Friday, March 13, 2015


As described at the end of my novel "My Friend The Prophet", which reconstructs the life of Mohammed through the personal account of one of his earliest followers, the Prophet died in 632 CE, leaving behind the beginnings of a significant empire that covered most of the Arabian peninsula. The succession was disputed - and still is to this day: those who supported the Prophet's father-in-law Abu Bakr are today's Sunni Moslems; those who supported the Prophet's adopted son Ali became today's Shi'a Moslems. Ali lost out however; it was Abu Bakr who became the first Caliph. After him came Umar, and after Umar Uthman, who took Islam beyond Arabia; over the next hundred years it would defeat both the Sassanian (Persian) and Byzantine empires to the north, taking control of what is today Iraq and Iran, and continuing on into Central Asia - Bukhara, Samarkand and the Punjab; the entire Asian section of the Roman Empire indeed, save only Anatolia (modern Turkey). To the north the Caliphate now included Syria, with Damascus the capital of the Umayyad Dynasty (661–750), established by Abu Sufyan after the civil war that ended the life of Ali, the fourth Caliph. The first Umayyad Calpih was Abu Sufyan's son Muʿāwiyah, who expanded the empire massively to the west, conquering the whole of North Africa and gaining a foothold (a full foot, not just a couple of toes) in Europe: most of Spain, the whole Mediterranean coast of France, Sicily and southern Italy, Malta, other islands in the Mediterranean, until the advance was finally halted by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.

The Umayyads were overthrown in 750 CE and for the next five hundred and eight years, until the Mongols invaded from the East, the Abbasid Dynasty, named for the Prophet's uncle Abbas, ruled most of the Moslem world, from their purpose-built capital, Baghdad, the largest city in the world at the time, and the centre of one of the most sophisticated civilisations in the history of the world. Haroun al-Rashid, the fifth Caliph, is remembered in the tenth century "Book of Songs" of Isfahani, as the Caliph who liked to disguise himself as an ordinary noblemen and take to the streets by night, enjoying the normal adventures of ordinary people in the company of his chief steward Masrur, the poet Abu Nuwas and his best friend Jafar - yes, that Jafar, the one you know from the Disney version of Aladdin. Isfahani's book poeticised real people and authentic history; the book that followed, the "Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah" or "The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night", which we tend to simplify in English as "The Arabian Nights", was not compiled until several hundred years later, and moved the setting forward two hundred years as well, giving Haroun Scheherazade for his wife and adding many other stories from the Arab traditions; though not quite so many as Galland and Burton and other European translators would add half a millennium later: Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and his forty thieves, and Aladdin and his lamp, for example, are all European additions, though the originals are authentically Arabian.

Starting with Haroun, though he himself was no great sophisticate, the Moslem world for the next five hundred years, with Baghdad as its intellectual Mecca, came to represent the highest achievements of the human intellect in medicine, engineering, astronomy, architecture, poetry, chemistry, mathematics and more - which is why European terms like algebra and chemistry are words taken from Arabic. Every single one of the great discoveries of the European Enlightenment - those of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Bruno, Brahe, Harvey - had already been discovered by the Moslem Arabs anything up to five hundred years earlier. The library at Cordoba, in the 9th century, held five hundred thousand books, while the biggest library in Europe, at the monastery of St Gall in France, held only thirty-eight; by 1400 Gleistonbury would become the largest library in Europe, with just five hundred books. And yet, even today, history in the west describes a Moslem Arab world that is barbarian, ignorant and cruel, pitted against the enlightened Crusaders of Christianity. Propaganda, and time for a rewrite. My novel "The Persian Fire", scheduled for publication in 2017, will provide at least some of that.
After Haroun came civil war, and then the Mongols, the Ottomans, the French and British during the First World War, the creation of Iraq and its overthrow of the British in the revolution of 1920, which brought Faysal, the son of Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, to power as king, briefly independent until Britain took advantage of the Second World War to re-occupy it. The monarchy was overthrown in a military coup in 1958, after which the Baathists, after which the military, after which Saddam Hussein, after which the United States, after which, now indeed, the thousand year mess has gone back to its origins, with the establishment of a new Caliphate, under the name Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an attempt to reunite the Umayyad with the Abassid by rejoining Damascus to Baghdad; after which Wahabi Mecca had better watch out, and Shi’a Tehran likewise.


Marks For: somewhere between 763 and 809 (the dates of Haroun al-Rashid)

Marks Against: Between a quarter and half a million (the number of those murdered by Saddam Hussein, of which between fifty and two hundred thousand were Kurds, twenty-five thousand victims of the 1991 rebellion, and about three hundred thousand dead in the Iran-Iraq war; the cultural devastation and mass-murder wreaked by Islamic State remains to be counted)

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