Black boxes, the rectification of names and the revival of slavery

By Lorenzo

The Chinese sage Kong Qiu (551-479 BC) (Kongzi “Master Kong”), known to the West as Confucius–which is derived from Kong Fuzi “Grand Master Kong”–had a doctrine Zhèngmíng, normally translated as “rectification of names“. There is a straightforward statement of the doctrine in the Analects:

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect. (Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7).

Even without the current progressivist penchant to police language, there is a problem applying clear and correct naming to matters Islamic because the term Islam can apply both to a religion (submission to Allah) and a civilisation. Where we can talk of Christianity (the religion) and Christendom (the civilisation or Christian territories), there is no similar linguistic distinction available in English, despite attempts to use Islamdom and Islamicate to make a similar clear distinction between Islam the religion and Islam the civilisation.

Islam, Muslim and linguistic ambiguity

There is a similar problem with Muslim: do we mean a follower of Islam or someone raised in the civilisation of Islam? This is not a small point; the tendency to treat Muslims as if their religious identity is automatically central to their sense of identity is a besetting sin of much commentary and even public policy. It is not something that either commentary or public policy is likely to do with Jew or Christian. While Westerner essentially implies no religious identity at all, except an increasingly weak association with Christian origins. Even the coinage Judaeo-Christian is a manifestation of weakening religious associations, given the historically antagonistic identities it jumbles together. Western civilisation has, after all, pagan Graeco-Roman roots and pagan Germanic roots as well as Judaeo-Christian ones. Moreover, religious conservatives in the West have been losing cultural batters for many decades now, hence the gulf on matters regarding sex and gender which has opened up between the West and Islam.

Person of Muslim heritage is often a preferable usage to Muslim, but is inherently more linguistically cumbersome. As feminists, secularists and humanists of Muslim heritage regularly point out, treating religion as the central feature of Muslim identity plays into the hands of the most conservative elements in Muslim communities, and Islam, and even more into the hands of Salafists and Islamists, who most definitely want to insist on the centrality of religious identity, and a religious identity they wish to be able to define (or, indeed, redefine via “purification”).

Black boxing the inconvenient

Along with these elementary difficulties of linguistic usage, there is also the “black box” problem. It is a feature of ideological perspectives that they generate “black boxes”; areas of human experience which are either not opened up and considered seriously in their own terms or are considered only in superficial and convenient ways. So Western conservatives will typically not open up the “black box” of queer experience, because that will reveal perfectly ordinary folk who have been systematically treated like crap for no good reason. Failing to look seriously into the “black box” of queer experience does not remotely stop such conservatives from commenting freely and passionately about such matters. Indeed, it makes it so much easier to do so, because then said matters can be construed to fit in with congenial framings without awkward reality getting in the way.

Hence the way ideology generates “black boxes”. Thus, it is so much easier to comment passionately yet conventionally on the Palestine-Israel conflict if one does not look under the “black box” of Palestinian politics. It is so much easier to comment on current events if one does not look under the “black box” of Islam and Islamic history (including contemporary persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries) or the “black boxes” of Islamism or the Salafi or Deobandi movements. Hence the tendency of the “contentless identity” whereby religious identity is assumed to be central to the self-understanding of Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage) yet it is somehow illegitimate to inquire critically into Islamic doctrine or patterns or to consider them as having any awkward implications.

If, for example, one is going to seriously comment on matters Islamic, one really should do all the following:

  • Read the Quran.
  • Acquaint oneself with a collection of hadiths. (These are available online, for example here and particularly here.)
  • Read a biography of Muhammad by a believer (such as Tariq Ramadan, The Messenger), so one gets a sense of the role of Muhammad “from the inside”.
  • Read a comprehensive history of Islam (such as Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies).

Clearly, it would be preferable to expand one’s reading beyond that, with various scholarly articles and useful texts. There are also useful online sources, such as the blog Ballandus (a particularly useful source) while economist David Friedman (who teaches in a law faculty) provides an excellent introduction to Sharia. Islam is a genuinely distinctive civilisation, with distinctive patterns and underlying presumptions, and it is necessary to inform oneself of said distinctive patterns and underlying presumptions before one can comment usefully (rather than propagandistically).

Alas, lots of folk comment quite passionately on matters Islamic and Muslim without bothering to do any of the above. (Yes, I have done all the above.)

But refusing to look under the “black box” of Islam then makes it so much easier to construe events and issues according to whatever framing one finds congenial. Indeed, the more passionately one is attached to one’s framing, the more that is so.

“Black boxing” also means it becomes so much easier to use morality and moral claims as a club to denigrate and dismiss dissent (no matter how much better informed such dissent may be; in some ways the more so the more such dissent is genuinely informed). Which so adds to the attraction of “black boxing” the potentially awkward.

Similarly, if one is going to comment on Islamism, Salafism and Deobandi (encompassing what is often labelled radical Islam), one should acquaint oneself with a sample of such writings. Sayyid Qutb‘s Milestones (aka Signposts) is a classic Islamist text, but there are plenty of other sources, such as the jihadi strategic “how-to manual” The Management of Savagery (available here [pdf]).

One needs also be aware the Salafism, for example, comes in various flavours which overlap with (say) Saudi Wahhabism but are not identical (pdf) and which includes a “quietist” tradition that is quite hostile (pdf) to Islamism (especially its takfiri tendencies) and its prioritisation of political engagement. While Islamism–in the general sense of political Islam–has Salafist versions.

Civilisational crisis

Political scientist Samuel Huntingdon’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, launched originally in a 1993 essay (pdf) in the magazine Foreign Affairs, was correct in identifying that Islam “has bloody borders” (and it continues to do so). But his wider thesis simply has not come to fruition; partly because cultural affinity making deeper forms of cooperation easier has turned out to be quite asymmetrical in its implications–it does not have anywhere near an equivalent effect in configuring conflict. With a conspicuous exception, the international order continues to be a state order with major and minor states interacting in terms of their interests and perceptions, which are not usefully “civilisational”. To take an obvious example, that Vietnam and China are civilisationally similar does not change a recurring constant of Vietnamese policy–to stay out of China’s control or domination. Nor does civilisational affinity draw Ukraine and Russia together. On the contrary, it drives Putin’s Russia to prey on Ukraine to stop it becoming a disturbing counter-example.

The conspicuous exception is Islam, where we are witnessing a conflict that is as much about breaking states as it is about state power. The phenomena of Islamist authoritarianism, of Salafist jihadism (and Deobandi jihadism) are, in a sense, a violent temper tantrum from within the civilisation of Islam against modernity (one historian Bernard Lewis noted 25 years ago in his 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage); a temper tantrum that no other civilisation is coming close to manifesting any equivalent of. Either in its heartland or in any diaspora.

Even so, plenty of Muslims are just fine with modernity, both individually and collectively. Which, in fact, does much to drive the homicidal temper tantrum by those who are not fine with modernity. Those within Islam who are reacting with violent hostility to the social trends of modernity are particularly horrified and enraged that their fellow Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage) seem all too willing to go along for the ride. It is no accident that the victims of radical Islam in recent decades are overwhelmingly fellow Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage)–though a little less overwhelmingly than folk sometimes acknowledge, given the persistent persecution of (particularly) Christian minorities in majority-Muslim societies. Though said persecution is, in part, also a symptom of the wider religious revival within Islam that radical Islam is the “pointy end” of.

The eruptions into the West of this homicidal temper tantrum are just that–extensions into the West of programs of assassination and massacre than have been going on within Islam for decades. While the current round of massacre of religious minorities in the Middle East is a upswing of a pattern that extends back to the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, through the ArmenianAssyrian and Pontic-Greek genocides into various interwar massacres and down to contemporary events.

Again, there are complexities: the reasons that jihadis find recruits within Iraq and Syria, for example, have continuities with why any insurgency is able to recruit–such as deep alienation from the state ruling them. (Which, given the closer one is to the Islamic State the more unfavourable the view has to be pretty powerful alienation.) The structure of the particular insurgency project they are recruited for, however, is always more specific.

Slavery, Sharia and polygyny

As it turns out, the explicit revival of slavery in the Islamic State, and the earlier, more surreptitious, revival of slavery in Islamist Sudan, provides a revealing case study of the connection between traditional Islamic jurisprudence, patterns within historical Islam and contemporary Islamic “purifying” revivalism.

Islam is a polygynous civilisation because it is a religiously defined civilisation and Sharia allows polygyny–a male believer can legally have up to four wives. As Sharia is central to so many of the patterns of Islamic history (leading to various historical patterns), it is important to understand that religious law is not a good translation of what Sharia entails or implies. David Friedman’s excellent introductory paragraph to the aforementioned chapter on Sharia sets out the matter clearly:

The first and most important thing to realize about Islamic law is that, seen in its own terms, it is the law of God not of man. No society, now or in the past, could enforce Shari’a, because no human had complete and correct knowledge of its content. Strictly speaking, what traditional Islamic courts enforced was not Shari’a, God’s law, but fiqh, jurisprudence, the imperfect human attempt to deduce from religious sources what the law ought to be. That fact helps explain how Sunni Islam was able to maintain four different but mutually orthodox schools of law. There could be only one correct answer to what God wanted humans to do, but there could be more than one reasonable guess. According to a widely accepted tradition, a Mujtahid, a legal scholar deducing the law from the Koran and the traditions of what Mohammed did and said, got one reward in heaven if he got it wrong, two if he got it right.

The key point here is law of God not of manSharia is the law of Allah, the Sovereign of the Universe. As such it covers everyone, as we are all subject to Allah’s sovereignty. Hence it seems perfectly reasonable in contemporary Islamic states to make apostasy (and blasphemy) a crime, even a capital crime. Something that the weakening of religious identity in the West has either long seen abolished or reduced (in the case of blasphemy) to a lingering dead letter.

Sharia absolutely claims to legislate for non-believers, in a most emphatic way, and has always done so. To paraphrase the aphorism commonly attributed to Trotsky, you may not be interested in Sharia, but Sharia is interested in you.

So, when jihadis kill Westerners for insulting the Prophet, they see themselves as applying Sharia to people who are already under its ambit. In terms of Sharia jurisprudence, non-believers who submit to Muslim rule are thereby acknowledging that they are under Sharia rule, but they are not changing whether Sharia properly applies to them, only how it does so.

The Islamists in particular are very specific on the rightful ambit of Sharia. In the words of Sayyid Qutb:

The defeatists should fear Allaah lest they distort this religion and cause it to become weak on the basis of the claim that it is a religion of peace. Yes, it is the religion of peace but in the sense of saving all of mankind from worshipping anything other than Allaah and submitting all of mankind to the rule of Allaah. This is the religion of Allaah, not the ideas of any person or the product of human thought, so that those who promote it should feel ashamed to state its ultimate goal, which is that all religion (worship) should be for Allaah alone. When the ideas that people follow are all produced by human beings and the systems and laws that control their lives are all made up by human beings, then in this case each idea and each system has the right to live safely within its own borders so long as it does not transgress the borders of others, so the various ideas and laws can co-exist and not try to destroy one another. But when there is a divine system and law, and alongside it there are human systems and laws, then the matter is fundamentally different, and the divine law has the right to remove the barriers and free people from enslavement to human beings …

The term religion of peace means something quite different to Islamists (and jihadis in general) than what Westerners might understand it to mean.

That Islam really is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive underlying presumptions and patterns, is crucial. In particular, the defeat of Aristotelianism in medieval Islam with the triumph of al-Ghazali had some profound consequences. One of which is that it became firmly established in mainstream Islam that there was no moral realm beyond revelation. In Christianity and Judaism, God does things because He is good. In Islam, things are good because God does them. Sharia, as the laws of God, become the moral realm. A viewpoint that Islamism, Salafism and Deobandi all very much adhere to but still has powerful resonance in Islam more generally, intensified by the ongoing Islamic religious revival. Islamic states are the only states which felt motivated to issue their own version (1990) of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948); and their Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam is very much about Sharia being moral trumps. It makes it harder in Islamic societies than for post-Enlightenment Western societies to move away from legislatively imposing religious doctrine (and the latter have found it hard enough).

Sharia is a civilisational legal system: it does not require a state to operate it. Indeed, until the later C19th, typically the most significant role of any Islamic state in the legal system was to appoint the qadi, the judges who made their rulings by applying the evidence of the case to rulings (fatwas) by religious scholars. (The Ottoman state was a partial exception.) One of the roles of Sufi orders (tariqa) was to provide legal services in non-state settings, such as among pastoralists.

The nature of Sharia as civilisational law that does not require a state to operate is why Muslim immigration can pose a distinctive enclave problem, as there is a ready-to-use structure of law which can be used in opposition to the law of the local state and which claims trumping legitimacy over said law.

That trumping legitimacy is central to a network of interlocking ideas which can be characterised as Islamic supremacism; that adherence to Islam, being of Islam, puts one in a morally superior position to anyone who is not so, a superiority which is manifested in any “proper” social order. A Hamas leader angrily denying that the West has any right to preach to Hamas because it gives rights to homosexuals is a manifestation of this. The aforementioned ongoing pattern of massacres represents Muslims becoming homicidally enraged at the idea that non-believers could be the equals (particularly the legal and political equals) of believers: the cosmopolitan equality which is a clear and powerful tendency within modernity offers the insult of equality to the assumed, and deeply embedded, pattern of believer superiority.

After all, if revelation is the moral realm, of course those who adhere to the path of revelation are morally superior to those who do not. And even without necessarily adhering completely to the whole doctrinal package, a perspective is engendered that seeps into habitual, ingrained patterns of thought. Hence the persistent persecution of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.

The implications pervade, and lie under, so much of the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. While the founder of the Palestinian national movement, Haj Amin al-Husseini, may have adopted a virulent version of Jew hatred partly (but only partly) based on imported European conceptions (remembering that Islam encompassed heartland genocide decades before the Holocaust), the underlying refusal of most Palestinians to seriously contemplate acceptance of Israel is profoundly based on the embedded assumptions of Islamic supremacism (hence the “right of return“), making any peace treaty impossible. Meanwhile, the response of the Swedish foreign minister to the Paris attacks (referring to the “desperate situation” of the Palestinians) shows just how Pavlovian “black boxing” “blame the Jews Israel” has become. A response that was offensively ignorant, given Islamic State forces specifically attacked the Yarmouk camp.

There is a further implication which follows from the nature of Sharia. David Friedman describes how fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, operates:

The scholar started with the sources of revealed knowledge—the Koran and the words and acts of Mohammed and his companions as reported in hadith, traditions. From that information a sufficiently learned religious scholar, a mujtahid, deduced legal rules. Over time, the scholars separated into four schools, each consisting of multiple generations building on the work of its predecessors, each identified with the name of a particularly distinguished scholar thought of as its founder. The schools were generally similar but differed in the details of their approaches to interpretation and the rules they deduced; each regarded the others as orthodox.

The implication of which is that the definitive source for understanding the normative principles of social order is C7th Arabia. A social order that included slavery and raiding.

The dynamics of polygyny

Polygyny itself engenders persistent patterns. Sharia may permit up to 4 wives, but obviously, not every male believer can have more than one wife. Indeed, the dynamics of polygyny are quite clear. If the top 10% of males in a society have, on average, 2 wives then the bottom 10% of males do not get any. The more wives taken by elite males, the larger the group of low status males without wives. In polygynous societies, women become markers of status for intra-male competition, even if a large number of men only have one wife.

A recent comprehensive review article (pdf) on monogamy and polygyny notes that:

… the greater the percentage of unmarried men in the national population, the greater the rates of rape, murder, assault, theft and fraud, controlling for the same variables in the regression described above. The percentage of unmarried men is a highly significant predictor of all these crime rates, except assaults where it is only marginally significant. In fact, the percentage of unmarried men is the only predictor that is consistently important across all five felonies.

The article notes that monogamy (as a comprehensive marriage strategy) increases social cooperation and reduces violence: not exactly surprising results. The article also identifies a longstanding social mechanism for dealing with the wife shortage generated by polygyny:

In many non-industrialized societies, young unmarried men form groups of marauders who go on raids to steal wealth and wives, while raping and pillaging. Polygynous societies engage in more warfare, often with the goal of capturing women.

Sharia both sanctified and motivated such raiding. First, because non-believers are given three choices–(1) conversion, (2) submission to Sharia (i.e. Muslim) rule as manifested in payment of the jizya, or non-believer tax, or (3) war (including death and enslavement: though temporary truces are also permitted). The three choices come straight from a hadith and so the words of Muhammad:

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. Then invite them to migrate from their lands to the land of Muhairs and inform them that, if they do so, they shall have all the privileges and obligations of the Muhajirs. If they refuse to migrate, tell them that they will have the status of Bedouin Muslims and will be subjected to the Commands of Allah like other Muslims, but they will not get any share from the spoils of war or Fai’ except when they actually fight with the Muslims (against the disbelievers). If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them (Sahih Muslim  4924).

Christians are people of the book, but are often taken to be polytheists because of the Trinity. Demands for payment of jizya are alive and well in contemporary Islam; with the update that receipt of welfare payments has been claimed as jizya (and so a sign of non-believer submission to believers).

Second, while only 4 wives were permitted, a believer could own any number of women slaves for sexual use. This comes straight from the words of Allah (as the Quran is the word of Allah, not of Muhammad) in Sura 4:24:

And [also prohibited to you are all] married women except those your right hands possess. [This is] the decree of Allah upon you. And lawful to you are [all others] beyond these, [provided] that you seek them [in marriage] with [gifts from] your property, desiring chastity, not unlawful sexual intercourse. So for whatever you enjoy [of marriage] from them, give them their due compensation as an obligation. And there is no blame upon you for what you mutually agree to beyond the obligation. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.

The phrase “what your right hand possess” is about what the sword hand takes. There is explanatory hadith (i.e. words of Muhammad) clarifying the point:

Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace te upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that:” And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)” (i. e. they were lawful for them when their ‘Idda period came to an end) (Sahih Muslim 3432).

Thus, being non-believing women captured by Muslims on jihad were not protected by their marriages to non-believers; making them as much “fair game” sexually as any other non-believer woman so captured.

Slavery as motivator

Muhammad presiding over the massacre of the men of the Banu Qurayza. (Their women and children were sold into slavery.)

So, Islam was established as a polygynous system, meaning it created a wife shortage among believers. But raiding non-believers who do not submit to Muslim rule was sanctified and taking their women for your sexual use was also sanctified. So, sexual frustration generated by Sharia marriage rules was then explicitly directed outwards towards the non-believers who have not submitted to Muslim rule. The ghazis raiding across the frontier into “the lands of unbelief” which were such a feature of the borders of Islam for over a millennia represented Islam sanctifying (and so intensifying) patterns of typical of polygyny; polygyny that it also sanctified.

The Ottomans incorporated the “holy raiders” into an effective military system. Ghazis would be incorporated into Ottoman forces as akinci, who subsisted on plunder from raids. They would degrade the (in their case Christian) society on the frontier by their constant raiding, driving people away, depressing economic activity, weakening the ability to resist. (And yes, current jihadi attacks are understood in analogous ways, specifically targeting the will to resist.) The main Ottoman army would then move in, occupy the territory, the ghazis and akinci would move to the new border, and the process would repeat. Using this basic pattern, the Ottomans chewed their way across Anatolia, through the Balkans and up to the gates of Vienna. The process was only brought to a halt by the adoption of the grenzer system of (substantially Orthodox Serb) militia farmers in the Military Frontier of the Habsburg lands. (The grenzer system was quite similar to the fubing militia system of Western WeiSui and Tang China; but they also had to deal with horse-riding raiders.)

What was old is new again

Which brings us back to the revival of slavery by the Islamist regime of Sudan and by the Islamic state. Both regimes have been endemically at war with those who do not accept their rule, including non-Muslims (whether actual non-Muslims or those defined by the regime as such). Both regimes are based on literalist ideology–that is, a “purification” of Islam by returning to its original nature and adherence to its texts. Those texts permit polygyny, slavery and war against those who do not submit to Muslim rule. More specifically, they permit sexual enslavement of women who have not submitted to Muslim rule. So, reviving slavery both shows adherence to original Islam and helps motivate (and recruit) fighters. It is an operationally rational return to original Islam; reviving a pattern that was operationally rational for Islam for centuries.

An essay by an (anonymous) official with wide Middle East experience in the New York Review of Books expressed puzzlement over the foreign fighter phenomenon:

Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. … these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.

Nor was the surge in foreign fighters driven by some recent change in domestic politics or in Islam. Nothing fundamental had shifted in the background of culture or religious belief between 2012, when there were almost none of these foreign fighters in Iraq, and 2014, when there were 20,000. The only change is that there was suddenly a territory available to attract and house them. If the movement had not seized Raqqa and Mosul, many of these men might well have simply continued to live out their lives with varying degrees of strain—as Normandy dairy farmers or council employees in Cardiff. We are left again with tautology—ISIS exists because it can exist—they are there because they’re there.

No, actually, they are just ghazis with aeroplane tickets. Create a territory where the longstanding returns to “holy raiding”are firmly established, and they come. (Polygyny may generate systematic male sexual frustration, but modern society can do a certain amount of that too and, however powerful the sexual motivations, it hardly exhausts what being a ghazi offered.)

Islam has generated ghazis from its earliest days. And it can still do so, because those beliefs still have power. Especially if one’s unashamed literalism recreates the full range of motives.

But to understand this, one has to look under the “black box” of Islam and of Islamism.

Islam is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive patterns resulting from distinctive presumptions. There are religious and civilisational reasons why it is the only civilisation generating such a spectacular and recurring homicidal temper tantrum against modernity, let alone a rage against modernity which has killed so many people in so many (mainly Muslim) countries.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

2 Comments

  1. Posted November 24, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    A most interesting and absorbing essay.

    Many thanks.

  2. Posted November 25, 2015 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    My pleasure Don!

    David Friedman has pointed out that “dar al Islam” = area under Islamic rule, but that has both definitional problems (is a Muslim-majority country automatically “Islamic rule”) and is not a common English usage.

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