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Authors: Zachary Karabell

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Peace Be Upon You

BOOK: Peace Be Upon You
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Zachary Karabell
Peace Be upon You
Zachary Karabell was educated at Columbia; at Oxford, where he received a master’s degree in modern Middle Eastern studies; and at Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1996. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Dartmouth. He is the author of several books, including
The Last Campaign
, which won the
Chicago Tribune’s
Heartland Prize for best nonfiction book of the year. His essays and reviews have appeared in various publications, including
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal
, the
Los Angeles Times, Newsweek
, and
Foreign Affairs.
He lives in New York City.
What’s College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education
Architects of Intervention:
The United States, the Third World, and the Cold War, 1946-1962
The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election
A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead
Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal
Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice:
The Civil Rights Tapes
(coauthored by Jonathan Rosenberg)
Chester Alan Arthur


In the Name of the Lord
At the Court of the Caliph
The Sacrifice of Isaac
The Crusades
Saladin’s Jihad?
The Philosopher’s Dream
The Lord of Two Lands
The Tide Begins to Turn
Brave New Worlds
The Age of Reform
Hope and Despair
In an Otherwise Turbulent World
Coda: Is Dubai the Future?
HERE IS KNOWN history and forgotten history, history that supports our sense of present and history that suggests other pathways. Here is the known: in a.d. 632, the Prophet Muhammad died in Mecca. He left a vibrant set of teachings, nine wives, a number of children, and several thousand Arab followers who called themselves Muslims. Less than two decades after his death, the adherents of this new faith had destroyed one empire and crippled another: the Persian shah was hunted down and killed on the banks of the Oxus River after a thousand-mile chase; Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor, who had only a few years before retaken Jerusalem, saw his realm cut in half as the heirs of Muhammad occupied Damascus, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The emperor collapsed and died when he learned that the city of Christ had fallen, even though the Muslims had spared the inhabitants the depredations normally inflicted by conquering armies.
With the Persians annihilated and the Byzantines crippled, the victorious Muslim armies were limited only by numbers and their own internal divisions. Had they stayed united, they might have continued on to India in the east and Europe in the west. As it was, they paused to fight two civil wars. Then the conquests began again, and Arab navies reached the walls of Constantinople before they were halted by a mysterious substance called Greek fire that set ships ablaze. Thousands of miles to the west, the general Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed from North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula and advanced to the Pyrenees. His armies might have continued all the way to the English Channel had he not been recalled by the caliph. He returned across the strait that now bears his name— Jebel Tariq, the Mountain of Tariq, Gibraltar. Some years later, his vanguard met the stiff resistance of Charles Martel at the battle of Tours, in what would later become southern France, and the conquerors retreated from Europe, content with their new kingdom, al-Andalus, where they would remain for nearly a thousand years.
The sudden eruption of Islam left an indelible mark on Europe and established a template of conflict between Islam and the West. But conflict is not the only story: after the Muslims consolidated their gains, the Abbasid caliphate came to power in Baghdad in the middle of the eighth century. At its height, the Abbasid Empire stretched from present-day Morocco to the mountains of Afghanistan. The greatest of its caliphs was Harun al-Rashid, who ruled from Baghdad in a palace as ornate and romantic as subsequent imagination described it. He gathered the greatest musicians, poets, dancers, and, above all, theologians. Poets would appear at court and sing praises to the wonders of wine, while pious scholars, many of whom took the Quranic injunction against alcohol seriously, listened politely. A winning poem or a delightful song could earn a poet gold, or horses groomed in the caliph’s stables, or a slave girl for the night.
On countless evenings, the court was transformed into an arena for theological debate. Muslim men of learning, schooled in sharia, the law derived from the Quran, offered their wisdom and drew on the philosophical tradition of the ancient Greeks. The works of Aristotle and Plato were translated into Arabic and used not only to enrich Islam but to create new science and new philosophy. And the caliph was not content simply to take the word of his learned men. He wanted to see how their ideas met opposing theologies, and he invited scholars and preachers of other faiths to his court. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims engaged in spiritual and spirited jousts, and each tradition was enriched by knowledge of the others.
From the beginning of Islam, Muslims viewed Jews and Christians as distant, slightly errant, relatives. In honor of the fact that they worshiped the same God and had been given the same revelation as Muhammad, they were called
ahi al-kitab
, the People of the Book. Muslims were expected to treat them honorably. Though Harun al-Rashid went further than most to embrace different faiths, he was fully within the Islamic tradition.
But Harun al-Rashid soon passed into myth, known in the West and in the Muslim world mostly as a character in
A Thousand and One Nights
, along with Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor, and Scheherazade. Today, the notion that a Muslim ruler and a Muslim state might tolerate and even welcome other faiths is alien, not only to people in the Judeo-Christian West but to hundreds of millions of Muslims as well. The early-twenty-first-century world is polarized by the conflict between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Many Americans and Europeans see Islam as a religion of violence, especially toward those who do not share the faith, and millions of Muslims understand the history of Islam to be one of conquest and victory over nonbelievers, followed by defeat and setbacks. On all sides, this lens distorts the past, constricts our present, and endangers our future.
In truth, each of the three traditions has a core of peace. In churches throughout the world, worshipers turn to one another and say, “Peace be upon you.” Walk into any store, home, or mosque anywhere in the Muslim world, and you will be greeted with
salaam alaykum
, “Peace be upon you.” And the response is always the same: “And upon you, peace.” Jews in Israel will begin and end a conversation with the simple salutation
, “peace.” Each of the faiths teaches its followers to greet friends and strangers with the warm open arms of acceptance. Peace comes first and last.
That is not the common view. Scholars have rarely lost sight of the legacy of coexistence, and a student at almost any university can take courses or read one of the thousands of books and articles that illuminate it. Yet somehow that awareness has remained locked away in university libraries or confined to college courses. As a result, in America and in Europe, all that most people hear is the echo of the Arab conquests that followed Muhammad’s death. And in the Muslim world, the memory of imperialism and Western aggression obscures memories of cooperation.
I have spent much of my life asking why this is. The reason may be simple: perhaps times of death and war leave a more lasting impression than periods of peace and calm. Maybe turmoil and confrontation sear the memory more deeply. But there are consequences to our selective readings of the past, in both the Muslim world and the Western world. As much as we want history to say something definitive about the present, it does not. History is a vast canvas, where it is possible to find support for nearly every belief, every statement about human nature, and every possible outcome of the present. That doesn’t make history any less important, but it is up to each of us to use it well.
My first political memories were shaped by growing up in the 1970s, when the Arab-Israeli conflict was a focus of American foreign policy and the cause of unending international tension. With the exception of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Arab-Israeli conflict seemed to be the most likely candidate for plunging the world into chaos, and the phrase “peace in the Middle East” was always met by a derisive laugh. But while the Israeli side of the story was well represented in the media and in classrooms, the Arab side was not. That was the side I wanted to learn about.
That led to more than a decade of study, first as an undergraduate in New York and then as a graduate student in England and in Boston. I studied Arabic, traveled throughout the Middle East, and began to teach the history of the region and the history of Islam. I found that my students usually viewed Islam through a dark prism of Muslim hordes threatening to deluge Christendom. The actual stories might have been blurry in their minds, but each time they saw a picture of a mosque or of an imam leading prayer, it struck a deep negative chord: Islam is a religion of war and violence, and Muslims have clashed with Christians and Jews forever. Those beliefs were hardly limited to my students. They are part of our culture.
Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, I encountered a similar prejudice toward the West. Well before the events of September 11, 2001, there was an entrenched belief that the West is the enemy of Islam. That has only intensified in recent years. Images of an aggressive, imperialist West from the time of the Crusades through the twentieth century animate angry Pakistani preachers in Peshawar, indignant Saudi clerics in Medina, and of course Osama bin Laden. Not only is the court of Harun al-Rashid forgotten, but so too is medieval Iberia, where the Jewish polymath Maimonides, the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, and a phalanx of Christian monks helped one another unravel the meaning of God and the universe; so too is the twelfth-century Levant, where the inhabitants of Crusader city-states and Muslim emirates traded, bartered, and intermarried; so is the Ottoman Empire, where each religious community, whether Greek Orthodox, Jewish, or Maronite Christian, was allowed almost complete autonomy save for the payment of annual taxes. The Ottoman system, in fact, was a form of religious freedom nearly as expansive as what existed in the early United States.
BOOK: Peace Be Upon You
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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