate European belligerence unleashed upon the world. One of the major problems with this narrative approach is Presentism, which then poses the “East” and the “West” as two irreconcilable monoliths that can only but continually clash. Saner scholarship recognizes the silliness of such an approach and has slowly been trying to make a difference by showing that the medieval world was neither ignorant nor parochial, and in which violence was more controlled than in our own day. The most recent example of such scholarship is Helena P. Schrader’s latest book, The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilization, 1100-1300.

This eloquent book is a comprehensive narrative history of a unique Christian civilization in Palestine—the Crusader States. It is also a noble and honest effort to “set the record straight,” by presenting the entirety of the crusading effort as one of interaction, in which the East and the West met and fashioned a unique civilization. In the words of Schrader:

“While historians of past centuries portrayed the Latin Christians living in these states as a tiny, urban elite afraid to venture into the countryside out of fear of their subjects, there is a growing consensus among the scholars of the twenty-first century that the majority of the population was Christian, not Muslim, and that the degree of intermingling and tolerance between Latin and Orthodox Christians was much higher than had been assumed” (xxxiv).

Towards this end, the book seeks to be as meticulous and well-researched as possible, in which it aptly succeeds. It begins with a 24-page chronology that details the history of the Levant within the context of Christianity (which brought Catholics, commonly known as the “Franks” or “Latins,” into the region, who then established various principalities, or “Crusader States,” which were politically linked with each other and with Europe) and Islam (which eventually gave the Turks enduring dominance in the Holy Land).

The book is divided into two parts, wherewith the analysis moves from the larger to the particular. Thus, Part I, “A Short History of the Crusader States,” describes the process through which the Franks came to the Levant and set up religious, political, cultural and military structures which would ensure that the Holy Land would remain territory essential and important to the Christian faith. This meant the establishment of permanent settlements, or what later became known as the “Crusader States,” or “Outremer” (“Overseas”), as the people of that time called this settlement. Schrader carefully traces the course that needed to be followed to ensure success in this undertaking, and as such follows the rise and fall of the Crusader States, from 1099 (when Jerusalem came under Frankish rule) to 1291 when Acre fell and Frankish influence contracted and eventually disappeared from the region.

The importance of Part I is that it gives the reader a thorough understanding of the complexity of the Crusades in their entirety, while never neglecting the dynamics at play in the Muslim world, where Mongol, Turk and Egyptian rivalries held sway. It is truly commendable that Schrader offers an all-inclusive review of the forces in contention in the Levant over a two-hundred-year period. What emerges is the real picture of the Crusades—that they were a massive investment of effort, talent, money and most of all of faith which allowed for a unique civilization to emerge and flourish, becoming an envy of the world in so many ways.

It is the quality and quantity of this “Crusader” or “Frankish” civilization that Schrader turns to in Part II of her book, which is sub-titled, “A Description of the Crusader States.” Here, Schrader really comes into her own as she takes the reader on a captivating “journey” into the world of Outremer. Each chapter presents facts and analysis, so that a lot of the popular myths about the Crusades are laid to rest. For example, we learn that the population of the Levant was predominantly Christian and not Muslim, as widely and mistakenly assumed. Indeed, the Christian population of what is now known as the Middle East and even Central Asia was heavily Christian. It was only in the fourteenth century that the Christians of the East were methodically annihilated, and the area became what it is today—the final chapter of this annihilation was the Armenian Genocide (which occurred in two parts: 1890-1909 and 1915-1917). Of course, this topic lies outside the scope of Schrader’s book.

Next, Schrader examines the complex polity that emerged in Outremer, the concept of the “nation-state,” which of course had a direct influence on the life of the West in the centuries ahead, down to our own time, where the nation-state is the prime form of civilization. In other words, Outremer was a two-hundred-year long success story—it was hardly colonial “occupation.” The reason for this success, as Schrader shows, is the stability of the institutions that were rather quickly established, such as the very effective judiciary, in which the Muslim peasantry prospered (unlike Muslim peasantry in Islamic-run jurisdictions), as well as the establishment of churches and monasteries which allowed culture, learning and the Christian faith to flourish, especially the ease of pilgrimage (which led to the rise of Holy Land “tourism,” and all of the support industries that tourists need).

Diplomacy was another key component of the success of Outremer, whereby a balance of power was effectively achieved and maintained between the various rivals, namely, Mamluk Egypt, the debilitated Byzantine rule, the many fiefdoms of the Turks, and the Mongol Empire. It was the Crusader States who “micro-managed” this balancing act, so that trade between the East and the West flourished, despite the ambitions of particular rulers: “The willingness… to treat with the religious and strategic enemy on a short-term tactical basis meant that de facto peace reigned in the crusader states far more frequently than war” (193) , because “the Franks maintained sophisticated and largely effective diplomatic relations with all the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean” (196).

As Schrader also points out, the Levant was a backwater before the Crusaders came—but because the land was holy to Christianity, it saw a massive input that transformed the region into a going concern: “Investment into infrastructure revitalised the rural economy and enabled the expansion of trading networks. Existing cities grew, and ancient cities such as Caesarea and Ramla, which had gone to ruin, were revived. Indeed, entire new settlements and villages were built. The larger cities, such as Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli and Antioch, became booming urban centres with larger populations than the capitals of the West. Not until the mid-thirteenth century did Western European cities start to compete in size with the cities of the Latin East” (197).

As well, this investment returned strategic importance: “Most importantly, the Franks connected the traditional oriental trade routes with the growing, increasingly prosperous and luxury-hungry markets of Western Europe” (198). The reason for this flourishing trade was the building of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and water management. Trade agreements were struck and banking practices introduced, which then led to manufacturing. Sugar, textiles (especially silk, samite and siqlatin), soap, wine, olive oil, leather goods, glass were all manufactured in the Crusader States.

Given this revitalization program, agriculture returned to this land long considered barren, so that cities began to flourish, and a distinct Outremer culture emerged, such as icon painting, book production, shrines and holy places where the faithful came in droves to receive blessing in the land trodden by God Himself, as the famous 13th century Palestinalied (Song of Palestine) relates: “Ich bin komen an die stat,/ dâ got menischlîchen trat (I am come to the city where God trod as a man).” This spiritual “currency” lay at the heart of this region, a “currency” that could never be depleted. And here the work of charity was paramount, which saw the building of hospitals, caravanserais, inns, as well as monasteries, churches and many chapels by confraternities and monastic orders.

The cities themselves were well-planned, with effective sewage systems, baths and even flushing toilets. Trade supplied the many open-air and enclosed markets. There were orchards and gardens surrounding each city, with aqueducts, pools and fountains to supply water. It is important to note that many of these cities were not fortified—that is, they did not lie inside protective walls—cities such as Nazareth, Hebron, Nablus and Ramla. This detail is important—for it points to the fact that life was, in fact, very peaceful, which flies in the face of the usual and popular trope of Crusader brutality.

But this not to say that the military aspect was not important, for defense was necessary, given the endless ambitions of the rulers of the time (Mongol, Mamluk and Turk). Thus, Frankish Levant saw the emergence of unique castle styles, chief and most impressive of which was the concentric castle, the best examples of which is Krak de Chevaliers and Belvoir which overlooks the Jordan valley (“Belvoir” in Old French means, “Good view”).

Frankish architecture was unique also because it did not destroy what originally existed: “Beyond their sheer scale and number, one of the most striking features of these various projects was the degree to which the Franks sensitively and respectfully incorporated the remains of earlier buildings into their renovation projects. In sharp contrast to the prevailing view of crusaders as bigoted barbarians, when it came to architecture, the crusaders sought to preserve rather than destroy. This was true of Muslim structures as well as Christian ones” (233).

One of the greatest achievements of Outremer was its art and its literature, both little known and studied. There survives, for example, the exquisite Melisende Psalter, with its illustrations that perfectly combine Byzantine, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic and Latin elements to produce a style that is original to Outremer. And then there are the frescoes of the 12th century Church of St. Jeremiah at Abu-Ghosh (the biblical Emmaus), which are the finest expression of Crusader art (despite their Byzantine “look”), although they now survive in a much damaged condition.

This comprehensive book ends with the history of the Ibelin family who typify the kinds of people that came to Outremer and made it the splendorous civilization that it was: “…while the Ibelins were undoubtedly exceptionally successful, they were also in many ways typical. They embodied the overall experience, characteristics and ethos of the Franks in the Holy Land. They came from obscure, probably non-noble origins, and the dynasty’s founder can be classed as an ‘adventurer’ and ‘crusader’. They rapidly put down roots in the Near East, intermarrying with native Christian and Byzantine elites. They were hardened and cunning fighting men able to deploy arms and tactics unknown to the West and intellectuals who could win wars with words in the courts. They were multilingual, cosmopolitan and luxury-loving, as comfortable in baths as in battles” (267).

But why did this great civilization in the Holy Land end, after two hundred years of great success? The answers are as varied as the scholars who seek to give a response to this question. Schrader is accurate in her own conclusion—that Outremer was a victim of its own success. Because it was such a “shining city on the hill,” others fought to possess it. But more tragically, the bane of Frankish rule was the incessant in-fighting, where factions vied for power and where loyalty was circumscribed by personal ambition. As well, the latter rulers had divided loyalty—they were more interested in maintaining their holdings and influence in Europe than looking after what previous generations had built in the Holy Land. It is that old cycle of civilization—the generations that inherent wealth effectively waste it and lose it.

And the legacy of Outremer? This is how Schrader summarizes it: “… the crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law” (305).

For its scope, its depth and its variety of subject matter, this book truly succeeds as a work of exceptional narrative history. By glancing at the past, we may well learn something about the narrowness of our own age.

C.B. Forde confesses to being a closet history buff, that is whenever he can tear himself away from the demands of the little bit of land that he cultivates.

Featured: The Last Judgment, a fresco in the Church of St. Jeremiah (Emmaus), in Abu-Ghosh, Israel; painted in the latter parts of the 12th century.

The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades

Helena P. Schrader has just published a very important book that we encourage you to read. It is The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations, which counters common misconceptions and prevailing popular myths about the crusader states by demonstrating that religious tolerance rather than fanaticism, intellectual activity rather than warfare, and cultural exchange rather than bigotry characterized these unique societies. It is a fabulous and comprehensive history of the Latin East.

Helena Schrader holds a PhD in history from the University of Hamburg, which she earned with a ground-breaking biography of a leader of the German Resistance to Hitler. She served as an American diplomat in Europe and Africa, and since her retirement works as an independent scholar. Her areas of expertise are ancient Sparta, the Crusader States and the Second World War. She has also published six novels set in the Latin East. You can find out more at her website.

Please support Dr. Schrader’s valuable work by purchasing a copy of this unique book. To get you going, here is an excerpt.

Because of the ignorant or irresponsible misuse of the term “crusader” and “crusades” by politicians, journalists and Islamist terrorists, long-discredited theories from the last century about the crusades have been perpetuated with thoughtless references and careless comparisons. This shallow and sensationalist – not to mention intellectually lazy – commentary drowns out the voices of serious scholars. As a result, most of the public today believes that the crusades and the crusader states were characterised by bigotry, racism and brutality aimed at the oppression and destruction of the native peoples of the Near East.

Yet, the picture of the crusader states that scholars have meticulously pieced together based on contemporary chronicles, data mining and archaeology does not corroborate these popular assumptions. Instead, the historical record provides concrete evidence of Frankish tolerance, adaptability, peaceful co-existence and cooperation with the various peoples inhabiting the Middle East. For example, from the moment they arrived in Antioch, the crusaders preserved, cherished and expanded the Arab libraries they discovered. Rather than destroying mosques and synagogues, the crusaders either repurposed them or allowed them to continue to operate, preserving these architectural monuments for posterity. Furthermore, the crusaders allowed Jews, Samaritans and Muslims to build new houses of worship. They allowed these religious groups to live according to their laws and publicly celebrate their religious festivals without interference.

Likewise, from the First Crusade onwards, the Franks recognised and respected the Orthodox clergy, at times taking Orthodox priests for their confessors and consistently sponsoring the re-establishment and restoration of Orthodox churches and monasteries. As a result, Greek monasteries flourished and expanded, particularly around Jerusalem, in Antioch and Sinai.

The hospitals of one of the crusading orders, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, employed doctors of any religion. In the luxurious wards, patients of all religions were treated equally as “lords” by members of an order that viewed themselves as “serfs” of the poor.

The courts sought to ensure that anyone accused of a crime was judged by his peers following local custom rather than an alien legal code. Civil and criminal conflicts between members of different ethnic and religious groups were adjudicated in accordance with the law of the defendant.

Absent from the popular image of crusaders and the crusader states are the more than one hundred truces and the many alliances across religious borders. Likewise, the native Christians who worked as scribes, customs officials, merchants and manufacturers, both forming the administrative backbone of and contributing materially to the economic prosperity of the Holy Land have been erased from popular history by the simplistic popular picture of the crusader states. Invisible too are the Arabic and Syriac-speaking native Christian infantry and archers that made up the bulk of the Frankish armies, even though these fighting men saved the crusader states from destruction on multiple occasions.

The popular picture of the crusader states does not include the icon workshops, mass book production, or a society that rewarded knowledge of the law as assiduously as skill with the sword. Forgotten are the Muslims who sought refuge in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Mongol invasion of Syria and the Jews who immigrated to the Kingdom of Jerusalem because it was an oasis of tolerance in an anti-Semitic world. The historical reality of Templars hosting the Ayyubid princes in their Acre headquarters in 1244 and Frankish noblemen translating Arab poetry into French is obscured by Hollywood depictions of Templars shouting for Muslim and Jewish blood and Frankish noblemen slaughtering unarmed Muslims.

Yet, it is not only the need to correct common misconceptions that make the study of the crusader states rewarding. These kingdoms, sitting on the crossroads of civilizations, were established by newcomers from the West who were compelled to adapt rapidly to their new environment or face extinction. Not only did they adapt, but they evolved into a unique hybrid society that mixed European culture with Near Eastern traditions. This was not a matter of imitating—much less “stealing”—technology, art or ideas from more sophisticated neighbours. It was a matter of developing new and innovative products, forms and concepts. In doing so, the Franks of Outremer made significant contributions to the evolution of European society, stimulating advancement across a range of fields.

The most obvious innovations came in the field of warfare. From the adoption of surcoats to the construction of concentric castles, the confrontation between the armies of the Middle East and Western Europe led to significant military advances. The Franks pioneered Western use of mounted archers, evolved the fighting box (combined arms warfare), and in the military orders, rediscovered the value of professional and disciplined regular forces. They perfected the massed charge of heavy cavalry yet also effectively exploited light cavalry in reconnaissance and hit-and-run raids. Finally, they deployed archers behind shield walls to good effect, while Frankish crossbows represented cutting-edge technology. In his study of crusader warfare, Steve Tibble concludes that “warfare in the east was a crucible of innovation for European warfare.”

The architecture of the Franks was unique and not only regarding castles. Frankish domestic architecture combined such Western features as outward-oriented multistorey structures, high ceilings, large windows, loges and balconies with Arab and Byzantine artisanry, such as inlaid marble, glazed tiles, running fountains and intricate decoration. The result was gracious and sunlit structures that used local products such as glass windows, glazed tiles and polychrome marble. Frankish houses included fireplaces with hoods that reduced smoke accumulation (a Western feature) and sophisticated plumbing systems of cistern-fed ceramic pipes feeding into centrally-planned sewage systems (an Eastern feature).

As noted earlier, hospitals as institutions for healing the sick and injured evolved in the Holy Land in the crusader era, based on Byzantine and Arab precedents. Along with hospitals came advances in medicine and progress towards the professionalization of medical practitioners and the protection of patients from malpractice. The Frankish states provided a meeting place for physicians from various cultures, and Antioch became a centre for the study and development of medical theory.

International banking was another field significantly advanced by the Frankish presence in the Levant. The need for cash transfers over enormous distances fostered the evolution of letters of credit, cheques, currency exchange and other financial services previously unknown, at least not on such a scale.

Last but not least, the Franks contributed to constitutional law. Nowhere else in the medieval world was interest in and discussion of the concept of good governance, the rule-of-law and the monarch’s role carried to such heights of sophistication or conducted on as wide a scale as in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-thirteenth century. In no other kingdom did so many noblemen of a single era study and write about the law, let alone serve as advocates in the courts. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was also exceptional for the number of men of lower social standing who gained prominence through legal expertise. The inclusion of the commons in governing assemblies was equally innovative and progressive, albeit limited. Yet most important was the advocacy and defence of key constitutional concepts such as the monarchs’ subordination to the constitution and the right to due process. In defending these principles against the authoritarianism of Frederick II, the rebels of Outremer undoubtedly influenced the English parliamentary reformer, Simon de Montfort. They deserve credit for their steadfast opposition to tyranny.

The Frankish states of the Levant were not paradise. Even if not perpetually on the brink of collapse, they were vulnerable. They were subject to frequent small-scale attacks, periodic invasions and were ultimately destroyed by warfare. In the thirteenth century, they also suffered from absentee monarchs, political intrigue, and factional infighting. Yet, they were neither fragile constructs doomed to failure nor genocidal, apartheid regimes established by barbarians to oppress enlightened natives.

The evidence is overwhelming—preserved in stone and meticulously documented by Arab, Greek, Syrian and Jewish sources no less than in the Latin and French chronicles: The crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law. They brought forth a vivid, multicultural society in which tolerance outweighed bigotry. As such, the crusader states’ contribution to the evolution of European culture deserves more attention and appreciation as we struggle to integrate diverse cultures in our own time.

Featured: Knight, Westminster Psalter (BL Royal MS 2 A xxii f. 220); 13th century.

Iran: “Hijab Crisis,” Or Color Revolution?

In Iran, riots and mass protests continue for a third week. The Western globalist media wrote that this was caused by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was allegedly killed by the vice squad for not wearing a headscarf (in Iran, girls and women are required by law to cover their heads). However, according to official reports, she suffered a heart attack at the police station [vax status? Ed]. She was taken to the hospital, but could not be saved. The rest of the details are not known, because the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. In addition, a large number of fakes appeared on social networks and in foreign publications.

The incident with the girl occurred on September 16. By September 18, mass protests and riots began. A security officer was killed by a mob of unidentified people, and four young Iranians were also killed by protesters during the clashes. Clearly, the situation was deliberately escalating.

In the following days, the protests spread to a number of cities in Iran. Women were demonstratively tearing scarves from their heads. There were reports of weapons being seized. A video shared on social media showed rioters throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars and beating police officers. Footage has also emerged of the crowd chanting “Long Live Shah Pahlavi.” Such chants are surprising because the vast majority of Iranians today don’t remember the times of the Pahlavi dynasty (the Shah fled the country during the 1979 Islamic Revolution; and it was the repressive nature of the Shah’s regime that was the key to that Revolution’s success).

This scenario resembles the events in Libya which also began with a small incident and then developed into political actions (monarchist banners appeared immediately), and then civil war. Similar developments also took place in Iran, during the presidential elections, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for a second term.

After Mahsa Amini’s death, the “green movement” in Iran, by way of social networks, called for mobilization and mass protests. By September 22, it was known that 61 ambulances had been destroyed by vandals. By the second week, more than forty deaths were known. By the third week, the number of victims was close to a hundred.

Hijab Riots

Across Iran, ordinary women and public figures, including Iranian actresses, removed their headscarves in protest or cut their hair in public to show solidarity with the demonstrators. We do not have complete statistics on criminal and misdemeanor crimes in Iran. However, we can assume that there are the usual incidents, with the deaths of offenders, as well as cases of abuse of power by members of the executive branch. But in this case there is a deliberate promotion of the theme of “the victim and the bad officials.” In general, the Arab Spring in Tunisia began with a similar episode. In the case of Iran, it is also indicative that the protesters are not demanding to “get the culprits,” but are blaming the authorities in general; that is, their actions are directed against the Supreme Leader of Iran and the rahbar institution, which represents the spiritual authorities that are above secular bodies.

Leaving aside the emotional factor, as well as the socio-political turmoil in Iran (which is less than it was a year ago), one should pay attention to the geopolitical context and international relations. In Iran, the wave of protests began immediately after the SCO summit in Samarkand, where Iran was accepted as a full member of the organization.

In addition, Iran is currently working on adjusting a number of laws in accordance with the norms of the EAEU, in order to move from a free trade zone to full membership. Numerous agreements have been signed with Russia, including the supply of natural gas to Iran and the use of the country for transit to the neighboring Republic of Pakistan, which is also interested in Russian energy resources. Cooperation in infrastructure and military-technical cooperation is also being enhanced. The appearance of Iranian kamikaze drones by the Russian army conducting the operation in Ukraine has also changed the situation on the front in favor of Russia.

Let us note another interesting fact: Albania officially severed diplomatic relations with Iran. The reason given was a cyber attack that allegedly had been carried out by Iranian special services on the infrastructure of Albania. But, in fact, this is a double-edged case. There are training camps in Albanian territory of the terrorist organization, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, who advocate the overthrow of the Iranian government. In particular, they spread propaganda and conduct cyber operations against Iran. It is likely that retaliation by Iranian security forces, or hackers, against the Mojahedin Organization servers led to cascading effects that affected other elements of critical infrastructure. Microsoft was involved in the investigation of the cyber incident in Albania.

In addition, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is nearing resolution. Russia fully supports Tehran on this issue. The EU states are also interested in returning to the state of affairs before the imposition of new sanctions by the U.S. Only Washington is still stubborn, which is explained by the close ties between the U.S. and Israel. Normalization of relations has also been noted with Saudi Arabia, a longtime antagonist of Iran. Taken together, these factors indicate a significant strengthening of Iran in the region in recent times, despite continuing U.S. sanctions.

This raises the question—who benefits from a crisis or coup d’état in Iran?

Neighboring Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Iraq are hardly interested in a serious deterioration of the political climate in their neighboring country, because any unrest could spill over to them. But there are other actors who would benefit from any crisis in Iran.

First of all, Israel, Britain and the United States are not interested in increasing the role and status of Iran. Israel and the U.S. have been outspoken about the need to overthrow the “ayatollah regime” in Iran. For Israel, because of security and ties of Palestinian groups and the Lebanese Hezbollah to the Iranian government. The U.S., because of the idée fixe of establishing a Western liberal democracy.

We should add that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Representatives of this organization are constantly and groundlessly accused by Washington of planning and organizing unlawful acts and threatening U.S. interests.

Finally, the victim-heroine of the protests was a native of the Kurdish region of Iran, which adds both a regional and Kurdish factor to the story, since a number of Kurdish organizations have subversive activities against the Iranian government, from political propaganda to organizing attacks on border guards and security forces. Given the long-standing Israeli and U.S. ties with the Kurds of Iraq, as well as the ability to manipulate social networks, we can assume that those concerned would be unlikely to miss the chance to use the girl’s death to foment discontent and social unrest.

In addition, the level and experience of the intelligence services of the above states allows us to conclude that only these three countries can conduct an operation of this level in another state. Reliable sources in Iran report increased activity of Zionist and Western propaganda inside Iran. A chain reaction has begun. These events will obviously go down in history as another attempt at a color revolution.

Leonid Savin, is Editor-in-Chief of the Analytical Center, General Director of the Cultural and Territorial Spaces Monitoring and Forecasting Foundation and Head of the International Eurasia Movement Administration. This article appears through the kind courtesy of the Oriental Review.

A Measure of Western Double Standards

Yemen is not Ukraine. But in both places, there is war, coupled with human suffering. But how do the politicians react? How does the media react? How do the people in Berlin, Paris, London, or even in Zurich react? Gods may do what cattle may not… Two people may do the same thing, but it is never identical.

Donald Trump explained the U.S.-Saudi relationship to his supporters with his trademark beer-table humor: “I said to King Salman, ‘King, we’re protecting you. You wouldn’t last two weeks without us. You should pay for your military.” Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia in 2017, where he performed a traditional saber dance with the princes after striking a deal to supply more than a hundred billion dollars’ worth of arms. Trump tweeted at the time, “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

By that time, the Saudi Air Force had been bombing Yemen day-after-day, for two years. The Gulf monarchy, at the head of a military alliance of Arab countries, has been waging a war against Yemen since 2015. According to Riyadh, the war’s goal was to end the uprising by the Iran-backed Huthi militia “Ansar Allah” and restore the fled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi to office. In reality, however, Saudi King Mohammed Bin Salman is concerned with far more than the constitution and legality in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia regards the small southern neighbor as its backyard, where it must maintain order for geostrategic reasons. Since the middle of the last century, the Saudis have intervened militarily in Yemen six times. In the most recent intervention, the U.S., Britain and France provided most of the support.

Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world even before the war. It produces gas and oil, but its reserves are estimated at only 0.2 percent of the world’s proven reserves. Yemen, however, lies on the strait of Bab-al-Mandab, a strategic bottleneck between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and four million barrels of oil pass through there every day. Free passage is essential for the Gulf monarchies. The West is thus pursuing its well-known “vital interests” in Yemen. A bipartisan study for the attention of the U.S. Congress late last year listed the reasons for the war. “International terrorist groups” were operating in Yemen, it said, and a failed state of Yemen would not only pose a threat to shipping, but would also allow Iran “to threaten the borders of Saudi Arabia.”

The insurgent Huthi militias have taken control of much of the country since 2014. Their leaders were trained in Iran at the Islamic University of Qom. They are fighting Hadi’s government, as well as the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi Wahabis, who are spreading fundamentalist Islam in Yemen. However, as is the case throughout the Middle East, it is not a matter of “religious wars” between Shiites and Sunnis, but of political power-struggles fought along ethnic-confessional lines.

The Huthis belong to the Hashemites, an elite of political leaders and religious scholars who claim direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Until the proclamation of the republic in 1962, this tribal nobility had held political power for centuries. Western governments say they are convinced that the Huthis are being supplied with missiles and combat drones by Iran, despite an arms embargo and naval blockade of Yemen’s coasts. Tehran categorically rejects any involvement in the military action in Yemen.

Yemen had long been a country divided in two: the north under Turkish Ottoman rule and the south under British colonial rule. In the 1960s, the “non-aligned” nationalism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser radiated across the Arab world, throwing oil on the conflagration of independence movements. In 1962, a Republic of Yemen triumphed in the north over the old, semi-feudal tribal society. In 1967, a “People’s Democratic Republic” was proclaimed in the south. The north was oriented toward the West, while the south became a bridgehead for the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a reunification took place—almost simultaneously with the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany-which, similar to Germany, resulted in the extensive economic takeover of socialist southern Yemen by the capitalist north.

Yemen, a country torn apart

At that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh had already been president of northern Yemen for twelve years, and no one suspected that he and his clan would hold on to power for another two decades. Since the uprisings against Ottoman and British colonial rule in the last century, Yemen was long a torn country where power struggles were fought with military force, and political alliances and fronts changed constantly. Violent uprisings, coups and assassinations were almost the normal way of changing the government throughout these years. The tribes and their culture, their forms of jurisprudence and conflict management still carry more weight than the state judiciary, police and administration.

For 33 years, Saleh managed to play the clans and interest groups off against each other and to buy loyalties. When the so-called “Arab Spring” reached Yemen in 2011, the balance of power managed by Saleh collapsed, and all attempts to establish a reform government and a peaceful transition, mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the UN, failed. That was the moment when the Huthis began their political and military offensive. They were able to capture the capital Sanaa within a short period of time in 2014 and are steadily advancing further south.

In Yemen, despite all the denials on both sides, the power struggle between the U.S. and the ayatollahs’ Iran is being fought in a proxy war. In this respect, the Saudi fighter jets and helicopters from the U.S. are nothing more and nothing less than the military tool of Western geostrategy. Saudi Arabia is waging a preemptive war that costs it $200 million a day to prevent the enemy Iran from coming near the Saudi border, through its influence over the Huthis. Doesn’t this kind of reasoning sound kind of familiar since February 24, 2022?

But no Yemeni flags have been spotted on balconies in London or Paris. No accounts of Saudi businessmen have been frozen in Zurich. No school classes are singing in the streets of Berlin to raise money for Yemen, and no parliamentarian has traveled to Yemen to express dismay in front of the ruins of the air strikes. The West is always ready to manage conflicts that can be blamed on the Russians or the Chinese with great indignation. When it comes to its own wars, it is less precise about its indignation.

Dr. Helmut Scheben has worked as a press agency reporter and correspondent for print media in Mexico and Central America. From 1986 he was editor of the weekly newspaper (WoZ) in Zurich, and from 1993 to 2012 he was an editor and reporter on Swiss television SRF, including 16 years on the Tagesschau. This articles appears courtesy of Globalbridge.

East-West, Rootless in Ruins: A Conversation with Yves Lepesqueur

Yves Lepesqueur has worked in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran. A columnist for L’Atelier du roman, he is the author of a monograph, Les anciennes fêtes de printemps à Homs [The Ancient Spring Festival at Homs]. He has just published, Pourquoi les Libanaises sont séduisantes [Why Lebanese Women are Attractive: Twentieth Century Near Eastern History Very Briefly Explained to My Children], a book in which he examines the history of the Middle East in the 20th century as well as his concerns about uprooting that is taking place in Europe. He is in conversation with Shathil Nawaf Taqa.

Shathil Nawaf Taqa (SNT): The Lebanese woman symbolizes in your eyes the essence of oriental civilization—a paradoxical mixture of sensuality and asceticism. This description is reminiscent of Kuchuk Hanem, the inspiring alma mater of Flaubert, a novelist whom you also quote in your text. Wasn’t the oriental woman, sensual and mysterious, an orientalist myth?

Yves Lepesqueur (YL): It is fashionable to put Orientalists on trial by reproaching them for going to the East with Western concerns. However, when we go towards something, it is always with our own concerns, our own needs and questionings. It is absurd to imagine the opposite. It is the same for Orientals who come to the West with their own preoccupations. Thus, when one speaks with certain “progressive” Arabs, one often has the impression that for them the history of Europe begins in the eighteenth century. They see European culture only in terms of the dissatisfaction that their own culture inspires. They do not do any better than the Orientalists, who, of course, went to the East carrying the doubts, admitted or not, that European civilization was beginning to inspire in them. How could it be otherwise? A look always comes from the one who looks—there is no objective look.

Yves Lepesqueur, Isfahan (D.R.).

The question of objectivity is therefore irrelevant. The question that arises is that of loyalty. Do we invent? Do we refuse to see? Or does what we claim to see really exist, even if we perceive it according to our own subjectivity? If one doubts that oriental sensuality really exists, let’s go and see! By the way, it is curious that Arabs, progressive or Islamist, are today reluctant to recognize all that their civilization owes to the poetic or aesthetic elaborations of desire and sensuality. They are too eager to resemble serious American or Scandinavian puritans. This reluctance is an aspect of self-shame—which shows that my starting point is not so anecdotal.

The insight that put me on the track of this book was this—that the common representation of the so-called Westernization of the Middle East is radically false. It is not always the Western-looking people, especially the women, who are “Westernized”—the Islamists are much more so.

The “Lebanese women” in my title is a generic term that designates a certain way of being a woman, which can be found in the Maghreb, Syria, Egypt, etc., but which is particularly present in Lebanon. We are told: “These young oriental women, who are not afraid to seduce, are westernized.” I don’t believe this at all.

Evgeny Grouzdev, Portrait of a Lebanese Girl in White (2015).

What struck me was that the Lebanese women I worked with every day were extremely archaic, in the sense that they had no idea of succeeding in social life by becoming an engineer, for example. In fact, they were more interested in being beautiful, having fun, finding a rich enough husband, having beautiful children and a beautiful house. This vision is neither modern nor feminist; it refers to a very traditional conception of the role of women (which does not shock me at all). There was no reason to suppose a contradiction between their rather free dress and these conceptions that their grandmothers already shared—their taste to seduce did not come from a “Western modernization” but from a perenniality of the Eastern culture.

SNT: Is it not the dream of a Lamartine or a Hugo who come to seek in the East this ancient thing which had disappeared in the West?

YL: If they came to look for it there rather than in puritanical America, it is undoubtedly because it is there that they had some chance of finding it! What they may have discovered in the East is the richness of a perception of the world where one is sensitive to all the joys of this existence, which is expressed by a taste for beauty, perfumes, refined foods, beautiful and shimmering clothes—all that seduces the senses and delights the heart (even in the Koran, the sacrificial victim, to be accepted by God, must be “of a luminous yellow color that makes those who see it joyful.” One reads this without stopping; in truth, one only thinks one is reading).

But the more one loves this world, the more one is sensitive to its fragility—it will cease; all this is only a surface; it is necessary to turn towards what does not perish; towards the immaterial. These two aspects, sensuality and asceticism, weave together an infinitely moving vision of the world, because the beauty of the world is there; but at the same time, it can never be grasped; it flees towards a beyond. To love the world and not be satisfied with it—is this not the very principle of the human condition? This is why I wrote: “As long as we intend to remain human, the East remains our homeland.”

SNT: You have made the genealogy of the two postcolonial ideological corpuses of the Eastern world: nationalism and Islamism, which, according to you, are similar in that they seek to remedy the same problem—self-shame. The latter construct themselves in opposition to their recent past and put in place an identity-software that refuses the complexity of the Eastern identity. How can one access this complexity when one is inferiorized or under siege?

YL: To live complexity is not easy. That is why the anemic contemporary man cannot live it anymore!

By writing that the Orientals have renounced it, I am not giving myself the mission of telling them what to do or what not to do! I am simply trying to describe what has been. There was indeed a real shame of self, a rejection of the past, of heritage and tradition. There was a desire to be as strong as the West and a way of defining oneself in relation to the West; under its gaze in a way, in relation to this envied adversary. When I lived in Iran, I often thought that between the most conservative supporters of the Khomeinist regime and Iranians with a foot in California there was a common thread. They both asked themselves the same question when they woke up in the morning: “What about the West? Are we worth it? What are we worth against it? “

In such a mental climate, one no longer exists in relation to oneself, but in relation to another who is stronger and whose strength humiliates. This leads to a rejection of one’s own culture, which is almost always disguised as an ostentatious exaltation of that culture, which one actually denies. This is the principle of nationalism—one refuses the culture as it is around us and transmitted by our parents. One refers to a kind of unchanging ante-historic—the Arabs of the Umayyad period, for the Islamists, the Muslims of the Prophet’s time. Since we don’t know what the Arabs of the time of the Prophet or the Umayyads were like, we project onto them everything that we ourselves are—so, “I am like them, a true Arab, a true Muslim.”

The real heritage is what is transmitted from generation to generation; not what comes to us without intermediary from a generation of 1500 years ago. The heritage is everything that has been transmitted and transformed by all the generations that link and separate this distant past and our present. It is a living continuity, which, being living, is constantly transformed, but without rupture. We have access to it only through the last, and the last but one, generation that preceded us; those of our parents and grandparents.

The disguised modernisms—nationalism or Islamism (which is only a variety of nationalism), deny the fathers and forefathers we really knew, who seem too decadent, too underdeveloped, etc., and pretend to reconnect directly with an invented past, imagined according to the desires of the present; the first of which is the desire to be strong, to be a winner in this world.

In the meantime, we are ashamed of the country that our forefathers bequeathed to us, which translates in a very material way into the destruction of ancient cities, as Marwa Al-Sabouni showed in her very good book (The Battle for Home)—Orientals have become incapable of loving their cities with their inextricable alleys; so much so that in the past, foreigners who photographed them were suspected of doing so to make fun of them. The Orientals were no longer able to see the beauty of their living environment; they were ashamed of it. It was so unmodern! Nationalists, “secular” and Islamists, are equal in the vandalism and destruction of any beauty inherited from the past. It is a good starting point to understand that they are only the two heads of the same monster.

SNT: The history of modern Arab literature, as illustrated by the free verse poetry movement, shows a willingness to rediscover the literary heritage without devaluing the past; on the contrary. Wasn’t the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser rich in culture?

YL: I’m quite nuanced about the Nahda. Indeed, the Nahda (I use the word in a broad sense that allows me to include all the cultural movements up to the middle of the 20th century), even if it was already inspired by the desire to resemble Europe (to finally have trains, scientists, engineers, a literature of the self, to finally be “enlightened”), could also have had its fruitfulness. Indeed, it nourished a curiosity; it widened the intellectual horizons and thus gave rise to questionings which, in a certain way, brought back life and complexity—thus of “orientality.”

I will be more severe on the era of Nasser, the one in which the “nationalists in shoes” replaced and swept away the literate nationalists. The ideology of Nasserism and its equivalents in neighboring countries is perfectly summed up by that moment in Youssef Chahine’s film, The Sparrow, when we see a crowd chanting, “One heart, one soul!” Unanimity is hardly conducive to the life of the spirit! And nothing is more contrary to the civilization of the Near East which, in its Jewish, Christian and Muslim variants, has always shown a true genius for quarrelling, for disagreement, to which it owes much of its wealth.

No doubt there were still great writers, musicians, film-makers, etc. in Nasser’s time. But they were not born with that era; they had grown up in the previous period, when unanimity was not the norm. Culture is like agriculture—it is with a certain delay that we see what we have sown coming out of the ground. Look at France. It is now that we understand the effect of all the school reforms that have favored illiteracy—not at the time, fifty years ago, when this cycle of reform was initiated. To see the cultural effect of Nasserism, one must look not at the Egypt of the fifties and sixties but at the Egypt of the eighties; the desert, or very close to it.

That there were, as you recall, some great names of Arab culture in the twentieth century, is not enough to prevent that century from being a century of cultural collapse in the Arab world. To a certain extent, the same is true in Europe; whether this century had a Péguy or a Simone Weil does not prevent it from being the century of the collapse of European civilization. It is even for having seen and understood it first that certain authors are so precious to us.

In the East, it was worse; at least in some respects, because if popular culture and anthropological bases held up better than in Europe, on the other hand, intellectual production was not up to par. There is no Arab Simone Weil, no Péguy, no Bernanos, no Gunther Anders, no Michel Henry, and you can add the names you want.

Modernism, the fascination of the success of the other, has diverted Arab intellectuals from their own heritage. Or they have exalted it but without really feeding on it; simply wanting to make it an identity card that would allow them to enter the modern world with pride, like those scholars exalting the Arab science of the Middle Ages in which they see only an early approximation of what would later be modern Western science, whereas the speculative bases of this science were entirely different (which makes it not an outdated approximation but retains all its value, at least philosophically). Arab intellectuals have not been able to make use of the heritage to understand the present moment. Despite the many exceptions, the ignorance of Arabs, including educated ones, of the past cultural wealth of the Arab-Islamic world is astonishing. And those who claim to be the most religious are often the most ignorant.

You told me that Nasser had awakened the pride of peoples humiliated by Western domination. This is very true. I highlight in my book how much the interventions of the West had pushed the Middle East to despise itself, to deny itself. And no doubt Nasserism reawakened pride—Nasserism was an “Arab Pride,” as Islamism is a “Muslim Pride.”

But pride is not a response—it is a counterpart to humiliation, not a liberation from it. There is no ostentatious pride that is not nourished by resentment; that is to say, by a form of shame. This is why, as we see with feminist or homosexualist “prides,” the more one says one is proud, the more one says one is a victim, which is quite curious. And this attitude is not limited to these very visible manifestations. It is because we feel that France is disintegrating, forgetting itself, letting itself be forgotten by the world, that our nationalists say they are “proud to be French.” Our ancestors of the time of Saint Louis were not “proud to be French;” they were—and they hardly thought about it; but they were really. What matters is to be—not to proclaim a pride. The need to proclaim pride is in itself a very bad sign. When one seeks pride, one has a wound to heal; to seek pride is to continue to be obsessed by humiliation.

SNT: The Arab countries of the Gulf, on the periphery, experienced colonization from afar. They have been sheltered from post-colonial ideologies. But in the last ten years, consumerism has wreaked more havoc there than in the societies of the Near East that have lived through European colonization. They were less protected in the end.

YL: What protects against the present is the past, and what protects against consumerism is a culture that is not based on consumerism. Now, the Gulf countries have always been marginal in the oriental culture; the great centers were in Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, Isfahan, etc. The Gulf countries had less of a past to protect them. The culture of the Gulf, steeped in Bedouin way of life, is a marginal culture, extremely friendly, which I was able to experience during my stay in Arabia, but it is not a learned culture. Cultures that do not have intellectuals to defend them are vulnerable cultures. And when they die, all that is left is what the present offers.

I would add that our way of entering the future is always influenced by the past, even if we have abandoned it. The culture of the Arabian Peninsula has valued cheerfulness more than thought. The people of the Gulf are very cheerful, with a very pleasant character. They like parties, music and a certain drunkenness, and the pleasures of life. We find something of this in an extremely naive way of welcoming everything that the world of consumption offers, without asking questions.

You speak of a certain resentment towards Lebanon and the Lebanese, which can be explained in part by the fact that this country assumes itself, does not deny itself, and finally is the only one to accept this orientality of contradiction. But Lebanon is also a project maintained by a colonial power whose cultural expression was manifested by the establishment of the American University of Lebanon which was initially a missionary institute. Were Orientals not outraged by what was the most perfect cultural expression of foreign interference on their soil? That was the justification given.

In reality, Lebanon is not the only Middle Eastern state that was “the project of a colonial power.” And Saudi Arabia?! And Jordan? Finally, the only Middle Eastern state that was not to any degree, even indirectly, the fruit of a colonial project, is the Ottoman Empire (for which Gobineau had so much sympathy), which the Turkish and Arab nationalists, enemy brothers in the imitation of the West, worked together to destroy. One can also, further on, add the old Iranian state, and perhaps, at a pinch, Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman, which are all the same somewhat marginal countries.

Why then would an Arab intellectual immediately think of applying this supposedly infamous qualification, “project maintained by a colonial power” to Lebanon rather than to Arabia or Kuwait? This reproach was only a presentable pretext. As for the American University of Beirut, whatever the intentions of its founders, it was a breeding ground for left-wing nationalists.

And if we talk about cultural interference, what was studied in the national universities of other Arab countries? The same as at the American University of Beirut, only worse. Without admitting it, people were happy that Lebanon was suffering. The Orientals consider, not without reason, that the Lebanese are arrogant and so were happy that this country was taking a beating; there was a kind of dull satisfaction. But there was a deeper reason for this Schadenfreude. People were angry at Lebanon for not having believed in this rationalist and efficient nationalism. On the contrary, it remained a completely elusive country.

What was it about Lebanon that shocked a Baathist Syrian or a Nasserite Egyptian? It was the fact that this country did not decide to be serious in the Arab revolution. Lebanon refused to enter the world of seriousness; it remained carefree, incoherent, ineffective, joyful, incredibly confused—all the bad things were said about it, but people took refuge in Beirut because there, in this carefree confusion, they could breathe. But one could not conceive this clearly; there was a cognitive dissonance, as the cooks say, between the pleasure that Arab intellectuals took in staying in Lebanon and the evil that they thought they were obliged to think of.

SNT: But what about the political domination that the Orientals suffered?

YL: Political domination is an insufficient explanation. It is said that from Cleopatra (and even Alexander, because the Lagids were of Greek origin) until Nasser, Egypt was never ruled by Egyptians. Was this enough for the Egyptian culture to disappear? It is also said that since the Mongols, and even since the Arab invasion, until the Pahlavi of sinister memory, Iran has always been ruled by foreign dynasties—but this vast period covers the most beautiful centuries of Persian civilization.

Foreign domination is only truly destructive, if one is convinced that the foreigner is not only militarily stronger, but that he is better than we are. This is the real humiliation that leads to resentment and denial—believing that we deserved to lose because the enemy was better than us. From then on, one will be obsessed by the ambition to become stronger than the one who is stronger than oneself, by having to be like him, by adopting his science, his technique, his rationality, etc. It is then that the foreigner really dominates, because he has entered into people’s heads.

In the opposite case (if the occupied are convinced of their superiority and the occupiers are impressed), the outcome is quite different. It happened, as with the Mongols in Iran. They were the strongest and they massacred like nobody else. But the Iranians remained convinced of the superiority of the Persian culture. The Mongols became convinced of it too and became Iranians like the others and even excellent propagators of the Persian culture, as far as India.

Certainly, material defeat contributes to self-deprecation; but it is not entirely sufficient to explain it. Western intrusions, however detestable, are not enough to explain the Orientals’ rejection of their own heritage. It is undoubtedly because this heritage was too difficult to bear. We come back to the starting point—complexity is heavy; it takes a lot of energy to remain human.

SNT: Concerning the Islamists, you recall that their ideology, contrary to their discourse, is not totally incompatible with Western modernity. They aspire to rationality, efficiency and reform of their religious corpus. How is it that they inspire so much rejection today?

YL: All serious researchers who have been interested in Islamism have come to the following conclusion: Islamism is the modernism of Islam. Adrien Candiard says it very well in an easy-to-read book. The lack of curiosity of Europeans, who love to have an opinion on what they do not know, is the only reason why we still hear such crazy things as the claim that Islamism is an irreducibly archaic Islam.

But there is no compatibility between this modernism and ours, that of LGBtism++. We have here two modernisms which are opposed to each other. It is a variant of the “modern against modern,” well seen by Muray. It is not the opposition of two civilizations—it is the opposition of two variants of modernism.

What has happened here and there, in reality, is that we have lost the spiritual sense. In Europe, the loss of spirituality has led to a dissolution of forms, first religious, then social; the most elementary forms of civilization, the first of which is the distinction between the sexes, tend to dissolve.

On the other hand, in the Muslim world, the loss of spirituality has led not to a dissolution of forms but to their devitalization. Empty forms have been maintained and have become the object of idolatrous worship. Both civilizations died, but their corpses did not have the same fate. The corpse of the West has decomposed, while the corpse of the Muslim world has mummified. One has the impression of an immense distance. But in the background, there is always the loss of the spiritual and the yearning for a world where there are no more humans, because the human is never simple, rational and content to be so; he is always tormented by absence, by what cannot be attained. Even Adam found that even in paradise something was missing.

SNT: The veil is today one of the most discussed subjects in the West. You speak several times of “the veil of the Islamists,” while regretting that the latter have turned their back on their traditional cultural and religious heritage. How do you distinguish the traditional veil from the Islamist veil worn by Muslim women?

YL: I quite agree with Michel Henry when he says that there can be no human sciences. Science implies a distance between the subject and the object; and that subjectivity does not intervene in the appreciation of the object. However, to understand a human phenomenon can only be done with one’s own human subjectivity. One will never be able to define objective criteria to establish categories that objectively separate the Islamic veil from the traditional veil. The only way is intuition. If I can perfectly distinguish between an Islamist and a traditional man or woman, even if they dress in more or less the same way, it is because I am human and I intuitively feel what humans are.

SNT: Isn’t this an arbitrary method?

YL: Assumed subjectivity is not necessarily arbitrary. To deny on principle that a subjective intuition has a heuristic value would mean that humans have no possibility of perceiving humans. In fact, I know very well how to distinguish between the Islamist who basically believes that he has taken out an all-risk insurance policy to go to paradise, and a woman who wears the veil out of devotion, out of attachment to a certain conception of modesty, but who does not see herself as chosen or better than the others. On the contrary, the Islamist will consider the others as potentially damned, whereas the traditional Muslim does not judge.

Moreover, in Islamism there is a desire for ostentation. It is a “Muslim Pride,” where one displays the signs that give one an identity; and thanks to this, one thinks of finding one’s place in the world of consumption. Indeed, we never consume anything other than signs that give us confidence, that “pose” in our eyes and in the eyes of others, whether it is a luxury watch or a scarf, or an ostentatious devotion, or a bikini if we feel confident about our figure. All these strategies are valid. What matters is to be proud of oneself. That is Islamism. Traditional Islam is not there to assert a pride, but is lived in humility.

No doubt, Muslim society was a society where self-satisfaction of being a good Muslim always existed, among some. But these were very vigorously condemned by words attributed to the prophet, which shows the antiquity of this attitude, but also that as long as this civilization was alive, one knew to guard against it.

SNT: It seemed to me that you were very severe on the supposed uprooting that affects Western civilization. However, the observer of European cultural life notices that people continue to go to the theater, literary prizes are still followed and celebrated almost everywhere in France, for example, and the museums in Paris are not empty. Why should we summarize all this interest in culture to the consumer mind of the ordinary man? Isn’t it the proof that this spirit of resistance that Bernanos called for is still present among the French?

YL: No doubt, since you and I are here to discuss, as we are doing, there are still beautiful interstices in the modern world. There are indeed people who still read Bernanos or Péguy. But that doesn’t change the picture of contemporary France. Our culture is collapsing; our very language, which our supposed elites are ashamed to speak, is disintegrating. Our little world of passionate and critical readers is a reservation of Indians. It is the last square that resists by retreating, while silliness and ignorance spread everywhere. Maybe it’s better in France than in other Western countries? There are no Philitts everywhere; it is a meager consolation. People like to talk about the misfortune of the Arab-Muslim world. Certainly, the Muslim world is doing very badly; but the other worlds are also doing very badly. The East is doing rather less badly than the West—the epidemic of wokism and that of LGBTism encounter solid immune defenses in the East.

SNT: You maintain that Islamism is to Islam what Puritan Protestantism is to Christianity. These consumerist deformations converge in what they offer to modern man—the immediate satisfaction of his desires. The delinquents who make the news are fed by both Islamism and consumerism. Do you make a difference between the newcomer rooted in his culture of origin and the young person from two or three generations ago?

YL: There is a difference between the immigrants, because of the conditions in which the immigration took place. The Iranian community, of Muslim culture, is well integrated in France and escapes Islamism as much as delinquency because there was a transmission—in this educated middle-class immigration, the children may have wanted to resemble their parents. When you are the son of a North African worker, humiliated by assembly line work, and an illiterate mother, you don’t want to resemble your parents, although there is still affection. Thus, there is more uprooting in some communities than in others.

Many young people were born here but do not have access to the France of the past, nor do they have access to the culture of their parents because it remained on the other side of the sea, and because their parents belonged to a milieu too poor and humiliated to be able to transmit it. So, they have no access to any heritage; they are the purest products of globalization, not of Arab or Muslim culture, or of this or that African culture.

For the newcomers, it is not always very different. It takes optimism to say that they are “rooted in their culture of origin.” When an African arrives in Europe, he comes from a big city, not from an immemorial village. He has already been uprooted from his culture for a long time; he has lived in an African metropolis where sometimes the daily lingua franca is not even an African language; he has never practiced one of the properly African religions; he does not know any of their myths. He has known nothing of the extremely complex social structure of the villages of yesteryear; he has been cut off from it for several generations. He is already uprooted long before landing in Europe.

Mutatis mutandis, these observations apply to immigrants of various origins, most often very removed, several generations before their birth, from what gave strength and finesse to their so-called culture of origin. This is also why they dream of the West. They are uprooted before they arrive.

The problem is not that they belong to another culture incompatible with that of Europe—it is that they no longer belong to any culture, except in a state of ruin; and that European culture is also in ruins. Two cultures eventually integrate each other, even if we do not believe that it is quick and easy. But we do not integrate an uprooting to an uprooting. Seriously, what do you want immigrants to integrate into? To the Paris of the silly bobos, to the school of the “ABC of equality?” If we want young foreigners to want to be French, we have to show them Romanesque churches, not sing them nonsense about “the values of the Republic.”

[This interview comes through the kind courtesy of Philitt.]

Featured: Walter Charles Horsley, “Women and an Old Man in the Harem;” painted in 1883.

Report of the 7th Inârah Symposion, May 4-7, Trier

From 4-7 May, Inârah held its 7th symposium on the origins of Islam and the origins of the Qur’an.

For the first time, the venue was the idyllically located Robert Schuman House in Trier. The leitmotif of this conference was expressed in the chosen motto: “Farewell to salvation history.” In biblical studies or church history, for example, the difference between historiography based on reliable sources and salvation history has long been the academic norm. Islamic Studies, particularly, as it is practised in Western universities, especially with the establishment of seminars of so-called Islamic theology in some German Länder in recent years, represents both an intellectual and an academic step backwards, where this important distinction is still for the most part conveniently ignored.

The conventional, “classical” narrative, actually a fairy tale, of the Qur’anic revelation to Muhammad and the subsequent emergence of Islam, in general a distillation of diverse, late, and largely contradictory literary texts, is regrettably still taught and disseminated academically—as if it were true prophetic word. Historical-critical research usually remains the exception, unfortunately.

The purpose of such conferences is to bring together the few good colleagues and interested people who work on the basis of historically reliable sources and an established philological methodology, so that they can exchange ideas. The goal of the conference, to bid farewell once and for all to the Islamic salvation history, is based on the results of the previous six conferences and the ten volumes published so far. The tome known as the Qur’an, which is evident to every reader, can hardly be imagined to be the written rendering of oral revelations to a prophet named “Muhammad,” or even the written memorandum of an exchange between the “proclaimer and his congregation,” as it is still heard from Potsdam.

In terms of genre, we are dealing [with the Qur’an] with an originally Christian work, perhaps a lectionary in Arabic, which was subsequently reworked several times by theologians, as it clearly shows different editorial strata.

The location of early Islam to Mecca and Medina, as claimed by Islamic traditions, is clearly a later, anachronistic retro-projection. Rather, the language, the script and the theological content [of the Qur’an] point to Mesopotamian northern Arabia. Islam in the proper sense can only be spoken of during and after the epoch of the Abbasids (from ca. 750 AD onwards)—the Umayyads were still (seen from the seat of the then Chalcedonian imperial orthodoxy) heterodox or heretical eschatological Christians, with an immediate expectation of the Parousia.

The historical efficacy of Muhammad, God’s messenger, cannot be gleaned from the hagiographic fables of the later Sira traditions, which arose, among other things, to read the prophet’s biography into the Qur’an. The authors of the later Islamic meta-narratives (Meistererzählung), as already mentioned, offer contradictory information; moreover, the fact that later Islamic works (without source references) can surprisingly offer much more detailed information is striking. The later a tradition, the more it supposedly “knows” about Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam. These authors, such as Tabari, were not historians in the true sense of the word; and although they occasionally do use some historical information (often unrecognisably reworked), they were moralists who set themselves the task of explaining their time on the basis of an imagined past. They created a “prequel,” so to speak (a story that appears to be a continuation of another narrative, but is not). This is therefore not a continuation of the narrative of the past in the proper sense, but rather a retro-projection of the past intended to explain the present situation, which in literary terms belongs to the genre of the “backstory” (toile de fond). The backstory is often used to lend historical depth or credibility to the main plot—the Star Wars sagas may be seen as the present-day equivalent of Islamic historiography.

The task of finding out how the emergence of Islam happened historically is more difficult. This was the actual task of the symposium, undertaken by the international participants from Germany, Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Syria, Tunisia, USA and even surprisingly Canada, as always in four languages (German, Arabic, French and English). We found it very nice that many a foreign participant gave his presentation in German.

The opening speeches on the first evening were on topics of contemporary relevance, such as the importance of our work (Schwab), the intellectually debauched notion of “Islamophobia” (Ibn Warraq) and the influence of our research on social debates in the so-called Islamo-Arab countries (Ghadban).

The second day got straight down to business with topics on the origins of Islam and the history of religion:

  • What does the slogan “Allahu akbar” actually mean (Popp), and the relationship of the Aramaic Ahiqar traditions to the Koranic Luqman (Abousamra).
  • Dequin and Shoemaker showed why Islam’s holy site was originally Jerusalem and not Mecca and referred to some of the possible substrate traditions underlying the Islamic Hajj.
  • Grodzki and Weintritt then presented papers on the source criticism of the alleged hagiography of the Islamic Prophet, the Sira.
  • Von Sivers discussed the misdating of the Doctrina Iacobi and the Nitsarot attributed to Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai, which were written later and thus say nothing about conditions in the first quarter of the 7th century.
  • The last lecture of the day, by a talented young scholar who had just defended his doctorate, discussed how and why the traditions about Muhammad, including the Hadiths, were only invented later as a source of legitimacy for Islamic law (Barsoum).

The third and fourth days were mainly devoted to Quranic topics:

  • The project to finally produce a critical edition of the Qur’an (Brubaker).
  • The biblical background of Suras 105 and 106 (Bonnet-Eymard).
  • On the “mysterious letters” in the Qur’an (Puin).
  • Wuestions of editorial history were discussed by Dye and Da Costa.
  • Younes discussed how later Muslim exegetes manipulated the Quranic text to justify later Islamic dogmas.
  • Striking parallels of an Arabic manuscript of Luke’s Gospel with a Hadith were addressed by Arbache.
  • Groß discussed possible Buddhist influences in Islamic orthopraxis.
  • Decharneux, another young talent who also recently defended his doctorate, and Van Reeth presented the Christian Aramaic theological background of the Qur’an originating in the South (today’s Emirates).
  • And finally, Nickel gave a paper on the unlikely phenomenon of pursuing science on Twitter and other social media.

On the evening of the third day, there was a round table “on the origins of the Qur’an,” moderated by Jean-Claude Muller, in which the topic was debated at great length.

On Tuesday evening, there was no formal programme, as Prof. Dr. Max Otte, who takes a keen interest in our work, generously invited all participants to dine at the Blesius Garten in Trier. We would like to take this opportunity to thank him once again for a very enjoyable evening, the highlight of the congress. Of course, there was further debate on the relevant topics between the fantabulous courses.

According to the feedback we received, the symposium was a success—the important questions were asked and answers sought. The discussions were lively and passionate and lasted long into the night.

The deadline for the submission of papers is the end of August, so it is expected that Volume 11, with the papers presented at Trier during the 7th Symposium, will be published before the end of the year.

To learn more, have a look at the Symposion booklet…

Featured image: Mural from the Apodyterium of Qusayr Amra, Jordan, 8th century.

The Five “Gods of Noah” In The Qur’an

We often hear about alleged polytheism in Arabia during pre-islamic times, the so-called ǧāhilīya, which was seemingly filled with mušrik practicing various forms of širk in honour of various deities. Naturally, this Arabic root does not refer to a plurality of deities, but rather to “partnering” or associating others with Allah who is unique (tawḥīd)—it is a polemic reference to the Christian notion of the Trinity, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost also participate equally (šarika) in the Godhead.

The question is to what extent polytheism still persisted in the Greco-Roman Middle East of Late Antiquity, which, as was the case with the Roman Empire in general, seems largely to have been permeated by monotheistic traditions before the seventh century. The Qur’an would seem to support this notion—it is (un)surprisingly vague in this regard. In the alleged Satanic Verses (53,19-20), “Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‹ Uzza and Manāt, the third, the other?” we find a vague reference to three pan-Semitic goddesses, who were venerated by many peoples in many places at many times. The only other concrete reference is 71, 23: “And they say: Forsake not your gods, nor forsake Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth and Ya’uq and Nasr,” the gods of those condemned to perish in the Deluge (cf. Gen 7,24-8,14).

The mention of these five deities of antediluvian times, and allegedly worshipped by Arab tribes until the arrival of Islam, understandably caused some unpleasant difficulties for later Islamic exegetes, not to mention the modern reader—how can the knowledge or the cult of them have survived that global eradication? According to Ibn al-Kalbī’s Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām), a compendium of legends and not an historical source, they are said to have washed up on the beach of Jeddah (the nearest port city from Mecca) after the Flood, where they gradually silted up until the fortune teller Amr ibn Luhai was told their location by his demon Abu Ṯumāna.

Be this as it may, we must remember that the Quranic account is based on (see above) the biblical one, which in turn, probably during the Captivity, was derived from Mesopotamian myths (e.g., the Atraḫasis epic, and the reworking of this narrative in the Twelve Tablet version of the Gilgamesh Epic): in the Mesopotamian version, the myth serves to explain why humans die, and does not function, as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as a divine punishment for otherwise unspecified sins. In Mesopotamia (lit. “Land between rivers”), inundations were rather commonplace, in contrast to Israel or more to the point, the arid Hijaz (and we note here in passing, that the Greek flood story around Deucalion also has a Semitic background [cf. Lucian, De dea Syria 13], cf. Iapetós of the “Catalogue of Women,” attributed to Hesiod, probably has something to do with the son of Noah, Japheth, Gen 10,2 ).

In any case, these Quranic deities are unknown in Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian literatures. Their mention here remains Delphic, as has been noted in the past, e.g.: “Why Muhammad lists five deities as Noahite in Sur. 71,22ff. cannot be explained” (Fr. Buhl, Das Leben Muhammeds, reprint Hildesheim 1955, 74). “Admittedly, they must have been rather insignificant local deities at that time and in Mecca only known by name, if Muhammed can put them into the pre-Flood times” (J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, reprint Berlin 1961, 13).

The first god mentioned in this Quranic verse, Wadd, i.e., “beloved” in the non-sexual sense (wdd – therefore probably more of an epithet than a divine given name) is known from numerous inscriptions as the chief god of the Minaeans, a Yemeni kingdom which especially during the last centuries before Christ dominated trade along the incense route, eventually being subjugated by the Sabaeans after the campaign of Aelius Gallus in 25/24 BC. At first sight, we are dealing with an authentic old-Arabian god, which could indeed have been worshipped in the Hijaz. However, epigraphic finds are by no means limited to Ma‛īn, but is, as is to be expected with such a trading empire, spread further beyond the actual homeland. So, for example, a bilingual Greco-Minaean inscription on a marble altar was found on the Greek island of Delos, dated to after 166 BC, which mentions this deity in both languages:

Minaean (RÉS 3570)

1) Ḥnʾ w-Zydʾl ḏy Ḫḏb Ḥnʾ and Zydʾl, the two of the tribe Ḫḏb,
2) nṣb mḏbḥ Wdm w-ʾlʾlt built this altar to the Wdm and the gods
3) Mʿn b-Dlṯ of Maʿīn on Delos.

Greek (ID 2320)

Ὄδδου [Belonging to] Oaddos/Wadd
θεοῦ the god
Μιναίων of the Minaeans
Ὀάδδῳ [Dedicated to} Oaddos/Wadd.

This find alone makes it clear that the cult of this god, or rather this divine epithet, although certainly originating in Yemen (which is not a synonym with Hijaz, but an entirely different culture), had travelled far beyond, accompanying his worshippers on their mercantile journeys. We thus have a deity that on the one hand was not originally at home in the Hijaz, but could have been brought there sometime by Minaean traders; on the other, however, as with the three goddesses mentioned above, he attracted some following in a geographically vast region.

As for the second deity, Suwāʿ our only sources are contradictory reports from later Islamic traditions, some of which mention him, others which do not (e.g. Wāqidī mentions the destruction of his idol in Mecca, but this is not mentioned in the Prophet’s hagiography by Ibn Isḥāq)—”these stories of the destruction of the idols on behalf of Mohammad become more and more complete as the tradition moves further away from its origin, and the narratives are contradictory” (Wellhausen, op. cit. 19). Apart from such historically worthless information and some possible attestations as a theophoric element in early Islamic onomastics, we know literally nothing at all about this god. Did he even exist? I rather have the impression that there is a polemical intention behind this name, cf. Syriac šū/ōʿā (šwʿ >arab. swʿ) “stone, rock,” i.e., “petrified,” in the sense of a stone idol (Arab. waṯan, a loan-word from Sabaean, where the word has the meaning “boundary stone, stele”), which later was misunderstood not as a generic term for an idol, but rather as the name of a specific idol.

As for the third of the three here, Jaġūṯ, we again find colourful discrepant and paradoxical stories in the Islamic tradition. But as Jaġūṯ in Arabic means “he who helps—the helper” (possibly related to Jeush in Gen 36,14), this term is rather an epithet that could be applied to any (benevolent) god. Even if the Islamic tradition(s) actually contain(s) authentic materials here and there, it would be impossible to determine whether one and the same deity was meant in all cases.

The fourth God supposedly revered by Noah’s contemporaries according to the Qur’an, Jaʿūq remains shrouded in even more mystery than his already mentioned partners. There is no independent evidence for this god, and even his name does not seem to be Arabic. Wellhausen, who noted (op. cit. 23) “we are dealing with a South Arabian name,” thought of the closely related Ethiopian verb jǝʿuq (basic meaning “to observe, to be careful, to preserve; to manifest (reveal)”), although this root seems to be not of Semitic but rather of Cushitic origin, i.e., an African loan word in the Ethiosemitic languages.

Our findings up till now are somewhat meagre, even antediluvian with regard to what we actually know. It is thus of some relief that about the fifth god, Nasr, we actually have some data. In modern Arabic this word means “vulture” (perhaps originally denoting a totem animal). In the Talmudic treatise Avoda sara 11b, in a discourse on idolatry, we find the assertion:

אמר רב חנן בר רב חסדא אמר רב ואמרי לה א”ר חנן בר רבא אמר רב חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים קבועין הן אלו הן בית בל בבבל בית נבו בכורסי תרעתא שבמפג צריפא שבאשקלון נשרא שבערביא

“Rav Ḥanan bar Rav Ḥisda says that Rav says, and some say that it was Rav Ḥanan bar Rava who says that Rav says: There are five established temples of idol worship, and they are: The temple of Bel in Babylonia; the temple of Nebo in the city of Khursei; the temple of Tirata, which is located in the city of Mapag; Tzerifa, which is located in Ashkelon; and Nashra, which is located in Arabia.”

This passage in turn is reminiscent of one found in the famous Doctrina of the Apostle Addai (Phillips edition, p.23f.):

ܿܡܢܘ ܗܢܐ ܢ ܼܒܘ ܦܬܟܪܐ ܥܒܝܕܐ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܃ ܘܒܝܠ ܕܡܝܩܪܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܠܗ܂ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܟܘܢ ܕܣܓܕܝܢ ܠܒܪܬ

ܢܝܟܠ ܐܝܟ ܚܪ̈ܢܝܐ ܫ ̈ܒܒܝܟܘܢ܂ ܘܠ ܼܬܪܥܬ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܡ ̈ܒܓܝܐ܂ ܘܠܢܫܪܐ ܐܝܟ ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ܂ ܘܠܫܡܫܐ ܘܠܣܗܪ ܼܐ ܐܝܟ ܫܪܟܐ ܕܚܪ̈ܢܐ ܼ

ܕܐܟܘܬܟܘܢ܂ܠܐܬܫܬܒܘܢܒܙܠܝ̈ܩܐܕܢܗܝܪ̈ܿܐ܂ܘܒܟܘܟܒܬܐܕܨܡܚܐ܂ܠܝܛܗܘܓܝܪܩܕܡܐܠܗܿܐ܂ܟܘܠܿܡܢܕܣܿܓܕ ܼ

ܠܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ܂ ܐܦܢ ܓܝܪ ܐܝܬ ܒܗܝܢ ܒܒܪ̈ܝܬܐ ܕܐܝܟ ܪܘܪ̈ܒܢ ܡܢ ܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ܂ ܐܠܐ ܟܢ ̈ܘܬܐ ̈ܐܢܝܢ ܕܚܒܪ̈ܬܗܝܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܐ ܿܡܪܬ ܼ

ܠܟܘܢ܂ܟܐܒܐܗܘܓܝܪܡܪܝܪܐܗܢܐܕܠܝܬܠܗܐܣܝܘܬ ܿܐ܂

“Meanwhile, I saw this city teeming with paganism, which is against God. Who is this Nabû, [but] an idol [made by men] whom you worship, and Bêl whom you worship? Behold, there are among you people those who worship Bath Nikkal such as the people of Harran, your neighbours, and Taratha [as venerated by] the people of Mabug, and Nashara by the Arabs, or as are the Sun and the Moon worshipped by the rest of Harran, as you do too. Do not be deceived by rays of light and by the bright star, for all creatures will be cursed by God.”

Nabû was a well-known Mesopotamian god of the first millennium BC (the son and quasi successor of Marduk, whose name means “the announcer, the called one”—cf. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabī “prophet”); Bêl is the Mesopotamian, and later Aramaic realisation of Baal, whose cult was well-known, i.a. at Palmyra; Bath Nikkal (“the daughter of N.”)—Nikkal is a goddess known in the Western Semitic world and among the Hurrians (derived < Sumerian NIN.GAL “great mistress”); the Sun and Moon, resp. Shamash and Sîn were naturally also worshipped in Mesopotamia as deities. Taratha is apparently another designation of the well-known goddess, Atargatis or the Dea Syria, who was worshipped at Ashkelon (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library, II.iv.2, where, among other things, it is described how and why she took the form of a fish—cf. the fish symbolism in Christianity: ΙΧΘΥΣ). Of particular significance is the fact that Nashara is also regarded here as a god of the Arabs. This god is particularly well known among the Mandaeans in southern Mesopotamia and in Iran (e.g., the Mandaean Great Book of John, §73), and also attested by Jacob of Serug (451-521), who reports that the Persians were tempted by the devil to create an “eagle” (Nashara) as an idol. A similar account can be found in the Armenian History by Movses Khorenatsi (where the gods are called Naboc’us, Belus, Bathnicalus and Tharatha).

In all of these cases, including Qur’an 71,23 (supra), we are dealing with a formulaic warning against apostasy, that is to say against a falling away from the true faith in the one true (Jewish, Christian, Mandaean or Islamic understanding of) God. In all cases, his (exclusive) worship is contrasted in a list of five heavenly idols which were seemingly self-explanatory at the time. The Talmudic passage would seem to have used the same, or very close to that of the Doctrina Addai, although somethings seem to have been lost in transmission:

Mapag (מפג) is not a deity but, as in Syriac, the place

Mabug (ܡܒܘܓ “the spring” or Hieropolis, because it was the cult centre of the Dea Syria; today Manbij);

Tirata (תרעתא) as already mentioned is Atargatis resp. the Dea Syria and not a place(-name)—a well-known site (see above) of her cult was Askelon. The gods mentioned here are חמשה בתי עבודת כוכבים בתי עבודת כוכבים “the five temples of star worship.” that is, celestial bodies: Nabû= Mercury, Bêl=Jupiter, Nikkal= a moon goddess, Taratha=Venus, and Nashara is the name of a star (see P. De Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum, 5:17 1860 ,Versorum quae supersunt, Leipzig,  ܥܕܡܐ ܠܕܢܚܗ ܕܢܫܪܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܢ ܢܐܘܡܝܢܝܐ ܕܟܢܘܢ ܐܚܪܝ “until the rise of the Naschara, which is the beginning of the month of January;” The seven wandering [planets]…

ܕܐܝܬܝܗܘܢ ܫܡܫܐ ܘܣܗܪܐ ܘܟܐܽܘܢ ܘܒܝܠ ܘܢܪܝܓ ܘܒܠܬܝ ܘܵܢܒܘ

…are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Moon, Venus and Mercury”—C. Kayser, The Book of Truth, or, The Cause of All Causes, Leipzig, 1889, 55:5).

The mention of Arabia, in connexion with Nashara, cannot be taken as confirmatory evidence in support of the assertion made by Islamic tradition that Nashara had been a deity in and around Mecca. Perhaps this was so—but we simply do not know. The Arabs who venerate “a bird” as god can here only be the Arabs of Mesopotamia—the Talmud as well as the Doctrina Addai do not concern themselves with the Hijaz

This area, roughly identical to the so-called Ǧazīrat al-‛Arab, comprises the lowlands of the Chabur, Euphrates and Tigris in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It was also referred to as “Arabia” in ancient times. Here we find e.g., a Ἀραβάρχης (“Arab-archēs—Arab princes”) in Dura-Europos (cf. C. B. Welles et al., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V, Part I [New Haven, 1959], 115 No. 20, 5); in Sumatar Harabesi, present-day Turkey, five inscriptions are documented which were found at the old cemetery and bear the Syrian equivalent of this term:- šulṭānā d-ʿarab “Governor of Arab(ia)” (cf. H. J. W. Drijvers & J. F. Healey, The Old Syriac Inscriptions of Edessa and Osrhoene [Leyden, 1999], p. 104f. et passim); in Hatra, a mlk’ dy ʿrb(y) “King of Arabia” is documented (see B. Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréenes [Paris, 1991], 92 No. 193, 2; 135f. See also Pliny’s Natural History, V.xxi.86: “Arabia supra dicta habet oppida Edessam, quæ quondam Antiochia dicebatur, Callirhœm, a fonte nominatam, Carrhas, Crassi clade nobile. Iungitur præfectura Mesopotamiæ, ab Assyriis originem trahens, in qua Anthemusia et Nicephorium oppida. … 87] ita fertur [scil. Euphrates] usque Suram locum, in quo conversus ad orientem relinquit Syriæ Palmyrenas solitudines, quæ usque ad Petram urbem et regionem Arabiæ Felicis appellatæ pertinent. This is also the “Arabia” that Paul must have visited (Gal 1:17). It is noteworthy that Fredegar (Chronicon lxvi) locates the Hagarenes even more to the north: “Agareni, qui et Sarraceni, sicut Orosii [Boh. Eorosii] liber testatur, gens circumcisa a latere montis Caucasi, super mare Caspium, terram….” This location can explain the Mandaean and Iranian evidence (see above) of Nashara.

This area, in the north of Mesopotamia, is where historical-critical research locates the crucible of Islam. It is here that the linguistic (the forerunners of Quranic Arabic as well as the heavy Syro-Aramaic impact on the Quranic theological vocabulary) as well as other theological and cultural threads come together, where the Christians in the Sassanid Empire, after the conquest of Heraclius, were suddenly confronted with Christological formulations (Chalcedon) foreign to them, after over two and a half centuries of separation, since the death of Julian Apostata. Here, the only unambiguously identifiable deity of Sura 71,23, scil. Nasr, seems to be certainly at home. Locating his cult to the South, in Arabia deserta, in the empty Hijaz—whose historical and cultural vacantness would only later become the ideal(ised) theological projection surface—has no historical support—and in addition, one would not only have to invent Christianity in the Hijaz, but also Manichaeism!

Sura 71/Sūrat Nūḥ deals with tergiversation, abandoning God/Allah: Noah has warned his contemporaries at God’s behest—”My Lord, I have called my people by night and day (to faith). But my call only caused them to run away more and more: and whenever I called them that Thou mightest forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, and wrapped themselves in their garments, and persisted (in their state), and became overly arrogant. Then I called on them in public. Then I preached to them in public, and I spoke to them in secret, and I said: ‘Seek forgiveness from your Lord: for He is Oft-Forgiving: He will send down rain for you in abundance; and He will strengthen you with good things and with children, and He will give you gardens, and He will make rivers flow for you…’” (71,4-12). Furthermore, in verses 14-15 Noah asks, “Have you not seen how Allah created seven heavens stacked one on top of the other and set the moon as a light in them?”—i.e., the sky with all its contents, including the sun and moon, bear witness to the existence of God; they themselves are not gods. But Noah finds no hearing; the people remain on their chosen path and say, “do not leave your gods; do not leave Wadd, nor Suwāʿ, nor Jaġūṯ, Jaʿūq and Nasr.”

Contextually speaking, this interpretation of the latter passage fits in the theme of the Sura as a whole, and is quite similar to the admonition found inter alia in in the Doctrina Addai. Taken in this light, we have here a not unfamiliar pious topos, which here the Koranic authors put in Noah’s mouth because it was apparently felt to be somehow appropriate. The theonyms, however, as is also the case in the Talmudic example, where they were conflated with toponyms, have become garbled, yet a further indication that polytheism had long since ceased being an historical reality.

It is in this understanding, however, that this Quranic verse becomes understandable, seeing that, as was just noted, the creation of the heavens, moon, sun etc.—i.e., they are not to be understood as gods, is mentioned just several verses previously. The inexplicable gods mentioned in verse 23 may be just local epithets of the (divinised) celestial bodies, Nsr, the “eagle,” at the same time an astronym, would seem to favour such a proposal. In a Minaean dedicatory inscription (RÉS 2999 from Barāqish in the southern Jawf), the builders self-identify themselves as ʾdm Wdm S2hrn “servants (cf. Arabic ʾādam) of Wdd, the moon.” In this light, it is clear that Wdd could be understood as a(n epithet of) lunar deity. Perhaps then one might be partial to interpreting Suwāʿ as an Arabic realisation of Aramaic shrʾ “moon?” Jaġūṯ, as already been mentioned, is etymologically transparent, “the helper,” a term that might be appropriate for the moon (as attribute) or possibly the sun god?

Be that as it may, however one may choose to etymologise the five “Gods of Noah” in the Qur’an, they are most certainly designations for the (divinised) Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. As we have sown in the preceding the Classical planets, designated variously, were a common theme in Jewish and Christian polemics against the true faith in the one God. The Qur’anic renditions, as the Talmudic, have been somewhat garbled by later copyists. It is clear that we are dealing here with a topos known in the Syro-Mesopotamian region of Late Antiquity. This is by no means antediluvian and also has nothing to do with the Hijaz, nor originally even with Islam.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

Featured image: The Almaqah Panel, which bears a Sabaean inscription, mentioning the god Wadd. Likely Ma’rib, Yemen, ca. 700 BC.

The Meaning Of The Surah Al-Kawthar In The Qur’an

The shortest Surah of the Qur’an is the 108th. In the Sahih International translation and in transcription it reads:

bi-smi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīmii
(In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful)
al-Kawthar. ˈinnā ˈaʿṭaynāka l-kawṯaraa
(Indeed, We have granted you, [O Muhammad]),
fa-ṣalli li-rabbika wa-nḥar
(So pray to your Lord and sacrifice [to Him alone]).
‘innā šāniˈaka huwa l-ˈabtaru
(Indeed, your enemy is the one cut off).

On the basis of this very short textual segment, one of many of such disparate origin that were later compiled into the book we know today as the “Qur’an,” almost all principles and methods of historico-critical textual interpretation can be demonstrated. The common Muslim understanding is that the three verses of Surah 108 refer to an event in Muhammad’s life, who is then regarded as the addressee of this urgent revelation. The “one who hates you” (šāniˈaka) mentioned in verse three is then in this view his adversary, whom God apparently cursed. But let us now treat this short Sura verse by verse in order to show some textual and exegetical problems, pars pro toto, for the holy book of Islam in its entirety and to offer possible explanations: often, the usual modern translations are by and large based on exegetical understandings of classical (secondary) Islamic commentary culture, and as such are mere speculations or exemplifications.

Firstly, for the introductory formula, the Basmala, which in the Qur’an, with the exception, generally speaking, of the first Surah, is not counted as a verse, much could be said. For Muslims it is controversial whether this formula belongs to the revealed text of all Surahs, or whether it is an introductory formula later seen as necessary, a posterior editorial addition. Bismi, literally “in the name,” here as in nomine Dei, is a widespread formula and not at all specifically Islamic. The two ornamental adjectives following the name of God “Allāh” are also of pre-Islamic, of Christian and Jewish (‘Ha-Rachaman’) origin (originally “uterus” = σπλάγχνα). But as far as the name of God Allāh itself is concerned, it should not be translated as “God,” despite the common objection that Muslims, Jews and Christians believe in the one God, the same God. But this is obviously a logical fallacy: etymological relationship does not mean that the common term denotes an identical entity.

In the initial two verses, the addressed person is, according to traditional Islamic exegesis, reminded of the benefits (verse 1) rendered by Allāh and the resultant obligations (verse 2). Almost all non-Muslim explanations follow this received interpretation without criticism. Wherever possible, the underlying exegetical method tries to see in Quranic sentences a reference to the hypostasised founding figure of Islam, i.e., Muhammad, and alleged events in his life in the sense of the “occasions of Revelation” (Asbāb an-nuzūl). In other words, a prophetic hagiography was secondarily read into the Qur’anic text.

Although this understanding of these verses has gradually become generally accepted, it is ultimately based on unfounded assumptions, since the three key terms on which this interpretation is based, namely al-kawṯar (usually “the fullness”), nḥar (usually imperative sing. “sacrifice”) and al-abtar (usually verbatim “the cut-off”) are only found here in the Qur’an (so-called hapax legomena). Their actual meanings are therefore difficult to determine; and different explanations, mostly without much linguistic support, can be found in the commentary literature. Kawṯar in verse 1 is either interpreted as “abundance” or as a proper name. In the first case—according to Muslim tradition, this term also comprehends the entirety of divine benefits, but especially the revelations of which the Qur’an consists—the word would then have an unusual linguistic form, since in Arabic this is the noun kathīr, which, by the way, is well attested in the Qur’an.

However, here the diphthong -au- (compare in English “Beer” vs. “Bear”), remains without any convincing explanation. The second interpretation follows the “proven” pattern of explanation: “If you cannot understand or interpret the word, then it must be a proper name.” In this explanation, which is dealt with extensively, especially in various hadiths, i.e., in later sayings attributed to Mohammed, the word is understood as the name of one of the rivers of paradise or its source, to which believing Muslims are led on the Day of Judgement. The last unusual Arabic word al-abtar, perhaps literally “cut off”, i.e., either from Allāh’s goodness or—from descendants (i.e., emasculated, or literally “dickless”). How “sacrifice” (nḥar) is to be understood in the light of Islamic orthopraxis remains obscure.

Since the orthography of the early Qur’ans did not use the diacritical points that distinguish the consonants—i.e., these are secondary—the next step, even if seen as controversial by some nowadays, can be to attempt to read the respective letters without or with different pointing. The many “linguistic-alchemical” details necessary for this, such as the shifting of reading points and the exchange of vowels (also added later), cannot be dealt with in detail here.

1) Kawṯar would then be an Aramaic borrowing from kuttārā/ܟܘܬܪ (consonantal kwtr, i.e. according to the Arabic Form كوتر testified here) meaning “Duration; steadfastness; persistence.”

2) Naḥara (ن-ح-ر) is read as Syriac ngar/ܢܓܼܪ (in Arabic script ن-ج-ر – both have the same consonant skeleton [rasm]; namely, “be persistent, steadfastness) ں-ح-ر

3) Abtar/ابتر without diacritics is identical to اتبر\atbar: ا-ں-ں-ر), probably from an Aramaic root ܬܒܪ often used in the Qur’an “completely smashed, destroyed, ruined;” or the Arabic form of this root ṯbr/ثبر – also identical when written without dots.

By this comparative linguistic approach, common in philology and especially biblical studies, otherwise unattested lexemes are avoided—the influence of Syro-Aramaic vocabulary, especially in the domain of theological terms found in the Qur’an is well-known. The resulting text reads:

1. We have given you firmness!

2. So pray perseveringly to your Lord!

3. Truly the one who hates you (scil. the devil) will be shattered!

One might consider reading the first word of the third verse as anna and not as إِ َّن inna, i.e., “That truly the one who hates you will be shattered”.

If one works with methods that are more controversial in Quranic scholarship, although well-established in textual criticism, the text becomes, as can be seen in this case, easier to understand. In order to avoid the accusation that we have imposed an interpretation on the text or read it into it, it should be said here that Syro-Aramaic loanwords are omnipresent in the Qur’an; Aramaic was, after all, together with Greek, the cultural language of the Arabs in Late Antiquity (much like Latin during the European Middle Ages). And, the text is now better both grammatically and in terms of content. The central idea of this Surah is then perseverance in prayer together with patient trust in God, a motif that occurs frequently in the Qur’an, mostly and for which most often the Arabic verb ṣabara (nominal ṣabr) “patiently persevere, persevere, persist” is employed. Examples are:

2:45: wa-staʿīnū bi-ṣ-ṣabri wa-ṣ-ṣalāti wa- ˈinnahā la-kabīratun ˈillā ʿalā l-ḫāšiʿīna (And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah]).

2:153: yā-ˈayyuhā llaḏīna ˈāmanū ṣ bi-ṣ-ṣabri wa- ṣ-ṣalāti ˈinna llāha maʿa ṣ-ṣābirīna (O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient).

3:200: yā-ˈayyuhā llaḏīna ˈāmanū ˈāmanū ṣbirū wa- ṣābirū wa-rābiṭū wa-ttaqū llāha laʿallakum tufliḥūna (O you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful).

And of course, this passage reading will make sense to those familiar with the Bible, e.g., “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (I Peter 5, 8-9).

This interpretation of Surah 108 fits much better into the corpus of Quranic texts; or rather can be contextualised in a meaningful way, and is no longer an impenetrable oddity.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

Featured image: Surah Al-Kawthar, Naskh calligraphy, by Mirza Ahmad Neirizi, late Safavid era (18th century).