Official Blog Entry #9: The Central Asian Mystique

Central Asia

The region of Central Asia which attracted various explorers

Frances Wood, in her book The Silk Road:  Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia dedicates a good portion to the Great Game and the effects and aftermath on the region and on the people who stimulated the Great Game discourse.  Chapters 10 to 14 focus on the various explorers and surveyors who contributed to the preservation or decimation of Central Asian relics, and on the great appeal for the Central Asian mystique.

What was the Great Game?  It was in essence a struggle for Central Asia by the British and Russian Empires.  The casual reader is aware of the British and Russian struggles for Afghanistan, but what is less known, is the strife between the two for the whole of Central Asia.  Central Asia of the time included the regions of modern day Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and parts of the modern People’s Republic of China such as Xinjiang.

Explorers from Russia, Britain, Sweden, Germany, and the United States dedicated their whole lives to exploring the Central Asian territories, and to chronicle the land, its past and people.  From Nikolai Przhevalsky to Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein, Central Asia witnessed a fair share of explorers who wanted to take a piece amidst its cold embrace back to their lands.

Each explorer was unique in his own way.  Sven Hedin’s tendency to leaving corpses behind on his journeys let them be animal or human, clearly contrasts with that of the French Paul Pelliot.  Each explorer had experiences that amaze the modern reader.  Sven Hedin met with Adolf Hitler who was surprisingly a vegetarian and quite accepting of Sven Hedin, even in the light of his partial Jewish ancestry.  Sir Aurel Stein, during his traversing of the area between the Lop Desert and Bactria found Sven Hedin’s tape measure.  Paul Pelliot re-traced the steps of his predecessors and saw the removal of many manuscripts from the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in Dun Huang.  Thus, there experiences were quite unique but were greatly entwined.

Everything in Central Asia, from artifacts to plants and animals was greatly cherished in England and Russia and elsewhere in the world for that matter.  Carl Hagenbeck asked for the Przhevalsky’s horse, and received about two hundred of them even though more than that amount perished on the way.  He also spent £5000 for the Ovis Poli, of which sixty were caught, but they all perished on the way due to diarrhea.  Hence, Central Asian specialties were in high demand, and many explorers sought the fame that would inevitably move them up amongst the classes if they supplied the demand.  Undoubtedly, there were some who just longed for the Central Asian landscape and the mountain breeze and flowers, as we can see by the diaries of Sir Aurel Stein in particular.

What I find a bit disturbing from reading all that is present on the great explorers of Central Asia, is the lack of understanding and concern for the local inhabitants.  From the removal of the recently deceased Parsi adult’s head in secret, to hunting down sixty Ovis Poli or hundreds of Przhevalsky’s horses to satisfy the European desire for Central Asian specialties, there does seem to be a constant disregard for the local inhabitants and their wishes.  Yet perhaps this was the only way to document Central Asia, to chronicle the mysterious Orient for the European.  If Langdon Warner had not attempted to rescue the remaining frescoes and wall paintings that were severely brutalized by the White Russian soldiers or the modernizing of Buddhist caves to appeal to the modern generation at the expense of the old artifacts, would they still have survived to the present day?  I am not one of those who hold an affirmative answer to that question.

Ellsworth Huntington stated that the people of Central Asia appear to have been molded by their physiographical environment.  It’s an interesting notion.  Perhaps such a change was evident in light of the constant determination that white explorers showed in the region.  How could the local inhabitants protect their lands if not by a total change of attitude?  Like the Chinese farmers who rallied against Langdon Warner and eventually drove him out of Chinese occupied territories, the inhabitants of Central Asia may have resorted to similar means to stop the extrapolation of their cultural antiquities from their lands.  And perhaps the statement of Ellsworth Huntington is nothing but a justification for the drastic change in attitude of the Central Asian peoples.  This is just a hypothesis, but a sound one nonetheless.  Take the quote of Arthur Daley in 1931 who wrote “Imagine how we should feel if a Chinese archaeologist were to come to England, discover a cache of medieval manuscripts at a ruined monastery, bribe the custodian to part with them and carry them off to Peking”.  Would this not lead to a change in attitude?

Overall, Central Asia attracted many and acted as home to countless more foreigners.  Each explorer wrote of the fascinating beauties of the land, even on the harshness yet surreal cruelty of the deserts.  Central Asia remains quite as fascinating as it ever was.  Perhaps the Great Game has finally dwindled down, yet the desire for the Central Asian touch still flourishes in our modern times.

The Tien Shan Mountains - The mountain breeze and fresh air appeals to many

Official Blog Entry #8: A Clash of Ignorance Indeed

Islamic fundamentalism is an issue that comes up time and time again and will most likely continue to do so as the West continues to get riled up about the Islamic world.  Edward Said’s article “The Clash of Ignorance”, and Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood’s article “Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency” come as relief in light of all the one-sided opinion that western media constantly bombards on us.

In relation to Said’s article, I have to say that I agree entirely with his labeling of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations Theory as “Clash of Ignorance”.  Viewing the world as consisting of seven to eight civilizations with each pitting against each other trying to come out victorious is the most inhumane way to perceive the human race.  Homo sapiens did not mysteriously emerge out of seven to eight distinct areas; moreover we have shaped each other’s customs, traditions, and morals throughout the passage of time.

The West would not be as we know it had it not been for the works of great Muslim thinkers such as Al-Farabi or Ibn Sina (Avicenna).  It is also important to keep in mind that these were not just Arabs, they were themselves very diverse.  Equating Arab with Muslim is a great misconception and needs to be adjusted in western mentality.  The mystic and poet Jalal-ul-Din-al Rumi was himself a Persian, and so was Ibn Sina.  It is through the works of Muslims, through Arabic translations, that the West first came to know of Aristotle.  All this is to say that the West that we know would not have been as we know it had it not been for the Golden Age of Islam (during the times of the Abbasid Empire).

Instead of summarizing Said’s article, I would like to focus in on something that he did not elaborate much into, and that is Western Muslims.  Muslims living in the west are an integral part of western society.  They are in every field, working side by side with their non-Muslim colleagues.  Would Mavis Leno like to say that the Western Muslim females are oppressed?  That the choice of an American Muslim to don the religious head scarf as ordained by her Lord to be oppressive?

"Afghanistan has become increasingly militarized. Is this the 'freedom' Afghans longed for?"

What does it mean to be a Western Muslim then?  To become Western, does one have to “openly kiss in public”, “eat bacon sandwiches”, and wear “mini skirts”, as Salman Rushdie states in his quote in the article by Hirschkind and Mahmood?  I would like to believe that this western supremacist view is not something embedded in western thought, it is more of a political nature, part of a political agenda to stray the public’s focus from the things that matter, the faults of their peers.  Why has the American public not raised criticism on the fact that the American government supplied $3 billion dollars to the mujahideen in Afghanistan?  Why is the fact of Afghan women and children being raped all over the country today not an issue that célèbre figures like to voice?  Political agendas?  Western Media?  Propaganda?

Under the Taliban regime, there was safety.  A woman was free to walk without the fear of being raped out on the streets knowing that the rapist would be heavily condemned.  Indeed, there was the issue of them being reprimanded for breaking religious rules, but the safe environment was definitely there.  The women of Afghanistan today are by no means safer than under the Taliban regime?  They live in a country greatly controlled by the United States, a country that has become increasingly militarized thanks to our neighbours to the south (their government at least).  It is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world which came to that condition due to the dramatic reduction of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  My point in this is to highlight that Islam is not to blame.  Even the Taliban are not to blame entirely.  There were systems set in place to bring the country down to its knees.  Afghanistan was and is a deliberate attempt to show the Muslim world who is in charge.

Hence, we as westerners, Muslims and non-Muslims, must rise up to the challenge to dismantle this theory of the Clash of Civilizations, because if we do not, this “cultural warfare” will continue and will result in great destruction on all sides.  There is no victor in a war.  Let’s band together as brothers and sisters in one human race to banish the seeds of ignorance from our times.

Official Blog Entry #7: The Islamic Tradition

Before I comment on the readings for this week, I would like to point out an amazing series of lectures that will take place at the University of Toronto (yes here!) this month.  They are very relevant to the readings that were required.

The course is called The Lost Kingdom:  History of Andalus (Andalusia or Islamic Spain).  I will be going myself!  Here is the trailer:

Islam is a religion that has increasingly become more prevalent in day-to-day discussions and has, in modern times, started to emerge outside of the realm of academia.  There is evidently a great amount of literature present in the Islamic world regarding the religion, its philosophy, and thought.  On the contrary, the non-Muslim literati and what we now call Orientalists (Arabic:  Al-Mostashriqoon), tended to produce literature that demonized Islam and enforced negative stereotypes.  It is, again only in modern times, that Orientalists have emerged who have attempted to understand Islam as within the Islamic tradition, rather than a separate, inherently violent, identity.

Mahmoud M. Ayoub, in his The Spread of Islam depicted the spread of Islam in a manner that was easily comprehensible and definitely not reprehensible as many authors do.  He demonstrated that Islam is more than just a politicized ideology, as some fundamentalists have made it about to be, and it definitely did not spread only by the sword.  Yes the Prophet Muhammad (ص) was a military man, and Islam initially expanded with the Umayyad Empire through warfare, but the mass conversions only took place because the religion of Islam appealed to the masses and allowed them to make their respective cultures Islamic au lieu de Arab.  Ayoub overall depicts how Islam spread throughout the ages, with victories such as that of Ayn Jalut against the Mongol Hulagu Khan, and such defeats as the expulsion of the Spanish Moors from Granada and Cordoba, Spain, the heart land of Islam in the western hemisphere.  He proves that Muslim and Arab are not synonymous, and that the quarter of the World’s population that professes to the Islamic faith are just mere humans, and nothing less.

From reading the selections of Carl W. Ernst in Following Muhammad, I can confidently say that Ernst, a non-Muslim, approaches Islam from an un-biased point of view.  He rejects the idea born out of Samuel Huntington’s book:  The Clash of Civilizations, and points out that one religion does not need to come out triumphant.  He rejects the notion that it will be a fight to the death between Christianity and Islam, and highlights that the West needs to discard the idea that it constantly has to confront the rest.  Ernst attempts to dismantle all the stereotypes that non-Muslims maintain about Islam, and provides sensible, common-sense rebuttals to all of them.

I personally do not agree with the Clash of the Civilizations theory.  Surely there must be a more humane way to settle our disputes.  It should not be a fight to the finish with only one triumphant.  History has proven to us time after time that war will never settle differences.  It will only create bloodshed, horror, and result in many lives lost.  Perhaps its time that we started learning from history, the various instances where people lived in harmony regardless of religious affiliation, and made an attempt to settle the age-long conflicts that bring this world closer each day to Armageddon.  Then, and only then perhaps, the Armageddon that we might one day witness, might not result from the hands of none other than our own.

The Dome of the Rock overlooks the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been a contested place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

The following clip is the account of the Conquest of Spain (Al-Andalus) from the Muslim perspective.