The lost Islamic underworld

From the Smithsonian Past Imperfect blog, a fascinating article on the urban underworld of the medieval Islamic era.

Who were they, then, these criminals of Islam’s golden age? The majority, Bosworth says, seem to have been tricksters of  one sort or another,

who used the Islamic religion as a cloak for their predatory ways, well aware that the purse-strings of the faithful could easily be loosed by the eloquence of the man who claims to be an ascetic or or mystic, or a worker of miracles and wonders, to be selling relics of the Muslim martyrs and holy men, or to have undergone a spectacular conversion from the purblindness of Christianity or Judaism to the clear light of the faith of Muhammad.

Amira Bennison identifies several adaptable rogues of this type, who could “tell Christian, Jewish or Muslim tales depending on their audience, often aided by an assistant in the audience who would ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ at the right moments and collect contributions in return for a share of the profits,” and who thought nothing of singing the praises of both Ali and Abu Bakr—men whose memories were sacred to the Shia and the Sunni sects, respectively.


Crossing borders

Rabbit Recipes: Bengali White Chicken Curry (Rezala) – the original korma? And a waffle on Bengali history…

A post, and a recipe, by Nazneen Ahmed. Extract:

I think this dish might be the origin of the British chicken korma. I can’t say for sure, because I’ve never eaten one – curry snob, me – but the creaminess and gentleness of the flavours (and the fact that it comes from the region most “Indian” chefs in Britain come from – suggests to me that it might be the inspiration.
I’m always intrigued by the dual personality of Bangladeshi cuisine, which I think might be related to the history of Islam in Bengal. One aspect of Bengali cuisine is almost East Asian – having more in common with the flavours of Vietnam and Thailand than the “curries” we know of in Britain. The flavours are hot, sharp, pungent, with thin broths, a lot of vegetables, fish and seafood rather than meat, and pounded chilli and fish pastes. But then, another aspect is very rich, fragrant and reminiscent of Persian cuisine.
I think it’s a difference between what’s been identified as the atraf and the ashraf sections of the Bengali Muslim population, a division that goes back to the early nineteenth century as historian Richard Eaton has written about – the former, the agragrian, rural population, and the latter, the urban, middle class and notably, for a time, Urdu-speaking section of the community. It would make sense, right? The hot thin broths, wholesome and hearty, eking out precious harvested supplies for as long as possible; the Persian inspired foods created for a wealthier population always looking to aspire to the cultural heritage of Persia and Afghanistan. (Still ongoing – both my sister’s and my name are Persian in origin). Now, both cuisines are eaten by most sections of the population – though with obvious regional differences. But rezala reminds me a lot of Persian food, and I wonder if it was eaten by the ashraf as they read their ghazals and dreamt of (and up) their Iranian and Peshwari ancestors.

Speaking ethically across borders

I came across this wonderful image in an interesting blogpost by Jonathan Mair:

A conversation between Western Christendom and the Mongol Empire: Pope Innocent IV sends a mission to Central Asia, carrying one of a series of letters that were exchanged between the pontiffs and the Mongol khans in the thirteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia)

Other reading

Erika Sanchez on Latino Muslims and Natasha Tynes on Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Richard Bulliet on “Islamo-Christian” civilization [pdf].

Deorientalizing citizenship?

This series in OpenDemocracy is really interesting. Especially this:  The creation of Palestinian citizenship under an international mandate: 1918-1925, by LAUREN BANKO.

An internationally-recognised citizenship of the Arab Middle East designed during the era of mandates by the British came out of exclusively colonial processes, despite the fact that the British were meant to be an international trustee in Palestine.  This article explores what happened.

Plus interesting related material in OpenIndia, such as: Political subjectivity in Edmund Burke’s India and liberal multiculturalism by ZAKI NAHABOO:

Edmund Burke’s speeches on India illustrate the emergence of the orientalised political subject. Traces of this in the present can be seen through the relationship between British multiculturalism and the undocumented migrant.


At GeoCurrents, a fascinating article on the revival of Aramaic language among Christian Arabs.

Plan von Timbuktu


‘Plan von Timbuktu’, published in Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen (1855)

Rene Caillie was given 10,000 francs in 1828 for being the ‘first’ non-Muslim/Westerner to enter the city, disguising himself as a Muslim to do this safely (the guy before him was killed..)

Mare Nostrum


Entitled “Mare nostrum?”, the new issue of Wespennest (Austria) approaches the Mediterranean from various angles, aiming to look beyond its many myths and projections: “The authors are just as concerned at looking closely at the Mediterranean as a hybrid and contradictory space as they are committed to the project of a cultural community of Mediterranean countries, one built not on power politics but on solidarity”, writes Christine L–tscher.

Room without a view: The mythical Mediterranean of the tourist imagination masks a reality of debt, stagnation and social decline. Yet, writesJurica Pavicic, the region colludes in its own downfall, trading in former glories while acquiescing to political and economic exploitation.

“A place with no present, marooned between past and future. A future postponed like a promise of progress never kept. And a place of the past – which the Mediterranean worships, celebrates and sedulously records, just as every society with an inglorious present us carefully cultivates its better past. That past is often the object of an unhealthy cult, partly because it’s a substitute for the present’s irrelevance and failure, and partly because it’s part of a commercial exchange. Today, the Mediterranean subsists by trading its former self on the market. It lives off its past because it has no present. And it has no present because it is all too dependent on its former self.”

The Jefferson Qur’an

Interesting piece on early American interest in Islam, from Alexandra Méav Jerome, published at Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

…American interest in Islam and the Qur’an did not begin with Thomas Jefferson’s serendipitous purchase of a Qur’an while a student, but dates as far back as the nation’s Puritan forefathers. The firebrand preacher Cotton Mather is said to have devoured books written about the Ottoman Empire and referenced the Qur’an on numerous occasions. Benjamin Franklin, parodying a North African pirate addressing a colonial audience in the 17th century asked his audience, “Is it worse to follow Mahomet than the Devil?”i, a question it seems he did not receive an answer to from amongst his many readers. Even John Adams knew enough of Islam to discuss it.ii In fact, Adam, like many early Americans, from German immigrants to Pennsylvania to our founding fathers, owned copies of the Qur’an.iii Although it may surprise many contemporary Americans that the Puritans read outside the gospel and Franklin and Adams were well-versed in the diversity of the world’s faiths, these were men who had a profound and insatiable intellectual curiosity and political genius in that they understood, collectively, that this knowledge was essential to the success of the early colonies as well as to the establishment of a sovereign and sustainable nation state. Unsurprisingly, given his reputation as a voracious reader and humanist, Jefferson was perhaps the most attuned to this necessity of learning about world religions and the social systems and governments that they created. Indeed, it is really through Jefferson, more than any other early American statesman, that we understand the early importance and impact of Islam upon the new republic….

Forgotten Smyrna

Excellent post by Mick Hartley on Smyrna/Izmir’s repressed history, and what it means for political memory today.

The Columbian Exchange and the Indian Ocean


The Waldseemüller map (1507 CE) – the first map to show the America’s. From an interesting post at Varnam, on how the “discovery” of the America’s was to change the relationship between Europe and Asia.

[…] Few years after Columbus failed in his mission to find the Indies, Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar coast. To impress the Zamorin, he took out the gifts he had bought and the people from the court who had come to examine them burst into laughter. These trinkets, they explained, were not the gifts suitable for a rich king. Even the poor merchants from Mecca or India gave better gifts. Did the Captain-Major have any gold, they asked. According to the accounts, Gama’s face fell.

This episode symbolizes the trade equation between the East and West during the 15th century. Asia produced spices, silk, porcelain and tea which the Europeans badly wanted, but there was nothing Europe produced that the Asians needed. Asia needed gold and silver and Europe did not have sufficient quantity of it. […]