Category Archives: Asia

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Black Athena and Diamond’s Farmers

In his analysis of a 'black Athena,' Bernal touted its interdisciplinary approach.
In his analysis of a ‘black Athena,’ Bernal touted his interdisciplinary approach.

In attempting to connect two scholarly articles with two seemingly different topics—in this case the foundations of Greek culture in Levine’s The Use and Abuse of ‘Black Athena’ and the link between cultural expansion and agricultural dispersion in Bellwood and Diamond’s Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions—one must think outside the box.

Diamond and Bellwood contend that the study of agricultural expansion is inherently interdisciplinary (Bellwood 1). Thus using techniques from archeology, anthropology, crop and livestock studies, genetics and—imperatively—linguistics, the two arrive at their thesis: Language diffusion follows/accompanies the spread of farming (Bellwood 3). The authors subsequently outline six objections to their thesis (on the grounds that the proto-language does not match the origin of its supposed dispersal, for instance) along with 11 specific examples, including the Bantu Migration and Japan’s early infusion (c. 400 BCE) of Korean rice farmers (Bellwood 7).

And it is precisely this interdisciplinary approach that pops up in Levine’s review of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. So what is Bernal’s hypothesis: Greek culture is not simply Indo-European “classical;” it contains elements from Egypt and the Levant as well (Levine 441). Levine’s response exposes the difficulty of pinpointing the inciting factors of a particular civilization while taking factors like race and politics into consideration. Note: Levine is not critiquing Bernal’s hypothesis; she critiques his political motives behind Black Athena. Just as Bernal levies heavy accusations at “subjective” 19th century classicists, he uses a 19th century paradigm to do his own bidding (i.e. righting the perceived historical record of racist misjudgments) (Levine 446).

But the “interdisciplinary” notion originates from Bernal himself. “Volume 1 of the Black Athena series is dedicated to Bernal’s father, John Desmond Bernal, a historian of science, ‘who taught [Bernal] that things fit together interestingly,’ and it is in fitting things together, interestingly, that Bernal’s book represents a tour de force,” Levine writes (Levine 444). I’d argue that Bellwood and Diamond’s hypothesis also fits evidence together…interestingly. And despite Levine’s verbose, animated analysis and B&D’s lengthy list of criticisms, we inevitable end up in the same place—wondering if current events influence every historical analysis and if objectivity exists at all (Levine 447-9).

Catherine engineered a Russian 'confessional state' in which Islam and other religions were "tolerated."

Islam and the Russian “Confessional” State

In terms of the 18th century Russian tsarist empire, “confessionalization” referred to a rather fluctuating toleration of non-Orthodox (Christian) religions. Specifically, in For Prophet and Tsar, Crews identifies how this form of “tolerance” by tsarist officials engineered a conduit for imperial reach into the furthest extent of its empire and actually shaped Islam within its bounds (Crews 2). To the tsars of the Russian Empire, “confessionalization,” was an Enlightened, temporary means of instituting autocratic rule—grounded in religious affiliations as opposed to ethnic ties (8).

But, regarding Islam, tsars like Catherine the Great faced major obstacles from the very beginning. As historian Richard Bulliet found, Islam was “without the benefit, or burden, of an ecclesiastical structure or a centralized source of doctrinal authority” (11). How, then, could the empress integrate a non-hierarchical religious entity into an imperial system?

The tsarist officials reasoned that Christianity and Islam had enough components in common: Each was monotheistic, and Christian religious authorities loosely resembled various Muslim leaders (17). The subordination of Muslims to Orthodox Christians was not ambiguous (38); however, this technique prompted less violence than outright religious suppression. Additionally, the imperial state began to rule laypeople indirectly through the Muslim elite (and an engineered Islamic structure, i.e. the Orenburg Muftiate), yet every stratum of the Muslim population also used the imperial bureaucracy to suit their needs, as evidenced by numerous court documents (21).

Most importantly, tsarist officials used shari’a to their advantage by interweaving Islamic and imperial law. According to Crews, “[ruler and ruled] shared the conviction, emerging out of the 18th century, that the imperial order rested on religious authority, and that the tsar’s agents, along with every subject, had a stake in establishing a world pleasing to God” (21). Hence, if you failed to abide by imperial authority, you also failed to abide by God’s rules.

It must also be noted that tsarist officials viewed their conquests of predominantly Muslim areas through a lens of European Enlightenment that constituted a profound inferiority complex (40). And in a similar vein, tsarist officials predicated their understanding of Islam on their experiences with the Ottoman Empire (and thus did not understand the inherent heterogeneity of Islam from region to region) (12-33).

The Turkic nomads of the Central Asian steppe had a complex relationship with thriving settled civilizations.

Symbiosis: Everyday Life in Central Asia

A succinct distinction between nomadic culture and settled civilization in Central Asia prior to the Russian conquest does not seem to exist, as evidenced by both Scott Levi and Adrienne Edgar in both “Turks and Tajiks in Central Asian History,” and “Everyday Life Among the Turkmen Nomads.” In the beginning Levi acknowledges that the modern conception of “Central Asia” is defined by the five ex-Soviet nation states (Levi 15), but then he delves into the ultra-complex political and social history of the region—aptly described as “waves”—in which first the Persians (then Muslims, Chinese, Mongols, and even a fusion of all of the above) dominated the region. Levi stresses that pastoral nomads and settled farming peoples existed in a symbiotic state, perpetually in flux due to perhaps population pressures, climate change, disease, and displacement (Levi 16). Hence the distinction, or more accurately, the differences between pastoral nomads are probably cultural perceptions and not definite constructs.

For example, Edgar (with more descriptive imagery) delineates between how Europeans perceived nomads as “exotic” and “dangerous” (Edgar 38), whereas nomads—specifically Turkmen—are proud of their nomadic heritage, descending from the Oghuz tribes (Levi 23), and even look down upon sedentary farming peoples  (Edgar 39). In fact, “kinship and genealogy are not just sources of pride to the Turkmen; they are also vital sources of economic and political solidarity” (Edgar 40). After the Russian conquest, ethnic differences are easier to define, but that is not necessarily a positive result. According to Edgar, pastoral nomads in Turkmenistan were forced to settle; this often resulted in starvation (Edgar 43). However, as far as the division between pastoral nomads and sedentary civilization is concerned, two words come to mind that can be interchanged for each: trade and raid.

Russian imperialism shaped Central Asian Islam in profound ways.

18th Century Colonial Russia and Islamic Feuds: Jadids v. Ulama

Muslims—specifically jadids and ulama—reacted to indirect imperial rule in different ways. The ulama first rejected Russian rule in the late 19th century, then they filled the power vacuum left by Russia’s policy of “ignoring Islam,” thereby functioning as agents of imperial power (Khalid 38-40). Simultaneously, a younger generation of Muslims–jadids–suffered from an existential religious crisis and subsequently denounced “traditional” Islam (41). While the reaction of the ulama seems predictable, the plight of the jadids seems much more fascinating. One sentence in Khalid’s analysis offered clues to the foundational philosophy of the reformists: “Enlightenment and education would solve all the problems of the community” (41).

Enlightenment. This refrain sounds familiar. Khalid refers to the “Europhilia” of the jadids, but I kept wondering if this reformist platform is a direct reaction to Russian imperial authority and its relation to the ulama. The Russian empire arguably suffered from Europhilia, and it seems possible that these Enlightened ideas infiltrated Central Asia’s Islamic society. Khalid noted that reformist Islam was a hallmark of modernist thinking in the 19th century (44), but I wonder if this broader redefinition of Islam correlates with colonialism around the globe.

Fitrat gives a satire-laden critique of the conservative ulama as he reconstructs a Socratic dialogue between a “European” and a “teacher.” To Fitrat, the teacher signifies the ulama, and the European symbolizes the endeavors of the jadids (244-245). Conversely, Cholpan extols the virtues of modernization through the teacher—a Russian teacher—who educates a young Turk “according to the needs of the times” (264-265). In each case, the “European” bestows knowledge.

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For Prophet and Tsar: Russia’s Civilizing Mission in Central Asia

According to Crews, the “disastrous” conclusions of the Crimean War and the Polish rebellion increased Russia’s European inferiority complex (Crews 245). As a result, the empire expanded its territory, effectively encroaching on its geopolitical foes: Britain and China (245).  That’s the ostensibly “real” reason for Russian expansion into Central Asia, and I can stomach that notion a bit easier than any “civilizing mission.” Russia was in Central Asia for Russia. Period.

For one thing, I have never bought the legitimacy of a civilizing mission. Largely influenced by studying the British exercise of similar devices, I understand that these “missions” have ulterior motives. In this instance, Russians used Islamic intermediaries to institute orthodox, shari’a-based imperial law under the guise of eradicating irreligious activity (251-253).

Ironically, while trying to “civilize” Turkestan’s religious structure by introducing an electoral system, polarization between Muslims intensified (259). Additionally, imperial officials manipulated the legality of waqfs to justify acquiring land from their political opponents (270). Tsarist officials claimed that natives were backward in some way, but usually to preserve their own interests—i.e. when Abramov dismantled a committee of Islamic scholars because “given the current, relatively low mental condition of the Muslim population…its members would not be in a position to relate to those being examined impartially and would act in their own personal interests” (266).

In reality, the Russian empire seemingly adhered to its policy of “ignoring Islam.” Expanding under the notion of a “civilizing mission” was purely a façade for the British, the rest of Europe and Turkmen. According to Dostoevsky in “Geok-Tepe. What does Asia Mean to Us,” “This shame that Europe will consider us Asians has been hanging over us for almost two centuries now. But the shame has become particularly strong in us during the present nineteenth century and has almost reached the point of panic” (Dostoevsky 1369). Likewise, Gorchakov compared (and justified) Russia’s Asian “mission” with other European colonial campaigns: the United States in America, the French in Algeria, and English in India (Cracraft 410-411).

If “civilizing” includes impaling infants with lances then throwing them into a fire—as Bayani recounts—the imperial military civilized Yomuts quite well, especially women and children (Islamic 305). Hence a “civilizing mission” is a euphemism for the imperial control of native populations.

buddha

Reed Trivia

Did you know that by the 8th century, Buddhism was naturalized in Japan and began to blend with native beliefs? Previously Buddhism was used as a form of control by the ruling elite as it defined their identity within courtly culture.