Skeptical History

Barzun points out the skeptical nature of early modern historians:

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, history as we know it, the habit of dealing with all problems by recording their career in time, had hardly been invented. Historians were mere chroniclers who either neglected the whole European past since the fall of Rome, or else made it into a replica of their own age. The historical attitude becomes dominant first in the works of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Gibbon, and it is significant that in all three historical-mindedness is allied to religious skepticism.

I wonder, (a) if this is true and (b) if so, what accounts for it?

Ideas Go Flat

Darwin, Marx, Wagner became great men, great books, great bores. Their capacity to shock, to instruct, and to confer prestige through their vanguardism ended in due course. There comes a time for all systems when the ideas, and more especially the lingo, cease bubbling and taste flat.

– Jacques Barzun from "Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage"

Islamic Origins II

This morning I read Nassim Taleb on Facebook saying, “I just bought Tom Holland’s book on the rise of Islam for the sole reason that he was attacked by Glen Bowesock, the most prominent living scholar of the Roman Levant. Tom Holland is a popularizer and I would not have taken him seriously otherwise.”

He was referring to this review of Holland’s book:

The beginnings of Islam have always been anchored in Mecca in the northwestern part of the Arabian peninsula. Here Muhammad was believed to have received from the angel Gabriel the earliest revelations that became incorporated in the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an. Scholarly debate about the revelations and about Meccan society has gone on for centuries, but no one before has seriously doubted the conjunction of Muhammad and Mecca. Holland wants us to believe that Muhammad did not come from Mecca at all but from southern Transjordan, and that his revelation was a compound of languages and ideas floating around in the Near East.

Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature. He modestly compares himself to Edward Gibbon, whom he can call without the slightest fear of contradiction “an infinitely greater historian than myself”. In the Decline and Fall, at the opening of his magisterial chapter 50 on Muhammad, Gibbon had candidly acknowledged his ignorance of “Oriental tongues”, but he also expressed his gratitude “to the learned interpreters who have transfused their science in the Latin, French, and English languages”. Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient.

He has written his book in a swashbuckling style that aims more to unsettle his readers than to instruct them. I have not seen a book about Arabia that is so irresponsible and unreliable since Kamal Salibi’s The Bible Came from Arabia (1985). Although that work was depressingly misguided in replacing biblical places with their homonyms in the Arabian peninsula, it at least revealed an accomplished scholar who had gone badly astray. Holland has read widely, but carelessly. He starts out with an irrelevant, though arresting, account of a defeated Jewish king in Arabian Himyar (Yemen) killing himself by riding his horse into the Red Sea. It is typical of Holland’s style to lead off with this fanciful story when an inscription from the time of the king’s death records that the Ethiopians killed him.

Holland responded here:

In a dyspeptic final paragraph, he strongly implies that it was cooked up by “author, agent and publisher” as something truly reprehensible: an attempt to exploit Islamophobia for commercial gain.

This is a serious charge – and since it is founded on Bowersock’s claim that my scholarship is shoddy and out on a limb, I hope that he will forgive me defending myself. I am accused of twisting my sources. I could, however, level much the same charge against Bowersock’s criticisms of me.

Holland is also interviewed here:

All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

Islamic Origins

Several articles have appeared lately outlining the growing investigation of Islamic origins. While Hagarism may have gone too far,  scholars from many backgrounds are delving further into the misty genesis of Islam and are asking if Muhammad even existed, or, if he did, what we really know about him. David Goldman takes the subject up today:

In 2008 a Muslim theologian at Germany’s Universityof Münsters candalized his co-religionists by asserting that the Prophet Mohammed was a figment of myth rather than an historical personality. Sven Muhammed Kalisch was a convert to Islam who held one of the most important positions in Islamic studies—the first German university chair for teaching Muslim religious instructors in German public schools. His paper, “Islamic Theology Without the Historical Mohammed,” was the first work by a Muslim academic to dispute the Prophet’s existence. Prof. Kalisch since has apostatized and repudiated the Muslim faith, but the damage was done. As he told a German newspaper, “It might be that the Koran was truly inspired by God, a great narration from God, but it was not dictated word for word from Allah to the Prophet.”

In Kalisch’s account, the invention of the historical Mohammed transformed the Christian message into a declaration that the Arabs were God’s chosen people. The Koran accomplishes this theological feat, Kalisch argues, by casting Mohammed as an Arab prophet who embodies the characteristics of Moses as well as Jesus.

“We hardly have original Islamic sources from the first two centuries of Islam,” Kalisch observes. “And even when a source appears to come from this period, caution is required. The mere assertion that a source stems from the first or second century of the Islamic calendar means nothing. And even when a source actually was written in the first or second century, the question always remains of later manipulation. We do not tread on firm ground in the sources until the third Islamic century [ninth century A.D.]” This substantial lag between the time Mohammed is supposed to have lived and the first historical evidence of the religion he is purported to have founded is extremely suspicious,” Kalisch observes. “How can a world religion have erupted in a virtual literary vacuum?” As he quotes Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds,

It is a striking fact [writes Kalisch] that such documentary evidence as survives from the Sufnayid period makes no mention of [Mohammed] the messenger of god at all. The papyri do not refer to him. The Arabic inscriptions of the Arab-Sasanian coins only invoke Allah, not his rasul [messenger]; and the Arab-Byzantine bronze coins on which Muhammad appears as rasul Allah, previously dated to the Sufyanid period, have now been placed in that of the Marwanids. Even the two surviving pre-Marwanid tombstones fail to mention the rasul.[ii]

The trouble with the Muslim version of the religion’s early history lies not in the absence of evidence, but rather in an abundance, including a large number of coins and inscriptions on monuments during its first two centuries that fail to refer to the Prophet Mohammed. “Coins and inscriptions are incompatible with the Islamic writing of history,” Kalisch concludes, citing the monograph Crossroads to Islam, by Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren.[iii] The oldest inscription with the formulation “Mohammed Messenger of Allah” is to found in the sixty-sixth year of Islamic reckoning. But there also exist coins found inPalestine, probably minted inAmman, on which the word “Muhammed” is found in Arabic script on one side and a picture of a man holding a cross on the other. Kalisch cites this and a dozen other examples of evidence that contradicts official Muslim history. Citing Nevo and Koren among other sources, Kalisch also argues that the Islamic conquest as reported in much later Islamic sources never happened—instead, there was a gradual migration into depopulated Byzantine lands by the Arab auxiliaries of the Eastern Empire.

Malise Ruthven discussed the subject earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal:

In a view that Mr. Holland takes forward from Wansbrough and his disciples, Islam was born not in the deserts of Arabia but in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars—the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes. The Qurayshites may not have been Meccans but Arab tribes that had grown rich on Roman-Byzantine patronage. Far from being illiterate (as the biographies claim, with a view to emphasizing the Quran’s miraculous character), Muhammad was a sophisticated man who “laid claim to traditions of divine inspiration that were immeasurably venerable,” knowing full well what he was about.

The religion he founded began as a classic millennial cult comprising Jews, Christians and Arabs driven by an apocalyptic belief in the end of the world, with Jerusalem as its original focus. The early caliphs of Islam, who saw themselves as God’s vice-regents, were both heirs and beneficiaries of the same millennial expectations—long entrenched in the region’s culture—that surface in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The purely Arabian provenance attributed to Islam and its prophet were later inventions by pious scholars who tried to curb the power of the caliphs by using the memory of Muhammad, with its iconic moral authority. The empires of the caliphs are long gone, but the sunna of the prophet—his custom and example—endures.

Surkov Part II

Last year I read about Vladislav Surkov, author and “Grey Cardinal” of the Kremlin. Since then I have followed him with interest, and so was not surprised to see him being maneuvered back into power by Medvedev:

Vladislav Surkov may be about to get a second act. And Aleksei Kudrin is standing offstage, biding his time and waiting to make his move.

Surkov and Kudrin are about as different as Russian officials can be. One thing they have in common, however, is that each played a key role in maintaining the authoritarian political system President Vladimir Putin established more than a decade ago.

The flamboyant Surkov’s stock-in-trade has long been the murky world of political subterfuge. As the architect and overseer of Russia’s simulated democracy, he deftly utilized diversion and intrigue to create enough of an illusion of pluralism to give the country’s ruling cabal the space to govern undisturbed.

The cerebral Kudrin, in contrast, specialized in sound economic management. As finance minister he led the green-eyeshade set of bean-counting economists who kept the country’s books balanced (albeit with an assist from high oil prices), even amid mind-bending corruption.

Another thing Surkov and Kudrin have in common is that they both came to the realization that Russia’s political system needed to evolve and reform — or risk stagnation and decay. And this caused each of them, to varying degrees and for different reasons, to either defect or be banished from the ruling circle.

Surkov realized that the simulated pluralism he painstakingly constructed needed to be expanded to give more of society — especially the emerging creative class — more of a voice. This meant bringing more parties into the State Duma, a proposition that put him in direct conflict with the ruling United Russia.

He also understood, correctly it turns out, that Putin returning to the presidency would be a risky move that would inflame the emerging middle class and divide the elite. Surkov reportedly favored Dmitry Medvedev remaining in the Kremlin, albeit with Putin remaining informally — yet firmly — in charge as “national leader.” This set him against the siloviki clan of security-service veterans surrounding Putin — and ultimately with Putin himself.

In the wake of the disputed State Duma elections in December, Surkov was unceremoniously tossed out of his job as the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff and the regime’s chief ideologist. To add insult to injury he was replaced by his archrival, Vyacheslav Volodin, a staunch Putin loyalist.

Surkov, however, appears on the verge of a comeback of sorts. The daily “Kommersant” reported this week, citing unidentified officials, that he may be named chief of staff of Prime Minister Medvedev’s incoming government, where he will also hold the rank of deputy prime minister.


Christopher Hill has a chapter on the contrast between the Puritans who valued preaching highly, and sectors of the established Church that did not. He says:

One of William Prynne’s rare jokes was made in reply to Laud’s taunt that he could not have written Histriomastix single-handed. “It may be their [the bishop’s] laborious preaching once or twice a year permits them not to read or study half so much as meaner men.”

This was because some priests did not preach, they only read homilies or conducted prayers. Some bishops preached even less, so Prynne is attributing his knowledge to his studies in sermon preparation, something Laud (he implies) did not do. Hill continues:

Lord Brooke in 1642, after accusing some of the bishops of Arminianism and Socinianism, could rely on raising an easy laugh by saying that this was evidenced by their writings, “yea and sermons, though these be very rare.” It was a common jest in Dublin in the sixteen-thirties that the archbishop had only one sermon, on the text “Touch not mine Anointed” – “which once  a year he commonly read” on the King’s birthday. His congregation knew it by heart.

Calvin on Kings, Bishops and Henry VIII

Calvin says that Henry VIII was a monster [on Hosea 1.3-4]:

In short, the reformation under Jehu was like that under Henry King of England; who, when he saw that he could not otherwise shake off the yoke of the Roman Antichrist than by some disguise, pretended great zeal for a time: he afterwards raged cruelly against all the godly, and doubled the tyranny of the Roman Pontiff: and such was Jehu.

When we duly consider what was done by Henry, it was indeed an heroic valour to deliver his kingdom from the hardest of tyrannies: but yet, with regard to him, he was certainly worse than all the other vassals of the Roman Antichrist; for they who continue under that bondage, retain at least some kind of religion; but he was restrained by no shame from men, and proved himself wholly void of every fear towards God. He was a monster, and such was Jehu.

He thought that kings of his day had poor judgement generally [on Daniel 6.3-5]:

But now kings think of nothing else than preferring their own panders, buffoons, and flatterers; while they praise none but men of low character, whom God has branded with ignominy. Although they are unworthy of being reckoned among mankind, yet they esteem themselves the masters of their sovereigns, and treat the kings of these days as their slaves.

His opinion of Catholic Bishops was not any higher [on Ezekiel 3.16-17]:

What Ezekiel heard belongs to all teachers of the Church, namely, that they are Divinely appointed and placed as on watch-towers, that they may keep watch for the common safety of all. It was the duty of those who have been appointed from the beginning ministers of the heavenly doctrine to be watchmen. And would that in the Papacy, as this name has been imposed on idols, dumb and blind and deaf, those who with swelling cheeks call themselves Bishops, had been admonished of their vocation. For we know that the word Bishop means the same as watchman. But when they were boasting themselves to be bishops, they were drowned in the darkness of gross ignorance: then also they were buried in their pleasure, as well as in sloth, for there is no more intelligence in these animals than in oxen or asses. Asses and oxen do spend their labor for the advantage of man, but these are not only destitute of all judgment and reason, but are altogether useless.


On the Road to Rishīkesh

In addition to the numerous released songs that the Beatles composed in (or about) India, there are others that were not completed, including these:

1. Child of Nature (became Jealous Guy)


2. India


3. Dehra Dun


The Beatles stay in India ended on a sour note and aside from George, did not change them in a permanent way. And yet this opening to India produced a revolution in the West. Cults and Eastern religions in general now got a hearing with younger generations that they had never experienced before.

I remember reading a book on cults when I was a kid that included ISKON and the Moonies, I think it talked about the Beatles influence. I would like to see something in depth on the subject, to trace just how influential the trip to India was on the popular culture.


In his book, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, Christopher Hill outlines the many uses of the term in its early days. As with most words, it was applied to a multitude of people with no real unity of purpose. Hill presents a wide range of opinions on what the term meant in those times. He quotes Henry Parker in defense of the term:

Those who denounce Puritans, said Henry Parker sweepingly in 1641, are “papists, hierarchists, ambidexters and neuters in religion”; also “court-flatterers, time-serving projectors and the rancorous caterpillars of the realm…and the scum of the vulgar…In the mouth of a rude soldier, he which wisheth the Scotch war at an end without blood” is a Puritan.

Hill notes a wide variety of men who were labelled Puritan, including “Archbishop Whitgift, Elizabeth’s Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, James Hay, Earl of Carlisle, King James, Prince Charles…Inigo Jones, the Earl of Strafford.”

When contemporaries came to define Puritanism in religious terms, Sabbatarianism, opposition to popery and hostility to oaths were often mentioned. “Men and brethren, I am a Puritan”, cried Donne, if Puritanism means opposing oaths and profanation of the Sabbath. Many found the name a stumbling-block. Zeal in religion is called Puritanism, complained Bishop Bayley.