How Medieval Islamic Theology Can Fight ISIS

Islam is distinct from many other faiths in having a very complex legalistic character, which among other things, provides a lot of leeway for adapting to the modern world, including the current challenges posed by globalization, pluralism, and modernity.

One of example of this tradition is the ancient yet surprisingly progressive concept of irja, which, as explained by Mustafa Aykol in an excellent New York Times piece, offers a valuable counter to the regressive and viciously intolerant dogma of Islamic State (emphasis mine).

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing”. It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate”. Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia”, the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers”. The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism.

So contrary to popular belief, Islam has the potential to be a tolerant and pluralistic belief, even if it ultimately — like Judaism and Christianity — proposes an exclusivist ideology. Mainstream Muslims can draw from a deep tradition of theological compromise and pragmatism to combat the bloodthirsty expansionism and sectarianism of extremists.

And while irja sadly did not survive the tumultuous early years of Islam, its legacy remains in practice, if not explicitly.

…There are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Some of them are focused on the Quran, instead of the medieval Shariah, and hold on to the famous Quranic verse that says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Other Muslims are under the cultural influence of Western liberalism. Others are under the influence of Sufism, the mystical brand of Islam, which focuses on the individual’s willful godliness rather than strict adherence to rules and laws. In its condemnation of irja, the Islamic State also targets these lenient Muslims. They are the ones … who “made Islam into a mere claim having no reality”. They must be reminded that “Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is not an excuse to commit sins”.

It is no surprise that fanatical ideologues like I.S. would be steadfastly opposed to irja. But as Aykol rightly concludes, the group and its allies will have a tougher time making their case if more and more of their fellow Muslims step up to reclaim the label and, more importantly, put it into practice.

I call on my like-minded coreligionists to join me in wearing the irja badge with pride — and revived knowledge. We lost this key theology more than a millennium ago, but we desperately need it today to both end our religious civil wars and to establish liberty for all.

Aware that irja is its theological antidote, the Islamic State presents it as a lack of religious piety. It is, however, true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men. On the other hand, the Islamic State’s zeal to dictate, which it presents as piety, seems to be driven by arrogance — the arrogance of judging all other men, and claiming power over them, in the name of God.

If any good can come from Islamic State’s bloody and disruptive emergence, it is the possibility that the group’s unleashing of Islam’s darkest elements will compel more Muslims to do some soul searching and tap into the understated wellspring of tolerant and pluralistic values. Just as the wars of religion within Christianity eventually led to a softening of Christian dogma and an emergence of more progressive strains of the faith, so, too, could Islam hopefully benefit from a similar and legitimate path towards progress — hopefully at less cost along the way.

What are your thoughts?

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A Slideshow of the World’s 75 Most Dynamic Cities

Courtesy of Foreign Policy:

Welcome to the era of the megacity. More than half the global population now lives in urban areas, and there’s no going back to the farm. With China leading the way, today’s global cities are surging ahead in population and economic heft, powering the world economy — and posing some very difficult problems for governments. But it’s not all about the Beijings, the New Yorks, and Tokyos. Drawn from the McKinsey Global Institute‘s index of the world’s 75 Most Dynamic Cities, some of these up-and-coming commercial hubs — including Belo Horizonte, Fuzhou, and even Philadelphia — may surprise you. How many can you honestly say you’ve heard of, or visited?

Check out this long and impressive slideshow here. Unsurprisingly, most of these cities are located in the developing world, namely China and India but also many parts of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. While cities are powerhouses of culture, industry, and innovation, they can also become concentrations of poverty, crime, social dysfunction, and pollution.

Can this world accommodate any more urban sprawl? Some of these conurbations are seeing triple digit growth, a scale of growth that is almost unprecedented in history. What will be the consequences? We’ll need smart planning – but will anyone be willing to invest in it?

While we’re on the subject, check out China’s 29 largest and most influential cities, most of which are unknown to outsiders.

If you think we’re morally depraved more than ever…

…then read some of this graffiti excavated from the ruins of Pompeii:

  • Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
  • Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.
  • I screwed the barmaid.
  • Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
  • I screwed a lot of girls here.
  • Sollemnes, you screw well!

You can read more amusing examples here. Needless to say, even a history buff like me finds it difficult to remember that, in many ways, we humans haven’t changed all that much. Our ancestors thought and behaved very much like we do.

We forget how the average person went about their everyday lives in the ancient world. We focus on the great characters and events of history – on the epic stories, on the glory and might of civilizations, etc – but neglect the humble, mundane, and very familiar qualities of the typical commoner.

There’s a lesson to be learned even from this crass and humorous display. I think it’s captured very well by Cord Jefferson of the The Nation:

Do a simple Google search for “America’s moral decline” and you’ll encounter thousands upon thousands of shrill rants from people convinced that our “sex-crazed” society is rapidly decaying. For decades now, the professional right has made a big business out of pretending that TV, the rise of gay culture, rap music, and dozens of other things have contributed to the fall of a once greatly moral world, all the while seeming to forget that Thomas Jefferson is known to have taken sexual advantage of his slaves and Benjamin Franklin is believed by some to have been part of a drunken orgy club.

It may make you feel nice to pretend that the societies that gave rise to the modern world were ones of pure honor and decency, but that’s not reality.The world isn’t on a moral decline, because there was never a time when the world was particularly morally superior. If we can glean anything from the Pompeiian graffiti, it’s that even citizens of history’s most immaculate and important civilizations liked their sex and poop jokes. And that fact is as humbling as any magnificent and ancient temple.

While it may be sad to think that we haven’t changed much as a species, I think in many ways it’s a good thing. We’ve come a long way, and while we still struggle to meet a higher standard of social justice and morality, we can put our present failings in perspective: we’re nowhere near as bad as we’ve always been. Progress may be a slow and often stagnating path, but we’re certainly not in any serious decline.

Geography and Prosperity

Apparently, Mitt Romney has mischaracterized the views of Jared Diamond, a scientist who is best known for his argument that geography is a major determinant of a society’s development. Whereas Romney emphasized culture and the physical characteristics of the land, Diamond’s thesis is more complex and nuanced. As he clarifies in the New York Times:

Just as a happy marriage depends on many different factors, so do national wealth and power. That is not to deny culture’s significance. Some countries have political institutions and cultural practices — honest government, rule of law, opportunities to accumulate money — that reward hard work. Others don’t. Familiar examples are the contrasts between neighboring countries sharing similar environments but with very different institutions. (Think of South Korea versus North Korea, or Haiti versus the Dominican Republic.) Rich, powerful countries tend to have good institutions that reward hard work. But institutions and culture aren’t the whole answer, because some countries notorious for bad institutions (like Italy and Argentina) are rich, while some virtuous countries (like Tanzania and Bhutan) are poor.

A different set of factors involves geography, which embraces many more aspects than the physical characteristics Mr. Romney dismissed. One such geographic factor is latitude, which has big effects on wealth and power today: tropical countries tend to be poorer than temperate-zone countries. Reasons include the debilitating effects of tropical diseases on life span and work, and the average lower productivity of agriculture and soils in the tropics than in the temperate zones.

A second factor is access to the sea. Countries without a seacoast or big navigable rivers tend to be poor, because transport costs overland or by air are much higher than transport costs by sea.

A third geographic factor is the history of agriculture. If an extraterrestrial had toured earth in the year 2000 B.C., the visitor would have noticed that centralized government, writing and metal tools were already widespread in Eurasia but hadn’t yet appeared in the New World, sub-Saharan Africa or Australia. That long head start would have let the visitor predict correctly that today, most of the world’s richest and most powerful countries would be Eurasian countries (and their overseas settlements in North America, Australia and New Zealand).

The reason is the historical effect of geography: 13,000 years ago, all peoples everywhere were hunter-gatherers living in sparse populations without centralized government, armies, writing or metal tools. These four roots of power arose as consequences of the development of agriculture, which generated human population explosions and accumulations of food surpluses capable of feeding full-time leaders, soldiers, scribes and inventors. But agriculture could originate only in those few regions endowed with many wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication, like wild wheat, rice, pigs and cattle.

In short, geographic explanations and cultural-institutional explanations aren’t independent of each other. Of course, not all agricultural regions developed honest centralized government, but no nonagricultural region ever developed any centralized government, whether honest or dishonest. That’s why institutions promoting wealth today arose first in Eurasia, the area with the oldest and most productive agriculture.

So wealth and development have more to do with deterministic circumstances than with any intellectual, moral, or cultural superiority on the part of a given society. Obviously, sociocultural values matter to some extent, and their influence varies from nation to nation. But the point is that we can’t ignore the role that sheer luck  has played in allowing some civilizations to prosper while others of similar potential languish.

What does this mean for Americans? Can we assume that the United States, blessed with temperate location and seacoasts and navigable rivers, will remain rich forever, while tropical or landlocked countries are doomed to eternal poverty?

Of course not. Some tropical and subtropical countries have become richer despite geographic limitations. They’ve invested in public health to overcome their disease burdens (Botswana and the Philippines). They’ve invested in crops adapted to the tropics (Brazil and Malaysia). They’ve focused their economies on sectors other than agriculture (Singapore and Taiwan).

Conversely, geographic advantages don’t guarantee permanent success, as the growing difficulties in Europe and America show. We Americans fail to provide superior education and economic incentives to much of our population. India, China and other countries that have not been world leaders are investing heavily in education, technology and infrastructure. They’re offering economic opportunities to more and more of their citizens. That’s part of the reason jobs are moving overseas. Our geography won’t keep us rich and powerful if we can’t get a good education, can’t afford health care and can’t count on our hard work’s being rewarded by good jobs and rising incomes.

This would also explain the disparity in wealth that exists within societies as well. Those citizens born in neighborhoods or regions that lack resources, strong institutions, infrastructure, and opportunity are going to be worse of than those born in more prosperous parts of the country. Hard work and good values will only get them so far unless there is necessary public investment – hence why the most developed states in the world also display the highest commitment to building up public institutions.

Cueva de las Manos

This is the Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina (south of the town of Perito Moreno). Its name and claim to fame are obvious, although a variety of other art subjects are present. The art in the cave dates from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago, the oldest being 9,300 BCE. The site was last inhabited around 700 CE (or AD), possibly by ancestors of today’s Tehuelche people.

The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of a very interesting tool: bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint. The inhabitants, who varied over time as different groups moved in and out, had actually developed stenciling, not an art style we usually associate with ancient people (note that most of the hands are left, suggesting that they used their right hands to hold the pipe).

The binder used to combine the paint is unknown, but these people were pretty sophisticated: they knew which mineral pigments to utilize and how to do so. Iron oxides, for example, were used to produce reds and purples, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black. Art was serious business to them.

Other depictions include human beings, guanacosrheas, felines and other animals. Most amazing to me is the presence of geometric shapes and zigzag patterns, which shows that these people had conceptions of abstract art forms, rather than merely painting what they saw (although humans probably developed that far earlier anyway, it’s still fascinating to see it on display given the popular perception of prehistoric people as lacking such cognitive abilities).

There are also naturalistic portrayals of a variety of informative hunting techniques, including the use of bolas, a throwing weapon that was used like a sling. Perhaps they were just depicting everyday life, but maybe this was meant to be educational. I’d like to think they sat their kids down and went over these images like a teacher at a chalkboard.

Curiously, there are also red dots on the ceilings, probably made by submerging their hunting bolas in ink, and then throwing them up in the air. This suggests that these folks might have been experimenting with different art forms, although perhaps it was just some sort of ritual or form of practice.

Either way, it must be breathtaking to see this in person, to be able to put my hands close and realize that these were the physical marks of human beings just like me. And wonder what else they did in their spare time? What was their idea of fun? Maybe this art was recreational rather than utilitarian? Either way, it’s beautiful and a wonderful reminder of where we came from.

Sixteen Cities to Watch Out For

Cities are what are shaping civilization. Humanity is more urbanized now than ever before, and we’ve created unprecedentedly large communities where millions of human beings – and all their ideas, businesses, talents, and beliefs – intermingle and converge within a dense space. This is why cities are dynamic – and also a bit overwhelming – and why they’re driving growth, innovation, and culture across the world. In other words, they’re shaping the next century of human development.

This is especially the case for the developing world, which is rising rapidly, if not tenuously, in economic, political, technological, and cultural clout. Our globalized and interconnected world is giving way to global cities, where cultures, peoples, and businesses from across the world gather, giving urban configurations influence far and wide. These are the cities who’s financial markets, media outlets, industries, and other exports can change nations, or even the world.

Tokyo, Paris, London, and especially New York City were classic examples, and remain core global cities to this day. But they’re already being joined by many others, some surprising and some not so much. Foreign Policy has posted a slideshow selecting the 16 cities that will influence the world – for better or for worse – or that will be defining symbols of the coming era.

Like any list, some of the selections are contentious, but they still make for a good view and a lot of consideration. I hope you enjoy. Feel free to add your own suggestions as well. I’d be curious to read them.

Click here for view the article.

The Plow: Origin of Sexism?

You read that correctly. There have been all sorts of theories as to why discrimination towards women seems so pervasive and near-universal, and from where it comes from to begin with. But a crude farming tool is by far the most interesting and unexpected origin. As the Economist – my most cherished and regularly read source – recently reported, a team of economists, of all people, set out to prove that the adoption of the plow coincided with a change of attitudes towards women that persists to this day.

Specifically, a move towards large-scale and labor-intensive agriculture – defined by the adoption of the heavy plow – created an economic system in which one’s physical strength and endurance became a major basis for productivity, and they key to society’s survival. Men were naturally more adept in this new function, and from this crucial role they would subsequently come to dominate other aspects of society, namely in politics, religion, and other economic ventures.

Indeed, pre-history – the era before the widespread advent of agriculture – is strongly associated with matriarchy. The worship and reverence of females, mothers, and other symbols of womanhood, such as fertility, was widespread across many different civilizations. Religions and mythologies dating from this era tended to be female-dominated, and it wasn’t unusual for women to be found in all sorts of leadership roles too (though we shouldn’t risk overstating the universality of all this).

None of this is new however. As the Economist article quickly establishes, this theory was proposed decades ago:

FERNAND BRAUDEL, a renowned French historian, once described a remarkable transformation in the society of ancient Mesopotamia. Sometime before the end of the fifth millennium BC, he wrote, the fertile region between the Tigris and the Euphrates went from being one that worshipped “all-powerful mother goddesses” to one where it was “the male gods and priests who were predominant in Sumer and Babylon.” The cause of this move from matriarchy, Mr Braudel argued, was neither a change in law nor a wholesale reorganisation of politics. Rather, it was a fundamental change in the technology the Mesopotamians used to produce food: the adoption of the plough.

The plough was heavier than the tools formerly used by farmers. By demanding significantly more upper-body strength than hoes did, it gave men an advantage over women. According to Mr Braudel, women in ancient Mesopotamia had previously been in charge of the fields and gardens where cereals were grown. With the advent of the plough, however, farming became the work of men.

What’s interesting about this recent study is that it tests Braudel’s premise by looking over all sorts of economic, ethnographic, and historical data, deriving a pattern which shows a strong correlation between plow-intensive agricultural societies and patriarchy (the original paper is available here). The sort of societies that used the plow were in turn contingent upon geography and climate, since certain areas and forms of weather were conducive to certain crops. Thus, famously male-dominated Middle-Eastern and South Asian civilizations emerged as an accident of location: they emerged in areas where only labor-intensiveness crops could form, and this cultivation would in turn lead to their persistent patriarchal mindsets.

The academics point out that the decision to choose—or abstain from—plough cultivation has a lot to do with the type of farmland and climate. Broadly speaking, ploughs are most useful for crops that require large tracts of land to be tilled in a short span of time, perhaps because the climate favours a grain with a relatively short growing season. Crops like wheat, teff, barley and rye are well-suited for plough-based farming; others, including sorghum, millet, roots and tubers, benefit less from the use of the plough. The economists were able to use measures of agro-climatic conditions to predict which parts of the world would adopt the plough. The data show that ethnic groups whose ancestors would have been expected to pick ploughs based on climatic conditions have sharply differentiated economic roles for the sexes even today. So it seems reasonable to argue that its use drove attitudes rather than the other way around.

This presents yet another strong argument for determinism, and the notion that many of our sociological, psychological, and cultural developments – both individually and collectively – are shaped by factors outside our control. Granted, this in no way justifies stances like sexism, nor does it suggest that these things are intractable. Humanity is constantly progressing in it’s outlook, and transcending it’s constraints. We live in a post-industrial world increasingly less dependent upon physical prowess as a factor for survival – the so-called “knowledge” economy theoretically gives men and women an equal edge in terms of their contributions and roles in society (traditional mores and maternal roles  notwithstanding).

Of course, there is a casual dilemma in all this, as is typical of correlative demonstrations. Did the adoption of the plow lead to sexist attitudes towards women? Or did societies that already had this attitude end up adopting the plow? Many have suggested that the discovery of and utilization of metals had a big part to play. As humans refined their ever-present penchant for warfare, martial prowess – even more defined by strength, stamina, and endurance – became the key for the survival of a given community.

It seems that as advanced civilizations began to form, attitudes towards females started to change in response to new needs and priorities. Physical strength was crucial not just for agriculture, as just discussed, but for the building of great structures, the sailing of seafaring ships, and the conducting of warfare. This made men naturally dominant in many sectors of society, while relegating women to the role of reproduction and child raising (which made them more impractical for the various new roles emerging in advancing societies). Ironically, as human societies civilized and progressed, the treatment of women went backwards comparatively.

Whatever the conclusion, if any, I’m once again left marveled by our constant effort to understand ourselves and our enigmatic nature. Such interesting studies and propositions provide much needed reflection and discussion.

The Empathic Civilization

Hello everyone. As per my habit lately, given my time constraints and a bit of writer’s block, I’ve decided to keep my post brief – by letting someone else do the talking.

This is part of a wonderful series by RSA.org, which shares all sorts of informative videos on a number of  diverse topics:  society, technology, economics, progress, science, and so on. This particular video is by Jeremy Rifkin, an economist who focuses a lot on society and ethics.  The video in question validates a major underlying theme in my life philosophy: that empathy and interconnection is the foundation of human progress, and that it is only strengthening with time.

I hope you all enjoy. Expect me to share more videos like this, though I encourage you to check out the rest. They’re as thought-provoking as they are inspiring.