The Misuses of History

Justin Marozzi

We sometimes berate our politicians for lacking a proper sense of history, but are leaders in other parts of the world any better?  In recent months one word in particular has been cropping up repeatedly in the media: the caliphate – specifically attempts to restore it by a group variously known as ISIS, ISIL, IS or – my preferred choice because this entity is neither Islamic nor a state – Daesh.

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but also has connotations of crushing and trampling underfoot.  Here one must pause for a moment to congratulate the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius for having the chutzpah to declare: ‘This is a terrorist group and not a state.  I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and so will I.’

So much for terminology.  But what about the caliphate and the man who declared it, Daesh’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi?  In recent months billboards have been popping up across Iraq and Syria with slogans referring to the ‘Promised project of the Caliphate’, ‘Together we cultivate the tree of the Caliphate’, and ‘a Caliphate pleasing to the Lord is better than democracy pleasing to the West’.  It prompts the question, does the self-proclaimed caliph have the faintest understanding of history?

To answer that, let’s set out a few facts.

First, in its heyday under the Umayyads, who ruled the Islamic Empire from Damascus between 662-750, the caliphate stretched from the Atlantic shores of North Africa in the west, to the snowy mountains of Central Asia in the east.  Daesh’s military gains have certainly taken observers by surprise but pronouncing the territory under his control a caliphate is a little like Yorkshire declaring itself the British Empire.  Ambitious, certainly, but not very credible.

If that tackles the very limited geographic sway of the proto-caliphate, what about the values on which it is founded? Here the evidence is even more compelling.  For the 500 years from 762-1258, when the Abbasid caliphate that took over from the Umayyads was headquartered in Baghdad, it is no exaggeration to say that the city became the capital of world civilisation.  To give just one example of its intellectually pioneering achievements, more discoveries were made under the Abbasid dynasty in astronomy, maths and medicine during the ninth and tenth centuries than in any previous period in history.  Contrast this with Daesh’s vision on public education a millenium later:  banning the teaching of maths and science in schools and handing out copies of the Koran in traffic jams.

When the caliphate was at its greatest, Baghdad was the most cosmopolitan place on earth, attracting some of the most brilliant minds from around the world.  It was  a place defined by tolerance, in which wine drinking, music and poetry were hugely popular.  Read some verse from the celebrated tenth-century poet Abu Nuwas celebrating gay and straight sex and drunken debauchery and you get a sense of the cultural and intellectual climate of the time.  It was no place for prudes.

As for the relations between the three great Abrahamic faiths, note first that both Jews and Christians predated Muslims in the region and second, that they played critical roles within the caliphate as physicians, financiers, traders and scholars.  No wonder the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela, visiting Baghdad around the 1160’s and marvelling at the 28 Synagogues and the distinguished position of the exilarch, the head of the Babylonian Jews in exile, could report that the caliph was ‘kind unto Israel’.  He found the 40,000 Jews of Baghdad living in ‘security, prosperity and honour under the great Caliph’.

The great success of Baghdad and the wider caliphate stemmed from this cosmopolitan tolerance towards the Koran’s Ahl al Kitab, or People of the Book.  As late as 1917 Jews represented almost 40% of the city’s population.  Again, contrast this with Daesh’s ignorant chauvinism against any non-Sunni Muslim.  And also note that for their bombast, preening selfies and general media narcissism, even when it comes to brutality they hardly compete with their predecessors.  When the Turkic warlord Tamerlaine took Baghdad in 1401, he cut off 90,000 skulls and built 90 towers with them.  That is terror.

Outward-looking, dynamic and prosperous, the caliphate enjoyed  a popular and Islamic legitimacy that Daesh could never emulate, even if it wanted to.

There is nothing new about leaders misusing history of course.  It is simply important to point it out when it happens.  As the French philosopher Ernest Renan put it, ‘Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation.’  Or a would-be caliphate.

Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘Baghdad:  City of Peace, City of Blood’ (Allen Lane), the first history of the city in Engish in almost a century, and a ‘work of love and homage to a place that has somehow survived the depredations of its conquerors and the duplicity of its rulers.’

Was planning to write this week on Small Museums but have been arguing with the Marco Polo Researcher about whether it is possible to write a compelling and seductive article on the subject of Classification.  The Museum’s Researcher says it’s not possible.  I say, ‘I’m not so sure.’  The Researcher says, ‘Well, prove it,’ and so I say –

‘Well, think of it like this. There are two ways in which you can classify the world – as if it made sense and as if it did not – and both ways speak volumes about you.  It was the medieval librarians of the Sorbonne in the 13th century who invented a way of cataloguing books by setting them out alphabetically.  As a mode of display it was considered to be efficient but barbarous, because it didn’t try – as had every library up til then – to order the world in categories that reflected the truth about the Universe.

‘So now fast forward 200 years to the late 15th century and to the Cabinets of Curiosities, much of whose magic came from the belief that they mirrored in miniature the patterns of the Universe.  They categorised the world by dividing up its treasures into ‘man-made’ curiosities, such as mirrors and magic lanterns, sundials and perpetual-motion machines, and natural, or god-made curiosities, such as fossils, Siamese twins, dwarves, dragons and unicorn horns.  Their purpose was to reveal the hidden connections and secret affinities between objects whose origins were widely scattered in time and space.  Thus they offered visitors a glimpse of the secret at the heart of the Universe – that all things are connected and that reality is one.

‘So now fast forward again, to the 17th century and to the story of the Chronologists.  It was a time when the Christian church had shortened history dramatically by fixing its beginnings, those seven days when God created everything, to a point in time – 4004 BC to be exact.  This meant that everything that had ever happened since had taken place in about six thousand years.  History had become a short and very crowded thing.

‘But human history called out for a longer past.  The Renaissance had sparked an interest in the classical past, and the discovery of the New World had posed serious questions – such as how it was that the Aztec stone calendars could go back for so many thousands of years.  The Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, said that if native Americans were human beings than the long chronology of their calendars suggested that humans had a very ancient history indeed. An image has survived of Giordano Brune, looking small, skinny, curly-haired and intense.  He believed in multiple worlds and an infinite universe.  For these heresies, and for the heresy about the age of the human race, the Catholic Church burned him alive in the Square of the Flowers in Rome in 1600.

‘Chronology – the study of dates – has a reputation for being dull and pedantic, but once it was glamorous and dangerous.  Who would have thought it?

‘And now finally jump forward to the present day when for every museum and library that exists in the real world we are building its mirror image, in the virtual world.  But the huge question is, how to catalogue these virtual museums so that we can find the artefacts that we want, without the help of a Librarian?  And one ingenious solution that’s emerged is to let the users reveal the mental associations that they make with each artefact and then to tag the artefacts accordingly.  So if a thousand people associate a white-tailed deer with Bambi and Walt Disney, then that’s one way to tag it so that you, the user, can find it.  The geeks of today are heirs to the medieval scholars of the Sorbonne, and thousands of years of thinking about how to classify the world.

‘All these are examples of Classification and you could write a novel about any of them.  So what could be bad about that?’

‘Mmm,’ says the Museum’s Researcher, ‘Interesting, and very Umberto Eco, but how am I going to tweet all that?’

‘Ah,’ I say, ‘Well there you’ve got me.’

PS  And why ‘The Chinese Emperor’s Encyclopedia’?  Because we thought that if we called it ‘Some thoughts on Classification’ you would never read it.