Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi
Born in Timbuktu in 1596, Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi wrote, in Arabic, a chronicle entitled Tarikh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan). The document addresses the political, cultural, and religious history of the Songhay state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it also offers detailed accounts of various states in the Niger River valley into al-Saadi’s own day. Al-Saadi was particularly interested in the impact of Islamic thought and culture on the African kingdoms, as the following excerpt demonstrates. The document was discovered by a German explorer in the 1850s during his visit to Timbuktu.
Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, trans. John Hunwick (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 38–40.
A Catholic priest and writer, François Fénelon (1651–1715) was enlisted by the church to preach to French Protestants (Huguenots) in order to bring them back to orthodox belief. His bestseller work, The Adventures of Telemachus, adds to the story of the Odyssey (Document 4.1) by describing the travels of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Guiding Telemachus is his tutor, simply called Mentor (but later revealed as Diana, goddess of wisdom), who explains the tenets of a truly good society—one that abolished government, upheld the brotherhood of citizens, and looked back to ancient Greece as a model. Thus, Telemachus served as a fierce criticism of the rule of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France (1638–1715).
From François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus. Trans Dr. Hawkesworth. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1872, pp. 450–8.
João José Reis
Although slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, slave revolts were frequent and remarkable for their ambitions, success, and diversity of participating elements. Two urban revolts of the nineteenth century were especially significant. First, the Tailor’s Rebellion of 1798, in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, drew on the assistance of freedmen, people of mixed race, and even craftspeople of Spanish descent. The second was a Muslim-inspired and Muslim-directed uprising of slaves in Bahia in 1835, organized by African-born freedmen and slaves who had attained an Islamic education in West Africa before enslavement. This Muslim revolt is particularly fascinating because of the role of written documents, here deployed as protective amulets, among the members of the slave resistance. This excerpt from a book by a Brazilian scholar attempts to demonstrate the role of the written word in this rebellion, illustrating another, and less frequently recognized, “power” within historical documents.
João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Arthur Brakel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 99–103.
During both the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1556-1046 BCE; 1046-256 BCE) families, both noble and common, worshipped and sacrificed to their ancestors. These sacrifices were of the utmost importance and any neglect would bring about misfortune and calamity, since ancestors had the power to aid or punish their descendants.
The selections that follow are from the Books of Songs (the Shih Jing) the oldest collection of Chinese poems, dating to the 11th century BCE. The Book of Songs was one of the five definitive Confucian classics that formed the backbone of Chinese culture and education for centuries.
From The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Arthur Waley, trans. (London: Allen/Unwin, 1937).
When he became emperor in 1658, Aurangzeb attempted a radical “Islamification” of Mughal India, imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law and implementing reforms that he thought would benefit Muslims more than adherents of other religions. Repudiating his great-grandfather Akbar’s vision of religious transcendence and harmony, while Aurangzeb stopped short of forcible conversion, he offered incentives to non-Muslims to convert, destroyed many of their temples, and reimposed the hated jizya tax. This tax on Hindus had been abolished by Akbar in 1564, and its reinstatement by Aurangzeb in 1679 triggered mass protests and violent reactions from authorities in the many cities. Revolts among Sikhs and among Hindus left the Mughal Empire weakened and in decline by the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. An excerpt from his proscriptions is offered below.
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483–1530) was born a prince of Fergana in Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), a region that had been conquered (briefly) by the army of Alexander the Great in the 320s BCE and more recently by Babur’s ancestor Timur-i Lang, or Tamerlane (r. 1370–1405). Driven from his homeland, Babur conquered neighboring kingdoms and moved south into Afghanistan, capturing Kabul in 1504. By 1519, he stepped up his raids into northern India, and his highly mobile, if vastly outnumbered, army defeated Sultan Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526. Victory at Panipat was followed by the conquest of the Lodi capital of Agra and further defeats of Hindu leaders in northern India. Babur’s dynasty would become known as the Mughals (from “Mongols”), but his legacy can also be gauged from the success of his memoirs, the Baburnama. Composed and reworked throughout his life, the Baburnama is the first true autobiography in Islamic literature, and it can be read for insights into his own character as well as the military tactics he employed on the battlefield.
The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, trans. and ed. Wheeler M. Thackston (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 328–329, 330, 331.
A few months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in the spring of 2001, Taliban officials oversaw a series of explosions in the Bamiyan Valley, which deliberately detonated priceless elements of world heritage. Among the victims of this depredation were a set of enormous Buddha statues that had symbolized the unity of peoples in the region across religious lines. The two statues of Buddha (at 35 and 53 meters in height, one was the tallest Buddha in the world until its destruction) were rendered in a blended Hellenistic and South Asian style. Even after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, little has been done to restore the objects. (Left: an 1880 drawing showing how they originally appeared; right, what remained of the statues after their destruction.)
©SuperStock (drawing); ©Graciela Gonzalez Brigas (landscape)
Samuel Huntington (1927–2008) was an influential political scientist who taught for most of his career at Harvard University. He was the author of numerous books and articles on politics and government, including the Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil–Military Relations (1957) and The Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). The latter provided a critique of modernization theory, which had driven much of U.S. policy in the developing world in the prior decade. In Clash of Civilizations, which appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs, Huntington argues that the main drivers of history in this century will not be political or ideological, as they have been in the past, but civilizational. Conflict between civilizations will be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world.
From Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, pp. 209–18.
In October 1553, the extraordinarily gifted Spanish scientist Michael Servetus was executed with the approval and the strong support of John Calvin and his followers in Geneva. The charge was heresy, specifically for denying the existence of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, and the method of execution—burning at the stake—elicited commentary and protest from across Europe. One of the fullest and most sophisticated protests against this execution was issued by Sebastian Castellio, a professor of Greek language and New Testament theology in the Swiss city of Basel. His book De Haereticis is a collection of opinions, drawn from Christian writers, from both before and after the Protestant Reformation and across 15 centuries. It is more than an academic exercise, however, as this dedication of the Latin work to a German noble demonstrates.
Sebastian Castellio, Concerning Heretics, Whether They Are to Be Persecuted and How They Are to Be Treated, A Collection of the Opinions of Learned Men Both Ancient and Modern, trans. Roland H. Bainton, (New York: Octagon, 1965), 132–134.
This head, crafted from copper alloy, is all that remains of an impressive image found in central Vietnam. It depicts the Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of Buddhist compassion, and the Amitabha Buddha is perched on the crown. It points to the emergence of a pan–southeast Asian bodhisattva type in the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as to the superb metal-casting skills of artisans in the Cham territories of Vietnam.
Photo: Thierry Ollivier. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
This remarkable account of a merchant’s travels throughout Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India resulted from the singular obsession of a monk in retirement. Determined to prove that a proper understanding of earth’s geography would confirm God’s creation—and that the earth was a flat, oblong table surrounded by the ocean—the monk Cosmas reflected back on his extensive voyages, which had probably been undertaken to further a spice-import business. Cosmas commented on the trading practices of the Aksumites and on their wealthy culture, providing one of the few outsider glimpses of Aksum that are now available.
Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christianike Topographia, Book 3, trans. and ed. Christopher Haas, Villanova University; available online: http://www29.homepage.villanova.edu/christopher.haas/cosmas_indicopleustes.htm<
A Latin scholar, poet, and biographer, Boccaccio (1313–1375) is most famous today as the author of the Decameron. This compilation of 100 tales, by turns serious, bawdy, and irreverent, purports to be a rendition of the stories told over the course of 10 days by 10 young men and women who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death. Many of the tales are based on older legends, and they frequently reflect the humor of the common people of the era, often at the expense of their spiritual and social betters. Religious authorities were frequent targets of this sort of satire, reflecting their ubiquitous presence in the lives of medieval Europeans, as well as, perhaps, a deep undercurrent of resentment regarding their privileges.
Giovanni Boccaccio, “Putting the Devil Back in Hell” (3.10), from The Decameron: Selected Tales / Decameron: Novelle scelte, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000), 87–93.
Like the American Declaration, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is a stirring statement of Enlightenment principles concerning both the individual’s role in the state and the ultimate source of all government. When the Third Estate reconstituted itself as the National Assembly in June 1789, among the first measures it considered was a universal declaration of the rights and duties of individual French citizens. A proposal was made by the Marquis de Lafayette to this effect in July, but swift-moving events in Paris, such as the fall of the Bastille on July 14, moved the Revolution in new directions. Undaunted, a subcommittee continued to debate the document, editing a draft proposal of 24 articles down to 17. Like the Declaration of Independence in the American colonies (1776), this document was a compromise statement, drawn up and edited by committee.
Lynn Hunt, ed. and trans., The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1996), 77–79.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī
Al-Bakrī was born in Spain, and it appears that he never left that country. However, he collected information from people he met who had traveled to the Sahara and the Sudan, and he published his findings in a work called The Book of Routes and Realms (Kitāb al-masālik wa-’l-mamālik). Al-Bakrī, who died in 1094, was famous for his curiosity about the geography, languages, and natural landscape of places he had not himself visited. The greater part of his major book is still unpublished, but the following section provides insight into the changing religious landscape in Ghana in the early eleventh century.
‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Bakrī, “Ghāna and the Customs of Its Inhabitants,” trans. J. F. P. Hopkins, in N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 79–81.
When Buddhism reached China it encountered an already established civilization with deeply rooted literary and intellectual traditions. In addition, the scholarly elite of China was somewhat hostile to “foreign” influence. On the other hand, in the troubled times that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, Buddhism’s promise of a better hereafter proved a powerful draw among common people, while some rulers of the regional dynasties that replaced the Han saw in Buddhism a way to buttress their authority. Finally, Chinese intellectuals looked to it as a new source for magical elixirs of longevity or immortality (a path down which Taoism had already traveled by this time) and of metaphysical speculation. Major translation projects were undertaken in the period 200–500 CE, and knowledge of Buddhism spread through these texts and through the building of temples and the founding of Buddhist communities of monks. By the 400s Buddhism had become established widely enough to cause concern among traditionalist Chinese, especially among the Confucian scholarly elite, and to provoke counterattacks in the form of government persecution in the north and of tracts attacking the faith in the south.
The following text, whose author and exact date of composition are unknown, takes the form of a Buddhist answer to some of the common lines of attack contained in such tracts. From that internal evidence, and knowing something about the reaction against Buddhism in China, we can safely assert that it comes from southern China during the fifth century CE. In order to win the Chinese over to Buddhism, the followers of the new faith had to address, among other things, significant aspects of existing Chinese culture—for example, the importance of ancestor worship and of the five relationships of Confucianism. The author pursues one of the logical lines to take when recommending something new to a culture: He argues that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with traditional Chinese values and that the ideas in Buddhist texts are similar to those in the Chinese classics. Buddhism, he asserts, complements and extends Chinese cultural practices rather than contradicting them.
From Mou Tzu in The Disposition of Error by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition, 274–80. Copyright © 1960 Columbia University Press.
Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, was born in 1537, the same year as Edward VI, the only surviving son of the king who had sought a male heir so desperately. Jane, who like Edward was raised in the Protestant religion Henry had introduced to England, proved a diligent and intellectually gifted teenager. In spite of her youth and gender, Jane corresponded with Protestant authorities on the Continent, but fast-moving events in England precluded further study. When Edward died without an heir in 1553, the throne passed, by prearranged agreement, to his fiercely Catholic half-sister Mary.
However, in order to forestall a Catholic successor—and the dramatic rollback of the Protestant reforms instituted by Henry’s and Edward’s Church of England—Jane’s relatives proclaimed her queen. Her rule lasted a mere nine days. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Mary, who was then forced to consider whether Jane’s execution was warranted. Shortly before Jane’s death, at age 16, Queen Mary sent her own chaplain, Master Feckenham (sometimes rendered as “Fecknam”) to try to reconcile Jane to the Catholic faith. The results of this attempt were triumphantly recorded in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, published after the Protestant Queen Elizabeth had triumphed over Mary and the Catholics. Although the conversation recorded here is not a trial transcript—and is a highly partisan account—it does distill some of the central issues that divided Catholics and Protestants in an extremely chaotic and violent period.
“The Examination of Lady Jane Grey (1554),” from Denis R. Janz, ed., A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2008), 360– 362, taken from The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe (London: Seeleys, 1859), 415–417.
Richard Rorty (1931–2007) was an American philosopher who taught at Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Virginia. Rorty became associated with a form of American philosophy known as pragmatism, which followed the writing of the philosopher John Dewey. He came to believe, following Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, that meaning was a sociolinguistic product and did not exist in and of itself. In Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes, Rorty, an avowed atheist, argues that we should not ignore the inspirational qualities of great works such as the gospels, or the Communist Manifesto, simply because their predictions fell short of reality. Christianity and Communism, he wrote, need not be judged for their predictive qualities but for their appeals to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the “Better Angels of our Nature.” They stirred men and women to good deeds, which arguably benefitted society in general.
From Richard Rorty, Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes, 1998.
Osama bin Laden
In 1992, al-Qaeda (“the base”) under the leadership of Osama bin Laden (1957–2011) had emerged as a significant terrorist organization operating on an international scale. Bin Laden, the multimillionaire son of a Yemeni-born Saudi Arabian contractor, had fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989). He now turned his attention to the United States (who had covertly funded the “mujahid” Afghan resistance in the interest of its own Cold War ambitions). In bin Laden’s eyes, America was a godless country without moral principles, bent on a Western crusade to destroy Muslim independence. The al-Qaeda campaign of terrorism climaxed on September 11, 2001, but bin Laden had already ordered bombings and terrorist attacks in several parts of the world in the 1990s. This fatwa (an opinion or ruling based on Islamic law) was issued by bin Laden against the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” in 1996.
In the medieval period Ethiopia became a multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious state in which the kings limited the church’s conversion efforts. Nevertheless, the kings continued to emphasize their Christian identity, and this factor is reflected in their adoption and endorsement of the Fetha Nagast, or Law of the Kings, in the mid-fifteenth century. This legal code had originally been written in Arabic by a Coptic Christian in Egypt, probably in the mid-thirteenth century. While living under Muslim rule, the Copts were allowed to adopt portions of Justinian’s law code and the resolutions of church councils for their own governance. Translated from Greek, and with many Biblical passages added, the code connected Egyptian Christians to their Byzantine, Roman, and Judeo-Christian heritage, founding the basis of law squarely in that tradition. The Ethiopian monarchs had the Arabic source translated into Ge’ez (the state language of Ethiopia at the time), and the translator added a section on kingship, a portion of which is offered below. The Law of the Kings remained the law in Ethiopia until 1930, when Emperor Haile Selassie I issued the country’s first modern constitution.
Excerpt from The Fetha Nagast, trans. Paulos Tzadua, ed. Peter L. Strauss (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2009), 271–273.
Muhammad Ghawth Gwaliori
In sixteenth-century Hindustan, the Sufi mystic Muhammad Ghawth claimed to have experienced an astounding ascension through multiple heavenly spheres up to the throne of God. This intensely personal experience, which he underwent in his 20s, occurred within a volatile political and social context. Born around 1501, Ghawth left home at age 12 to further his religious education and to undertake a series of mystic initiations that prepared him for his ascension in 1526. Ghawth lived during the rule of Humayun, when Mughal control was still tentative, and Akbar was still a young man. After his mystical experiences made him famous, Ghawth was seen as a spiritual support for the Mughal regime. When Humayun fell from power in 1540, Ghawth was persecuted by a group of Afghan warlords who followed a more orthodox form of Islam and attacked the reality—as well as the political implications—of his mystical experiences.
Excerpts from Scott A. Kugle, “Heaven’s Witness: The Uses and Abuses of Muhammad Ghawth’s Mystical Ascension,” Journal of Islamic Studies 14 (2003): 17–20.